Parshat Bo 5781

Parshat Bo 5781

Pharaoh’s heart remains hardened, and he does not allow the Israelites to leave Egypt. Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh, and tell him that God will send locusts that “will cover the face of the earth so that one will be unable to see the earth…” (Exodus 10:5). The Alshekh explains that the subject of the words unable to see the earth, are the locusts themselves. These locusts will cover the earth in such density, that they themselves cannot see what they are eating, as they can only see the other locusts around them. Normally, he explains, locusts descend on vegetation closely following the areas, which have seeded and have begun to sprout. In this case, arrival of the locusts will be sudden, and they will cover the whole country simultaneously. This, despite the fact that they will have little to feed on, namely only what the hail has left undamaged. Although they must be hungry, they will only consume what is left ‘lachem’ – to you. They will not touch what belongs to the Israelites, i.e. the province of Goshen. Instead of moving to greener pastures outside Egypt, they will invade the houses, starting with the palace of Pharaoh. The words ‘asher hishir habarad’ – which the hail has left – indicate that what had appeared to the Egyptians as relief at the time, had really been nothing but the preamble to death, as Pharaoh himself describes it in v.17. For the first time, Moses leaves the presence of Pharaoh and his servants without waiting for a response. The servants are so eager to forestall this plague, that they argue with Pharaoh even before Moses could leave the premises. Therefore, Moses and Aaron are recalled for negotiations.

Moses, prior to the departure of the Israelites from Egypt, tells the people: “Speak now in the ears of the people, and let every man ask of his neighbor, and every woman of her neighbor, jewels of silver and jewels of gold (Exodus 11:2).  Later on in the parshah, we read that the Israelites did Moses’ bidding. The Torah states (Exodus 12:35-36) that they asked “…the Egyptians for silver and gold jewelry and clothing, as the Lord had made the Egyptians favorably disposed towards the people they let them have what they asked for. Thus they despoiled the Egyptians.” Nechama Leibowitz elaborates and comments that had this deed constituted the private initiative of the Israelites, who had been enslaved, exploited and downtrodden for two centuries. They had been accustomed to the taskmasters’ blows and the casting of their children into the river. Had it been related that they were incapable of taking advantage of the tidings of redemption because of “shortness of spirit and hard work,” that they went and did what they did, despoiling their oppressors and persecutors, no explanation would have been called for. The Torah describes the generation of the wilderness without any idealization, with all its slave mentality, ingratitude, lack of faith and longing for the fleshpots.
​​​​​​​
In this too, they would have been true to form. But this is not what is related here. On the contrary, Leibowitz reminds us that we are told that the deed they committed was not the fruit of their initiative, but was in response to an explicit, Divine command, transmitted through Moses.  In the verse in 11:2, Rashi enlightens us regarding the true significance of one small Hebrew word appended to the Divine expression of command; a word not usually found in the context of orders and precepts. He refers the word na, an expression of request corresponding to the English “please” and usually translated as “I pray thee,” but here rendered by the word “now”. Rashi comments as follows: Na in this context is an expression of request – please keep on reminding them, so that the righteous man, Abraham, should not say that God kept his promise of afflicting the Israelites (Gen. 15:13), but did not fulfill his promise that “afterward shall they come out with great substance” (IBID, 14).  Leibowitz concludes that at this early stage in Abraham’s time, the redemption was coupled with the forecast that the Israelite nation would go forth “with great substance.” Therefore, one must regard this transaction ( of taking the Egyptians’ jewels and possessions), not as the spontaneous, impulsive action of runaway slaves, but the deliberate implementation of a predetermined Divine plan, neither unforeseen nor unexpected.

