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Torah Attitude: Parashas Vayigash: The treasure in our backyard
"Jacob saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to bring 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. Why did Jacob not believe the brothers and needed a sign to trust them? Rabbi Akiva answered the concern of Papos ben Judah with a parable about a fox and some 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 tell him how Joseph has become the viceroy of Egypt. He informs them that there will be another five years of famine, and asks them to come with their father and their whole family to Egypt, so that he can provide for all of them. The Torah describes what happened when the brothers returned to Jacob. They told Jacob (Bereishis 45:26-27): "'Joseph is still alive and he is the ruler of the land of Egypt.' And his heart rejected it, for he did not believe them. And they told him all that Joseph had said to them. And he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to bring 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 taught him just before he left. Jacob and Joseph had studied the laws regarding what to do if a murdered person is 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 Midrash and explains that Jacob had escorted Joseph. When Joseph urged his father to go back home, Jacob explained the importance of escorting a traveler. He taught Joseph why the elders had to get involved when a person was found murdered outside of their city. This is because it is their responsibility to ensure that every traveler shall 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 that Joseph had given them a sign by sending them the wagons, then he believed that Joseph was still alive.
Why did Jacob not trust the brothers?
However, this still needs clarification. Why did Jacob not believe his children and needed a sign to trust their words? It is true that they had lied to Jacob when they indicated that Joseph had been killed. However, it seemed that they were now telling the truth, as they told him that Joseph was still alive, especially since they relayed that Joseph had invited Jacob and the whole family to come to Egypt.
Fox and fish parable
We may be able to answer this question with a story from the Talmud (Berachot 61b). Once the Romans made a decree that prohibited the Jews from studying Torah. One day a 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!" Rabbi Akiva answered him and said, "Let me explain 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 shrewdest 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
With this parable, Rabbi Akiva taught us an important lesson. A Jew who separates himself from Torah study and Torah observance is like a fish out of water. He may be able to survive physically; however, from a spiritual point of view, he and his family are doomed to assimilate and, in a few generations, will be lost to the Jewish people. 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 explains, in his commentary on this Mishnah, that our raison d'?tre, why we are put in this world, is to study and teach Torah, and to live its pleasant ways. Therefore, the person who has no interest to study Torah has lost his lease on life.
Torah kept Joseph alive
Now let us return to Jacob and his family. When the brothers came back to Jacob and told him that Joseph was alive, and was the viceroy of Egypt, he rejected what they said. Jacob 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 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 proved 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 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, that may surpass ancient Egypt. In order to survive, we must follow in the footsteps of Joseph, and constantly remind ourselves of our ancestry and 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. This takes us back to the revelation at Mount Sinai, and to our Patriarchs. Only if we live according to the eternal lessons of the Torah, can we survive and be part of G'd's eternal promise to the Jewish people.
No need for foreign pastures
We do not need to seek foreign pastures to find meaning in life. Many people grope and search for truth and spiritual values. 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 are easy prey for missionaries and representatives of any cult that has sprung up in modern times.
There is a famous story about someone who had a dream that in a different town a large treasure was hidden in a backyard. The fellow travelled to the other town and started 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 hidden a large treasure." 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, as well as ours. Joseph was well aware that wherever he was he carried his treasure with him. In his moment of challenge, he 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. b These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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