Friday, 14 June, 2019 - 11:18 am

A bereaved husband feeling his loss very keenly found it desirable to divert his mind by traveling abroad. Before his departure, however, he left orders for a tombstone with the inscription:

"The light of my life has gone out."

Travel brought unexpected and speedy relief, and before the time for his return he had taken another wife. It was then that he remembered the inscription, and thinking it would not be pleasing to his new wife, he wrote to the stone-cutter, asking that he exercise his ingenuity in adapting it to the new conditions. After his return he took his new wife to see the tombstone and found that the inscription had been made to read:

"The light of my life has gone out

But I have struck another match."

In the listing of the offerings brought by the leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel, in the dedication of the newly erected Sanctuary, the seventh leader is from the tribe of Ephraim.

Yet here we face a fascinating question. The leaders of the tribes began offering their contributions on the first day of the month of Nissan, the day the Sanctuary was erected, which was on a Sunday. This means that Ephraim brought his offering on the seventh day of the week, on the Shabbat. But on Shabbat, you are not allowed to bring an individual offering? On Shabbat you may not slaughter an animal, nor can you place meat in a fire, nor can you cook meat—all components necessary for an offering in the Sanctuary?!

The Midrash answers, that Ephraim was a son of Joseph. The tribe of Ephraim carried the “genes” and the legacy of Joseph. Joseph observed Shabbat in Egypt. So G-d said: "Joseph! You kept Shabbat even before it was given, I will pay you back such that your descendant will offer his sacrifice on Shabbat!”

Yet this is so strange. What is the logic behind saying that since Joseph kept Shabbat, his great great grandson would bring a sacrifice that ordinarily violates the sanctity of Shabbat? It seems counter-intuitive.

The Rebbe explains, we have to recall the fateful story of Joseph and the uniqueness of his observing the Shabbat in Egypt.

Joseph, an extremely handsome young man, Genesis tells us, attracted the lustful imagination of his master's wife. She desperately tries to engage him in a relationship, yet he steadfastly refuses her. Then came the fateful day, "When he entered the house to do his work and none of the household staff was inside. She grabbed him by his cloak. He ran away from her, leaving his cloak in her hand, and he fled outside."

Humiliated and furious, she used the cloak as evidence that it was he who attempted to violate her. Her husband, Potiphar, had Joseph imprisoned, where he spent the next 12 years of his life until, through an astonishing turn of events, he was appointed Prime Minister of Egypt. That is when his brothers came for food and he has the Shabbat feast prepared on Friday since he observed the laws of Shabbat.

The Midrash says that the "work" Joseph came to do was to yield to the advances of his master's wife. After all of her unceasing pleas, Joseph at last succumbed. However, as the union between them was about to materialize, the visage of his father, Jacob, suddenly appeared to him. This caused Joseph to reject the powerful urge. He left his garment in her hand and he fled outside.

What was it about Jacob's visage that inspired Joseph to deny the temptation?

Joseph was a 17-year-old slave in a foreign country. He did not even own his body—his master exercised full control over his life, as was the fate of all ancient and modern slaves. Joseph had not a single friend or relative in the world. His mother died when he was nine years old, and his father thought he was dead. His siblings were the ones who sold him into slavery and robbed him of his youth and liberty. One could only imagine the profound sense of loneliness that must have pervaded the heart of this lad.

This is the context in which we need to understand Joseph's struggle. A person in such isolation is naturally overtaken by extremely powerful temptations, and is also likely to feel that a single action of his makes little difference in the ultimate scheme of things.

After all, what was at stake if Joseph succumbed to this woman's demands? Nobody was ever likely to find out what had occurred between the two. Joseph would not need to return home in the evening to face a dedicated spouse or a spiritual father, nor would he have to go back to a family or a community of moral standing.

The Talmud indeed described the techniques the woman used in order to persuade Joseph. "Each and every day," the Talmud says, "the wife of Potiphar would attempt to seduce him with words. What is more, this story took place before the giving of the Torah, when adultery became forbidden for Jews even at the threat of death. One may argue that in light of the death threats presented to Joseph by his master’s wife, it would have been halachically permissible, perhaps even obligatory, for him to engage in the union!

What, then, was the secret behind Joseph's moral rectitude? What empowered a lonely and frail slave to reject such an awesome temptation?

"The visage of his father Jacob"! That is what gave Joseph the extraordinary fortitude to smack his impulse in the face and to emphatically dismiss the noblewoman's lure.

But why? Jacob was living many miles away, unaware even of the fact that his son was alive. What was the magic that lay in his physiognomy?

The Talmud presents a tradition that the beauty of Jacob reflected the beauty of Adam, the first human being formed by the Almighty Himself.  Therefore, when Joseph saw the visage of Jacob, he was seeing the visage of Adam as well.

