Inner Spark

“All the children of Israel had light in their dwellings.”

– Exodus 10:23, JPS 1917 Tanach

Three days of darkness fell upon Egypt, as the ninth plague was enacted. Yet, there was light in the dwellings of the Children of Israel, who lived apart from the Egyptians in the land of Goshen. This is in accord with the declaration made several times, in regard to the plagues, that the L-RD would differentiate between the Egyptians and Israel. Perhaps, this is the most striking example, whereof somehow B’nei Yisrael had light in Goshen, whereas the rest of Egypt experienced utter darkness for three days. How can this be explained?

The Targum infers that the light served the purpose of enabling the righteous to be occupied with good deeds within their dwellings (Targum Yonatan, Exodus 10:23, sefaria.org). Or HaChayim alludes to the origin of this light as having to do with the righteousness of the Children of Israel. By this allusion, in all likelihood, he was referring to the idea of the pintele yid – the inner spark.

Despite a person’s best efforts, we often fail to even live up to our own standards of righteousness, let alone G-d’s standard; yet, there is flame within that may always call us to return to Him. This is the pintele yid, the inner essence, wherein the flickering flame of divinity, yearns to be kindled by acts of righteousness (mitzvoth).

“For the commandment is a lamp, and the teaching is light.”

– Proverbs 6:23, JPS 1917 Tanach

Sooner the Better

B”H


parashas Va’eira 5781 (Exodus 6:2 – 9:35)


Despite our own impatience, in a world of instant gratification, at times, life may convey in no uncertain terms, that situations may get worse, before they can get better. This appears to be the case for the Children of Israel who had been enslaved for several hundred years in Egypt. When the redeemer appeared, he explained that G-d has visited His people. “When they heard that the L-RD had remembered the children of Israel, and that He had seen their affliction, they bowed their heads and worshipped” (Exodus 4:31, JPS 1917 Tanach). Shortly later, Moses and Aaron appeared before Pharaoh, saying, “Thus saith the L-RD, the G-d of Israel: Let my people go” (Exodus 5:1, JPS). Yet, Pharaoh refused to do so; additionally, he increased the burdens of Israel, so that they would not have time to foment rebellion (Zohar).


The Hebrew officers complained to Pharaoh; then they approached Moses and Aaron. “Ye have made our savour to be abhorred in the eyes of Pharaoh” (Exodus 5:21, JPS). The literalism of the Hebrew language, in this case, implies extreme contempt on the part of Pharaoh for the Children of Israel. Moses was blamed, essentially, for his effort to free the people, as if Pharaoh’s recalcitrance, and subsequent aggression towards the people was his fault, inasmuch that Pharaoh made their plight worse than it had been, before the intervention of Moses. Moreover, Moses in turn complained to G-d, because of his own disillusionment at the setback to gaining freedom for the Children of Israel.


Yet, despite all of this, G-d sent Moses back to Pharaoh, to make the assertion a second time, that if he did not let the people go, there would be certain severe consequences. And, so, the plagues ensued in sequential progression, about one plague a month. Each time Moses specifically told Pharaoh what would occur, if he did not relent of his stance against the people; and, each time the plague brought havoc upon Egypt. One point to make is that these plagues did not effect the Children of Israel.


“And I will set apart in that day the land of Goshen, in which My people dwell, that no swarms of flies shall be there; to the end that thou mayest know that I am the L-RD in the midst of the earth. And I will put a division between My people and thy people” (Exodus 8:18-19, JPS). “All the cattle of Egypt died; but of the cattle of the children of Israel died not one” (Exodus 9:6, JPS). “Only in the land of Goshen, where the children of Israel were, was there no hail” (Exodus 9:26, JPS). How remarkable that a hedge of protection was placed around the Israelites in Goshen. Even today, as the final redemption approaches, refuge may be sought in G-d, as the plagues increase.

Never Forget

parashas Shemot 5781

And G-d heard their groaning, and G-d remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.”

– Exodus 2:24, JPS 1917 Tanach

For four hundred years, the Children of Israel were enslaved in Egypt. Upon crying out to G-d day and night, perhaps, they began to wonder when the Redeemer would arrive. The question may be asked, why did G-d permit so many years to pass, before He finally responded? One answer given is because not until the pleas of the Children of Israel were genuinely heartfelt did He answer them. At that time, finally, “they cried, and their cry ascended to the high heavens of the L-rd” (Targum Jonathan on Genesis 22:4, sefaria.org). Persistence in prayer, to the point of upmost sincerity, was eventually heard. “The L-RD is good unto them that wait for Him, to the soul that seeketh Him” (Lamentations 3:25, JPS 1917 Tanach).


