Thursday, February 27, 2020

The Importance of Being Beautiful Inside (Teruma #2)

This week's parsha is a dream come true for those readers out there who love intricate, descriptive detail - you know the people who actually read the descriptions of the whale biology in Moby Dick. For the types of people who prefer dialogue or action or narrative, however, parshas Teruma can be a little harder to study… until one realizes that here too the language is full of meaning and subtext. 

In the second aliyah of the parsha, Hashem provides detailed instructions on the creation of the cover of the aron, the ark. It must be 2 1/2 amos by 1 /2 amos with a cherub coming forth from each end that has all been hammered from one pure gold plate. No soldering allowed. The text goes into great detail about the to cherubim, concluding with the instructions that the two golden angels should face each other. And then comes a seemingly innocent, yet oddly placed, sentence: "Place the cover on top of the aron, after depositing inside the aron the pact [the luchos] that I will give you" (25:21). This would be a strange statement simply for its redundancy, since 25:16 states: "And deposit in the aron the pact which I gave you." 

When you think about it further, it's also just a strange instruction. One is certainly not going to place the cover on the aron before one puts the luchos in.  Hashem didn't expect us to perform magic tricks to put the luchos in the aron. So why is this pasuk here? 

Rabbi Yitzhak Zev Soloveitchik, the Brisker Rav, noted that all of the other vessels of the mishkan could be put to alternate pruposes. The aron, however, was static. It had one purpose and one alone, which was to house the luchos.

Without the luchos, the aron was just a beautifully sculpted box. This fact, this unique lack, is actually an idea that is rife with meaning. From a theological perspective, one could apply a lesson to the era in which we have to fight a societal philosophy that discourages religious belief. In order to keep people coming to services and synagogues and such, it has become common to use promotions and gimmicky ads. More challenging, however, is hearing about Jewish law being made to be accommodating when it suits the needs of increasing attendance numbers or the current political atmosphere. No matter how beautiful the synagogue, how incredible the organization, or how enthusiastic the people, Jewish life without Torah, without our pact with Hashem, is just a lovely vessel.

One can find a similar lesson about our personal behavior. The need for Torah at the heart is a reflection of how Judaism understands the purpose of the Jewish people, of the individual members of our goy kadosh, our holy nation. Our tafkid, our purpose, is to bring kedusha, holiness, to the world. We can only do this if we are in touch with the spark of Torah within ourselves. A person presenting themselves as "religious," but not really embracing Torah in their hearts is like the aron without the luchos. Luckily, just like the aron without the luchos can be filled and propey closed, so too one can, at any time, acquire Torah with a full heart. 

The lessons here are not one sided. The golden beauty of the aron provides us with a separate lesson. Torah is precious. We have to hold on to it, to keep it safe, in a way that demonstrates how glorious it is. This can be understood in physical terms. For example, the idea of hidur mitzvah, of doing mitzvos with the choicest materials available, such as we learn about the process of choosing an esrog. However, it can also be a lesson for how we live our Judaism. Love and joy are precious gold, as compared to the battered wooden box of those who live the mitzvos as a burden. 

These ideas about how a beautiful outside is made significant by a holy inside pairs meaningfully with the two cherubim made from a single piece of gold. While they are angels because the aron was connected with the celestrial realm (thus the place where Hashem’s voice would be heard), their main form was human. The fact that the encasement of the luchos, the treasure box holding our pact with Hashem, is topped by the cherubim might serve as a reminder of the greater importance we must place on bein adam l’chavero over bein adam l’makom (interpersonal mitzvot over mitzvot for Divine connection). For us to flourish in our mitzvos, our behavior has the greatest impact on Hashem’s presence. When we are kind to each other, when we follow the Torah’s guidelines of bein adam l’chaevero, we are like the cherubim stretching toward one another. And it was only when  the cherubim faced one another that Hashem would speak through them. 

One could, therefore say, that the detailed instructions of the mishkan are the first iteration of the golden rule of treating others well. There is no better way to do this than by staying holy in our hearts with the Torah and presenting a beautiful face to those we meet. 

