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Rabbis' Blog

How Will We Know He is Real?


Several weeks ago I had a fascinating conversation over Shabbat dinner about Moshiach. Our guest was shocked to discover that global redemption is a Jewish concept and even more surprised to discover how attractive and relatable it is: A perfect reality devoid of disease, war and strife is the type of world we all want for ourselves and our children and Moshiach will deliver it.

“But how will we know it is him?” he finally asked.

Important question.

Do we follow the lead of anyone claiming to possess the secret formula for curing the world of all its ills, promising to eradicate evil from our universe? How will we know he is legitimate?

In this week’s parsha we learn how Moshe was sent by G-d to lead the Jews out of Egyptian slavery. While the inevitable encounters with Pharaoh were certainly intimidating for the newly minted leader, Moshe was mainly concerned with this: Will the Jews accept him as the divinely ordained messenger to lead them to the promised land or will they ignore him?

In hindsight it is difficult to fathom how the Jews would reject Moshe. Who else can transform a staff into a snake, make water turn to blood and do all the other mind boggling miracles we speak about during the Seder, if not the legitimate prophet of G-d and the long awaited redeemer?

Nevertheless, when Moshe came to them with his message of redemption and displayed several miracles, the Jewish leadership hesitated until they conferred with the elderly Serach - daughter of Asher son of Yaakov. Blessed with longevity by her grandfather, she was still around when Moshe appeared on the scene and had a living memory of the tradition received from Yaakov 193 years earlier as to the specific message the authentic redeemer will transmit.

Moshe was accepted only after Serach confirmed that his message matched this tradition - miracles notwithstanding.

The story of Moshe’s confirmation sheds light on the clarity and legitimacy of Jewish tradition throughout history and how we will know who Moshiach is when the time comes.

We are not a gullible people desperately clinging to dreams of a better future from anyone willing to shout them from the rooftops.

Rather, we are heirs of a divine mandate to prepare the world for an era of perfect harmony through revealing divinity in every part of our universe which will be completed by Moshiach, whose qualifications and requirements are part of Jewish tradition codified by Maimonides here. Just as we know Tefillin are black and square and the beautiful fruit we bless on Sukkot is an Etrog and not a mango, we will recognize Moshiach when he comes.

Until that long awaited moment, we have the opportunity and obligation to hasten his arrival by doing even one more good deed, speaking another positive word or even thinking a good thought.

We can do this and no time is better than now.

The Winning Balance

 

Success in business is defined by growing capital, not by merely preserving it. If you invest $1,000 in a venture and get $1,000 back a year later - that's a business failure.

In this week's parsha we learn of Yaakov's blessing to his two grandchildren Menashe and Ephraim. When Yosef learned of his father's failing health he journeyed to Goshen with his sons to receive a final blessing.

Following protocol, Yosef placed his oldest son Menashe to Yaakov's right and Ephraim to his left, with the intention that when Yaakov (who was blind of old age) would lift his hands in blessing, the right hand would be placed on the head of the first born son.

To Yosef's disbelief, Yaakov lifted his right hand and intentionally placed it on Ephraim's head and his left hand on Menashe's head. “Father, not so,” he protested. “Menashe is the eldest, place your right hand on his head.”

Yaakov responded “I know my son. Menashe's descendants will be great too, but Ephraim's descendants will be even greater.”

As is the case with every episode in Torah, this story provides us with a timeless lesson. Their exchange represents a fundamental debate in Jewish life that resonates until today.

Yosef fathered his two sons in the midst of a painful separation from his family, living in the most spiritually challenging circumstances imaginable. He expressed the two conflicting drives animating his life by naming his sons Menashe and Ephraim.

Menashe represents the fact that “G-d has caused me to forget (nashani) my past hardships, but this success can cause me to forget all that I have held dear in my father’s household.” Yosef understood that his stratospheric political rise and financial prosperity carried with it the grave danger of assimilation. By naming his child for the new challenge he faced, he ensured that he always remember and remain true to his heritage.

Ephraim represents the fact that “G-d has made me fruitful (hifrani) in the land of my suffering.” Despite his unbearable pain, Yosef succeeded in transforming personal tragedy into an opportunity to bring divine awareness to Egyptian society.

In the endless debate of how to ensure Jewish continuity there are those who opt to isolate themselves, to protect the spiritual integrity of those who are already committed to a Torah lifestyle, versus those who insist on spreading the word to the entire world, even at the risk of exposure to spiritual challenges.

Yosef’s priority was to remember his roots and never lose touch with his spiritual sensitivity, and named his eldest Menashe. Yaakov, as the leader and prophet of the generation, placed a premium on Yosef’s success in his mission to bring divine morals and ethics to a place of darkness and depravity, and placed his right hand on Ephraim.

Although our main purpose is to bring the light of Judaism to every corner of the earth, at the same time it is crucial to immunize ourselves to the challenges that abound outside the cocoon of spiritual bliss.

We must strike the winning balance.

Long Term Inspiration

 

When saying farewell there is often an urge to share something meaningful to make the separation less painful. An anecdote, lesson for life or even a joke can do the trick, but then there are parting words that can change the course of history.

