Seeing the Spiritual Mirrored in the Physical

The conclusion of Parshas Vayechi relates that Yosef communicated the message of redemption to the Jewish people, telling them:1G‑d will surely remember you, and will bring you out of this land.” This shows that not only was Yosef the cause of the descent to Egypt, he was also the initiator of the exodus. Yaakov and his sons came to Egypt because of Yosef, and it was he who gave the promise and the sign for the redemption.2 Moreover, this sign was more than a mere symbol; it empowered the Jews3 to proceed until the time when “[G‑d]… will bring you out of this land.”

The connection between Yosef and the Egyptian exile and exodus can be explained by noting the unique quality Yosef possessed. Indeed, with regard to certain matters, Yosef possessed an advantage not only in relation to his brothers, but also in relation to Yaakov, his father.

Because Yosef possessed this spiritual advantage,4 he was granted a higher position with regard to material matters, serving as a ruler, and Yaakov and Yosef’s brothers bowed down to him, as he had foreseen. The brothers bowed to Yosef several times,5 and Yaakov bowed to him once, as the beginning of this week’s Torah reading states:6 “And Yisrael bowed down from the head of the bed.”

Everything which takes place on the material plane has its source in the spiritual realms. This is particularly true with regard to the events which occurred to the Patriarchs and Yaakov’s sons, whose entire lives focused on spiritual truth. As the Alter Rebbe writes in Tanya:7 “A tzaddik s life is not physical life, but rather spiritual life, [as expressed in] faith, awe [of G‑d], and love [of Him].” As such, everything which happened to Yaakov and his sons had a spiritual source. Thus their bowing down to Yosef stemmed from the fact that he operated at a higher spiritual level than they.

Yosef’s Uniqueness

Chassidus describes Yosef’s advantage. The Patriarchs and Yaakov’s sons were shepherds, living apart from the pressures of material concerns so that they would not interfere with their Divine service. Yosef, by contrast, served as a viceroy, a task which involved many time-consuming activities. Moreover, he held this office in Egypt, a land described as “the nakedness of the earth.”8 Nevertheless, this did not prevent Yosef from clinging to G‑d in a perfect bond.

This explains why “Yosef recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him.”9 Yosef’s brothers could not conceive that Yosef HaTzaddik could possibly be the viceroy of Egypt. According to their conception of Divine service, involvement in worldly affairs and closeness to G‑d were mutually exclusive. Thus the phrase “they did not recognize him,” can be interpreted to mean that they had no appreciation of the lofty level at which Yosef functioned.

On this basis, we can also appreciate the interpretation of the verse:10 “This is the posterity of Yaakov. Yosef…,” It is Yosef who draws the spiritual influence of Yaakov into the lower realms. Yaakov functioned in the realm of Atzilus. Yosef transferred this influence to the worlds of Beriah, Yetzirah, and Asiyah, and more specifically into our material world.

Yosef was the one able to accomplish this, because with regard to this task, he was on a higher spiritual level than Yaakov. For this reason, he was able to communicate with the lower levels, as it is said:11 “It is that which is on the highest levels which can descend to the lowest levels.”

The above does not represent a contradiction to the fact that12 “Only three [Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov] are referred to as forefathers.” For each of the forefathers endows every one of the Jewish people with a particular G‑dly quality. Avraham endowed the attribute of Chesed (kindness); Yitzchak, Gevurah (might); and Yaakov, Tiferes (beauty), which relates to the attribute of mercy.

Yosef, by contrast, did not draw down any new influence. He represented “the posterity of Yaakov,” and served to bring Yaakov’s spiritual influence into our world. Yaakov was “the chosen of the Patriarchs,”13 for the quality he personified, Tiferes, reflects the middle vector which mediates between Chesed and Gevurah and includes them both.

But Yaakov’s lofty potential, acting alone, could not be revealed in this lowly world. Such revelation required Yosef, for in this regard he was on an even higher spiritual rung.

The Parallel Between the Divine Service of the Patriarchs and Yosef on the one hand and the Three Pilgrimage Holidays and Shemini Atzeres on the other

On this basis, we can understand the statement of the Zohar14 that the three pilgrimage festivals correspond to the three Patriarchs. Pesach corresponds to Avraham, who gave the command:15 “Knead [a dough] and make cakes [of matzah].” Shavuos corresponds to Yitzchak, for Shavuos commemorates the Giving of the Torah, associated with the call of the shofar,16 which shares a connection with the ram of Yitzchak.17 And Sukkos corresponds to Yaakov, of whom it is said:18 “And he made sukkos (‘booths’) for his herds.” This is the first time the word sukkos is mentioned in the Torah.

Shemini Atzeres corresponds to Yosef,19 “the posterity of Yaakov,” just as Shemini Atzeres is a continuation of the holiday of Sukkos.

