Wednesday, 21 Dec 2011

Written by Rabbi Larry Tabick

Governor over Earthliness

We are more powerful than we imagine. Society would have us think that our importance resides in our numbers. We are important as consumers, voters; important en masse rather than as individuals. As individuals, we don’t matter. But we are more important than that; as individuals, with our unique characteristics we do matter.

Towards the end of this parashah, we find Joseph’s ten older brothers going to Egypt to buy grain from a powerful Egyptian official. He, of course, is Joseph, but they do not recognise him. He, on the other hand, certainly knows them. And he is in charge!

Genesis 42:6

Ze’ev Wolf of Zhitomir was a Hasidic preacher and disciple of Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezritch. That puts him into the third generation of the Hasidic movement. Here is what he has to say about the meaning of Joseph’s governorship:

In this verse, we have to be aware that ‘JOSEPH’ refers to human intelligence, for there can be no [divine] influence apart from that of ‘Joseph’, since he is an aspect of ‘the righteous person is the foundation (yesod) of the world’ (Proverbs 10:25). Scripture alludes to this [when it says] ‘JOSEPH WAS GOVERNOR OVER THE LAND (HA’ARETZ)’, that is to say, when intelligence rules over earthliness (HA’ARTZIYUT), so that it is not dragged beneath time, [then] the benefit that you attain is that [you become] ‘ONE WHO SELLS TO ALL THE PEOPLE OF THE LAND.’ Intelligent people like this, through their Torah and prayer, may possibly cause [divine] influence to descend to all the worlds, and may draw [divine] influence and supernal blessing from the highest heights, from which they have taken to themselves a hint of wisdom, to the lowest level, to the aspect of earthliness.

Ze’ev Wolf of Zhitomir     (d.1800), ’Or HaMe’ir (‘The Illuminating Light’) (Warsaw, 1883), pt. 1, p. 43a.

Behind this Hasidic text lies the kabbalistic symbolism of the tzaddik (‘righteous one’). In kabbalah, tzaddik is another name for the sefirah of Yesod (‘Foundation’), a sefirah associated with the biblical figure of Joseph, the archetypal tzaddik. Yesod exercises a particular function in the kabbalistic tree as the channel through which the influence of the nine upper sefirot is transmitted to the tenth, Malchut, also known as Earth. The tzaddik, that is, the righteous person, below, is in an analogous position to that of Yesod in the world of the sefirot, channelling divine influence into this material world. Ze’ev Wolf says that Joseph represents human intelligence, that his rule over the land of Egypt symbolizes the control that the righteous exert over their earthliness, that is, their so-called ‘lower’, physical aspects. If they are successful in this, they can become like Joseph. Just as he was able to sell food to the people of Egypt, so too a righteous person may help to bring divine influence into the lives of other, less spiritual people. This is a classic restatement of the role of the rebbe in Hasidic circles. He is the conduit for divine blessings to the masses of his followers.

I prefer to give this notion a different, more democratic, spin, putting the original definition of tzaddik in place of the Hasidic one. A righteous person is, in my view, one who strives to do right in all circumstances. Such people, no matter what their social standing, bring divine influence to bear wherever they are.

We are all potential tzaddikim, potential conduits for divine blessings, capable of bringing them into this world. We are more powerful than we imagine.

Rabbi Larry Tabick
December 2011

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.