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Be Within, Stay Above

Friday, 10 January, 2020 - 9:00 am

My three-year-old daughter has been toilet trained for a while. However, she often wants one of her parents to accompany her for this ritual. Recently, my wife and I have been trying to get her to fulfill her bodily duties on her own. 

My wife devised a plan. Every time our daughter needs to use the bathroom, my wife and I give her an imaginary rope to hold onto. We promise that we are holding the rope the entire time and she is never alone.

Now, instead of asking for one of us to accompany her, she simply asks for a ‘rope.’ We extend our hands and hand off the ‘rope.’

By holding this ‘rope’ she knows that she is not alone.

*

Just before his passing, recorded in this week’s parsha Vayechi, Yaakov demands that his son Yosef ensure he is buried in the holy land of Israel and not in Egypt. Yosef dutifully swears that he will do so and Yaakov is buried in Chevron at the famous Ma’arat HaMachpela.

Interestingly, later on in the parsha, Yosef himself passes away. He demands of the Jewish people that they reinter him in the Holy Land when they leave Egypt. Indeed, he is buried in Egypt and – generations later – his coffin is taken out during the Exodus from Egypt.

It is fascinating that both of these Jewish leaders demanded burial in Israel – yet in different ways. Yaakov refused to be buried in Egypt whatsoever. Yosef accepted burial in Egypt, so long as he would be transferred to Israel when the Jews left.

The Torah chooses to share both these episodes in the very selfsame parsha.

What is the distinction between these two attitudes and what is the message the Torah wishes to convey?

*

Both Yaakov and Yosef were telegraphing that Egypt wasn’t a permanent home to the Jewish people. Egyptian values, culture and behavior were all anathema to Jewish tradition. By insisting on burial in the Jewish homeland they were not only demonstrating a geographic preference. These great leaders were teaching that throughout the fruitful and difficult periods of the Jewish experience in Egypt, Jews must remain actively conscious that we aspire to higher values, to a unique spiritual identity.

Yaakov –one of the fathers of Judaism – wanted Jews to aspire to the purity of the land of Israel; to forever internalize a connection to a different reality. He wished his entombment to serve as a constant boost to his people, a reminder to rise above the here and now.

Yosef – one of the brothers of the Sons of Israel – wanted Jews to feel empowered during Egyptian exile. Life in Egypt would be full of successes and challenges, from the royal palaces to the whips of slavery. Yosef demonstrated to his siblings that one can still be a tzaddik in the most enticing, foreign and hostile environments. It may not be home, but it is your mission. You can still be a proud Jew.

*

As we survey the world around us, we may be confused. From hate crimes in New York to hostile regimes in Iran, we may feel worried. From Washington to Wall Street, we may feel accomplished.

What should be the Jewish attitude to our current reality?

Like my daughter, with her mother at her side, we must remember that we are not alone. Hashem is at our side. Torah and Mitzvot arm us with a sense of purpose and presence.

Like my daughter holding an imaginary rope, we must remember that our truest reality is in a loftier space. American values may often line up with Torah. They are not, however, our true selves. Holding onto the bond with our Torah, we rise above the chaos surrounding us and focus on our mission. We aspire to an era when our mission is accomplished and when the whole world will be uplifted to holiness.

Yaakov and Yosef serve as a dual reminder: Be within, but stay above.

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