With regard to Shemini Atzeres, we find a contradiction. On the one hand, it is considered a festival in its own right.20 As such, we recite the blessing Shehechiyanu on Shemini Atzeres, in contrast to the seventh day of Pesach, when this blessing is not recited, for the seventh day of Pesach is not a separate holiday. And yet the very name Shemini Atzeres, lit. “the assembly of the eighth day,” implies that it is a continuation of the holiday of Sukkos.

The explanation is that the connection between Shemini Atzeres and Sukkos parallels that between Yosef and Yaakov. Yosef is an extension of Yaakov; his contribution represents the transmission of Yaakov’s influence into the lower realms. The ability to transmit this influence, however, is something which Yaakov himself does not possess. Similarly with regard to Shemini Atzeres, this holiday internalizes all the influence of the holiday of Sukkos, which in turn includes the influence of Pesach and Shavuos, as the attributes of Yaakov include the attributes of Avraham and Yitzchak.

To explain: The holiday of Sukkos represents an encompassing light (or makkif, in Chassidic terminology), just as a sukkah encompasses the people who dwell within. Shemini Atzeres makes it possible to internalize the influences of Sukkos. This is implied by the name Atzeres, which means “gathering in,” collecting and concentrating.21 The fact that Shemini Atzeres makes it possible for these influences to be internalized indicates that in itself it possesses a more powerful potential. This more powerful potential permits revelations which transcend nature (and which otherwise could only be drawn into the world in an encompassing manner) to be internalized within the framework of worldly existence.

Moreover, there is another significant distinction between Shemini Atzeres and Sukkos. On Sukkos, 70 bulls would be sacrificed, corresponding to the 70 nations of the world.22 Since the influence of Sukkos is drawn down in an encompassing manner, it was possible for the gentile nations to benefit from it. Therefore 70 bulls were sacrificed to refine the 70 nations.

On Shemini Atzeres, by contrast, only one bull and one ram were offered, pointing to the singular bond between G‑d and the Jewish people, as the Midrash comments:23 “This is for you alone, and not for any strangers with you.” Although the influence revealed on Sukkos has already been drawn down into this world, on Shemini Atzeres it is drawn down in such a manner that no “strangers” can receive any benefit from it. A parallel to this can be seen in the Divine service of Yosef, who despite his involvement in Egyptian society, “the nakedness of the land,” was able to cling to G‑d in a perfect bond.

The Significance of the Number Eight

There is another factor which reflects the connection between Yosef and Shemini Atzeres. One of the reasons the holiday is given the name Shemini Atzeres although it is “a festival in its own right” is to emphasize the significance of the number eight. For eight reflects a light that transcends the limits of the natural order, going beyond the limits of Seder HaHishtalshelus, the chainlike progression of spiritual worlds.24

The natural order is structured in sets of seven; the number eight reflects a light that transcends these limits. This light is revealed on Shemini Atzeres. And because Shemini Atzeres is associated with a transcendent light that is not confined by any limits whatsoever, it can allow for the internalization of the spiritual influences which are so lofty that they can be revealed on Sukkos only in an encompassing manner.

We find a similar concept with regard to the mitzvah of circumcision, which is carried out on the eighth day of a child’s life. Circumcision activates the level associated with the number eight. This in turn makes it possible to draw down the highest levels of holiness those which transcend the world (in Kabbalistic terminology, the level of Kesser25 which transcends Seder HaHishtalshelus) connecting them with the limb described as “yesod, the end of the torso.”26

Through the mitzvah of circumcision, our physical flesh is refined and brought into an eternal bond with G‑d. The level of eight which shines on Shemini Atzeres is associated with Yosef, who is described as “the tzaddik, the yesod of the world.”27

At the Vortex of the Dynamic of Redemption

On this basis, we can appreciate the connection between the Yosef and the events in Egypt. The intent of the descent into and exodus from Egypt was to gather the wealth of Egypt, i.e., to refine the sparks of holiness which were enclothed in that land.28 When the Jews completed this task, redemption came.

On this basis, we can understand our Sages’ statement29 that the redemption from the Egyptian exile came about through the merit of the blood of circumcision and the blood of the Paschal sacrifice. For the intent of the mitzvah of circumcision is to elevate the lowest levels,30 the organ which is identified with “Yesod, the end of the torso.”

The potential to descend to the lowest levels and elevate the sparks of holiness found there comes from Yosef HaTzaddik. So the Egyptian exile came about because of Yosef, and he was the one who communicated the message of redemption. For he was the one who endowed the Jewish people with the strength to carry out the purpose of the exile, completing the task of refinement, and in this way preparing for the redemption.

