What do you really want? It’s not a simple question. If you take, for example, someone who loves her friends and family and get her to ask herself whether living for the feeling of closeness is what it is all about, sometimes the answer is, “I don’t know”. This is sometimes the result of her asking herself another, far more basic question: “Do I really live in a way in which I am totally dependent on other people for my sense of purpose? There are people who live for the satisfaction that their work gives them. “It feels good to express your potential and doing it successfully is marvelous. You still may find that the answer may be a question. He may ask himself, “Do I really live for the feeling of achievement?”
Today’s parshah begins by telling us that Yaakov lived. Of course, he had the almost unimaginable joy of bringing up a family that could be the foundation of a great nation, one in which each one is a tzadik in his own way. He was reunited with Yosef, who exemplified the ideals that he lived for. He had every reason to feel profound satisfaction with his life. The Torah presents him with words that seem to have nothing to do with really living. “And Yaakov lived in the Land of Egypt”. There are two ways to hear this statement. One fits right into the way you would generally think. Yosef was in Egypt. After so many years of anguish at last, they are reunited. Not only are they reunited, but he discovers that Yosef is still Yosef, that none of his exposure to the worst of the worst at the most vulnerable age, and after base betrayal by his own brothers changed him. What could make Yaakov feel really alive more than that?
The Sfas Emmes questions this assumption. Yaakov knew that when he went down to Egypt that he was beginning a story that didn’t have an easy narrative. He knew about the prophecy that there would be enslavement, suffering and estrangement. He was a man of truth, and a man whose vision went beyond his personal life. How alive could he feel when he knew that he was leading his family into tragedy? He answers that if you are a person of faith, you can feel a sense of purpose and vivacity (what a word for being alive!) even in Egypt. Being alive for a human isn’t all that different than for a tree. If you are connected to your roots in the earth you can stay alive. If you aren’t dead it is just a matter of time. Hashem is the root of all life; the reason that you feel so much joy from love and success is that they both mirror Hashem’s middos, which are embedded in your soul. The more you have connection to this inner reality, the less the outside world will change your inner peace.
Every so often things happen that make you aware of how involved Hashem is in the life of ordinary people even in today’s world. Rav Melech Biderman is a bright light. He is like the rebbe’s of old (although he is not a rebbe) who made their life’s work bringing a sense of Hashem’s presence to people who are not up there on top of the invisible roster of Greats. He told the following two stories that I want to share with you.
A man named Rav Druck lives in Ramat Shlomo is a wonderful baal chessed and a real scholar. His elderly father lives in Netanya, and has great pleasure in inviting his children and grandchildren (and great grandchildren) over for a yearly Chanukah party. Last year was no exception. Rav Druck also has a daughter who lives in Neve Yaakov. She is a single parent of several young children, and her life by the nature of things isn’t all roses. On the way to Netanya, Rav Druck’s daughter and son in law had an idea. They would drop in by her sister, who found it too hard to travel to Netanya with her little kids, and liven things up. They followed up and came with treats, music and sang and played with the kids. When Rav Druck’s daughter looked at her watch and saw that it was getting late, she told her husband, “We have to leave now. The direct bus to Netanya leaves at 6:15”. As soon as they heard this, the kids began to cry. They didn’t want their world to revert to the quiet evenings that they were used to. Her husband realized that they were far more needed in Neve Yaakov than they would be in the crowded and jovial scene in Netanya. “Let’s stay here tonight. It’s a bigger mitzvah”. The bus that they missed was in a terrible accident, (one that made all of the papers here in Israel). They have no pretense of knowing why the accident happened, or why other people had to suffer whatever they suffered. The only thing they know is that when they did what they were sure (to the best of their ability to know) what was closest to Hashem’s will, He did the equivalent of saying “yes”.
When I heard Rav Biderman tell the story, at first I was very surprised that he used real names rather than hiding behind names that were made up, or anonymity. I listened again, and the second time I heard the story (it was recorded) I understood. His message was, “this is real. It happened. Not thousands of years ago. Now. To people you may have walked by. To people who are just like you”.
Story 2 is saved for next week. Stay tuned.
For those of you in Eretz Yisrael, enjoy the semi lockup. Let it take you where you need to be.