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Parshat Vayeishev (5770)
This week we learn the story of the terrible sufferings of Yosef. First his own brothers threw him into a pit of scorpions and snakes, then sold him into slavery after which he got imprisoned for life due to the treachery of Potifar's wife.
At first glance this is totally not understood. Why does the Torah reveal these gruesome details? Even more, why did they have to happen?
True, Yosef's descent into Egypt eventually brought salvation to the entire world from starvation and fulfilled the promise of G-d to Avraham (Gen. 16:13,14).
But G-d is the King of the Universe and Yosef was His devoted servant. Why did Yosef the Tzadik (Totally holy man) have to suffer?! Why couldn't all this happen in a more friendly way?
To understand this, here is a story. A decorated Israeli army veteran by the name of Moshe Levi related his first meeting with the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
Moshe Levi is one of the few soldiers that received the 'Ot Gevura'; the highest Israeli combat award for bravery. In his case it was for his service in the Yom Kippur war.
The Yom Kippur war was won solely by Divine intervention. As is already well known, the Israeli Government, at that time run by Goldi Meir and Moshe Dyan, made the same mistake as they are trying to make now (Thank G-d, unsuccessfully). They knew that the Arabs were planning to destroy Israel but thought that preparing for war would anger the United Nations (especially the United States) so they let the Arabs attack.
The result was disastrous. Our troops were totally unprepared, undermanned and under armed. The result was that thousands of young Israelis needlessly lost their lives and, if it weren't for a massive series of clear miracles, the Arabs would have easily overrun the country in just a few days!
Moshe Levi tells his story. He was in a battalion of seventy five combat soldiers in the south of Israel guarding the border with Egypt when suddenly they received orders from head command that the entire Egyptian army was attacking! A full battalion of one hundred and twenty Egyptian tanks backed up by who-knows-how-many hundreds of foot soldiers were heading toward their position and they were the only thing preventing them from reaching Tel Aviv! It was total war!
There was no time to send reinforcements or ammunition, they would have to do with what they had; Israeli forces were needed to stop the Syrians attacking from the north and the rest of the Egyptian army that was attacking the rest of the southern border!
The desert night was silent. Only in the far distance could be heard something like wind. Was it the Egyptians? The 75 soldiers felt helpless. They didn't have a chance!
They couldn't possibly destroy so many tanks… they didn't even have that many anti-tank missiles! And who knows how many hundreds perhaps thousands of soldiers were behind the tanks?
The horrible truth was too obvious; none of them would get out alive. But to run was impossible… they were the only ones stopping the Egyptians from Tel Aviv! One of them mumbled dejectedly, "We're all dead! How can we possibly defeat 120 tanks?!"
"Suddenly one of the soldiers, a Yemenite Jew by the name of Zandani, stood, took a book of T'hilim (Psalms) from his pocket, held it defiantly in the air and declared, "With this! We'll defeat them with this!! The Egyptians don't stand a chance against the G-d of Israel!" And he began to read aloud, each word clearly ringing out in the desert night.
Now it is important to mention that all the other 74 soldiers were almost total ignoramuses about Judaism. In fact most of them were brazen, outspoken, Israeli style atheists. But after each few words the Yemenite read they all yelled out 'AMEN' (Although Amen is only said after blessings).
And that was when the Egyptian tanks appeared in the distance.
Moshe Levi stood, put his hand on his heart and swore to G-d that if he got out alive he would put on Tefillin (Phylacteries) for the rest of his life… and the battle began.
The Egyptian tanks opened fire with their artillery and as soon as they got close enough the Israelis opened up with bazookas and mortars while the Yemenite stood and yelled Psalms through the smoke and explosions.
Moshe Levi related, "We fired while the Yemenite read aloud and it seemed like every missile we shot was a direct hit! It was miraculous! A miracle! We knocked out so many of their tanks! And then, just as we were running out of ammunition and a lot of us were wounded and it looked like we were through, suddenly the Egyptians stopped and turned back! They turned around and left! And the biggest miracle was that, although a lot of us were hurt.... no one got killed.
"The Yemenite that saved us was the only one killed! And there was something else….. My left arm got blown off….. so I couldn't put on Tefillin!
"It took me nine months in the hospital to recover and in that time I was visited by a lot of Rabbis but none of them could explain this to me. Why was it that, of all people, that Yemenite was the one to die? If anyone should have been protected by G-d it was him! And my arm that I vowed to put Tefillin on got blown off? The question began to drive me crazy.
