As I stood outside the bombed out crematoria three in Auschwitz – Birkenau earlier this week I heard how the cries of shemayisroel were so routinely heard from the gas chambers that Adolph Eichmann, the prominent director of the final solution was want to show his Israeli captors how he was able to recite the first verse of the shema himself. I also learned that it was not just the orthodox who would recite this verse on meeting their end, but that totally assimilated Jews also made this last gasp declaration.
What is it about extreme suffering which causes even the most disconnected Jew to apparently proclaim his faith?
Yaakov suggests to Lavan that it is time that he stopped working to build his father in law’s fortune. It is time that he had the opportunity to build his own future.
“And it was when Rachel bore Yosef and Yaakov said to Lavan “send me off so that I may go to my birthplace and my country”” (Bereishit 30;25)
There is a clear indication in the pasuk that it was only after Yosef was born that Yaakov decided to push for freedom. What is the connection between the birth of Yosef and Yaakov’s request to leave?
The medrash explains that Yaakov knew that it was only after Yosef was born that Eisav could truly be defeated. In the words of the medrash:
“And the house of Yaakov will be fire and the house of Yosef a flame – and the house of Eisav straw (Ovadiah 1,18): Fire without a flame cannot have influence from afar – when Yosef was born Yaakov trusted in Hashem and wanted to return” (BereishitRabbah, 73)
This medrash requires explanation. Surely Yaakov had been blessed by his father with eternal domination over his older brother (Bereishit 27;29). Why should he need assistance in his battle with Eisav from his son Yosef?
Rav Yitzchak Hutner zts”l, the legendary Rosh Yeshiva and thinker explains as follows: It is well documented that the defining characteristic of Yaakov, as the last of the avot was the fact that he was astoundingly successful in educating all twelve of his sons with Torah values (VayikraRabah 36;5). Accordingly, and based on the principle of “massehavotsimanlevanim”, Yaakov was responsible for injecting into the foundations of KlalYisroel the idea and power of Jewish continuity. One who is born a Jew will always remain Jew; however a Jew deviates from the Torah he cannot lose his inherent kedusha.
However this hereditary, unbreakable bond between a Jew and his people did not quite cover all bases. Although one who was born Jewish was guaranteed his Jewish identity, there was the prospect of a Jew being enticed into a relationship with a non-Jewess with the possible outcome being a non-Jewish child.
Yaakov’s legacy guaranteed that once a Jew you remained a Jew. It did not guarantee that one’s offspring would be born Jewish.
This is where Yosef came into the picture. Yosef’s defining characteristic came to the fore was when he “ran outside” when enticed by the wife of Potiphar. At that moment of separation, of self control, Yosef introduced into the fabric of KlalYisroel a degree of protection from intermarriage, an ability to resist the forming of relationships which could result in non- Jewish offspring.
This is the meaning of the medrash when it tells us that “the house of Yaakov will be fire and the house of Yosef a flame – Fire without a flame cannot have influence from afar”.
The “fire” refers to one who is born Jewish (“the house of Yaakov”). The fire within every Jew can never be extinguished, however far they stray from the path. That is what Yaakov guaranteed.
However what about the flame – the “offspring” of the fire? Are klalYisroel guaranteed that their future offspring will always be Jews or will there be an irresistible temptation to intermarry?
Through his exhibition of restraint in the face of continued temptation, Yosef injected into KlalYisroel the possibility for self – control to help to ensure not just that a Jew would remain a Jew, but that their offspring could also be Jewish. The flame as well as the fire would be protected.
But surely there is another point to add. When compared to his father, Yosef lived in relative isolation. Although Yaakov was forced to observe the Torah in the face of much abuse and struggle, he had had the chance to learn Torah for fourteen years and was under the influence of his great father. Yosef, on the other hand lived in an environment which was the antithesis of everything in which he believed – and he was required to face this challenge alone. Nevertheless he managed to maintain his strength and emunah and experience incredible siyatadishmaya (divine assistance) in becoming a leader of the land against which he had stood steadfast.
Perhaps this is the meaning of the medrash when it refers to the house of Yaakov as fire and the house of Yosef as a flame. Yosef introduced the idea of maintaining one’s focus even when one finds oneself far away from one’s source. The house of Yosef is not simply a fire which impacts only on its immediate environment, but a flame which can burn brightly even at great distance.
Once a Jew leaves shul after shacharit in the morning and travels into the outside world, he finds himself up against it. He sees a world where everyone appears to be having a great time, publicising their every emotion via social media. Life is one big party with where Torah is seen as irrelevant. Yosef taught us that one should face the world with the Torah in hand, even if one feels isolated from time to time – and that the fruits of such loyalty will be unimagineable siyatadishmaya and success. Yosef saw the value of Torah in spite of the fact that his neighbours did not. He saw that once all is said and done there is nothing more precious than Torah and that Torah certainly sits above anything that the world has to offer.
When the Jew, stripped bare, stood facing death in the gas chamber it may well have occurred to him that the world was a cursed place. It may well have occurred to him that he was about to be defeated in the most comprehensive way by the most vivid incarnation of evil. In the battle of wills on this earth, the Nazi had clearly triumphed over the Jew. At that point he turns round to the world and says “victory and success on this world means absolutely nothing. The fact that the Nazi has managed to defeat me on this world carries no significance. There is only one thing on this world of true value and which makes all endeavour on this world pale into insignificance – and that is Torah. Torah is the only truly precious thing in existence”
Rabbi Benjamin Stone
11 November 2015