Tradition in transition
They say adapt or die. But must we jettison the old to embrace the new? Is the choice limited to modern or antiquated, or can one be a contemporary traditionalist?
At the beginning of this week’s parshah, we read that Moses was occupied with a special mission as the Jews were leaving Egypt. Moses took the bones of Joseph with him. Long before the great exodus, Joseph had made the Children of Israel swear that they would take him along when they eventually left Egypt. As viceroy of Egypt, Joseph couldn’t hope to be buried in Israel when he died as his father, Jacob, was. The Egyptians would never tolerate their political leader being buried in a foreign land. But he did have his brethren make a solemn undertaking that when the time came and the Israelites departed, they would take his remains along with them.
Now, Joseph wasn’t the only one to be re-interred in the holy land. His brothers, too, were accorded the same honour and last respects. Yet, it’s only Joseph whom the Torah finds it necessary to mention explicitly. Why?
The answer is that Joseph was unique. While his brothers were simple shepherds tending to their flocks, Joseph was running the superpower of the world. To be a practicing Jew while blissfully strolling through the meadows isn’t that complicated. But to serve as the most high-profile statesman in the land and remain faithful to one’s traditions – this is inspirational!
Thrust as he was from the simple life of a young shepherd boy into the hub of the nation’s capital to juggle the roles of viceroy and Jew, Joseph represented tradition amidst transition. It was possible, he taught the world, to be a contemporary traditionalist. One could successfully straddle both worlds.
Now that they were about to leave Egypt, the Jews were facing a new world order. Gone were slavery and oppression and in their place came freedom and liberty. During this time of transition, only Joseph could be their role model. He alone could show them the way forward into the new frontier.
Ever since leaving Egypt, we’ve been wandering Jews. And every move has come with its own challenges. Whether from Poland to America or Lithuania to South Africa, every transition brought culture shocks to our spiritual psyche. How do you make a living and still keep the Shabbos you kept in the shtetl when the factory boss says, “Cohen, if you don’t come in on Saturday, don’t come in on Monday either!” It was a test of faith that wasn’t easy. Many succumbed. But many others stood fast and survived, even flourished. It was the test of transition – and those who modelled themselves on Joseph were able to make the transition while remaining committed to tradition.
Democracy and a human-rights culture have made that part of Jewish life somewhat easier for us, but challenges still abound. May we continue to learn from Joseph.
Bribery makes you blind
Living in South Africa, we see how bribery and corruption result in the decay of our social institutions and unless checked, can lead to the breakdown of society. The Torah teaches that bribery could also undermine the moral fibre of our personal lives.
This week, we read Parshas Mishpatim. The verse (Shmos 23:8) says, “You shall not accept a bribe for the bribe will blind those who see and corrupt the words of the righteous.” We assume this doesn’t apply to us because most of us aren’t judges in courts hearing disputes between litigants.
The commentators explain that this isn’t correct. As individuals, we make judgement calls many times each day. In making those decisions, we constantly need to be on guard to not take bribes.
The Torah is teaching us that any time there’s personal gain involved, be it physical pleasure, money, honour, or convenience, we are already “on the take” and our judgement is compromised.
In his sefer Emunah V’Bitachon, the Chazon Ish writes, “Personal involvement is something that affects great and small people alike. This is nothing to be ashamed about and it doesn’t call into question the person’s piety. This is engraved into human nature”.
The purpose of life was told to the Jewish people by G-d at Mount Sinai. Our souls were sent down to this world into our bodies for us to develop and grow spiritually. The mitzvos are the framework for this inner work. Our objective is to rise above our lower selves, beyond the urges of our physical existence. To live a life fulfilling the will of our creator rather than being fixated on our appetite for power and pleasure. This can be achieved only by rising above our own personal agenda.
How do we live in a truthful way, overcoming our natural bias towards lowly personal interests? Rabbi Frand advises following the teaching in Pirkei Avos (Avos 1:6): “Make yourself a rav, and acquire for yourself a friend.” We all delude ourselves saying, “I’m able to raise myself above my personal interests and come to a balanced and proper decision.” This is very difficult to do without the input and advice of a non-compromised third party. Fortunate is the person whose spouse is that friend and objective advisor. We would all be wise to follow this advice in our wonderful journey through life.