"Three or four years later," Moshe Levi continued, "I went to the United States to have an artificial arm constructed and fitted and while I was there a good friend called me and told me that he was by the Lubavitcher Rebbe and that the Rebbe was interested in seeing me.
"At first I couldn't figure what he was talking about. I was a totally non-religious person and had no connection with this Rabbi or any Rabbis, why would he want to see me? So I refused. But my friend told me I was crazy. He said that people came from all over the world and waited for sometimes months to see the Rebbi, and now I'm refusing?!
"So I agreed. I figured, what do I have to lose? The meeting was set for twelve midnight the next night. So I went in and as soon as I was in there and looked at him I knew he was something special. In fact the entire time I was there I tried several times to look him in the eyes and I wasn't able to! It was just too holy. Something I just can't explain.
"He asked me to sit down and tell him about my experiences and we talked about the war. He was simply amazing! He knew each and every detail of each and every battle! He had very strong opinions. He was very disappointed with the Israeli government. For instance, he said they should have allowed the Israeli army to take Damascus and Cairo for even one day just to show them who is boss. He also said it was a big miracle that they attacked on Yom Kippur because the holiness of the day protected us and because Jews don't drive on that day so the streets were empty and it was easy to mobilize the troops.
"We spoke for an hour and forty five minutes and it seemed like five minutes. This is something that never happened to me in my life; that almost two hours passed like a few minutes. But then, somewhere in the middle I asked him my question that had been plaguing me; why was Zandani killed and why did I lose my Tefillin arm? And I waited for the answer.
"The Rebbe paused for a second and said that the answer was simple. I had asked this question to tens of Rabbis who didn't have an answer and he said it was simple!
"He said that in fact our entire company should have died. But Zandani made himself close to G-d and got what he wanted; that everyone in the company would live. And the same with my arm; I was supposed to die even after Zandani's sacrifice. But because I devoted my arm to G-d so G-d took it instead of my life."
Moshe Levi continued praising the Rebbe and the interview and the movie ended. But afterwards I thought about what he said and it didn't make sense.
His question was:If Zandani and his own left arm were devoted to G-d then why were they taken away? And the Rebbe's answer was; BECAUSE these were devoted to G-d, THERFORE G-d took them.
Why did the Rebbe's answer calm him down? Seemingly, he just repeated the question!
But I think the explanation is as follows. Before the battle Moshe Levi had been, at best, an atheist. He didn't have any reason to believe there was such a thing as G-d.
But when he saw Zandani's certainty and then the miracles that occurred afterward, it made him realize that not only does G-d exist but He is infinitely real and GOOD.
And that is where his questions began:
If G-d is good, then why did ANYONE have to die? And if anyone did die then it made sense that it should have been the non-believers. Why did the holy ones (the Yemenite and his own left arm) have to go?
But the Rebbe opened his eyes. He explained that G-d wants US to be His partners.
G-d usually gives life and blessing for free; but when this happens it is hard to realize there is a Creator or a plan for creation. It just seems like nature… and nature neither implies meaning nor demands responsibility.
But sometimes life and blessing depend on us….. WE have to make sacrifices in order to make it happen. Like Zandani did with his life and Moshe Levi did with his arm. BECAUSE they were devoted to G-d, THERFORE G-d took them in order that those that remain will realize their obligation and responsibility.
This is what happened to Yosef. His suffering was not due to natural causes; neither to his brothers' hatred or the evil woman who slandered him into jail.
Rather it was a sacrifice, his partnership with G-d, in order to bring life, blessing and meaning; save the entire world from famine, bring about the exile and Exodus from Egypt, the birth of the Jewish nation at Mount Sinai and finally…make all mankind realize their obligation to bring the total redemption of all mankind by means of Moshiach.
This is a major lesson to us. We are all alive today because of the sacrifices of the generations before us. Now we must learn from this that we have an obligation to them and to the future generations.
Namely, we must do everything possible to improve the world around us and be an example to others to do the same.
And through our work, the sufferings of the past will become meaningful (as the Lubavitcher Rebbe once wrote, that before he was three years old he already had woven a picture in his mind of how Moshiach would make sense of all the thousands of years of Jewish suffering) and before we know it our efforts will bring true blessing and joy with….
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