How do we get out of the pit?
“I have greatly hoped in the Lord, and He extended [His ear] to me and heard my cry. And he brought me out of the thundering pit, out of the thick mud, and He set my feet on the rock, established my steps.” (Tehillim 40:2-3)
I think that when the Maccabean struggle began and we were facing a larger, better trained and better-equipped army, Mattityahu and his family probably felt like they were in the muddy pit when they exclaimed: “What a disgrace! To have been born to see the ruin of my people and the holy city, and to have to stay with my arms crossed while it falls into the hands of its enemies and the temple remains in the power of foreigners… Why continue living?” (I Maccabees 2:8, 13).
Have you ever been in a swamp? Several years ago my family and I were travelling during a “beach break” to a mangrove swamp called “Barra de Santiago”. When the tide goes out, the water level drops. The tide had gone out, causing our boat to run aground in the swamp. My children, ages 4-6, and other family members were on this boat. It was nighttime, and there were crocodiles. The guide asked me: “Please help me push the boat”. So here I was in this swamp, deep in thick mud, and with every step I was sinking up to my thighs, it was so difficult to walk and honestly, I was terrified. Fear of a crocodile, the darkness – I couldn’t see clearly, the disgust of the mud (I had to wash myself over and over afterwards) and being disoriented by the darkness, from the anxiety, the humidity and the filth. I never want to go through that again.
In this portion, the Torah teaches us about Jacob and his generations, about how a fledgling nation was formed out of chaos. Why out of chaos? Jacob had lost his beloved Rachel; he had caused division in his family because of his favoritism of Joseph (37:3); his son Reuben was absent when his brother was sold – it might have been in a depression from the mistake he made with his father’s concubine, Bilhah (37:29-30); all of Joseph’s brothers were envious of him (37:11) to the point that the Torah says that they couldn’t speak peaceably with him… they hated him (37:4) and conspired to kill him which ended instead with his being sold as a slave, as Judah had suggested (37:20, 26-27).
This chaos caused sadness and pain for Jacob (37:34-35), in fact, it was as if he had descended alive to She’ol and ended with the separation of the family. From that day on, they lost Joseph (37:36) and Judah (38:1) who later both became the Royal tribes or leaders of Israel.
The phrase used in verse 37:24 is interesting, “and they took him and threw him into the pit. And the pit was empty, there was no water in it.” Wasn’t it enough to say that it was an empty pit; did they have to add that there was no water in it? The pit symbolizes death, the abyss (see Tehillim 30:4 “You, LORD, brought me up from She’ol; You gave me life, You saved me from the pit, bor, בֽוֹר)”. The word bor appears twice in the accounts of Joseph’s life, one is in this verse (37:24 vehabor הַבֹּ֑רָה) and another in 41:14 (min habor מִן־הַבּ֑וֹר) translated as dungeon. Joseph felt this abandonment not only once in his life, but TWICE… abandoned twice. This humiliation can, without a doubt, break even the strongest among us, remove all hope, and can above all kill any amount of pride.
When it says that Joseph was sold to the Midianites, to the Ishmaelites, and finally to the Egyptians (37:28), this is no mistake. In my opinion, there were three transactions. I don’t know if there is a greater rejection in life than being betrayed and sold by a loved one as close as a brother. My thoughts are with the many girls and women in the Middle East who are going through this pain at this moment and my prayer is that the Eternal will free them quickly and justice will be done.
Here we see the principle of Midah Keneged Midah, measure for measure in which the Eternal was working individually with the patriarchs of Israel for a greater purpose in the future. On one hand, Jacob lost his two sons, Joseph who he thought was dead and as well as Judah who had left after this terrible incident. Then Judah having experienced the death of his two sons, Er and Onan, would understand his father’s pain. On the other hand, Joseph, for a short time, having felt the pit of bitterness was restored and would save his people and comfort his father. Another example of “measure for measure” was after Jacob had deceived his father using a goat, now he was also deceived with the blood of a goat.
Then the story tells us how, despite his righteous acts, Joseph was brought to the point of being broken, stripped of any hint of an idea that he had “special abilities and that it is thanks to Joseph that “Everything turns out well in his life”. This would lead him to learn firsthand that the only one who can save us is God, and that only God no one else permits apparent evil because God alone knows the end of each life. Joseph learned that we cannot trust in our justice, our abilities, wisdom, beauty, or in men like Potiphar, or the jailer, the baker or the cupbearer to take us out of the bor (pit).
Back to the question, why should the Torah say that the pit had no water? Because water represents the Torah. That is, a “bor” without Torah is equivalent to despair, to chaos, to be like the living “dead”. This is exactly what happened at the time of Mattityahu and Judah Maccabee; they fell into the pit and many evils came upon them because Israel had turned away from the Torah.
Our prophet Amos tells us how someone can lose the Torah in a practical way: “They sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample on the heads of the helpless as if they were the dust of the earth and deny justice to the oppressed. Father and son sleep with the same woman, thus profaning my Holy Name. Beside any altar, they lie down on clothes they took as a pledge, and they drink the wine they have collected as a fine in the house of their gods.” If we read this correctly, the principle of love of neighbor, love of the Eternal, or idolatry and moral decadence, from which we had been prohibited from practicing in the Torah, is broken. We see then how being in the pit without the Torah influences us.
In recent weeks I have experienced adverse situations with my health, economy, family, work, vehicle, etc. and I feel like I am sinking into the mud of despair, however, I continue to wait for Heaven’s response, because my help will come from there. In our lives God often allows us to fall into these pits, but as our RANEBI asked me at the time, the question is “Do you know the difference between the problems in your life”? You can either face them WITH or WITHOUT the Torah. When there is Torah, we have hope, but what horror it is to fall into the hands of the Eternal without hope!
At this season of Hanukkah, my wish is that the Eternal allows us to be light and that we have the awareness that it is not we who shine because of our abilities, but it is the Eternal who illuminates us. Hope will produce a miracle like the parable of the oil for the Menorah at Hanukkah. We have the hope that we see in Joseph since the Torah doesn’t mention that he called upon Heaven during all the difficulties in his life: he was rejected by his family, his father did not look for him, he was sold three times, he was unjustly defamed, he was put in jail, they forgot about him, no one thanked him for his service, and who knows how many more disappointments he had, but let us remember that these experiences prepared him to become Viceroy of Egypt later. Today, if you’re not in a pit, live life with gratitude. If you are in a pit, thank God and receive Him with joy. It means that you are growing, but above all, if you are in the pit, decide how will you endure it…with or without the Torah.
Hanukkah Sameach, Shabbat Shalom