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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Vayigash 5774 "The Ruler of Egypt"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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In his book, Life’s Too Short, Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski, relates a powerful story about a woman named Nora, who was attending an Al-Anon group[1]. At one meeting, Nora contrasted the challenges of dealing with her husband’s alcoholism for so many years with the joy and blessing they were enjoying now that he was sober. She noted that the one major disappointment of their lives had been that she was unable to bear a child. They eventually adopted two children.

When at forty-two Nora became pregnant, she saw it as divine intervention. She had no doubt that this child was going to become a Rhodes Scholar and would light up the world with his wisdom.

Nora explained, “I thought that during my years of recovery in Al-Anon all my anger and resentment had gone forever, but it suddenly returned in a massive proportion when I held my dream baby in my arms for the first time. He had Down syndrome.

“‘G-d, why did you do this to me? I had resigned myself to being biologically barren and adopting my two children. Why did you tease me? You are cruel and unfair.’ I knew these were not nice thoughts, but I could not help them.

“Every night my husband and I prayed over the crib. ‘G-d, you have been so kind to us. You have performed so many miracles in our lives. Now we ask You for just one more miracle. Please change him.’

“Then, after many nights of prayer, the miracle occurred. G-d answered our prayers, and He changed us.

“If that little child did not come into the world for any other purpose than what I am about to tell you, it was all worth it. When I sit in the rocking chair and cuddle him in my arms, and I look at his pudgy little hands that have only the one crease, and at his funny-looking eyes, and I realize how much I love this child with all his defects, then I know for certain that G-d can love me even with all my defects.’”

After the dramatic moment when Yosef revealed his identity to his stunned brothers, he sought to appease them with encouraging words. “And now, be not distressed, nor reproach yourselves for having sold me here, for… it was not you who sent me here, but G-d.[2]

Rabbi Yeruchom Levovitz zt’l, notes that Yosef was not offering insubstantial solace by downplaying what occurred. Nor did he state that although they acted malevolently it was worth it because of the prestige and power he attained. Rather, Yosef was telling them that essentially they were not responsible for what transpired. Their actions had been dictated by what they had felt was the proper course to take. Whatever occurred to Yosef from that point on was orchestrated by G-d and had nothing to do with their original calculations. Their actions were merely the catalyst that set the divine trajectory into motion.

Rabbi Levovitz concludes that this is the proper attitude that every Jew should maintain. No matter what displeasure or discomfort one suffers, he should realize that it is all divinely ordained. Although the perpetrator will undoubtedly receive due punishment for his improper actions, as far as the victim is concerned, he only received what was coming to him.

Yosef continued his words of consolation to his brothers by describing the extent of his success. “וישימני לאב לפרעה ולאדון לכל ביתו ומשל בכל ארץ מצרים - He has made me for a father to Pharaoh, for a master of the entire household, and a ruler throughout the land of Egypt.”

The previous Belzer Rebbe zy’a notes that the verse seems to be grammatically inconsistent. Although Yosef used the expression “for”, represented by the prefix letter “ל” (“He has made me for a father figure to Pharaoh and for a master of his entire household”), in the final clause of the verse Yosef omitted the prefix. To maintain grammatical consistency the verse should have concluded, “ולמשל בכל ארץ מצרים - And for a ruler throughout the land of Egypt”, not merely “ומשל בכל ארץ מצרים - And a ruler throughout the land of Egypt.”

The Belzer Rebbe explained that Yosef was sending the brothers a covert message, that although he had become a father-like figure for Pharaoh and the master of all his affairs, he never lost sight of the fact that, “There is a ruler in the land of Egypt!” In the concluding clause of the verse, Yosef was not referring to himself but he was rather expressing to his brothers that even in a country as dissolute and corrupt as Egypt the true ruler of the world is apparent to one seeks Him. The ruler of Egypt is G-d alone; Yosef recognized his as a mere emissary of the Ultimate Ruler.

When Yosef concluded his speech to his brothers he encouraged them to hastily return to Canaan to inform their father Yaakov that he was alive and well, and eagerly awaiting reunification. But when the brothers returned to Yaakov and announced, “עוד יוסף חי וכי הוא משל בכל ארץ מצרים – Yosef is still alive and he is the ruler of Egypt,[3]” the Torah relates that, “his (Yaakov’s) heart rejected it; for he could not believe it.” The next verse continues, “However, when they related to him all the words that Yosef spoke to them, and he saw the wagons that Yosef had sent to transport him, then the spirit of their father Yaakov was revived.”

