A Shepherd in Egypt

Bereishit   Noah   Lech Lecha   Vayeira   Chayei Sarah   Toldot
Vayeitzei   Vayishlach   Vayeishev   Mikeitz   Vayigash   Vayechi


ESSAY: A Shepherd in Egypt
Should you entrust your child’s education to a spiritual recluse?

INSIGHTS: The Bottom of the Barrel
Where the pieces of your broken heart should lie

There comes a time when we’ve lived long enough to realize that every choice we ever made was made in ignorance

A Shepherd in Egypt

The Torah tells us that when Jacob moved his family to Egypt, where the Jewish people were to reside for more than two centuries, “he sent Judah ahead... to show the way.”[1] The Hebrew word lehorot (“to show the way”) literally means “to teach” and “to instruct,” prompting the Midrash to say that the purpose of Judah’s mission was “to establish a house of learning from which would be disseminated the teachings of Torah.”[2]

But Joseph was already in Egypt, and Jacob had already received word that Joseph’s twenty-two years away from home had not diminished his knowledge of and commitment to Torah.[3] And Joseph certainly had the authority and the means to establish the most magnificent yeshivah in the empire. Why did Jacob desire that Judah—a penniless emigrant who barely knows the language—be the one to establish the house of learning that was to serve the Jewish people in Egypt?

Judah and Joseph

The children of Jacob were divided into two factions: on one side were ten of the twelve brothers, led by Judah; on the other, Joseph, whose differences with his brothers were the cause of much pain and strife in Jacob’s family.

The conflict between Joseph and his brothers ran deeper than a multicolored coat or a favorite son’s share of his father’s affections. It was a conflict between two world-views, between two approaches to life as a Jew in a pagan world.

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were shepherds, as were Joseph’s brothers.[4] They chose this vocation because they found the life of the shepherd—a life of seclusion, communion with nature, and distance from the tumult and vanities of society—most conducive to their spiritual pursuits. Tending their sheep in the valleys and on the hills of Canaan, they could turn their backs on the mundane affairs of man, contemplate the majesty of the Creator, and serve Him with a clear mind and tranquil heart.[5]

Joseph was the exception. He was a man of the world, a “fortuitous achiever”[6] in business and politics. Sold into slavery, he was soon chief manager of his master’s affairs. Thrown into jail, he was soon a high-ranking member of the prison administration. He went on to become viceroy of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh in the most powerful nation on earth.

Yet none of this touched him. Slave, prisoner, ruler of millions, controller of an empire’s wealth—it made no difference: the same Joseph who had studied Torah at the feet of his father traversed the palaces and government halls of Egypt. His spiritual and moral self derived from within and was totally unaffected by his society, environment, or the occupation that claimed his involvement twenty-four hours a day.

The conflict between Joseph and his brothers was the conflict between a spiritual tradition and a new worldliness; between a community of shepherds and an entrepreneur. The brothers could not accept that a person can lead a worldly existence without becoming worldly; that a person can remain one with G-d while immersed in the affairs of the most depraved society on earth.

In this conflict, Joseph was to emerge the victor. The spiritual seclusion that characterized the first three generations of Jewish history was destined to end; Jacob and his family moved to Egypt, where the “smelting pit” of exile was to forge their descendants into the nation of Israel. As Joseph had foreseen in his dreams, his brother and his father bowed to him, prostrating their approach to his. Jacob had understood the significance of these dreams all along, and had awaited their fulfillment;[7] Joseph’s brothers, who found it more difficult to accept that the era of the shepherd was drawing to a close, fought him for twenty-two bitter years, until they, too, came to accept that the historical challenge of Israel was to be the challenge of living a spiritual life in a material environment.

Founding Fathers

Nevertheless, it was Judah, not Joseph, who was chosen by Jacob to establish the house of learning that was to serve as the source of Torah knowledge for the Israelites in Egypt.

