Chapter 41

1 Pharaoh had a dream: Because Joseph, the central figure of his generation, learned of his future through dreams, this became the norm. This was why Pharaoh learned about the future of his land through dreams as well. (As to why Joseph is associated with dreams, see below on v. 35.)

Today, as well, the dynamics of the world at large stem from those of "Joseph," the Jewish people. Even the forces that oppose Godliness take their cue from the Jewish people.

This occurs in two ways:

(1) The Jewish people's spiritual deficiencies spawn similar such deficiencies in the world.

(2) Some aspects of evil are so egregious that they cannot possibly emerge from our own failings. Nevertheless, they stem from us indirectly, since the purpose of their existence is to challenge us and thereby elicit our otherwise dormant spiritual powers.

Ironically, when we encounter these seemingly unnaturally evil phenomena, we tend to assume that they stem from a source all their own. We are therefore intimidated by them at best and seduced by them at worst. If, instead, we would recognize that they are nothing more than reflections of our own inadequacies or simply challenges designed to elicit our dormant spiritual powers, we would consider them neither intimidating nor tantalizing. Our reaction would then be as it should be: to rectify our own inadequacies with holiness, which in turn would affect the spiritual condition of the world at large. 1

2-6 Seven cows… seven ears of grain: Although, as we have seen, Pharaoh's dreaming stemmed from Joseph, the content of his dreams differed profoundly from that of Joseph's. Pharaoh dreamed only of produce and animals but not of work. Joseph's dreams, in contrast, began from the start with the image of work—the brothers gathering sheaves in the field.

This aptly reflects the difference between how holy individuals and unholy individuals receive sustenance from on high. The holy receive sustenance through the work of aligning themselves with God's will. When they do so, Divine sustenance flows to them naturally. The unholy balk at the idea of self-discipline and work and therefore refuse to conform to God's will; they are therefore sustained by God in a backhanded fashion.

Moreover, receiving something without effort constitutes flawed goodness, since recipients do not truly appreciate something gained without effort. Our sages describe such gain as "bread of shame."2 It is therefore incompatible with the realm of holiness, which is categorized by perfect goodness.

We should bear the above in mind when the thought falls into our minds that we can get by without hard work. Such notions stem from our unholy side, where work and effort is not critical. Furthermore, we should remember that anything we receive for "free" will not endure.

The dreams of Pharaoh differed from Joseph's in another significant way: The themes of Pharaoh's dreams occurred as a regression—first the higher life form of animal, followed by the lower life form of vegetation—even though temporally, the poor condition of the cows resulted from the poor condition of the grain. Furthermore, each individual dream was about a regression—from healthy cows and grain to unhealthy—predicting an actual regression from years of plenty to years of famine.

Joseph's dreams, in contrast, occurred as a progression: he first dreamed about earthly sheaves and then about the heavenly hosts. Likewise, in his first dream, individual stalks were turned into more valuable sheaves.

This difference reflected the truth that holiness possesses intrinsic existence—it exists for its own sake and therefore is permanent—while unholiness is only a temporary phenomenon, existing only to challenge holiness. Therefore, any change that occurs in holiness must be an addition, a progression, whereas the nature of the unholy is to progressively diminish. Any regression that does occur in holiness is only apparent, paving the way for a subsequent ascent.

Another difference between the dreams is that Pharaoh dreamed only of the earthly—animals and food, whereas Joseph dreamed of both the earthly and the heavenly. This difference reflected their different perspectives: Pharaoh perceived nothing higher than material reality (the deities he worshipped being nothing more than abstractions of physical forces), whereas Joseph was acutely aware of spiritual reality, as well.

Furthermore, the fact that both Joseph's earthly and heavenly dreams conveyed the same basic idea implies that for Joseph, the earthly and heavenly were one. Even while immersed in the earthly, Joseph was aware of the heavenly. Not only did the earthly not distract him from the heavenly, it itself was transformed and became heavenly. For Pharaoh, in contrast, there was only one world—the world of cows and grain.

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch was imprisoned by the Soviets in 1927 for his efforts to keep the flame of Judaism alive despite the Soviet Union's religious persecution. During his imprisonment, he remained defiant and refused to bend to the pressures of the interrogators. Once an interrogator lifted a revolver and said, "This little toy has made many a man talk," to which Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak replied: "Those who have many gods and one world are afraid of a revolver; those who have one God and two worlds have nothing to fear."3

14 He changed…his…clothes: Joseph's release from prison ultimately led to his becoming viceroy of Egypt. Spiritually, then, he "changed his clothes" to prepare for the next stage of his mission in Egypt, when he would be fully immersed in mundane matters. In order to protect himself spiritually, Joseph planned to remain spiritually detached from Egypt. The material concerns of this world would remain insignificant to him and therefore be unable to disrupt his attachment to God.

