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Torah Attitude: Parashas Vayigash: The treasure in our backyard
"Jacob saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to carry him, and the spirit of Jacob, their father, was revived." Joseph had given the brothers a sign to pass on to the Jacob. When Jacob heard what Joseph had said and saw the wagons, then he believed that Joseph was still alive. So why did Jacob not believe the brothers and needed a sign to trust their words? Rabbi Akiva answered the concern of Papos ben Judah with a parable about the fox and the fishes. A Jew who separates himself from Torah study and Torah observance is like a fish out of water. Only when Jacob heard that Joseph still remembered the Torah lessons that he had taught him and saw the signs that he was still well-versed in the laws of the Torah, did Jacob's spirit revive. The image of his father reminded Joseph of who he was and his family background, and that stopped him from slipping and falling into sin. For us to survive, we must follow in the footsteps of Joseph, and remind ourselves of our ancestry and our roots. We do not need to seek foreign pastures to find meaning in life. There is a famous story about a certain person who had a dream that in a backyard in a different town a large treasure was hidden. The secret of Joseph's survival is that wherever he was he carried his treasure with him.
Jacob is suddenly revived
In this week's parasha, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, and tells them to go back to their father and relate to him how he has become the viceroy of Egypt. He informs them that there will be another five years of famine, and requests that they come with their father and their whole family to Egypt where he will provide for all of them. As the brothers return to Jacob, the Torah says (Bereishis 45:26-27): "And they told him [Jacob] saying, 'Joseph is still alive and he is the ruler over all of the land of Egypt.' And his heart rejected it, for he did not believe them. And they told him all the words of Joseph that he had spoken to them. And he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to carry him, and the spirit of Jacob, their father, was revived." An obvious question arises here. Initially, when the brothers told their father that Joseph was alive, he did not believe them. So what brought about the change that suddenly revived Jacob and made him believe what they said?
A sign to Jacob
Rashi quotes the Midrash Rabbah (94:3 and 95:3) that explains what brought about Jacob's change of heart. The Midrash relates that Joseph had given the brothers a sign to pass on to the Jacob. He told them what Jacob had been teaching him before he left. Jacob and Joseph had studied the laws that deal with what to do if a murdered person has been found out in the open. The Torah (Devarim 21:1-9) teaches that the elders and judges of the neighbouring cities must get involved. The Torah continues that if they cannot find the murderer, they must perform a certain ceremony that includes killing a calf.
Calf and wagon
The Daas Zekenim elaborates on this and explains that Jacob had escorted Joseph. When Joseph urged his father to go back home Jacob explained the importance of escorting someone who was traveling. He taught Joseph why the elders had to get involved when a person was found murdered outside of their city. This was due to the fact that it was their responsibility to ensure that every traveler should be escorted part of the way. The Hebrew word for "calf" eglah is similar to the Hebrew word for "wagon" agalah. This, says the Midrash, was Joseph's sign. And when Jacob heard what Joseph had said and saw the wagons, then he believed that Joseph was still alive.
Why did Jacob not trust the brothers?
However, this still needs clarification. It is true that the brothers had lied to Jacob at the time when they indicated that Joseph had been killed. But it would seem obvious that they now were telling the truth as they claimed that he was still alive; especially as they relayed to Jacob that Joseph had invited him and the whole family to come to Egypt. So why did Jacob not believe them and needed a sign to trust their words?
