The Prince of Egypt (photo credit: screenshot)

Having concluded the book of Bereishis, we are on to the book of Sh’mos. Each sefer has multiple names. Bereishis is alternately referred to as Sefer Ha’Avos, the Book of our Forefathers, or Sefer HaYashar, on account of our patriarchs who were referred to by the honorific “yesharim.” Sefer Sh’mos is also known as the Book of Redemption or, as the name it was given in English, the Book of Exodus on account of Yetzias Mitzrayim, which is an overarching theme throughout the first three or four parshiyos.

In addition to the predominance of the Avos throughout Sefer Bereishis, the book concludes with an inordinate amount of space dedicated to the life of Yosef. Obviously, Yosef is a seminal figure who ultimately shaped the destiny of the Jewish people in Egypt and their exodus from there. Although Yosef was a shevet in the same manner as the rest of his brothers, he was the only one who was given patriarchal status, making him a kind of hybrid figure or a middle ground, if you will, between the Avos and the Shevatim.

It was this air of superiority that the brothers detected early on that ended up getting the young Yosef in trouble. His father, Yaakov, who remained reticent to try to keep the peace, knew and anticipated Yosef’s meteoric rise to leadership, which ended up unfolding over a long period of time and across some tenuous terrain. Yaakov gifted Yosef the kesones pasim, the “technicolor coat,” which was symbolic of Yosef’s ability to live in multiple worlds without compromising his principles, unlike his brothers who were preoccupied with grazing sheep in the wilderness, apart from the distractions of the big city. He was able to focus on matters of spiritual import without compromising them in the arena of commerce and politics.

Yosef, it seems, was groomed by Yaakov early on for what would ultimately become his destiny. Some contemporary commentators say that Yaakov taught Yosef Toras Galus — the secret to maintaining nationhood in an exilic state. I never gave this much thought until this past week when, on top of learning a sichah of the Lubavitcher Rebbe on how the Torah could characterize Yaakov’s 17 years in Mitzrayim as his best years, and a dvar Torah of Reb Avrohom Tzvi Kluger who sits at the helm of Nezer Yisrael in Bet Shemesh, it occurred to me that there was something off about that description.

Notwithstanding the fact that we attribute our sojourn in these exiles as the result of wrongdoing, ultimately it was the plan that G-d had set out for this world prior to its creation. There was a certain objective for creation, as every architect who maps out a project has a plan in his mind prior to embarking upon the project. The “sof ma’aseh b’machshavah techilah,” as Rav Shlomo Alkabetz put it in his Friday-night hymn known as Lecha Dodi, was to create a dwelling place in the lowest realms.

There are a number of reasons given, spanning various realms in Torah, as to why G-d created this world. According to the Ramchal, G-d is the paradigm of goodness Who naturally seeks to bestow goodness upon His creations. The Eitz Chaim and the Zohar both write that G-d wanted to make Himself known, and the Creation was the manner in which he chose to do that. The Midrash Tanchuma famously asserts: “G-d desired a dwelling place in the lowest realms.” On this, the Ba’al HaTanya explained that G-d had a desire that lies beyond the realm of rationale, pointing to this reason offered by the Midrash as being the most essential reason for the creation of the world. As such, we needed to endure one exile after the other in order to refine and ultimately redeem the lands and materiality that we’d engage with along the way, and, as a result, unleash redemption throughout the world.

So when we read the story of the life of Yosef and how it gives way to the Egyptian exile that represents the paradigm of all future exiles, including our own, it is not only to teach us to survive in exile but rather to teach us how to live a redeemed life in an exiled world. It was precisely Yaakov who was the one to impart this secret to Yosef because it was he who represented the middah of tiferes, or beauty, which points to his ability to resolve what may otherwise seem as a contradiction. The beraisa of Rebbe Yishmael concludes with the thirteenth and final principle of Torah exegesis, which is: “And so two verses that contradict one another until a third verse comes to arbitrate between the two of them.” The resolution of these contradictions doesn’t consist of a third verse choosing a side, but rather a third verse that possesses a more sublime spirit that enables it to unite the seemingly contradictory verses. It is precisely this predisposition of our patriarch Yaakov that made him the one whom the Torah attests had not died despite all the evidence that supported his physical demise. Stirah, contradiction, is synonymous with death whereas truth and coexistence are part-and-parcel of eternal life.

