Friday, December 25, 2009

Yosef and the Consciousness of Redemption

A friend once told me a story about two relatives of his that were survivors from the Holocaust; they were a brother and a sister named Yaakov and Sarah. I don’t remember all the details, but like so many families during the war they were separated and sent to labor camps.

After the war, Sarah, still only a young adult, somehow made it to America on her own. She never found conclusive evidence for the deaths of her family, including her beloved brother Yaakov. Many years passed, and no new information surfaced; she had no reason but to assume the worst.

Thirty years later, the phone rang. She said hello, but there was only silence. She said hello again, and still silence. Then she heard two words that sent a chill through her body: “It’s Yaakov.”

I don’t remember how Yaakov made it to America, or how he had survived the war and the years after, but I’m reminded of this haunting story every year when we read the Torah portion Vayigash.

The climax of the story of Yosef and his brothers reaches its momentous peak with possibly the two most evocative words in the entire Torah: Ani Yosef, I am Yosef.

Rabbi Mordechai Yosef, known as the Ishbitzer, one of our great Polish Chasidic sages, gives us a broader insight into the impact contained within these two words. He explains that the story of Yosef and his brothers is the model for the future redemption of the Jewish people.

From the brothers’ perspective, their journey has gone completely awry. Binyamin has been taken captive by an Egyptian ruler for a crime he did not commit, and the consequences for returning without him are too great to bear. After hearing the news, their father Ya’akov would be dead to the world. The brothers had no hope in sight.

Yet Yehuda’s plea to take him as a servant instead of Binyamin opened Yosef’s heart: “I am Yosef,” he cried out. It was not you, but God who sent me here to provide for my father and for our family. Suddenly, salvation arrived from the very source of their impending tragedy.

Everything changed the moment Yosef revealed himself. Yet the only real transformation was the perspective of the brothers. Salvation arrived through a shift in consciousness.

Whether the redemption that we’re searching for is big or small, we can find solace in the story of Yosef and his brothers – that salvation arrives in the blink of an eye, and from the most surprising of places.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Lights that Reach the Lowest Place

Though I didn’t grow up in an observant home, there was one holiday whose laws we kept with strict adherence. Every night of Hanukkah the menorahs were set on the table, each one with the appropriate number of multi-colored candles ready to be lit, accompanied by small sacks of plastic netting filled with chocolate coins, and a wrapped present for each member of the family.

Hanukkah, unlike the other Jewish holidays, is embraced in all of its particulars in a way that no other holiday is. One could cynically argue that the Western consumer culture of the holiday season in December gives Hanukkah extra credence. But I believe there is more to the matter.

Netivot Shalom, a recent Chasidic work written by the previous rebbe of Slonim, Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovski, offers a different answer. He points out a unique halacha about the placement of the Hanukkah candles. As opposed to Shabbat candles, which should be placed no lower than 10 handbreadths above the ground, Hanukkah candles ideally should be placed above 3 and lower than 10 handbreadths from the ground.

What is the significance of placing Hanukkah candles in such a low place?

The decrees made by the Greeks were a part of a spiritual war waged against Israel; under punishment of death they were not allowed to keep Shabbat, perform circumcision, sanctify the new moon, or learn Torah. Without their connection to mitzvot, the Jews fell to a destitute spiritual level. Yet even in this lowly state, void of mitzvot, Hashem saved them from the oppression and made a miracle in the Temple.

The holiday maintains this message. No matter how far a Jew is from observance-- even from Jewish identity-- still the lights of Hanukkah speak to him or her. There are no spiritual prerequisites to connect to these miracles. Just as it was then, so too now; it’s the holiday that reaches down and speaks to every Jew, and brings light to those places that are farthest from it.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Experiencing Shabbat Every Day

Every week I feel that I need Shabbat more than the previous week. For me and my family, it’s a time to reconnect to ourselves, to each other, and to Hashem. We can spend time together without making plans, take more time with our prayers in shul, learn and share ideas on the weekly Torah portion, enjoy our favorite foods, and of course take a holy Shabbos shluff.

But Shabbat is much more than these experiences. Rav Avraham Danzig, an important Lithuanian scholar in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, writes in his well-known halachic work Chayei Adam an important introduction to the laws of Shabbat. The commandment to remember Shabbat does not only apply on Shabbat itself; we are commanded to remember Shabbat every day.

This relates to the story of Shammai in the Tractate Beitza; when he would walk through the marketplace and find an especially nice item, he would purchase it and say, “This is special for Shabbat.”

Additionally, when we count the days of the week in Hebrew, on Sunday we say, Hayom yom rishon l’Shabbat, this is the first day of Shabbat. Shabbat is mentioned every day because every day draws blessing from it. The first three days of the week draw from the Shabbat that has just passed, and the last three days of the week draw from the coming Shabbat.

Shabbat is not a once-a-week event, but rather a consciousness that is meant to instill each and every day with a proper perspective. Shabbat is the foundation of faith with which God created the world; yet during the six days, we can lose focus of the Source of our creative energy. It’s easy to keep one’s priorities straight sitting at a table filled with family, food, and a long morning in shul. But remembering that Hashem is at the center of our lives on a Tuesday night when one is overstressed, underpaid, and lacking sleep is not as easy. Finding Shabbat hidden in each day means seeing Hashem as the Creator of the World in each moment, whether it is filled with success or with challenge.