By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
North Korea’s dictator died two years ago, leaving behind an untested, unlearned and unready young son to replace him. The dictator’s brother-in-law took the lad under his wing and taught him what he had to know to keep the country functioning under his rule. When the young man felt that he could manage on his own, he repaid his uncle for his kindness by having him shot. Then he erased his name from all official documents and photo-shopped his image out of government photos.
This happened last week, but it’s nothing new. Such has been the way of dictators as far back as this week’s parsha.
The posuk states, “Vayokom melech chodosh al Mitzrayim asher lo yoda es Yosef – A new Paroh arose over Mitzrayim who did not know Yosef.” Rashi quotes a machlokes between Rav and Shmuel. One explains that the posuk is stating that there was, in fact, a new king. The old Paroh had died and the newly appointed one did not know Yosef. The other opinion is that the Paroh of Shemos was the very same Paroh with whom we became familiar in Sefer Bereishis. Though he knew very well who Yosef was – after all, Yosef had saved his kingdom – Paroh acted as if he had forgotten him.
The posuk refers to him as a “melech chodosh,” because he pretended to have forgotten Yosef. He was the same king who had raised the profile of the talented, reliable, efficient young man whom he had discovered when the man offered a solution to his troubling dreams. Paroh promoted Yosef directly from the obscurity of prison to a public, high position in order to enable him to save the country. Thanks to his advice, Paroh’s monarchy was saved and his people lived through an awful period of hunger.
But as soon as Paroh thought that he no longer needed Yosef, he abruptly erased the accomplishments of the Jew who had made Mitzrayim into a world superpower and had established a system that filled its coffers.
There were too many Jews in Mitzrayim. They were smart and independent and Paroh began perceiving them as a threat. A way had to be found to curtail the Jewish growth and force the Jews to conform to the Egyptian ideas. There was a slight problem, though, because Yosef had saved Paroh and his country. The benevolent king couldn’t appear to be ungrateful. People would get the wrong idea and turn against him.
Paroh solved his problem by denying that Yosef had ever done anything for him. He craftily rewrote history and convinced the country that the Jew never contributed anything to the rehabilitation of Mitzrayim. With the aid of his bureaucrats, he launched a campaign to erase any memory of Yosef and any good feelings towards his Jewish brethren.
“Asah atzmo ke’ilu lo yoda.” The Jews are discredited. It never happened. Who’s Yosef?
There are those who believe that the way to triumph over people who stand in their way is to isolate them. Then they demonize them and devise all sorts of arguments against them, until they succeed in turning public sentiment against them. After marginalizing their enemies, they are able to advance their own agendas.
It is this art of discrediting that has been practiced against the Jewish people ever since our birth as a nation and continues through this very day. In our time, we constantly hear echoes of the Mitzri worry, “pen yirbeh,” and their solution, “havah nischakmah lo.” People say, “Let’s outsmart them and crimp their way of life.” In Israel, religious Jews are painted as useless parasites who suck the lifeblood out of the country. The media and compliant politicians don’t waste any opportunity to promote that narrative.
Last week, world leaders and tens of thousands of people converged on South Africa for the Mandela memorial. The Israeli prime minister and president chose not go, blaming security concerns. They were mocked. Some said that they didn’t go because Mandela supported Yasser Arafat and the PLO. Others had more sinister explanations. Yet, later in the week, their foresight was validated with the revelation that there was no one checking many of the people who entered the stadium, which held foreign dignitaries, including the current American president and two of his predecessors.
The world was astounded to learn that the person who was ostensibly displaying sign language for the hearing-impaired people in attendance and watching around the world was a fraud. He stood next to President Barack Obama and the other speakers for hours, gesturing with his hands, making believe like he was signing. Instead, he is a dangerous, mentally deranged lunatic. Yet, no one thought of checking his credentials. During the speeches, no one said, “Hey, this guy doesn’t know what he’s doing.” The security services who spend billions of dollars protecting this country and its leaders permitted the president to stand next to this man.
We live in a world where nothing is as it appears. We can’t trust anybody and we can’t assume that anything is what it appears to be.