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Mishpatim: Online Rules from the Torah (Mishpatim #2)

The word mishpatim comes from the same root as the word for judge and judging. Perhaps this is one of the main messages of this week’s parsha, that all people need to view the world in the same way as a judge must look at a court case, with the goal of always pursuing justice.
This week’s dvar Torah will focus on the initial verses of chapter 23 (the third chapter of Mishpatim). These verses are interesting because most commentaries appear to presume that these laws are specific for behaviour in a court: "You must not bear false rumors; you shall not join hands with the guilty to act as a malicious witness. You shall neither side with the majority to do wrong - you shall not perverse testimony in dispute so as to pervert it in favor of the majority - nor shall you show deference to a poor man in his dispute" (23:1 - 3). Not once, however, is there a reference to judges or court officials, and while all these rules most certainly apply to officers of the law, the fact is that these commandments are directed at individuals.
We live in a world in which most of us are removed from being part of the legal system. Indeed, many of us have probably had few interactions with the legal system (one hopes) or with beis din. But we live today in a society in which people are highly influenced by the judgements of others. And since we have so much access to each others’ lives, there has never been a more important time to apply the basic civilizing rules of Mishpatim to our lives. Let’s look closer:
23:1) Parents around the world are receiving constant reminders of the danger of cyberbullying to our children. I don’t doubt that it happens to adults as well. Tearing other people down by destroying their character is obviously not a new thing, no more so than bullying, but our highly connected world has ampliphied that damage that can be done and thus we must always have in mind the commandment “You must not bear false rumors (or even true rumors, really); you shall not join hands with the guilty to act as a malicious witness.”
23:2) For the last several decades, we have seen a growing division among people. Those of different political viewpoints seem determined to believe the worst about those who differ from them. Whether you lean left or right, it has become far too easy to get swayed into demonizing the other side. Perhaps more significant is how easy it has become for each side to ignore the behavior of its own leaders, choosing to believe that one’s support needs to be all or nothing. Here we can see the significance of the the posuk: "You shall not side with the majority to do wrong.” We all tend to surround ourselves with like minded people. Being in a so-called echo chamber makes it easy to just agree with the majority opinion, even when one’s gut is telling them that that opinion is wrong. The verse continues: “And you shall not give perverse testimony in dispute so as to pervert it in favor of the majority." The online world is full of clickbait articles, extreme opinions, and funny but difficult to doubt memes that subtly subvert the truth. A quote taken out of context or a news article from an unreliable source can be as damaging as a false testimony, since by sharing we are subtly saying that this is a thought with which we are in agreement.
323:4) Just as the Torah warns against siding with the majority to do wrong, it also says "nor shall you show deference to a poor man in his dispute." While this may seem obvious to some and perhaps subtly unfair to others, this is one of the true beauties of the Torah. This statement is a recognition that it is part of human nature to want to help someone who appears to be in need - meaning both a person who is literally poor or someone viewed as an underdog. One might ask how this could be considered wrong. The answer, however, is in understanding that common culture may determine that someone or some group is the underdog, but just because that appears to be a majority view does not mean it is an accurate view. And even when there is a real underdog, the injustice of society cannot be repaired by unbalanced judgement or action. Society still has rules and both sides must be judged fairly. This imbalance of mob mentality and the act of deferring to the underdog in a dispute can be seen throughout the current North American culture.
One example in which we can see how opinion is affected by false rumors and malicious testimony and has nevertheless because of the power of majority viewpoint is support for the BDS movement. People think, based on one sided information, that by supporting the Boycott Israel movement they are balancing the situation of the Palestinians in comparison to the Isrselis, but, in fact, many of the companies affected by the BDS movement are companies that employ and supply all of the communities in the area. By deferring to the underdog, by assuming one is giving to the Palestinians by boycotting assuming Israel, they have set up a new imbalance that will only lead to more conflict.
From the very inception of the Jewish people, Hashem made it clear that maintaining a just and civil society is not just a good thing to do, but our responsibility and our obligation. He also made it clear that this is not always a simple and natural societal path. Luckily, He also gave us the Torah to serve as a constant guidebook.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