Prepared by  Devorah Abenhaim

Parshat Vaera 5781

Parshat Vaera 5781

 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 makot. By hardening his own heart – he proved his intention – his lev shalem was to hurt the Israelites. 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 makot, 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 5781

Parshat Shemot 5781

Why, out of all places, did God reveal himself to Moshe (Moses) through the burning bush – sneh (Exodus 3:2)? One possibility is that the experience seems to be a microcosm of God’s ultimate revelation to the entire Jewish people. Note the similarity in sound between sneh and Sinai, the mountain where God speaks to the Jewish people. Indeed, the revelation at the sneh and Sinai occurred in the same place – the desert of Horev. Both unfolded through the medium of fire. At the sneh, it was a fire that was not consumed. (Exodus 3:2) At Sinai, it was a smoke that engulfed the entire mountain. (Exodus 19:18)

 

There are other approaches that understand the sneh as symbolic either of Egypt or the Jewish people. On the one hand it was akin to Egypt. Just as it is difficult to remove the hand from a thorn bush without lacerating the skin, so was it impossible to escape the “thorn bush” known as Egypt without some amount of pain and suffering. (Mekhilta, beginning of Shemot)

 

On the other hand, the sneh can be viewed as representative of the Jewish people. In Egypt, the Jews were stripped of all goods, feeling lowly, so low it was as if they were driven into the ground. The sneh is also simple without any fine branches or leaves and is so close to the ground.

 

Rabbi Avi Weiss explains: “But the meaning of sneh that resonates most powerfully sees the sneh as symbolic, not of Sinai or of Egypt or of Israel, but of God. As long as Jews were
enslaved, God could only reveal Himself in the lowly burning bush in the spirit of “I am with my people in their pain.” God cannot be in comfort as long as His people are in distress. (Rashi quoting Tanhuma 14). And we, created in God’s image, must emulate His ways. At times of suffering for our people, we must empathize with them. Empathy differs from sympathy. In sympathy I remain who I am and you remain who you are. The one feels for the other. Empathy means a merger of the two into one. Your pain is my pain, your suffering is my suffering and your joy is my joy. As we frequently hear of tragedies around the world, we dare not become desensitized to the horror which unfolds. For many it is business as usual. The sneh teaches it shouldn’t be this way. If God feels our anguish, so too should we feel the anguish of others. Only when feeling the pain will we, as God did here in the Book of Exodus, be impelled to act and do our share to bring relief and redemption to the suffering of our people.” 

 


Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim

 

Parshat Vayechi 5781

Parshat Vayechi 5781

Jacob gathers his 12 sons to receive a blessing. But first, Jacob calls upon two of his grandchildren – Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Menashe – to receive blessings. Why would Jacob place priority on blessing grandchildren over children? The commentators explain that even more than the joy of having children is the joy of having grandchildren. Why is this so? Most creatures in the world have parent-child relationships – whether it is a mother lion protecting her cubs or a mother bird feeding her young. But only the human being has a concept of grandchildren, of perpetuation beyond a single
generation. This is an effect of our spiritual soul which is rooted in infinity. Being a grandparent therefore connects us deeply to our uniqueness as human beings.

 

There is further significance to Jacob’s blessings. Rabbi Shraga Simmons explains that one of the most beautiful customs in Jewish life is for parents to bless their children at the start of the Friday night Shabbat meal. Girls receive the blessing: “May God make you like the matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.” Boys, meanwhile, are blessed “to be like Ephraim and Menashe.” What happened to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob Rabbi Simmons asks? Why were Ephraim and Menashe chosen instead as the subjects of this important tradition? In actuality, Ephraim and Menashe were the first set of Jewish brothers who did not fight. Abraham’s two sons – Isaac and Ishmael – could not get along, and their disagreement forms the basis of the Arab-Israeli conflict until today. The next generation of Isaac’s two sons – Jacob and Esav – was so contentious that Esav repeatedly sought to kill Jacob and instructed his descendants to do the same. And even the next generation of Jacob’s sons sold Joseph into slavery in Egypt. Ephraim and Menashe represent a break from this pattern. This explains why Jacob purposely switched his hands, blessing the younger Ephraim before the older Menashe. Jacob wished to emphasize the point that with these siblings, there is no rivalry. (See Genesis 48:13-14) It is with this thought that parents bless their children today. For there is no greater blessing than peace among brothers. The words of King David ring true: “How good and pleasant is it for
brothers to sit peacefully together.”(Psalms 133:1)

 

A further question arises regarding the blessing that Jacob gave Joseph’s sons. Why is so much emphasis placed upon Ephraim and Menashe when so little is known about them? It would seemingly make more sense to say, “May Hashem make you like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”, parallel to the blessing given to girls, “May Hashem make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.” Just like we bless our daughters to be like the Matriarchs, why don’t we bless our sons to be like the Patriarchs? 

