Parshat Vaera 5778

Parshat Vaera 5778

The ultimate manipulation in this Parshah is when we read that God seems to be in control of Pharaoh’s “heart.” At this juncture we understand how futile a battle with the Almighty really is. Pharaoh is strung along like a marionette on a string, performing as dictated by God.

 

A simple, often-asked question presents itself: How can God punish Pharaoh, if he was not even acting on his own volition? Furthermore, why did the Divine Plan need to include this violation of natural law — the suspension of Pharaoh’s freedom of choice?

 

As far as the second question goes, we appreciate that this can be posed regarding all of the plagues. There is a certain similarity between the plagues on the one hand and the limitation of Pharaoh’s freedom of choice on the other. One is a violation of nature, the other a violation of the nature of man.

 

The Midrash articulates this question, noting that it opens the door for heretical thoughts: Rabbi Yochanan said: “Does this not provide heretics with ground for arguing that he had no means of repenting, since it says: ‘for I have hardened his heart’? (Midrash Rabbah, Shmot 13:3) The Midrash provides an answer: To which Rabbi Shimon b. Lakish replied: “Let the mouths of the heretics be stopped up … when God warns a man once, twice, and even a third time, and he still does not repent, then does God close his heart against repentance so that He should exact vengeance from him for his sins. Thus it was with the wicked Pharaoh. Since God sent five times to him and he took no notice, God then said: ‘You have stiffened your neck and hardened your heart; well, I will add to your uncleanness.'” (Midrash Rabbah, Exodus 13:3)

 

Rabbi Ari Kahn explains this: ‘According to this response, the hardening of the heart was itself the punishment, and not, as we assumed, merely the impetus for Pharaoh’s actions for which he was ultimately punished. The punishment Pharaoh actually receives is quite exact, measure for measure: Just as Pharaoh had closed his heart and ignored God, now Pharaoh was punished by losing the sensitivity of his heart, which he had hardened himself.’

 

The Lubavitcher Rebbe comments on the passage when the rods of Pharaoh and Aaron turn to serpents: ‘The Torah’s “ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace” (Proverbs 3:17)—our task is to create light, not to battle darkness. Nevertheless, there are times when we are forced to resort to battle, when we must vanquish those who seek to vanquish us. Thus Moses, the gentle shepherd of Israel, and Aaron, the ultimate man of peace, find themselves in the role of “judge and chastiser of Pharaoh,” crushing the might of Egypt and obliterating its icons and myths.

Therein lies the lesson to be derived from the fact that Aaron’s rod swallowed the “serpents of the Egyptians” after it had reverted back to its original form, rather than as a serpent itself. For even when he wages war, the Jew is not a warrior. Even when he consumes the serpents of the enemy, he is not a serpent himself, spewing poison and hate. His instrument of vengeance is as devoid of vengeful feeling as a petrified rod, as cold to the rage of war as a lifeless stick.’

Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim

Parshat Vayechi 5778

Parshat Vayechi 5778

“….And his sons carried him….”  Bereishit 50:13.

Rashi notes that Yaakov’s coffin was carried by all but two of his sons, Levi and Yosef, who were replaced by Menasheh and Ephraim instead. “Levi shall not carry it because he (i.e., his tribe) is destined to carry the Aron. Yosef shall not carry it because he is a king.”

Rabbi Alon Anava explains:  “Carrying the Aron, however, did not preclude Levi from carrying all coffins, as we find that Moshe, a member of the tribe of Levi, carried Yosef’s coffin when the Jews were leaving Egypt. Evidently, the carrying of these two coffins from Egypt represented two very different ideas, one of which conflicted with Levi’s future as bearer of the Aron while the other did not.  For as long as Yaakov lived, his presence in Egypt prevented the enslavement of his family to the Egyptians on any level. Thus, Yaakov’s passing and the transfer of his body from Egypt marked the early beginnings of the Jewish people’s slavery (see Rashi on Beraishis 47:28).   Levi and his tribe, however, were never subject to the slave labor (see Rashi, Shemos 5:4). As the commentaries explain, when Pharaoh originally came to recruit the people to “join him” in the work effort, the tribe of Levi didn’t join as they reasoned it wasn’t appropriate to participate in building Pharaoh’s cities when one day they would be the ones to carry the holy Aron. Consequently, when Pharaoh later forced his original workers into slave labor, the tribe of Levi was not affected by that decree (see Baalei Hatosfos, Shemos 1:13). It was therefore unsuitable for Levi, who “transcended” the Egyptian bondage, to take part in carrying Yaakov’s coffin – a stage in the slavery’s development: “Levi shall not carry it because he is destined to carry the Aron.” Carrying the coffin of Yosef, on the other hand, marked the redemption from Egypt, as Yosef had assured the Jews that “G-d will surely remember you, and you shall bring up my bones from here with you (Shemos 13:19).” It follows that the most suitable to carry Yosef’s coffin – a symbol of the Redemption – was Moshe, the head of the tribe of Levi, and the Redeemer of the Jewish people.’