National Purpose (Yisro #2)

What is your purpose in life? We all have our own answers to this question, both broad answers - such as being an aved Hashem (a servant of God) - and more focused answers - such as, perhaps, writing the great American novel. But the reality is that we all find ourselves wondering about our purpose as we, and it, change throughout our lifetimes.
Wanting to understand why we are here and what we should be aiming for is an integral part of human nature. When we don't know our purpose, we risk wandering aimlessly. This is true of individuals and of collective groups of nations such as Klal Yisrael.
Stuck in slavery, the Hebrews were not able to think about their ultimate purpose. They knew, however, that their identity as Bnei Yisrael meant that they had a destiny, that they were meant to be more than slaves. They called out to God, and He sent Moshe to lead them out of slavery and to save them from the Egyptians and the initial perils of the wilderness (the need for food, water, etc). When they arrived at the wilderness at Sinai, Hashem knew that now that their worries of freedom and survival were behind them that they would start to think about their purpose and their goals. Now, therefor, was the time to set before them the Torah, the laws by which He expected them to lead their lives. Before He began transmitting the Aseres Hadibros (Ten Commandments), before He even asked Bnei Yisrael if they would accept His laws, Hashem told Moshe and Aharon to tell Bnei Yisrael what He desires their purpose to be: "And you shall be to Me a ממלכת כהנים kingdom of priests and גוי קדושׁ a holy nation" (19:6).
Accepting the Torah means accepting this eternal purpose for our existence as a people. The two work together. Our purpose is to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, and the framework of what we need to do to accomplish this is laid out in the Torah. So too, the laws of the Torah empower us to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
One might ask, and many commentators do ask, why two different terms are used. One common opinion (e.g. Ramban) is that being a ממלכת כהנים, a nation of priests, is our purpose for Olam Hazeh, because in this world we can be to the world like our kohanim are to Am Yisrael - we can teach and guide and provide avodah to Hashem; while being a גוי קדושׁ, a holy nation, is for Olam Habah, for the next world, since being kadosh is more passive than active.
One could also look at the dual terminology as guidelines for our outer world and our inner world. When dealing with the world at large, we must strive to be a ממלכת כהנים, a kingdom of priests. The term ממלכת (kingdom) is very interesting. It is generally understood that the term melech (king) implies a leader whom the people wish to have rule (as opposed to a moshel, which is a leader who comes to rule because of his power). Perhaps the goal of being a ממלכת כהנים is that the people of the the world will want to look to the Jewish people to represent them in serving Hakodesh Baruch Hu. The only way this happens, however, is by making certain that our inner world is a גוי קדושׁ, a holy nation.
Goy Kadosh is also an interesting term. We generally translate kadosh as holy because it seems the easiest word to use, but often a more accurate translation would be sanctified, a word that implies being set aside for God. That could lead one to think that the ideal is for Bnei Yisrael to be set aside, to isolate themselves in pursuit of kedusha, but Hashem ties kadosh to the word goy - a nation or people, which is a term that can apply to every nation. It is, perhaps, a subtle reminder that being kadosh in Judaism means being connected to the world. We cannot be a goy kadosh without recognizing ourselves among the goyim of the world.
Rabbeinu Bachya also points out that the word גוי can be understood as being possessive and that the term could be translated as “a nation that belongs to the Holy One.” Adding yet another layer to the already rich meaning of this pasuk. Being titled a ממלכת כהנים could give Bnei Yisrael an arrogance to think that they are superior to the world, but Hashem immediately reminds them that what now sets them apart is their relationship to Him, not their relationship to other nations.
Parshas Yisro is the parsha during which we recall the moments when we became the “Chosen People,” but perhaps these multi-faceted reflections on what it means to be a ממלכת כהנים and aגוי קדושׁ (a kingdom of priests and a holy nation) will provide us with some further ideas to think about as we strive toward fulfilling our individual purposes and our national goals.
To read last year’s post on Parshas Yisro, please click here:…/better-watch-boundaries.html