On that note, we begin the book of Sh’mos and the story of the Jews’ enslavement and redemption from the land and predisposition towards an Egyptian worldview. We are introduced to Moshe, who is the moshian shel Yisrael, the savior of the Jewish people and the one who would transmit the Torah to us on Mount Sinai.

It’s interesting to note that Moshe and Yaakov represent two sides of the same coin. Chazal teach that Yaakov is on the outside and Moshe is on the inside. Like Yaakov, Moshe, too, is rooted in the sefirah of da’as, which, further down the sefirot table, leads to tiferes, and so the lesson of how a Jew is supposed to approach exile and the mindset that we are meant to maintain remains consistent with our introduction to Moshe Rabbeinu.

Moshe’s perfected sense of empathy displayed early on how befitting he was to lead. Almost immediately after Moshe is introduced, the verse states that Moshe grew up, went out amongst his brethren, and saw their trials. The verse is telling us that his concern for the suffering of the people at the hands of their Egyptian taskmasters was the feature within his personality that signaled a “coming of age.” He then witnessed an Egyptian man beating a Hebrew slave and he killed the Egyptian, thinking that nobody was around to witness the act. The next day he went out and witnessed a Hebrew beating another fellow Hebrew. He responded by reprimanding the evil one by asking, “Why is it that you are striking your fellow?”

I was thinking about these two incidents in the context of everything we are living through these days, and it shaped my understanding of the distinction between an exiled state of mind versus a redeemed state of mind. Let us take COVID-19 as an example. Before the Supreme Court ruled against the biased and antisemitic measures of our governor, the Jewish community was singled out repeatedly for not complying with the regulations issued to attempt to stop the spread of the virus. By and large, as a community, we were extremely careful in maintaining social distancing, closing schools and shuls for months on end. Newlywed couples and older members of the Jewish community were forced to spend Pesach and Shavuot in complete isolation. Think about the uproar over the notion of having to cancel Christmas and New Year’s, and think back to our holidays, one of which is more than a week long: was there any expression of concern for the people most in need of companionship for their basic safety?

So the incidents of government coming out heavy-handed upon us as a community are disturbing but not really news. However, when we start to be the enforcers of these inequitable regulations, calling out members of our own faith for skirting the regulations passed down by the governor and mayor, that is an example of living an exiled existence. In Moshe’s day it was an Egyptian striking a Hebrew followed by a Hebrew striking a fellow Hebrew. Today it is government baselessly discriminating against members of the Jewish community followed by Jews and prominent members of the Jewish community implicating other schools or shuls, enforcing these measures to come out looking like upstanding citizens, irrespective of how it makes them look to members of their own faith community and, most important of all, in the eyes of G-d.

If you’ll remember, Governor Cuomo chastised the Satmar community and issued a $15,000 fine for holding a wedding celebration with upwards of 10,000 people in attendance. While Jews were hiding their faces in shame and adding to the accusatory public discourse, members of the Christian community came out in support of the Satmar sect and raised money to cover the fine. While I was praising the Christian congregation that stood behind Satmar during those very dark days, I think back now and realize how bad it makes us look that we couldn’t bail out our own brothers out of fear of condoning a breach in the laws which themselves represented an overreach on the part of the mayor and governor.

In reviewing the parashah and thinking about it in the context of this idea, I noticed an interesting phraseology that fit this reading perfectly. When Pharaoh realized that the midwives were not carrying out his edict to throw the male children into the Nile, he questioned them and they responded, “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, “ki chayos heinah,” which is translated as “they are vigorous.” However, it made me think back to when Eliezer wanted Abraham to marry Yitzchak off to his own daughter, which Abraham said was untenable due to Yitzchak being blessed and Eliezer’s family being cursed.

Perhaps the verse here is saying that the Hebrew women are chayos, alive. The Hebrew women are full of life and therefore can only bestow life. The Hebrew women are redeemed even in an exiled environment and therefore cannot carry out the exilic edicts.

The Ibn Ezra actually questions why the redeemer of the Jewish people had to grow up in the palace of Pharaoh and could not have been brought up among the people he was sent to lead. Remarkably, he comments that had Moshe been reared within the Hebrew community in Egypt he would have developed a victim mentality.

It seems like an original interpretation from a sage who must have had a good grasp of psychology, but lately, all we need to do is look around us and we get the sense that, sadly, there is a lot of that to come by these days. 

Yochanan Gordon can be reached at ygordon5t@gmail.com

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