Beit Midrash

  • Family and Society
  • Israel and the Nations
To dedicate this lesson

Around The Corner


Rabbi Berel Wein

This Shabat we will complete the reading of the book of Bereshith. At the conclusion of this holy book it appears that the Jewish people are in a mini-paradise. Yaakov leaves the world surrounded by his now united family, his son Yosef is the viceroy of Egypt, his grandchildren have come to study the values and ways of God with him and the Lord has promised him that his descendants will leave Egypt and return to the Land of Israel. The Jews live in the fertile land of Goshen and become numerous and successful. Yosef lives to see great-grandchildren at his knees and he assures his brothers and their descendants that they will leave Egypt and only asks them to swear that they will take his body with them and bury him in the Land of Israel. Nowhere in this biblical narrative is there any hint of the coming tragedy that will befall Yaakov’s family and their descendants. Slavery, hard labor, despair and seemingly endless servitude to Pharaohs "who knew not Yosef" are lurking just around the corner of this human story. Though Midrash attempts to place prophecy into the words and thoughts of both Yaakov and Yosef, the simple biblical text makes no reference to the impending downfall that is about to occur to the family of Yaakov. The Torah does not allow us to peek around the corner and see what is in store for the Jewish people. We will have to wait till next week’s Torah reading to be apprised of the forthcoming dire situation.

This scenario has been repeated often in Jewish history. Did Spanish Jewry in its "Golden Age" ever imagine that 1492 and expulsion and forced apostasy was awaiting their descendants? Did Polish Jewry, invited into the country in the thirteenth century and given autonomy to practically rule over themselves by the Polish kings of the time ever imagine at the outset the murderous pogrom of 1648 or the anti-Semitism of that country in the years that led to the Second World War? Did German Jewry, which saw itself as being the best Germans possible, think that a Hitler could arise and erase in one decade everything that they had thought they had accomplished over centuries? The answer to all of these questions is certainly "no!" No one could see what was awaiting them just around history’s corner. By 1938 with the issuance of the British White Paper regarding its mandate in then Palestinian who would have imagined that an independent Jewish state would arise and survive successfully barely a decade later? And what shall we say about the future of American Jewry, snug, smug and presently comfortable in the "Golden Country?" I hazard no predictions. In fact, the unpredictability of human events should by now make us all cautious about proclaiming with certainty what the morrow will bring. We still have no magical periscope that will allow us to peer around the corner to identify the coming events of our individual and national lives. The current economic downturn has made a mockery of the long term estate planning of many a so-called expert. Life always mocks our certainties and plans.

Judaism is a faith of optimism and hope. Eventually everything will yet come right though it does not give us the details as to how this will happen. We will leave Egypt, we will recover from Spanish expulsion, Poland and Germany on the surface are our allies, the Jewish state in the Land of Israel is alive and well, the Soviet monster has collapsed of its own weight and cruelty and millions of Soviet Jews are free to be Jews once again. No one foresaw all of these events clearly and in fact few dared to hope that they would ever become reality. But we never know what is waiting for us just around the corner of human events. It may be good or even better than our fondest hopes and wishes. And there also is a chance for other less pleasant things to occur as well. Therefore our understanding of the matter is to deal with the present to the best of our wisdom and abilities. The future has not yet arrived and therefore we should deal with what faces us now and at the same time continue to learn from what has happened to us in the past. Yaakov told his grandsons: "The Lord that has shepherded me from my earliest till now will certainly bless you and you shall be called by name and the name of my forefathers." That blessing remains valid for all of us today as well.
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