Parshat Bo 5779

Parshat Bo 5779

In Parshat Bo, as the Jews prepare for the Exodus from Egypt, God designates Nissan as the first month of the Jewish calendar. This is difficult to understand, given that we commonly refer to Rosh Hashana – the first day of Tishrei – as the new year, marking the Creation of humanity.

 

The explanation is as follows: Often people accept the idea of God as Creator. But they figure that after Creation, God sat back to let nature run its course. The Exodus, however with all its open miracles – teaches us that God’s role as Director of History, is even greater than His role as Creator. And that’s why at the Exodus, the order of the months changed – to commemorate this new relationship between God and humanity.

 

Rabbi Shraga Simmons comments: ‘This helps  explain another question: If Shabbat is a commemoration of the Six Days of Creation, then why are only Jews commanded to observe Shabbat? The answer is found in the text of the Friday night Kiddush, where we declare that the purpose of Shabbat is “to remember Creation and to remember the Exodus.” Because while God created the entire world, it was through the Jewish Exodus from Egypt that mankind came to appreciate God as the guiding hand of history. Let’s read the words of Prof. Nicholai Berdysev, writing in Moscow in 1935: “The survival of the Jews, their
endurance under absolutely peculiar conditions, and the fateful role played by them in history – this people is governed by a [mystical] predetermination, transcending the norms of history.” ‘

 

A warning is given to Pharoah that there will. Be a plague of locusts. What is this and why is it a plague? Rabbi Arnold Saltzman comments: ‘I remember as a young boy spending the summers in New York State and having the experience of seeing
grasshoppers. Usually, there was a solitary grasshopper in a vast field, not threatening, yet very special in the sense that this was something I did not encounter in Brooklyn. In reading the section on locusts, my first thought used to be, “How exciting! Grasshoppers!” It turns out that grasshoppers can be useful, and the Torah teaches us that some species are kosher, in
Leviticus 11:20-23. In the Mishnah of the Talmud of Kedoshim 59a, it states that grasshoppers may be eaten. The Hebrew
language has at least four words for locusts or grasshoppers, arbeh, chargol, chagav, and sal’am. Rabbi Joseph Hertz says that since we do not really know which of these locusts existed in biblical times, he declares them to be nonkosher.  Jews in Djerba and Yemen had a legitimate custom, however, of eating kosher grasshoppers. The Egyptians also ate them as food for the poor. A midrash tells us that the Egyptians ate pickled grasshoppers. When they heard that there would be a plague of locusts, they were excited and they sought to capture the locusts for food. What a gift! Instead, God brought the western wind and none were left. Even those that were already pickled in jars, pots, and barrels disappeared. A commentary by Ramban indicates that the remarkable nature of this plague, which darkened the sky of Egypt, was not a natural occurrence; rather, it was a miracle. The locusts consumed everything that was growing that had been left by the hail, which had previously beaten down branches and vegetation. The locusts came and left nothing growing.’

                                                                                                  Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim

 

Parshat Vaera 5779

Parshat Vaera 5779

In this week’s parshah we read of Hashem hardening Pharoah’s heart, as the Torah states : “Va’ani Aksheh Es Lev Pharaoh…”(7:3) Many commentators ask why the ‘bechira chofshit’ – the free choice- of Pharaoh was taken away from him. Rashi explains that it was clear to Hashem that the teshuva – repentance of Pharaoh would not be b’lev shalem (sincere). If Pharaoh would have been given the choice, he would have attempted an insincere teshuva. At that point, to punish him would seem unfair to the world, yet such a teshuva would still not exempt him from punishment. Therefore, Hashem removed his free choice so that the world could recognize the truth and wonders of Hashem. Rashi further notes that in the first five plagues, the Torah says that Pharaoh himself hardened his own heart. Only in the last five makot is it written “Vayechezak Hashem es lev Pharaoh” – “Hashem hardened the heart of Pharaoh.” Rabbi Mayer Lichtman explains that perhaps Rashi is saying that the proof that there wouldn’t be sincerity with Pharaoh’s teshuva or with the idolatrous nations in general is from the first five makot. Pharaoh had a good opportunity to change his wicked ways with the lessons and blows dealt to him and Mitzrayim in the first makos. By hardening his own heart – he proved his intention – his lev shalem was to hurt the Israelitesl. It was not for some economical or political excuse – it was a hatred that ran deep in his heart. When Hashem hardened his heart during the last five plagues, it was merely a result of Pharaoh’s own hardening during the first makot. If Pharaoh would have done teshuva during the final makos, it would have been heartless and meaningless.

