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.
The Warming of Egypt
“G‑d wants the heart” -- Talmud, Sanhedrin 106b.
Three hundred years ago, the Baal Shem Tov used this Talmudic adage to trigger a revolutionary shift in the Jewish psyche. Although you may dedicate your skilled hands, and even your intellectual prowess, don’t neglect to give G‑d a piece of your heart.
When the Baal Shem Tov entered the scene in the early 18th century, much of European Jewry suffered from what we would today call post-traumatic stress. Centuries of persecution and violent anti-Semitism had climaxed in the Chmielnitzki massacres of 1648–9, which wiped out an estimated six hundred thousand Jews and left the Jewish social and economic infrastructure in shambles. Any remaining illusion of stability had been shattered as they watched the Cossacks rampage freely while their neighbors turned a blind eye.
Are You Inside Your Name?
"Margaret" is a name. "Dad," "Doctor," and "Your Highness" are also names. So is "Next on line!" or "You-in-the-red-tie- second-seat-in-the-third-row." Your social security number is a name of sorts, as is your shoe size or the make and model of your car. As you pass through life, you get tagged with all sorts of appellations -- handles on your identity for others to grab hold of and pull on.
Where are you in all this? There are many, many other Margarets in the world, of course, as there are countless Dads or Doctors. "Your Highness" sort of narrows the field, but there are still one or two of those left. You may be the only guy wearing a red tie in seat 3B, but does that mean that if you'd have put on the yellow tie this morning you wouldn't be you?
This week's Parshah describes the first galut (exile) of the Jewish people. We read how after Joseph's death, the Egyptians oppressed and enslaved the Children of Israel for many years, until G‑d sent Moses to redeem them.
The name of this Parshah is Shemot, which means "Names." Torah readings always take their title from the reading's opening lines, and this week's reading begins, "And these are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt..." Yet the Chassidic masters insist that the name of a Parshah also explains its message and inner content. What is connection the between the title Names and the story that Names tells?
What is Galut? When is a person in "exile"? A person taking a luxury cruise around the world doesn't feel like an exile. In contrast, a person can be living in a place for twenty generations and still feel intimidated by his or her surroundings.
Galut can be living in a foreign land where you don't understand the language and are baffled by the local customs. Galut can be being shackled to a dead-end job, or enslaved by a mortgage and medical bills. Any time you feel trapped within an environment or circumstance that is hostile, intimidating or limiting, you are in Galut.
How do you get out of Galut?
Galut, by definition, means that you have no control over the circumstances in which you find yourself. But you do control which "you" gets put inside those circumstances. There is the external "you" -- the you that's saddled with and dependent upon the countless burdens, great and small, of a life lived in the shadow of the mundane. Then there's the inner "you" -- the spiritual self that is utterly self-contained, complete in its self-knowledge and its bond with its Creator.
Which self do you invest in the circumstances of your life? Do you allow others' expectations of you to dictate your innermost yearnings and aspirations? Do you allow the circumstances of your life to dictate your self-perception and your internal priorities? Or do you insist that only your "name" -- only the external self on which the outside world has fastened its hold -- be incarcerated in Galut, but not your pristine self, not the self that neither requires nor lends itself to naming, for this the self that you and your Creator know from the inside and not via any external handle?
And these are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt. Only their names came into Egypt -- not their quintessential self. And because their deepest self never entered Galut, they were able to ultimately overpower it and defeat it.
What Makes a Leader?
"What makes a good leader?" I typed into Google. Within 0.15 seconds, I had 57,500,000 results. Apparently I'm not the only one with that question.
Is it character or personality that produces better results? Is it vision, charisma, charm, or great oratory skills? These are but a few of the necessary components according to my on-line search.
We'd all like to be more effective in our respective leadership functions: be it in the workplace, at home, or community life. What does the Torah say about this question? How does G‑d in His infinite wisdom define the role of a leader?
Passed Over for the Crown
Before his passing, Jacob saw fit to bless his children and impart to them his last will and testament. They each merited a private audience, in which he spoke to them candidly; his blessing interspersed with rebuke, when necessary.
It was in Jacob's meeting with Reuben that he notified him about the unfortunate losses he had incurred due to his indiscretion with regards to "his father's bed":
Jacob's bed had been regularly situated in Rachel's tent, which he considered his primary residence. When Rachel died, Jacob moved his bed into the tent of Bilhah, Rachel's handmaiden. Reuben perceived this as a slight to his mother Leah. "If my mother's sister was a rival of my mother," he argued, "should my mother's sister's handmaiden also be a rival of my mother?!" So he unilaterally went and moved his father's bed into his mother's tent.
