19th of KislevBlog PostsChassidut

19 Kislev: Prisoners’ Solidarity – Redoubling our Efforts – Part 2

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Rabbi Shneur Zalman coined the phrase, “living with the times” which means to live life in the light of the weekly Torah portion; and to see it as an indicator for all that happens to us throughout the week—both on a personal and national level.

Indeed, the date when Rabbi Shneur Zalman was released from prison usually falls during the week of the Torah portion of Vayeshev, which relates how Joseph was imprisoned in the Egyptian jail. Joseph is the most prominent righteous Biblical figure who was sent to jail. Since Joseph and until today, there is a long list of exemplary Jewish figures who have undergone similar experiences, and Rabbi Shneur Zalman is the most prominent of them all.

As explained in Part 1 of this article, Rabbi Shneur Zalman did not satisfy himself with quietly returning home after he left the prison. Just like the righteous Joseph who removed his prisoners’ clothing and instantly donned the royal robes as Pharaoh’s second-in-command, Rabbi Shneur Zalman turned the entire episode of his imprisonment into a springboard to increase his efforts to spread the wellsprings of Chassidut.

It is not difficult to identify another similarity between the two figures. Apart from the title “Righteous” that Joseph deserved and received, Joseph was also a remarkably wise man whose Divine wisdom astonished even non-Jews. So too, Rabbi Shneur Zalman was a righteous and wise figure who impressed even the Russian interrogators with his wisdom.

Fleeing Outside

Let’s now continue to “live with the times,” and join up with the righteous Joseph as his righteousness came to the fore. The climax of the description of Joseph’s righteousness comes after Potiphar’s wife attempted to seduce him, in the verse, “And he left his garment in her hands and he fled and he exited outside.” [1] Running away and leaving the house was the hardest part of withstanding the test, and once he was outside, the worst was already behind him.

We might say that Joseph succeeded in fleeing outside of this world. Potiphar’s wife was the crème de la crème of Egyptian culture, and high society at its best. For Joseph, she represented all the irresistible temptations that the world has to offer. “The eye perceives and the heart desires”― usually the eyes are captured by all the delicacies of the world and the heart is gradually tempted towards them. But, Joseph succeeded in being faithful to his father’s home and ignored the demands of the physical world by simply leaving it for another world.

How did Joseph do this? To be sure, he must have had a great deal of will-power. But, behind the scenes lies a profound wisdom, a complete world view, which both knows how to laugh at the world and simultaneously flee from it. It is Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezeritch [2] who reveals this secret to us, quoting the sages’ words (also mentioned by Rashi), stating that Joseph almost failed the test, had it not been for the appearance of his father’s image before him at the very last minute. [3] Rabbi Dov Ber explains that a truly righteous individual, a tzadik, knows that every phenomenon in the world is rooted in holiness. Even those absolutely evil phenomena that we are commanded to flee from like we flee from fire, have in them a “spark” of holiness that has fallen from upon high and has descended to be cloaked in this evil garb. Joseph saw before him a temptress, who attempted to wile him away from sanctity by the power of her beauty. But, Joseph knew that this was impure beauty with evil intentions, and he reminded himself that this false beauty covered a fallen spark of sanctity, and was nothing more than a false replica of true and holy beauty. He knew that true beauty and harmony of the correct blend of pure and holy attributes are those represented by his father Jacob.

This is how Rabbi Dov Ber interprets the midrash that Jacob’s image appeared to Joseph and saved him from being lured into Potiphar’s wife’s net. Joseph succeeded in “elevating the attribute to its source,” and instead of looking at the woman’s external beauty, he clung to the inner dimension of beauty that lies beyond the world we live in—a material world that threatens to dazzle us with superficial beauty. In other words, by disassembling the situation into its primary components, Joseph succeeded in annulling these temptations, and redirected them to the path of holiness.

Out of this World

The word “outside” (הַחוּצָה) is familiar to us from another Biblical context. If we go back, we find that the original appearance of this word is with reference to Abraham, as the verse states: “And God took him outside and said: Please gaze at the sky and count the stars, can you count them? And He said to him: This is how your offspring will be.” [4]

Where did God take Abraham “outside” to? Rashi states:

Literally this means that He took him out of his tent to see the stars. But, the homiletic explanation [i.e., the Midrash] is that He said to him, “Go out of your astrology where you saw in the stars that you will never have a child. Abram does not have a child, but Abraham will have a child… Another explanation is that He took him out of this world and elevated him above the stars, and this is the meaning of the verb “to gaze” (הַבָּטָה)―[to look] down from above.