How did the Children of Israel become enslaved? Ironically, when Joseph was governing Egypt, second only to Pharaoh, he instituted a system, whereof all of the land was turned over to Pharaoh. When all the people of Egypt became destitute during the famine, they said to Joseph, “there is nought left in the sight of my lord, but our bodies, and our lands” (Genesis 47:18, JPS). “So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh; for the Egyptians sold every man his field, because the famine was sore upon them; and the land became Pharaoh’s” (Genesis 47:20, JPS). Yet, to what degree this system, wherein the Egyptians became serfs, remained in place over the ensuing years, thus setting the stage for a more fluid transition, when the Children of Israel became enslaved is unclear.


Consider that an entire people, the Children of Israel, a large population of common ethnic origin, could not have been made subject to slavery overnight. Perhaps, their subjugation occurred in a manner akin to the proverbial frog in boiling water. Thus, the temperature of the water is slowly increased, cooking the frog without a reaction from the frog, that would otherwise immediately jump out of the cooking pot, if it had been thrown into boiling water. Although the actuality of the proverb may not be accurate, the saying does serve as a descriptive metaphor. Can this metaphor be applied to the enslavement of the Children of Israel?

If so, perhaps, the narrative could serve as an admonition. In retrospect, a parallel can be drawn to a contenporary historical tragedy. The confinement of the Jewish people, to ghettos and concentration camps in Germany, only occurred after the institution of discriminatory laws, and state sponsored violence against German citizens of Jewish descent. However, the same principle may conveniently play out in other insidious designs, cast upon an unsuspecting people. Today, more than ever, in acknowledgment of the cultural shifts that eventually brought oppressive regimes into power, we should always remember the past, lest history repeats itself.

Forgiveness

B”H

parashas Vayechi 5781

“And as for you, ye meant evil against me; but G-d meant it for good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.”

– Genesis 50:20, JPS 1917 Tanach

Joseph’s perspective, in regard to the events in his life, spanning a period of twenty-two years, was such that he recognized a higher purpose to his suffering: inasmuch that his suffering led to a greater good, for himself, his family, and all of Egypt, as well as the surrounding peoples. Surely, knowing that the challenges that he endured throughout life were part of G-d’s divine plan to provide for the children of Israel, and sustain many peoples, during the seven year famine, compelled him to transcend the causal events that led to this provision.

Therefore, he was in a place of understanding, wherein even the precipitant event, when his brothers cast him into a pit, then sold him as a slave to traders who brought him down to Egypt, could not be viewed through the taint of blame. Nor did he hold his brothers responsible for what ensued, the many further trials that he faced in Egypt, before being placed in charge, second to Pharaoh. Rather, he attributed all, to the hand of G-d, whose design was implemented through a means that only appeared to be human related.

The hindsight gained into the purpose of his undoing, and journey from slave to royalty, permitted him to forgive his brothers, to the extent that no trace of ill will towards them existed in his newfound relationship with them. For, he explained to them, “ye meant evil against me; but G-d meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20, JPS). Therefore, he acquiesced to G-d’s will, without concern for a cause and effect view, that would only render the events of his life as near happenstance, without any greater purpose.

So too, may our lives be viewed, especially with the greater understanding of seeing in retrospect, what may have transpired to bring us to where we are today. No one lives in a vacuum, nor does anyone go unnoticed in regard to G-d’s plan for every individual on the face of the planet. If every star is given a name, denoting its significance, how much moreso is every human being watched over by G-d? By placing our faith in Him, we may be lifted up above the negativity, that could otherwise be amplified by our lower selves.

Often, we may not acknowledge that our suffering may be hinged upon an unknown plan from Above; this type of reasoning usually escapes us, because our perspective is limited. Yet, to at least acknowledge the possibility of a higher plan, could permit us to better endure the suffering for the sake of His intent to bring about something of benefit sometime and somewhere down the road from now.

 “There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life.”

– Victor Frankl

Joseph’s Revelation

B”H

parashas Vayigash 5781

“Ani Yoseph (I am Joseph).” – Genesis 45:3

Joseph had devised a test of his brother’s loyalty towards their brother Benjamin, who was Joseph’s full brother; their mother was Rachel, Jacob’s first love. He created circumstances whereof he was able to take Benjamin as a servant, because of his alleged guiltiness in the incident of the goblet. Judah steps up to the plate, so to speak, to defend Benjamin, offering to take his place as a servant to Joseph. When Joseph sees the sincere offer on the part of Judah, the very one who had sold Joseph into slavery, Joseph now realizes that indeed their is a change in character demonstrated by Judah’s noble offer. This was all he needed to know, for the culmination of his plan, in order to uncover the intentions of the brothers, to determine if they had regretted their prior transgressions against him.