 

Generally, the difficulty of making the right choice lies in one allowing the logic of mind to overcome the desire of the heart. When one continuously makes the correct choices, his heart moves to the right place. When one truly knows or is inclined to listen to the Dvar Hashem, it becomes more effortless to do what is right. As we grow in spirituality the test of bechira changes to higher levels. As Jewish people who have accepted Hashem’s Laws, we should all be able to try and comprehend the punishments doled out to Egypt and other nations, and try to elevate our hearts to serve Hashem as best we can.

Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim

Parshat Shemot 5779

Parshat Shemot 5779

In this week’s Parsha, the Torah says, “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” There are two explanations of this Pasuk. The standard explanation is simply that the old king died. As it had been many years since Yosef’s rise to power and since Yosef was already dead, the new king no longer appreciated Yosef’s contribution to Egypt. Therefore, this new king had no problem with persecuting the Jews. The other explanation is not quite so simple but much more disturbing. Many commentaries say that in fact this was the same king that ruled during Yosef’s rise to power. So why does the Torah say the new king did not know Yosef? Of course this king knew Yosef. It is explained that at this time the Egyptians were starting to fear the large number of Jews in Egypt, but could do nothing about it because the king, Pharaoh, was in obvious gratitude towards the Jews. Eventually the people became impatient and began to put pressure on the Pharaoh to make a bold move against the Jews. The Pharaoh soon caved in to all the pressure and essentially became a new king, one who did not know Yosef, he chose to ignore Yosef.

 

“Every son that is born you should cast into the river” (Exodus 1:22)

 

In order to curb the enormous population growth of the Jewish people, Pharaoh proclaimed this edict, sentencing any newborn baby boy to drowning in the Nile.

 

The Gemara (Sotah 11) relates that when Pharaoh was unsure as to how to stop the Jews from growing more numerous, he asked three of his advisers for guidance. Bilaam, the first advisor, gave advice to throw the babies into the Nile. Iyov, the second, kept silent and Yisro, the third, ran away. As a result of these actions Bilaam was killed by Hashem, Iyov got tremendous suffering and Yisro merited children who sat in the Sanhedrin.

 

From here we learn the tremendous power of Tochacha (rebuke). Iyov, a G-d fearing man, kept silent rather than rebuke Bilaam for his advice. For this abstention of rebuke, Iyov got the worst sufferings in the world. (In fact, a whole Sefer of Tanach describes his tribulations.)

 

Yisro, on the other hand, ran away, which is only a small form of rebuke, yet was immensely rewarded by having children who converted and became Torah giants and adjudicators in Sanhedrin, a great honor.

 

Now it is clear the power of rebuke. If we see a friend sinning, we must realize that it is our obligation and a mitzvah from the Torah to tell our friend of the wrong they are committing. If we do not, as in the case of Iyov, terrible punishment may be the result. But if we do, then our reward will be great. May we all merit such honor and greatness as a result of fulfilling the Torah’s commandments.

Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim

 

Parshat Vayigash 5779

Parshat Vayigash 5779

This week’s parsha, Vayigash, deals primarily with Joseph revealing his true identity to his brothers and the subsequent descent of Jacob and his whole family to Egypt. Joseph sends his brothers, laden with food and goods, to inform Jacob that he is still alive and that Hashem has placed him over the whole Egypt. Wagons are sent for Yaakov to transport the entire family to Egypt.

When Jacob and his family, now known openly to be Ivrim (Hebrews), settle in Egypt, Joseph is aware of the potential for trouble. As a minority without support systems, they could be exploited; in times of trouble, they could become scapegoats. They must demonstrate that they will be good citizens; but should they excel in business, warfare and politics, or should they call less attention to themselves, and just blend in?

