“And moreover I have heard the groaning of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians keep in bondage; and I have remembered My covenant.” – Exodus 6:5
A covenant was made with Abraham, many years before his descendants entered Egypt: “And He said unto Abram: ‘Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years” (Genesis 15:12-13, JPS 1917 Tanach).
H’Shem sent Moshe, whom He spoke to at the burning bush: “‘I have surely seen the affliction of My people that are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their pains; and I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians.” (Exodus 3:7-8).
For H’Shem heard the cry of His people; he “descended to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians” (Exodus 3:8, Complete Jewish Bible, chabad.org). Such is His love for His children, that he “descended to rescue them.” Even though, He is thought of in Talmudic thought as sitting on His throne in Seventh Heaven, He heard our cries from there.
The Talmud further explains that He can even hear the penitent whisper prayers in the synagogue: for He is not only transcendent; He is also immanent. This explains to some degree how He can be the Master of the Universe, as well as the One who effects miracles to release His people from bondage.
Joseph’s identity, hidden from his brothers, was revealed to them in a moment of time, wherein they had a private audience with the Egyptian ruler, who knew them, yet, they did not recognise him. Previously, up until that moment, they had seen him as a cruel ruler, who held his authority over them, inasmuch as he could do as he pleased: through intimidating them by placing them in jail three days; demanding that they return with their youngest brother; otherwise, they would not be able to see him, thereby obtaining necessary food during the famine; and, finally, taking Benjamin as a servant, under false charges. Their perception of him changed, when he said, “I am Joseph” (Genesis 45:3).
Joseph himself had previously told them, in regard to the incident whereof, he kept Simeon as a hostage, until they return with Benjamin, instead of keeping them all in prison, that he fears G-d. No light statement from an Egyptian ruler; yet, the brothers may not have accepted this statement as sincere. Now, they see his sincerity demonstrated, inasmuch that he shows them kindness, forgiveness, and mercy, the very qualities valued in Abrahamic legacy. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; a good understanding have all those who do his commandments; his praise endures for ever” (Psalms 111:10, Tanach Bible).
When Jacob arrived in Egypt with his family, his son, Joseph, harnessed his chariot and went out to greet him. Joseph provided for his family to live in the land of Goshen – a land removed from Egypt proper. As a consequence of their living in this location, they were isolated to some extent from the rest of Egyptian society. They had more freedom to follow the patriarchal ways of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and foster the character traits that they represented, as opposed to getting caught up in the idolatrous ways, and immorality of their neighbors.
Yet, even in the midst of the uncertainty, doubt, and fear, that settled in years later, after the children of Israel became enslaved in Egypt, there was the promise of hope in the redeemer. Before Joseph passed away, he told his brother, pekod pekodti, a redeemer will reveal himself to you. “G-d will surely remember you, and bring you up out of this land unto the land which He swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Genesis 50:24). The first redeemer, Moses, freed us from the shackles of Egypt, and brought us to Sinai, where through the covenant, we became obligated to to following the commandments, the first step in becoming a people unto G-d.
According to the Zohar, for every descent, there is an ascent: apropos to this weeks parashas, we see Joseph, whose feet were placed in fetters, His person was laid in iron; until the time that his word came to pass, the word of the L-RD tested him (Psalm 105:19, JPS). Josephs descent to Egypt, and eventually into prison, began with his literal descent into the pit that his brothers callously cast him. He was then sold to Midianite traders, who brought him down to Egypt. He became the servant of Potiphar, who put Joseph in charge of his estate; yet, he was wrongfully accused by Potiphars wife; as a result, he wound up in prison.
Even in prison, Joseph flourished; the L-RD was with Joseph, and showed kindness unto him, and gave him favour in the sight of the keeper of the prison (Genesis 39:21, JPS 1917 Tanach). He gained notoriety as an interpreter of dreams, after correctly interpreting, b’ezrach H’Shem (with the L-RDs help) the dreams of two prisoners who had been in stewardship in Pharaohs court. When the cup bearer, who was restored to his position in Pharaoh’s court, two years later, saw how disconcerted Pharaoh was about his own dreams, he recommended Joseph to Pharaoh.
And Pharaoh said unto Joseph: Forasmuch as G-d hath shown thee all this, there is none so discreet and wise as thou’ (Genesis 41:39, JPS 1917 Tanach). Pharaoh was so impressed with Josephs interpretation, that he elevated him to second in command of Egypt, thereby charging him to care for Egypt during the famine, by developing a means to store food during the seven years of plenty, to be subsequently distributed during the famine that would ensue, according to Pharaohs dream. Thus, Josephs ascent followed his descent, all for the sake of others. Joseph models the qualities of endurance, patience and self-giving.
