By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
The letter was a perfect introduction to this week’s parsha.
The writer is a leading activist for Lev L’Achim, working day and night to uncover the dormant sparks within the souls of our secular brethren in Israel. He works with single-minded focus, because he knows that with enough work and dedication, he will succeed, as he has repeatedly.
He read in this column last week about the young boys who had joined a Lev L’Achim afternoon program in Ashkelon, a town negatively impacted by the military unrest of four years ago and its effects. Ashkelon, in the line of enemy fire, faced a difficult situation. The schools, stores and restaurants were all closed as Operation Cast Lead was being fought in nearby Gaza. The streets were deserted and bomb shelters became people’s homes as the general mood of the populace was depressed. Lev L’Achim created youth centers where there was food, games, conversation and shiurim for the bored teenagers.
In time, the war ended, but the boys didn’t want to let go of the club, so they continued coming. The Lev L’Achim volunteers offered them warmth, encouragement and friendship. We described how these boys developed a tremendous thirst for learning Torah, and in time, a group of them completed a masechta. The siyum was held at the home of Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman. The elderly gadol was moved by the sight. One of the boys asked for a bracha that his own parents should weaken in their resistance to his learning, describing how he had to fight to learn Torah. We wrote last week how Rav Shteinman used the experience to explain the words “al hamilchamos” which we recite in Al Hanissim. He said that they refer to the gratitude we must have for the battles of life, the trials and challenges we face that call forth for reserves of fortitude and courage.
So my friend wanted to fill me in and apprise me of the post-siyum follow-up.
“You wrote about the young man who asked the rosh yeshiva for a unique bracha. I thought you’d want to know that this week, that young man, Roi Bitton, went to learn in Yeshiva Shuvah Yisroel in Tel Aviv. I know you would be thrilled to know that he joins other boys from that Ashkelon group, Iti Nagar, Adir Mulai, Eliyahu Levi, Yaakov Cohen, Chai Bitton and David Bouskila.”
The letter was a microcosm of our history, the highs and lows, the mountains and valleys, the clarity afforded only in hindsight. Dark as things were then, that’s how bright they are now for this young man. Four years later and we already merit to see the next chapter.
We kindle lights in the hearts of people, never knowing whether they will take hold and whether the fire will flicker and burn brightly or be extinguished by the stormy winds. We do our thing. We do what we can and we hope and daven. We know that one day the flickering flames will all join together and cause a great fire of emunah, bitachon, Torah and avodah to spread like wildfire across the land. We do what we can to cause that day to rapidly approach as we await the fire of revelation and redemption.
Until that day, sometimes we hear news that is too difficult to bear. Life throws us awful twists and we think that ovdah tikvoseinu, all hope is lost. We feel beaten, overwhelmed and devastated. At times like that, Yosef calls out to us and says, “Al tei’otzvu! Do not become despondent! It’s all for good. People may mock you, knife you in the back, take advantage of you, and question your abilities and stability. Don’t give up. Al tei’otzvu. Maintain your faith and you will be able to overcome your adversary, even if he is more powerful than you. It may take time. It may seem a Sisyphean task, but ultimately you will succeed and Hashem’s kindness will become apparent to you.”
The Chofetz Chaim would relate a parable about a visitor who came to town and had an opinion about everything. On Shabbos, he went to daven in the big shul. As the gabbai dispensed the aliyos, the visitor sat in his seat in wonderment. The man who was obviously the most prominent in town was passed over, as was the person who had all the marks of a senior talmid chochom. Finally, the flabbergasted guest approached the gabbai to question his choices. The seasoned veteran smiled patiently, saying to the man, “You’re here for one week and you have opinions? Stay here a few weeks, maybe longer, and you’ll begin to understand. As for the aliyos, the g’vir has yahrtzeit next week and will get his aliyah then. The talmid chochom made a simcha last week; he and his family all had aliyos. Everything I do has a cheshbon, but in order to appreciate what I do, you need to stay here longer to appreciate it.”
The Chofetz Chaim would conclude by saying, “Ich bin shoin an alter Yid. I have been around this world for a long time and I am just beginning to perceive the small things that are evidence of the plan with which Hashem runs the world. Sometimes you have to wait fifty years to watch things come full circle. ”
The narrative in this week’s parsha reinforces this bedrock of our faith.
In the previous parshiyos, we read the sad account of Yosef being sold into slavery by his brothers. They crafted a story for Yaakov Avinu, showing him Yosef’s garment soaked in the blood of a goat, and told their aged father that his most beloved son had been killed. Yaakov, as Chazal tell us, refused to accept their story.
In time, hunger hit the land and the brothers were forced to travel to Mitzrayim in search of food. While there, they were confronted by the viceroy, who seemed intent on preventing them from obtaining food. He threw one obstacle after another in their path, making their lives miserable.
