The charade had gone on long enough. Yosef could no longer maintain his composure in front of his long-lost family. The words just came out, “Ani Yosef, Ha’Od Avi Chai, I am Yosef, is my father still alive?” With these words twenty-two years of painful separation came to an end. With these words the emotional dam breaks, and a deluge of tears envelop the sons of Yaakov. Tears representing the pain of the past intermingled with tears of joy for what all hope will be a peaceful and loving future. The brothers are speechless. They have no words for the brother they maintained was dead. They have no response to the simple statement, “I am Yosef.” They are overwhelmed, ashamed, and profoundly broken. Yosef, sensing his brothers anxiety, makes an amazing statement, “And now, you did not send me here, but God, and He made me a father to Pharaoh, a lord over all his household, and a ruler over the entire land of Egypt (Bereishis 45:8).” It wasn’t you my dear brothers who sent me to this place, it was God! This was all part of the plan. But how can Yosef say this? Was it his right to purge his brothers of their iniquitous sin? Did Yosef really believe that his brothers were blameless simply because everything worked out in the end? How can Yosef say, Lo Atem She’lachtem Osi, it wasn’t you who sent me here! Was it not these very brothers who stripped him of his clothing and dignity, threw him in a pit to die, and afterwards decided to spare him by selling him to a group of Ishmaelites? And now, it wasn’t them! Furthermore, Yosef seems to convey a very different message just a few verses earlier, “But now do not be sad, and let it not trouble you that you sold me here, for it was to preserve life that God sent me before you (Bereishis 45:5).” In this verse Yosef clearly states that it was the brothers who sold him. True, God had a plan, but the brothers still bear the responsibility of having sold Yosef.
Was Yosef absolving his brothers of all responsibility since it was all part of the Divine plan, or were the brothers responsible for their brutal behavior despite the fact that all worked out?
The Midrash (Tanchuma Vayigash Siman 5) sheds light on this dynamic. Immediately prior to Yosef’s revelation, the heated exchange between Yosef and his brothers becomes dangerously close to turning violent. Yosef understood that he must reveal his identity. “Yosef said to his brothers, ‘Did you not tell me that your brother died? In fact, I purchased him, and I will bring him out to you.’ At this point Yosef called out, ‘Yosef son of Yacov come to me, Yosef son of Yacov come to me and speak with your brothers who sold you.’ The brothers began scanning all corners of the room to catch a glimpse of their long-lost brother. Yosef turned and said to them, ‘Why do you look here and there? I am Yosef your brother.’ In that moment their souls left their bodies, and they were unable to answer him.”
Yosef was conflicted; on one hand he was overjoyed to see his brothers and feel a sense of belonging and familial security. On the other hand, Yosef realized that these were the very men who turned an indifferent ear to his cries; these were the men who were supposed to be his beloved protectors but instead became rage-filled antagonists. These were the men who were ready to murder their own flesh and blood. Perhaps, I cannot have a relationship with them. Perhaps, it is better to remain distant and repay them in kind so they can suffer as I did. And so, Yosef calls out, “Yosef the son of Yaakov come to me, Yosef the son of Yaakov come to me”. He is looking for his self, for his identity. Who should I be? What should I do? Should I seek revenge or reconciliation?
Yosef finds resolution with one simple phrase – I am Yosef your brother. I choose to be your brother and not an indifferent, vengeful tyrant. I make this choice not because you have earned it; I make this choice because it is best for me. Yosef understood that if he held on to the rage and animosity, it would consume him from within. In order to continue to lead a healthy and productive life, he had to let go of his pain.
We now understand the apparent contradiction in Yosef’s approach. When Yosef first revealed himself to his brothers, he placed the responsibility for his circumstances on their shoulders. As the conversation continues Yosef says, “Despite your responsibility and culpability, I choose not to focus on what you did to me, rather, I will focus on the Divine Providence in this entire episode.” “It wasn’t you who sold me,” is not a statement of fact, but a statement of emotional resolve and strength. I choose not to focus on the hurt and pain you have visited upon me. I choose to focus on the positive results of this tumultuous episode.
This emotional strength was the foundation of Yosef’s identity. “And Joseph named the firstborn Manasheh, for “God has caused me to forget all my toil and all my father’s house (Bereishis 41:51).” I have to learn to “forget” and let go in order to build a future. The Torah continues, “And the second one he named Ephraim, for “God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction (Bereishis 41:51).” No matter how much success he encountered, Egypt was a land of suffering and affliction for Yosef. Yet, he became “fruitful” – how? Because he was able to let go, he was able to “forget,” he was able to release the anger, animosity, and hurt that was rightfully his. It was this act of “forgetting” that allowed Yosef to grow, thrive, and build a successful life.