The climax of the narrative, pertaining to Joseph and his brothers in Egypt, occurs immediately following Judah’s respectful plea to Joseph, who stands as an Egyptian prince before him. Now, as recorded in the narrative, “Joseph not could refrain himself before all those who stood by him” (Genesis 45:1). He caused all of his Egyptian courtiers to leave his presence, so that he could reveal his true identity to his brothers in private. At first his brothers stood in front of the Egyptian prince in disbelief. Could this really be Joseph? Twenty two years had passed since the brothers conspired against him, and sold him as slave to a caravan of traders passing by Shechem on their way to Egypt. Yet, he spoke in Hebrew, and beckoned them to draw closer to him: “And he said, I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold into Egypt” (Genesis 45:4).

He explains to them that what occurred so many years ago was for a higher purpose: “And G-d sent me before you to give you a remnant on earth, and to save you alive for a great deliverance. So now it was not you that sent me hither, but G-d” (Genesis 45:7-8, JPS). According to the Chafetz Chayim, all of the events that transpired over that duration of time, were brought clearly into perspective when Joseph revealed himself to his brothers. Additionally, he explains that in the (near) future, when H’Shem reveals Himself through His presence in Jerusalem, everything that has happened in history will become clear. Perhaps, this holds true for the events in our individual lives, so that while the duration of our journey on earth may sometimes appear similar to a view of the back of a tapestry, with all of the tangled threads, and loose ends, throughout the cloth, the woven pattern on the other side will finally be revealed in all of its beauty and splendour.

Guilty Conscience

B”H

parashas Mikeitz 5781

“And Joseph knew his brethren, but they knew him not.”

– Genesis 42:8, JPS 1917 Tanach

About twenty years after Joseph was rejected by his brothers, thrown into a pit, and sold as a slave to a caravan that passed by Dothan, Joseph ascended to second in charge of Egypt, next to Pharaoh, who placed his entire kingdom at his disposal. Joseph preserved grain during the seven years of plenty that were prophesied in Pharaoh’s dreams. Then, he began to carefully distribute food, at the beginning of the seven years of famine. Jacob’s family needed provisions, for like everyone else on the known earth, they were affected by the famine. So, Jacob sent ten of his sons to Egypt to purchase food, excluding the youngest, Benjamin, “Lest peradventure harm befall him” (Genesis 42:4, JPS).

When the brothers arrived in Egypt, Joseph was in charge of selling grain to all the peoples who looked to Egypt for food. “And Joseph’s brethren came, and bowed down to him with their faces to the earth” (Genesis 42:6, JPS). Thus the dream he had as a youth was only partially fulfilled, so far; yet, in the dream all of his brothers bowed down to him. Although the brothers did not recognize Joseph, he recognized them. They saw an Egyptian prince standing in front of them; Joseph saw his long lost brothers. Yet, he spoke to them harshly, insinuating that they were spies. They said that they were part of a family with twelve sons, “and, behold, the youngest is this day with our father, and one is not” (Genesis 42:13, JPS). So, Joseph declared that if they brought the youngest down to Egypt, that would prove that they were not spies. He put them all in prison for three days; then, he kept Simeon in prison as a surety for their return.

The brothers response to this turn of events was such that they realised that the guilt they incurred because of their prior treatment of Joseph twenty years ago was being requited by a divine judgment against themselves. “And they said one to another: ‘We are verily guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear; therefore is this distress come upon us'” (Genesis 42:21, JPS). This is a classic example of “the sins of the heels,” overtaking the transgressor, in the day of retribution. According to the Zohar, the sins that people neglect to acknowledge, will accrue over time, until some evil overtakes the person. The brothers carried a guilty conscience all of those years; yet, not until the tides were turned did they begin to openly admit this to themselves.

We would be wise to learn from this example. The Zohar explains that subconsciously the sins that go disregarded by a person, i.e., sins that are not repented of, remain buried in the self, eliciting an unexplained fear. According to the Zohar, the source of the fear is the prescient sense of judgment that exists, unrealized, below the surface of consciousness. Perhaps, this is the underlying cause for so many people turning away from reflection upon oneself. Instead, we distract ourselves with endless preoccupations, trying to avoid the inevitable.

