Our parasha this week includes the meeting Ya’akov had with Pharaoh. Yosef had brought his father and his family down to Egypt to ride out the famine and Yosef introduced Pharaoh to his father. Pharaoh asked Ya’akov how old he was and Ya’akov replies , “I have lived 130 years, and the years of my life have been few and bad and they have not reached the years of my fathers”. Nor would they. Ya’akov would die thirty three years before his father Yitzach. And the Midrash teaches that the reason he did not live to Yitzach's age was because of this statement, which contains thirty three words of complaining.
Did Ya’akov have it that bad? In some ways, yes. He feared his brother’s murderous threats, he had to live with the conniving Lavan for twenty years, his daughter had been raped and abducted, he thought his favorite son was dead, his beloved Rachael was dead. He had experienced tragedy. But G-d had protected him from his brother, G-d had made him wealthy at Lavan’s expense, his daughter and son had been returned to him and all men lose loved ones at some point. G-d could very well look at him and call him ungrateful, particularly in the privileged place he now found himself in in Egypt.
Ya’akov had not yet learned that most important lesson, how to have joy and contentment in every circumstance. He dwelt on the past, had no hope for a better future and lived every moment in misery. A rather depressing existence, but too many of us follow in his footsteps and rob ourselves of the joyous experience of G-d in every moment, living a life full of joy regardless of the circumstance. But to do that we need to learn how to deal with the things that remove our focus from the joy of the moment and into despair.
The fears and discontentment we live with come from two places, the past and the future. Too often we dwell on the past, always asking ‘what if’ or ‘if I had only..’ Or we concentrate on the hurts and the pain we feel from things done to us. First, it is true that G-d often tells us to remember things; the festivals and Shabbat, the Tzitzit and the mezzuzah are all there to help us remember. But those things are there for us to be encouraged, to remember the wondrous things G-d has done. Second, we are encouraged to learn from the past, to build on our successes and learn from our mistakes. Finally, we cannot change the past. The words spoken and the deeds done are all final, we cannot take back any one of them , redo anything differently. So if there are regrettable things in the past, we must learn from them and not dwell on them negatively. That just leads to grudge holding and bitterness, which rob us of our joy and contentment.
The other thing that robs us of contentment and joy is concern for the future. Yahushua taught us not to worry about the future, we never know what may happen in the next moment or even if we will have one. We can fear bad things may happen that never do, or in the case of the pessimist, expect bad things to happen that never do. But there is a more subtle way concern for the future robs us of our joy and contentment. This is when we continually expect the future to be better than the present. “When we have our finances under control, things will be better (then we can give to G-d’s work)”, “when I get that promotion”, “when I get married” or a million other “when this, or when I” statements. Always looking to the future and never concentrating on the here and now. “I would serve G-d if....I knew Hebrew..If I knew the Talmud...If my personality were different....If I didn’t have kids....” G-d made you who you are and He uses your life experiences for His honor and glory. He can make bad things in your life good and He makes the good even better. We need to concentrate on the now, serving G-d and our brothers and sisters now, because the now is all we have. And it is making the best of the now, whatever that is for you, that will lead to true contentment and joy as we serve our G-d with every ounce of our being.
After all this time and various intrigues on Yosef’s part, he finally reveals himself to his brothers. Yosef understood the big picture. He had always understood his dreams and how they would come true, he knew the treachery of his brothers and although he had forgiven them, he had to make sure they had repented. To find that out he needed to put his brothers through various test and to ensure their success, he need to exercise a lot of patience and self control.
When he had his children, he named one of them Manashe, which meant that he had forgotten his father’s house. This is one of those places where we need to look beyond the obvious. Certainly the affection that Yosef felt for his father and brother Benyamin could not be forgotten so easily. What Yosef had forgotten was the horrible acts of his brothers that had landed him in slavery and prison for over a decade. Because he had forgiven them, his first reaction upon seeing them again was to reach out and hug them, to send for his father, to embrace his younger brother.
In order to guage their spiritual and personal growth or lack of it, he couldn’t give into these strong emotions and desires. He needed to exercise that rare characteristic, self-control. The Torah and Jewish Tradition, including the Brit Chadasha, place high value on self-control. “Greater is the one who is slow to anger than a mighty warrior and greater is he who rules his spirit than a conqueror of a city” Proverbs “Who is mighty? He who conquers his inclinations” Pirkay Avot 4 “..Blameless, as the steward of G-d, not self willed, not soon angry...” Titus. Rabbi Meir Rubman pointed out that greater strength is required to establish rule over oneself and the inclination to do wrong than that which is required to conquer a city. To defeat the passions of the flesh and the evil inclination, one needs great strength and good strategy.
Yosef had a strategy. He fled temptation with Potipher’s wife, he remained patient in prison, he removed himself from his brothers when he felt himself overcome with love and emotion. He had a plan and he willed himself to carry it out. That was what brought true success within the family, reestablished love and respect that made the reunion real and lasting. Our work for G-d in this world requires the same kind of tenacity, planning and will. Too often we rush in or move too quickly without adequately laying the groundwork for our mission. We do not take temptation seriously and do not plan for it’s defeat. Study, preparation and hard work are what leads to success, a successful work for G-d and a successful life.
Why a successful life? Because our happiness is tied to self control. People who give into their passions violate the convictions of their deepest being, the image of G-d within them, and feel cheapened and guilty. Self control is the key to happiness and success. It is this characteristic we need to pray for and develop to have the life G-d intended for us.
