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Joseph From the Kabbalistic Perspective

Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

As we have already seen, early on Joseph is linked to the fulfillment of Jacob's legacy.

These are the generations of Jacob, Joseph was seventeen years old ...[Genesis 37:2]

At the outset, the Torah connects Jacob with Joseph. Of all his sons specifically Joseph holds the key to not only Jacob's but the family's ission. In this Torah portion, we will examine the implications of that mission from the mystical – that is Kabbalistic – standpoint. To do so, we must go back to the point where all it first began:

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, God appeared to Abram, He said to him: 'I am El Shadai, walk with me and be complete, and I will make a covenant between me and you, and cause you to become exceedingly multiplied ... Thy name shall be Abraham ... This is my covenant, which you shall guard between Me and you, and your descendants who shall follow. Circumcise every male. And you shall circumcise the flesh of the foreskin, this will be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. On the eighth day you shall circumcise all the males among you ...' [Genesis 17:1-12]

When God first makes his covenant with Abraham, He commands the patriarch to circumcise himself and all his descendants. Here Abram becomes Abraham – a new name signifying a new identity. As a result of the circumcision, Isaac will come into the world and the chain will continue. But there is another significant element in this section. God gives His name as El Shadai. This is the first time the name Shadai (pronounced Shakai in non-essential use) is used in the Torah.

When Isaac sends Jacob away and forbids him to take a wife from among the locals, he blesses his son, saying:

'El Shadai shall bless you. May you become fruitful and multiply. May you become a large nation. May (He) give the blessing of Abraham to you and to your descendants with you.' [Genesis 28:1-4]

When the blessing of Abraham – or nationhood – is passed on, the name of God invoked is Shadai.

After Jacob's name is changed by the angel, the Torah reiterates:

The Lord said to him: 'Your name is Jacob. No longer will your name be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.' And He named him Israel. The Lord said to him, 'I am El Shadai. Be fruitful and multiply; a nation, a great nation shall descend from you, and kings will emerge from your loins.' [Genesis 35:10-11]

We see a pattern developing. When God blesses the patriarchs with many descendants, the name of God employed is Shadai. We should also note that the passages cited above constitute the only usage of this Divine Name until this point in the Torah.

The next time the name Shadai is used is when Jacob finally agrees to send Benjamin, the youngest son of Rachel and Joseph's full brother, to Egypt. He says to his sons:

'May El Shadai give you mercy before the man. May He send your brother (Simon) and Benjamin back ...' [Genesis 43:14]

Here Jacob is tormented at the prospect of losing Benjamin. However, if we view this dialogue as Jacob speaking not only as a father but as the leader of a nation, the statement takes on a different meaning. He fears that somehow his nationalistic aspirations are threatened.

In the last days of Jacob's life the name Shadai is used twice, both times in discussions with Joseph. Again, the topic is children, or descendants. In the first instance, Jacob is about to bless his grandchildren, the sons of Joseph – the only grandchildren to receive his blessing directly. Before doing so, he recounts certain events of his life to Joseph:

And Jacob said to Joseph, 'El Shadai appeared to me in Luz and blessed me.' [Genesis 48:5]

In the second instance, and the last time the name Shadai is used in the Book of Genesis, the dying Jacob blesses Joseph himself.

" ... May the El of your father help you, and Shadai bless you, blessings of the heavens above, blessings of the depths which couch below, blessings of the breast and womb. The blessings of your father are potent beyond those of my ancestors, to the utmost boundary of the ever-lasting hill; they shall be on the head of Joseph, and on the crown on the head of he who was separated from his brothers." [Genesis 49:25-26]

Here Jacob passes on to Joseph the powerful blessings which he has received from God directly and from his own father and grandfather.

The passages cited above are the only uses of this name of God in the Book of Genesis. From them, we can draw two conclusions:

  1. the name Shadai is connected with progeny, and,
  2. this blessing becomes the domain of Joseph.

The first time the name Shadai is used in the Book of Exodus is also of interest:

The Lord spoke to Moses, and said 'I am Adonai (Lord). appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shadai, and (but) My name, Adonai, I did not make known to them.' [Exodus 6:2-3]

The mission of Moses will require a different type of relationship than that enjoyed by the patriarchs, and he will relate to God not as Shadai but as Adonai.

What then is the special meaning of Shadai?