Joseph is thoroughly familiar with Egyptian society and the Pharaonic court. He wants to protect his family – foreigners in the dominant world-culture – from an assault on their identity, something that he had to endure. He, therefore, adopts the strategy of downplaying their accomplishments: The Torah states: “And Joseph said to his brothers and to his father’s household: “I will go up and tell Pharaoh, and I will say to him, ‘My brothers and my father’s household who are from the land of Canaan have come to me; and the men are shepherds, for men of livestock have they been, and they have brought their flocks and their cattle and all that is theirs.’ And it will be, when Pharaoh will summon you, and say, ‘What is your occupation?’ You shall say, ‘Men of livestock have your servants been, from our youth until now, both we and our forefathers,’ so that you will live in the land of Goshen; because every shepherd is an abomination of Egypt” (46:31-34).

Haemek Davar (R. Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, 1817-1893) explains that Joseph is trying to preserve his family’s sanctity through segregation. By “keeping a low profile,” living apart as lowly shepherds in Goshen, they will not be a threat. They also can be overlooked and thereby remain untainted by Egypt, and less influenced by Egyptian idolatry.

Joseph here imitates his father Jacob’s self-effacing tone in dealing with Esau: “And I have acquired an ox and a donkey, sheep and a servant and a maid-servant, and I have sent to tell my lord, that I might find favor in your eyes”(Bereishit 32:6).

Joseph’s strategy will prove to be of limited effectiveness, because the next Pharaohs will view the Hebrews’ lowliness as repulsive, their very isolation as threatening, and will enslave and oppress them. But, for Joseph’s generation, it works

 

                                                                                                                 Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim

 

Parshat Miketz 5779

Parshat Miketz 5779

The word Mikeitz means “At the end,” as in the saying, “the end of days” (Daniel 12:13).

In Aramaic the word “days” is almost identical to its Hebrew equivalent, but the last letter switches from a mem to a nun (ימין = ימים). The Zohar (I 62b) notes that this Aramaic word, ימין is identical to the Hebrew word ימין, meaning “right” and on this basis, the Zohar concludes: “There are two ‘ends,’ one on the spiritual ‘right’ and one on the spiritual ‘left.'”

In Jewish mysticism, “left” represents the side of evil. So, the “end of the spiritual left” refers to the day when evil will cease to exist, with the end of exile, i.e. “the end of days” (קץ הימים).

“Right,” on the other hand, represents goodness and holiness. Thus we refer to the “end of the right,” to indicate that there is no dilution of values in the realms of holiness, so the end is as good as the
beginning. The term (“קץ הימין. end of the spiritual right”) is thus an allusion to the’ final redemption, when good will triumph over evil, and we will see how good is found consistently through­out the entire world.

We are thus left with the question: Which “end” does the word Mikeitz refer to-the “end of the left” or the “end of the right”?

In fact, both could be argued as was discussed at the Chai Center in Millburn/Short Hills, NJ (and based on Likutei Sichos vol. 5, pp. 200-1; Biuray haZohar p. 299)

a.) At the beginning of our Parsha, Yosef is released from jail. This was the end of Yosef’s exile, i.e. the “end of the left.”

b.) On the other hand, we then read how Yosef suddenly rose to power and became ruler over Egypt-his redemption, represented by “the end of the right.”

How could the two opposite concepts of exile and redemption be alluded to by the same expression? Chasidic thought explains that the inner purpose of exile is that the Jews should be scattered around the world in order to “rescue” sparks of holiness which had been lost in physicality. Thus, redemption is not the elimination of exile, but rather, it is the goal of exile. And therefore, both concepts are hinted to by the same word.