At the beginning of this week’s parsha, Yehudah recounts their conversations since they had been coming to Mitzrayim to purchase food for their large family. He retold that the minister had asked whether they had a father and a younger brother. He said that they explained that their father had already lost one of the two sons from one of his wives, and if he would lose the second, he would surely die. The food minister didn’t care and forced them to bring their young brother if they wanted additional food. When they brought their brother on their return visit, he was taken away. Yehudah recounted how brokenhearted their father was over the loss of the older son and how they could never face him again without taking the young son back home with them.
When it seemed that a head-to-head battle was imminent following Yehudah’s powerful argument, the minister who had seemed determined to cause them maximum anguish suddenly sprang forth and said to them, “Ani Yosef. I am Yosef.” He then asked them, “Ha’od ovi chai? Is my father still alive?”
Yosef’s question was, in fact, an answer. He was aware that their father was still alive, as that had been a central point in the brothers’ arguments during their prior meetings and in Yehudah’s arguments to him. He was in fact answering Yehudah, “You claim to be so concerned about your father’s welfare? Where was your anxiety and concern when you pulled a young boy away from his doting father, selling him into Egyptian servitude?”
The posuk relates that the brothers were unable to respond to Yosef - “velo yochlu echov la’anos oso ki nivhalu miponov.” They were speechless, embarrassed by this rebuke, devastated as the realization of what they had done sank in.
Yosef brought them close and told them not to be depressed or angry: “Al tei’otzvu ve’al yichar be’eineichem. It was to allow us to live that Hashem sent me here, losum lochem she’airis bo’oretz, to establish a place of refuge for us in this country.
“It wasn’t you who sent me here. It was Hashem. Don’t worry. All that has occurred isn’t because of your mistakes, but, rather, it was merely a chapter in a grand Divine plan. Al tei’otzvu! You were merely messengers, characters in a story written by the Author of creation. Now rush home to my father and tell him that I really am alive.
“You will then all return here with your father and your families, cattle and sheep. I will feed you and care for you so that you do not die of hunger in Canaan. Please tell my father of all the honor I have here. Tell him everything you have seen and rush back here with him.”
Yosef and Binyomin hugged and cried on each other’s shoulders. He then kissed the rest of the brothers and they cried as well.
The overwhelmed brothers returned home bearing news they knew would bring much joy to Yaakov. They returned home proclaiming, “Yosef is alive! Yosef is alive and he is a ruler in Mitzrayim.”
Surprisingly, when Yaakov heard that Yosef was alive and a ruler in Mitzrayim, he reacted differently and rejected the news. He didn’t believe it. “Ki lo he’emin lohem“ (Bereishis 24:26).
It seems inconceivable. Yaakov Avinu had refused to accept news of Yosef’s demise. Why would he not believe that Yosef was still alive? To compound the problem, the very next posuk, relates, “Vayedabru eilov es kol divrei Yosef asher diber aleihem… vatechi ruach Yaakov avihem.” When Yaakov heard all the words that Yosef had spoken, he was revived.
What was the reason for his initial doubt and what was it in the words they shared that convinced him?
Perhaps we can humbly suggest that the fundamentals of emunah were playing out here just beneath the surface. Yosef Hatzaddik had survived several miserable experiences that would have broken men smaller than he. Orphaned of his mother, he clung to his beloved father. Then he was cut away from his father and cast aside, despised and scorned. He fell deep, almost into the clutches of aishes Potifar, tested yet again. When he persevered in maintaining his integrity, he landed in prison. Things were dark. Life was bleak. There was little hope for a productive future or a happy ending to his saga.
Yet, when he was reunited with the shevotim who ruined his life, he promised that he bore them no ill will and had no hard feelings. He told them that there is a Master of the world who writes the script. “Al tei’otzvu,” Yosef said. “Don’t be depressed. He calls the shots, not you or anyone else. Life has peaks and valleys, but we never know which is which. What seems to be a curse is often a blessing and vice versa.”
The shevotim returned home, eager to share with their father that his beloved Yosef was alive. But they faced a dilemma. They had originally told Yaakov that Yosef had died. They had shown him as evidence his shirt which they had bloodied. “Tarof toraf Yosef. He was ripped apart, Chaya ra’ah achalasu. A wild animal ate him.”
Now, in order to tell Yaakov that Yosef was alive, they were forced to admit to their father what they had done. They had to tell him that they sold their brother to traveling merchants and created a story to fool him. They had to tell him that he was not really ripped apart by a wild animal, but that they had soaked his kesones pasim in the blood of a goat they had slaughtered to be able to create the fictitious event.
