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The Secret to Surviving and Striving in Exile

By: Rav Yonny Sack

In this week’s parasha we find the famous blessings that Yaakov gave to each of his sons and to Yosef’s sons Ephrayim and Menashe before he passes away and is buried in Chevron, in the Maarat HaMachpela. 

When blessing Ephrayim and Menashe, Yaakov utters the famous beautiful words:

 “Hamalach HaGoel Oti Mi Kol Ra Yevarech et HaNearim. . .”

 “May the angel who has redeemed me from all evil, Bless the lads…” (Bereishit 48:16). 

He also blessed them by saying:

 “BeCha Yevarech Yisrael Leimor ‘Yesimcha Elokim K’Ephrayim V'chi’Menashe…”

 “By you shall Israel bless saying ‘May G-d make you like Ephrayim and like Menashe’ (Bereishit 48:20). 

On this basis, we have the beautiful custom each Friday night before kiddush that fathers and mothers throughout the Jewish world give their male children the blessing to be like Ephrayim and Menashe and their female children are blessed to be like the matriarchs, Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah.  For the girls, the Matriarchs are the obvious choice for emulation, but it is somewhat strange that when blessing our boys, we use Ephrayim and Menashe as the standard. Surely blessing them to be like Moshe, Avraham, Yitzchak or Yaakov would be more appropriate?

In order to shed light on this mystery, we will delve into another question. The parasha, and with it sefer Bereishit ends with the death of Yosef as it says:

Yosef saw three generations though Ephrayim (his son); even the sons of Machir son of Menashe (his son) were raised on Yosef’s knees. . . . Yosef said to his brothers “I am about to die, but Hashem will surely redeem you and bring you up out of this land to the land that He swore to Avraham, to Yitzchak and to Yaakov.” . . . Yosef died at the age of one hundred and ten years. They embalmed him and he was placed in a coffin in Egypt. (Bereishit 50:23-26)

After describing the death of Yosef here, it is somewhat strange that in the beginning of next week’s parasha – Shmot - the Torah goes on to re-tell us of the death of Yosef, as if we had forgotten what we had been taught a few verses prior:

And these are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt .  .  . And all the persons who emerged from Yaakov’s loins were seventy souls, and Yosef was in Egypt. And Yosef died, and all his brothers, and that entire generation. (Shmot 1:1-6)

 

Why does the Torah remind us only a few verses after describing Yosef’s death that he was “in Egypt” and then tell us again that he died!? No words in the Torah are superfluous; what is the significance of this repetition?

Delving into these two questions reveals to us great insight into our lives, into what it means to live as Jews in the current Galut (Exile) and into the greatness of Yosef HaTzadik.

Firstly, we need to understand an aspect of the greatness of Yosef himself. The Maharal explains [1] that the sale of Yosef and his subsequent going down to Mitzrayim was an integral piece of a far larger puzzle. Yosef was not only Divinely directed down to Mitzrayim to help the people and his family survive the years of famine, but rather he was made to go down to lay the spiritual foundations which would enable his ancestors to survive the exile in Egypt altogether without complete assimilation.

Rashi thus answers our second question above, quoting Chazal, that the repetition of Yosef's being in Egypt, at the beginning of sefer Shmot is to teach us of Yosef's unwavering righteousness throughout his entire ordeal:

Shmot 1:5: “…and Yoseph was in Egypt.."

Rashi: Did we not know that he was in Egypt? But [this comes] to inform you of Yoseph’s righteousness. He, the Yoseph who tended his father’s flocks, is the same Yoseph who was in Egypt and became a king, and he retained his righteousness. (Sifrei, Ha’azinu 334)

Yosef had an incredible spiritual strength. He was someone who in the depths of Egyptian moral depravity managed to stay true to his values, his roots, and clung to the Torah he had learnt for the first 17 years of his life with his saintly father Yaakov (See Rashi Bereshit 45:27, Midrash Tanchuma). Based on the Maharal, Rav Moshe Shapira explains that Yosef was also someone who epitomizes pnimiut-[2] –  living with a clarity that the internal spiritual dimension is primary and sacred and the external outer physical dimension is secondary. In practical terms, this translates in our times into a backbone character trait that ensures a person doesn’t get lost in a materialistic, externally focused vision of themselves and the world but rather searches for and attaches to a more truthful, spiritual, deeper dimension of life. Egypt of the time was one of the most morally and spiritually decayed societies one could imagine. Adultery was the norm, idol worship rampant, and the material physical aesthetics of life were the utmost focus. Pharaoh, the leader of this Egyptian world is seen in Jewish sources not only as an Egyptian ruler, but as the quintessential example of the antithesis of everything Jewish [3]. Into this anti-Jewish world steps a 17 year old Yosef and he not only manages to maintain and grow his connection with spiritual truth, and thus earns the name in Jewish tradition as Yosef HaTzadik, but he even does so while elevated to the heights of Egyptian heirachy. The mida (trait) which allowed for this was his focus on the inner, the spiritual essence of life. One who can do this, can be surrounded by the embodiment of materialism and nevertheless see through the façade and not get caught up in the thick of things [4].

