These concepts are reflected in this week’s Torah reading, Parshas Mikeitz, which focuses on the release of Yosef from prison. Yosef serves as an analogy for the entire Jewish people. For the name Yosef, meaning “increase,” refers to an infinite and unbounded potential for growth, (See Toras Chayim, Bereishis, 87b.) i.e., the soul we all possess, which is “an actual part of G-d from above.” (Tanya, ch. 2.)
Moreover, the prayer Rachel recited when naming Yosef, (Genesis 30:24.) “May G-d add on (yosef) to me another son (ben acher),” reflects the spiritual mission of the Jewish people. Entities which have hitherto been acher (“other” estranged from their G-dly core) are brought close and manifest the intimacy of ben (“a son”).(See Or HaTorah, Vayeitzei, p. 202a.)
The prison in which Yosef is held refers to the body, and to material existence as a whole. These tend to confine the infinite power of the soul and deny it expression. Although G-d gave man His Torah, His will and wisdom, (Tanya, ch. 4.) the Torah is also affected by the limits of material existence, and its G-dly source is not always evident.
Again, I can only relate to Chassidic mysticism in terms of its power to paint metaphorical pictures. We all exist in some sort of prison which seemingly prevents us from flying free. It could be an emotional restraint, a physical ailment, a spiritual lacking, anything, really. Sometimes God sends us on a quest in search of who we are and in the midst of it, we feel discouraged and uncertain. Have we taken the correct turn? Are we on the right trail? Should we turn back and start again? What if it doesn’t matter?
Yet Joseph the slave and Joseph the prisoner shows us that regardless of our environment and circumstances, and sometimes because of it, we can always be who God has created us to be. Then again, it sometimes takes someone like Joseph to teach us that lesson.
Once, when Rabbi DovBer of Lubavitch, the son of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, was a young man, he was visiting with his father-in-law in Yanovitch. There he met with one of his father’s chassidim. The chassid noticed that the young ‘rebbe’s son’ was all too aware of his achievements in scholarship and meditative prayer and felt that some cutting down to size was in order.
Said the chassid to Rabbi DovBer: “Considering who you are and how you’ve lived, what’s the big deal? Your father – well, we all know who your father is. You were certainly conceived under the holiest of circumstances, and I’m sure that your father secured a most lofty soul to bring down into the world. Then you were raised in a rebbe’s home and great care was taken to mold your character and safeguard you from any negative influences. All your life you’ve been exposed to scholarship and sanctity and to this very day you’re preoccupied only with the study of Torah and the teachings of chassidism. So you’ve amassed a certain amount of knowledge and you pray with fervor and devotion. Big deal.
“Now, take me for example. My father was a simple man, and we can well imagine what was on his mind when he scraped out some dreg of a soul out the bottom of the barrel. My upbringing? I was raised as a goat and basically left to my own devices. And do you know what I do with my life? Let me tell you how I earn my living. I loan money to the peasants during the planting season and then, during the winter months, I make my rounds of their villages and farms to collect the debts before they have a chance to squander their entire harvest on vodka. This means setting out several hours before sunrise, well before the permissible time for prayer, equipped with a flask – for without a drink one cannot begin to talk business with a peasant. After drinking to his health, one must share a ‘l’chayim’ with the woman in the house as well – otherwise she can ruin the whole deal for you. Only then can you sit down to settle part of the account.
The words of this chassid, who was, in truth, renowned for his refined nature and soulful prayers, made a deep impression on Rabbi DovBer. The young man immediately travelled home to his father and poured out his heart. He bewailed his spiritual state, saying that his service of G-d is worthless, falling so short of what is expected from him.
The next time the chassid from Yanovitch came to Rabbi Schneur Zalman, the Rebbe said to him: “I am most grateful to you – you have made a chassid out of my Berel.”
In this tale, we see a reversal of what you might expect. The Rebbe’s son, who had every material and spiritual advantage, was basically a talented but spoiled brat. Something like who Joseph was as a teen prior to being assaulted by his brothers, thrown into a pit, and then sold into slavery (see Genesis 37). The Chassid, on the other hand, had virtually no advantages and lived a difficult life among rough and uncultured people, and yet he was “renowned for his refined nature and soulful prayers,” perhaps because of the lessons he was taught by such a life.
We see a dramatic change in Joseph’s attitude and behavior once he becomes a slave and continuing on during his imprisonment. He could have dissolved into despair, surrendered to the advances of Potiphar’s wife, and disappeared from the realm of spirituality altogether, but instead, he chose a different path. One that ultimately lead from the lowliest of positions to the exalted heights of both material and spiritual wealth.
The Rebbe thanks the Chassid from Yanovitch for making “a chassid out of my Berel.” How much more did slavery and imprisonment make a “chassid” out of Joseph…and what can it do for us?
In truth, there is no need to change the world, but only to illuminate it. For each thing has a place, and in that place it is good.
There is only one problem: It is dark. In the dark, there is no way to find the place for each thing. No way to know what belongs in your closet, ready for use, and what belongs in the laundry, waiting to be cleaned. And so, that which could be washed and used for good is despised as hateful, and that which is wholly good is used for evil.
Torah is light: it tells us the place of each thing. Shine it bright, and heal the world.
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
This, of course, is not easy because as the esteemed Rabbi says, it is “dark.” We can’t see a thing. While we may know that we are to illuminate our world, imagine coming to that realization if you are Joseph in slavery or Joseph in prison. How is this to be done? You have no hope. You will never see your family again. You will never see your home again. You will forever be trapped in a foreign land among strangers. Even if you adapt, seem to fit in, learn to walk among them, you will never truly be one of them. Should you even try?
Make an effort to do the actions you fear to do and by this means lessen those fears. Think of a specific fear that stops you from doing something that would be beneficial for you to do, and take action.
-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Daily Lift #667, Act On Your Fears”
You can cower and hide, imprisoned by your nightmares…or you can rise up from the darkness and live your dreams in the light.
Happy Chanukah and Good Shabbos.