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Bad Blind/Good Blind (Parshas Beshalach #2)

This week's Dvar Torah is going to be on the short and unacademic side as it is midwinter vacation for my kids.
There are many questions one might wonder about after the departure of Bnei Yisrael from Mitzrayim. For instance, what did Mitzrayim look like as the freed slaves paraded out of the territory. Devastated and decimated, one can only assume that Egypt had the feel of a war zone. Even beyond the damage of the plagues, well over a million of the residents of the land were leaving (a mass of 600,000 men plus the women and children, elderly and very young). The fact is that it doesn't matter that they had been the enslaved “outsiders,” because the sudden departure of that many human beings - even if they weren't fully part of the society they were part of the economy - is going to have devastating effects on the nation.
In all of this, surrounded by his country laid waste and his populace in mourning, Pharaoh catches word that the Israelites had changed their direction in the wilderness (based on the understanding that Pharaoh saw Hashem’s redirecting Bnei Yisrael toward the Yam Suf as a means of avoiding Amalek and Philistia at war as a sign of the Israelites fleeing in fear, a comment I saw by the Alsheich and several other commentaries), and Pharaoh appears to immediately perk up at the idea of pursuing. This is an interesting instance of blindness on Pharaoh’s part, one might say it is one of his constant faults. Pharaoh seems blind to the suffering of his people. All he can see is having been bested by this God of the Israelites.
In a completely different way, the fleeing Israelites also suffered from blindness. They left Egypt triumphant and riding on wave of honest, emergency-driven emuna. Once away from Egypt, they were surrounded by the Ananei Hakavod, the cloud of glory and a pillar of fire. Wrapped in such protection, Bnei Yisrael could focus on discovering who they truly were - getting In touch with the spiritual heritage they had just barely held onto through generations of servitude.
The clouds of glory also, perhaps, prevented them from being aware that the Egyptians were pursuing them until, as the pasuk says, they lifted up their eyes and behold Egypt was upon them! You might say it would have been better for them to have seen the Mitzrim in the distance, but the truth was that there would have been little for them to do but panic and wallow in self pity. Instead, when they saw the army suddenly behind them, their days in the cloud paid off, at least initially. They saw the Mitzrim and they immediately called out to Hashem. They prayed instinctively. They understood that their ultimate salvation comes from the Divine hand. Only afterwards, as fear began to take over, did they turn to their emotions and let their fears become complaints. But because they had prayed to Hashem first and instinctively, neither Hasher nor Moshe responded to their complaints with anger. Because their first instinct was to pray, when Moshe told them to look forward, they could - some with more bravery and faith than others, but all of them did so nonetheless.
Had the Israelites not had that time to reconnect spiritually, they might have crumble before Pharaoh, whose dominance and megalomaniac power over their lives until so recently must have had traumatic impact on their souls. Had they had more time to worry and fret over the pursuing army, they would have talked themselves off of the path to spiritual freedom.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Bo! Thoughts on the Word (Parshas Bo #2)

Bo is the first primary word of this week’s parsha, and so it is the one after which it was named. It is the simple, singular, third person, male imperative of the verb la’vo – to come, a word that provides rich complexity to the text of the Torah because it often appears to be used for the opposite of what it means. Take, for example, this very first primary pasuk. If translated literally, it should read “Come to Pharoah,” which would be situationally normal if the speaker was addressing someone at a distance. From the narrative, it seems clear that Hashem is speaking to Moshe from somewhere other than in Pharoah’s presence. One would therefore expect the text to read lech el Paraoh “Go to Pharaoh.”

From the perspective of an English major, the question that begs to be answered is what the difference is between to come and to go.  One might say that the act of going is about the process of getting from one place to another. It’s about the journey and the taking action to move. Thus we have Hashem telling Avraham “Lech Lecha,” go for yourself, because Avraham’s movement was what was important.