It was to this missing link in the story that Yaakov reacted. He was unable to accept that his own sons had sold Yosef, acting in a way that was so callous and filled with hatred. When the posuk says, “Lo he’emin lohem,” it means that Yaakov didn’t believe that his sons had been capable of such an act and refused to accept that version of the tale. It may have been easier to believe that Yosef was dead than to think that his own flesh and blood had sold him into oblivion and then lied to their father about what they had done. He couldn’t believe it.
Yet, what the brothers did next made all the difference. Following Yosef’s instructions, they shared with him kol divrei Yosef, the entire message that Yosef had shared with them - the reminder that we are but pawns in His hands and that actions that seem so destructive are actually the groundwork for construction.
They told their father Yosef’s message: “Al tei’otzvu ve’al yichar be’apchem ki mechartem osi heinah.” They told Yaakov that Yosef said that they shouldn’t be angry or depressed about having sold him. They told Yaakov that Yosef explained to them that Hashem had arranged for him to be transported to Mitzrayim so that he could establish a place of refuge where they would be able to live while hunger prevailed in their homeland.
The posuk relates that when Yaakov heard this, “vatechi ruach Yaakov,” he not only believed them, but upon hearing the lesson Yosef taught, his spirit returned. He was revived, because along with the good news came a message of chiyus.
Yosef’s message explodes with meaning and beauty. There are easier times and harder times, but it is always by design. The great mashgiach, Rav Yeruchom Levovitz, would say, “We are always in His hands. Amol di rechte hant, sometimes the right hand, un amol di linke hant, and sometimes the left hand, but He is always carrying us.”
Yosef taught the brothers an enduring lesson in emunah and how little we know and understand about what is going on. Yosef told the brothers that we are all like the visitor to the shul who felt authorized to give his opinions, not realizing that he had no concept or clue of the bigger picture.
This is the depth of the drama of these pesukim, the piercing truth of Yosef’s plea: Al tei’otzvu.
Jewish history is replete with souls planted in a location where they could best impact others. Sometimes, they had to be uprooted and replanted elsewhere, causing no small amount of hardship, but in the end, the Divine precision became clear.
There is a mesorah regarding the arba shvuim, the four captives. Four Rishonim, all great gaonim, were traveling to a wedding via Italy, when pirates overtook their boat and captured the passengers. The three gaonim, Rav Shmaryahu, Rav Chushiel and Rav Moshe (the name of the fourth is unknown), were sold into slavery and ended up in North African countries. Providentially, they brought with them the Torah of Bavel and laid the groundwork for the emergence of great yeshivos there.
No doubt they were despondent as they were viciously chained, but in time, they realized Who was really leading them along and the greater purpose of their suffering.
This was true in our recent history as well, as the Holocaust devastated the European Torah world. A few hardy souls were waiting in America to greet the limping remnant. Most of these European immigrants had come to America before the war because they were forced to, perhaps due to hunger or some other threat. In time, it became clear that they were sent there lefleitah gedolah.
My grandfather, Rav Eliezer Levin, was one of the many who survived what appeared at the time to be tragedy. He had taken a leave of absence for one year from his rabbonus in Lita when his relatives dragged him to America. Fearing for his life as the winds of war circled over Europe, they brought him here and arranged a rabbinic position in Erie, PA. Needless to say, he couldn’t adapt to Erie and wanted to return to his beloved Vashki and to his wife, children and baalei batim.
The thought of bringing his family to die a spiritual death in Erie frightened him. But he couldn’t return to his hometown. He had left his rabbinic position there in the hands of a trusted friend, who agreed to serve as rov until he would return from America. The friend would gain serious experience, aiding him in his pursuit of a position. However, when Rav Levin wrote that he was coming home to reassume the position, the friend was devastated. He said that he would never get another job and pleaded with Rav Levin to let him stay there, asking Rav Levin to find himself a different position.
Although it was his father-in-law’s position, which he had inherited and occupied for a number of years, Rav Levin didn’t have the heart to unseat the man from the job. Meanwhile, his family members secured a rabbinic position in Detroit for him. With no choice, he moved there and sent for his family. With their meager possessions and several of Rav Levin’s seforim along with kisvei yad of his father-in-law, the family set sail on one of the last boats to leave Europe before the war broke out. They arrived here just ahead of the destruction of Lithuania. The rabbi of Vashki and the entire town were wiped out. No one survived.
Rav Levin played a key role in establishing a Torah community in Detroit and actively assisted the roshei yeshiva of Telshe as they started their yeshiva in Wickliffe, Ohio, after being stranded here. His own children would emerge as prominent rabbonim and roshei yeshiva in this country, providing “michyah,” spiritual sustenance, “she’airis,” and “pleitah gedolah” as the generation faced starvation.
