Shemot: The survival kit

Shemot: The survival kit

Chabad of North West Bergen County, Franklin Lakes, Orthodox

This week we read Shemot, the first portion of the book of Exodus. Life for the burgeoning Jewish nation takes a precipitous dive, soon catapulting them into full-blown Egyptian slavery. It is the start of a long and bitter journey through oppression and genocide.

Indeed, the Egyptian exile is considered the forerunner and prototype of four phases of national exile envisioned by the prophet Daniel:

“I saw in my vision…four great beasts. The first was like a lion… a second one, similar to a bear… Afterward, another similar to a leopard… After that, as I looked on in the night vision, there was a fourth beast — fearsome, dreadful, and very powerful.”

In Daniel’s prophecy, each creature symbolizes an exile which the Jewish people would endure beginning with Babylon, then Media/Persia followed by Greece and finally Edom, commonly identified as Rome.

Historically, from where did our ancestors draw the strength to persevere through thousands of years of exile? To answer this we needn’t look any further than the tool box they were given on the doorstep of slavery.

In the closing words of Genesis, the Torah employs a stark and unvarnished account of Joseph’s demise, concluding with the words: “and they put him in a coffin in Egypt.” What a disappointment; how depressing to conclude the very first book of the Torah on such a discouraging note. And then, in glaring contrast, these words are juxtaposed to the raucous and joyful exclamation “Chazak, chazak v’nischazayk — let us be strengthened!” as we conclude the reading. What exactly are we cheering, putting Joseph in a box?

The Hebrew word for box is “aron.” In all the five books of the Torah, this word only refers to the holy ark of the Tabernacle in which the Law of Moses — the Torah — is kept. In the only exception to this usage, the word “aron” is used to describe the box, the coffin in which Joseph was interred, “And Joseph was placed in an ‘Aron’ in Egypt.” It is this one small word which encapsulates the secret key used by the Jewish nation to survive the Egyptian exile and the others it foreshadowed.

Joseph was the first Jew to live and integrate with the pagan society of his time. Time and again he was challenged by the attitudes and behaviors of his host culture. Yet, not only did he survive intact, he accomplished the unthinkable: He successfully raised a family who while physically separated from the legacy of Abraham’s monotheism — and never even having seen a role model from the “old country” — remained fully committed to those ideals. In this respect, Joseph represents the capacity for unwavering and steadfast commitment to the Torah and Jewish values even under circumstances which challenged the very foundations of his belief system.

How did Joseph achieve this level of spiritual success? He internalized a critical notion regarding the Divine wisdom: It belongs in an “aron” — a sacred ark of symbolic safekeeping where the Divine communication is impregnable to alteration, reinterpretation, or rearticulation and from which its eternal message — as relevant today as it was and always will be in every culture, milieu, and geographic location — continues to be broadcast.

The man who lived his life like an “aron” and understood the message of the “aron” was buried in an “aron.”

For this reason we are told that Joseph was placed in an “aron” just prior to the Jewish descent into exile since he — who was challenged by a foreign culture on foreign soil — held the secret to spiritual survival throughout the nation’s perilous 210 years in slavery. And it is to this notion — the firm and unwavering commitment of Joseph to the eternal truth of the Torah — that we declare “Chazak, chazak v’nischazek,” acknowledging this same truth today.

I’d like to conclude with a story about a Polish rabbi who came to the United States before World War II to raise funds for his yeshiva. While staying in Brooklyn, he was informed by someone that there was a very successful Jewish button manufacturer in Manhattan who did not give much charity — but the rabbi decided to try his luck anyhow.

As expected, the rabbi received an icy reception. But when asked the purpose of his visit, the rabbi simply pointed to his long coat indicating that some buttons had become loose. Relieved that the rabbi was not asking for a donation, the business tycoon instructed a worker to take care of the repair and in a few moments it was good as new.

The rabbi thanked him and was on his way out when the man called him back. “Did you really come all the way from Brooklyn to have a minor repair done on your jacket?” he asked. The rabbi replied, “No! I came all the way from Poland!” Puzzled, the tycoon persisted, “Do you mean to tell me that you came all the way from Europe just to have a few buttons sewn on your jacket?” To which the rabbi countered, “Do you mean to tell me that your pristine soul made the long voyage from Heaven all the way to earth just to make coat buttons?”

The rabbi’s words found their mark and the tycoon made a substantial commitment to the rabbi’s yeshiva.

As we march toward the end of what the Prophet Daniel called the “fearsome, dreadful, and very powerful” exile, we face exceedingly strong headwinds. At this time, we are called on to heed the message of the “aron” with even greater tenacity and strengthen our commitment to observe and study the eternal truth of Torah.

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