When Joseph went up with his brothers to bury Jacob, “they came to the threshing floor of Atad (= bramble)” (Gen. 50:10). According to Rashi, “It was surrounded by brambles. All the kings of Canaan and princes of Ishmael came to war, but when they saw the crown of Joseph hung on Jacob’s ARON (= Ark), they all stood and hung their crowns and surrounded him with crowns from the threshing-floor which was surrounded by a fence of brambles. The kings and Canaan and princes of Ishmael were confounded by the ARON, the holy ark of Jacob, crowned with the crown of Joseph.

Rabbi Yehoshua Greenbaum comments: “According to tradition, this took place on during Chanukah-time. Jacob’s HISTALKUS (ascent) was on 15th Tishri, the first night of Succos. The Egyptians wept for him seventy days, upon which Joseph and his brothers went up to Israel to bury him. The seventieth day after 15th of Tishri is 25th Kislev, the first day of Chanukah. The initial letters of the four Hebrew words in the verse “and the dweller of the land of the Canaanite saw” are the permutation of the name of HaShem that holds sway in the month of Kislev (see Kavanos of Rosh Chodesh Musaf prayers). There is an integral conceptual connection between Jacob’s funeral procession and Chanukah, which is the time of the inauguration of the Temple. Jacob’s twelve sons, the holy House of Israel, under the leadership of Joseph the Tzaddik, were taking Jacob — the archetypal House-Builder — to his final, eternal house and home in the Cave of Machpelah, the resting place of Adam and Eve as well as the patriarchs and matriarchs. The funeral procession was a “rehearsal” for the formation in which the twelve tribes would would bring the Ark of the Covenant up from the wilderness and into the Holy Land. This is paradigmatic of the building of the Holy Temple, the House of G-d on the spot where Jacob had his dream of the ladder: “This is none other than the House of G-d and this is the Gate of Heaven” (Gen. 28:17). That place is alluded to in the opening word of the Torah, BEREISHIS, the letters of which, when re-arranged, spell out BAYIS ROSH, the House that is Head (=Tefilin shel Rosh). It was to that place that Joseph promised his brothers that they would return from Egypt: “G-d will surely redeem you and bring you up from this land to the Land which He swore to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob” (Gen. 50:24).”

Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim

Parshat Vayigash 5778

Parshat Vayigash 5778

In this week’s Parsha we learn of the reunion of Jacob with his beloved son Yosef. Yosef had become elevated to a position of ruler ship second only to Pharaoh. When his brothers emigrated from the land of Canaan with their father, Yosef knew that Pharaoh would call for them. He advised them how to answer Pharaoh who would ask them what their occupation was. What was his advice? He told them to say that they were herdsman. This would insure that they would be given the good grazing land of Goshen to live on. Good grazing land for herdsman? This sounds as if they were being given deferential treatment in their new host country. In actual fact the sons of Yaakov were being separated from the local population. They would be despised as herdsman since the Egyptians worshipped sheep as gods. In what way then, was Yosef’s advise beneficial to his brothers?