“Jacob sent messengers [malachim] before him to Esau his brother unto the land of Seir, the field of Edom.”
– Genesis 32:4, Jewish Publication Society
Previously, the Torah speaks of two camps of angels, one that accompanied Jacob to the edge of the land of Canaan, and another camp that served to accompany him and his entourage once they entered Canaan, the land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and their descendants (see Genesis 32:2-3). Now, at the beginning of parashas Vayishlach, the Torah alludes to these very same angels that were assigned for protection (Genesis 32:4). The Hebrew word, malachim can mean messengers or angels. In the literal sense, Jacob sent messengers to Esau; yet, on another level, the angels granted to him for protection, may have also gone ahead of Jacob’s entourage to meet Esau.
Nachmanides comments that “this parsha is written to announce that H’Shem saved his servant and redeemed him with a strong arm, and he sent an angel to save him. And we learn more that he was not confident in his deeds, and he made an effort to save all that he could” (Ramban, 32:2, sefaria.org). Jacob himself states, “I am not worthy of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which Thou hast shown unto Thy servant” (Genesis 32:11, JPS).
Jacob did not only rely on divine protection; rather, he made a three-fold preparation for an encounter with Esau: defense, prayers and appeasement. He divided his camp, so that if one camp was attacked, the other would escape; he prayed to H’Shem for deliverance from the hands of Esau; he also sent gifts to Esau. He sent droves of sheep, cattle, and goats ahead as gifts for Esau. His servants went ahead of him with the gifts. Finally, when Esau approached, Jacob went ahead of his family and bowed seven times to his brother Esau. By way of the gifts that Jacob sent ahead, and his own humble posture of subservience to Esau, even calling him, L-rd, out of deference, Jacob brought about a meeting with his brother that became more like a tearful reunion. “Esau’s pity was aroused when he saw him [Jacob] prostrating himself so many times” (Rashi, Genesis Rabbah 78:8, sefaria.org).
“And Isaac digged again the wells of water, which they had digged in the days of Abraham.”
– Genesis 26:18, JPS 1917 Tanach
Meor Eynayim explains, that these wells are symbolic of G-d’s wisdom that flowed during the lifetime of Abraham; yet, after his death, his wells were stopped up by the Philistines, representative of the powers of darkness and ignorance, inasmuch that they also impeded the spread of this wisdom (Meor Einayim, Toldos 19; sefaria.org). Symbolically, when Isaac redug the wells of his father, Abraham, he also reopened the flow of divine wisdom into the world.
The wellsprings of wisdom, must be dug within ourselves, until we reach the place where the source of the wisdom flows. This is the essence of the teaching from Meor Einayim. In reference to the verse, “they have forsaken me, the source of living waters (Jeremiah 2:13), he explains that “Blessed G-d is the source from whom comes the flow of life-force to all living things in all manners” (Meor Einayim, Toldos 18; sefaria.org).
Thus, the source of life continually flows from G-d; yet, as the result of sin, we cause a blockage of that source, and are likened to “broken cisterns.” Consequently, we are unable to connect to our “upper root,” the source above us that nourishes our soul. Additionally, our own ignorance compels us to search elsewhere in this world for the truth; yet, here is much spiritual malaise as the result of sin in this world. Our own path should be to turn from the the darkness, towards the light, so that our souls may be renewed with G-d’s wisdom.
Tradition teaches that preceding the time of Moshiach (Messiah), there will be a decline in spiritual understanding, as a result of sinking to “the fiftieth level of impurity.” However, at the beginning of his reign, “it shall come to pass in that day, that living waters shall go out from Jerusalem” (Zechariah 14:8). Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer, explains that in the future, within Jerusalem, a newfound well that will arise of its own accord, will water all of the surroundings. “The earth shall be full of the knowledge of the L-RD, as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9, JPS 1917 Tanach).
“On the fifteenth day of the seventh month ye shall have a holy convocation: ye shall do no manner of servile work, and ye shall keep a feast unto H’Shem seven days.”
– Numbers 29:12, JPS 1917 Tanach
The festival of Sukkot, as prescribed in Torah, included offerings for the nations for their protection from affliction. There were a total of seventy bulls offered over a period of seven days. This specifically designated amount of offerings corresponds to the primary nations mentioned in Genesis (Sukkah 55b). In the future, all of the nations will be required to worship in Jerusalem (it is likely to presume that they will send delegates). This is a sign of the Messianic Era, when Moshiach will reign from Jerusalem.
“And it shall come to pass, that every one that is left of all the nations that came against Jerusalem shall go up from year to year to worship the King, the L-RD of hosts, and to keep the feast of tabernacles [Sukkot].”
– Zechariah 14:7, JPS
“And many peoples shall go and say: ‘Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the L-RD, to the house of the G-d of Jacob; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the L-RD from Jerusalem.” JPS
“And the soul of the people became impatient because of the way.”
