Cryptic Midrash

After a detailed narrative concerning the rivalry between Joseph and his brothers, the Torah records that Jacob sent Joseph on a mission from which he did not return. 

His [Joseph’s] brothers went to pasture their father’s sheep in Shechem.  Israel said to Joseph ”Aren’t your brothers pasturing in Shechem? Come. I’ll send you to join them... go now and see how your brothers are doing and how the sheep are doing and bring me back news.”

The Midrash cited in the Chassidic work Ohev Yisroel comments cryptically on the words “Israel said to Joseph ‘Aren’t your brothers pasturing in Shechem?”:

This is what is written, ”For each and every generation, we will tell of Your greatness.”

The Midrash then comments that the word biShechem-“in Shechem” is an acronym for: “Boruch, shem, k’vod Malchuso-blessed is the name of His glorious Kingdom,” [the words we recite after the Shema].”

These two comments taken from a cryptic Midrash suggest that we must seek a deeper understanding of Jacob’s request that Joseph see how his brothers were doing.

On the surface, as commentators grapple with the meaning, it is hard to imagine that Jacob would send his vulnerable son Joseph on a mission so fraught with danger. Didn’t Jacob know that the brothers hated Joseph? After all, he had tried unsuccessfully to defuse that situation and deescalate the rivalry and animosity between his sons. Yet, Jacob sends the son, whom he loved above all others, into the veritable lion’s den?

Another question arises when we take note that the Torah here refers to Jacob as Israel. In most other places the Torah calls him by his birth name, Jacob, even after G‑d declared his new name to be Israel. Why then does the Torah use the name Israel specifically here in this context?

The answer to this question is the key to answering our first question, why he sent Joseph on such a dangerous mission.

Jacob as Israel: A Message for the Future

Jacob realized that Joseph had a unique role in transmitting the ideal of Israel, the master of natural and Divine forces as the name Israel connotes. He also knew that his other sons were not on the same spiritual level as Joseph. And by sending Joseph to his other sons, he was trying to remedy the disparity between them.

The Rebbe explains the spiritual differences between Jacob, Joseph and his brothers:

The tribes were shepherds so they could divorce themselves from mundane activities and focus on the spiritual.

Jacob, on the other hand, possessed a loftier soul and was able to live in the world and yet be unfazed by it because he was able to divorce himself from its distractions. While he inhabited the material world he was oblivious to its degrading influence.  Jacob was able to remain aloof by ignoring the world in which he lived

Joseph’s spiritual attainments, however, even exceeded Jacob’s level. Joseph was capable of being completely immersed in worldly matters without compromising his awareness of and connection to G‑d. Jacob rose above the materiality of the world; his other sons had to flee that worldly environment; only Joseph was able to be in the world and out of it simultaneously.

Jacob, as the progenitor of the Jewish nation, knew that ultimately it was Joseph who would bring this high level to the future Jewish nation. When Jacob heard Joseph’s dreams, he knew that they were prophetic. He grasped that Joseph would eventually be their benefactor and king because Joseph was on a higher spiritual plane than his brothers.


Reinterpreting Jacob’s Words

The words “Israel said to Joseph” are not just the words of a private citizen named Jacob, but they were spoken by Israel, the father of the Jewish people for all eternity. And it was in this public role that he was sending Joseph to instill his superior spiritual powers in his brothers

When Israel says “I’ll send you to join them...” Jacob/Israel was referring to the beginning of a process that would unite Joseph’s spiritual level with his brothers’ level. 

We can now understand why Jacob/Israel said, “see how your brothers are doing” and “how the sheep are doing…” He was interested in knowing both the spiritual level of his sons as well as the prospects for the “sheep,” i.e., the future Jewish nation, who are often compared to sheep. He wanted to know how they would be impacted by the spiritual union of Joseph and his brothers.


Higher and Lower Level Unity

In Kabbalistic parlance, the difference between Joseph and his brothers is that Joseph saw things from G‑d’s perspective and to him the only true existence was G‑d. With this attitude, nothing in the world could possibly contradict the presence of G‑d in his life. Even running the affairs of the depraved government of Egypt did not detract one iota from his awareness of and his cleaving to G‑d.

This lofty way of seeing things is referred to in the Zohar as Yichuda ila’ah-upper level unity; it is the underlying theme of the Shema in which we say “G‑d is one.” This means that all that exists is part of G‑d’s oneness. From this perspective, one sees only a single reality; the reality that G‑d is everything and all else is nothing.

The lower level of G‑dly awareness, referred to as Yichudah tata’ah-­lower level unity, is the way we view G‑d, from the bottom up. We see our experiences as real after which we come to the conclusion and awareness that there is a G‑d above us Who controls our existence and whom we recognize as our exclusive Sovereign.

This approach is the underlying motif of the phrase we recite after the Shema: Blessed is the name of His glorious Kingdom forever and ever.”


Elucidating the Midrash

We can now understand the continuation of the Midrash.

The Midrash cites the phrase, “For each and every generation, we will tell Your greatness.” These are the words that underlie Jacob’s/Israel’s request of Joseph. Jacob was not just interested in knowing his sons’ spiritual status; he also wanted to know how future generation of his flock would stand as a result of Joseph efforts to elevate his brothers’ status.

So, Jacob identifies the place where they were situated as biShechem-in Shechem, an acronym for the words “boruch shem kvod malchuso-blessed is the name of His glorious Kingdom.” These are the very words that connote the “lower level of unity” which cultivates in us an acceptance of G‑d’s sovereignty by superimposing His presence on our own selfhood.

Jacob wanted Joseph to instill some of his higher level of awareness in his brothers, and through them to all of Israel.

This awareness will become a fixture in the Messianic Age, about which Maimonides’s states: The entire world will exclusively engage in knowing G‑d, for the entire world will be filled with the knowledge of G‑d as the waters cover the sea.”

G‑d will be our true reality. This prophetic awareness was at the root of Jacob’s desire for unity and harmony among his sons. To that end, Jacob was prepared to take chances, and Joseph was more than eager to take the risk, to accomplish that goal and pave the way for Moshiach and the Final Redemption!