Tens of thousands of rockets are pointed at Israel from Lebanon. Iran is dangerously close to acquiring a nuclear weapon with which to attack the Jewish state, with the acquiescence of the Western powers. The United States and the EU press the tiny state to capitulate to Palestinian conditions for a fictional peace. A historical snowstorm shuts down Yerushalayim, crippling the state’s capital city for days, and the country’s national and municipal leaders are exposed as unprepared and incapable of dealing with a natural crisis.
Yet, at a time like this, the country is engaged in a battle against the frum community. The Torah of Eretz Yisroel is under attack. We must recognize the physical and spiritual dangers facing our brethren and rise to the occasion, providing chizuk and support. Demagogues who either don’t know or conveniently forget their roots and the basis of our religion attack religious people and Torah as a habit. Politicians who know better, and who were placed in power by Torah leaders and maintained relationships with them, turn a blind eye to pleas on behalf of the olam haTorah, playing the “asher lo yoda es Yosef” game for political expediency.
We look around us and we read the news from Eretz Yisroel and we easily conclude that we live in strange, frightening times. We don’t know whom to trust and where to turn for moral support. So much of our world is shallow and empty. We must work hard not to become disheartened and apathetic. How do we proceed?
Eretz Yisroel just experienced a terrible calamity brought on by a few inches of snow. Yet, we confront snow regularly during the winter, and as much as it creates inconvenience and treacherous driving conditions, it doesn’t create a state of emergency. The difference between us and the Israelis is that we are prepared for the snow. The roads are treated to lower their freezing temperature so that it takes longer for the snow to stick. The tires on our cars are engineered to maintain traction in the snow. People know to stay off the roads, and those who drive have an idea of how to navigate in the snow. Municipalities send out plows to clear roads and maintain safe travel conditions.
The snow that falls here is the same as the snow that falls there. The difference is that for our Israeli brethren, even a few centimeters of snow is a major and rare occurrence. They aren’t prepared for snow like we are. They don’t know how to deal with it. Their tires don’t grip, causing them to slip and slide as they try to traverse historic hills.
Just as it is with snow, so it is with everything in life. If we are prepared and fortified, then we can succeed and progress. If we flail about, not knowing what we are doing, then we will fail.
Every week, we bid farewell to Shabbos with Havdollah. We light a multi-wicked, wine-stained candle and start thinking of the coming week. We proclaim, “Hinei Keil yeshuosi evtach velo efchod.” We don’t know what the week will bring, but we aren’t afraid, because we know that Hashem will be with us. As we leave the holiness and peace of Shabbos, embarking on a venture into the mundane, we are prepared for all eventualities.
We say to Hashem, to ourselves and our families that we are about to go out into the snowstorm that is life, but we do so armed with emunah and bitachon.
Later, at melava malka, we seek to further prepare for that transition. We sing “al tira avdi Yaakov.“ We say, “Fear not, Yidden. You are equipped with the strength and ability to rise above what is out there and still remain true to yourselves, to each other, and to the Torah if you remain loyal to the teachings and lessons handed down from avdi Yaakov.”
We proclaim that in order to successfully navigate the highways of life and plow ahead despite the storms that inevitably seek to block us, we have to follow the path of Yaakov and the other avdei Hashem. Only by following Torah and its mitzvos can we think of setting out on the road that is olam hazeh. Only by reinforcing our vehicles with Torah and mussar do we have the tread that is necessary to be able to move ahead and accomplish the missions we were sent here to carry out.
The children of Yaakov stood out in Mitzrayim because “lo shinu,” they refused to change and adapt. Lo shinu – they remained loyal to the Torah that Yaakov had transmitted to them and that Yehudah had taught in the yeshiva he established. Lo shinu – they knew that everything else is transitory. Lo shinu – they knew what was true and what was lasting. Lo shinu – they knew what was false, fleeting and temporary, and they knew that to survive as a people in a different country, they had to remain steadfast in their dedication to Yaakov’s ideals.
People who live superficial lives are easily persuaded. They are easy prey for charlatans and con artists. Such people espouse little loyalty to ideas or values. They want to blend in and be popular. Their foremost concern is to be up on the latest trends and make sure to be with the “in crowd.” Because their views are not grounded in any reality, they are easily fungible. Everything about them is superficial and easily transformed. There is no core, depth or consistency.