As a preparation for kingship he made it clear that he considered his new role as a "garment," something that would remain external to him, just as a garment remains external to a person. His new role would only affect him superficially; it would not change his inner self.4


[16-28] "God [Elokim] will provide an answer…God [Elokim] has shown Pharaoh what He is about to do": The Name Elokim refers to the immanent aspects of God, that is, to God the Creator, the aspect of God that is discernible or can be deduced by observing created reality.

Joseph therefore used this name when talking to Pharaoh, since Pharaoh could not fathom Godliness that transcends the constrictions of nature, which is conveyed in the Name Havayah. Similarly, when the Torah talks about God speaking to Avimelech, king of the Philistines, it states, 5 "Elokim spoke to Abimelech." 6

Generations later, when Moses confronted Pharaoh and spoke of God as Havayah, as a power that transcends nature, Pharaoh responded, "Who is Havayah that I should heed His voice?...I do not recognize Havayah." 7 He did not recognize a God who transcends nature and refused to accept such a notion. 8

30 Seven years of plenty will be followed by seven years of famine, when all the abundance in Egypt will be forgotten: Metaphorically, the seven years of abundance allude to the years of spiritual "plenty" that we enjoyed when the Temples stood and God's presence was perceivable in the miracles that occurred in the Temple. This era was followed by the exile, an era of spiritual "famine," when Godliness became much less perceivable. Today, the ravages of our long exile have made us forget the years of spiritual plenty when Godliness was revealed during the Temple era.

But, as Joseph advised, we did store up "food," by preserving the knowledge of the Torah during the years of plenty. The inspiration of the Torah sustains us during exile—as King David wrote, "[The Torah] is my comfort in my affliction, for Your word has given me life."9 The Torah will continue to sustain us until the "famine" ends and Godliness is once again revealed.10

35 The seven years of famine and seven years of plenty will occur simultaneously: The dreams of Joseph and Pharaoh led to the Jewish people's first exile, in Egypt: Joseph's dreams led him to be sold as a slave in Egypt; Pharaoh's dreams led Joseph to be crowned as viceroy, which ultimately led to the Egyptian exile, the precursor of all our exiles.11

Exile was caused by dreams because the reality of exile is analogous to that of a dream. Dreams consist of incoherent illusions where conflicting and contradictory elements can coexist. Similarly, our lives in exile a confusing blend of seemingly hypocritical forms of behavior, combining spiritual transcendence and animalistic selfishness almost simultaneously. We pray to God with absolute devotion, and yet, in a matter of minutes, we find ourselves acting in ways that contradict God's directives. Our actions do not match our words and our words do not match our thoughts. Much like a dream, our lives are often an inconsistent and confusing combination of right and wrong.12

Living in this dreamlike existence can lead to frustration, even despair. We may think that we are not progressing, that we are being dishonest with ourselves. We may feel, considering all our faults, that our connection to God is not real, and that our efforts to advance spiritually are superficial and ultimately futile.

The Torah therefore emphasizes the relation of dreams to the exile, to teach us that although our actions are inconsistent and may seem hypocritical at times, we should not become disheartened, since that is the nature of the "dream" we are living. We must try to live as consistently possible with our ideals and not give up because of our momentary lapses. This is because the effects of misdeeds are transient, lasting only until we repair their damage through repentance. The effects of our good deeds, in contrast, last forever.13

Pharaoh's dream, particularly, conveyed the essence of exile, the coexistence of opposites: the simultaneous presence of plenty and famine. Plenty and satiety allude to feeling close to God during prayer. Famine and scarcity allude to worry and anxiety over material concerns throughout the rest of the day, which belies a lack of trust and closeness to God. During exile, these opposing sentiments can coexist.

Superficially, the reason for irrationality in dreams is that during sleep, the imagination is not controlled by the rational mind. Similarly, during exile, our "rational mind," our appreciation and understanding of Godliness, is weak.

On a deeper level, however, the reason for the irrationality of dreams and exile is because they are both rooted in transcendent, infinite Divinity, which defies logic and allows opposites to coexist. However, when this transcendence manifests itself in dreams and exile, its infinity is hidden beneath a cloak of confusion.

Inasmuch as Joseph's soul was rooted in God's infinity, he was able to interpret dreams by unveiling the infinity hidden within them.

This is the deeper significance of Joseph's interpreting Pharaoh's dream: By getting past the external contradiction of Pharaoh's dream, Joseph gave the Jewish people the strength to go about the work of getting past the external contradiction of exile, to see its root in Divine infinity. This work will be complete in the messianic age, when the infinity of Godliness will be revealed.14

Because of the lofty origin of exile, there is an advantage in our spiritual work during the "dream" of exile over our work during the days the Temple stood, when we were "awake." During the Temple era, the conscious capacities of our souls operated soundly. During exile, these capacities are asleep. Ironically, this provides us greater access to our subconscious capacities, which transcend limitations.

