ויהי כל יוצאי ירך יעקב שבעים נפש ויוסף הי' במצרים
“And the offspring of Yakov were seventy souls; and Yosef was in Egypt.” (Shemos 1:5)
Rashi says: “Weren’t Yosef and his sons counted among the seventy? And what is the verse teaching us, for don’t we know that Yosef was in Egypt? But the purpose is to let you know of Yosef’s righteousness. This was the Yosef who looked after his father’s sheep, and this was the Yosef who was in Egypt and became the viceroy, but nevertheless maintained his righteousness.”
The yetzer hara often gives a person a whole list of excuses as to why he cannot serve Hashem at that particular moment. Now is not the time because he’s busy with something important, and the next day is not the time because something else came up. This happens to bachurim in Yeshiva; today he can’t learn because his study partner was absent, and tomorrow he can’t learn because of some other matter. The same thing happens to other people as well. The yetzer hara tells him that now is not the time to become a better person; perhaps in the month of Elul, or after visiting a certain Rebbe, or maybe next Shabbos, he will have some time to serve Hashem properly and take stock of his life. But not now – this moment is not the right time…
We must realize that this way of thinking stems from the yetzer hara who wants to distance us from Hashem. It is important to remember that regardless of the time and place, a Jew must use every moment to serve Hashem and become close to Him. It is always the right time to do tshuva, to learn Torah and grow as a person.
There is an insightful teaching of the tzaddik Reb Mechela of Zlotzhiv. In this week’s Torah portion, the Torah tells of Moshe’s encounter with Hashem’s Presence in the wilderness of Midyan, when Hashem revealed Himself to Moshe through the Burning Bush. The verse says (Shemos 3:5): “And Hashem said, ‘do not come closer here; remove your shoes from your feet because the place where you stand is holy.’”
Hashem is telling every person: Do not come closer here. It is not necessary for you to reach “here” – to arrive at a particular level in order to serve Hashem. It is fine if you stay just where you are and do your best according to your present situation. Don’t try to convince yourself that you first need to get a bit closer to Hashem in order to be able to serve Him.
The verse continues: Remove your shoes from your feet. The Hebrew word for shoes – na’alecha – can also mean “your lock,” and the Hebrew word for feet – raglecha – can also mean “your habit.” The Torah is advising us not to find excuses that we need to get to a particular place in order to serve Hashem, but instead each person should work on himself to overcome his personal “locks” and “habits” that hold him back from fulfilling Hashem’s will.
The verse concludes: Because the place where you stand is holy. The very place where you are now is holy and you can serve Hashem right there!
This is the meaning of the Gemara (Yuma 86b): “Who is considered a baal tshuva? In that place and in that time…” When can a person become a true baal tshuva and be cleansed of all sin? When he repents in that place, right where he is at the moment, and in that time, without looking for “better opportunities.” Regardless of when and where a person is presently, he should know that he can always repent and become closer to Hashem.
A similar concept exists regarding the holiness of Shabbos. Although Shabbos is a special day, a day that is like a sample of the World to Come, it is up to us to infuse our entire week with the spirit of Shabbos. Spiritual concepts are not confined to particular times or places.
This is what Yosef taught us. Although he was in Egypt, a place not conductive to spiritual growth, the Torah counts him among Yakov’s seventy souls and testifies that he was righteous. Yosef did not look for excuses, and used every moment and every place and position he found himself in to become close to Hashem. This is the obligation of every Jew.