The story of Chanukah and the story of Joseph in Miketz relate to each other in the common themes. The story of Chanukah begins with terrible conflicts between Jews and the Greeks in the takeover of the Temple. There are also internal conflicts among the Jews. Not all Jews were in agreement. There were many who embraced Hellenistic culture, and those, like the Maccabees, who rose up against Hellenism in order to preserve Judaism their way. The fight over the Temple is long, and much is lost. Although this point in our history is full of political conflicts, on Chanukah we have come to commemorate this story by focusing on the miracle of the oil burning in the Temple after it was reclaimed. Like Joseph, the heroes of the story of Chanukah had to take what they were given and use it to their best advantage. The Maccabees were rewarded with the miracle of the oil burning for eight days. Our eight-day celebrations commemorate the miracle that God gave them in their victory, but it also reminds us of the chaos and hardship that preceded the miracle. Both Joseph in Miketz and the Chanukah story teach us about gifts that we possess, as well as how we use what is given to us to interpret and influence our situations. It is difficult to see through chaos and know that we are preparing correctly for the future. Joseph’s gift of interpreting dreams made him a rich and powerful man, but it also alienated him from his family. Had the Maccabees not held out in their long and vastly outnumbered fight, they would not have reclaimed the Temple. There were also many costs to their battle, including a large divide within their community. Through these stories, we see that there is strength in looking through the chaos of the present and focusing on the future. In the little time we have to relax during the eight days of Chanukah, we have the opportunity to think about the decisions we make to influence our future and celebrate our successes, as individuals and as a part of a community. 

Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim

Parshat Vayeshev 5779

Parshat Vayeshev 5779

In this week’s parshah, we see the consequences of jealousy. Joseph’s brothers’ could no longer endure the favoritism that their father displayed towards their younger brother, and plotted to get rid of him in some way. Joseph was thrown into a pit, and later sold to merchants as a slave.

 

Fully aware that they would have some explaining to do to their father Jacob when they returned without Joseph, the brothers “dipped the coat (Joseph’s coat that was a gift from Jacob) in its (a goat’s) blood” (Genesis 37:31). There are a few questions that need to be answered: 1) Why did the brother’s fabricate an elaborate charade about what transpired with Joseph, and 2) What made Jacob think that Joseph had been devoured by a wild beast? And why did Jacob, speaking about the beast, say both has devoured him and has torn him apart? Besides, the order of what
happened should have been reversed!

 

The Alshekh answers these questions and explains as follows: The brothers had debated amongst themselves how to present Joseph’s absence. Had they claimed never to have seen him, their
father would organize search parties, questioning all caravans in the region. He would find out about the Ishmaelites who had traveled to Egypt. If they would say that Joseph had been found dead, Jacob would demand to see his grave. If they would say that they had HEARD about an
accident that had befallen him, they would be telling an outright lie. For these reasons, they felt it best to let Jacob form his own opinion on the basis of the faked evidence. Had they presented
Joseph’s coat in an undamaged condition, Jacob would have reasoned that Joseph had taken it off, and would have searched for him, thinking him still alive. The brothers could now imply that Joseph’s fate was due to his having slandered them.

 

Jacob knew for certain that it was Joseph’s coat. Being unaware of any character weakness in
Joseph except his tale bearing, he persuaded himself that Joseph had been punished in this cruel manner for his weakness. In the Torah, the warning not to listen to false information is preceded by the line “throw it to the dogs” in the book of Exodus. Shemot Rabba 31 points out that one who spreads false information deserves to be thrown to the dogs. Upon reflection, Jacob did not think that Joseph had been eaten alive; this seeing that he was made in the image of God and this
having been reflected in his face even after having informed on his brothers. Therefore he
assumed tarof, toraf – he had first been ripped apart by a free agent, i.e. a human being.
Afterwards, an animal had devoured his remains. This is why he repeated tarof toraf, i.e. he had been torn twice. He considered it possible that one of his sons had harmed Joseph. Jacob tore his clothing and wore sackcloth because he felt that if his interpretation of what happened was true, he himself was partly to blame. This, due to the fact that he had listened to Joseph’s tale bearing WITHOUT PROTESTING IT, although he had not believed the stories. When the brothers saw the depth of Jacob’s grief, they did not even attempt to offer words of condolence until a long time had elapsed. The Torah states that Jacob “mourned for his son for many years”. This was because of his exceptionally close bond that existed between the soul of Jacob and the soul of Joseph. He refused to accept consolation because of what he thought had been his own part in causing the tragedy. On the contrary, he felt that he himself was eventually going to die because of his
complicity in Joseph’s fate. For all these considerations, our sages read v.35, his father wept for him, as referring to Isaac, who was aware that Joseph was still alive but dared not reveal it to his son, seeing that God had not seen fit to reveal it to him (Bereishit Rabba 84).

 

                                                                                                       Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim