The origins of slavery
In Chapter 1 of the book of Exodus we read that “Joseph died and his brothers and that whole generation. And the children of Israel increased. And then arose a new king in Egypt who did not know Joseph and he said to his people, ‘behold the Children of Israel have become powerful and great, let us deal wisely with them.’” The new king then suggests to his people, let us begin to oppress the Children of Israel because we are afraid of what they may do to us. That led to the enslavement of the Jewish People and their oppression.
The commentators note that first it says Joseph died and then all of his brothers and then all of that generation. The Ohr HaChaim, one of the classic commentators on the Chumash, says that the slavery could only begin after that generation of great leaders had passed away. While Joseph was alive, the viceroy and great saviour of Egypt during the times of famine, he had such an elevated status in the eyes of the Egyptians that nobody would dare touch the Jewish People. But when he died, the Jews were regarded as equals, not special. The Ohr HaChaim comments further that when all of Joseph’s brothers died and all of the great leaders of that generation died, the esteem of the people—in the eyes of the Egyptians and even in their own eyes—fell; they were regarded as lowly members of society and that then led to the oppression.
The importance of self-worth
There is a very important lesson from this week’s portion, gleaned from the essays of Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz, one of great rabbinic thinkers of the 20th century, who himself endured great difficulty. He was part of the famous Mir Yeshiva in Poland. As the war spread across Europe the Mir Yeshiva fled via Russia and ended up in Shanghai, China. Rav Shmuelevitz spent the war years in China with the Mir Yeshiva and after the war ended they went to Israel and re-established the Yeshiva in Jerusalem. It is a remarkable story of survival, of overcoming the odds, of achieving greatness despite tremendous adversity. His life story itself offers us all inspiration in facing—and overcoming—challenges and difficulties, and thus his comments regarding our Torah portion are all the more poignant.
Based on the commentary of the Ohr HaChaim, Rav Shmuelevitz says that the slavery could only begin once the great leaders of that generation had passed away, for two reasons: first, the Egyptians held the Jewish People in such high esteem that they could not even begin to contemplate enslaving them; and second, the Jews held themselves in such high esteem, and because of this innate sense of greatness, a sense of their ability and their own standing in society, they would not have allowed themselves to be enslaved.
Rav Shmuelevitz comments that from here we learn a very important lesson: the importance of dignity, of self-esteem, of being aware of one’s own greatness—all essential in overcoming challenges. When we are aware of our own greatness we are able to overcome challenges because we know that those challenges cannot defeat us. I have a soul from G-d, and every soul has enormous potential. I am valuable in the eyes of G-d, and if G-d has sent this challenge my way, I have the capacity to overcome it. The belief in myself and my ability to overcome that challenge is crucial to coping with life’s difficulties and achieving great things.
Willpower surpasses manpower
Rav Shmuelevitz mentions that when the Jews began the construction of the Tabernacle in the desert they asked for volunteers—artisans, designers, architects—to come forward and help with the elaborate construction. (In a few weeks’ time we will read those portions where we see how elaborate and difficult it was to construct the Tabernacle, with the gold, the silver, the bronze, and all the other materials.) The people came forward and volunteered, even though they didn’t have the requisite skills. They had just been freed from being slaves—clearly, they had no artistic flair or architectural ability. The verse in the book of Exodus (35:21) says “the people came forward, everyone whose heart lifted him up.” Those who believed in themselves, those whose hearts lifted them up, came forward to volunteer even though they weren’t yet sure how to do it. They came forward and learned the skills and made it happen. When we believe in ourselves, says Rav Shmuelevitz, we exhibit an innate sense of self-worth. With the greatness and potential that lies within each of us we are able to overcome adversity, and are able to achieve things that we may have thought were otherwise unattainable.
The basis of self-worth
Where does self-worth come from? It comes from the knowledge that G-d placed within us a soul which reflects His greatness; the knowledge that G-d is in control of the world and that we have the capacity to overcome whatever obstacles He places in front of us; and the knowledge that G-d believes in us and therefore we must believe in ourselves. It is not just a question of us having faith in G-d—which is certainly very important and is indeed a great mitzvah—but we must also have faith in ourselves.
The generation that was enslaved lost this belief in themselves. As long as they had great leaders like Joseph, his brothers and that whole generation, they had people to look up to who raised their sense of self-worth, and they believed in themselves. They were a great nation, a proud nation, a nation which could not be subjugated. Once they lost their great leaders, they lost that sense of self-worth. Their esteem was lowered in their own eyes, and that insecurity was projected outward; the Egyptians sensed that vulnerability and realised this is a nation susceptible to oppression.
This is indeed a very important part of how we cope with life and deal with all the challenges that come our way. We have to have the knowledge that G-d has faith in us, that He loves us, and that He knows we can do it. In the same way that He has faith in us we have to have faith in ourselves.
The antidote to sin: “the world is created for me”
Rav Shmuelevitz takes this idea a step further, explaining that self-worth is a very important mechanism for dealing with the temptation to sin. The temptation to sin is one of the many challenges in life. How do we overcome that temptation? Again, self-worth. Rav Shmuelevitz deduces this from a Mishnah in the Tractate Senhedrin (37a), which deals with the laws of criminal procedure. Here is another classic example of how the philosophy of Judaism, how great psychological and existential insight, is gleaned from the details of the laws.
The passage in Sanhedrin relates that when witnesses come to testify in a capital trial, a statement is issued by the judges, warning the witnesses not to perjure themselves by bearing false witness. They are warned that the life of another person is at stake, and if the court accepts false testimony causing a person to die unjustly, there are severe consequences. This is where the Talmud says that “he who destroys one life it is as if he has destroyed the whole world, and he who saves one life, it is as if he has saved the whole world.” The witnesses are told, do not underestimate the value of one human being’s life; be careful with your testimony, because if he is innocent and is killed unnecessarily, it is as if you have destroyed the entire world.
The Mishnah goes on to say that a person is obligated to say bishvili nivra ha’olam, “the world is created for me.” The commentators grapple with the question of how this is meant to deter one from sinning. Rashi, the foremost commentator on the Talmud, comments that when you believe that the world is created for you, you reason that sin is beneath you. You think, this sin is unworthy of who I am; I am better than that. Rav Shmuelevitz takes those few short words in Rashi and weaves them into the whole concept of overcoming sin. He says that when I believe the world is created for me, I have to believe that I am so important in the eyes of G-d that even if there were no other human beings in the world, the entire universe would still have been created just for me. This is not a sign of arrogance—as we know, in Judaism humility is the ultimate virtue, as evidenced by the Rambam’s assertion that although in all character traits we go for the middle path, not to the one extreme nor to the other, when it comes to humility we go to the extreme; there is no room for arrogance to coexist with G-d. Humility is not about self-negation; it is an awareness that everything comes from G-d. Every single human being is precious in the eyes of G-d and a person can truly say, based on the Talmudic tradition, bishvili nivra ha’olam “the world was created for me.”
Says Rav Shmuelevitz, a person who really believes that G-d loves him and holds him in high regard—indeed, that He would have created the whole world just for him—won’t come to sin. How can I sin if G-d thinks so highly of me? How can I disappoint G-d if He created this whole world just for me? How can I disappoint myself? An awareness of our own true greatness puts us at such a level that sinning is beneath us.
There is a Yiddish expression, es past nit, literally, “it doesn’t go,” meaning it is not appropriate. Some things just past nit: dealing unethically in business past nit—it’s unworthy, undignified. For a person to speak lashon hara is unworthy, undignified. Whatever transgression is involved, the transgression itself demeans the person. It reduces who they are as human beings, and if they really believe that they are so precious in the eyes of G-d they are not going to do something which past nit, because it is demeaning.
Knowing who you are
That sense of dignity, says Rav Shmuelevitz, that knowing who you are, is what protected Joseph. Joseph is the paradigmatic example of a person who withstood all kinds of temptation. Kidnapped from his father’s home at the age of seventeen, he had to make his way in the pagan, immoral culture of ancient Egypt, in the house of Potifar, then in the dungeons, and then as the viceroy of the most powerful nation of that time. What kept him in check all those years? It was an awareness of who he was: the son of Jacob. At the moment of the greatest temptation, when Potifar’s wife tried to seduce him, he saw, as the Talmud relates, the image of his father. He also saw a vision of his portion together with the other tribes. The consciousness that he is still the son of Jacob and is going to be one of the tribes of Israel held him back. That inner voice said, this is not who I am, I am so much greater. I can’t do this, es past nit for me.
This sense that I am somebody, that I mean something, enables a person to live a life of dignity, with substance, with pride. Again, this is not arrogance. Humility means acknowledging that everything we have comes from G-d and that without G-d we are nothing. When the Talmud states that a person is obligated to say “the world is created for me” it is not a sign of arrogance but a sign of knowing our self-worth and recognising our G-d-given strengths, which then enables us to do so much—to overcome adversity, to reach higher and achieve great things, and ultimately to become good people who live a purposeful life. This is the greatest compliment from G-d: we are worthwhile and our lives are significant.