Adam, we know, was instructed by G-d not to eat from the fruit of "the tree of knowledge." His disobeying of this directive altered the course of human and world history forever. Though he did something apparently insignificant, merely eating a single fruit from a single tree, this minuscule act still vibrates through the consciousness of humanity to this very day.

Why? Because every single human being is part of the knot in which heaven and earth are interlaced. “Each person is responsible to say for me the world was created,” says the Mishnah. What this means is that there is something in this world which only I can repair and accomplish.

G-d's dream was not to be alone but to have mankind as a partner in the continuous task of healing the world. Each of us was given our particular task, and on this task the whole world depends. By whatever we do, we either advance or obstruct the drama of redemption; we either reduce or enhance the power of evil. Something eternal and Divine is at stake in every decision, every word, every deed performed by every single man, woman or child.

When Joseph saw the visage of Adam, he reclaimed an inner unshakable dignity; he remembered that he was a candle of G-d lit on the cosmic way. Seeing the visage of Adam reminded Joseph how a single act, performed at a single moment by a single man, changed history forever.

At that moment, Joseph remembered, that just as Adam was not one man; Adam was THE ENTIRE WORLD. If something would happen to him, if he would die, humanity and the world die with him. Each decision he made impacted the planet. He could not deceive himself that his actions were not important. All of history depended on his behavior. One move this or that way would define the destiny of mankind. He was no small individual; he was the globe.

This is what gave Joseph the fortitude he needed to withstand temptation. This is how he can keep Shabbos as the Prime Minister of Egypt, all alone, with no family or community support. For he realized the depth and significance of his life and actions.

The greatest mistake in life is to think of yourself as small and insignificant. Not to realize the centrality of your existence in the cosmic plan. Not to appreciate the truth that you are G-d’s personal ambassador to the world. You are never alone, and you are never merely one small individual.

In the words of the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe: 

Every individual is an entire community; he can create a community and bring life to a community.

Does one need better proof then Joseph’s life? Here was one man who saved the entire world from famine!

The story is told, that before Mao-Tse-Tung (1893-1976), the founder and leader of the "People's Republic of China," brought the Revolution to China and installed the Communist system there, he was warned that millions of Chinese could starve until they got things working properly.

To which Mao responded, "If I have to lose 100 million Chinese peasants for the revolution, then it's worth it."

Indeed, during his leadership, from 1949 till 1976, it is estimated that 70 million of his own people perished!

This is one type of leader: one who can give up 100 million people, as long as he gets his goals accomplished. Joseph was taught a very different message: One person is the world. Taking the life of one person is extinguishing the light of the entire world.

In the film "Judgment at Nuremberg," American judge Dan Haywood sentences Ernst Janning, an important legal figure in Germany even before the rise of Hitler, to life in prison for condemning an innocent Jewish doctor to death in 1935. Janning pleads to Haywood that he was unaware of the magnitude of the Nazi horror and that he would have never assisted Hitler had he known what the monster was scheming.

"Those people, those millions of people," Janning begged for his freedom, "I never knew it would come to that. You must believe it."

To which Judge Haywood replied: "It came to that the first time you sentenced a man to the death you knew to be innocent."

The moment a single life loses its absolute value, a thousand lives, even a million lives, are ultimately not of value; they are merely more shocking numbers. This message was never forgotten from the Jewish people even during the most terrible times when life became worthless to so many cultures and nations.

Now, at last, we can appreciate the words of the Midrash. Joseph, who kept the Shabbat even in Egypt, who remained connected to G-d, truth, morality, even in deprived Egypt, can do so only because he understood the truth that an individual is really the entire nation and the entire world. So G-d says, when it comes to your offering, it is not an offering of a private citizen; it is an offering of the entire nation. Hence, it can be offered on Shabbos.

This means so much for me today when I look at this beautiful community. Some of you, like Joseph, do not have an easy time observing Shabbat. You feel alone, in a sort of Egypt. People mock you, raise their eyebrows, and make all types of comments. How Do you do THAT?!

I am so moved and inspired by you. Just like Joseph, you know that the mitzvah of Shabbat is a gift from G-d, not the collective Jewish people, but to each of you as an individual. G-d speaks to you and cares about you. And your observance of Shabbat has infinite value and significance.

You may view your individual actions in the privacy of your bedroom as insignificant. Yet from the perspective of Judaism, these decisions create history.

If you only open your eyes, you will see the visage of your father whispering to you through the silent winds of history that you are not an isolated creature in a titanic world whose behavior is inconsequential. At this very moment, G-d needs you and me to bring redemption to His world.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky


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