The first homiletic interpretation is that, in his great wisdom, Abraham reached the clear conclusion that he and Sarah would never have children. But, God took him outside of this world view. In modern vernacular, the implication of the second interpretation, “out of this world” is “out of the cosmos,” which resembles infinity; but in truth is finite and also follows the limitations of the laws of nature. Abraham’s initial faith in God could not completely ignore those limitations, because, after all, he realized that God created a finite, limited system with its own set of laws. However, God showed Abraham that he can leave this world completely, and rise beyond any limitations, in order to create the world anew (as it were). Abraham’s reaction to this revelation is “And he believed in God,”[5] this was the birth of pure Jewish faith which believes in the ability to defy the laws of nature.

So, both Abraham and Joseph went “outside,” and their exits complement one another. Abraham confronted idolatry, and he brought the world the light of belief in one God which provides us with a precedent that teaches us how to leave this world and redesign it. Joseph was confronted by adultery, and instructed us how to discover our inner power to overcome the evil inclination and leave this world of temptations. Both of these aspects are explicitly stated by the sages in the verse, “Do not follow your hearts and your eyes…”[6] “‘After your heart,’ refers to heresy and ‘After your eyes’ refers to contemplating sin [i.e., promiscuity].” [7]

A Leverage Point

What happens once we have succeeded in going outside, beyond our regular worldview, and accepted the fact that the Almighty’s omnipotence goes far beyond the laws of nature that He Himself set? The answer relates to the ability to overturn our perspective of the world in order to achieve the outcome that God desires.

Abraham began within this world. He recognized his Creator and progressed further and further in his faith, until he reached the summit of leaving this world. Similarly, the righteous Joseph was immersed in Potiphar’s home and was almost completely swallowed up by it, until when put to the test he succeeded in fleeing and stepping outside, beyond his limits. But, as we realign our perspective of Abraham and Joseph with the same implausible viewpoint that is “out of this world,” we suddenly discover that that same viewpoint is actually hidden deep within this world. From this perspective, the entire world is nothing but an exterior shell that hides the awareness of Godliness.

For a Jew with a focused perspective, the inner dimension is the world we know, and everything beyond it is on the outside. This includes the world of faith and Torah, the World to Come and many other possible worlds. But, the truth is that a Jew can also look at this world as an “external” entity that his soul has been sent to. This idea is expressed in the sages’ statement, “This world is like a corridor that leads to the World to Come.” [8] Indeed, there are those who truly feel that they are just momentary visitors in this world, or, more precisely, they are just emissaries whose task it is to disseminate the Torah’s secrets out here, in this world.

Archimedes said that if he had a leverage point beyond the planet earth, he would be able to move it away from its orbit. Abraham’s and Joseph’s escape from this world teach us that every Jew has a leverage point such as this, not just beyond the planet, but beyond the cosmos as well. He can therefore be “released” from the world, leave it, and then return to it from a completely new perspective. So, we can perceive the world either as “inside” or “outside,” like a piece of clothing that can be turned inside-out, as Joseph apparently left his own garment in Potiphar’s wife’s hands.

Returning to the account mentioned in Part 1, Mashiach told the Ba’al Shem Tov that he will come “when your wellsprings disseminate outwards,” and the most literal explanation of these words is that the wellsprings—of faith and the inner dimension of the Torah—will burst outside from inside each of us. The world outside is like a field of action that we must go outside of ourselves in order to reach. This power to go outside stems from Abraham’s and Joseph’s power to go outside, beyond the limitations of this world. At first, they exited the world, dissipating its material lure, and loudly proclaimed, “There is none else besides God!” Once they stepped out of this world, they realized that their true place is beyond the world; the same place where every Jewish soul is carved from. From  outside the world, we then turn to face the world, in order to join the outside to its inner source .

On the one hand, our pillar of faith has the ability to annul all of reality, to elevate everything to its source and root by closing our eyes and loudly proclaiming, “Hear o’ Israel… God is one.” The second pillar of Torah and Chassidut is the realization that we have control over the leverage point beyond the world that Archimedes coveted, and we can “overturn the world” by disseminating the innermost wellsprings into the outermost places. This is the ability to bring about the genuine and complete redemption that we yearn for, together with the arrival of Mashiach and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, speedily and in our days.

From 19th Kislev farbrengen, Joseph’s Tomb, 5751

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