The act of coming, on the other hand, is about the destination.  Hashem told Moshe “Bo el Paraoh,” because what was important was appearing before Pharaoh, not how he got there and not how he was affected by the act of getting there, but actually making himself present there.

Making oneself present, bo, is actually subtly counterposed throughout the narrative of the plagues with the other primary ways in which Moshe (with or without Aharon) are instructed to warn Pharaoh.  The other is hashkem baboker vhityatzeiv get up in the morning and be present (although a slightly different version of the verb, vnitzavta, is used before the very first plague). The difference between the two seems a fine line, but being present and making oneself present are slightly different, and both were important for Hashem making a statement to Pharaoh. When the term bo is used Moshe is coming into Pharaoh’s royal presence, he is making himself present in a way that makes an entrance and acknowledges Pharaoh’s role as Melech Mitzrayim. When vhituatzeiv is used, he is not making himself present with an entrance. It is an appearance before Pharaoh that demonstrates that Pharaoh is just a man.

Come to Pharaoh and a version of present yourself before Pharoah are used equally, and the Torah does not record a precursor for the other plagues. The verb lech Go is only used as a directive from Hashem in relation to the plagues at the very beginning, when he instructs Moshe to go to Pharaoh in the morning and present himself for the first time, a prelude to the plague of blood.  Only at the first plague was the journey of going to appear before Pharaoh important, for Moshe and for Bnei Yisrael.

Before he approached Pharaoh with knowledge of the plagues to come and the fact that Pharaoh would harden his heart, Moshe worried about being heard. Once he had appeared before him and saw his own capability. He did not need the journey. Everything thereafter was about the actual coming before Pharaoh. And it was significant that his last appearance was at the command of Bo, come. For Moshe entered the court with the full knowledge that he was now the harbinger of the fate of Egypt.

We often put great significance to lech, Go, to the journeying and getting to a place or a position. But when we change our viewpoint, reverse our position to see where we have come to, we have the opportunity to see ourselves and the world around us in a new light. So many of us struggle with where we think we are heading, perhaps we should come to where we need to be and see where we are.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

About Your Gods…A Lesson on Consideration (Va'era #2)

Is the Jewish faith tolerant of other religions? It sounds like a question in a Google search box, but it has surprising relevance to this week's parsha, parshas Va’era. Shemos 7 begins the narrative of the Ten Plagues, the actions of which are always prefaced by Moshe and/or Aharon telling Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. 

The goal, of course, is that the Jewish people shall be freed from slavery, but Moshe starts small, requesting only that the Children of Israel be allowed to leave Egypt on a seemingly temporary basis to worship Hashem. Now Egypt is a polytheistic nation, and while Pharaoh actually declares at one point that he does not know Hashem, it is interesting to note that he never denies that there is a God of the Hebrews. 

Long ago, however, Avraham made it clear that he recognized Hashem as the only Deity. His monotheistic faith, centered on the Creator of the World, was uncompromisable, and it was for this that an eternal covenant with his descendants was struck.

Within the Jewish faith, there are three truly abhorrent categories of behavior: murder, illicit relations, and idol worship. While these three categories of sin are also transgressions of the Seven Laws of B’nei Noach,* the basic rules expected of all the nations, Jewish law charges accountability to Jews only. All of this makes Moshe's response to Pharaoh after the fourth plague particularly interesting. After Pharaoh offers for the Jewish people to worship locally (in Goshen), Moshe says: “It is not right to do so, for we shall offer to Hashem our God that which is an abomination to the Egyptians - Behold if we do so, to offer to Hashem our God that which is an abomination before their eyes, will they not stone us?” (8:22). 

Pharaoh hears their argument and agrees to Moshe’s proposal that the people will travel three days into the wilderness for their worship. Of course, as we all know, Pharaoh then changes his mind. 