We each have certain experiences that keep us tethered to our past and present while preventing us from building a future. For some it may be pain caused by another, residual anger from a failed relationship, or some unresolved life issue that has been too difficult to address. There are painful realities that sap us of our emotional strength and prevent us from self-actualizing. Yosef teaches us to find the strength to identify those things that hold us back and to find the courage to finally let them go.
The family had been reunited. After more than two decades of separation and heartbreak, Yaakov’s family was whole and complete. After settling his family in Goshen, Yosef turned his attention to the affairs of state. He was responsible for sustaining Egypt and the surrounding areas. As the Egyptians ran out of food, they were forced to sell their lands to the government, and in return, they received seed to plant and then divided the proceeds with Pharoah’s treasury.
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יוֹסֵף֙ אֶל־הָעָ֔ם הֵן֩ קָנִ֨יתִי אֶתְכֶ֥ם הַיּ֛וֹם וְאֶת־אַדְמַתְכֶ֖ם לְפַרְעֹ֑ה הֵֽא־לָכֶ֣ם זֶ֔רַע וּזְרַעְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־הָֽאֲדָמָֽה
Joseph said to the people, “Behold, I have bought you and your farmland today for Pharaoh. Behold, you have seed, so sow the soil. (Genesis 47:23)
The Lubavitcher Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, 1902-1994) explains that embedded in these words is a profound life lesson.
Hey lachem zera, behold you have seed – Hashem gives us the necessary abilities and strengths to accomplish in life. He provides us with the seeds of wisdom, intuition, vitality, and vigor to be successful in our endeavors and to meet our challenges.
U’zeratem es ha’adam, so sow the soil – But these gifts are only meaningful if you do something with them. The seeds can only germinate and grow if they are put into the soil. The personalistic gifts and abilities we possess are only meaningful if they are utilized in the soil of dynamic activity.
Hashem instills qualities, traits, and gifts within each and every one of us. There are personal gifts we have already discovered and others which are only uncovered in unique circumstances. Times of difficulty and adversity often allow us to discover and access strengths we never knew we possessed. Moments of accomplishment allow us to see who we are capable of becoming and what we are truly capable of achieving. The greatest danger is discovering your gifts, finding your “seeds”, and failing to do something with them. Once I discover my kochos, my job is to plant them in the soil of dynamic activity. If I have a strength – I need to use it. If I have an ability – I need to plant it. If I discover that I am a very fast runner but never enter a race, the ability is wasted. If I have keen intellect but never use it to problem solve, my gift is for naught. If I possess empathy, compassion, and understanding but don’t reach out to the other, what purpose do my gifts serve?
A person may possess the most rare, exquisite, and unique seeds but if he holds them in his hand, admiring how special and wonderful they are, those very same seeds will wither and die. It is only when I take the seeds and plant them in the earth that they can produce something even greater. It is only when I take my strengths and abilities and plant them in the soil of dynamic activities that they can produce something greater as well.
The pain of the past Parshios dissipates this week with the startling revelation that Yosef is still alive. Yaakov has been mourning his beloved son for over two decades, only to find out that Yosef is thriving and leading in the land of Egypt. Yosef, knowing that the famine will still affect the region for several years, encourages the family to relocate to Egypt and settles them in the city of Goshen.
“He sent Judah ahead of him to Joseph, to direct him to Goshen, and they came to the land of Goshen.” (Genesis 46:28)
Yehuda was sent ahead to prepare for the arrival of the rest of the family. Rashi explains, “…to establish for him a house of study, from which teaching would emanate.” Yaakov sent Yehuda to establish a spiritual infrastructure which could support the needs of the family. Yaakov understood that to survive in the alien and sometimes hostile environment of Egypt there would have to be a spiritual system in place to support and facilitate the growth of the family in all times.
Jews around the world learn a page of Talmud each and every day, finishing the entire Babylonian Talmud every 7 ½ years. This past Wednesday we celebrated the Siyum HaShas. I was privileged to attend this incredible celebration at MetLife Stadium, accompanied by my children and members of our shiur and kehilla. But for us Baltimoreans there was a journey. Close to 2,000 men, women and children from across our community boarded buses to the event. We arrived at the bus station around 8:15am ready for the day ahead. Some brought their laptops to catch up on work, others brought books and reading material to make use of the hours of travel. We all brought food and, of course, our beloved Gemaras. Then the announcement came. The FBI had communicated that nothing could be left on the busses when arriving at the stadium. For security reasons, the busses would be swept, and we would not necessarily return on the same bus we had arrived on. Understandably this created a challenge. Items that we had brought to accompany us on the journey could not be left on the bus, nor could they be brought into the stadium. And so, we got off the bus, returned to our cars and left behind anything which wasn’t a necessity. It was in that moment that we had to decide what was truly important and necessary. We exited the bus and left our laptops and iPads and returned with our Gemaras and food (we are Jewish). And in this very moment, I experienced an incredible revelation. There are many things we think we need to be successful, happy, content and well-adjusted. But at the end of the day, give me my Gemara and I am ready to travel wherever I need to. Torah isn’t simply a system of obligations and prohibitions. Torah is the beating heart of the Jew. Torah allows us to become the best version of ourselves, discovering who we are and what we are truly capable of. Torah allows us to create a beautiful and intimate relationship with God and chisels His image within each of us. Like Yehuda, who ventured into Egypt armed with his personal holiness, we boarded the buses leaving everything behind and carrying with us that which matters most, a Gemara in hand and an inspired soul.
