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When Jacob returned to Israel after twenty-two years of being a minority in the city of Haran, where his uncle Laban lived, he said “I sojourned with Laban . . . and I acquired oxen and donkeys, flocks, manservants, and maidservants.[1]
Why did he announce that he had sojourned with Laban, …

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Home » Vayeshev

Vayeshev: Miracle of Survival

Submitted by on November 26, 2006 – 2:49 amNo Comment | 1,346 views

Why?

We Jews have survived the longest and most turbulent exile in history. What inner strength enables our survival? Rejected by host nations, expelled from our homes and reviled by much of society, why haven’t we succumbed?

Many will tell you that persecution inspires resistance. In times of distress we seek refuge in our faith and in each other. They will also tell you that we may have thrived under oppression, but we are wilting under benevolence. The welcoming largess of Western Society is decimating our ranks. Jews intermarry and assimilate in astounding numbers and by the end of the century Jewry in the diaspora may well nigh disappear.

I don’t buy into this hysteria. If Jewish history were subject to statistics we would have long been extinct. On the contrary, despite the comforts of Western Society and prevailing inroads of assimilation many Jews continue to find their roots.

Every year, thousands of Jews, who were born into secular families, raised by secular parents and cultivated by secular values, embrace a Torah way of life. What inspires them? What fans their inner flame? Why is it so tenacious? Why is it not silenced by decades of assimilation?

Master, Not Mastered

We did not enter into exile by our own will. It was G-d, who mandated our exile. He only subjected our bodies to the forces and influence of exile, not our souls.

miracle survival - innerstream

The Jewish soul can never be mastered by the travails of exile. It cannot be subdued by persecution or smothered by intermarriage and assimilation. It belongs to G-d. (1)

Joseph in Egypt

Joseph was the very first Jew to be exiled. Joseph was a paragon of virtue in an immoral and unethical world. The Torah testifies that Joseph remained righteous even as he lived in Egypt. He did not succumb to the wiles of his master’s wife or to the decadence of his society. What gave him the moral strength to withstand his temptations? (2)

Joseph was exiled under particularly painful circumstances. His own brothers sold him into slavery. Yet Joseph never resented his brothers. On the contrary, he was grateful to them. “You intended to hurt me,” he told them, “but G-d meant it for good.” (3)

What goodness did the sale of Joseph produce? It lured his father, Jacob, to Egypt. (4)

But wait a second, couldn’t G-d find a more respectable way to bring Jacob to Egypt? Didn’t our long suffering patriarch deserve something more humane? How about Joseph? Did he really need to suffer for twenty-two years only to lure his father to Egypt?

G-d was less concerned with bringing Jacob to Egypt than he was with ensuring that Jacob’s children would not succumb to Egypt. The sale of Joseph secured his children’s legal (halachik) independence even during their enslavement to Egypt. It was precisely this independence that ensured their eventual liberation from Egypt.

The Sale of Joseph

There is no question that selling Joseph into slavery was wrong. Yet with this sale his brothers shaped the character of the Jewish exile. Before they sold Joseph into slavery they took him into captivity and with that, they took de-facto ownership of their brother.

Taking Joseph into captivity was perhaps immoral, but it was not illegal. Legally, Joseph’s captivity designated him a slave to his brothers. Despite his subsequent transfer to foreign masters Joseph remained his brothers’ property because Torah does not recognize the sale of Jewish slaves to non Jewish masters. (5)

Selling a Soul

When he arrived to Egypt he was already indentured. The Egyptians could force him into servitude; they could take possession of his body. But they could not take possession of his person. Legally he belonged to his brothers.

His soul was already spoken for.

It was this contract that gave Joseph the spiritual strength to overcome the allure of Egyptian hedonism. The panoply of Egyptian pleasures didn’t tempt him. He could not sell his soul to Egypt because his soul belonged to G-d.

Joseph transferred this unique status to all Jews, who later followed him into Egypt. He enabled them to live in Egypt, but to avoid its immoral culture. They could be physically enslaved to their masters, but they remained loyal to their heritage. They could not belong to Egypt, they already belonged to G-d. (6)

Indeed, despite the incredible hardships, our ancestors maintained their Jewish identity in Egypt. They never adopted Egyptian names, language or attire. They never fully assimilated. (7)

It is this power that held our people in place throughout our difficult history. Our inner spark cannot be extinguished by the gentile because the gentile doesn’t own it. It is forever indentured to the G-d of Israel.

This is why fully assimilated Jews wake up one morning and hear the call of their soul. Despite a lifetime of secularism we respond to its call. We heed the voice of our soul and return to our original state of equilibrium. (8)

Footnotes

  1. This statement was made by Rabbi Sholom Ber Schneerson, Fifth Rebbe of Lubavitch (1861 – 1920), at a conference of the Russian Interior Ministry. The Czarist government sought to introduce a measure that would enforce secular curricula in Jewish day-schools. A measure the Rebbe and many other Jewish leaders, strenuously opposed. For more detail see Toras Menachem, 1995, Israel, Kehot, v. III p. 210 – 13.
  2. Genesis 39: 7 – 20. His master’s wife attempted to seduce him, but Joseph consistently rejected her advances.
  3. Genesis 50: 20-21. On the literal level Joseph meant to say that his sale into slavery brought him to Egypt, where he was appointed viceroy and was perfectly positioned to save his father and siblings from famine.
  4. Zohar, p. 184a. See also Bab. Talmud, Sotah, 11a.
  5. A Jewish slave, who is sold to a gentile must be redeemed by his former Jewish master and when he returns he is granted immediate emancipation. However, he still requires a contract of liberation from his former master because he remains indentured to his former master even after the sale. See Bab. Talmud, Gittin 43b. See also Likutei Sichos (R. Menachem M Schneerson, Rebbe of Lubavitch, NY, 1902-1994), XX, p. 188, footnote 11.
  6. On the contrary, by Jewish law, the possessions of a slave belong to his master. The Egyptians were enslaved to Joseph, in his day, (Genesis 47: 19 -21) and Joseph was (earlier) enslaved to his brothers. The remarkable conclusion therefore follows that the Egyptian masters were, by Jewish law, the possessions of their Jewish slaves. See Zohar, p. 184a. Or Hachama ibid. Matuk Midvash, ibid.
  7. See Haggadah of Pesach.
  8. This essay is based on Likutei Sichos, XX, p. 187-188.
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