Perseverence Vs. Perfection – An Essay on Vayigash – Kabbalah, Chassidism and Jewish Mysticism –

Posted By on December 16, 2020

Parshat Vayigash deals primarily with the events surroundingJacobs arrival in Egypt. After many tribulations, Joseph reconciles with hisbrothers, Jacob arrives in Egypt and finally reunites with Joseph, and thestory comes to a close. By the time we reach Parshat Vayechi, we arealready dealing with Jacobs death and his final reckoning with his sons.

Asa rule, the haftarahtraditionally associated with each parshah emphasizes the central elements of that parshah asunderstood by our sages, and in effect constitutes a form of interpretation ofthe entire parshah.Sometimes the connection between the haftarah and parshah is clear and obvious, and sometimes it is soremote that, in order to understand why the sages paired a particular haftarahwith a particular parshah,one must sit down and think. In the case of the haftarah associated with Parshat Noach, for example, the only similarity to the parshahseems to be the appearance of the words the waters of Noah.When there are divergent opinions and customs regarding which haftarah weread as in the cases of Parshat Vayishlachor Parshat Vayeitzei,for example these disputes usually revolve around the question ofwhat the parshahsessential point is.

Theessence of ParshatVayigash would appear to be the descent to Egypt, but the haftarah,which relates Ezekiels prophecy of the stick of Judah and the stick ofEphraim, shifts the focus away from this subject to the meeting, or perhapsclash, of Joseph and Judah. This, according to the haftarah, is the essence ofthe parshah;everything else is ancillary material.

The Joseph-Judah relationship and the points atwhich their paths converge continue throughout history. From the sale of Josephonward, Judah and Joseph constantly interact with each other, and their relationshipcontinues in various forms. Here, in Parshat Vayigash, their interaction is a confrontation,as the Midrash comments, Then Judah went up to him advancingto battle. TheMidrash views this confrontation as a momentous event, adding, For lo, thekings converged thisrefers to Judah and Joseph; they grew angry together thisone was filled with anger for that one, and that one was filled with anger forthis one.This is an epic clash between two kings, one that continues to occur in variousforms throughout history.

Thereare times and places where the Joseph-Judah relationship is one of cooperationand even love. In the battle against Amalek, the leadership of the People ofIsrael consists of Moses, Aaron, and two other people: Chur, a member of the tribe ofJudah, stands by Moses side opposite Aaron, while Joshua, from the tribe ofJoseph, leads the actual war. This connection appears again in the story of thespies, where Joshua and Caleb are the only two spies who refrain fromspreading calumnies about the land.Moses himself is connected by blood to the tribe of Judah (Aaron married thesister of the tribes prince, Nachshonthe son of Aminadav, and Miriam, Chursmother, was married to Caleb the son of Yefuneh). On the other hand,Joshua of the tribe of Joseph is his close disciple.

Thisduality does not end there but continues through the generations. The ShilohTabernacle stood in the territory of Ephraim for over 300 years, whereas theTemple was built in Jerusalem, on the border of the territories of Judah andBenjamin.The dirges of Ezekielfeature the sisters Ohola and Oholiva, who correspond to the kingdoms of Judahand Israel: Ohola is Samaria, and Oholiva is Jerusalem.In the royal house, although Saul is not from a tribe of Joseph, he is adescendant of Josephs mother Rachel, while David is from the tribe of Judah.The encounter between them is one of antagonism, but, as if to balance out thatanimosity, we read of a parallel and opposite relationship: the friendship andlove between Jonathan and David. There is Joshua and there is Caleb; the tribeof Judah and the tribes of Joseph; the Kingdom of Judah and the Kingdom ofIsrael; David and Jonathan. We see that this duality is woven throughout ourhistory, to the point that we ourselves are an example of it: The Jewish peopletoday consists solely of descendants of Judah and Benjamin.

Thiscomplicated relationship between Joseph and Judah, in all its manifestations,continues to persist, and will continue until the end of days: Even oureschatological texts describe a division between the Messiah son of David andthe Messiah son of Joseph.

