Though the farbrengen of Shabbos Parshas Vayigash (7 Teves) was shorter than usual, lasting less than an hour-and-a-half, it dealt in depth with two major themes. One was recently adapted by Sichos In English and published under the title, “Books with Souls — Regimes Do Not Rule Libraries: Libraries Rule Regimes.”

The title of the present adaptation, “Confronting Our Material World,” is self-explanatory. In the learned sichah which the present essay seeks to summarize and simplify, the Rebbe Shlita discussed the delicate tension between (a) the spiritual life-tasks of a Jew, and (b) the demands of the material environment in which these life-tasks must necessarily be pursued.

This tension calls to mind the well-loved Yiddish phrase that epitomizes a cherished chassidic ideal: “In velt, ois velt.” Literally, this would mean, “In the world, out of the world.” More specifically, it refers to the ideal balance between (a) keeping one’s feet on the ground, so that one lives and functions within the context of the real world of material reality, yet at the same time (b) keeping one’s nose out of the mire of crass materiality.

Acknowledging the Natural Order vs. Defying It

The episodes related in the Torah are not merely historical narratives, but rather contain lessons which are applicable in all times and places. This concept surely applies to the narrative at the beginning of Parshas Vayigash which describes how Yehudah (Judah) approached Yosef (Joseph) and said, “Please, my master, let your servant speak..., for you are like Pharaoh.”1

Both Yehudah and Yosef represent the entire Jewish people. The very word Yehudi, Hebrew for “Jew”, is derived from the name Yehudah.2 Similarly, the name Yosef is used (as in the Book of Tehillim) to refer to our people as a whole.3

Both of these personalities demonstrate the way in which a Jew is not restricted by the limits of the worldly environment in which we live. This is reflected in the above narrative which describes Yosef as “like Pharaoh,” i.e., equal in power to the ruler of the entire civilized world. From this same narrative, we can also appreciate the power of Yehudah. For although Yosef was the ruler of the land, Yehudah approached him without any hesitation, without asking permission, ignoring totally the norms of court protocol.4

As we look more closely, a distinction can be drawn between the two. Yosef’s position was granted to him by Pharaoh. This implies a degree of respect for Pharaoh’s authority, i.e., an acknowledgement of the power of the natural order. Yehudah, in contrast, by approaching Yosef as he did,5 reflects how he refused to acknowledge those limits entirely. As such, he demonstrated the true infinite power a Jew possesses, a power that cannot be confined by any constraints.

A Conflict of Interests

The difference between the approaches of Yosef and Yehudah and the relevance of these two thrusts to our present-day lives can be clarified by analyzing our Sages’ interpretation6 of the verse from the Megillah,7 “So had the king established... to do the will of each person.” In the original, the latter phrase reads ish va’ish — lit., “this man and that,” and here our Sages perceive an allusion to Mordechai and Haman. I.e., when Achashverosh was preparing his feast, he desired to satisfy the desires of both of them.

There are two opinions among our Sages regarding the success of his venture: One opinion maintains that since Mordechai and Haman represent two diametrically opposed approaches to life, it is impossible for their divergent wills to be satisfied simultaneously. A second opinion concedes that at present it is indeed impossible for these two polar approaches to be reconciled; in the new world-order of the Era of the Redemption, however, this will become possible.

To explain the analogies involved: Achashverosh, as the Sages teach, is representative of G‑d;8 the feast represents our world,9 and in an ultimate sense, the fulfillment of its purpose,10 the Redemption.11 Mordechai represents a Jewish approach to life, while Haman represents the opposite, the challenges which the material world poses to Jewish practice.

Free Will

According to the first of our Sages’ interpretations, G‑d’s desire to make the feast satisfy the desires of Haman and Mordechai refers to the free choice we are granted. To quote the Rambam:12

Free will is granted to all men. If one desires to turn towards the path of good... the choice is his.... Man can on his own initiative... know good and evil and do as he desires.... There is no one who compels him, decrees his fate, or leads him to either of these paths.

Thus, at this level, we are confronted with a choice; material involvement would appear to run contrary to the study of the Torah and the observance of its commandments. A Jew, however, has the potential to follow the example of Mordechai, who “would neither bend the knee nor bow down.”13 Despite the pressures of the material environment in which we all live, he can hold steadfast to the life-tasks of the Torah and its mitzvos. Moreover, like Yosef, he can rise to a position of power without compromising his spiritual integrity at all.

Nevertheless, such an approach does not negate the limitations of the material world. On the contrary, at this level, although a Jew is not controlled by the material aspects of his environment, he is still influenced by them. Indeed, the Torah itself teaches that14 “The law of the land is binding”; i.e., the fundamental climate of all existence is material, and a Jew’s spiritual endeavors are carried out in this context.15

Satisfying Both Mordechai and Haman

A different perspective, however, is opened up by the second of our Sages’ interpretations — that the Era of the Redemption will accommodate the two contrary thrusts of Mordechai (the Jew’s spiritual tasks in this world) and Haman (this world as a barrier to the fulfillment of these tasks).

The Rambam concludes his discussion of that Era with the verse,16 “The world will be filled with the knowledge of G‑d as the waters cover the ocean bed.” By quoting this prooftext, the Rambam highlights the manner in which G‑dliness will permeate the world in that age. To understand the simile: In contrast to the creatures that live on the dry land, the multitude of creatures which inhabit the ocean are not readily discernible as independent entities. When looking at the ocean, it is the ocean as a whole and not these particular beings that we perceive. Similarly, in the Era of the Redemption, though the material world will continue to exist, its limitations will not be apparent, for it will be suffused with G‑dliness.17

We have the potential to “live with the Redemption,” to experience a foretaste of this era, at present. In this manner, one can “satisfy the desires of both Haman and Mordechai”: one can live in the material world (Haman’s desire), and yet appreciate the spiritual nature of material reality, realizing how in fact it is not separate from G‑dliness. And this realization is the ultimate expression of Mordechai’s service.

Shabbos as a Foretaste of the World to Come

To clarify this idea further: The Era of the Redemption is described as “the Day which is entirely Shabbos, and rest for life everlasting.”18 Similarly, Shabbos is described as “a microcosm of the World to Come.”19 And indeed we see a fusion of material existence and spirituality on the Sabbath. We are commanded20 to celebrate it with physical pleasure, yet the prevailing mood of the day is spiritual.

Our Sages21 state that a Torah scholar is called “Shabbos.” This implies that he extends the fusion of materiality and spirituality experienced on Shabbos into the ordinary weekdays, living his life in constant connection to G‑dliness.

This is the approach of Yehudah, who is not confined at all by the limitations of material existence. Similarly, our Sages22 describe a Jew, a Yehudi, as “one who denies the worship of alien gods.” In the original, this phrase is avodah zarah (lit., “alien worship”). In an extended sense, this refers not only to a person’s outright idolatry, but also to any23 “worship which is alien to him,” as a Jew. This includes not only forbidden activities, but even any motivation that is not directed toward G‑dly purposes. For a Jew, then, since he is “one who denies alien worship,” even his mundane and seemingly neutral activities are directed to a spiritual purpose. As our Sages taught,24 “All your deeds25 should be for the sake of Heaven.” And it is likewise written,26 “Know Him in all your ways.”

Enjoying the Redemption Ahead of Time

In this way one can anticipate the Redemption, and enjoy a foretaste of it now. Indeed, the potential for “living with the Redemption” in this manner is far greater at present than in earlier times. For all the spiritual tasks G‑d has demanded of the Jewish people have been completed. To borrow an expression of the Previous Rebbe,27 “We have even polished the buttons, and are standing prepared to greet Mashiach.” The feast of the Redemption is prepared,28 we are sitting at the table together with Mashiach. All that is necessary now is for each of us to open his eyes.29

And this can be seen in the world at large: many governments have adopted values of freedom and tolerance; regimes that have defied these values have collapsed; norms of communication and sharing have become widespread. In contrast to the persecution and oppression our people have suffered in earlier years, the nations of the world are giving Jews full permission — even active assistance — in their observance of the Torah and its mitzvos.

Reorientation as a Catalyst

At such a time, it is easier than ever before to follow the course of behavior described above. The world has already been refined to the point that all around us we see receptive people, previously unconnected with Judaism, and now able and eager to appreciate and internalize its truths. It is as if the world were asking a Jew to realize a state of redemption within his own life.

Moreover, “living with the Redemption” in this manner will help make the Redemption an actual reality. Our Sages explain30 that, in contrast to the other living beings which were created in pairs, man was created alone. Why? — So that every individual should say, “The world was created for me,” and thus appreciate that his conduct can affect the totality of existence. Thus the coming of the Redemption depends on every single individual. Simply put, were people to open their eyes, as said above, the door would open and Mashiach would enter.

Every individual should realize that he is capable of this, of reorienting himself and making a determined step in the direction of teshuvah, which means “return” — for, as explained above, every Jew is a Yehudi. And it is through realizing this distinctively Jewish potential, that each of us and all of us together can hasten the coming of the scion of the House of Yehudah, the Mashiach.

May this take place in the immediate future.