– Numbers 21:4, JPS, 1917 Tanach
B’nei Yisrael, as a result of circumstances that seemed beyond their control, grew impatient along the journey. By taking a roundabout way around the country of Edom, they felt they were moving further away from their destination . Their frustration manifested in the form of complaining; yet, the question may be asked, did they really have anything to complain about? What was the nature of their complaint. The Torah records that “the people spoke against G-d, and against Moses: ‘Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, and there is no water; and our soul loatheth this light bread.'” (Numbers 21:5, JPS 1917 Tanach).
Commentary explains that they were dissatisfied with the the mode of their existence. In other words, they were discontent not only with the bread and water that H’Shem provided for them, rather, also with the means that they received this provision. In particular, R. Bachya explains, that their complaint disparaged the manna, and the water from the “well of Miriam” that H’Shem had provided for them on their travels, because they were dependent each and every day on H’Shem to give what was necessary for their daily existence. This is in comparison to other nations, who were able to store up a supply of bread and water that was always available.
It was as if they were really saying that the bread and water they received was not in the manner that they would have preferred. Moreover, the manna did not seem substantial enough for the rigours of the wilderness that they had to endure. Yet, H’Shem provided for them on a daily basis, in order to test their faith in him; for they would have to trust that on the morrow, they would be able to collect the manna in the morning, during the weekdays. Of course, on the sixth day, they received a double portion for that day and Shabbat. They were tired of this type of day to day existence, and seemingly yearned for more security in their material needs.
Because of their complaints against Him, and the heavenly provision of manna, G-d sent fiery serpents that bit the people. When they acknowledged their wrong perspective, H’Shem told Moshe to make a copper serpent, and place it on a pole. “And it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he seeth it, shall live” (Numbers 21:8). Thus, as Rashi comments, when they looked up towards the serpent, they turned their hearts to their Father in Shomayim (Heaven).
In parashas Balak, the “prophet of the nations,” Balaam is hired by Balaak, King of Moab to curse B’nei Yisrael. The concern of the Moabites was that they could potentially be attacked by the Children of Israel. They had heard of how B’nei Yisrael defeated Sichon and Og, two Ammonite kings, and they feared for themselves. Specifically, Torah records that when they saw the multitude of B’nei Yisrael, they were overwhelmed with dread. The Hebrew word translated in this pasuk (verse) is koots. This is the same word used to describe how the Egyptians felt about the Children of Israel, generations ago, when they saw that “the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad” (Exodus 1:12, JPS).
Balaam’s three attempts to curse Israel are thwarted by H’Shem. Each time, he and Balaak bring seven offerings to H’Shem, hoping to appease Him; yet, H’Shem is adamantly opposed to Balaam’s intent to curse Israel. Balaam was told by G-d even before he set out on his journey to Moab, with the princes sent by Balak, “‘Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people; for they are blessed'” (Numbers 22:12, JPS).
Yet, eventually, in response to the persistence of Balak’s emmisaries, G-d said to Balaam, “‘rise up, go with them; but only the word which I speak unto thee, that shalt thou do’” (Numbers 22:20, JPS). Later, on the journey to Moab, Balaam was reminded by the angel of H’Shem, “only speak the word that I shall speak unto thee, that thou shalt speak” (Numbers 22:35, JPS). So, not only did H’Shem prevent Balaam from cursing Israel, He also caused Balaam to bless Israel instead.
Reflecting on the complaints of the Children of Israel, concerning the provision of manna and water that H’Shem provided for them, it is interesting to note that they were not somehow prevented from complaining; rather, they were rebuked after the fact. If there was some way that H’Shem could prevent us from complaining in life, then, perhaps, instead of words of negativity, we would speak positive words each and every time. Our intended curses would be transformed into blessings. “Set a guard, O L-RD, to my mouth; keep watch at the door of my lips” (Psalm 141:3, JPS).
“In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct thy paths.”
– Proverbs 3:6 , JPS 1917 Tanach
If the path of life seems broad to the individual, who deems that he is freely given the reins of his life, to think, feel, and choose as he would like, a second thought is required. In fact, are not most of us more likely to think that we are free, because there is such a vast array of choices to choose from in life? Yet, if we reflect on our choices, we may find that we are not free at all. Rather, we are subject to the influence of others in ways that we may not even recognise. It is often our peers, who influence us during our childhood years, perhaps, even more so than our family, depending on the circumstances. Even so, if we look closely at our own character, we will invariably have to admit the similarities to our parents.
In families where the reins were kept loose from an early age, the world may appear to be an amusement park; yet, there may be no rational basis in our early years, in regard to the formation of a worldview; hence, we are shaped by our peers, as well as our own rebellion from whatever family values, we feel may have been imposed upon us. If our teenage spirit is not reined in by a balanced perspective of life, regarding some amount of self discipline and self control, then we are subject to follow the unbridled dispositions of our heart.
Not that I mean to make a sweeping generalisation; yet, this seems be the norm, unless brought up in a more traditional home, wherein, religious, ethical, or academic standards were clearly demonstrated and inculcated. These are my thoughts, encapsulating my limited perspective, on the issue of personal identity, having to find my own, after partaking of the smorgasbord of life, without carefully considering the ramifications of my appetite.
My standard is now grounded in the wisdom of G-d, rather than the shifting sands of my emotions, inclinations, and worldly perspective. Rather than a leaf, being blown in the wind, I have grown roots into the rich heritage of my belief and practice. Reishis chochma yiras H’Shem – the beginning of wisdom is fear of the L-RD (Psalm 111:10). In what will continue to be a lifelong attempt to walk a fine line down the road of life, I try to foster a balanced perspective, based on the little that I understand, from gleaning the guidelines set before me, within the pages of the original blueprint of the world.
This blueprint is found within the pages of what may amount to the most popular self-improvement book, that surprisingly enough, can never be found on the shelf where all of the other self-help books are located. That is because, the book that I am referring to can not actually be categorized as a self-help book at all; rather, it is a book wherein one may improve his or her life with the help of G-d. With the inspiration of the words from this book, along with the authoritative words of those who have studied this book more than me, my roots continue to bring spiritual nourishment to my soul, strengthening my resolve to follow the derech (path) set before me.
“The path of the righteous is as the light of dawn, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day.”
“Where there is no vision, the people cast off restraint; but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.”
– Proverbs 29:18, JPS 1917 Tanach
A greater vision, somewhere upon the horizon, waits for realisation to take hold in our hearts; in order to see beyond, reach past, and fly over this wilderness, hope must take root in our souls. Yet, even without hope, “Surely the L-RD’S mercies are not consumed, surely His compassions fail not. They are new every morning; great is Thy faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22-23, JPS 1917 Tanach). G-d’s faithfulness towards us, reveals the promise of a new day. “The path of the righteous is as the light of dawn, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day” (Proverbs 4:18, JPS).
We are welcome to board this ship to a brighter tomorrow; so, let’s prepare ourselves for the journey. Rambunctious disregard of G-d’s words will only lead us further astray; the aseret hadibrot (ten utterances) are meant to resonate within our being, in like manner that they were received at Sinai. “If the L-RD delight in us, then He will bring us into this land, and give it unto us—a land which floweth with milk and honey” (Numbers 14:8). “For the L-RD taketh pleasure in His people; He adorneth the humble with salvation” (Psalm 149:4). “To-day, if ye would but hearken to His voice” (Psalm 95:7).
Our artistic proficiency as human beings is ultimately limited in comparison to the artistic rendering of Creation by G-d. Yet, many artists over the ages, as well as more contemporary artists, even photographers, and graphic artists have made the attempt, and continue to make a concerted effort to capture the essence of G-d’s creative expression. Even more so, all of us created beings should endeavor to imitate and internalize the inner qualities of G-d, in respect to our character, especially the thirteen attributes of mercy.
“And the L-RD passed by before him, and proclaimed: ‘The L-RD, the L-RD, G-d, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth; keeping mercy unto the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.”
– Exodus 34:6-7, JPS 1917 Tanach
By adhering to these attributes in our lives, the world will become a better place; personal changes, the ones shaped within ourselves, first influence the inner person, as well as one’s immediate surroundings, for example, family, friends, and community, before having an impact further outside that social and environmental milieu. The ripple effect, could permit even one act of kindness to make waves that effect others in ways that we may never know.
The Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, mentioned in scripture, are part of the liturgy for the Holy Days, requesting G-d’s forgiveness, as well as His mercy upon us. However, the prayer of the Thirteen Attributes has been added to the daily services, being performed three times a day at the Western Wall, specifically, to combat the plague of the coronavirus. This prayer is considered to be a segulah – a remedy in times of dire need. Incidentally, this prayer is traditionally only said with a minyan (quorum of ten congregants).
Yet, these actual characteristics of mercy may be reflected in everyone’s life who takes the time to make the effort to imitate G-d with respect to His qualities. This may be done through forgiveness of others, a calm forebearance towards those who we find hard to bear, and mercy towards those whom we may feel do not deserve to be shown kindness. When we forgive and forget other people’s wrongs, as well as perceived slights against our character, we permit change to occur in ourselves and others for the good. A bruised ego, set aside, creates for the potential to overlook other’s people’s faults.
“It is the discretion of a man to be slow to anger, and it is his glory to pass over a transgression.”