When Getting Stuck in the Mud is Also Part of the Journey
As I write this, it's a chilly Wednesday morning, and I'm sitting on the balcony of my brother's apartment in Raanana, feeling a little jet lagged. Baruch Hashem, my daughter Ayelet and I are here to celebrate my niece's Bas Mitzvah.
Every time that I have been fortunate to visit Eretz Yisrael I'm overwhelmed by the miracle of our rebirth as a nation. On the way here, I sat next to an engineer who specializes in low orbit satellites. He's a fascinating man, with a colorful life story. He's almost eighty years old, and was born in pre-1948 Israel to survivors of the Holocaust. He received his doctorate in London, and today he lives and works in New York.
I ate my kosher meal, his meal was not. Naturally, we spoke about Torah, God and history, as two Jews do. He told me that his father lost too much in the concentration camps to ever go back to observance. “Growing up”, he explained, “my father wasn't angry, just broken.” I asked what the occasion was for his trip to Israel. “My grandson's wedding.” Then he paused. “Today, he's religious.”
It's these little conversations that remind us that even as the last lights of Channukah flicker out, there really is no end to the miracle of the oil. Even when it's reduced to ash and embers, the flame of Klal Yisrael is still burning.
In our generation, we are privileged to see this truth with millennia of Jewish history in our rear view mirror. But this has not always been so clear. I certainly didn't feel clear to Yaakov Avinu as he left Eretz Yisrael and embarked on the journey that would land us in Egyptian slavery.
Truthfully, the Torah tells us, Yaakov was not convinced that Yosef was still alive and certainly doubted that he was the ruler over Egypt. But all of these questions fade when he sees the wagons that Yosef sent:
וַיַּרְא אֶת־הָעֲגָלוֹת אֲשֶׁר־שָׁלַח יוֹסֵף לָשֵׂאת אֹתוֹ וַתְּחִי רוּחַ יַעֲקֹב אֲבִיהֶם
And when he saw the wagons that Yoseph had sent to transport him, the spirit of their father Yaakov was revived.
It's a strange fact that wagons should provide such clarity and comfort when all else appeared so bleak.
Rashi (מה:כז) notes these wagons hinted at the Halachos of Eglah Arufa – the final lessons that Yaakov has taught Yosef before he was sold into slavery. In that way, Yaakov knew that Yosef was indeed alive, and that he was still connected to the values of Torah.
But these wagons carried more than a hint as to Yosef identity. They also served to reassure Yaakov in the moment of his greatest fear. The Daas Zekeinim quotes another opinion of Chazal, explaining that these wagons were a hint to the wagons that would one day transport the Mishkan through the desert when we left Mitzraim.
The Chasam Sofer notes that all of these wagons are ultimately a reference to the “Merkava of Hashem”. Yechezkel famously envisioned Hashem's presence in this world as a Chariot – Hashem's “Merkava”.
The Ramban (הקדמה לספר שמות) explains that the entire purpose of Jewish history is to become a national Merakava for Hashem's presence. Through our thoughts, speech and actions, we, as a people are charged with the responsibility to embody, carry and perpetuate Ratzon Hashem in this world.
Throughout Jewish history we have pulled the cart, indeed, we have been the cart. But it hasn't always easy. There have been generations where being the Merkava of Hashem has been painful and challenging.
This was the profundity of Yosef's message to Yaakov on a national level: Even when we're on the way to Mitzraim, even when things don't seem to be going according to plan, we are still Hashem's Merkava.
But this truth is not limited to our national existence. It is also true of each one of us in our personal lives.
The Navi describes that the Merkava is drawn by Chayos – Transcendent Beasts, and rolls along the ground by way of Ofanim – literally, Angelic Wheels. Of course, there is an infinity of mystical truths in these pesukim, but the Ohev Yisrael (פנחס ג׳) explains a small piece that relates to us and the challenges we face.
He writes that there are a small group of Jews in each generation and throughout our history who are the Chayos. Most others are the Ofanim. The Chayos are tasked with inspiring, directing, pulling Klal Yisrael. The Ofanim keep it moving.
But the nature of a wheel is that it gets dirty as it rolls. It's not always the case that we're cruising through life. The terrain is sometimes uneven, and just as we reach the top of our game, we find ourselves steadily declining. It's disheartening and often exhausting:
והם טרודים בכל עת בעסקי פרנסת ביתם. ולפעמים בא להם מחשבה טובה וכשירה לילך ולשמוע ברכו וקדושה. או ללמוד קצת או להתפלל וליתן צדקה וכדומה.
Those Jews who are the Wheels of Hashem's Chariot are busy with the needs of providing for their homes. Sometimes, they'll have a good and wonderful thought “I'll make it to shul to hear Baruchu or Kedusha.” “Maybe I'll learn a little, or daven. Maybe I could give a little tzedaka etc...”
We roll upwards, and then down. On the upswings we feel incredible, we're motivated and ready to take on the world. But then those feelings fade, and we're back in the mud.
The secret of Hashem's Chariot is that even when we're down, even when we feel defeated and deflated we're still carrying on.
The Shem Mishmuel writes that this message was also conveyed by Yosef's wagons:
כי אין ירידתו והשפלתו נקרא ירידה בהחלט, וחכם הרואה את הנולד רואה בכל ירידה התחלת עלי', וכן להיפוך כששעתו מוצלחת לא ירום לבבו וישקיף ויראה בכל עלי' ירידה... וכאשר ראה יעקב אע”ה זה, הבין שזה הענין בעצמו החזיק ביד יוסף ולא נפל בנופלים, והוא במדריגת חי, ע”כ ותחי רוח יעקב אביהם.
Our fallings are not absolute failures, and wise people can see how every descent is the beginning of his ascent. Likewise, when we are feeling successful, it should not go to our heads, for every ascent might be the beginning of a decline.... This explains Yaakov's reaction when he saw the wagons that Yosef sent. He knew that this was secret strength that sustained Yosef to ensure that he never fell into his failures. Yosef was always truly alive, and so “Yaakov's spirit was revived.”
The ability to keep on rolling is Yosef's legacy to us; inspiring us in all spheres: national, historic, personal and emotional. But perhaps most meaningful is the knowledge that when our wheels are in the dirt, that's simply part of the journey. For any part of a wheel, the essential direction is neither up nor down; it's moving forwards.
When we feel stuck, in life, in relationships, in learning, in our careers and in Avodas Hashem, the primary point to remedy is not the mud we're in, but that we've stopped moving.
Our generation is so blessed to see how far the Merkava has travelled, and our tefillah is that Hashem should help us to keep on rolling, to keep the flames of Channuka burning until all of our wagons have retuned to Yerushalayim.