The meeting of Joseph and Judah in Parshat Vayigashilluminates one aspect of their relationship. On the larger historical plane,Joseph possesses an aspect of glory that Judah lacks, in the real sense and inthe esoteric sense. At their first meeting, members of the tribe of Josephalmost always overshadow members of Judah. Even from birth, Joseph has anadvantage: He is smarter, more handsome, more successful, and more loved. Inthis respect he lives up to his characterization as the sun in his famousdream, in that he is far more lustrous than his peers, while Judah appearsinferior from the very beginning.

Thisparadigm follows here as well. How do they meet? Joseph, unofficially the kingof Egypt, meets with Judah, a peasant shepherd from some remote place. Josephstands there in all his glory, and facing him, Judah went up to him.

What,in comparison to Joseph, does Judah have to offer? What is unique about him? Itappears that Judahs unique point is continuity and endurance. Judahperseveres, as he did when he admitted his responsibility to Tamar, and this isa point that can be observed in the cases of many other members of his tribe.Joseph outshines Judah with respect to glory, but as for perseverance andstaying power and the eternityrefers to Jerusalem Joseph,for all his nobility, does not measure up.

Judahperseveres because he has the advantage of being able to fall, as it says,Though he may fall, he is not utterly cast down.When Judah falls, he is able to get up again. This is Judahs special quality;it is part of his essence.

Thepoint of Judah went up to him is that Judah, in spite of being a person ofminor importance the contrast between his and Josephs appearancemust have been striking nevertheless dares to approach the king. Tosome extent, this evokes the way in which Saul meets with David. Saul is theking, and David is a youth brought in from tending the flock to entertain Saul.

Intrinsicto Joseph and his descendants is a sort of perfection, but this perfection isvery fragile: When something breaks, they are unable to fix it. For Joseph,every situation is all or nothing, whereas Judah is adept at raising himself upagain.

Foran example of this dichotomy, one must look no further than Saul and David.Saul and David both sinned. The difference between them is the following: AfterSaul breaks once, he breaks again a second time and a third time. Though Saulcame from a distinguished family and was considered of greater stature thanall the people acourageous warrior; a humble, modest, and worthy individual; a puresoul when he falls, he is unable to get up. When Saul sins, hereaches a state in which he is ready to die and is also willing to accept theentire punishment he deserves. In contrast, when David sins, he draws newwisdom and maturity from the experience, penning the book of Psalms in itswake. This is quite an accomplishment! King David can sink low, but he canchannel that low point in his life into real spiritual growth. This is somethingthat Joseph, by his very nature, cannot do.

Thisdifference surfaces again when the Kingdom of Israel is divided in two, withthe House of Joseph and the House of Judah going separate ways. Upon readingthe assessment of the midrashim of the characters involved, it is clear whomour sages favored.

Yerovamis an exalted and impressive figure, a man chosen by God to rule over the tentribes of Israel. No matter what we think of him, he is certainly anextraordinary personality, as demonstrated by a series of talmudic anecdotes:He is capable of rebuking King Solomon when the latter is at the height of hisglory. When Yerovam is together with Achiyahthe Shilonite, all the wise men are like the grass of the field in comparisonwith them, andGod says to Yerovam, Repent, and then I and you and the son of Jesse willstroll together in the Garden of Eden.

FacingYerovam is Rechavam.Who is Rechavam?On the whole, he is a man who is a bit confused, who does not know what to doexactly with the fairly large kingdom that he inherited and which, throughill-advised harshness and imprudent softness, he manages to lose. Besides this,we are told little of Rechavam.

Nevertheless,Yerovam who certainly was a great man and a far greater scholarthan Rechavam isamong those who have no share in the World to Come. He sinned and caused othersto sin, and there is no way to atone for this. Rechavam may not have been arighteous king or an especially significant king, but he carried on the line ofthe House of David. No royal line of the kings of Joseph manages to last morethan a few generations. By contrast, the kings of the House ofDavid who certainly count some wicked men in their number areable to build a stable dynasty, and are able, ultimately, to persevere.

Elishab. Avuyah, the tannaitic apostate known as Acher (literally, Other), wassimilar to Yerovam in this sense. He was perhaps the most brilliant man of hisgeneration and was younger than all the other scholars with whom he wouldconfer. According to his own account,Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer attended his circumcision; thus, they werealready scholars when he was born. But Elisha b. Avuyah could not toleratea world that lacked perfection, and when he discovers that there are problemsin the world, he begins to fall apart. And when he falls apart, he cannotrecover from the fall.

Thisconception of perfection is reflected in a saying of his: One who learns whenyoung, to what may he be compared? To ink written on fresh paper. But one wholearns when old, to what may he be compared? To ink written on paper that hasbeen erased.Elisha b. Avuyah does not want to write on erased paper; he wants ink writtenon fresh paper. He is saying and this is part of hispersonality that since he has been erased once, he cannot rewritehimself. By contrast, Rabbi Akiva is like Judah, a peasant from anundistinguished family. Unlike Elisha b. Avuya, who came from one of theprominent families of Jerusalem, Rabbi Akiva was the son of converts.Throughout his life, Rabbi Akiva broke not just once but several times,including during difficult events in his personal life, yet he always overcamehis setbacks.

Joseph was a true tzaddik. Sometimes thisidentity is apparent in a persons character from birth, and it is immediatelyclear that this person is innately good. There is a type of personality forwhom perfection is innate. Jonathan, Sauls son, seems to fit thischaracterization he is a person with no apparent defects.

Letus note, however, that such a person a man who bears an aspect ofperfection by his very nature, who was born with all the great gifts and whoexercises them in perfect fashion must be judged by his ability toremain at this level. Possessing all the virtues is not enough if he is unableto rectify himself the moment he becomes flawed.

In nature, too, there are structures that do not reachperfection by way of development but, rather, emerge perfect from the outset.The Talmudmentions the possibility of using an egg to support the leg of a bed. Thistalmudic statement is strange and surprising. After all, even if this werepossible, who would use an egg to support the leg of a bed? But the truth isthat from a physical standpoint, an egg is one of the most perfect structuresin existence. The only problem is that an eggs strength depends on itscomplete integrity. It is like a dome: The moment one stone falls, the wholestructure collapses. This is often the nature of this kind of perfection: Itcan last only as long as there is no flaw.

Inthis sense as is evident from their interaction before and afterthis point the relationship of Joseph and Judah is that of a tzaddik anda baal teshuva.The story of Judah and Tamar compared to the story of Joseph and Potifars wifeis a striking example of this relationship.

Judahscharacter seems to deteriorate. He sells Joseph, which is a particularlydespicable act. His conduct with Tamar demonstrates a moral deficiency as well.Nevertheless, he is also capable of confronting Joseph Judah wentup to him. Here is a person who has quite a few matters on his conscience andan unsavory past. We might have expected him to sit quietly on the sidelines,but as we see, he takes action instead.

Judahnot only puts his life on the line but is also willing to face up to his pastactions. The wide gulf between those actions and his present conduct isprecisely what defines Judahs essence. The Midrashcomments that Joseph attempted rightfully to silenceJudah, asking him, Why are you speaking up? You are neither the eldest nor thefirstborn. So what are you doing? Let your eldest brother Reuben speak. Why doyou even have the right to open your mouth? Yet Judah, despite all hisbaggage, rises anew, ready to come to grips with whatever he must face. That isJudahs strength. By contrast, Joseph by nature and as a matter ofprinciple cannot change, cannot be flexible. He is a perfectionist,and this is precisely what breaks him.

TheTalmudrecounts an interesting conversation between Elisha b. Avuyah and Rabbi Meir.Elisha b. Avuyah asks Rabbi Meir to interpret the verse, Gold and glass cannotmatch its value, nor can vessels of fine gold be exchanged for it.Rabbi Meir responds, This refers to Torah matters, which, like vessels ofgold, are hard to acquire, but like vessels of glass are easily lost. Elishab. Avuyah says to him, Rabbi Akiva, your master, did not interpret that way,but, rather, Both vessels of gold and vessels of glass, if broken, can berepaired. One can melt them and form them anew. But there are vessels such as those of clay, mother of pearl, or even diamond that, afterbeing broken, remain forever broken. One cannot do anything about it; thedefect remains a defect.

Weread in MegillatEsther, But Mordechai neither bowed down nor prostrated himself.On the one hand, this conduct reflects his strength and glory; but on the otherhand, it gets him into trouble: According to the Talmud,the Jews became furious with him for not acquiescing to Hamans demands. Whydid you get us into all of this trouble? they cried. Bow down! Mordechai iscast in the same mold as his ancestors Saul and Joseph before him. He is calledMordechai the tzaddik,and tzaddikimoften cannot abide even the slightest flaw. Mordechais essential naturerequires that he be perfect.

Beforegoing out to his last battle, Saul knows that he and his sons are going to die,and he does not care. An aspect of strength and idealism accompanies this manthroughout his life even at his fall. Just like Elisha b. Avuyah,Saul does not act in half measures; if his flaws cannot be correctedcompletely, then he does not want them corrected at all. He aims for thehighest heights, but if he cannot achieve this, he will consign himself to thelowest depths. To go halfway is not an option.

Bycontrast, for someone like Judah the true baal teshuva theexistence of flaws is intrinsic to him and to his personality. If he did nothave flaws, he would not be who he is. The baal teshuva thrives on hisability to deconstruct his personality in order to reshape it in another form,to make changes within himself.

Judahbegins entirely from below. Like David, he comes from following the flock;he begins from nothing. Judah is neither the firstborn nor the most physicallyimposing of Jacobs children. However, he prevailed over his brothers (I Chr. 5:2), and hecontinuously perseveres, generation after generation.

Joshua and Caleb seem similar, to a large degree.However, though the Talmud likens Joshua to Moses, saying, Moses countenancewas like that of the sun; Joshuas countenance was like that of the moon, Joshua hadno children. Caleb had a son and a brother he had successors,generation after generation. Not all of his descendants were important orsignificant people, and most certainly did not measure up to his eminence, butCalebs essence lived on. When Joshua died, however, only a tombstone remained.After the tribes of Joseph were smashed and exiled, they did not return home.We who are basically the Kingdom of Judah had our firstTemple destroyed, but we built the Second Temple. We were exiled again for aperiod of time, but once again, we are returning.

WhereverJudah and Joseph interact, it is a meeting between perfection and adaptability.Throughout history, Joseph represents splendor, even heroism. In contrast,Judah is flawed and beleaguered, beset with difficulties; but in the end, Judahalways prevails.

At the end of the parshah, there is a sectionthat the commentators discuss extensively, even though it seems to have littleto do with the main theme of the parshah, and is connected to a different aspectof the relationship between Judah and Joseph.

Theentire final section of Parshat Vayigash is the story of how Joseph handlesEgyptian politics for Pharaoh and how he governs the Egyptians. That Joseph wasa powerful ruler over the entire land has already been stated, but here we finda whole story about how Joseph interacts with the Egyptians.

Shortlybefore this story, the Torah states, And he [Jacob] sent Judah before him untoJoseph, to show the way before him unto Goshen.Where do Judah and Joseph stand at this juncture?

Incontrast to Judah, Joseph is practically a king. He speaks seventy languages,while Judah no doubt stammers in the only language he knows. But that is notthe point. Here we see that Joseph acts not only in his own interest; rather,he tries to rectify the world. Joseph endeavors on behalf of the entire countryand puts it back on its feet. While Joseph is saving the country, Judah bringsthe family to the land of Goshen, where they organize themselves in their ownmatters. While Joseph is engaged in a great undertaking, Judah deals with thesmall matters: his flock, his herd, and the question of how to support thefamily.

Theinterpretation by our sagesthat Jacob sent Judah in order to establish a house of study does not affectthe analysis. The same conclusion emerges: Joseph is not just the mostsuccessful son in his family. He is a man who concerns himself with the wholeworld, while Judah concerns himself with parochial Jewish pursuits. WhereasJoseph is universal, Judah is only a Jew, engaging in his own pursuits and hisown matters.

Onthe surface it appears that Joseph, the man of the world, is the hero of thisnarrative, while Judah is of minor importance. Precisely here, the haftarahplays a crucial role, presenting the differences in the nature and character ofJudah and Joseph as fundamental distinctions between two parallel worlds. Whenthe Judah-Joseph duality is viewed under a different light, as it is in the haftarah,we see the world of Joseph who transcends his own individuality andrepresents a whole way of being and a world of Judah, whose essenceis that he begins from below, from crisis, from distress, and from the minutiaeof life.

WhatJoseph does almost instantly takes Judah several generations to accomplish.Even when Judah builds, the building is not straight; his progress ischaracterized by ups and downs. But which is the ideal path, the worldview thatwe should adopt and strive for? Neither the book of Genesis nor the Torah as awhole presents a clear answer to this question.

WhenJacob blesses his sons before his death and gives Judah and Joseph the biggestand most significant blessings, they are on equal ground, one facing the other.Evident in the blessings to Joseph is not just greater love for this son; theyare blessings of tremendous scope Jacob grants him heaven andearth: May your fathers blessing add to the blessing of my parents, to theutmost bounds of the everlasting hills. May they rest on Josephs head, on thebrow of the elect of his brothers.He gives him everything that can possibly be given. Correspondingly, Judahreceives eternity: The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the rulersstaff from between his feet.Joseph is given grandeur, while Judah is given eternity.

Theconclusion is not found in this parshah, nor in the book of Genesis, nor anywhere in theentire Torah. The final reckoning is that of the Messiah: Who will be the trueMessiah? Since this reckoning moves back and forth over the generations, it isclear that Joseph and Judah are equals: It is the ultimate conflict between theperfect and the imperfect, between those who begin with a stacked deck andthose who forge themselves.

The haftarah presents Judah and Joseph as two branches, andthe conflict between them is not personal but, rather, a conflict betweenessential natures. It is very difficult for them to join together, because theyare two different character types that cannot be integrated.

Thehaftarahconcludes that in this disagreement, although from time to time the scales tipto the stick of Judah or the stick of Joseph, it is impossible to truly favorone side or the other. According to the haftarah, ideally the twoaspects should be able to work together, as the Likkutei Torah writesregarding the verse, We will add circlets of gold to your points of silver.

Inall the texts that deal with this subject, it is clear that there will be nosolution to this question until the end of days. This conflict, like thedispute for the sake of Heaven of Shammai and Hillel,will ultimately endure.

Whenwe say that these two aspects should go together, the meaning is not that theyshould be joined together like two planks, forcing each to adapt to the natureof the other. When the stick of Judah and the stick of Joseph join together,they should each exist independently, but side by side, in the perfect harmonyof a string quartet. Judah and Joseph represent two different elements, each ofwhich retains its distinctness. The inevitable internal conflict in thiscoexistence is the very thing that creates the beauty.

InJosephs case, there is an element of great tragedy. People who possess thecharacter traits of Joseph are incomparable in their splendor and virtualperfection. They are radiant suns, but they have no way of recovering from afall. Must it always be that those of us who approach closest to perfection arealso the most fragile among us? Will the spiritual descendants of Joseph neverbe able to lift themselves up and repair themselves?

Apparently,until the end of time, these two types will remain: one who is characterized bywholeness and perfection, and one who is characterized by fault and repair; onewho draws his strength from his perfection, and the other, from the power ofrenewal. These two will never completely unite, but together they comprise thetension that makes our lives so vibrant. We live between Judah and Joseph, andwhen the two elements work in perfect tandem, the symphony of life is formed.

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Perseverence Vs. Perfection - An Essay on Vayigash - Kabbalah, Chassidism and Jewish Mysticism -

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