A Parallel to Yosef HaTzaddikin our Days

On several occasions,31 my revered father-in-law, the Rebbe, would explain that on Sukkos, together with the seven Ushpizen mentioned by the Zohar , Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov,… come the seven Chassidic ushpizen: the Baal Shem Tov, the Maggid of Mezeritch, the Alter Rebbe, the Mitteler Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek, the Rebbe Maharash, and Rebbe Rashab. On each of the seven nights of Sukkos, one of these Chassidic leaders comes as the honored guest of the day. Since my revered father-in-law, the Rebbe, was the successor of these seven nesi’im, it can be understood that he comes on the eighth day, Shemini Atzeres.

This is also indicated by the Rebbe’s first name, Yosef,32 for as our Sages explain,33 a person’s name influences his destiny. This is particularly true since the Rebbe’s name was selected by tzaddikim, the nesi’im of the Jewish people.

As mentioned above, Yosef HaTzaddik is associated with Shemini Atzeres. The Divine service of my revered father-in-law, the Rebbe, paralleled that of Yosef HaTzaddik.34 For he was able to translate all the lofty spiritual truths communicated by the previous Rebbeim into terms that could be understood by those on the lowest spiritual levels.

This was reflected in the Rebbe’s efforts to disseminate the teachings of Chassidus, not only in Lashon HaKodesh, our holy tongue, and in Yiddish, but in many other languages. For his Divine service involved spreading G‑dliness everywhere, even on the lowest levels.

Thus the Divine service of my revered father-in-law, the Rebbe, encompassed two extremes. On the one hand, he invested all his energies in spreading the deepest teachings of Chassidus. Simultaneously, he invested the same degree of vitality in spreading the very basics of Jewish practice, e.g., teaching Jewish children the alef-beis, encouraging Jews to observe the Shabbos, kashrus, and taharas hamishpachah.

Not only did he involve himself in these activities, he charged his chassidim to follow his example, for “the body follows the head.”35 He encouraged them to involve themselves in spreading proper Jewish education and the observance of the mitzvos, while at the same time engrossing themselves in the study of Chassidus. (For this purpose, the Rebbe wrote and published the deepest maamarim and texts of Chassidic teachings.)

This parallels the conduct of Yosef HaTzaddik, who involved himself with very lowly activities such as keeping account books and providing food for the Egyptians. Simultaneously, he was united with G‑d in a complete and perfect bond.

In the Cities’ Hub

The above concepts were further reflected in the fact that the Rebbe lived in large cities, as Yosef HaTzaddik lived in the metropolis of Egypt, despite the fact that “living in a large city is difficult,”36 All the previous Rebbeim had lived in small villages Liozna, Liadi, and Lubavitch. It is true that because of their involvement on behalf of the Jewish community, and for the welfare of certain individuals, they traveled to large cities, both in Russia and outside it, but these were temporary visits. Their permanent dwellings, by contrast, were in small cities.

Moreover, even when the Rebbe Rashab moved from Lubavitch to Rostov, a large city, Rostov was at that time cut off from the world. Furthermore, within Rostov itself, the Rebbe Rashab choose to live in the suburbs, outside the city per se.

My revered father-in-law, the Rebbe, by contrast, was involved with many different journeys from the beginning of his nesius on. He settled in the large cities of Moscow, Peterburg (then called Leningrad), Riga and Warsaw. As the Rebbe himself remarked:37 “Lubavitch has undergone 10 exiles.” This pattern continued until the Rebbe settled in New York.

In all of these large cities, the Rebbe was involved in disseminating the deep teachings of Chassidus, and simultaneously spreading the fundamental observance of Judaism. This follows the pattern established by Yosef HaTzaddik , who was united in a perfect bond with G‑d while functioning as viceroy of Egypt and directing the economy of that land.

An Elevated Trust

Because Yosef functioned on a higher spiritual plane than his brothers and even the Patriarchs the Divine light which transcends material existence, the level of sovev kol almin, was revealed for him he was required to conduct himself on a plane that transcends the natural order.

This explains38 why Yosef HaTzaddik was punished for asking Pharaoh’s butler to mention him to Pharaoh.39 He should have had perfect faith and trust that G‑d would redeem him from prison. Because of his lack of trust, he was forced to remain in prison for another two years.

On the surface, the question arises: What was Yosef’s sin? It is well known that a person must create a vehicle within the natural order through which G‑d’s blessing can be expressed, and that this is not a contradiction to complete trust in G‑d.

To cite a parallel: With regard to earning one’s livelihood, it is written:40 “And G‑d will bless you in all that you do.” In Chassidus it is explained41 that although the source for our success is G‑d’s blessing, man must still “do,” i.e., create a vehicle within the natural order through which G‑d’s blessings can be expressed. Afterwards, he should trust that G‑d will send His blessings through this vehicle.