Heirloom

parashas Vayeishev 5781

(Genesis 37:1 – 40:23)

“And he made him a coat of many colors.”

– Genesis 37:3, JPS 1917 Tanach

The favored son received “a coat of many colors,” that served as a designation that some of the responsibilities of the first born would be placed upon Joseph. Because Reuben had lost the rights of the firstborn, due to an earlier indiscretion, Jacob chose Joseph, who showed both spiritual qualities and intellectual capacities that deemed him fit for that role (Zohar). Yet, his brothers were jealous of this status conferred upon him. When Joseph dreamed a dream, wherein he and his brothers were binding sheaves in a field, and their sheaves bowed down to his sheave that was standing upright, they asked, “Shalt thou indeed reign over us?” (Genesis 37:7-8, JPS). And, he dreamed a second dream, wherein “the sun and the moon and eleven stars bowed down to” him (Genesis 37:9, JPS). This implied that not only his brethren, rather, also his parents would bow down to him. “And his brethren envied him; but his father kept the saying in mind” (Genesis 37:11, JPS 1917 Tanach).

These dreams originated from a divine source; yet, his brothers may have felt that Joseph’s imagination, and ego generated the literal content of the dreams. The latent content, i.e., the meaning of his dreams was clear to them. Inasmuch that his father, Jacob “kept the saying in mind,” this may indicate his recognition that the dreams would one day be fulfilled. For Jacob himself knew very well the power of dreams. Apparently, the spiritual qualities that connected him intimately to G-d, were now manifest in his son, Joseph. Perhaps, this was even a sign that Jacob had made the right decision in choosing Joseph to take on the responsibilities of the first born. Hence, he sent Joseph to check up on his brothers, who were tending sheep in Shechem. “Go now, see whether it is well with thy brethren, and well with the flock; and bring me back word” (Genesis 37:14, JPS).

Thus begins Joseph to set out on a journey that will soon include a major detour, bringing him down to Egypt. For when his brothers saw him, they proclaimed, “behold, this dreamer.” “And it came to pass, when Joseph was come unto his brethren, that they stripped Joseph of his coat, the coat of many colours that was on him; and they took him, and cast him into the pit” (Genesis 37:23-24, JPS). Joseph was sold to traders that were passing by on the main thoroughfare; he was taken to Egypt, where he was sold as a slave.”His feet they hurt with 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 105:18-19, JPS).

“It is good that a man should quietly wait for the salvation of the L-RD.”

– Lamentations 3:26, JPS 1917 Tanach

Existential Encounter

parashas Vayishlach 5781

“And Jacob was left alone.”

– Genesis 32:25, JPS 1917 Tanach

Jacob, who had recently acquired a family, as well as a secure livelihood, after twenty years of working for his Uncle Laban, was finally returning home. Yet, he would have to face the consequences of unfinished business with his brother Esau, who may have still been harboring a grudge against him after all of the years. More significantly, Jacob will find that he first needs to face himself, in acknowledgment of his own character. Was he the deceiver, who reappropriated the blessing of the first born that should have gone to his brother Esau? Or was he the right man to have obtained the blessing, because he truly represented the values that were destined to be passed on to his descendants?

If the blessing had gone to Esau, then the Abrahamic legacy may have been squandered, made less substantial by a lack of spiritual vision on the part of the recipient. For, Esau was primarily focused on Olam HaZeh (This World), where instant gratification, hedonism, and the base desires of the animal soul (nefesh habehamit) prevail over the godly soul (nefesh ha’elokit), unless reined in under the guiding principles of higher values, such as those found in the lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs, as well as those inculcated by the commandments, and all throughout kitvei kodesh (holy scripture).

Although Jacob upheld those higher values, he had to know within himself, whether or not he was truly worthy of having received the blessing. His deference towards Esau exemplifies a change in his character. Jacob sent generous gifts ahead of him, in order to appease the anger of Esau; later, he will bow seven times as he approaches Esau. Yet, before that meeting, he was left alone at night with himself, his conscience, and the prospect of losing everything he had obtained in life the next day. One can only imagine what thoughts were occupying his mind at this pivotal moment in his life; for, the burdens of his past must have weighed heavily upon him.