This parasha describes the beginnings of the nation of Israel which will culminate in the exodus several hundred years later. Yosef reveals himself to his brothers and sends for his father. They all meet Pharaoh and settle in the land of Goshen. At the end of our parasha it says that they settled, acquired property and multiplied greatly. Unfortunately, they will go from the exalted position as friends of Pharaoh to slaves in short order. This week we will explore the question of why God created this nation, this people group, and what mistakes they made early on that they had to overcome after years of slavery.
This week the twelve tribes are formed by showing their offspring up to this point. The nation consisted of seventy people. At the time of the exodus it would number in the millions. Why did God choose this people? The foundational basis for it’s creation was God’s desire for relationship with His creation. He made man for fellowship, for friendship. Before the adam decided knowledge was better than the wisdom that gave him intimacy with his Creator, God and man had a wonderful relationship. Then man began to pursue knowledge and because knowledge is always incomplete, man needs to fill in the gaps. He creates myths, philosophies and gods to explain his world and to define himself. The addition of all this material clouds up the mirror that accurately reflects both ourselves, the world and God. “We see through the mirror darkly”, as Paul said, and Ya’akov added that a man can look in the mirror and turn away and forget what he looks like. Why? Because a man who is the image of his Creator will reflect his Creator through Torah. Without Torah we do not have a clue what we are supposed to look like. And after a while, our mirror becomes so caked with immovable junk that it hardens into a picture and no longer reflects the world minute by minute but a moment in time and space that was nothing more than a distortion. Too many people leave their theology and ideology fixed and they can no longer grow.
To compound the problem, through the centuries and millennia, mankind as a whole has created a body of knowledge that expresses itself through our culture, our ideology, our worldview and our theology that is the opposite of who we really are and how we interact with our Creator. All that has been deposited in us as we have grown up. We have assimilated centuries of wrong thinking and believing within ourselves and so often we are unaware of it. Ya’acov had a good relationship with YHVH and he tried to pass it down to his sons. In the isolation of the nomadic lifestyle, it wasn’t that hard. Now they were settling in Egypt. The pressure of Egyptian culture and theology would now compete with that of Ya’acov. They would now struggle to define what it right and wrong, what is true and false about themselves and God.
Since the Fall, this has always been the case. Every human being, no matter where they live, what their ancestry is or what their station in life, is created in the image of God and has all the potential as a person and in relationship with God that any other person does. No one person, no one group, has a lock on the way to heaven. If you find one that says they do, you will be exchanging one form of slavery for another. We are born free and then we are taught to be slaves as we grow up. Our world shrinks and our potential, in our eyes, becomes diminished. It is like Y’shua’s treasure in the field. We are all glowing jewels in the beginning and we allow others to bury us in the dirt, to keep us fixed and stagnant. Too often we think that’s it, but that is the lie, no one can force us to stay there because the jewel, the kingdom, is within us. It just needs to be dug up, have all the dirt cleaned off so it can shine again. The problem is very few people find the treasure within themselves because slavery is familiar after a while and it is scary to live as free people without boundaries specifically defined by someone else. This is why the slaves that left Egypt constantly wanted to return when things got tough, it was easier to live in slavery, to live in the past than it was to move forward.
The purpose of God’s creation of Israel was to create a nation and culture defined by His character that would allow people to grow up in freedom and so more easily come into relationship with Him. His character is defined by Torah because Torah is an expression of His person. People that live according to it’s teachings and principles will more accurately reflect the image of God within them and live in the world and in relationship with their God truthfully and in shalom.
This parasha could be titled, ‘the law of Unintended Consequences’. There are, within it, two threads that are opposite. The first is the most obvious, the one explained by Yosef himself. When he reveals himself to his brothers and states that although they intended evil for him, God used that circumstance to bring about salvation for many, including his family. This is when someone did something very bad and something good happened as a result. We look for such things all the time. Some even place the holocaust and the resultant creation of the state of Israel in this category. Such things can be attributed to God, fate or just ‘making lemonade out of the lemons of life.’
There is another story within our parasha that demonstrates this in the opposite way; i.e. doing something that is good at the time but has disastrous effects later on. This involves Yosef’s handling of the famine during his tenure as Pharaoh’s right hand man. He certainly takes advantage of his situation and gives his family all the benefits his position can bestow. He settles them in the land of Goshen, puts some of them in high positions in government, they accumulate wealth, life is good. What is he doing to the rest of the Egyptians? He is making them slaves! He takes all their money while they are the one’s who produced and gave the surplus in the first place, he takes their livestock and finally all their land and makes them slaves. He then moves them into and around in cities to show that they no longer have claim to any land or personal freedom. Yosef’s family is doing well and the rest of the people of the country have become slaves. He has inadvertently set a precedent for later Pharaohs to follow. Soon his descendants would be on the receiving end. They would be moved and made into slaves, no doubt using Yosef’s model.
Did Yosef intend this? I wouldn’t think so. He was just taking care of his family and pleasing his employer. But because he made decisions that showed a lack of respect for people’s personal liberty and property, he set into motion a series of events that brought about disaster for his descendants. Last week we saw Ya’akov’s favoritism was responsible for this whole series of events. He should have known better, having been the victim of favoritism himself. Yosef followed in his steps. He had been a slave yet shows no compassion to all those he makes slaves through his decisions. He was too shortsighted and neglected the benefits of his own experience.
The fact is we all make our own choices and all our choices have effects that often go far beyond what we can see or anticipate. They key is wisdom. Wisdom will have us consider and understand the effects of our actions on others. We need to make our decisions not on what is best for us or even those of our immediate family or friends. We need to make decisions based on a set of values in which the blessing of those around us and those in the future are considered. If we can eliminate the ego from our consideration we will go a long way toward making decisions and embracing courses of action that may be self-sacrificing in the short run but have wide ranging benefits in the long run. May we have the wisdom and fortitude to always choose thus.