For example, in Temple times, a ritually impure person could not experience holiness. Today, however, we transcend such limitations and can experience holiness even in the midst of our impurity.15

In "normal" times, we must follow "normal" conventions, such as ascending the spiritual ladder one step at a time. In exile, however, we can tap into lofty spiritual opportunities that by normal standards are outside our realm. For example, in previous generations, we could not study the inner dimension of Torah without having undergone numerous preparations. Today, however, we can—and therefore must—study the inner dimension of Torah regardless of our limited knowledge and spiritual level.16

42-45 Pharaoh removed his signet ring…. The angel Gabriel came and taught him…. He gave him Asnat, daughter of Potiphera…as a wife: According to Torah law, a slave-owner must give his slave a parting gift when the latter is set free.17 Joseph, who had just been freed from slavery, experienced the fulfillment of this law when Potiphera, his former master, gave him his daughter, Asnat, as a wife.

On the other hand, inasmuch as Potiphera was subject to Pharaoh, and it was Pharaoh who actually freed Joseph, Pharaoh could be considered to have been Joseph's ultimate master. Therefore, indeed, Pharaoh bestowed gifts upon Joseph when he freed him, as described in this verse.

Finally, since God had both arranged for Joseph to be sold into slavery and caused him to be freed, He could be considered Joseph's master. We therefore see the God, too, bestowed a gift upon Joseph when he was freed, namely, the ability to quickly learn all seventy languages.18

43 They proclaimed before him, "The king's counselor! How wise is he, and yet so young! Bend the knee to him!": These three proclamations are all alluded to in the Hebrew word avrech, which bears various interpretations.

The second two interpretations stem from a debate between two sages of the Mishnah, Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Yosi ben Durmaskis (i.e., Rabbi Yosi of Damascus19):

Rabbi Yosi preferred to interpret the Torah as literally as possible.20 He therefore translates avrech as "bend the knee," since the word avrech is clearly related to the word for "knee" (berech). From this perspective, the Egyptians only bent their knees to Joseph and did not prostrate themselves before him, as they did to Pharaoh.

Rabbi Judah, on the other hand, preferred to interpret the Torah contextually; he therefore finds it unlikely that the Egyptians did not prostrate themselves before Joseph, since, as we saw above,21 it was only the throne that Pharaoh kept from Joseph, which implies that in everything else Joseph was equal, including, presumably, that the Egyptians did not just bend their knees to Joseph, they prostrated themselves to him as well.

Rabbi Judah therefore prefers to interpret avrech as referring to Joseph's wisdom; although this is not a literal interpretation of the word avrech, it aligns more comfortably with the context of the story.

In general, there are two levels of selflessness before God. The first is the selflessness we impose on ourselves when we are aware of ourselves; we are conscious of being separate from God, yet we subdue our sense of self and submit to His will (bitul hayesh). The second is inherent selflessness, where there is no self that requires subdual (bitul bimtziut).

Bending of the knee expresses the first type: tempered, imposed selflessness. Bowing in this way demonstrates that we accept God's sovereignty, but we still remain our own selves. Prostration, in contrast, reflects the second type: absolute selflessness, wherein we possess no self-identity aside from our submission Him.

By bowing to Joseph, the Egyptians were, in effect, submitting themselves to Joseph's level of Divine consciousness. But whereas Joseph embodied absolute selflessness, the Egyptians could only assimilate whatever portion of Joseph's Divine consciousness they were capable of sustaining.

Rabbi Judah, who emphasizes context over literalness, focuses on Joseph's transmission of absolute selflessness, prior to its diffusion into the distilled particulars that the Egyptians could assimilate. He therefore asserts that although the Egyptians may not have consciously experienced absolute selflessness, they still prostrated themselves before Joseph because they had been subconsciously affected by what he was emanating.

Rabbi Yosi of Damascus (who lived outside the Holy Land and was therefore associated with a lower level of selflessness) focuses on what the Egyptians were actually able to assimilate from Joseph, which was an imposed selflessness before God—bending of the knee.

Regarding Joseph's brothers, the Torah explicitly states that they prostrated themselves before Joseph.22 This is because, according to all views, they were capable of assimilating Joseph's level of absolute selflessness.23

Bend the knee: The word for bend the knee (אברך) is cognate with the word used in the Mishnah to describe the method of propagating a vine (הברכה) by bending it down into the ground in order to send forth new roots and thereby form a new plant.24 This is an appropriate name for Joseph, who, as we have seen,25 functioned as a conduit to bring lofty Divine consciousness downward into the material world.26


[44] He must know all seventy languages, as is expected of all royalty: Pharaoh sought to not only rule over his subject nations by force, but to control their minds as well. In order to do this, it was necessary to know their languages, because a culture's values and way of thinking are reflected in its language; indeed, language often determines the way people think and conceptualize reality. 27


[44] The angel Gabriel came and taught Joseph the seventy languages: Gabriel taught Joseph the languages he needed to learn by adding the letter hei from God's Name to Joseph's name. This is alluded to in the single verse in the whole Bible in which the letter hei is inserted into Joseph's name: "As a testimony for Jehoseph, He ordained it, when he went forth over the land of Egypt, [when Joseph said,] 'I understood a language that I had not known.' " 28

The hei added to Joseph's name was the first hei of God's Name Havayah (יהו-ה). This hei signifies binah.29 The shape of the letter hei therefore suggests expansion, reflecting the expansion and articulation of the seminal point of insight (chochmah) that occurs in binah.

