The story is told of a king who once decided to reward a peasant who had done him a great service. "Shall I give him a sack of gold? A bag of pearls?" thought the king. "But these mean virtually nothing to me. I want, for once, to truly give something -- something that I will miss, a gift that constitutes a sacrifice for me."
Now this king had a nightingale who sang the sweetest songs a human ear had ever heard. He treasured the nightingale over all else, and literally found life unbearable without it. So he summoned the peasant to his palace and gave him the bird. "This," said the king, "is in appreciation for your loyalty and devotion." "Thank you, Your Majesty," said the peasant, and took the royal gift to his humble home.
A while later, the king was passing through the peasant's village and commanded his coachman to halt at the peasant's door. "How are you enjoying my gift?" he inquired of his beloved subject. "The truth to tell, Your Majesty," said the peasant, "the bird's meat was quite tough -- all but inedible, in fact. But I cooked it with lots of potatoes, and it gave the stew an interesting flavor."
A Sage Weeps
The story of Joseph revealing himself to his brothers after decades of bitter separation is one of the most dramatic in the entire Torah. Twenty-two years earlier, when Joseph was seventeen years old, his brothers kidnapped him, threw him into a pit, then sold him as a slave to Egyptian merchants. In Egypt he spent twelve years in prison, from where he rose to become viceroy of the country. Now, more then two decades later, the moment was finally ripe for reconciliation.
"Joseph could not hold in his emotions," the Torah relates in this week's portion (1). He dismissed from his chamber all of his Egyptian assistants, "And he began to weep with such loud sobs that the Egyptians outside could hear him. And Joseph said to his brothers: 'I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?' His brothers were so astounded, they could not respond (2)."
The Talmud relates (3) that whenever the great sage Rabbi Elazar came to this verse, "His brothers were so astounded they could not respond," he would burst into weeping. Rabbi Elazar would say, "If the rebuke of a man of flesh and blood (Joseph) is so powerful that it causes so much consternation, the rebuke of G-d (when it comes) will all the more so cause much shame."
Yet, two points in Rabbi Elazar's statement seem to be amiss. Firstly, the verse does not say that Joseph rebuked them. The verse merely states that "Joseph said to his brothers: 'I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?'". Doesn't sound like rebuke to me...
Secondly, the comparison between Joseph's rebuke of his brothers and G-d's rebuke of mankind seems to be exaggerated. The brothers personally sold Joseph into slavery, subjecting him to the worst type of abuse. Therefore they were utterly in shock when they finally faced him. None of us have ever done a similar affront to G-d, as to experience such dread in the face of G-d's rebuke (4).
The Innocent Dreamer
To understand this, we must recall the idea stated a number of times that all of the figures depicted in the Torah are not just physical people who lived at a certain period of time. They also embody particular psychological and spiritual forces, existing continuously within the human heart.
Joseph is described in the Torah (5) as a beautiful and graceful lad, "handsome of form and handsome of appearance (6)," and as a "master of dreams (7)." According to the Kaballah (8), Joseph symbolizes the pure and sacred soul of man, and Joseph's journeys and travails, reflect the individual pathways of the human soul.
Thus, to understand the story of Joseph, we must understand the nature of our own soul.
A Picture of the Soul
What does a soul look like? What elements of our personality can we attribute to our soul? How does one know to discern the voice of his or her soul? No creature has come under such fierce attack in our generation as the "soul." Neuroscientists, behavioral psychologists and biologists have been pontificating for decades that the soul is non existent. We are only machines, measurable by the rods of medical science. Research has attempted to demonstrate that the qualities of mental life that we associate with souls are purely corporeal; they emerge from biochemical processes in the brain. This is starkly demonstrated in cases in which damage to the brain wipes out capacities as central to our humanity as memory, self-control and decision-making.
Yet notwithstanding the enormous literature attempting to disprove the existence of a soul, humans still feel discontent with their description as merely sophisticated machines. The "machine" for some reason stubbornly refuses to accept that it is a machine and it searches.
What is man searching for? We cannot say that we are searching for money and status merely, though it may be one of the things that we are searching for. Nor is it only physical comfort that we crave. We have seen comfortable people who are not happy. We have seen rich people who are unhappy, and we have seen very powerful people who are anxious. There is restlessness, an elusive lack of wholesomeness at the core of our beings. We may concede that there is a lacuna in our "machine."
We go on experimenting with various behaviors to fill the void. We engage in self gratification, in making money, gaining power and earning respect, but they do not do the trick. We travel the universe, literally and figuratively, and we realize that the locations we encounter - call them persons, things, events, circumstances, situations - are not the spots in which we can discover that eluding something which we seem to have lost.
We are searching for our souls.
Take this example: A huge army is being commanded by one individual. What strength does this man have over these millions of people? Mechanistically, physically, materially, economically considered, he has no strength whatsoever. Yet he has strength. Because this individual human being embodies the mission, the vision, the purpose behind the entire army; in his persona are encompassed the myriads of individuals who are driven by the same cause. This is not scientific thinking, because science cannot recognize what it cannot observe and experiment upon, and if we observe an army, experiment upon an army and gaze at an army through a microscope or even a telescope, we will see nothing except a huge mass of people.
