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Messilas Yesharim 12/28

We began the Ramchal’s chapter describing the characteristic of “watchfulness”. The main thrust of the section is that it is necessary to think about our actions that we normally take in advance of the actions occurring. So we prepare for life’s challenges by thinking about the potential challenges we will have and the past challenges we have had. After we are mentally prepared for all situations and circumstances we can be confident that we will prevail in those challenges that we encounter. Ramchal compares being unprepared for life’s challenges to a blind man walking along a river bank. The danger is near and the chance of catastrophe is greater than the chance of survival. I think it is clear that we must be watchful and to do this we need to begin by analyzing the situations life throws at us before they happen. There was also a discussion about how to cope with daily issues and we tried to use R’ Wolbe’s ideas about Seder. R’ Wolbe’s main idea is that Seder is a system / routine that we live by so that in case of a challenge we have a framework from which to react. In other words – the Seder is not for the sake of Seder rather it is for clarity when we need it.

The class was shortened due to the long davening for Rosh Chodesh Chanukah. (20 minutes)


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Yosef and the Light of (Economic) Wisdom and Kindness – Drasha Miketz

Thank you to community member Milton Simon for editing these Shabbos speeches given at the Pacific Jewish Center from my notes into these articles.

It is no coincidence that Shabbos Chanukah always coincides with Parshas Miketz. There are many ways to look at this fact and we will attempt to work out one idea today.

The narrative of this week’s Parsha discusses the impending famine that was to sweep the entire middle east. Egypt was the financial capital of the world and this was a very critical time for them as a country. If they would fail the world in this time of need then the entire world would fall with them. Egypt needed to succeed and Yosef had a plan to keep Egypt afloat. He predicted the famine when he interpreted the dream that Pharaoh had but he also, surprisingly provided a solution at the same time.

Yosef’s solution was to tax the country a 1/5th agriculture tax and to store the grain in federal depositories. In addition there was to be no exporting of grain during the years of plenty that were to precede the famine. R’ Hirsch explains that in years of abundance human nature is to eat double, and during years of financial difficulty human nature is to eat half of what one normally intakes. Hence in years of high quantity one would eat four times what one eats in a famine year. So, in Torah terms the 1/5th formula ensured that even in the famine years there would be enough to go around.

Yosef was appointed the chief executive officer for this monumental project. He INSTANTLY ascended the ranks of Egyptian royalty up to the second in command to the Pharaoh. What was so incredible about his idea (or Yosef himself) that  Pharaoh elevated him to this status? How did Yosef spin this simple idea into something worthy of such incredible promotion? What is the secret behind Yosef’s idea?

I think we can all relate to the times that the Egyptian people now feared they were about to go through. The Nile had delivered prosperity to the Egyptians year after year. The economy was flourishing and NOW it was all about to come to a halt. The famine would come and the Egyptian economy w ould suffer and ultimately the world economy would suffer as well. It almost reads like the Wall Street Journal summary of 2008! We live in a time of financial uncertainty. The prosperity America has known for nearly ¾ of a century may be coming to halt. The world economy, which has come to rely on our economy, is in fear of a major collapse. Are there lessons here to be learned?

Let us turn to the Chanukah story. After defeating the Syrian Greeks, the Maccabees return to the Temple victorious. They wish to light the menorah and they cannot find any pure oil. All the oil has been defiled by the Greeks. What are they to do? Miraculously they find a tiny oil jug forlorn in the corner. The jug is so small it only holds enough oil for one day. The Greeks overlooked the jug because it was inconsequential. It was an afterthought. Like when you have a little but of honey left in the honey bear – you don’t sit around waiting for the last drops to come out – you buy a new honey bear! This jug was the end of the oil it was just like the end of that honey bear.
R’ Pam points out that normally in times of prosperity we would throw away that honey bear with the last few drops and normally one would discard the tiny oil jug. But it was not thrown away. The small jug of oil was cherished and was kept even though it had so little inside it. This the Torah way. We value our resources. In good times and not such good times we need to be mindful of what we have and we need to put it to good use. The Jewish people of the time which the Chanukah story took place valued the small jug and in turn it came back to save them in their time of need.

This is the message Yosef imparted to the Egyptians. Value what you have – you never know when your situation will change. Use only what you need and be sure not to squander even the smallest amount of you have left over. But20the broader lesson is to use our resources wisely. Allocation of resources, project planning and emergency preparedness. These are the values Yosef was teaching the Egyptians. These are Jewish ideas that a pagan society could possibly be incapable of discovering on their own. These are ideas which are founded in Torah. Yosef knew that his father Yaakov went back across the Yabok River at great risk to himself to rescue his small containers. We know how to appreciate what we have because we recognize it is all a gift.

I recently read an opinion in the NY Times. The writer had just returned to Kennedy Airport from Asia. And he contrasted the two experiences. It was like taking a time travel capsule from Hong Kong where the airport was decked out with the latest in modernity and comfort. A high speed train with high speed internet and static free cell phone service. He commented that leaving that and coming back to Kennedy was like traveling from the Jetsons to the Flintstones. Back home, at the arrivals area in Kennedy the ceilings were low and not well lit. He went to Penn=2 0Station where the elevators are too narrow for a man plus a suitcase. The train is not high speed,  there isn’t any internet access and dropped cell phone calls are the norm. What happened to America? Where is the infrastructure? And then the news hits that GM needs a bailout. What is going on in our country?

My father mentioned to me a recent quote from R’ Riskin. He said that Americans used to want to “do good”, now Americans just want to “do well”. What I have noticed is most of our capable young people and the creative thinkers in our country have been going into finance. Consequently our industry has suffered. This is not a good allocation of resources! We need a Yosef to remind us how to use our talents, abilities, time and money the right way. Our country needs to go back to building better products, not figuring out ways to leverage money into more money. Until we start creating better products our economy will be unable to recover.

But there is hope – today is Rosh Chodesh. A new month. A time for rebirth. We can start again. We just need to believe it is all possible. Sometimes to develop that belief we need to be reminded of what the ultimate level of proper allocation of resources actually should be.

I want to conclude by returning to our Parsha for a moment. Yosef sent his brothers back home with money in their sacks as well as Yosef’s golden cup. Yosef sends the police to apprehend the framed thieves. The police search the brothers’ bags and find the missing golden cup in Binyamin’s sack. The brothers are caught with their hands in the cookie jar. Yosef demands that Binyamon return to Egypt to face a jail sentence. They are fo rced to return to Egypt or else they will end up returning back to Yaakov without Binyamin.

Yosef organized this scheme to incriminate the brothers so that he could arrest Binyamin. But why was the golden cup necessary? The Rosh is bothered by this – why not just arrest them for stealing the money? The Rosh answers beautifully. Yosef had instituted an incredible policy. Whenever a very destitute family came to buy food he would have his officers return the money. In fact this happened repeatedly. The policy was to return the money if the family needed it desperately. Therefore there was no way he could have the brothers arrested for taking the money – it was a common occurrence for him to return money to those who needed it most!

This is the kind of economy (both of Yosef’s innovations)  that can survive tough times is one that combines allocation of resources and sensitivity to the needy. We must use what we have properly, respect what we are given, appreciate what we are blessed with and most importantly we must exercise sensitivity to others. If we use our talents to produce great products, produce cutting edge infrastructure and modern facilities we will see our country reborn (without forgetting our duties as custodians of God’s earthly resources).

The lessons of Yosef and the little jug of oil are an eternal inspiration for us as we traverse these hard times. Let us take those lessons and do our part in helping our country pull itself back together. And in the same vain when we are trying to build our community let us use our resources properly and maximize our impact on the community.

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