The Belzer Rebbe explains the conversation that ensued. When Yosef related his message with its covert implication, the brothers did not grasp it. Instead they returned to Yaakov and related what they thought his message was, “Yosef is still alive and HE is the ruler of Egypt.” When Yaakov heard that the viceroy of Egypt claimed to be the determiner of the fate of the country and its central authority, he refused to believe that it was Yosef. He could not entertain the notion that his beloved forlorn son would speak in such a faithless manner. But, “when they related to him all the words that Yosef spoke to them”, i.e. when they repeated what Yosef had said verbatim, Yaakov immediately understood the hidden message and his spirit was revived. It was only when Yaakov comprehended Yosef’s message of his unshaken faith that he was able to believe that it was indeed Yosef[4].

In the waning moments of Chanukah as the final glimmers of the menorah’s light begins to fizzle this message has particular meaning. The Greeks with their newfound culture and wisdom created an approach to life rooted in reason and logic. Nature was a god unto itself and all of creation was bound to its dictates and laws. In Greece there were many gods, each with its own personality, passion, and inclinations. These gods were creations of man’s intellect and were subject to man’s imagination and creativity. It was for this reason that the belief in one Omnipotent G-d was abhorrent to the Greeks. The notion that there is a metaphysical supernatural power that runs the world undermined the basis of Greek life.

The Chanukah miracles and the victory over the Greeks symbolize the timeless words of Yosef in a most profound manner. The message of Yosef was that there is a Supreme Ruler in Egypt; the message of Chanukah is that in the darkened world of Greek culture that same Ruler continues to dominate. Yosef was a beacon of spiritual light in an impure land just as Chanukah brought about a revelation of light in an impure darkened era.

It seems paradoxical that during the week following Chanukah, we commemorate the tragic events that occurred during the month of Teves. On the tenth of Teves, the wicked Babylonian king Nevuchadnezzar laid siege around Yerushalayim. Eventually the city capitulated and the Babylonians destroyed the first Bais Hamikdash on the ninth of Av. On the ninth of Teves the great prophet Ezra, who spearheaded the return of the Jews from exile when the second Bais Hamikdash was constructed, died. His death was a severe blow to the morale of the Jews of the time. On the eighth of Teves (285 B.C.E.) the Egyptian King Ptolemy II (Philadelphus) who possessed a deep desire for knowledge and was influenced heavily by Greek culture, forced seventy elders to translate the Torah into Greek (the Septuagint). Although great miracles occurred (see Megillah 9a), the Sages viewed the event as a breach of the singularity of Klal Yisroel for this was the first time that the nations of the world had access to the Torah. [The New Testament and the King James Bible are rooted in the Septuagint.]

The events of the eighth day of Teves essentially mark our mourning for the loss of what we celebrated a week prior on Chanukah. If Chanukah celebrates the triumph of Torah, then the eighth of Teves mourns the loss of our exclusivity to the Torah[5].

Perhaps the juxtaposition of the morbid events of Teves with the conclusion of Chanukah come to bring us to the sobering realization that, despite our victories and the light of Chanukah, we are still stuck in the morass of our deep exile. As much as we have vanquished the notion that we are subject to the rules of natural law and finite wisdom represented by the ancient Greeks, we are still constantly inundated and influenced by the exile that envelops us.

The light of Chanukah serves as the lodestar that helps us proceed into the dark ominous days of Teves with a revitalized sense of mission and purpose.

The light of Chanukah reminds us that G-d is always present, albeit not in the way we imagine Him to be. G-d does not conform to our agenda or ideas of how the world should run. Miracles are omnipresent, but we often fail to realize them and appreciate them for they are often subtle and covert.

“G-d answered our prayers, and He changed us

“A ruler throughout the land of Egypt”

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[1] Al-Anon is the sister program of Alcoholics Anonymous. It is a support group for the spouses, loved ones, and family members of alcoholics.

[2] Bereishis 45:5-7

[3] 45:26

[4] I heard this magnificent explanation in the name of the Belzer Rebbe from Rav Yirsoel Dovid Shlessinger shlita.

[5] [The commentators discuss in great depth how the Greek exile forced a national shift of focus from the Written Law (i.e. Chumash) to Oral Law (i.e. Talmud etc.). It is beyond the scope of this essay to discuss that vital point adequately.]

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