Exile and Return (part 3)
At the end of last week's parsha (Mikeitz), things look grim. Joseph ― having not yet revealed his true identity ― has accused his brothers of theft and spying, and now Benjamin is to be arrested and imprisoned. Joseph has the brothers on the ropes and they're going down for the 10-count.
And then Parshat Mikeitz ends.
The Story Continues
Here it is one week later and we resume the story in Parshat Vayigash. The Jewish world is crumbling further: Yehudah threatens to send the brothers on a violent rampage if Joseph doesn't stop his oppressive tactics.
At this very moment ― with the brothers toe-to-toe, locked in a explosive struggle that seems insolvable ― Joseph reveals himself as their long-lost brother. With three words, "I am Joseph" (Genesis 45:3), everything now becomes clear. The previous 20 years of doubt and suffering were all worth it, says Joseph. "It's all part of God's master plan." The reunited brothers hug, and all is back to normal.
Rabbi Zev Leff asks: Why did the previous parsha have to end on such a sour note? Why didn't the Torah simply extend Parshat Mikeitz a few more verses and include the resolution of the story? Why do we have to wait a whole week to find out what happens?!
Recall how this whole sequence of events began: Joseph was sold into slavery, then consigned to an Egyptian dungeon. More than any other biblical account, this story illustrates the lesson that "everything turns out good in the end." In order to drive home this lesson, the Torah makes us wait one week to find out the ending!
In a sense this is the story of our own lives as well. We work, we plan, we struggle ― and things often end up a mess. The righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. How do the pieces of this puzzle possibly fit together?
The premise for this question comes from a certain lack of perspective. Somehow we imagine that the world began when we're born, and ends when we die. Everything that happened beforehand is lumped together as "ancient history." If I can't understand it today, then it must not make sense at all.
But in truth we are here on earth for only a short time. We don't see the "Big Picture." We don't know all the details that happened before we were here, and we certainly don't know what will happen after we're gone. It's unfair to take a single event out of context. "Why did it happen?" We might not see the answer immediately; we might not even see it in our lifetime.
Perhaps that's why older people possess a special wisdom ― because through the perspective of time, they've seen how seemingly unrelated events connect together.
From Darkness To Light
In truth, it is often when things look the most grim that they turn around. The night is at its absolute darkest just moments before the first rays of morning sun illuminate the sky.
In the morning service, we say: "Blessed are You, God, Who forms light and creates darkness..." It is understandable that we thank God for light. But why for darkness?
Because Judaism says the darkness is not negative. Rather it is a necessary step in the process toward light. Only because of our limited perception, do we perceive the darkness as an end unto itself.
A seed in the ground is in a dark, cold and dirty place. Then the seed begins to decay. To the onlooker, it looks like death. And then, at the very moment the seed has completely broken down, something miraculous happens. It begins to sprout.
Think about your life, your career, your most cherished relationships. Was the process smooth? Unlikely. In general, haven't you experienced momentous growth when times have been tough ― more so than when times have been smooth?
From the darkness comes light.
Redemption And Sanity
Imagine someone with a serious disease. Taking the right medication will detoxify the body and push all the impurities to the surface of the skin. At that moment the patient looks deathly ill, all covered in sores. But in truth, those sores are a positive sign of deeper healing.
Life is like this medicine. According to the Talmud, as the Messianic era approaches, the world will experience greater and greater turmoil: Vast economic fluctuations, social rebellion, and widespread despair. The culmination will be a world war of immense proportion led by King Gog from the land of Magog.
Then the Moshiach will come and herald the redemption. He will inspire all peoples to follow God. He will rebuild the Temple, gather the remaining Jewish exiles to Israel, and re-establish the Sanhedrin. (See Talmud Sukkah 52, Sanhedrin 97, Sotah 49, and Maimonides' Laws of Kings ch.11-12.)
So when you read in the newspaper about hatred and strife, don't despair. Just as the words "I am Joseph" put all previous difficulties into perspective for the brothers, so too in the end of time all will be clear for us.
But here's a secret: If we internalize this understanding and live with that reality, then the Torah promises the final resolution will come more quickly and painlessly. And at the very least, living this way is sure to preserve our sanity in this world of confusion. For only those who maintain their belief until the very end will be counted amongst the survivors. May it comes speedily in our days.