As the firstborn, Reuben had a formidable birthright. His descendents were destined to be the royalty of Israel. But alas, because of his shortcoming, that right was taken from him and the kingship of Israel was transferred to Judah.
But why Judah?
Courage and Nobility!
Our sages explain that Judah earned the kingship because of the great courage and restraint he exercised both in regards to Joseph and Tamar. In that merit, the Israelite kings -- the future Davidic dynasty -- would emerge from his bloodline alone.
After the brothers had thrown Joseph into the pit, leaving him to languish until his death, Judah turned to his brothers and suggested: "What gain will there be if we kill our brother? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites..." The brothers heeded his advice, and thereby Joseph's life was saved.
Later, when his former daughter-in-law Tamar was being led to execution because of her alleged promiscuity, Judah had the humility to admit that it was in fact he who fathered the children that Tamar was carrying -- thus saving her life as well.
Courage and Nobility?!
Based on a careful reading of the narratives, however, it seems ironic that the leadership was transferred from Reuben to Judah.
"Joseph went after his brothers and found them at Dothan. They saw him from afar; and when he had not yet approached them, they conspired to kill him… Reuben heard, and he rescued him from their hand; he said, 'We will not strike him mortally!' And Reuben said to them, 'Do not shed blood! Throw him into this pit in the wilderness, but send no hand against him'..."
Reuben, it turns out, was at least as heroic as Judah. He undoubtedly saved Joseph's life when he convinced the brothers not to kill him.
Furthermore, when we read a little further in the text it seems that Reuben's efforts were even more heroic than those of Judah!
"...in order to rescue him from their hand, to return him to his father."
In a somewhat rare display of biblical narrative, G‑d Himself bore witness that Reuben's intention, when advising his brothers to cast Joseph into the pit, was only to rescue Joseph. He planned on returning later on in order to bring him up from the pit and return him to their father Jacob.
And return later he indeed did. And when he found that Joseph was no longer in the pit -- for he had been sold to the Ishmaelites as per Judah's suggestion -- he rent his garments and mournfully exclaimed, "The boy is gone! What will I do now?!"
Now contrast that with Judah who callously said, "Come, let's sell him to the Ishmaelites!"
Reuben had planned on rescuing Joseph completely, to return him to their father, while Judah suggested that instead of killing the boy they should sell him as a slave!
Yes, it's true that both Reuben and Judah saved Joseph from death; but the end results they had in mind could not have been more different.
Can we honestly compare Judah's efforts to Reuben's?
One more point:
While Reuben was driven by his desire to bring his brother home, Judah said to his brothers, "What gain will there be if we kill our brother? Come, let us sell him."
When Judah "saved" Joseph he was motivated by financial benefits! Apparently, if Joseph would simply be allowed to die a slow death in the pit, that wouldn't bring them any "gain"!
The creative bible reader might suggest a different reasoning behind Jacob's choice of Judah over Reuben. A true sign of a leader, Jacob felt, is humility, not courage. A leader is not one who can conquer others but one who can conquer himself. "Who is mighty?" ask our Sages. "One who masters his inclination."
In the words of Rashi, "Lucky is the generation whose leader is humble enough to bring a sin offering for a mistake he has made."
Perhaps Jacob felt that Judah excelled in this area. One can only imagine the public shame and even ridicule Judah was subjected to upon confessing that the woman he had sentenced to death was in fact impregnated by none other than himself! And yet, humiliation notwithstanding, he admitted his guilt.
However, this solution also leaves much to be desired. For in regards to humility, too, Reuben exceeded Judah.
Reuben also confessed and repented for his shortcoming. Yet, unlike Judah who was motivated (at least partially) based on the knowledge that innocent people would die if he did not, Reuben was motivated to confess and repent simply because he realized that he had erred.
Furthermore, it must've taken incredible humility for Reuben to confess, because he hadn't "sinned" to pursue his own interests, but to safeguard his mother's honor. Nevertheless, notwithstanding the excuses he could have made for himself, repent he did.
And while we don't find any indication in the narrative that Judah's confession and repentance lasted more than the few moments it took to make his dramatic announcement, Reuben continued to repent for more than nine years! Apparently he took his shortcomings very much to heart and constantly strove to better himself -- true signs of a humble man.
So what was Jacob thinking when he transferred the monarchy to Judah?
The Problem Solver
After outlining to Pharaoh the national disaster about to hit Egypt, Joseph offered unsolicited advice: "Gather all the food of the approaching good years; amass grain… and safeguard it. The food will be a reserve… And Pharaoh said to his servants, 'Could we find like this a man…?'"
One simple question: Was there something so brilliant in Joseph's idea? Ask any small child what to do in the event that you have lots of food now but you'll have nothing later on, and he'll reiterate Joseph's words: "Save some of what you have now for later."
Does that make the child fit to rule the world?
But Pharaoh was indeed very wise. He recognized Joseph as a leader because he focused not only on the problems, but on how to fix them. He saw things through a different lens; his were practical glasses and he knew how to achieve results.
Upon identifying the impending catastrophe, Joseph didn't sigh or wring his hands; in the very same sentence, he immediately spoke of action.
Many people see problems but few know how to solve them. Rare are the people with vision. Even rarer are those who can translate vision into practice. Joseph was one such man and Pharaoh was wise enough to recognize that.
The uniqueness of a leader is his ability to implement. His character, motives, and ideas are of less importance. If one cannot produce results they are not fit to lead. He can advise but cannot rule.
Using this paradigm, we can fully appreciate Jacob's choice of Judah to assume the royal mantle.
Reuben might have surpassed Judah in character -- purity of motives, sensitivity, piety and humility -- but when considering the quality that makes one fit to lead, namely the ability to produce results, Judah exceeded Reuben.
"Reuben returned to the pit -- and behold! -- Joseph was not in the pit!"
Apparently, Reuben wasn't present when Joseph was sold.
Although very well-intentioned in his desire to save Joseph, at crunch time -- when the time had come to act -- Reuben was nowhere to be found.
Moreover, Reuben's efforts, while saving Joseph from one form of certain death at the hands of his brothers, only served to facilitate a different meeting with death at the hands of the poisonous snakes and scorpions that swarmed in the pit!
Contrast that with Judah, who may have assisted in Joseph's sale, but in doing so actually saved Joseph's life.
Judah's ability to produce results was also expressed in his rescue of Tamar, whose life and those of her unborn children were saved as a direct result of Judah's confession.
Where was Reuben at so critical a time? What could possibly have been more important than saving his brother's life?
"He was busy with his sackcloth and fasting for having rearranged his father's bed." While Joseph's fate hung in the balance, Reuben was off repenting.
Reuben, however pious -- and he truly was -- had placed his own interests (albeit spiritual) before those of his brother.
In addition to a leader's ability to act, he must put others before himself.
In both of these regards -- the knack for practical results and the ability to put others first -- Judah proved superior to Reuben.
If Reuben had not been busy repenting when Joseph was struggling for his life, Joseph may not have been sold. In essence, Reuben missed the chance to stop a bitter exile short in its tracks.
Judah's actions, on the other hand, albeit not as purely motivated, saved three lives, including that of Peretz, the antecedent of Moshiach. In effect, he jumpstarted the redemption!
What in It for Me?
If we want to lead, we must look for answers, not questions. To find faults are easy, to fix them is not. Good intentions amount to little; good deeds change the world. If we train ourselves to bring positive change to the lives of others, we will be qualified to lead.
The same is true when we look for a leader. We must ask ourselves, can this person effect change, or does he/she only speak of it? Will our workplace produce more and better under this person's management? Will our community grow in size and spirit if this individual is chosen to oversee it? Will our nation securely prosper with this person as president?
Additionally, to lead means to lose ourselves for another; not to find ourselves through them. This we can only accomplish if we are willing to sacrifice of ourselves and our own development. If we seek to lead in order to promote ourselves, we are doomed to failure. At one point or another, the kingdom will fall. It might last for a while but ultimately the time will come when there is a conflict of interest between the leader the people.
More for Me…
Good deeds, even when motivated by selfish or less-than-pure motives, remain good deeds. In the world of action, intentions are relatively irrelevant.
Of course we must strive to refine ourselves and to be driven by altruistic considerations alone; but if someone else will lose out as a result, adulterated action takes precedence over unadulterated intentions.
In the words of the Mishnah, "Action is paramount."