Fox and fish parable
We may be able to understand this better with a story mentioned in the Talmud (Berachot 61b). Once the Romans made a decree that prohibited the Jews from studying Torah. One day a certain gentleman by the name of Papos ben Judah saw how Rabbi Akiva was teaching Torah to a large audience. Papos said to Rabbi Akiva, "Are you not afraid of the government!" The Rabbi answered back and said, "Let me explain to you our situation with a parable. Once a fox was taking a walk along the river bank and saw how the fish in the river were darting from one place to another. The fox said to the fish, 'Why are you fleeing?' 'We are trying to avoid the nets that people are setting out to catch us,' said the fish. The fox tried to trick the fish and said, 'Maybe you would like to come up on the dry land and be with me …' To this the fish answered, 'Are you the one who is supposed to be the smartest of all animals? You are not smart at all. You are rather stupid. If in our natural environment we fear for our life, in a place where we cannot survive how much more will we be in danger.'" Continued Rabbi Akiva, "And so it is with us. If we are in danger now when we toil in Torah study, about which it says (Devarim 30:20): 'For it is your life and the length of your days.' If we are going to stop studying Torah, how much more will we be in danger."
Fish out of water
Rabbi Akiva here taught us an important lesson. A Jew who separates himself from Torah study and Torah observance is like a fish out of water. Even if sometimes he may be able to survive physically, but from a spiritual point of view, such a person has not survived at all. The Torah is our lifeline and without that connection we are comparable to a person who has no oxygen. The Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 1:13) says: "The one who does not study [Torah] deserves death." These are harsh words. Rabbeinu Yonah, in his commentary on this Mishnah, explains that our whole raison d'?tre why we were put in this world is to study and teach Torah, and to learn its way of pleasantness. Therefore the person who has no interest to study Torah deserves to lose his lease on life.
Torah kept Joseph alive
When the brothers came back to Jacob and told him that Joseph is alive, and he is the viceroy of Egypt, he rejected what they said for he could not believe that it was possible for a young person like Joseph to combine the Egyptian lifestyle with Torah observance. Jacob was well aware of the immorality that prevailed in Egypt. Even if Joseph's body was alive physically, Jacob did not consider this as being alive. Only when Jacob heard that Joseph still remembered the Torah lessons that he had taught him and saw the signs that he was still well-versed in the laws of the Torah, did Jacob's spirit revive. For now, he knew that Joseph was truly alive, both physically and spiritually.
How did Joseph manage to survive spiritually in the immoral society of Egypt? The Talmud (Sotah 36b) reveals Joseph's secret. When Joseph had his great temptation with his master Potiphar's wife, he saw the image of his father in front of him. This reminded him of who he was and his family background, and that stopped him from slipping and falling into sin.
We live in a time of immorality and permissiveness, similar to ancient Egypt. For us to survive, we must follow in the footsteps of Joseph, and remind ourselves of our ancestry and our roots. In Haazinu, the final song of the Torah (Devarim 32:7), it says: "Remember the days of yore. Understand the years of generation after generation. Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders and they will say to you." We must remember and value our past that takes us back to the revelation at Mount Sinai, and even further to our Patriarchs. Only if we live according to the eternal lessons taught in the Torah, can we survive and be part of G'd's promise of the eternity of the Jewish people.
Not need foreign pastures
We do not need to seek foreign pastures to find meaning in life. Many people grope and search to incorporate some truth and spiritual values into their lives. Youth from all over the world travel to the Far East in their quest for spiritual nourishment. Unfortunately, a disproportionate large number of them are young Jews who grew up either totally secular or with a weak connection to Judaism. Others become easy prey for missionaries and representatives of all the cults that have sprung up in modern times.
There is a famous story about a certain person who had a dream that in a backyard in a different town a large treasure was hidden. The fellow travelled to the other town and start digging to find the treasure he had dreamt about. Someone saw him and asked what all the digging was about. When the fellow told him what had happened, the person from the other town said to him, "This is strange. I had a similar dream that in your backyard in your hometown there is a large treasure to be found." He managed to convince the traveler to return and dig in his own backyard where lo and behold he found the treasure.
This is the secret of Joseph's survival. He was well aware that wherever he was he carried his treasure with him. He constantly envisioned his father and remembered his teachings. In this way, he spiritually stayed healthy and alive throughout his trials and tribulations. Joseph paved the way. It is up to us to follow in his footsteps.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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