Joseph would use his mastery of the languages to communicate with all the various nations that would come to buy food from Egypt, and thereby influence them. His name-change thus reflected the same change that occurred to his great-grandfather, Abraham. When the letter hei was added to Abraham's name, he became father of all nations, 30 meaning that he became capable of influencing the entire world.31

48 Joseph therefore placed with the food some soil taken from the fields surrounding the city where it had grown: Metaphorically, our food is the Torah knowledge we amass.32 In order for us to retain this "food" and ensure that it does not "spoil," we must place some "soil" inside it. 33

Soil, which is trod upon by all, is a metaphor for humility. By infusing our Torah knowledge with humility, we ensure that it will endure within us. Hence, in the daily liturgy, the prayer, "May my soul be as soil to all" is followed by "open my heart to Your Torah."34 If our souls are humble like soil, our hearts can be open to the Torah's meaning and message.

We must, however, ensure that we apply this humility appropriately, not to justify inaction. For example, some people invoke false humility to avoid their obligation to teach the Torah to others,35 saying, "I am too spiritually weak to allow myself to come in contact with people who are ignorant of Torah. I will instead focus only on my own family and immediate neighborhood."

The Torah therefore teaches us here that the humility, the "soil," must be "taken from the fields surrounding the city where it had grown." In other words, we must apply "localized" humility, only in the actual study of Torah, remaining aware that as we study Torah, God is studying with us.36 We are thus required to study Torah with the same trepidation and awe that we felt at Sinai.37

Moreover, we must remember that as much as we understand and as much as we have learned, the Torah, as the wisdom of the infinite God, remains beyond us. This awareness will preserve our knowledge of the Torah as the soil preserved the grain.

Our world, too, is plagued with famine, but this time it is a spiritual famine, a dearth of spiritual enlightenment. Like Joseph, we are called upon to do all we can to alleviate the famine, to banish the plague of ignorance and sustain the world with the teachings of the Torah.

Just as Joseph took measures to preserve the sustenance he prepared, we too must take measures to "preserve" the spiritual sustenance we share to ensure that it is not fleeting. It should sustain its recipients throughout their lives. Moreover, they should be able to pass it on to their children, creating an endless chain of spiritual sustenance. 38

52-51 ManassehEphraim: Living in exile, we must employ two paradoxical approaches with regard to the world at large:39 On the one hand, we must be constantly vigilant against alien influences; on the other hand, we must engage the outside world in order to influence it positively.

Influencing our environment is obviously more important than merely maintaining our values. Temporally, however, the latter must precede the former, since if we forget our roots we will no longer have anything to contribute.

The two sons of Joseph, born and raised in Egypt, personified these two aspects of exilic life. Manasseh, so named by Joseph "in order not to forget his family and heritage," personifies our need to resist assimilation. Ephraim, so named "because God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering," demonstrates our purpose in the "land of suffering": to be fruitful there and influence it positively.

Chronologically, therefore, Manasseh preceded Ephraim—he was the firstborn. 40

According to Rabbi Dovber of Mezeritch, Ephraim represents consistently saintly individuals while Manasseh represents penitents. Each group is inspired by their pasts, but in different ways:

Ephraim…God has made me fruitful: The consistently saintly are inspired by the fact that God has made them fruitful in the past because of their good deeds. Their past experience spurs them on to continued good. This is like a person, who, after traveling some distance to reach a certain city, is advised by others to give up the trip. The traveler will reply, "I have come so far; how can I give up in the middle?"

Manasseh… God has made me forget: Penitents recall the fact that that they have in the past forgotten God, and are thereby fired with a greater yearning for closeness with God.41

55 So all the males in Egypt had themselves circumcised: Joseph not only remained unaffected by Egypt, he influenced it. One manifestation of this was the fact that he had the Egyptians circumcised.

Egyptian society was steeped in the pursuit of self-serving carnal pleasure,42 which, as Maimonides writes,43 is reduced by circumcision. Thus, by having the Egyptians circumcised, Joseph subdued their obsession with carnal indulgence. Furthermore, Pharaoh himself, the king of Egypt, instructed them to acquiesce to Joseph's insistence that they be circumcised; this signified that the very fountainhead of Egyptian corruption was willing to be refined, at least somewhat.

We can all follow Joseph's example, especially since the Jewish people are collectively referred to as "Joseph." 44 Like Joseph, we can remain spiritually untainted by our materialistic milieu. We should not feel overwhelmed by it nor allow it to depress us. Rather, we should strengthen our own commitment to holiness and influence our neighbors, including the broader community of non-Jews, encouraging them to keep Noahide law. Thus, we will ultimately transform the entire world into God's home.45

Nonetheless, although Joseph succeeded in refining Egypt, he acted on his own initiative, and therefore, despite his good intentions, his plan backfired. By becoming more refined, Egypt was made worthier of receiving Divine beneficence, and receiving this beneficence strengthened it. Unfortunately, Egypt was not refined enough to use this power properly and used it instead to persecute the Jewish people. 46

If Joseph was capable of doing damage despite his good intentions, we are certainly similarly capable. We must therefore be careful not overreach in our efforts to do good. We may sometimes be tempted to bend the Torah's rules in our desire to bring others closer to it, thinking that if we insist on following the law meticulously we may turn them away.