The first three generations of Jewish life were not a “false start”: they were the foundation of all that was to follow. It was this foundation from which Joseph drew the strength to persevere in his faith and righteousness in an alien environment; it was this foundation upon which the entire edifice of Jewish history was to be constructed.

The Jew lives in a material world, but his roots are planted in the soil of unadulterated spirituality. In his daily life he must be a Joseph, but his education must be provided by a Judah.

Based on an address by the Rebbe, Tevet 2, 5722 (December 9, 1961)[8]

The Bottom of the Barrel

“Sadness is not a sin,” goes the famous Chassidic saying, “but the damage that sadness can do to a person, no sin can.”

Does this mean that a person is never to experience anything other than happiness and satisfaction? Never to experience regret and remorse, never to be grieved by the negative in oneself and one’s world? Obviously not. The important thing, however, is not to allow the sadness to pervade our souls and dominate our lives.

The Torah establishes special times (such as the month of Elul and the Ten Days of Repentance, the “Minor Yom Kippur” at the end of each month, and the nightly “Reading of the Shema” before going to sleep) when one is to search one’s soul, dwell on what requires rectification, and weep over one’s shortcomings and transgressions. However, these feelings must be confined to these specifically designated times, following which one should resume “serving G-d with joy”[9] and confidence in one’s own intrinsic goodness and the intrinsic goodness of G-d’s world.

One of the great Chassidic masters employs the following parable to explain the place that sadness should occupy in our lives: A barrel of the finest wine has a layer of sediment on its bottom. The sediment plays an important role in the wine’s preservation, but must be kept at the bottom of the barrel: if it is allowed to mix with the wine, the wine becomes undrinkable.

The pain we experience in our lives has a most constructive function: without it, we would become indifferent to all that is not as it should be in ourselves and our world. But this is the sediment to the wine of life. Life itself must be a joyous and exhilarating experience, its melancholy moments to be confined to the bottom of the barrel.[10]


by Jay Litvin

People think that teshuvah (repentance) is only for sinners. But even the perfectly righteous individual must do teshuvah—must return to elevate his perfect past to the level of his more perfect present

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi

You stand in this moment. Many such moments lay behind you. Many more, G-d willing, before you. In each of these moments there is, there was, there will always be a choice. A decision of importance or one concerning a simple day-to-day task. A choice between disciplining your child or accepting his or her behavior as a natural part of development. A choice on how to spend ten dollars or an evening, whether or not to respond to a comment, ask a question or think a thought.

At a certain point you have lived long enough to have made many choices and to be able to see the consequences they have wrought. From this vantage point, elevated by maturity, you now see that every choice you made was made in ignorance. You recognize that the full impact of each choice was not seen at the time, and had it been, then perhaps another choice would have been made, or the same choice, but with much more trepidation, less spontaneity, and a total absence of frivolity.

The remorse this awareness brings drives you to seek audience with the Heavenly Court. An audience to seek forgiveness not for your sins, but for the decisions you made in wisdom, with consideration, with moral righteousness; for the actions you were so sure at the time were right. Only now, when you have lived long enough to see their consequences, when you are old enough to view them through a lens ground from experience and the wisdom and understanding that only experience can yield, did you see how very foolhardy you have been.

Children are the best example. Loving parents do for their child what they believe to be best. Their actions are considered, discussed, wrestled with. Expert advice is sought, no expense spared, every opportunity cultivated. And yet, as the years pass and your child grows, as his or her personality and character begin to emerge, as he or she faces life, succeeds, fails, rejoices and despairs, we, as parents, see the imperfections of our children, and our own failings. With our spouse, we sit late at night at the kitchen table, sipping our coffee, and talk of the things we could have, should have done. In great detail, we are able to trace each flaw and imperfection in our children to a choice that we made, an action we took, an opportunity we let slip by. And after we are done blaming ourselves and each other, ultimately we conclude that we did the best that we could. And in a strange way, this is the final dismay.

If you bothered to examine in similar detail the other choices you’ve made, you would come to the same conclusion. Each was flawed and limited and in its wake created consequences you could not foresee. Then, even though your mistakes and limitations could be excused by lack of knowledge, you would still desire to stand before the Heavenly Court and ask forgiveness. For these consequences, as unintentional as they may have been, are now very real and exist with  a life of their own.

Repenting in Advance

After you’ve lived enough years, you know that the future is as soon as yesterday and that ten or twenty years from now exists today. You know that just as you are asking forgiveness today for the consequences of actions taken ten or twenty years ago, so ten or twenty years from now you will be standing asking forgiveness for the actions you took today.

Even your repentance is limited. For you can only repent for what you know, and your knowledge is meager. Ten or twenty years from now you will remember standing before the Heavenly Court today, and it will appear almost childlike. Because ten or twenty years from now, you will see even more of the aftermath of your actions. And you will desire to once again seek atonement for them knowing that every newly realized consequence requires its own repentance.

And now, knowing this, you arrive at the decision that stands before you today: Your aspirations and what you do with them. Your child and how you treat him. Your wife. Husband. Work. Bank account. Friend. Neighbor. Mitzvah. Temptation. Vacation. Anger. Love. And all the rest.

You stand in fear and trepidation. You know that today’s choice will create a future reality that you cannot possibly know. You are about to release an arrow from the bow and you are already responsible for whatever target it hits, whether you aimed at it or not.

Poised to act, you have an image of yourself standing twenty years from now; prepared to release the arrow, you are already looking back, repenting your ignorance, the narrowness of your vision, the lowliness of your vista, the targets your arrow will strike as its flight continues past any destination you aim for. Yet the moment of choice has arrived. The time of action. The imperative of doing.

What do you do?

How can you possibly make a move? With the weight of this awareness, will you ever laugh again, be spontaneous, frivolous, fun loving, joyful?

Yet, miraculously, you act. You release the arrow. You laugh. You sing and you dance. Because ultimately, through your years, you have learned that G-d loves you. You are joyous precisely because there is a Heavenly Court before which you can stand and receive forgiveness and understanding and love. You laugh precisely because you know that behind the imperative of doing the very best you can is the futility of doing anything more than you can. You breathe deeply and release a smile because you know that G-d wants no more from you than you are able to do and has already given you everything you need with which to do it. You dance because this is your freedom: to dance your part in G-d’s creation with grace and courage and faith. And you sing knowing that you are only one voice in the chorus, and that the symphony is endless, ultimately perfect, yet paradoxically, dependent on you.

And finally you realize that the failings and limitations, errors and miscalculations, even the consequences that cause the blood to rush to your face in shame are also a part of your limited perspective, your narrow vision, your lowly vista. For if you could climb high enough you would see that the reason the Heavenly Court grants its forgiveness is that ultimately there is nothing to forgive.

From the highest plateau you would see that you are dancing your part perfectly. You always have. And you always will.

The Week in Review is adapted from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Yanki Tauber

[1]. Genesis 46:28.

[2]. Midrash Tanchuma, Vayigash 12.

[3]. See Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 94:3.

[4]. Genesis 46:34.

[5]. Sefer HaMaamarim 5565, p. 192.

[6]. Ish matzliach—Genesis 39:2.

[7]. Genesis 37:11; Rashi, ibid.

[8]. Likkutei Sichot, vol. III, pp. 827-830.

[9]. Psalms 100:2.

[10]. Based on Tanya, chs. 29 and 31.

A Shepherd in Egypt
Joseph's Calf
Love in the Ice Age
Mixed Feelings
The Wealth of Nations

Visitor Comments
Henry Laffer, 12/24/2009
Jay does it again!
Profound and personal. Jay Litvin's teachings are practical but at the same time deep. They touch my soul. Universal lessons. So impressive. I wish I had met him when he was flesh and blood. Thank you for keeping his messages alive. He must be joyous in Heaven seeing the mitzvah's of his teachings continue.

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