“Resonance” Parashat Vayeshev 5780

Sometimes you just need to use Control Theory[1] in order to understand the Torah. This is one of those times.

Joseph has been sold by his brothers to Midianite nomads heading to Egypt. Eventually, he finds himself a slave in the home of Potiphar, an Egyptian minister. Against all odds, Joseph hits the ground running [Bereishit 39:2-5]: “G-d was with Joseph, and he was a successful man; he stayed in the house of his Egyptian master. When his master saw that G-d was with him and that G-d lent success to everything he undertook, he took a liking to Joseph. He made him his personal attendant… from the time that the Egyptian put him in charge of his household and of all that he owned, G-d blessed his house for Joseph’s sake, so that the blessing of G-d was upon everything that he owned”. Potiphar sees that Joseph, an overtly religious man, is “successful”. Potiphar puts two and two together and, understanding the source of Joseph’s success, figures that he can turn this into personal benefit and he makes Joseph his business manager. Lo and behold, Joseph, with G-d’s help, experiences continued success and Potiphar makes a fortune. Here is the problem: Joseph was a slave. A slave in ancient times was subhuman. He was treated like an animal. He had no rights of any kind, not even the right to his own life[2]. His master could kill him without batting an eyelash. What kind of “success” could Joseph possibly have exhibited that induced Potiphar to place him in charge of his entire household? That he wasn’t beaten to death[3]? Further, we must note that the Torah uses the word “va’yehi” – “and it was” – three times in Verse 2, the verse that describes Joseph’s successful landing in Egypt. The Torah actually says “And it was that G-d was with Joseph, and it was that he was a successful man; and it was that he stayed in the house of his Egyptian master”[4]. The fact that a word is used three times in one verse typically means that it is coming to teach us something. The Talmud in Tractate Megilla [10b] teaches that the Torah uses the word “va’yehi” as an indicator that something bad is going on. It seems fair to interpret the triple-use of the word “va’yehi” as meaning that something really bad is going on. It just doesn’t seem that the word “success” is being used in its proper context.

This is where Control Theory can help us out. Assuming that not everyone reading this lesson is familiar with the topic, some conceptual background is necessary. Consider a missile flying through the air. The missile generally flies in the direction it is pointed, using its control surfaces (wings) to change direction. Engineers must model the missile in order to be able to control it, to determine what kind of control surface movement is necessary to change the missile’s direction to the one that causes it to fly into the rocket it is trying to intercept. It turns out that the easiest way to model a system via its “frequency response”. Mathematicians have proven that if you know how a system will respond to a sinusoidal input at any frequency, then you know how it will respond to any kind of input[5]. The reason this representation is helpful is because most systems respond to only a few frequencies, called their “natural frequencies”. In order to control a system, the first thing you have to do is to identify the system’s natural frequencies and understand how it reacts to them.

One of the things that keeps control engineers up at night is a phenomenon called “resonance”. A system exhibits resonance when its output becomes highly amplified at one of its natural frequencies. Imagine pushing your child on a swing. If you push at just the right frequency, the swing “resonates”, going progressively higher and higher until your wife sees what you are doing and yells at you to stop. A case of “resonance gone bad” was the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse. The suspension bridge, nearly 2 kilometres long, never responded well to wind. It would often sway and shake in the most perilous fashion. One day in 1940, vortexes from a particularly strong wind caused the bridge to vibrate at its natural frequency. Unfortunately, the bridge exhibited extremely high resonance, which progressively amplified the vibrations. The bridge began to oscillate more and more wildly until it tore itself apart and crashed sixty metres into the water below.

Let’s return to Joseph. What were Joseph’s “natural frequencies”? Where did he exhibit “resonance”? Rabbi Zalman Szorotzkin, who lived in Lithuania and Israel in first part of the twentieth century, notes in his “Oznayim LaTorah” that when Joseph was sold into slavery, he literally went from riches to rags. He went from being the favoured son of one of the wealthiest and powerful men on earth to being a lowly slave of the Egyptian Chief Executioner. Joseph was being driven by an input – a frequency – that he had never experienced before and as a result, he discovered a new natural frequency. Joseph’s reaction to his newly found adversity was unexpected: he resonated. But instead of resonating in a destructive manner, he resonated in a constructive manner. He did not become despondent. He refused to shed his humanity. His master took note. Rashi, the classic medieval commentator, suggests that Potiphar believed that “G-d was with Joseph” because Joseph would constantly mention G-d’s name. Potiphar was no fool. He understood that the only reason that Joseph stood tall where all before him had fallen was because of his closeness and strong belief in G-d. Potiphar believed that he could leverage Joseph’s special relationship with G-d in the financial arena. He elevated Joseph and was rewarded for his decision.

Joseph’s natural frequency – his ability to thrive as a Jew even while he lives in mortal danger precisely because he is a Jew – is burnt into the Jewish persona. Hundreds of years later, the Egyptian Pharaoh is troubled by a large and exponentially growing Jewish population in Egypt. Pharaoh subjugates the Jews to try to keep them under control. According to our Sages in the Midrash, he institutes an early version of the Nuremberg Laws. Nevertheless, Joseph’s descendants do not break. They resonate at Joseph’s natural frequency [Shemot 1:12]: “But as much as [the Egyptians] would afflict [the Jews], so did they multiply and so did they gain strength”. Rashi comments “The Holy Spirit says this: You [Pharaoh] say, Lest they multiply, but I say, So will they multiply”. The stronger the driving force, the greater the resonance. We can’t control it – it is who we are.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi[6] writes in the “Tanya”, that it is the most assimilated Jew who will surprise you if you try to force him to shed his Judaism. He may not show outwardly signs that he is even Jewish. He may never have kept Shabbat or put on tefillin. But if he is faced with a threat to his belief, if someone tries to forcefully tear him from the G-d he does not know he even worships, he will lash out. He will resonate at a natural frequency he did even not know he had. Sadly, history has proven this time and time again.

And yet again. Antisemitism is raising its ugly head around the world, even in the U.S., a country that has to date been the safest refuge the Jewish People have known in our two thousand years of exile. Anti-Semitic acts in the U.S. are increasing in frequency and severity: From the radical right in Pittsburgh to the radical left in Jersey City. But there is one thing that our long history has shown us: Antisemitism causes the Jew to resonate. Instead of ripping him from his Judaism, it drives him even closer. We will not merely survive the aggression and the hate, with G-d’s help we will thrive.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5780

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Gittel Malka bat Idis and David ben Chaya.

[1] Control Theory pertains to shaping a system so that it responds in a desired way to a given input. Control Theory is indispensable for intercepting missiles and driving autonomous cars.

[2] I once saw a play about the Roman historian, Josephus. One of the scenes was set in the home of the Roman Emperor, where two slaves were walking on all fours like dogs. It was terribly disturbing.

[3] The Netziv of Volozhn proposes that this was precisely Joseph’s success.

[4] Both Sefaria and Chabad translations delete the word “va’yehi” from their translations.

[5] The frequency response is calculated using a Laplace or Fourier transform. Both are based on icky math.

[6] Rav Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the “Alter Rebbe”, lived at the turn of the 19th century in Russia. He was the founder and first Rebbe of Chabad. He was jailed by the Czar after he was accused of treason. He was released on the 19th day of Kislev. Chabad Hassidim celebrate this day as the “Holiday of Redemption”.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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