Even if it were true that bending the law would benefit others, we are still not authorized to do so. We should not be more zealous than the Torah itself, 47 and our concern for bringing a Jew to Judaism should not be stronger than the Torah's own concern.

The truth is, however, that no good can come out of compromising Torah law, or even a Jewish custom.

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch was once at a meeting where one of the participants suggested that in order to save Judaism it is sometimes beneficial to compromise Torah law. The latter stated that when it comes to drinking, one seeks only clean water; but to put out a fire, any liquid, even dirty water, will suffice. The Rebbe responded, "If you're certain that what you're pouring on the fire is water, then you're right—dirty water will suffice. The problem is you are pouring kerosene, which, while also a liquid, will not extinguish but increase the fire."48

Chapter 42


[1] Jacob saw that there was produce in Egypt: The word used here for produce (shever) also means breakage. Spiritually, Jacob perceived that there were holy sparks embedded in Egypt, broken shards that had fallen there through the process of "the shattering of the vessels" of Tohu. 49 He therefore intuited that there was a need to descend to Egypt to elevate and redeem these holy sparks. 50

8 Joseph recognized his brothers…they did not recognize him: As we have seen, Joseph was capable of retaining his Divine consciousness even while immersed in the mundane world, which his brothers were incapable of doing. Hence, they did not "recognize him": they could not imagine that this viceroy of Egypt could be the righteous Joseph, since, from their perspective, it was impossible to be immersed in the mundane and remain righteous. 51

21 For we saw his anguish when he pleaded with us, but we would not listen: The crime of Joseph's sale into captivity can be seen as a metaphor for all our "crimes" against God. During the Godly soul's sojourn in the body and its mundane consciousness, it is like a prince in captivity. The purpose of this exile is for the soul to refine and spiritualize the body and its share of the material world. The soul thereby gains the ability to rise to a spiritual level higher than it existed in prior to its descent.

Consequently, as long as we remain true to the purpose of the soul's descent, our souls are happy to endure the agony living life in material captivity. When, however, we are unfaithful to our mission, and certainly when we behave contrary to it, the soul suffers unjustified agony.

Since the soul is a part of God, the pain of the soul is the pain of the Divine presence as well. Thus, whenever we behave in ways that negate the purpose of the soul's descent, or even simply do not justify it, we are, so to speak, casting God into "captivity" just as the brothers did to Joseph.

Nachmanides writes that the brothers' failure to have mercy on Joseph despite his pleas was more egregious a sin than the sale itself. Similarly, our failure to pay heed to the voice of our souls and the Divine presence, which beg us to free them from captivity, is more egregious than our negative behavior itself. 52

22 Reuben responded to them and said, "Did I not tell you, 'Do not sin against the boy'? But you would not listen. And now we are being called to account for his blood: Reuben's reaction to his brothers' expression of regret seems uncharacteristic for someone of his stature. The brothers were obviously feeling remorseful about their sin and understood that they were being punished for their past deed. We would expect Reuben to be sympathetic and offer words of consolation. Instead, he seems to be pouring salt on their wounds.

In fact, however, Reuben was trying to help his brothers repent fully. Reuben himself was penitent par excellence. Although Adam and Cain had repented before Reuben, the Midrash refers to Reuben as the first to have repented,53 for he was the first to truly understand repentance and repent with absolute sincerity

True repentance is possible only when we are motivated solely by an inner desire to correct the past, to fix our relationship with God and get closer to Him. As Maimonides writes, true repentance means that we have repented in such a way that God can testify that we will never again return to our folly.54 If, however, we are motivated to repent by some external factor, we cannot be sure that we will not return to our old ways once that external factor is no longer relevant.

Thus, when Reuben saw that his brothers were repenting, he wanted to ensure that they did so in the optimal manner. He feared that their repentance was not motivated from within but by external circumstances—the misfortune that had befallen them. Reuben wanted them to repent out of recognition of the magnitude of their sin, which he had tried to impress upon them twenty years prior. Instead of focusing on the repercussions of the sin—in the brothers' words, "that is why this misfortune has come upon us"—Reuben wanted them to focus on the magnitude of the sin itself: "we are being called to account for his blood."

Furthermore, just as true repentance must be freely chosen and not motivated by external factors, so too, we must recognize that the wrong for which we are repenting was committed freely—we cannot blame any external factors. As long as we have an excuse to somewhat justify our behavior, as long as we think that other factors also contributed to our choice, even if we admit our guilt we have not truly repented. As King Solomon wrote, "He who covers his sins will not succeed," alluding to Adam, who wanted to pass off his guilt to Eve.55

In order to truly repent, we have to recognize that we—knowingly, deliberately, and with complete freedom of choice—chose to turn our backs on God. Even if external factors did influence us to sin, we are still responsible for having knowingly and deliberately chosen to sin, for we can always ignore such influences.