 

Yoel Feilner, a graduate of yeshiva Atlanta, explains: Ephraim and Menashe grew up in the lap of Egyptian royalty. Their father, Joseph, was second in command of the greatest empire at that time. Their lives were drowned in Egyptian culture, making it very easy for them to assimilate. It is for this reason, explains Rabbi Yehudah Leib Ginzberg, the late rabbi of Denver, Colorado, that we bless our children to be like Ephraim and Menashe. Although they were raised in the foreign, hostile environment of Egypt, they did not assimilate. They remained true to their faith, even in a society filled with so many temptations. Jacob knew that in the future, his children, the Jewish people, would be spread around the world, often in difficult surroundings. Therefore, Jacob prayed that regardless of their situation, Jewish children should remain loyal to the Torah, just as Ephraim and Menashe did in Egypt.

 
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim

 

Parshat Vayigash 5781

Parshat Vayigash 5781

The Torah states, “Yosef said to them (his brothers) on the third day, ‘….let one of your brothers be
imprisoned in your place of confinement…Then bring your youngest brother to me so your words will be verified…” Yosef, the Viceroy of Egypt, imprisoned one of his brothers while the others went back to
Canaan and return with Binyamin. At that moment, they reflected upon their tenuous predicament and said, “Indeed we are guilty concerning our brother (Yosef) inasmuch as we saw his heartfelt anguish when he pleaded with us and we paid no heed; that is why this anguish has come upon us.” Sforno in his
commentary explains that Yosef’s brothers realized at that moment that their insensitivity towards their brother’s heartfelt supplications was in essence was cruelty. Although they believed that they had rendered a proper judgment concerning their brother, that he was a pursuer (rodeif) and deserved to be killed. He would ultimately cause their demise through his tale bearing to their father Yaakov. Nevertheless, they should have had mercy on him when he pleaded not to be sold into slavery. Because they had acted cruelly towards their brother Yosef, G-d (measure for measure) brought upon them in kind a heathen who was
acting cruelly towards them by accusing them of being spies and demanding that they must bring before him Binyamin. If in fact their evaluation of their brother’s behavior was correct and indeed he was a
pursuer and consequently putting their lives in jeopardy, why are they considered to be cruel. They did not see sufficient reason to heed his supplications? Their understanding of Yosef as a “pursuer” was not that he would actually attempt to physically bring harm upon them. But rather, they were concerned that his negative tale bearing would discredit them to their father Yaakov, who would ultimately curse them, which is the equivalent of death. However, if they had shown mercy to their brother Yosef and had been sensitive to his pleads, they would have merited Divine Protection that their father should always see them for what they truly were. Yaakov had been bereaved by the loss of Yosef for many years. When his sons returned from Egypt and explained that they needed to bring Binyamin before the Viceroy in order to prove that they were not spies, Yaakov had said to them, “May Almighty G-d grant you mercy…that he (the Viceroy) may release to you your brother as well as Binyamin. As for me, as I have been bereaved so I am bereaved.” It was imperative that Yosef’s brothers return with Binyamin safely. However, after the goblet had been
discovered in his sack, they had believed that they would not be able to bring about the safe return of
Binyamin. The pain that was going to come upon their father Yaakov was something that he would not be able to survive. When Yaakov’s children rent their garments because of Binyamin’s predicament, it was the first time that they had truly internalized the grief and suffering of their father that he had endured during all the years of Yosef’s absence. Since Binyamin was the catalyst through which Yosef’s brothers were able to have a sense of their father’s pain, his descendant Mordechai would have the sensitivity to internalize the calamity that had befallen the Jewish people. What was the value of being granted the ability to fully grasp and internalize the predicament of the Jewish people? Mordechai was the leading Torah sage of the
generation who had galvanized the Jewish people and united them in repentance. It was because of the depth of his understanding of the events that he was able to overturn the decree through his leadership and prevent the annihilation of his people and he brought about the destruction of their enemy, Amalek. Had Mordechai not been able to internalize the severity of their situation, he would have not been as effective to impact upon the masses as he had done. The verse in the Megillah of Esther tells us that he sat at the gate of the king wearing sackcloth and ash when he became aware of the decree to annihilate every Jewish man, woman, and child. Although it was inappropriate to present oneself in this state at the gate of the
palace, because Mordechai so consumed with the impending tragedy he was oblivious to this. His only focus at that moment was the future existence of the Jewish people. Just as Yosef’s brothers fully internalized the meaning of Binyamin not returning to their father Yaakov and thus experiencing their father’s
all-consuming pain, Mordechai, the grandson of Binyamin, merited a similar capacity.