But in truth it is not a mass of people; there is something else in it, which is the reason why we do not call it a huge heap of people, but we call it an army.
Science can articulate the "body" of the army, not its soul – its inner identity, its raison d'etre, that invisible thread that transforms millions of people into a cohesive entity.
Human life, too, needs a soul. The human soul constitutes that dimension within ourselves that experience the singular objective of human life, synchronizing the myriad dimensions of the human organism and the fragmented components of our daily lives into an integrated whole. Life without awareness of the soul is like a musician playing scattered noted without a vision and a message integrating them into a singular ballad.
And the "personality" and ambitions of this soul are s quite unique. In the Tanya (9), Rabbi Schnuer Zalman of Liadi (10) defines the soul as a flame that seeks to depart from its wick and kiss the heavens. "The soul," he writes, "constitutes the quest in man to transcend the parameters of his (or her) ego and become absorbed in the source of all existence." The soul envisions the purpose of life as to become one with the Divine.
The sixteenth-century Kabbalist, Rabbi Elazar Azkari (11) wrote a prayer (12) which describes the soul in these words: "My soul is sick with love for you; Oh G-d, I beg you, please heal it by showing it the sweetness of your splendor; then it will be invigorated and healed, experiencing everlasting joy."
The soul, in other words, constitutes that dimension of our psyche that needs not self-aggrandizement, dominance and excessive materialism. It despises politics, manipulation and dishonesty; it is repulsed by unethical behavior and by false facades.
What are its aspirations? The soul harbors a single yearning -- to remain what she really is, a "fragment" of G-d on earth, a reflection of His dignity, integrity, mystery and infinity.
Yet, how many of us are even aware of the existence of such a dimension in our personality? How many of us pay heed to the needs of our soul? In response to the soul's never ending dreams and yearnings that confuse our ego-based schedules and disturb our cravings for instant gratification, we so often take the "Joseph" within us and plunge it into a pit. We attempt to relegate its dreams and passions to the subconscious cellars -- the pit -- of our psyche.
When that does not work, because we can still hear its silent pleas for a change of direction in life, we sell "Joseph" as a slave to a foreign people, allowing our souls to become subjugated to forces and drives that are alien to its very identity.
Can you imagine how horrified you would be if you were to observe somebody taking the little adorable arm of an infant and placing it on a burning stove? The Chassidic masters describe each time we utter a lie, each time we humiliate another human being, each time we sin, as precisely that: Taking the precious innocent spirituality of our soul and putting it through abuse and torture (13). It is an aggressive act against the glue that holds our lives together.
Yet, in each of our lives the moment arrives when our inner "Joseph," who was forced to conceal its truth for so many years, emerges from hiding and reveals to us its identity. At that moment, we come to discover the sheer beauty and depth of our soul and our hearts are filled with shame.
The humiliation the brothers experienced when Joseph revealed himself to them did not stem from the fact that he rebuked them for their selling him into slavery. Joseph's mere appearance to them constituted the most powerful admonishment: For the first time they realized who it was that they subjected to such horrific abuse and their hearts melted away in shame.
Similarly, Rabbi Elazar was saying, when the day will come and we will realize the G-dly and spiritual sacredness of our own inner personalities, we will be utterly astounded. We will ask ourselves again and again, how did we allow ourselves to cast such a beautiful and innocent soul into a dark and gloomy pit (14)?
How did we allow ourselves, we will wonder, to take an inner nightingale, capable of producing the most beautiful of music, and slaughter it like a chicken?
1) Genesis 45:1.
2) Ibid. 45:2-3.
3) Chagigah 4b. Cf. Midrash Rabah Genesis 93:11.
4) This first question is raised in Maharsah to Chagigah ibid. and Shem Mishmuel Vayigash p. 271. The second question is in Or Hatorah Vayigash vol. 5 pp. 1974.
5) Genesis 37:2. Ibid. 39:4-6.
6) Ibid. 39:6.
7) Genesis 37:19.
8) See Torah Or Vayigash p. 44 and references noted there.
9) Chapter 19, based on Proverbs 20:27. Cf. Tanya chapter 2 and 31.
10) 1745-1812. Rabbi Schnuer Zalman was the founder of the Chabad School of mysticism.
11) Author of the famous halachik work Sefer Charadim.
12) It begins with the words "Yedid Nefesh" and is printed in all Siddurim.
13) See Tanya chapters 24 and 31.
14) This essay is based on a note written by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, the Tzemach Tzedek (1789-1866. Published in Or Hatorah ibid.) and on a 1961 discourse by the Lubavitcher Rebbe (Sefer Hamammarim Melukat vol. 5 p. 261). Cf. Sefas Emes and Shem Mishmuel Parshas Vaygiash.