The Torah records that “there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day” (Genesis 32:35, JPS). This man was really an angel, sent to detain Jacob until the morning, when he would have to face Esau; as the Rashbam explains, Jacob had considered fleeing, to avoid the confrontation with Esau. Yet, during the wrestling match that ensued, Jacob prevailed, thus showing that he indeed realized his weight in gold, not the gold found in the earth, rather the gold of spiritual value, in the eyes of G-d. As confirmation of his integrity, the angel informed him, that he would no longer be called Jacob (heel, deceit); he was given the name, Israel (uprightness, integrity).

the Ascent of Prayer

B”H

parashas Vayeitzei 5781

“And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of G-d ascending and descending on it.”

– Genesis 28:12, JPS 1917 Tanach

After the debacle of Esau’s temper, became known, Jacob was sent away to find a wife in Haran, amongst his own kindred. Essentially, he left in flight from the simmering wrath of his brother, Esau, who was furious about not receiving the blessing of the firstborn. Jacob sets out penniless, travelling by foot to the land of his mother’s brother, Laban. Along the way, he grows weary towards evening; so, he rests at a certain place, where he places stones around his head, before going to sleep. There, he dreams of a ladder between heaven and earth; there are angels ascending and descending upon the ladder.

We would expect that the angels would first descend from heaven, then ascend back to heaven. However, the wording is specific, the angels were “ascending and descending.” One explanation given is that the angels are angelic messengers of prayers. The angels are even likened to the actual prayers, ascending to Heaven as requests to G-d; then, descending as specific replies to those requests. It is as if the angels are standing by on earth, ready to take our prayers to Heaven; at some point later, they are answered in one form or another. Perhaps, not many of us stop to ponder how our prayers reach G-d anyway; so, this could be as viable an explanation as any other. Elsewhere it is written that our prayers obtain wings like angels, enabling them to ascend on high to G-d.

The place that Jacob dreamt about the ladder, connecting heaven and earth is described by him, when he awakes, as “none other than the house of G-d, and this is the gate of heaven” (Genesis 28:17, JPS). It is feasible, to think of a unique place upon the earth, whereof there is a direct connection to G-d, a sort of umbilical cord between heaven and earth. The place where Jacob dreamt his dream is thought to be Mount Moriah, where eventually, much later in time, G-d’s House was indeed built, initially by King Solomon. Although, since Beis-El is ten miles north of Jerusalem, where Mount Moriah was located, the connection between Beis-El and Mount Moriah may be more symbolic.

Regardless, the “Temple Mount,” where the “House of G-d stood,” is currently in the midst of Jerusalem. For the Jewish people, this is the holiest place on earth. Although access to the Western Wall, part of the complete wall that surrounded the entire location where the Temple once stood, is limited because of restrictions put in place during the pandemic, people from around the world would usually flock here to pray. This does not imply that G-d is unable to hear our prayers, wherever we live upon the face of the earth. Even though, according to tradition, He sits on His Throne in Seventh Heaven, He is still able to hear our whispered prayers, even the prayers in the silence of our hearts.

Human Nature

“And the children struggled within her.”

– Genesis 25:22, JPS 1917 Tanach

“And the boys grew; and Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents.”

– Genesis 25:27, JPS 1917 Tanach

Jacob received his name, from the root word eikev meaning “heel,” because when born he was grasping onto Esau’s heel. “Jacob’s holding on to the heel of Esau may symbolize that values which Esau would stamp his foot on would be the very ones Jacob would cherish” (Akeidat Yitzchak). The comment points toward the differences that appeared in the personalities of Jacob and Esau as they grew up. Esau was an ambitious hunter who spent all of his time in the field, while Jacob is described as an ish tam (wholesome man), who quietly devoted himself to raising sheep, and reflecting upon the nature of G-d.

The two were somewhat diamatrically opposed to each other. Thus their relationship can be seen as representative of the two opposing spirits of man: the yetzer tov (good inclination), and the yetzer hara (evil inclination). These two inclinations battle against each other within the soul of every human being. Yet, not everyone may be aware of the prolific conflict that occurs, especially if leeway is constantly being given to the less moral impulses of one’s character. Only when opposing baser instincts, does an individual begin to feel the tension between doing what is right, or giving in to inferior behaviors.

Yet, to consistently take the path of least resistance, permitting inertia to influence the soul to the point of sluggishness, and simply “going with the flow,” without considering where the course of one’s path will lead, is to remain subject to what is otherwise referred to as “the animal soul,” the part of ourselves that favors our natural inclinations. Rather, true “spirituality,” in accord with the quest for perfection, and the human endeavor to excel, must be focused on uplifting our souls, above the realm of commonality with animals. We breathe, eat, and sleep; yet, our purpose of existence goes beyond the mundane; true happiness can only be derived from pursuing a “higher goal” in our lives.

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