Yosef: The Man of Stability
Vayeshev (Genesis 37-40 )
The beginning of the weekly Torah portion describes the increasingly poor relationship between Yosef and his brothers and the dreams which further strain their brotherly feelings. The first dream begins as follows:
Behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and my sheaf stood upright and also remained erect... (Bereishis 37:7)
What does the Torah add with the phrase "and also remained erect"? What does it teach us about Yosef and his family?
There is a famous verse in Tehillim which will point us in the right direction:
Who will go up to the mountain of God, and who will stand in His holy place? (Tehillim 24:3)
The great Maggid of Koznitz explains the two parts of this verse as referring to two distinct stages in spiritual development. Firstly, one has to get up the mountain, as it were, to be with God. This in itself is hard enough, but to remain with God, maintaining one's level of development on a long-term basis, is greater still. This is particularly hard, as man is a creature of change. Obviously, we change physically: we grow older, and our bodies replenish their cells and other elements. But we even change emotionally and spiritually - our moods differ from day to day; our level of concentration alters, among other factors. This means that it is very hard to remain spiritually constant over an extended period. We are, by nature, changing on a daily basis.
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THE PERFECT MAN
All this applies to an average person - one who is subject to the vicissitudes of life. But the great tzaddik, (the righteous) the pinnacle of humanity, a person whose every move, word, and thought are subject to the dictates of his highly developed soul, can overcome these natural tendencies and remain "in His holy place." The Zohar HaKadosh indicates that when a person performs all of his actions with every ounce of his strength, it is a manifestation of his soul. This means that if one is able (as in the case of a tzaddik) to muster one's entire enthusiasm for a mitzvah and perform it with all of one's strength, one's soul is awakened, allowing it to connect directly with that action.
This has a crucial ramification. The soul is eternal, emanating from the higher worlds, and hence unchanging. As such, any action which is directly associated with one's soul also assumes this status; that is, it becomes distant from the possibility of change. A tzaddik, whose entire life is lived at this level, "spiritualizes" all of his physical life, enabling him to live a life free from change. The Midrash actually hints at this idea:
Antoninus asked Rabbeinu, "When is the soul put into man -- is it after birth or before?" Rabbeinu responded that it is put in after birth. Antoninus said, "No! And I'll give you a parable. If one leaves meat for three days without salt, it putrefies." [A body without a soul cannot live.] Rebbi conceded to Antoninus. (Bereishis Rabbah 34:10)
While only a hint, this Midrash indicates that without a soul force behind man's actions, he is dead meat. To be called human at all - to achieve anything - our actions must be powered by the soul, not just the body.
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Yosef was the paradigm of this concept. In fact, in mystical thought, someone who achieves the level of Yosef is called "chai," truly alive. As we have said, this means that Yosef lived his life on the cutting edge of spirituality, not only having reached the mountain of God, but able to remain in His holy place as well. The meaning of the dream should now be clear. Yosef saw himself in comparison with his brothers. "His sheaf stood upright and also remained erect." He was to be the quintessential tzaddik, the expert at reaching and remaining with God.
Indeed, this quality followed Yosef throughout his life. Later in the Torah we learn:
...and Yosef was in Egypt. (Shemos 1:5)
Don't we know that Yosef was in Egypt? Rather, the verse is telling us about the righteousness of Yosef. He was Yosef who shepherded his father's flock; he was Yosef who was in Egypt and became the king and retained his righteousness throughout. (Rashi loc. cit.)
The idea of Yosef's constancy is clearly borne out by this Rashi. Yosef remained the great tzaddik despite all of his travails. Another midrash, commenting on the dream of the sheaves, also supports our thesis:
Behold, we were binding sheaves - you bring in fruit, and I'll bring in fruit. Yours will rot, and mine will remain... (Bereishis Rabbah 84:10)
Yosef will be the sole source of success within his family. His fruit will remain fresh, while his brothers' will rot. Only he can imbue his actions with sufficient life force and spirituality to ensure that their results remain. The other brothers can only have a part in this when they recognize that they are secondary to him and must subjugate their lives to him. Thus the dream continues:
...and behold, your sheaves surrounded my sheaf and prostrated before it. (Bereishis 37:7)
This dream told the brothers of the nature of their relationship with Yosef. They needed him to influence them and provide for their well-being. By selling Yosef, his brothers frustrated this need. Hence the prophecy of the midrash was fulfilled. Without Yosef, they were unable to provide food for themselves and needed to go to Egypt to buy grain. Unknown to them, they would find this in the form of Yosef's generosity.
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All of us can benefit from the "Yosef effect" if we understand the importance of Shabbos. Shabbos is described by the Kabbalists as "the day of the soul." This means that if we learn to appreciate the value of Shabbos, we can infuse a spiritual element into our actions on that day, giving them the durability that we described above. Taking this one stage further, we can even allow this to continue into the rest of the week. We are supposed to feel that all of the weekdays are subordinate to Shabbos, that the past Shabbos imbues the week with meaning while focusing our activity on the Shabbos to come. One should bear in mind throughout the week the feeling of spirituality gained on Shabbos and concentrate one's weekday activities on achieving the same on the coming Shabbos. This is akin to the dream of Yosef, in which the brothers' sheaves bowed to Yosef's sheaf - when all of the week bows to Shabbos, its holy influence can permeate even the mundane weekdays, enabling us to go up to the mountain of God and stand in His holy place throughout our lives.