We see this pattern reflected in the conduct of the Patriarchs. Yaakov feared his confrontation with Esav, lest “he smite me, mothers and children alike.”42 What did he do? He prayed and trusted in G‑d, but at the same time he created vehicles for salvation within the natural order, sending pres ents to Esav and preparing for war.

Why then was Yosef punished for trying to make a natural vehicle to facilitate his release from prison?

The answer is that a person on Yosef’s spiritual rung united with G‑dliness on the level of sovev kol almin , which transcends creation does not to have to rely on natural vehicles or preparations. A higher level of trust is demanded from such a person, one not at all bound by natural limits. With regard to such a level of trust, it is written:43 “It is better to rely on G‑d [the level of sovev kol almin] than to trust in man [the level of memale kol almin].”

Unfettered by Nature

Similarly, my revered father-in-law, the Rebbe manifested conduct which transcends the natural order. He broke through all the veiling and concealment of G‑dliness which characterizes the natural order, revealing G‑dliness in an overt manner, more so than any of the Rebbeim who preceded him.

This is reflected by his continued positive activities despite the fact that he was held imprisoned several times,44 in conditions far more severe than those experienced by the previous Rebbeim. Indeed, he was actually sentenced to death. (When the Alter Rebbe was arrested, there was a danger of such a sentence, but it was never actually issued.)

Moreover, those who arrested the Rebbe and tortured him were Jews, who possessed the power of free choice. As it were, G‑d had no control over their conduct, as implied by our Sages’ statement:45 “Everything is in the hands of Heaven except the fear of Heaven.” And so, with regard to matters involving the fear of Heaven, and the observance of the Torah and its mitzvos, G‑d surrenders His control to the Jewish people entirely. They can choose their own course of behavior.

The responsibility of free choice enables us to understand Reuven’s motive in telling his brothers:46 “Throw him into the pit… let us not lay a hand on him.” Our Sages state47 that the pit was filled with snakes and scorpions. If so, why was throwing Yosef into it better than killing him themselves? According to Torah law,48 a person who falls into a pit filled with snakes and scorpions is considered dead. So powerful is this assumption that if witnesses testify that a man has been thrown into such a pit, his wife is allowed to marry another man. Therefore throwing Yosef into the pit was no different than killing him outright.

Reuven’s conduct can, however, be explained as follows: The brothers maintained that Yosef was worthy of capital punishment.49 Reuven, however, argued that they should not execute this sentence themselves; since they were granted free choice, it is possible that they could make a mistake. “Why kill him ourselves?” argued Reuven. “Let us leave his judgment in G‑d’s hands. It is possible that a miracle will occur.50 If he is not deserving of death, the snakes and scorpions will not kill him, for they do not have free choice.”51

The Torah prescribes that according to natural law, when a person falls into a pit of snakes and scorpions, one may assume that he has been killed. We even accept this as evidence that he is dead with regard to granting a woman permission to remarry, because we follow the principle of רוב, acting on the more likely probability.52

With regard to granting a woman permission to remarry, this principle is followed with restrictions. Even if the probability of a man surviving is minimal, his wife is not permitted to remarry.53 As long as what is required to save the person is something other than an actual miracle,54 i.e., a contravention of natural law, and not necessarily what people at large refer to as a miracle (such as those events for which our Sages have instituted an obligation to recite a blessing),55 the woman is not granted permission to remarry.

Nevertheless, even when an actual miracle is required to save a person, there is a possibility that he will be saved. Nonetheless, when determining halachah today, we do not consider that possibility because we follow the principle of acting on the more likely probability.

The above principle did not apply with regard to Yosef, because according to many authorities, Yosef’s brothers were considered as bnei Noach,56 (i.e., they were not bound by the laws which governed the Jewish people after the giving of the Torah), and the principle of following the more likely probability does not apply with regard to bnei Noach.57

The Power to Greet Mashiach

With regard to the future redemption, it is written:58 “As in the days of your exodus from Egypt, I will show you wonders,” establishing a parallel between the two redemptions. Accordingly, like the Jews in Egypt, our Divine service in these final stages of the exile is to elevate the remaining sparks of holiness which have fallen to very low levels.

We derive the potential to reach these levels from the Rebbe, the leader of our generation. For the Rebbe’s Divine service was characterized by the principle: “It is that which is on the highest levels which can descend to the lowest levels.”

This is also what is demanded of us in our Divine service, for “the body follows the head.” Our Divine service involves taking the deepest spiritual truths, the mystical secrets of the Torah, and disseminating them to the ends of the earth, following the directive given to the Baal Shem Tov by Mashiach:59 “When your wellsprings spread outward….”

Through these efforts, even the lowest sparks of holiness will be elevated, and this will bring about Mashiach’ s coming, here in this world. May this take place in the immediate future.

(Adapted from Sichos Rosh Chodesh Kislev, 5712;
Sichos Acharon Shel Pesach, 5721)