Without question, Moshe’s argument on why B’nei Yisrael must not stay in Goshen is a ploy to remove the people from the grasp of Pharaoh and the Egyptians. The commentaries provide numerous explanations as to why Moshe mentioned the fact that B’nei Yisrael would be sacrificing sheep, which is the implication of the pasuk - that the offering of sheep, sacred to the Egyptians, would be in abomination. Most of the commentaries focus on Moshe wishing to protect B’nei Yisrael, for the fear of the Egyptians rising up and rioting against them was real. Other ideas are connected to working to make certain that the worship service to Hashem would in no way strengthen the power of the Egyptian’s priesthood. 

As we must read the Torah each in our own generation to understand both our past and our present, one can perhaps see in Moshe’s response to Pharaoh’s seemingly generous offer of “Go and sacrifice to your God within the land” (8:21) a lesson about religious tolerance, or at least about general consideration. Moshe did not have any interest in preaching monotheism, in castigating the Egyptians for their idol worship, or even in preventing them from making more gods. Ultimately, the plagues are meant to leave Pharaoh acknowledging Hashem as the ultimate power, but there never appears to be any attempt to end polytheism in Egypt. 

It should be noted that before entering the Promised Land, and in many other references to the Promised Land, B’nei Yisrael are specifically ordered to destroy any and all Avoda Zara, even remnants of the false worship of people no longer there. But in Egypt, there was no commandment to bring them around to monotheism, to cleanse the land of idol worship. 

When Moshe tells Pharaoh, “It is not right to do so, for we shall offer to Hashem our God that which is an abomination to the Egyptians,”  one could say that Moshe was demonstrating remarkable sensitivity (even if it was to the advantage of B’nei Yisrael). He may deem the belief in the animal-human deities as mistaken, but he did not feel a need to prove his faith above others. 

We today are surrounded by belief systems with which we may disagree on a deeply philosophic level - both belief systems religious and societal. But mocking them or attacking these beliefs, unless in actual defense of Torah and Judaism - does not benefit the Jewish people. Indeed, it can lead to danger for us. Our concern must be, first and foremost, for maintaining the sanctity of the Torah and the security of the Jewish people (both wholly and individually). 

Speaking of Egyptians and their gods, it is interesting to note that our traditions speak a great deal about the sensitivity of the Egyptians to our sacrificing rams/sheep because their god Khnum was often pictured with a ram’s head. Commentaries do not appear to discuss, however, the somewhat strange connection of the second plague to the Egyptian pantheon. The second plague was the plague of frogs, which overwhelmed the land. The Midrash says that when the Egyptians would hit the frogs, more frogs would come. Among the goddesses of ancient Egypt was Heqet, the Egyptian goddess of fertility who was represented in the form of a frog or as a frog headed woman. This is a fascinating connection when one thinks about the fact that the Pharaoh’s excuse for enslaving the Israelites was that perhaps they would multiply and join an enemy army against them. Add to that the Midrash that in Egypt each Jewish woman gave birth to sextuplets, thus truly multiplying, and one could see a Divine “response” to Pharaoh’s attempt to interfere with the growth of the Jewish people through a plague wrought through the goddess of fertility.

(On the other hand, if you are one who shares the opinion of the commentator Sforno that tzfardeia were actually crocodiles, then this leads you to Sobek, the crocodile headed god of fertility and military prowess, so not much different)

*For more on the Seven Mitzvot of B’nei Noach:


Friday, January 17, 2020

Hidden on the Verge of Revelation (Parshas Shemos #2)