 
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim

 

Parshat Miketz 5781

Parshat Miketz 5781

In this week’s parshah, the story of Joseph is continued. Last week’s parshah concluded with Joseph’s imprisonment and his interpretation of his cellmates’ dreams. Joseph, at the end of the parshah, asks the butler, who was set free, to remember him, and to put in a good word for him with Pharaoh.

 

We are told at the outset of the parshah that “it happened at the end of two years” (Genesis 41:1) that Pharaoh started dreaming strange dreams. The Or Hachayyim explains that the reason the Torah introduces this paragraph with the word ‘vayehee’, a word indicating an unhappy event, is that as of now, the exile of the Jewish people begins to unravel. EVEN THOUGH THIS EXILE HAD BEEN DECREED ALMOST TWO HUNDRED YEARS PREVIOUSLY, IT HAD NOT BEEN DECREED ANYWHERE THAT THIS EXILE HAD TO BE IN EGYPT. Moreover, this exile turned out to be more cruel than necessary in order to satisfy God’s decree (as is recorded by the Rabad in a glossary on Maimonides’ Hilchot Teshuvah ch.6). An additional reason for introducing this paragraph with the word ‘vayehee’ is that God announced that there would be a famine and God always shares the pain He inflicts on His world. Another explanation of this introductory word is that it reflects the mental anguish Joseph endured during the two years after the chief butler was released from jail. Originally, it had been intended that Joseph be released at that time (Bereishit Rabbah 89:2). He had to endure two additional years in jail because he had put his faith in a human being.

 

The Midrash on this verse understands the words “vayehee miketz” as indicating an end to darkness. ‘Ketz’ is also a word, which describes the evil urge. Accordingly, the Torah uses this word to allude to the reason that Joseph had to stay in jail another two years. These two years during which Joseph experienced mental anguish are counted as part of the Jewish people’s exile experience because the chief butler had neglected to remember Joseph favorable. The reason that not one but two years were decreed was because Joseph said both “if you would think of me” (Genesis 40:14), and “mention me to Pharaoh” (Genesis 40:14). He wanted to be remembered AND mentioned favorably. The wording ‘miketz shnatayim’ also means that it was on the second anniversary of the day the chief butler and the chief of the bakers had their dreams. When Joseph’s fortunes took a turn for the better this was to be related directly to the dreams, showing that the dream had correctly forecast what would happen.

 

Regarding the encounter between the brothers and Joseph, the Torah tells us that Joseph recognized his brothers, but that they did not recognize him. The Alshekh comments that it is remarkable that 10 intelligent people such as the brothers did not recognize Joseph, even accepting the Talmud Yevamot 88 that Joseph had not been bearded when he was thrown in the pit. At least, when bowing down to him, they should have been reminded of Joseph’s dream. This is especially the case since the bowing down occurred in the context of the dream, i.e. the presence of grain. The Torah explains this by emphasizing it was too hard to imagine that Joseph, whom they had sold as a slave to a country that never frees slaves, should have risen to the position of economic Czar in that country. They had allowed for two possible interpretations of Joseph’s dream. Either it presaged that he would be in a position of authority over them, or his harvest would be superior to theirs, and they would need what he had to offer. The present confrontation did not fit either interpretation, since a slave in Egypt does not become a ruler. Since Joseph supplied grain to everybody, this scenario did not fit their preconceived ideas either. For these reasons, the brothers did not connect their bowing down to the viceroy of Egypt with the dreams Joseph had dreamed 21 years ago. Besides, the second dream had shown 11 brothers plus mother and father bowing down to Joseph.

 

Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim