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The Systems of the Jewish Year

The Fall and Rise of Yosef HaTzadik

By Rabbi Yaacov Haber

The pattern of Joseph’s life presents an interesting phenomenon. From the beginning Joseph’s life seemed to have gone from bad to worse. It started off with difficult to explain sibling rivalry, continued with being thrown into a fateful ditch, was sold into the hands of the Yishmaelim, declining yet further to the hands of the Egyptians. In Egypt he became a slave in the house of Potifar and finally bottomed out in an Egyptian jail. From this jail his life seemed to take a drastic new turn where he was released from the jail, stood as a dignitary before Pharaoh, became the viceroy of Egypt, reunited and reconciliated with his family, until the ultimate height of his life in being able to give peace and sustenance to the entire Kneses Yisroel.

Our sages reveal to us that Joseph in his early years, notwithstanding his holiness, was a mesalsel bsaaro. He was concerned with his appearance. He possessed an element of vanity. From Joseph’s dreams to his grooming, Chazal introduce Joseph as having a focus on himself. This focus was the reason for his downfall. Let us try to pinpoint the moment of turn around in Joseph’s life. It was a moment in his prison cell where the holy and distinguished Joseph HaTzadik woke up in the morning and looked over at his Egyptian cell-mate who was a true convict and noticed that he wasn’t himself. “What is the matter?” asked Joseph “Why do you look so upset today?” Everyone knows the story from there but it was that question, that concern, that turned the tide in Joseph’s life. From that altruistic moment everything seemed to happen very fast. Suddenly Joseph was on top of the world. This was a moment of change for Joseph where he took on a whole new focus. There was no personal reason that Joseph should be concerned with the mood of his cell-mate, but his focus moved outward and success set in. Joseph began his life interpreting his own dreams; he ended it interpreting other people’s dreams.

Later, in this weeks Parsha, we learn of the moving reunion of Joseph and Benjamin. The Torah tells us that they both wept as they embraced each other. Our Sages analyze the weeping of these two brothers and give meaning to their tears. Joseph was crying over the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem that were both in Benjamin’s portion of Israel. Benjamin was crying over the destruction of Shilo that was in the portion of Joseph. What is most significant about these tears is not that they were crying for the future calamity of their descendants but that they were each crying over their brother’s calamity. Joseph was crying for Benjamin and Benjamin for Joseph. They were atoning in advance for the self-centeredness and sinas chinom that would ultimately destroy the holiest places in Jerusalem by crying over their brother’s calamity instead of his own.

Whether it be for us personally or for the entire Jewish people, if we are focused on ourselves we will fall; if we focus on our brother we succeed.

In political American vocabulary today ‘rights’ must be the most common word. The US Bill of Rights is one of the most referred to documents in this country. We have lobbyists for equal rights, animal rights, workers’ rights, women’s rights, men’s rights and many more. Right, right yet not so right. If in society the total focus is on rights and never on obligations we will have chaos. The Torah teaches that every person has to ask themselves, “what is my obligation in this world?” the antithesis of “what are my rights?”

In our own communities we have to focus outward. Just as we are experiencing a renaissance of Torah we are also experiencing a mind-boggling indifference of Jews to anything Jewish. My father always reviews with me the history of the Titanic. The ship was mostly millionaires who bought a ticket on an unsinkable ship. They were sipping their cocktails in the main hall when the crew announced that the ship was sinking and everyone should take to the lifeboats. But things seemed calm in their own cabin and as far as they knew the ship was unsinkable. Chaos took over the ship but the millionaires would not let go of their cocktails. It’s so easy to feel smug in the wonderful oasis’s of Torah that we have but we must also look outward to get the real picture..

And so it is in our personal lives. Relationships, all of them, marriage parent/child, friendships are crumbling because the benchmark of a successful marriage is “what am I getting out of it?”

The Torah teaches that importance should always be given to the right side. We put on our right shoe before our left shoe, we wrap our Tefilin with our right hand and we give charity with our right hand. Why than is the most important part of the body, our heart, on the left side? Rav Nachman of Breslav gives the truest answer. If we stand face to face with another individual our heart is on their right. Our heart is for them not for ourselves. 

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