One of the greatest joys of studying the weekly parsha is discovering surprising, unexpected gems of connections. These fascinating points of reference encourage us to delve deeper, to look past what might seem like just a recording of history, and to use that deeper meaning to transform how we live our lives. Many of the insights we can learn from the Torah, particularly the parshiot that deal with Moshe Rabbeinu, are lessons about leaderership.
While Moshe is recognized as being the greatest leader of the Jewish people, it is interesting to find, in this week’s parasha, a subtle but informative connection between him and the other great Israelite leader who preceded him in Egypt, Yosef. An initial comparison of these two larger-than-life figures seems to point out more contrasts than commonalities. Yosef was placed by God into a position to be given status and power by Pharoah, whereas Moshe was divinely instructed to take Pharoah down. Yosef was raised by Yaakov and only came to live like an Egyptian when he was mature enough to cling to his essence; his Egyptianness was a constant charade. Moshe, on the other hand, was raised as an Egyptian and only came to understand his heritage when he was already an adult. Yosef guided the Egyptian people into serfdom to Pharoah, while Moshe led the Israelites out of slavery.
There is, however, one strange connection between them, and it is a word - תצפנו. The word translates to hidden. Yosef is given the name צפנת פּענח (Tzafnas Panaiach), which is generally understood to mean “Revealer of the Hidden,” by Pharoah upon his ascension to viceroy. Oddly, however, the term תצפנהו is also used to describe how Yocheved hid her baby, Moshe, for three months after he was born. According to the Midrash, she was able to hide him because he was several months premature, and so she pretended to still be pregnant until she would actually have been due. In the next verse, Shemos 2:3, הצפינו is also used to express that Yocheved could no longer hide him, which is interesting because the word here hinges on imminent revelation. Other than these three verses - really these two circumstances - this term, according to the concordance, does not appear to be used elsewhere in the Chumash.
So what lessons can hiddenness verging on revelation provide to us today? One interesting lesson that can be derived here is the importance of knowing when to reveal that which is hidden. It appears from the text that Moshe became aware of his heritage and then became aware of the suffering of his brethren. That he was still living in the palace implies that he had not shared his knowledge of his background. He knew who he was, but he kept that information hidden until he came to Pharoah to lead his people to freedom.
Similarly, Yoseph allowed himself to be hidden by Pharaoh. He accepted the new name and the rich Egyptian clothing, and he maintained the charade of being part of this nation by speaking their tongue. At first, at least, everyone knew that Yosef was a foreigner, a Hebrew, but the longer he served as Pharaoh’s viceroy, the easier it was for the people to forget. Indeed, perhaps this could even be one way of understanding how it could be that the New King of Egypt did not know Yosef, he knew צפנת פּענח (Tzafnas Panaiach) but did not connect him to Yosef the Hebrew. No one identified Yosef to his brothers because they all saw him as part of their nation and not as a Hebrew. Here too, with his brothers, is an example of Yoseph holding back that which is hidden (his identity), no matter how hard it was for him to do so, until the necessary moment of revelation.
In our modern era of social media, many people suffer from the habit of oversharing. It’s an easy thing to do when a lauded “artform” is the properly worded tweet to keep up with friends, to impress colleagues, or to attract supporters. Perhaps it is best to remember that, oftentimes, less is more – keep somethings hidden for yourself.
The way that Yoseph and Moshe both remained hidden in plain site and made their personal revelations at the moment of greatest impact is not necessarily a lesson for the everyman. Most of us are not in a position to either hide our identities or to make a monumental impact with some grand revelation. And yet, how the important parts of Yosef and Moshe had to be hidden can still be a message of spiritual inspiration.
Yoseph and Moshe both appeared, for long periods of their lives, to be absolute members of the society in which they lived. But underneath any such appearance was their own constant awareness of who they truly were. Even while in Egypt, Yoseph raised his sons with the same values with which he had been raised, so much so that they were accept equal among their uncles. Moshe, once he knew who he was, could not help himself but to go out and really see his brethren, to feel their suffering.
Their core, no matter what their appearance, remained strong. And those things for which they will be most honored and remembered, those moments that were the most important to them and to history, were accomplished when Yosef and Moshe, respectively, were no longer hidden. This is the message for the everyman. A person can imitate the lifestyle of the culture around them, if necessary, but we must never forget who we truly are. We must never allow ourselves to be subsumed by the foreign society in which we live.
There is one more interesting connection between Moshe, Yosef, and hiddenness and revelation. It is a lesson to echo in our hearts, always. Moshe had the distinct honor of revealing the place where Yoseph's bones had been hidden. He brought those bones forth so that Yoseph could be buried in the Promise Land, because the man who had been so honored and so empowered by the Egyptian Pharoah wanted nothing more for his eternal future than to be where he truly belonged. But perhaps that is a post for parshas Beshalach.