This week's parsha
Unless otherwise noted, "This week's Parsha" comprises articles taken from contributors to the Chabad.org website. We show the original author's name here, so that proper attribution is given. For the sake of brevity, footnotes cited in the original author's writings are omitted from this website. If you need to see the citations, please refer to the original articles on the Chabad.org website.
Home to Our Fathers
Q: Who was the straightest man in the Bible?
A: Joseph, he was a ruler in Pharaoh's court.
Corny joke, but the question it leads to is valid though.
Joseph was a high achiever if there ever was one. By dint of hard work, intelligence, good judgment and a liberal dose of Divine assistance, he had scaled the heights of human ambition. Master of all he surveyed, personally responsible for the lives and sustenance of all his subjects, and one of the three richest men in recorded history.
And he achieved this despite maintaining his life-long straightness, honesty and trustworthiness.
So tell me something: why, in their deathbed conversation, was Joseph's word alone not good enough for his dying father Jacob?
"And let me lie with my fathers, and carry me away from Egypt and bury me in their burying-place."
And [Joseph] said, " I will do as you say"
And [Jacob] said, "Swear it to me"
An oath is the highest degree of commitment known to man. The act of swearing in G‑d's name; attesting something to be true with your immortal soul at stake if you are lying, is as perilous an endeavour as any demanded. There are many stories of innocent people preferring to pay huge sums rather than take an oath to clear their name. In traditional Jewish courts, cases were decided by requiring the accused or litigants to take a vow. It was assumed that no one, no matter how dubious a character, would debase G‑d's name by lying under oath.
And when one swears to carry out a task, one isn’t just committing to a "Rabbi, I'll try" sort of thing. Rather, this is a self-binding pledge to achieve the promised outcome and never deviate till done.
Jacob's remains could not stay in Egypt. His soul-root was so much higher than the filth and immorality that Egypt represents that, before dying, he felt the need to guarantee his immediate ascent to Israel, even to the point of requiring an oath of fidelity from Joseph to fulfil this last will and testament.
In life, we must always remember that "this ain’t the goal," no matter how comfortable an existence we may find ourselves living. Creature comforts, spiritual delights, nothing we have on this world compares to the bliss awaiting us in the Messianic era. Never be satisfied; never settle for "remaining in Egypt."
For two thousand years, through good times and bad, we held firm to the belief in the "speedy arrival of Moshiach, and even though he may tarry, I await his coming". Swear to yourself, with an unbreakable oath, "I will not relax until we achieve the true purpose of creation, until we get to 'go home to our fathers.'"
The Estate of Goshen
The final two portions of the book of Genesis leave us with mixed feelings.
On the one hand, Jacob was finally at peace; his family was reunited and his son Joseph was the leader of Egypt, the world’s superpower. For the first time in decades Jacob was living in tranquility. Joseph granted Jacob and his family Egypt’s best real estate, the region of Goshen, where they lived a worry-free, peaceful, existence.
On the other hand, it was a sad story. There was a dark cloud hanging over their tranquil life in the land of Goshen. The children of Israel were heading toward a period of terrible slavery.
The Torah, with a carefully selected Hebrew word, alludes to the complex reality of life in the Goshen region of Egypt.
The final verse in this week's Torah portion describes the Jewish people thriving:
And Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt in the land of Goshen, and they acquired property in it, and they were prolific and multiplied greatly.
The Hebrew word for “acquired property” is “Va’ye’ah’chazu”, which is from the word ”Achuzah” which is commonly translated as estate. In our story the word is telling us that the Israelites acquired an estate in the land of Goshen. The word “Achuzah”, however, has another meaning as well. It is from the root word “Achaz” which means to grasp. “Achuzah”, can also mean that the land grasped the Israelites. That in some way they were trapped by the land.
The word “Va’ye’ah’chazu”, then, has different and opposing meanings. It can mean “acquiring an estate”, which is a symbol of freedom, or it can mean being “grasped” by the land, which implies being trapped and enslaved.
The two meanings of the word “Achuzah” - “estate” and “grasped” - teach us an eternal message. It is a lesson about what our attitude toward Egypt should be, and what our general attitude toward the world we live in should be.
When our soul descends into this world, it enters a foreign land. When we are exiled from Israel, we are in foreign territory. The purpose of the journey to this foreign territory is to “acquire an estate”. It is to find and to elevate the sparks of holiness which are in every material object and in every corner of the planet. We elevate the sparks by using physical objects for a meaningful purpose, thus infusing the world with holiness.
Wherever we find ourselves in the journey of life we are charged with transforming that place into an estate for holiness, an oasis of spirituality. G‑d sends each of us to “exile” with a mission to find and elevate the thirsting sparks.
And yet, there is a danger in the journey. The danger is that instead of elevating the material, we are grasped by it. That instead of our possessions serving us, we serve our possessions. That instead of enjoying our estate, we are trapped by it.
The essence of exile, then, is “Achuzah”, grasped and trapped by the land.
Yet “Achuzah”, as in estate, also captures the essence of redemption and freedom.
We are all in the metaphorical land of Goshen. We may feel that we are enslaved by the lure of the material, that we are trapped by its grip. Yet, the Torah reminds us that we have the power to free ourselves from its gravitational pull. That the physicality which held us down yesterday can be redeemed and become the building blocks of a spiritual edifice, of an estate of holiness.
I was speaking to a friend whose child had been sick with a life-threatening illness. I asked her about her faith. Did she have questions? Was she angry at G‑d?
She told me that as she was going through her ordeal, she didn’t have time to think. She was too busy fighting for her child’s life, getting treatment, consulting doctors and making medical arrangements. But she distinctly remembers feeling overcome with emotion. Her pain was so acute that she felt as if she was punched in the stomach, doubled over. In those moments -- and there were many -- it was almost humanly impossible for her to continue. “But it wasn’t me,” she said. “I was only able to function because G‑d was holding me upright, moving one foot in front of the other to do whatever was necessary.”