This was the second point that Reuben sought to impress upon his brothers. He told them, "You cannot blame anyone else for your sin, since I had warned you against sinning and yet you chose to ignore my pleas."56


[37] You may put my own two sons to death: How could Reuben say this? The Torah clearly prohibits killing people—except when administering the Torah's own death penalty for certain specific sins, and failure to keep a promise is not one of these sins.

This is therefore an instance of what we have seen elsewhere, namely, that before the Giving of the Torah it was permissible for society at large or for a private individual to obligate themselves to do something and make themselves (or in this case, their children) liable to the death penalty for not fulfilling this obligation. This explains why, in his response to Reuben, Jacob did not mention anything about such a commitment being forbidden by the Torah.57

Chapter 43

7-14 They presented his behavior to their father as being the result of a natural sequence of events…. Israel said to them, "Besides this, we must ask God for His help": Conventional thinking has it that prayer is for desperate situations. Under normal conditions, we assume that as long as we do what we need to do everything else will naturally fall into place.

From Jacob's words to his children, we learn otherwise. Even when a situation seems perfectly natural, we should never assume that we can negotiate it without Divine assistance. We must always resort to prayer—and not as a secondary measure, but as the primary measure. In fact, thinking that prayer is superfluous is itself a problem for which we should pray for help to solve!

Although we must create natural channels to facilitate God's blessings, we must realize that these natural means are merely external and that in truth we are connected to God, who is beyond nature. Therefore, our primary focus should be to pray to God, who controls every aspect of our lives, both material and spiritual.

When we do so, we merit to perceive that the "natural" occurrences of our lives are in fact miracles garbed in nature.58

16 He was certain that they had not voluntarily undertaken to observe the Torah's laws in their entirety…. He therefore did not think twice about serving them non-kosher meat: By emphasizing that Joseph had non-kosher meat prepared for his brothers, the Torah sheds light on how to fulfill the precept of hospitality:

In its optimum form, hospitality requires that hosts try their best to care for all their guests' needs. Even if they are not sure that the guests will take part in what is prepared for them, the hosts should provide abundantly for them.

Furthermore, hosts should not allow their own voluntarily pious stringencies to limit what they serve their guests. The guests might adhere to the same pious stringencies and refrain from partaking of what is served, but it is not the role of hosts to impose their piety upon their guests, but rather to prepare for them abundantly and leave it to them to choose their level of piety.59

Similarly, although austerity is a value found in the Torah, it is one we should impose on ourselves, not on others. When we think about providing for a poor family, for example, we should not look to provide them with the bare necessities to live an austere existence, but rather to provide for them according to a respectable standard of living.60

20 We originally came down [literally, "came down, yes, we came down"]: These two expressions of descent—"came down, yes, we came down"—presaged two descents that the Israelites would yet make to Egypt.

The first was the descent of Jacob and his family after Joseph would reveal himself to the brothers.61 Although at first they were neither persecuted nor enslaved by Egypt, this was a spiritual "descent," since they had left the Holy Land for Egypt.

One of the differences between the Land of Israel and Egypt is that the Land of Israel is watered by rain and Egypt is watered by the Nile. The Midrash explains that God wanted the inhabitants of the Holy Land to have to look "upward," to recognize that their sustenance depends upon God.62 At least to some extent, this would prevent them from growing too haughty and forgetting about God.63

In Egypt, however, God had the Nile overflow annually and water the fields. Inhabitants of a land sustained by such a naturally dependable phenomenon are far more likely to forget that God is the one who provides for their needs.

Thus, for the Jews to leave the Holy Land, where humanity's dependence on God was more apparent, and enter a land where Godliness is concealed, was already a great spiritual descent.

The second descent was not geographic, since they were already in Egypt; it was a purely spiritual descent, which occurred after Joseph died.64 As long as Joseph was alive, the Divine concealment that characterizes Egypt was temporarily subdued. After Joseph died, Egypt's true nature came back into force. At that time, the Jewish people once again "descended" into Egypt, but this time into the real Egypt.

More broadly, the first descent alludes to the descent to Egypt and the second to the descent into the subsequent exiles of our history. These two descents are countered by two ascents, as God promised Jacob, "I will… bring you up [yes, bring you up] from there."65 The first "bring you up" was fulfilled with the Exodus from Egypt; the second will be fulfilled in the messianic age.66

30-31 Joseph hurried out, for he was overcome with compassion for his brother and was on the verge of tears. He went to room and wept there…restraining his emotions, and said, "Serve the meal [literally, 'bread']": Allegorically, Benjamin alludes to the soul. Benjamin's original name, Ben Oni—"son of my sorrow"67—alludes to the pain the soul suffers because it leaves its heavenly abode and descends into this world, as well as to the pain it suffers because of whatever further descents it undergoes during its earthly sojourn. Since, as we have seen,68 the Jewish people are collectively referred to as Joseph, this verse allegorically describes how, when we consider the plight of "Benjamin," our own soul, we are overcome with compassion on it.

