My dear fellow Jews,
The statistics are alarming: More than 50% of American Jews intermarry and ever greater numbers of our precious youth are falling prey to the blandishments of the secular street as the tentacles of modern media reach into the hearts of Jewish homes through a myriad of electronic media. How are we to counter these insidious influences and ensure the wholesome spiritual development of a new generation of committed Jews?
The answer can be found in the practices and lessons of the Pesach holiday we are about to celebrate. Pesach is the holiday of “Emunah”-of Jewish belief and faith in our Al-mighty Father in Heaven. The manner in which our forefathers preserved their Jewish faith and identities over the course of hundreds of years of the harshest existence in a land whose moral values were antithetical to the sensibilities of the “Hebrews” is most instructive for the challenges we face today.
The Jewish diaspora and enslavement in Egypt began with the sale of Yoseph haTzadik into Egypt. In one cruel moment, Yoseph was rent from the holy home of his beloved father and cast into a literal den of iniquity where he was soon forced to regularly resist the illicit advances of Potiphar’s wife. Even while she promised him vast riches and all the comforts of Egyptian society, Yoseph steadfastly clung to the lessons he had learned from his righteous father Yaakov. “How can I do this evil deed and sin against G-d?” he replied time and again. For Yoseph understood that his life and everything in this world was a gift from G-d, and that to violate his Creator’s will would constitute a betrayal of trust that could yield no possible good.
Throughout 12 years of imprisonment, Yosef suffered the taunts of his fellow inmates. “Where is your G-d now?” they asked. “Had you cooperated with Potiphar’s wife, you’d be living in the lap of luxury instead of the depths of this dungeon!” But Yoseph had no remorse; he never lost his faith in G-d’s justice and His ability to change the course of nature in the blink of an eye.
In the end, Yosef’s righteousness was rewarded in unprecedented fashion. In a truly miraculous turn of events, the tzadik was whisked away from prison and soon elevated to Viceroy of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh, where he enjoyed power and treasures (and the ability to help others) that Potiphar’s wife could barely dream of.
Hashem then orchestrated events allowing Yoseph to reunite with the very brothers who had sold him into slavery 22 years earlier. Yoseph instructed them to inform Yaakov that he was alive, well and ruling over the vast Egyptian empire. Yoseph suspected that Yaakov would be incredulous to this shocking news so he transmitted a sign that would prove to Yaakov beyond a shadow of a doubt that he, Yoseph, was indeed who he claimed to be. The final Torah subject that Yoseph and Yaakov had studied together before being separated was the matter of Eglah Arufa, the special sacrifice offered to atone for city residents who may have been delinquent in providing for the welfare of a wayfarer who had passed by their town and, as a result, was murdered on the town’s outskirts. Yoseph transmitted this information through his brothers disguised as something no one but he and his father could have known (this may have simultaneously served as a subtle rebuke to his brothers who had so blatantly violated the spirit of this passage when they consigned him to a place of certain danger).
But this merely begs the question: Were there not myriad details of his personal life that he could have transmitted as evidence of the veracity of his assertion? Why was this particular detail more convincing than any other?
We can explain this by way of a fascinating story involving the sainted Torah scholar Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna, also known as the Vilna Gaon:
A short while after a young couple married, the husband abandoned his wife and travelled away, his whereabouts unknown. His despairing wife returned to her parents’ home as a living widow, bereft of a husband but unable to remarry (absent receipt of a Jewish document of divorce).
After significant time passed, a man came to her claiming to be her husband. But so much time had passed that she could not recall his physical features so he provided numerous intimate details of their short time together, information that only her husband would be privy to. He reaffirmed his love for her and committed to resume the marriage where they had left off. While her family was encouraged by his overture, the girl remained skeptical of his claim. In her heart, she sensed something was not quite right despite everything he knew about her.
The matter was referred to the Vilna Gaon for final resolution. He instructed the girl’s father to escort his putative son-in-law to shul on Shabbos and ask him to find the place he used to occupy in the sanctuary before he had left town. The man was quickly revealed as an imposter unable even to decide whether to turn right or left. The townspeople were dumbfounded. How did the astute Rav know that this particular detail would stump the pretender when he had passed every other test to demonstrate his identity?
The Vilna Gaon explained that it was really “quite elementary.” An imposter purporting to be this woman’s husband would be of such depraved character that even had he known the real husband and garnered intimate details directly from him, it would never occur to him to inquire regarding matters of a spiritual and holy nature. Where he would sit in shul would be the last thing on his mind.
Similarly, Yoseph understood that while Yaakov had certainly been concerned for his physical welfare, he would be even more distressed by the prospect of Yosef’s spiritual deterioration as a result of living in a place devoid of spirituality and holiness. Consequently, Yoseph demonstrated that the sacred Torah lessons his father had imparted still remained with him and sustained him throughout his many travails and challenges.
This indeed is the critical key to our survival as Jews throughout a diaspora existence spanning two millennia: Our holy Torah, the word of G-d, guides us through all of life’s difficulties and challenges. We must faithfully pass on its sweet and precious lessons to our own children and grandchildren for truly this is our life’s essence and the hallmark of our identity.
It is for this reason that on Pesach, the holiday of our faith, we begin the Seder with a question and answer session. We stoke our children’s appetite for learning and stimulate their desire to seek Torah answers from us, the parents who been entrusted with the task of ensuring that the next generation, too, form unbreakable links with G-d, His Torah, and our people. In this way they will become part of the continuum of our unique Jewish history that has its roots in the story of Pesach and extends onward, ever blossoming, until the coming of Moshiach and our ultimate redemption.
Wishing you a sweet, holy and kosher Pesach together with your families. May this holiday and its special mitzvos bring you the blessings of faith and good fortune now and always.
Special thanks to Rabbi Avraham Shalom Farber & Yehuda Leib Meth for the translation.