Two sides to the Ten Commandments
This week we read the portion of Yisro, which contains one the most famous passages of the Torah – the Ten Commandments. We read of the build-up, the aftershock, and the actual giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.
Of the Ten Commandments, the first two were spoken by G-d and the other eight by Moses. In the Book of Psalms, King David refers to this, and says, “one did G-d speak, two were heard”. The Talmud explains this to mean that G-d spoke the first two commandments simultaneously, but as this was incomprehensible to us, He repeated them as two separate commandments. As the creator of man, G-d was well aware of human constraints, so why did He speak both commandments at once if He knew He would have to repeat them?
The Torah comprises a total of 613 commandments broken down into two categories. There are 248 positive commandments that we must act upon such as putting on tefillin, family purity, and making kiddush on Shabbat. The other 365 are “negative” commandments that inform us what we must refrain from, such as prohibited actions on Shabbat and non-kosher food. This division is echoed in the first two Ten Commandments. The first commandment is positive – we must express our belief in one G-d – and the second is negative – we must refrain from worshipping other gods.
Fulfilling the different mitzvot also has different effects. A positive commandment draws down positive energy into this world, making the world a better place to live in with blessings and spiritual light. The reward for negative mitzvot is the removal of negativity – reducing evil in the world and removing sickness, suffering, war, and spiritual darkness.
When G-d spoke the first two commandments at the same time, then repeated them separately, He was teaching us that although the commandments seem to differ in their form and effect, they are essentially one and the same – to make the world a better place. Whatever situation we find ourselves in, positive or negative, G-d is teaching us that there’s a way to bring blessing and goodness into the world.
The key to unlocking blessings
What’s the key to the blessings we need from Hashem? One such approach is hinted at in the opening words of this week’s portion, “Vayigash eilav Yehudah”, “and Yehudah approach him” or more accurately, “And approached him Yehudah”.
Contained in these three words are a hidden message. The verse merely says “him” (without specifying a name) and consequently, we can see a deeper hint here. “Him” can allude to the true Him – Hashem. So the verse reads, “And approached Him [Hashem] Yehudah.” What does Yehudah mean? The name comes from the root word “Hoda’ah” (gratitude).
Thus, we uncover a secret in this verse: how do we approach Hashem to bring down the blessings we need? “Approached Him [Hashem] with gratitude [yehudah-hoda’ah].”
We often focus on what we lack, and appeal to Hashem from that consciousness to fulfil our needs. Yes, we must ask for our needs to be fulfilled by Hashem, but what’s the posture or position most effective in approaching Hashem? This verse alludes to approaching through gratitude. By acknowledging and appreciating the many things we are blessed with, we create a channel for even more blessings.
Rabbi Moshe Schnerb recently told a story on ChaiFM that illustrates this. A family of many children had successfully been able to find marriage partners for all their children yet for some reason, was unsuccessful with one daughter in spite of the fact that she was full of chein (grace) and beauty and was certainly eligible. In spite of many attempts, there was no success. Repeated disappointment and heartache caused concern and frustration. The parents davened and prayed, asking Hashem “Why, why” she wasn’t finding her bashert (soulmate). Their mood was bleak.
Soon afterwards, the girl met another candidate, everything seemed to be going well, and the good news was expected. At the 11th hour, however, the matchmaker called the parents with a heavy heart saying that the potential chosson (groom) had decided to turn the marriage down. The girl and her parents were devastated.
The father turned to his wife and said, “We must be doing something wrong. Look at us, so blessed with children all happily settled with families and health yet all we are focusing on is what we don’t have – our daughter’s success in finding her match! From now on, we approach it differently – with gratitude. We thank Hashem for all we have been blessed with. That’s our stance!”
Rabbi Schnerb continued that within an hour, the phone rang and the matchmaker said in excitement and disbelief, “I have no idea what happened, but the family called me back to stress that they definitely wanted to pursue the arrangement and didn’t want to lose this special girl.”
The change in focus to gratitude opened the gates of heaven, and the brocha flowed.
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