ONE NATION UNDER G-D
Rabbi Lee Jay Lowenstein
The confrontation that develops between Joseph and his brothers over the purported theft by Benjamin leaves the casual reader bewildered and confused.
The confrontation that develops between Joseph and his brothers over the purported theft by Benjamin leaves the casual reader bewildered and confused. We wonder: Has Joseph gone completely mad? What is he trying to do? Is there something he seeks to extract or is he barreling down on them, seeking revenge with all the wiles and twists of a skilled con-man? Furthermore, what is so convincing about Judah's impassioned plea of, "Your servant has guaranteed the security of the lad," (Genesis 44:32) that forces Joseph to fold his hand and give up the game?
Earlier on we found that Joseph accused his brothers of spying as a pretext to have Benjamin brought down to Egypt. The Ramban, one of the leading Torah scholars of the Middle Ages, comments that Joseph saw that this was necessary, as his dreams had not yet been fulfilled in their entirety. True, he had become king and his brothers had prostrated themselves before him, yet he saw in his dreams eleven, not ten sons bowing before him. One might ask: "Joseph! So what if you were off by one? The real important part of the story was for you to come to Egypt and become king so that you would be in a position to save your family later! Why squabble over a detail?"
The Ramban tells us an essential clue for interpreting the events and stories found in the book of Genesis. We must be extremely sensitive to look for recurring incidences patterns in time whose seeds were planted by the deeds of our saintly forefathers and ripened many years later into parallel histories with their descendants. These vertical lines connect the different points on the continuum of time and give history a cosmic perspective. Our father Jacob is clearly the quintessence of the exiled Jew, the Diaspora personality. From early on, he flees the wrath of his brother and leaves his parents' home. From there he journeys to the house of Laban and finally retires to the land of Egypt. The events that unfold between him, his children, and the various adversaries they must confront, become the model and precedent for all generations. If Jacob represents the Jew on the run, the one who must duck and take cover, then it is Joseph who embodies the robust, vibrant, powerful Jew who perseveres and gains mastery over his foreign environment ultimately manipulating it to better further Jewish goals and needs. Within the lives of these two we discover the secret of survival which has kept us alive up to this point and that will ultimately bring about our redemption.
The Maharal, one of the seminal figures of Jewish thought in the last five centuries, makes the following fascinating observation in his work on exile and redemption. The Hebrew word for exile is Golah, spelled using the Hebrew letters gimmel, lamed, and heh. The Hebrew word for redemption is Geulah, spelled gimmel, aleph, lamed, and heh. He explains that the letter aleph (the first letter in the alphabet) stands for one, unity, a sense of indivisibility. Exile occurs when there is division and internal discord amongst our own people; when we, as a people, do not recognize our unique oneness and seek schismatic means to serve our one G-d. Redemption, therefore, is a product of our own making. The more we as Jews identify with that force which unites us and makes us into a "one people" as no other, the faster we speed the redemption.
From where do the Jewish people gain their sense of oneness? From where does this identity spring? One not so surprising answer is from our holy ancestors. The Maharal suggests that this is a product specifically created by the Matriarchs. Who in particular is to be given the credit? It is none other than Rachel, Jacob's beloved wife for whom he toiled fourteen arduous years. It is through her that Jacob desires to build the Jewish people. She instigates the process of bringing in another wife (Bilhah) to bring about Divine mercy so that she too may carry a child. She alone, the prophet Jeremiah says, cries for her children and intercedes on their behalf in the heavenly courts to win a favorable outcome when the pains of exile become too great to bear. It is the role of the Jewish mother to place a spiritual stamp on her children; to give them an identity infused with a holiness which comes from pouring her energies and tears into their very beings. She alone is the true mother of the Jewish people, the glue that holds the family together and creates the symbiosis wherein twelve distinct tribes, each a nation unto itself, may coexist as one people. However, there is a problem. There is another woman in the picture: Leah. She is biologically the unquestionable mother of the greater part of the Jewish people; how is she to fit in? What is her role to be?
This issue produces an incredible tension amongst the sons and sets the stage for the events that wind down the story of Genesis and usher in our first exile. On a certain level, we may say that the struggle of Joseph and his brothers is over this very point: who is the primary wife and what will therefore be the eternal stamp to be etched upon the soul of the Jew? Joseph, Rachel's firstborn, jockeys for the pole position pushing aside Reuben, the biological firstborn. His brothers are wary of him and, in refusing to acknowledge his right to the mantle of leadership, they dispose of him. Twenty-two years later, the brothers are given a chance to redeem themselves. Joseph's plotting is not to extract the mere limited act of proving his brother's love and concern for their youngest sibling, Benjamin. It represents an achievement of a profound admission on their part to the supremacy of the children of Rachel and their acknowledgment of her as the rightful mother of the Jewish people. Joseph knows that his family is about to be subjected to a horrible exile, one that will darken the eyes of the Jewish people with backbreaking servitude. He knows that it is his mission to blaze the trail, to set down the rules so that there will be a redemption. It is he who passes down the secret code words, "Pakod Yifkod," which will reveal the identity of the redeemer (ibid. 50:24-25). If there will be a redemption it will only come about because the Jewish people remain one indivisible organism. This can only happen if there is a single force that will galvanize them, inspire them to reach for a collective vision. This force is Rachel and her constant tears for her children. If the brothers cannot fight for Benjamin, if they will not be able to bow down to Joseph in recognition of his rightful position as the true "firstborn," then they will not be counted among Rachel's children and her tears will run dry for them.
We live in a frightful time. For the first time in over 2,000 years we are destroying ourselves faster than our enemies can plot against us. The lack of unity amongst Jews sinks to new levels with each successive year leaving one to wonder: "Just how much lower can we go?" The redemption lies in our own hands, we alone can make it happen. We must look deep inside ourselves and see what it is that lies at our core that makes us who and what we are. What is it that all Jews share in common regardless of affiliation or origin? In the words of the Zohar, the basic work of Kabbalah, "The Jewish people, the Torah, and the Almighty are all one." We are one people when we connect to one another through Hashem's Torah. This alone will zero us in to our true identity. This was the wish and prayer of Rachel as it is with every Jewish mother throughout the ages: That her children should know themselves in the deepest possible way and that this knowledge will make them stand proud as mighty individuals who will stand for all that is true and good in the face of great apathy. May this be our lot as well!
Rabbi Lee Jay Lowenstein, an alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta, is a Torah educator in Miami Beach.
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