By Yosef going down first, he laid the foundations for his ancestors who would be living in the darkness of Egypt and nevertheless not lose their connection to Avraham, not lose their identity [5]. As long as Yosef was alive, this energy was alive and the Egyptians could not begin to subjugate the Jewish people [6], nevertheless once he passed away, on some level the burden of the Egyptians began to fall on the Jewish people’s shoulders. This physical exile is of course only an expression of the spiritual subjugation. The Jewish people could therefore only be ruled over by a material/external focused Egypt if they had spiritually distanced from the internal spiritual focus of Yosef. Thus with Yosef’s death, the exile really starts to unfold [7]. This is a reason why the Torah reminds us of the death of Yosef in the beginning of next week’s parasha when describing the beginning of the exile and subjugation even though it has already told us that he died here in this week’s parasha.

With this, we can now also find an explanation for the focus on Ephrayim and Menashe in the blessings of Jewish boys for all time. Like their father Yosef, Ephrayim and Menashe remained distinctly loyal to their Jewish Torah values and also grew spiritually to become great heads of tribes in their own right. What distinguishes them from their father however, is that they were born and bred in Egypt, in the Galut (Exile), unlike Yosef who had the first 17 formative years of his life in the home of the holiness of Yaakov in Israel, these boys were born and bred in Chutz LeAretz ( the Diaspora). They are therefore, the perfect focus of emulation for the Jewish child growing up in the galut today. Where wave after wave of external, non-Jewish influence crashes over Jewish youth throughout the non-Jewish world (and even in Israel) it is an enormous challenge to stay true to one’s Jewish values and to grow spiritually, connecting to Hashem and Torah. We need to emulate the spiritual power of Yosef, the energy that he passed down to his holy sons - the capacity to stay strong and true to what we know is right no matter what the influence of the surrounding culture. When we do this, we will not only merit our own personal survival as Jews in the current galut (exile), but we will be taking large strides towards the total and final redemption of our people as a whole, as we keep the energy of Yosef alive.

Shabbat Shalom

 


[1] Gevurot Hashem chapter 10 as explained by the sefer MiMaamakim based on the Torah of  Rav Moshe Shapira Shlit”a on parashat Shmot.

[2] See Bereishit 49:22 and 24 with Onkelus’ translation. See also Brachot 20a, and a full discussion in sefer Mimaamakim on Parashat Shmot, torah of Rav Moshe Shapira zt”l.

[3] Pharaoh is from the word PARUA – which means MEGULEH (revealed- externalized) see Rashi on Shmot 32:35. Pharaoh is contrasted with Moshe in the deeper sources. The name Pharaoh is made up of the words PEH RA – the evil mouth, while Moshe is the perfect example of purity of speech as the one who disseminates Torah and Hashem’s Presence speaks through Moshes mouth as it says “the Shechina speaks through the throat of Moshe”. See Mimaamakim, Parashat Shmot for an in depth analysis of this concept.

[4] A paraphrase of a line I love from Stephen R Covey.

[5] While the Jewish people in Egypt did assimilate in various ways – stopping to perform the Brit Mila, even worshiping idol (see the Kli Yakar on “ Veyishretzu” at the beginning of Shmot 1 and many midrashim on Shmot 1) - they nevertheless maintained a deep connection to their heritage, maintaining their faith in the redemption, not speaking Lashon Hara, not losing their connection to Hebrew, not intermarrying with the Egyptians and various other strengths of connection which maintained their unique identity as Jews.

[6] Yilkot shimoni, Shmot 1.

[7] Ohr HaChaim, Kli Yakar, Sichos Musar R Chaim Shmuelevitz, Parashat Shmot.

 

 

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