Kindness (chesed) is the drive to give to others regardless of whether they need or deserve our giving. Severity (gevurah) is the drive to execute justice, that is, to give only what is deserved, and not to give to those who do not deserve. Compassion (rachamim) is the drive to give to others because of their plight, regulating the giving according to what best serves their needs. Compassion is thus the synthesis of kindness and severity.

Kindness is cool and dispassionate, and is therefore associated with water. Severity is "hot" and passionate (which is why one of its manifestations is anger), and is therefore associated with fire. Compassion synthesizes the generosity of kindness with the heat and passion of severity.

He went to the room and wept there, restraining his emotions: Just as Joseph only wept in the room but restrained himself outwardly, we too must confine our tears over our soul's plight to our inner "room," the inner chambers of our hearts. Outwardly, our spiritual work should be permeated with joy.

He said, "Serve the bread": Crying over our soul's distance from God increases our hunger for Godliness. We can satisfy this hunger by cleaving to God through studying His Torah, the spiritual "bread" of our lives.

Moreover, when our study of the Torah is motivated by the compassion we arouse for our soul, the "heat" of this compassion ensures that our knowledge of the Torah will be fully "baked" and is thus "digestible." Just as raw dough cannot be assimilated into the body, "unbaked" knowledge of the Torah cannot be assimilated into our hearts and minds. Only if we "bake" our study of the Torah with warmth and passion can we internalize the Torah and become one with it.69

In these verses, Joseph expresses both intense emotion and emotional restraint. This alludes to the emotional yearning and restraint that are part of our holy living. On the one hand, we are called upon to experience an intense emotional desire to cleave to God and escape the bonds of physical reality. On the other hand, we must restrain this emotion and remain grounded in this world in order to fulfill the Divine mission we have been entrusted with.

Our emotional yearning takes place primarily during prayer, when we feel a fiery love for God. Following prayer, we should invest these emotions into studying the Torah—"bread"—Divine wisdom as it has been garbed in the physical realm.70


[34] They drank with him and became intoxicated: Rabbinic law prohibits Jews and non-Jews to drink wine together, and the patriarchs kept not only the formal laws of the Torah but also practices that would later be enacted by the sages of the Talmud. However, the brothers, as was said, did not undertake to observe the Torah's laws to the extent the patriarchs had, and in any case, if, as was also said, the possibility of danger overrode the Torah's prohibition of eating non-kosher meat, it surely overrode this Rabbinic prohibition.71

Chapter 44

2 And put my goblet—the silver goblet—at the top of the youngest one's pack: Benjamin and Joseph were extremely similar in outlook. They were bound up to each other like one soul.

By framing Benjamin, Joseph was creating a situation where his brothers could atone for their sin of selling him. When the brothers would put their own lives at risk to save Benjamin, it would be as if they were doing so to save Joseph. They would thereby undo their crime against Joseph, by doing the exact opposite. This would remove from them the negative repercussions of their sin.

On a deeper level, the goblet Joseph placed in Benjamin's pack alludes to a profound gift that Joseph sought to give his brothers and their descendants. He knew that the Jewish people would be in Egypt for a long time and that they would not all be able to attain or maintain his level of Divine consciousness, which enabled him to survive and thrive in the decadence of Egypt. He therefore sought a means to prevent them from getting sucked in to Egyptian depravity, ensuring instead that they would eventually leave the darkness of Egypt and receive the Torah. Joseph realized that the quality they would need was a sublime, subconscious love for God, which would overcome the gross materialism of their milieu. He also knew they would not be able to spark such a love by themselves, so he devised to implant this love in them. Specifically, he chose to implant it in Benjamin.

Spiritually, Benjamin was an intermediary between Joseph and his brothers. Relative to Joseph and the patriarchs, Benjamin was on a lower spiritual order, together with his other brothers. Relative to the other brothers (excluding Joseph), however, Benjamin was on a higher level, putting him almost on a par with Joseph. Specifically, whereas Joseph personified the perfectly righteous individual, Benjamin personified the glimpse of saintliness that people who are not yet perfectly righteous experience intermittently, during times of spiritual transcendence, such as prayer or meditation.

Benjamin was thus the perfect vehicle for what Joseph tried to accomplish. His higher spiritual level relative to his other brothers enabled him to receive Joseph's spiritual input, while his similarity to them enabled him to receive it on their behalf.

