Near the end of this week’s Parasha, the Torah tells us: “And Yosef sustained his father and his brothers and all of his father’s house with bread according to their numbers”(47:12).
It makes sense that Yosef would provide for his family. Why wouldn’t he? He was in control of all the food Egypt had stored for the years of famine. Nothing in the Torah is superfluous, so certainly there is more here than meets the eye.
“Hearken, O Shepherd of Israel Who shepherds Yosef like a flock. One Who dwells amongst the Cherubs – show Yourself.” (Tehillim 80:2)
All of Israel are referred to as “Yosef” because he nourished and sustained them during the days of famine. (Rashi’s Commentary ibid.)
- Why should Yosef’s name be used as a reference to the Jewish people forevermore, when the action he performed to merit such a legacy – providing food for his family – was a one-off achievement?
- “Hearken… show Yourself”: This is a prayer – we’re asking for G-d’s help. So, surely the fact that we’re using Yosef’s name as a reference to the Jewish people means that in this way we evoke a specific trait that reflects the actions of Yosef, and in turn, we invoke enough merit to warrant G-d’s “Listen… show Yourself” for the nation as a whole.
Being that that is the case, why is the fact that “he sustained them and fed them during the days of famine” a merit for the entire nation?
Kabalah teaches that every aspect of the world we see around us – the world we call the “real world” – is merely a physical emanation of a metaphysical reality. Hence every physical phenomenon has a spiritual source. It therefore follows that Yosef’s ability to physically provide for his brothers in the days of corporeal famine was a reflection of the spiritual sustenance he provided in a time of spiritual hunger.
In the same way that physical famine is a shortage of physical food, spiritual famine is a lack of spiritual nourishment – spiritual darkness. Yosef had the natural ability to overcome that spiritual darkness. He took this quality and imbued it into his family, helped them internalise it and taught them how to use it in time of need. So, in the physical sense – yes, Yosef’s provision was an act limited to one physical period of time. In the spiritual sense, however, Yosef’s kindness was the “gift that keeps on giving” for all time. A quality that would be a part of the DNA of the Jewish people for eternity.
We now also have the key to understanding why the above verse specifically uses the name Yosef to refer to the Jews. Rashi and Radak tell us in their commentaries on verse 1, that this chapter of Tehillim is a cry for G-d’s salvation in times of exile. Indeed, the verse “Oh G-d, return us (to our rightful place), shine Your countenance (upon us) and we will be saved” is repeated three times (verses 4, 8, 20), one for each of the three exiles (Egypt, Babylonia, Rome/Edom).
The merit required for our cries, in the bitterness of exile, to reach the Almighty is in the name Yosef, and is the secret weapon he programmed into our ancestors in Egypt.
There was a large difference between Yosef and his brothers, both in terms of circumstance and occupation:
From when Yosef was sold by his brothers, until the end of his life he was always subservient to a master. In Potifar’s house, in prison and even as the Viceroy of Egypt, despite the fact that in all three of those circumstances he had reached positions of great responsibility and power, he remained secondary to a superior figure, unable to assert absolute autonomy. His brothers, however, were free-agents. They decided their own lifestyle. Aside from G-d, no one dictated to them where to go or what to do.
In personal nature, the other eleven brothers expressed themselves in their vocation. They were shepherds. Shepherding is a simple job, it doesn’t require tremendous physical or mental exertion. It’s the recluse’s dream profession. Isolated from the negativities and trivialities of society, one is free to contemplate, and connect with oneself, and indeed with G-d. Yosef, on the other hand engaged in society, he worked his way to high positions in every situation he found himself in. He became the chief of staff in a government minister’s household, the most respected and authoritative inmate in prison and, of course, prime minister of the Egyptian Empire. Yet through all this his fidelity to the Almighty did not waver. He remained steadfast in his devotion to G-d.
His brothers needed the ability to disconnect from the world in order to connect to G-d, which, whilst living in the land of Israel was fine. Yosef however perceived that once living in exile, they would need his ability to simultaneously engage in the spiritual and physical.
To a certain extent, Yosef was very similar to his father, Yaakov. In fact, the Midrash, commenting on the verse “These are the Offspring of Yaakov: Yosef” (Vayeishev 37:2), states “everything that happened to this one (Yaakov) happened to this one (Yosef)”. Yaakov too had lived through many years in exile – in Charan. There he was subservient to his uncle and father-in-law, Lavan, and despite all of it he maintained his total devotion to G-d.
However, there was a major difference between the way these parallels actualised in Yaakov and Yosef. Even while in the exile in Charan, Yaakov wasn’t completely subservient to Lavan. He was an employee, a paid worker, whereas Yosef was forced into his situation as a slave. Also, Yaakov’s job in Lavan’s house was as a shepherd! Again, removed from the mundane trivialities of society. The reason for this difference between Yaakov and Yosef was that Yaakov was higher than the darkness of exile. The coarseness of exile had no effect on him, because he was above it, not because he abstained or removed himself from it (as was the case with the eleven brothers). He was a shepherd because he did not relate to the politics and practices of the world around him, not because he was worried it would harm him. He was a man who wrestled with angels, not with the worldly troubles of men.
This was the unique quality possessed by Yosef. He wasn’t beyond engaging with the world in exile, but at the same time the world didn’t take a toll on his connection to G-d. It was this quality with which Yosef “nourished and sustained them”. He engrained within his brothers and their offspring for all generations an immunity to the negativity of exile.
So we cry out to G-d, Almighty:
“Hearken, O Shepherd of Israel”- In our spiritual essence we are like Yaakov/Yisrael who was beyond exile. Therefore we say “Hearken” – yes, G-d is close to us. Our physical exterior, however, is subject to the harshness of exile, so we say “Who shepherds Yosef like a flock…” – invoking the name Yosef, and in doing so evoking from within ourselves the gift he gave us “during the days of famine” – connectedness to the Infinite, even in the lowliest of situations. “Show Yourself” – please “return us (to our rightful place), shine Your countenance (upon us) and we will be saved”.
(The verse uses two names to refer to the Jewish people: Yisrael and Yosef, and from the progression of the verse we see that Yosef is not only just another name to refer to the Jewish people. It is actually superior to the name Yisrael. We see this from the fact that the verse first uses the name Yisrael, and only then the name Yosef.)