Parshas Vayigash - The Chutzpah to Fight

By Rabbi Zvi Teichman

Posted on 12/22/17

As Yaakov is about to descend to Egypt to meet up with his long lost and beloved son Yosef, he is suddenly gripped with fear. G-d intervenes by appearing to him in a vision in the dark of the night, assuring him to ‘have no fear of descending to Egypt... I shall descend with you, and I shall surely bring you up...’

G-d then adds the following statement: ויוסף ישית ידו על עיניך, and Yosef shall place his hand upon your eyes.

This last sentiment would seem to be simply reassuring Yaakov that Yosef will tend to all his needs.

It is quoted in the name of the Zohar that within this phrase lays the רזא דקריאת שמע, the secret of the reciting of Shma. Might this allude to our custom to literally place one’s hand over our eyes when reciting the Shma? What is this secret? How does this ‘secret’ fit in with G-d’s attempting to allay Yaakov’s fears?

The Midrash informs that within this verse describing Yaakov’s descent into Egypt is encrypted all the future exiles we would endure. Yaakov fears for all future generations, worrying how they will survive all their travails intact. G-d assures him that in all those challenges He will be there with them in their oppression. Nevertheless, Yaakov sensing so much darkness in their future wonders how is it possible that there can be a positive outcome from all their troubles. G-d informs Yaakov that in the life and times of Yosef he should find encouragement. Just as with Yosef all seemed so bleak and hopeless, nevertheless, the outcome was magnificent, and all for the good in enabling the family of Yaakov to thrive despite the terrible famine and in reuniting all his children to the brotherhood from within the Nation of Israel will blossom, so too will those future generations transform their challenges into great successes.

This, the Meshech Chochmah suggests, is the figurative meaning of Yosef ‘placing his hands on his eyes’. Yaakov’s fearful vision of darkness would be illuminated by the history of the episode of Yosef where what first appeared to be a tragedy turned into utter joy.

We place our hands over our eyes when reciting Shma in a symbolic declaration that although at times it may seem that we are being dealt a harsh measure of punishment, we block that view, exclaiming it is all for the good and our ultimate benefit. The G-d of justice and the G-d of mercy is One. This is the great secret of Shma!

The Midrash and Zohar reveal an additional custom based on this reference of Yosef ‘placing a hand on the eyes’ of his father.

The Halacha instructs that after the departure of the soul from its body, one, preferably the eldest son, should close the eyes of the deceased. Yaakov had a tradition that if none of his children would predecease him he would be saved from seeing the face of gehinom. In promising that his son Yosef would place his hand upon his eyes, G-d was informing Yaakov that he would merit to have his children seal his eyes indicating his worthiness in predeceasing his children.

The Zohar explains that one whose soul has departed this physical realm and has glimpsed the Divine Presence can no longer tolerate viewing this material world.

Perhaps there is an even deeper secret behind our covering our eyes when declaring G-d’s oneness.

There are times when the dispensing of the G-d’s measure of justice is so overwhelmingly painful that one simply finds oneself incapable of seeing it. We cry out Shma Yisroel, accepting the notion of everything being for our benefit, yet we close our eyes at the same time to convey to G-d how impossibly difficult it is at times.

This week we have experienced a roller-coaster of emotions. The sudden release of Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin after all seemed so hopeless was reminiscent of the freeing of Yosef and the vital lesson that one may never accept the inevitability of any painful situation.

In the same week though, a family was tragically broken with the fiery deaths of four precious souls, a mother and three of her children, with the husband/father and two other children critically wounded.

There are times when we can cover our eyes in spite of the challenge declaring our faith that all is for the better, fervently hoping that we may one day perceive the good in its full display.

But there are times when all we can do is strive to reaffirm our absolute belief in G-d’s benevolence, yet still cover our eyes as a gesture of the intolerable pain that is at times too difficult to endure.

Today I went to pay a painful shiva call to the family of a dear talmid I have had the opportunity to interact closely with for over a decade, since his entering into the high school where I served as his principal. An extraordinary young man, brilliant, charming, thoughtful, expressive, insightful, inspired, but terribly tortured. Despite seemingly insurmountable challenges he persevered for so many years. He summed up the strength he had to ‘stay in the ring’ with the following words: “I have to have a lot of chutzpah to keep fighting the way I do because I’ve fallen so many times!”

We Jews have an innate ‘chutzpah’ inherited from that remarkable shepherd, Yosef, who at times closed his eyes in utter frustration but forced out those exquisite words, Shma Yisroel... Hashem Echad!, time and time again.

It took a lot of chutzpah to keep at it for twelve long years in a dank cell, in the company of criminals the dregs of society, constantly tempted, taunted and tortured by the likes of the wife of Potiphar. But that is our legacy that is our greatness.

The Zohar adds that we close the eyes of the departed to symbolize that one day they too will awake in the days of T’chiyas HaMeisim, the Resurrection of the Dead.

May the words of that exceptional neshama ring in our ears each time life seems hopeless, arousing within us the chutzpah to keep on fighting, exclaiming Shma Yisroel in every fiber of our existence, in every moment of struggle, until the day will come when we will all merit to see G-d’s benevolence in all its pristine clarity. יהי זכרו ברוך


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