The posuk in the first perek of Tehillim admonishes us to be as trees planted on the banks of rivers, with deep roots – entrenched shoroshim – linking us to Har Sinai and the greatest mortals the world has known. We are guided by their legacy and teachings. We have a rich mesorah. We drink from the palgei mayim of our timeless Torah, as did “avdi Yaakov.”
Despite their challenges and obstacles, the Bnei Yisroel in Mitzrayim lived with the ideal of “lo shinu,” remembering where they came from and where they were headed.
In the land of Paroh, this was so important. His leadership was based on fiction and false perceptions, as Rashi states on the words “Hinei yotzei hamoymah” (7:15). Paroh created a narrative about himself that anyone could have seen through had they cared enough to follow him around one day. No one did, because they were content to play along. They didn’t care.
They were like the Democrats who still support Obamacare. When it was unveiled, it was touted as a plan that would revolutionize healthcare in the most advanced country in the world and make it affordable for all. Promises were made right and left. “You will be able to keep your doctor. Your insurance payments will fall. Your coverage will vastly improve.” All the promises made have been shown to be untrue. Yet, the party sticks with it, the president promotes it, and it remains the law of the land.
The posuk states repeatedly that Paroh was unable to redirect his life even in the face of the makkos, because Hashem hardened his heart. However, the posuk doesn’t say that the hearts of the country’s citizenry were hardened. Why did they not do teshuvah? Because their blissful, superficial lives, under the rule of an all-powerful king, would have been jeopardized had they confronted the truth of their leader and their condition. They didn’t wish to be confronted by the truth, so they adapted and concocted new stories to bolster the old narrative.
They were like the chaff, blown about, representing nothing and standing for nothing. They were a nation of sheker. They were happy and comfortable with the lie they lived. Life was good.
It was in the climate of Mitzrayim, ruled by fiction and dominated with lies, that the People of Truth distinguished themselves, a goy mikerev goy standing tall, a nation of truth and destiny.
Today, however, we see too many people who are unsure of their identities and who are insecure about their destinies. There are too many who are rootless and guided by superficiality; gullibly chasing whatever seems appealing, without any examination. We see vacuous people without values, living selfishly and hedonistically, covering their impulses with a fig leaf of religiosity.
Instead of seeking to blend in, we should look to stand out and stand apart. The truth must be our guide and protecting it our concern. Nothing should be able to divert us. We have to be honest with ourselves, confront our imperfections, and overcome them. We must set goals for ourselves and our personal development, never resting from laboring in the pursuit of excellence and G-dliness.
As we study these parshiyos of geulah, we should rededicate ourselves to living lives of truth and being true to ourselves and our destiny.
We must not be impressed by the allure and glamour of fleeting beauty and popularity based upon superficiality and fallacy. We have to remain a people of depth and intelligence, of loyalty and determination. Just because everyone we know does something doesn’t mean that we should be doing it too. We should learn more Torah and do so with greater depth so that we can better appreciate our way of life. We should learn halacha to ensure that we are living proper lives. We should learn mussar to keep us faithful to decency and goodness.
We should think about how our forefathers would perceive our conduct. If we feel that our actions will bring us closer to the geulah, then we should continue with them. If they don’t measure up, we must be honest enough with ourselves to recognize the error of our ways.
We are in golus, with our keepers plotting against us, but we are a nation of survivors. If we stand tall, remind ourselves who we are and what we stand for, and work together to build a brighter future, we will merit to be brought home.
There are many people, causes and parties allied against us. If we recognize the strength and power that we possess, we can rectify that which needs correcting and reinforce that which requires strengthening.
Together, we can bring the geulah. Together, we can bring salvation to those who suffer. Together, we can overcome the demagogues who demonize us.
Let us not be like the people of Mitzrayim and leaders blindsided by predictable storms. Let us fortify ourselves as did the “Bnei Yisroel haboi’m Mitzroymah eis Yaakov.” May we merit hearing the fulfillment of Hashem’s promise of “pakod pokadeti” very soon, in our days. Amein.