“They sat to eat food; they raised their eyes and they saw, behold! A caravan of Ishmaelites was coming from Gilead, their camels bearing spices, balsam and lotus, on their way to bring them down to Egypt.”
(Beresheet 37: 25)
“Israel their father said to them, ‘If it must be so, then do this: Take of the land’s glory in your baggage and bring it down to the man as a tribute—a bit of balsam, a bit of honey, spices, lotus, pistachios, and almonds.”
The same three items contained in the caravan carrying Joseph to Egypt are also the three special presents that Jacob sends to Egypt. These were delicacies special to Canaan and were not readily available in Egypt. Nevertheless, the fact that the items selected by Jacob are the same ones that accompanied Joseph on his journey down to Egypt cannot be mere coincidence. Why does the Torah mention specifically the cargo of the Ishmaelites in the first place, and why are these the gifts that Jacob chose to send to Joseph?
There is an even more puzzling question regarding Joseph’s life. This young man lost his mother at a young age, showed extraordinary gifts early on, and consequently earning the hatred of his brothers and had no affection outside of his father and young brother. Innocently trudging into his brothers’ circle, he is stripped of his multicolored robe, which had been his father’s present, and thrown practically naked into a pit full of snakes and scorpions. As he arrives in Egypt he is confronted with the malice of his master’s wife and lands in jail. There he has to spend many years until miraculously rescued and then elevated to the highest position in the Egyptian Empire, just below the Pharaoh himself. Throughout all these tribulations, how did Joseph keep his wits about him? What prevented him from breaking down and paralyzed by fear and loneliness?
Look for the small signs; they make all the difference
in how we view life’s tribulations and conflicts
Rav Nachman Kahana of Israel suggests that the answer may be in the text of the Bible itself. The description of the contents of the Ishmaelites’ cargo seems irrelevant and we know that every word of the Torah has meaning and that no superfluous or unnecessary words are ever added. There was no reason to tell us what the Ishmaelites were carrying; what mattered was only that they were merchants and that they would be interested in purchasing Joseph. However, in describing the contents of their caravan we find an anomalous circumstance that would send a clue. The clue was small and subtle but to the eyes of a thinking person it was a clear sign nevertheless. Normally these caravans carried naphta and tar which emitted a foul odor and Joseph knew this. As he entered the perfumed wagon, Joseph received a hidden message: G-d would not abandon him. He must have felt cold, ashamed, angry and above all very lonely and despised, but this wagon carried a beautiful message: “all your present troubles do not mean that G-d has abandoned you.” There must be a reason for all these hardships; it was just time before he would discover it.
This message was later reinforced by Jacob’s gifts. As Joseph opened the package and saw the same perfumed spices that had escorted him in his original journey he realized that from beginning to the end his life was a mission in behalf of the Jewish people and its future history. This is what led him to comprehend what he told his brothers,” It was not you who sent me here, but G-d.” (ib. 45:8) In the midst of all his troubles Joseph remembered the conditions in which his trip took place and was comforted in the knowledge that it was no accident that the caravans were carrying spices; G-d had a special eye to watch after him and that thought would accompany him every day of his life. This is what gave him strength and supported him in the darkest moments.
In our lives too we often have to go through very dark passages that frighten and depress us. However, we should look for a tiny sign, a small difference from the normal that broadcasts that Someone is watching over us. That little help that came out of nowhere, that support that came in the nick of time –all these may reveal that our troubles are not happenstance but are part of a larger script which we will comprehend sometime in the future. Joseph had to wait a long time until his day came and there is a day for each of us; we just need to be patient and have confidence in G-d. In the meantime, look for those tiny signs that contain coded messages to us that all is not lost and that the anxieties and sufferings are all part of a large plan that will be uncovered at a later time. Look for the small signs; they make all the difference in how we view life’s tribulations and conflicts.
In the Hanukkah story we find a tiny sign that sent a powerful message to Israel. The miracle of the oil took place in an area that was relatively hidden from view. Only the kohanim had access to the kodesh (the sanctuary before the holy of Holies) and even so only a few of them. Why did G-d choose to make the miracle in such a locked space instead of doing it in a very public and open area? Rav Kahana suggests that this too was a small sign that G-d was sending the kohanim. It was they after all who had initiated the war and because of the bloody nature of the conflict many Jewish lives were lost. Many people criticized them for persisting in their fight and surely there must have been many who cried, “Peace now!” The leaders of the rebellion must have had their doubts as to the validity and justice of their decision to wage war and probably felt greatly discomfited at the loss of life and bloodshed. However, in one small sign G-d sent them the message that their courageous stand was warranted and that the wars were necessary to defend and preserve the life of the people and their Torah heritage. By creating the miracle in quarters that only the kohanim could enter the message was that G-d was supportive of the kohanic-military leadership. It is for this reason that in our prayers we thank G-d for the wars, for the victories and for the sacrifices. In the end, the Hasmoneans’ gamble paid off and G-d sent them the message that their fight was justified. In our times too we struggle with certain decisions affecting our people. The decision to create the State of Israel was met with criticism and even today many question the wisdom of creating a state when there are so many enemies around and so many dangers. In the 1920’s there were no more than 80,000 Jews in then called Palestine. By 1948 the number had swollen to 600,000 but the fledging state was very weak when it was attacked by seven powerful, numerous and well-armed armies. But Israel stood firm. In 1967 we seemed to be on the brink of elimination and yet our army defeated all the Arab enemies in a mere and miraculous six days. Today Israel stands in the frontline of technology and even the one commodity that Israel seemed to lack, oil and gas, now appear to be abundant in the Land of Israel. The signs are everywhere; we need to read them. Joseph read them and so could we. Happy Hanukkah!
Rabbi David Algaze is the founder and Rav of Havurat Yisrael, Forest Hills. He is a noted public speaker and author and is the President of the international Committee for the Land of Israel.