Rabbi Dovid Green relates the following: “Dr. Asher Wade tells a very interesting story which sheds light on our question. Dr. Wade’s extensive Holocaust studies have made him a key lecturer at Yad V’shem, He notes that he finds it intriguing to note the reactions many people have to his mode of dress which is that of a Chasidic Jew. In his story he describes how a young woman paused as she made her way past him. She looked at him with tremendous disdain and jadedly accused him saying “it’s people like YOU who caused the Holocaust to happen”. She based her statement on the premise that being different makes others hate you. That of course makes assimilation the best defense against anti-Semitism. He simply asked her in return, “tell me, where did the Nazi hatred start? In Eastern Europe where so many Jews were still strongly identifiable as Jews, or in Austria and Germany where the Jews were largely assimilated?” She stood there, taking a moment longer to think than she had the first time she spoke. She then quickly continued down the isle saying “well, you just leave me alone and I’ll do the same for you,” which sounds very much like: “don’t confuse me with the facts, I’ve made up my mind!” We learn that when the time for the exodus from Egypt came, 210 years after Jacob arrived, the Children of Israel had become barely recognizable as a separate nation. Slavery and oppression had taken it’s toll. The only aspects which had been retained to distinguish them from their Egyptian neighbors were their uniquely Jewish style of dress, their Hebrew language, and their continued use of Jewish names. All other aspects of Egyptian life, among them idol worship and the laxity in performing circumcision, had slowly washed away their Jewish identity. Though the family of Yaakov came to Egypt to escape the raging famine which was then devastating Canaan and the surrounding area, the Egyptian society was not theirs. Through the advise to his brothers, Yosef was actually insuring the continuity of all future Jewish generations until today. If the original tiny settlement of 70 Jews had been welcomed and settled in the heart of Egyptian culture and norms from day one, how long would it have taken for them to have assimilated completely, disappearing as Jews altogether? Yosef, with his foresight and caring for the future of G-d’s nation, saw what steps to take and followed through. Yes, his family would be separate and distinct. Yes, they would be hated. They would also make it to the end of the Egyptian exile with the last vestiges of their identity intact, namely their Jewish names and mode of dress. The existence of a last tiny flame of Jewish identity insured that there was a nation left to be taken out of bondage. That tiny flame would later be ignited into a glorious torch through the giving of the Torah. It may have appeared at the time that Yosef was the hater. In actuality he had expressed the greatest love through his seemingly strange advise. Without Yosef having arranged that they would be distinct, they would surely have been loved…to death through assimilation.

Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim

 

Parshat Miketz 5778

Parshat Miketz 5778

Pharaoh dreamt two disturbing dreams and all his wise men failed to interpret them to his satisfaction. Pharaoh’s chief butler had previously been in the same jail as Joseph, where Joseph successfully interpreted his dreams. The butler now suggests that Pharaoh seek the advice of Joseph. Note how the butler recommends Joseph’s talents to Pharaoh:

“And there was with us there (in jail) a Hebrew lad (na’ar), a slave to the Captain of the Guard and we told him (our dreams), and he interpreted to us our dreams; to each man according to his dream he interpreted.” (Genesis 41:12).

What lesson for life can we learn from analyzing the butler’s words?

Rashi comments on the butler’s statement to Pharaoh: “Cursed be the wicked, for even their goodness is not complete. The butler praises Joseph’s ability, but in contemptuous terms:

  1. na’ar (a lad): a fool, and not fit for greatness;
  2. Hebrew: he doesn’t even know our language;
  3. a slave: and it is written in the statutes of Egypt that a slave cannot rule nor don royal garments.”

Rabbi Yeruchem Levovitz comments that the butler actually meant to speak well of Joseph, for Joseph had been kind to him. Nevertheless, a completely favorable statement will never emerge from the lips of a wicked person. Even when praising someone, he will off-handedly add a derogatory comment.

Rabbi Zelig Pliskin explains: ‘Every person should check his own behavior with regard to this pitfall. When you speak favorably of someone, do you habitually add something unfavorable? For example: “She is very charitable, and always makes sure that people know it” or “He’s very kindhearted now, but you should have seen him five years ago.” We must pay attention to what comes out of our mouths at all times. Otherwise, there might be unforeseen consequences.

Pharaoh said to Joseph: “In my dream, I am standing on the bank of the River. And behold, there come out of the River seven cows . . .” (41:17–18)

The Lubavitcher Rebbe comments: ‘In contrast, Joseph saw in his dream (recounted in the beginning of the previous Parshah) that “we were binding sheaves in the field . . .” Both Pharaoh and Joseph behold the future in their dreams, but with a significant difference. To Pharaoh life is a river, with himself standing on the riverbank—outside of its flow, a passive bystander to what transpires. To Joseph, life is a field within which he toils, laboring at “binding sheaves”—gathering its diverse stalks and binding them into an integral whole. Many are seduced by the enticements of Pharaonic life. “We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free,” the children of Israel grumbled (Numbers 11:5) when G‑d had stripped them of the shackles and security of slavery. Life is a free lunch in Pharaoh’s Egypt; there are no choices in your life, but neither is there the anxiety and responsibility they entail. You simply stand on the riverbank and watch the cows and years follow and consume one another. Pharaoh’s vision may be every vegetable’s utopia, but there is little satisfaction and no fulfillment in his free fish. It is only in the toilsome labor in the field of life that the most important freedom of all is to be found: the freedom to achieve and create.’

Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim

 

Parshat Vayeshev 5778

Parshat Vayeshev 5778

Parashat Vayeshev recounts the story of Joseph and his brothers.  Jacob loved Joseph and favored him over all his other sons. He made him a special ornamental coat, symbolic of this favoritism. Joseph’s brothers became jealous and hateful of Joseph. To make matters worse, Joseph tells his brothers about his two dreams that portrayed him as superior to them. This only causes the brothers to hate him more. This hatred grows and grows, to the point where they plot to kill him, throw him in a pit and end up selling him into slavery to traveling merchants.  In the course of this story, the Torah states in chapter 27, verse 4 “They hated him and could not speak peaceably to him.” Clearly, the brothers had so much anger they could not even find a way to speak to him cordially or in a peaceful way. This is quite a bold statement. We are talking about flesh and blood brothers who relationship was so strained that they could not even find one kind word to share to help deflate tension and hatred in a peaceful way.

Rabbi Brad Horwitz of St.Louis comments: “I came across a commentary from Rabbi Yonatan Aibshitz, a chief Rabbi of Alton, Hamburg in the 18th century. He wrote, ‘If they [the brothers and Joseph] were to have spoken with one another, they would have made peace. The main deterrent in every dispute is when there is no communication and one side refuses to listen to the other. If mankind knew how to communicate they would see there is no basis for dispute.’ Rabbi Aibshitz makes an incredible insight about the nature of human behavior.  Conflict can only be resolved by meaningful dialogue where both parties are active listeners. Unfortunately, people often do a poor job of active listening when attempting to communicate. In order for true peace and reconciliation to happen it is incumbent on both Joseph and his brothers to both communicate and listen, something that did not happen.”

The first word of the Torah portion, from which its name comes, sets the stage. Vayeshev, meaning “and he dwelled,” referring to Ya’akov, in another verbal form becomes va’y’yashev, meaning “and he made peace.” Rabbi Victor Weinstein explains: “We can simply dwell, or, aware of our actions and their consequences, we can dwell more deeply, making peace in the place where we dwell. Showing favoritism to Yosef, Ya’akov sowed seeds of jealousy and discord between Yosef and his brothers. Simmering over time, unholy sparks of jealousy were fanned into flames of hatred and violence. Thrown into a pit and reported to his father as dead, Yosef is eventually sold into slavery and comes down into Egypt in chains. In a fascinating commentary by Moshe Ben Yisrael Habagi, in his Torah volume called Chochmat HaMatzpun/The Wisdom of Conscience, we are guided to look honestly at the lives of our ancestors and to learn from negative example as well as positive. Of the brothers’ behavior we are told, ‘it is a matter both ancient and new.’ It is about our world, as well as theirs. Condemning their deed as “horrible, such a sin, such cruelty,” the writer then condemns Ya’akov for fostering such insensitivity in his sons through the favoritism of one. Helping us to see ‘the Torah of nonviolence,’ the commentator bids us look beneath the surface and see Torah as a guide for living in the world beyond the text: A Torah of truth that does not whitewash the deeds of the great and beloved ones…, the Torah of life teaches us that we are to learn from our holy ancestors – even from their perversions and shortcomings.”

It was told to Tamar: Behold, your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep (38:13) The Lubavitcher Rebbe offers his insights on this verse: “The town of Timnah is thus the prototype for all of life’s destinations. One never simply goes to Timnah; one either ascends or descends to it. The same is true of the journey of life. There are no two parallel points on the slope of human development, where every step is either a step up or a step down from its predecessor. This is also the lesson implicit in the lights of Chanukah (which always falls in proximity to the Torah reading of Vayeishev). One who kindles a single flame on the first night of the festival observes the mitzvah of kindling the Chanukah lights in the most optimal manner possible. But to kindle that same flame on the following night is not only a failure to increase light, but a decline in relation to yesterday’s achievement: on the second night of Chanukah, a single flame represents a less-than-optimal observance of the mitzvah. For in the diagonal trajectory of life, our every deed and endeavor either elevates or lowers us in relation to our prior station.”

Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim

Parshat Vayishlach 5778

Parshat Vayishlach 5778

“Rescue me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Eisav.” (32:12)

Yaakov’s only brother was Eisav; why did he specify “The hand of my brother, the hand of Eisav”?Yaakov had two fears; physical and spiritual. Firstly, if Eisav and his army attacked him, he might be overpowered and killed. Secondly, if he became friendly with him, Eisav would be a bad influence on Yaakov’s family. Therefore, he prayed, “Rescue me from the hand of my brother,” that he should not harm them spiritually, through becoming a “brother” and good friend of the family. Also, he prayed that the vicious “hand” of Eisav should not attack and, G‑d forbid, physically harm the family.

The Gemara (Berachot 30b) says that when one is in the midst of prayer, even if the king greets him and inquires about his wellbeing or even if a snake is wound round his heel, he should not interrupt his prayers. In view of the abovementioned, this halachah can be explained metaphorically. Rabbi Shmuel Pesach Bagimilsky explains: “Throughout the long galut (exile), the Jewish people are confronted with basically two types of experiences: Sometimes we experience a seemingly benevolent government which expresses interest in our welfare and grants us equal rights. In other instances, governments encircle the Jewish people like a snake. We are oppressed, herded into ghettos, and suffer from the many restrictions placed upon us. Our wise sages are teaching us that, regardless how the situation appears, we should not disrupt our prayers. At all times we must continue to pray to Hashem that He liberate us from galut immediately.”

“And his eleven children.” (32:23) Rashi asks, “Where was Dinah?” Rashi gives the answer that she was hidden in a box and, therefore, was not counted. How does Rashi know that the reference to eleven children does not include the daughter Dinah? Perhaps it does not include one of the sons? The Kol Eliyahu comments: “One of the reasons why the Beit Hamikdash was built in Jerusalem on the land of Binyamin is that he was not born when Yaakov met Eisav and, thus, did not bow down to Eisav (Yalkut Mei’am Loez, Devarim 33:12). When Yaakov met Eisav, he had eleven sons and one daughter. If we should say that the eleven children included Dinah and one of the sons was hidden in the box, then that child would deserve that the Beit Hamikdash be built on his land more than Binyamin; because he was already born and did not bow down to Eisav, while Binyamin was not even born at the time. Therefore, Rashi knew that the missing child had to be Dinah, who did not get a share of Eretz Yisrael.”

“And Yaakov was left alone; and a man wrestled with him, until the break of the dawn. And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh.” (32:25-26)Why did the angel wrestle with Yaakov and not with Avraham or Yitzchak? Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman explains:  “The world stands upon three pillars: Torah study, service of Hashem (prayer), and acts of kindness. Each of the three patriarchs was the prototype of one of these pillars. Avraham excelled in chesed — kindness. Yitzchak was associated with prayer, as the pasuk states: “Vayeitzei Yitzchak lasuach basadeh” — “And Yitzchak went out to meditate in the field” (24:63). Yaakov was “ish tam yosheiv ohalim” — “a sincere man, dwelling in tents” (25:27). He spent his time in the “tents” of Torah. The “man” who wrestled with Yaakov was the angel of Eisav. He was the adversary of the Jewish people, and striving to bring about, G‑d forbid, their destruction. Of the three patriarchs he had little fear of Avraham because the continuity of the Jewish people (Yiddishkeit) cannot be contingent on acts of kindness such as building hospitals for the sick and homes for the aged. Nor can the posterity of the Jewish people (Yiddishkeit) be assured through people reciting their prayers on a daily basis. The secret of our existence is the study of Torah and teaching it to our children as soon as they are of age to understand it. Thus, by obstructing the study of Torah, the representative of Eisav hoped to jeopardize the continuity of the Jewish people. This battle is a never ending one, and even when unable to topple Yaakov himself, Eisav tries to “wrestle” with “kaf yereicho” — “the hollow of his thigh” — which represents the children and future generations of Yaakov. [When the Torah enumerates the family of Yaakov, it calls them “yotzei yereicho” — “[who] came out of his thighs” (46:26).]

 

Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim