Yosef represented the ability to find enlightenment even from within the spiritual concealment which typified ancient Egypt. Yosef is referred to as שומר הברית/shomer habris/keeper of the covenant. Conventionally this is a reference to his overcoming the temptation presented to him by his master Potiphar’s wife. However, when we think about the fundamental definition of a covenant we come to realize that this concept has broader applications. A covenant defines a relationship. It is the point at which two people or entities connect. In the case of the relationship between God and the Creation the point of connection is the spiritual essence that God sent into the physical Creation to give it life and existence. This spiritual essence is the sign that there is a relationship between the Creation and God. Accordingly, Yosef was a שומר הברית/shomer habris/keeper of the covenant in the sense that he connected to God by concentration on the spiritual essence of everything he did. He did this by subjugating his own desires before God’s in everything he did. This quality of Yosef was necessary to ameliorate the effects of the exile in Egypt. Indeed, the Midrash says that the exile of Egypt began only when we stopped keeping the covenant. When we stopped keeping the covenant, a new king arose in Egypt who decreed new decrees. The plain meaning of the Midrash refers to the covenant of circumcision. According to the Sfas Emes, though, the deeper meaning of the Midrash hints to the covenant defining our relationship with God.
This aspect of Yosef is a useful tool to help us find spiritual enlightenment not only in exile but also in any situation which is not ideally conducive to this. For example, it can be applied to lighting up our weekdays in spite of our daily distractions. How do we do this? Most of our actions during the week are spiritually neutral. In conventional terms we would not consider them to be mitzvos. We eat. We go to work. We relate to our spouses and family. However, depending upon our intent in the course of our daily activities, we have the ability to transform everything that we do into a mitzvah. Our intent enables us to find the spiritual essence hiding within every physical activity. The Sfas Emes explains that by subordinating our own desires and thinking instead about raising ourselves spiritually and coming close to God, we can all find the spiritual essence within everything we do.
The Sfas Emes explains this spiritual essence, its concealment and revelation, in terms of the days of the week and Shabbos. The concept of Shabbos is a revelation of the spiritual that is within the physical. By contemplating our actions beforehand we can find this concept during the week as well. The difference between Shabbos and the weekdays is that during the week finding this spirituality requires work whereas on Shabbos it is much easier if we are open to it.
We see this concept in a pasuk in Yechezkel referring to the third Beis HaMikdash, “שער החצר הפנימית הפונה קדים יהיה סגור ששת ימי המעשה וביום השבת יפתח וביום החדש יפתח/Sha’ar hechatzeir hapenimis haponeh kadim yehiyeh sagur sheishes yemei hama’aseh uvayom haShabbos yepasei’ach uveyom hachodesh yepasei’ach/The inner courtyard gate that faces east will be closed during the six workdays but on Shabbos it will be opened and on Rosh Chodesh it will be opened.” The gates of the temple opening and closing connote spiritual gates opening and closing. On Shabbos and Rosh Chodesh there is a spiritual revelation that we don’t find naturally during the week. According to the Sfas Emes, this pasuk is not only referring to the day of Shabbos and Rosh Chodesh. It is referring to the concept of spiritual revelation exemplified by Shabbos and Rosh Chodesh. In this sense, we can experience an aspect of Shabbos during the week as well.
We’ve seen that experiencing the concept of Shabbos entails contemplating coming close to God through our daily activities. What is the concept of Rosh Chodesh? Rosh Chodesh represents renewal. The Sfas Emes explains that Rosh Chodesh represents faith that in nature there is a continuous renewal of the continuing existence of the Creation.
Living our lives within the natural world, it is easy to become lulled into thinking that there is no renewal at all. Our observation of nature leads us to this conclusion. Today is the same as yesterday and yesterday was the same as the day before. Shlomo HaMelech wrote in Koheles, “אין כל חדש תחת השמש/Ein kol chadash tachas hashemesh/There is nothing new under the sun.” “Under the sun” is a metaphor for the natural world. Shlomo HaMelech is making our point. He is teaching us that within the natural world there is no indication of renewal. The inference is that “above the sun” – outside of nature – there is renewal. The Sfas Emes explains this as an allusion to the aspect of Shabbos that represents subordination to God’s will and the aspect of Rosh Chodesh that represents faith in continuous renewal. These are certainly qualities that transcend the natural world around us.
The idea of “שומר הברית/shomer habris/keeper of the covenant” includes both these concepts. When we desire to do God's will in our everyday activities and cultivate an understanding that because of the continuous renewal of the Creation, each moment is an opportunity to renew ourselves, we are emulating Yosef. This is a powerful tool. Applying it can transform our lives.