Joseph alluded to the sublime, subconscious love for God he was implanting in his brothers with his silver goblet. The word for "silver" (כסף) also means "yearning" (כיסופים). Silver thus alludes to yearning and love for God. Inasmuch as wine signifies the joy that wine brings,72 Joseph's wine goblet alluded to love for God that is filled with joy. By hiding his silver goblet in Benjamin's pack, Joseph embedded his level of joyful love of God in the souls of all Jews, even those who can only occasionally experience it consciously and within whom it normally lies dormant. 73

Placing the goblet in Benjamin's pack also had other implications. As we have seen, Joseph's focus was on bringing Divine consciousness down from the supernal to the terrestrial.74 He is therefore associated with the study of the Torah, through which Divine consciousness is brought down into the world. In contrast, Benjamin's focus was on elevating the terrestrial upward toward the supernal, which is the function of prayer, the effort to rise up and transcend our earthly consciousness. By planting his goblet in Benjamin's pack, Joseph was sharing with him his specialty, the study of the Torah.

An allusion to this can be found in the numerical value of the word for "goblet" (גביע), 85, which equals 5 x 17. Inasmuch as 17 is the numerical value of the word for "good" (טוב), the goblet alludes to five types of good. Since the sages tell us that "the ultimate good is the Torah,"75 these five types of good can be considered to allude to the five books of the Torah.76

Furthermore, if we add 1 to 85 for the word for "goblet" itself (in Jewish numerology, this is done to consider the word as a whole in addition to the sum of its constituent letters), we have 86. The goblet thus represented the power through which the Jewish people would be able to endure to the second phase of their slavery in Egypt, 86 years of harsh labor. 77

5 He also uses it for divination: The words for this phrase (נחש ינחש) are related to the word for "snake" (נחש). This phrase can thus mean that with this goblet Joseph "out-snakes the snake."

The snake is associated with slyness and trickery;78 the nature of a trick is to conceal reality. Thus, Egypt was a land of magicians, 79 and Pharaoh, the quintessence of Egypt, was envisioned by the prophet Ezekiel as a serpent, 80 since the idolatry of Egypt sought above all to conceal the truth of Godliness.

Through his "goblet," the metaphor for Joseph's spiritual power, Joseph neutralized Egypt's concealment of Divinity—he "out-snaked the snake." 81

7 It would be a disgrace for us, your servants, to do such a thing: The literal meaning of the words for "it would be a disgrace for us" is "it would be mundane for us."

Abraham used a similar expression when he argued with God to save Sodom, which we have translated as "It would be sacrilegious for You."82 Again, the literal meaning of Abraham's words is "It would be mundane for You."

In Abraham's statement, referring to something as "mundane" to mean "sacrilegious" is understandable. He was speaking to God, to whom mundaneness is completely and obviously foreign. Therefore, referring to something as mundane for God is an apt way to refer to something foreign to Him. But in the case of Joseph's brothers, referring to stealing as "mundane" to mean "foreign" is somewhat curious, for it implies that they assumed the Egyptian they were talking to felt that mundaneness was something foreign and disgraceful! True, mundaneness was foreign and disgraceful to them, but it seems strange that they would expect an Egyptian, whose country was known for its materialism, to think of the mundane as disgraceful. It is therefore clear that the brothers chose such an expression, even while speaking to an Egyptian, because mundaneness was so foreign to them that they expected the Egyptian to know that.

Generally, since we all descend from all the patriarchs, we inherit their characteristics. But since we are not all descendants of all the sons of Jacob, we do not inherit all their individual characteristics. 83 In this case, however, this attitude toward mundaneness did not belong to one particular son of Jacob; it was stated by them as a group. We are therefore all heirs to this characteristic.

Thus, our truest self, our real identity, is holiness. Mundaneness, i.e., involvement with the material world, is so much not a part of us that is completely foreign to us. Furthermore, we learn from Jacob's sons that this sentiment should not remain buried somewhere deep in the recesses of our subconscious; it should be so much a part of us that others understand it, that it is obvious to them that mundaneness is just as alien to us as theft.

From where can we derive the strength to be simultaneously immersed in mundaneness and aloof from it? From God. Since the aspect of Godliness that descends to create the world remains existentially aloof from it, we too have the power to engage with the mundane and at the same time remain aloof from it. In fact, it is this very aloofness that enables us to sanctify the mundane.

A person who is completely righteous is incapable of sinning, even by accident. 84 Thus, the fact that the brothers had something in their possession that did not belong to them, even though the item was deliberately planted within their possessions, demonstrates that their righteousness was incomplete. They were lacking to some degree in this revulsion to materialism.

This incident was thus the final cause that led to their descent into exile. As we have seen,85 only the body can been subjected to exile; the soul can never be exiled. Exile therefore only has power over us when we focus on our bodily selves, our material lives. But if we allow the reality of our souls, in which the material is completely foreign, to permeate our consciousness, we transcend the exile. Thus, the fact that the brothers showed some weakness in the realm of detachment from materialism is what led to their exile.

Furthermore, exile itself is an impediment to Godliness, a spiritual descent, only in its external facade; its true self, its inner purpose, is the revelation and spiritual ascent that will come in its wake.

Our challenge is to reveal the inner identity of exile by revealing and actualizing our inner identity—by living in consonance with the reality of our souls.86