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Tuesday
Mar282017

SEEING THE LIGHT IN A WORLD OF DARKNESS

A PUZZLING MIDRASH

A significant portion of the third book of the Torah—Leviticus—deals with sacrifices brought as atonement for sin. At the end of this week’s parsha, the Torah states:

If a person sins, betraying G-d by falsely denying to his fellow concerning a deposit, or money given in hand, or an object taken by robbery, or he withheld funds from his fellow or he found a lost article and he denied it and swore falsely regarding any one of all these cases whereby a man may sin… he shall return the article which he had robbed… regarding which he had sworn falsely, he shall pay it with its principal, adding its fifths to it… He shall then bring his guilt offering to G-d…

There is a puzzling and enigmatic comment in the Midrash on this verse:

This is what the Torah means when it says, “A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Yoseph.”

What possible connection is there between a person swearing falsely about money and a new king in Egypt?

DENIAL IN THE
COUNTRY OF DE-NILE

To answer this question, we have to discuss the issue of denial in Egypt. (No, not “de – Nile”). Rashi cites two opinions in the Talmud concerning the meaning of “a new king” in our verse. One opinion takes it literally: a new king who did not know Yoseph. The other opinion maintains that it was the same Pharaoh but now he acted as if he did not know Yoseph. He was in denial of Yoseph’s role in saving Egypt from total devastation due to the seven years of famine that he predicted.

The first opinion may be more faithful to the literal meaning of the word “new,” but the second view is more plausible. The Midrash argues that if this was truly a new king, why is there no mention in the Torah that the old king died and a new king ascended to the throne?

According to the second view, the Torah seeks here to underscore the wickedness of Pharaoh. Had this been a truly new king, he would have been guilty of enslaving the Jewish people. But according to the second view, Pharaoh was far more evil because he enslaved his benefactors. It was the height of denial and ingratitude.

We can now understand the connection to our verse in Leviticus. The crimes mentioned here all involve denial that one owes money to another. And in several of the cases the denial also involves denial of the other person’s kindness, as in the case of a loan or work that was done for the benefit of the denier. Like the case of Pharaoh, here the denial is not only an act of dishonesty; it is also a radical example of ingratitude.

When a person engages in denial on some level, he must know that he is emulating Pharaoh, the personification of exile and the exile mentality. Every time we deny G-d’s role in our lives or the role of others, we should realize that it is a sign we are still trapped in a spiritual and internal exile, akin to being slaves to Pharaoh.

And in this season, as we near Passover, the Festival of Liberation, it behooves us to focus on liberating ourselves from denial and ingratitude.

THE SOURCE OF DENIAL

Why, we must ask, do people engage in denial?

Children will reflexively deny guilt when confronted with an embarrassing situation.

This denial syndrome actually began with the first human being who denied guilt. When Adam partook of the forbidden Tree of Knowledge, he blamed it on Eve. In turn, Eve blamed it on the serpent. Their son, Cain, responded in like manner to G-d’s inquiry about Abel with the words, “I don’t know, am I my brother’s keeper?”

Why is denial so deeply ingrained in us?

The Torah answers the question in a later episode. When G-d asks why Sarah laughed when she heard from the angels, disguised as human travelers, that she would bear a child at the age of 90, the Torah states that “Sarah denied it, saying, ‘I didn’t laugh because she was afraid.’”

From this we see that fear impels people to deny wrongdoing.

But why would one deny the favors received from another? Why deny and be guilty of not only lying but also of ingratitude?

For example, Adam, when denying his guilt, also engaged in an act of ingratitude. He tells G-d, “The woman whom You gave me, gave me from the tree, and I ate.” Rashi comments, “Here he denied G-d’s generosity.” Not only did he deny that he was responsible for partaking of the forbidden fruit because Eve gave it to him; he also blamed G-d for giving him Eve, thus showing ingratitude to G-d for having been given a wife in the first place.

From this we gather that fear can lead to denial even when it will also display a lack of appreciation and gratitude to others. How and why does fear cause both denial and a lack of gratitude?

INSECURITY

People’s fear derives from their need for validation. Anything that diminishes us threatens our sense of self. We cannot tolerate compromising our image in the eyes of others. If we had healthy self-esteem, which comes from the realization that we possess a G-dly soul, we would not feel our self-worth being diminished by admitting guilt. On the contrary, once we admit guilt, we can bounce back from our diminished position through t’shuva.

Sadly, most people do not have a healthy sense of self. Instead, they focus on the physical and emotional layers of their personalities and achievements and not on the G-dly. Anything that will further erode their fragile sense of self could be devastating to them. So they pick the route that seems to offer the least amount of pain, deny their guilt and even deny the good they have received from others.

Moreover, people who have fragile egos and lack authentic self-esteem, feel even smaller when they realize that they got what they have from someone else. This triggers denial of the other’s contributions to them and focuses instead on the way the other might have hurt them. If one cannot outright deny the other’s role, the next best thing is to accuse him of causing the sin in the first place. His bad will cancel the good.

Pharaoh was a prime example of this syndrome. Pharaoh compensated for his huge inferiority complex by acting big and saying, “I own the Nile and I have made it myself.” He proclaimed himself a g-d because he was so insecure.

WHAT ABOUT SARAH?

This analysis raises a pressing question concerning Sarah’s denial of laughter. How can we place her in the same category as Pharaoh and others in denial?

The answer is that, obviously, the fear that prompted her to deny that she laughed is categorically different from the fear that prompted Pharaoh’s denial. In Pharaoh’s case, he feared losing his power and greatness. Sarah’s fear, in stark contrast, was due to her sensitive and heightened spiritual state. She was concerned that she could have acted disrespectfully about G-d’s ability to give her a child. Her denial was actually her way of saying, “It was not the true me who laughed. I could not have possibly done such a thing. I am better than that. It was a total aberration.”

However, the common denominator in all these examples of denial is that they were prompted by fear of losing something. In the case of Pharaoh it was the fear of losing his grip on power, and in the case of Sarah it was the fear of losing her connection with G-d.

In the period of Galus-exile, denial is rooted in fear and insecurity. This fear and insecurity is also the cause of the breakdown in relationships. We feel insecure and therefore we lose trust in others; especially if the actions of others make us feel diminished.

LIVING THROUGH THE NINTH PLAGUE AND ENJOYING THE LIGHT

The ninth plague in Egypt was the plague of darkness, which most likely occurred in the first two weeks of Nissan which we are in now. The plague of darkness brought fear and insecurity to the Egyptians. The Torah relates that “No person could see his brother.”

Perhaps this can be interpreted allegorically as well. Because of their fear and insecurity due to the darkness, they were unable to see the needs of the Other. They could not appreciate what they received from others because they were so insecure.

However, as the Jewish nation was about to experience their liberation, the Torah states that they had light. Even in the last moments of their exile, G-d gave them a taste of the light and clarity they would enjoy after their Exodus.

Metaphorically, this means that as we come to the end of exile, even though insecurity reigns throughout the world, we have the power to enjoy the clarity which dispels fear and denial.

As we stand now on the threshold between Galus and Geula, we can choose to look back into the darkness of Galus and feel insecure with all of its attendant ills, or look ahead into Geula and see things with clarity. Indeed, our Sages tell us that there were many fearful Jews who did not want to leave Egypt; they perished in the plague of darkness. They chose to look back, while the rest of the Jewish people looked forward and saw the light.

In choosing the latter approach, we accomplish several goals:

First, it enables us to live a full and vibrant life now, in these last moments of Galus, free of insecurity and fear.

Second, it helps us see the other (both upper case “Other” as well as lower case “other”) and thereby develop wholesome relationships.

Third, it prepares us for the Redemption.

Fourth, it hastens the process of the complete Redemption.

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