To those who have finished Shas, mazal tov on your accomplishment. To those who will begin the next cycle with Maseches Berachos on Sunday morning, I know you will enjoy and feel uplifted from every daf and every word. May we use these inspiring times to remind us of the things that are truly important for a successful life journey and may we find the courage to leave the rest in the car.
The tension was mounting. The brothers couldn’t understand the irrational behavior of this unknown Egyptian viceroy. Binyamin stood accused of theft and faced a lifetime of incarceration and servitude in Egypt. The brothers faced the horrible reality of returning to Yaakov, their father, without his precious, youngest son. Yehuda, acting as the spokesman, approached the Egyptian ruler (Yosef) and said, “For how will I go up to my father if the boy is not with me? Let me not see the misery that will befall my father!” (Genesis 44:34) Rashi explains: “Now if you ask why I (Yehuda) enter the fray more than my other brothers, [I will reply that] they are all [standing] from the outside [without commitment], while I have bound myself with a strong bond to be an outcast in both worlds.” In last week’s Parsha we read that it was Yehuda who guaranteed Binyamin’s safety to his father, Yaakov. And it would be Yehuda who would face the brunt of Yaakov’s heartbreak and wrath in this world and the next, should he return without Binyamin. It was in this moment that Yehuda demonstrated a core principle of leadership – responsibility. The rabbis explain that it was in this very moment that Yehuda earned the future mantle of Jewish monarchy. A leader must possess many important traits and characteristics but to be a truly effective leader one must be willing to take full responsibility for the process and outcome of events. One must be willing to wave the flag of victory and shoulder the burden of defeat.
But there is something else. Embedded in these simple words, “For how will I go up to my father if the boy is not with me?” is another profound and meaningful message. Rav Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye (1710-1784, Toldos Yaakov Yosef) explains: “Koh tzarich kol yehudi l’daber el libo, ‘eych e’eleh achar kach el avi she’bashamayim, vi’yimey ha’neurim eynam iti, kalu b’hevel v’rik, (so shall every Jew say in his heart, ‘how can I ascend (after death) to my Father in Heaven, and the days of youth are not with me for I have squandered them in emptiness and frivolity’).”
Powerful words from a great Chassidic master. After 120 God will ask us how we used our youth. How did we use those years which were filled with promise and potential? How did we use those years of strength and vigor? Let’s be honest – it’s easy to be pious when we’re old, tired and no longer have the desire or stamina to sin. How we used our youth – that will be the question God will ask us. The Rebbe explains that in this very moment Yehuda was lamenting all the lost years. Years that were spent covering for a crime against his own flesh and blood. Years which were taken from Yaakov and could never be returned. He lamented the youthful innocence stolen from Yosef that could never be recovered. Yehuda broke down in front of his brothers and in front of Egypt, how will I face my father in Canaan and how will I face my father in Heaven when I know I have not maximized my youth and I have taken the youthful years of others.
The Rebbe’s words cut right to our soul. How have we used our youth? Have we actualized our unique potentials? Have we utilized our strengths and abilities? Have we maximized our youth? These are scary questions because if it turns out that we did not maximize our youth, what can we do about it now? Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter (1847-1905), known as the Sefas Emes (Pirkei Avos 4:20) explains. “Who is a child? One who has a tomorrow.” The holy Gerrer Rebbe goes on to explain that each day is its own self-contained unit of life. We often look at a day as an incremental unit in the measurement of weeks, months and years. But in truth every day is its own cycle of life. Throughout the day we age and mature. In the morning when we wake up we are like newborn infants, by noon in our early adult years, by late afternoon we reach our mature adult and twilight years, and by nightfall we return our soul to our Maker and the unit of life has come to an end. In other words, youth is a constantly recurring state of being which begins at the start of each day. How we each decide to use our youth of any one day will determine the trajectory of that one unit of life, that one day. And even if for some reason we didn’t maximize the youth of yesterday we can still do so tomorrow. We are given the great gift of youth every morning upon awakening. Our mandate is to make the most of it.
The question of “how have I used my youth?” need not be anxiety provoking; it just needs to be reframed. “How have I used my youth?” is not nearly as important as “how am I going to use my youth in the days, weeks, months and years ahead?”