Examine the history of the rebirth of Torah in this country and around the world and you will find similar stories of people who had been doomed to living far from their homes, surviving the war and planting the seeds of a blossoming nation.
Rav Yechezkel Abramsky was a survivor of the Siberian wasteland and the fierce cold and hunger that was the daily lot of prisoners banished to that exile. He once shared the thought that had sustained him through it all. “I woke up that first morning and I thought, ‘I have no tallis in which to wrap myself, no Gemara with which to warm myself, and no Rambam in which to immerse myself. What is the purpose of my life today? I wake up and thank Hashem and say, ‘Modeh ani lefonecha.’ I am thanking Hashem, but for what? Because rabbah emunosecha. There is one mitzvah that they cannot take away from me, the mitzvah of emunah. Modeh ani, I thank You, Ribbono Shel Olam, because I can still sing the song of faith, even here. That’s all I can do, but it’s enough to give me life.’”
Rabbah emunasecha is the theme of this week’s parsha and Yosef’s enduring lesson. Whether in transit as a slave, in prison or on the throne, whether all is dark or light is everywhere, rabbah emunosecha. We thrive and rejoice for we believe that there is a bigger picture.
Stories of Hashgochah Protis abound. Tales are often told about a person being in the right place at the right time, thinking they are in the wrong place and bemoaning their fate, only to learn that fate had intervened on their behalf. The stories depict how the Divine Hand reached down from Heaven and plucked the protagonists from disaster, with neither their knowledge nor acquiescence.
We know stories of people who had thought their world was closing in on them and their life was ending, only to learn later that their salvation was cloaked in what at the time they perceived as torture.
But it is not enough to read and be reminded of those stories if we don’t realize that our entire life is comprised of stories such as those.
And when those awful times come, we have to hear Yosef as he calls out to us through the ages and says, “My brothers and sisters, grandsons and granddaughters, al tei’otzvu. Don’t despair. Don’t be desperate. Don’t think it’s all over. Never give up.”
When it seems as if the bad guys are winning, when you feel all alone, when your teacher or boss has screamed at you, or when you feel as if you’re at the end of your rope, know that it is not yet over and the plot can thicken and change. Sometimes it happens quickly, while other times it takes a while to see the sun behind the clouds. But you must know that it is always there.
Emunah and bitachon are our lifelines, motivating and driving us, lest we stumble and fall.
Every day, Eliyohu Hanovi would visit Rav Yosef Karo, author of the Shulchan Aruch and Bais Yosef. His teachings are recorded in the sefer Maggid Meishorim. The Bais Yosef writes in Parshas Behar that “the maggid,” as he referred to him, told him not to let a day go by without studying from the classic mussar work Chovos Helevavos, which reinforces concepts of yiras Hashem, emunah and bitachon.
This is both a religious obligation and good advice. One who is lacking in understanding these ideas becomes depressed and lost, misguided and misdirected in what can be a cruel and crushing world.
No matter what comes over us, we must remain positive and upbeat, full of spirit and moxie, with a burning desire to carry on in our missions in life without rancor and derision.
Dovid Hamelech says, “Aileh vorechev ve‘aileh basusim.” Some trust in their tanks and some trust in their cavalry. “Heimah koru venofolu va’anachnu kamnu vanisodad.” They crumble and fall, and oftentimes when they go to battle, the weaponry they had worshipped fails them. Those whose lives are directed and guided by Torah and emunah will be able to rise and be strengthened, because their value system is not dependent on temporary, fleeting powers that can be, and are, susceptible to defeat.
Al tei’otzvu. No matter how daunting your challenge appears, it can be overcome.
The danger of entering a downward spiral and becoming entrapped in a lethargic state brought on by the maddening acts other people are capable of and an inability to escape their harshness, has ruined many people, thwarting their ambitions and hopes for growth and a better day tomorrow.
What they so desperately need is to hear the comforting, loving call of al tei’otzvu. Don’t pay attention to those who seek to suppress you and usurp your innate human desire for success. Ignore those who seek to make you small and gravitate to the ones who try to expand your horizons, sharpen your focus and broaden your vistas.
Don’t blame yourself for failure, al yichar apchem, and don’t let others pin blame upon you either. Know that you and every other Jew are blessed with the potential for greatness. Know that whatever happens is for a higher purpose than you can understand.
The posuk states that when Moshiach comes, hoyinu kecholmim, we will be as dreamers. The Slonimer Rebbe explained that the posuk refers to the “dreamer,” Yosef Hatzaddik. On the day of Moshiach’s arrival, we will all be as the brothers were when Yosef told them that their travails and suffering should be understood and perceived as causes for joy.
May that day and its revelations come soon. Until they do, al tei’otzvu.