Resh Lakish said, "What does the verse mean 'I am El Shadai'? I am He who told the world 'Enough!' When The Holy One Blessed be He created the sea, it kept on expanding until the Holy One Blessed be He chastised the [sea], and it stopped." [Chagiga 12a]

The Gemara is teaching us that the name Shadai comes from the word dai, meaning "enough," or "stop." When creation is unleashed it needs to be stopped or the process of creation will overwhelm that which is created. The image is of nature run amok. The name of God used in the description of creation is Elohim, the Almighty. The name implies omnipotence, and interestingly has the same numeric value as hateva, nature.

According to Kabbalistic tradition, this name, Elohim, is indicative of just one aspect of God. Kabbalistic texts prefer the name Ein Sof – literally "without end," implying transcendence and infinity – as being closer to describing the essence of God. The Zohar even goes so far as to suggest that the first verse in the Torah should be translated as "in the beginning Elohim was created by the transcendental Ein Sof."

While we might think that by calling God the Almighty, we are awarding God a greater role in the cosmic drama, the problem confronting the Kabbalists is that the essence of God is transcendental, completely beyond man's grasp or ability to categorize. Consequently, the term Almighty is in effect an anthropomorphism.

In the Kabbalistic description of creation, the world's emergence is the result of the transcendental God "holding back" His transcendence – a process known as tzimzum, literally "contraction" – and allowing a world of nature to spring forth.

Abraham came to recognize God through nature (as we saw earlier in Parshat Lech Lecha). God's response was to command Abraham to circumcise himself – an act which implies that man must control his sex drive, possibly the strongest of his natural instincts. We thus learn that in order for a holy nation to emerge from his seed, Abraham cannot be controlled by nature, but rather must first acquire an ability to control his natural drives.

The name Shadai, then, denotes limitations on nature. The symbolic key is circumcision. It is, in a sense, the prerequisite for the existence of the nation. For this reason, the name Shadai accompanied the blessings for children.

Joseph – specifically in his relationship with the wife of Potiphar – displays the ability to control his natural drives better than any one else in Scripture. Therefore, Joseph is often known as Yosef HaTzaddik. The Kabbalistic term associated with Joseph is Yesod, meaning "foundation," as in Tzaddik Yesod Olam, meaning "a good nd just man is the foundation of the world." Alternatively, Joseph is the foundation of the Jewish people. Had Joseph been killed, or disappeared in the slavemarkets of Egypt, the foundation of the nation would have been missing as well.

Perhaps now we can understand another episode in the Torah. When the Jews finally leave Egypt, Moses heads to the Nile in order to recover the remains of Joseph and to fulfill the promise to bring Joseph's remains out of Egypt. Why, at such a crucial moment, would Moses himself take on this task?

We know that Moses was found as an infant by the daughter of Pharaoh. His sister Miriam, who observed this scene from afar, then offered to find a nurse for the baby, intending, of course, to take him back home again.

And Pharaoh's daughter said to her, 'Take this child away, and nurse it for me' ... and the child grew, and she brought him to Pharaoh's daughter and he became [to] her a son" [Exodus 2:9-10]

Moses' parents had a brief opportunity to educate their son prior to his return to the daughter of Pharaoh and to life in the palace. What sort of things did they teach him? He certainly was aware his Jewish identity:

And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown, that he went out to his brothers, and looked on their burdens. [Exodus 2:11]

His parents surely taught him about retaining his own Jewish identity in the palace, and no better example than Joseph could be mustered. Who else spent long years in the palace, with the upper echelon of Egyptian society, and despite all its depravity and seductiveness, kept his identity? The example of Joseph is surely that which inspired Moses. Therefore, Moses himself brings Joseph out of Egypt in gratitude for the incredible example he set as the symbol of man's ability to control his own nature, the human manifestation of Shadai.

We can now better understand God's words to Moses:

The Lord spoke to Moses, and said 'I am Adonai (Lord). appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shadai, and (but) My name, Adonai, I did not make known to them.' [Exodus 6:2-3]

The concept of Shadai is a powerful one and surely no nation of Jews could have come into existence without it. God, however, has many more plans for the Jews – to stand at Mount Sinai, receive the Torah, enter into the Land of Israel, mend the world.

For these missions, more Divine Light will have to be shed, and other aspects of God will become known and manifest in this world.

For this grand plan, Joseph represents the foundation. But the building which will eventually stand on this foundation cannot be built only when Moses ascends Mount Sinai.


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