In this week's parsha, Yaakov and Yosef’s long and painful seperation comes to a happy ending. After revealing himself to his brothers in one of the most dramatic episodes recorded in the Torah, Yosef urged them to travel swiftly back to their father to deliver the good news.

When they notified Yaakov that Yosef was alive and the monarch of Egypt, his heart went numb. Only after hearing the details of their discussions and upon seeing “the wagons Yosef had sent to him”, then he rejoiced in the sensational news of the discovery of his long lost son.

Why did Yaakov pause in his reaction and what was so exciting about the wagons?

Our sages explain that when Yaakov realized Yosef had spent twenty two years in Egypt and had risen to such prominence, he feared that his stratospheric promotion came with the deterioration if his moral and ethical lifestyle. After all, Egypt was the global capital of depravity and promiscuity at the time.

But “the wagons” reassured him. The Hebrew word for “wagon” is “Aggala” and the same letters in the identical order can be read as “Egla” which means “calf.” Yosef confided to his brothers that the final Torah lesson he learned from his father was the details of the mitzvah called “Egla Arufa” - the decapitated calf.

During the Holy Temple era, if a Jew was found dead on the road and the murderer was unknown, the elders of the closest village to the crime scene were obligated to bring a calf to the nearest valley, decapitate it, wash their hands over it and announce “Our hands did not spill the blood (of the murdered person) and we did not witness it either.”

While there is certainly no suspicion that the town elders are directly responsible for the murder, there is an obligation for every Jewish community to ensure that passing travelers are well fed, and are escorted on the road for some distance. The elders are announcing that they have done their part in ensuring that no traveler was abandoned. The Mitzvah of “Eglah Arufa” enshrines the communal obligation to provide the needs of every individual, even a traveling stranger.

The spiritual message of this Mitzvah is the importance to provide spiritual nourishment and strength even to Jews who are traveling away from the established Jewish infrastructure. Inspire them to continue learning Torah and doing Mitzvot even in the spiritual wilderness, thereby protecting themselves from foreign influences and enabling them to elevate and transform the spiritual wilderness into a beautiful oasis of goodness and kindness.

By divine providence this was Yaakov's parting message to Yosef before he, unbeknownst to both of them, set out on a physically and spiritually treacherous journey. And the spirit of this message served as his inspiration to not only remain true to his heritage, but to have a positive impact on the entire society as well.

When Yaakov realized this, his spirit was refreshed and he rejoiced in the long awaited reunion.

This lesson beacons to us today to transform every spiritual wilderness into a divine dwelling by doing an extra Mitzvah and learning more Torah every day and to inspire others to do the same.

 

When Contradictions Make Sense

Contradictions are annoying in real life and may be acceptable in the realm of dreams, but there are some contradictions that are entirely implausible to show up even in our wildest imaginations.

In this week’s parsha we learn of two dreams that disturbed Pharaoh’s royal slumber. Seven fat cows emerged from the Nile followed by seven scrawny cows and after standing together, the seven thin cows devoured the fat cows without growing in size.

In his second dream he saw seven healthy, good looking ears of grain growing on a single stalk. Seven gaunt and parched ears of grain sprouted after them and proceeded to swallow the healthy ears of grain without changing at all.

Royally agitated, Pharaoh called for the wise men of Egypt for explanation, rejected their interpretation and became increasingly angry and desperate to discover the truth. Finally, the royal butler informed him of the Hebrew slave languishing in prison who was an accomplished dream interpreter and Pharaoh sent for Yosef at once.

Yosef explained that the seven fat cows and good looking ears of grain represent years of plenty and the seven scrawny cows and gaunt ears of grain refer to seven years of famine.The purpose of the vision was so that Pharaoh prepare for the famine years by storing away the enormous surplus of the years of plenty in a responsible manner to provide for the terrible famine years to come.

Satisfied, Pharaoh immediately freed Yosef from servitude and appointed him viceroy of Egypt, granting him absolute control over his nation to implement the fourteen year plan for saving Egypt and the rest of civilization.

Yosef’s interpretation was so elementary and simple, it is shocking that the wise men of Egypt could not think of it on their own? Did they really need the services of a Hebrew slave?

One detail of the dreams confounded the Egyptian wise men: the fact that the seven healthy cows stood together with the seven scrawny cows. They initially understood that the groups of cows refer to years of plenty and famine respectively, but failed to comprehend how they could stand together. Years of plenty and years of famine happening together at the same time is an impossibility even in the most wildest of imaginations!

Yosef explained that Pharaoh’s dream was not merely a product of his imagination, but a divine message. During the years of plenty Egypt must prepare intensively for the upcoming famine by storing the surplus instead of indulging in it so that the extra food will save them during the years of famine. In this way, the years of famine are the national focus during the years of plenty and the years of plenty continue to impact the seven year famine.

Whereas contradictions may confound conventional minds and even our imaginations, G-d teaches us how two opposites can thrive in tandem. While logic dictates that Torah and Mitzvos cannot survive, let alone thrive outside the metaphorical ghetto, the opposite is true. In the spirit of Chanukah, just as light is not intimidated by darkness, the truth of Torah need not be compromised to impact the entire world.

 

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