Post Archive for December 2009

Parashas Vayechi

After Yaakov’s death, Yosef’s brothers said to themselves (Bereishis 50:15): “Perhaps Yosef will harbor a grudge against us, and then he will repay us all the evil we did him.” To clarify what the brothers were afraid of, the Maggid turns to a Gemara in Yoma 22b-23a: “Any Torah scholar who does not harbor a grudge and take revenge like a snake [for an affront to his honor, which is an affront to the Torah itself] is not a [true] Torah scholar.” The Gemara explains that the revenge referred to is not active retaliation; rather, it is refraining from protecting the offender from retribution carried out by others, or by Hashem. Similarly, the brothers’ fear was not that Yosef would actively launch an attack on them, but rather that he would not protect them from a threat they saw looming ahead. The brothers felt that, with Yaakov having passed away, the Egyptians’ attitude toward them was taking a negative turn. They feared that the Egyptians would move against them, and that Yosef would not take steps to save them. He would then be indirectly repaying him for the evil they did him.
The Maggid draws a parallel between this episode and a verse concerning our relationship with Hashem (Tehillim 44:10): “[We were loyal to You] even when You ignored us and disgraced us, and You did not go forth with our legions.” On occasion Hashem punishes us by witholding His providential care from us, and, so to speak, ignoring us. When He does so, He exposes us to attack from evildoers, and thus, by “standing aside,” causes us to fall to disgrace. Elsewhere, Dovid HaMelech exclaims (Tehillim 28:1): “Unto You, Hashem, I cry out – My Rock, be not deaf to me, for should You be silent toward me I would be like those who descend to the grave.” Here, Dovid notes that a halt in Divine protection automatically leads to doom, and pleads with Hashem not to consign him to this fate.
The brothers seek forgiveness from Yosef, and Yosef responds (Bereishis 50:19-20): “Fear not, for am I in place of God? And although You meant to harm me, Hashem meant it for good – in order to cause, as is clear as day, a vast people to be sustained.” The Maggid explains this response through an analogy. Suppose a bit of black ink splashes onto a white garment. If the owner tries to clean it using an amount of cleanser comparable to the amount of ink that hit the garment, the black stain will remain. But if the owner uses a large amount of cleanser, much more than the amount of offending ink, he then will be able to make the garment like new. Similarly, Yosef told the brothers that the good that sprung from their act of selling him was much greater than the bad intent they had when they committed the act. They meant harm only to him, but their act brought salvation to a vast people. This tremendous benefit totally purged the negative aspect of what they did. 
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayiggash

The Torah says that when Yaakov saw the wagons Yosef sent at Pharaoh’s direction to bring him and his family to Egypt, his spirit was revived. What was it about these wagons that heartened Yaakov so much? The Midrash explains that the wagons (agalos) were a hint to the topic of eglah arufah, the last Torah topic Yaakov and Yosef learned together before Yosef was taken to Egypt. The Maggid discusses this explanation, and then offers an alternate one, relating to the actual wagons rather than what they alluded to.
The Maggid builds his second explanation on a parable. A certain Sephardic community hired an Ashekenazi Torah scholar as their community rabbi. They would have preferred as Sephardi rabbi, but they had no choice, because the Ashkenazi scholar was, among the available candidates, by far the most qualified in terms of piety, wisdom, and scholarship. They agreed to send him a coach to assist him in the move, but, due to the tension between Sephardim and Ashkenazim, they did not want him to bring his entire family. Instead, he told the teacher he should bring his wife and younger children, but leave his older children behind. Accordingly, the coach they sent him was a small one, with room only for a few people.
Now, when Pharaoh told Yosef to bring his father to Egypt, it could have been for either of two reasons. He might have been simply trying to accommodate Yosef. Or, perhaps, out of admiration for Yosef’s fine character, Pharaoh himself wanted Yosef’s father to come. Yaakov initially was not sure which was the actual reason, but the wagons provided the answer. Had Pharaoh been simply making a grudging accommodation to Yosef, he would have sent just one small wagon. But, instead, Pharaoh sent a grand caravan of wagons for Yaakov’s entire extended family, and made sure these wagons would be delivered in his name. Upon seeing this grand caravan, Yaakov knew that Pharaoh must have been impressed with Yosef’s character.  This realization is what revived Yaakov’s spirit.
The Maggid goes on to relate this idea to how Hashem will act toward us at the time of the final redemption in the end of days. The final redemption is certain to come, but the way it will come depends on circumstances. The two possible scenarios are reflected in two prophecies about the redemption. Yeshayah 66:20 describes Hashem bringing all of us back “with horses, chariots, covered wagons, and mules.” On the other hand, in Zechariah 9:9, Moshiach is described as “a humble man riding on a donkey.” These two scenarios correspond to the two possible reasons for which the redemption can be launched: either in our own merit, or for the sake of Hashem’s glory. If we Jews act on the whole in a manner that is pleasing to Hashem, devoting ourselves to Torah and mitzvos, then the redemption will come in our own merit. In this case, Hashem will redeem all of us in the grand style that Yeshayah describes. But, if, on the whole we are wayward, with only a small segment among us cleaving to Torah and mitzvos, then the redemption will be a humbler one, limited to this small segment alone.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Mikeitz

This week’s parashah begins with the episode of Pharaoh’s dreams. Pharaoh called in his wise men to interpret the dreams, but they were unable to do so satisfactorily. Yosef then was brought in, and he interpreted the dreams correctly. In Bereishis Rabbah 89:6, the Midrash relates that the wise men intepreted the dreams in a grossly erroneous way: “The seven goodly cows portend that you will beget seven daughers, while the seven sickly cows portend that you will bury seven daughters. The seven goodly stalks portend that you will conquer seven kingdoms, while the seven withered stalks portend that seven prefects will rebel against you.” Pharaoh sensed that their interpretation was wrong, and he therefore sought another one, which Yosef provided.
This Midrash prompts a glaring question: Why did the wise men offer such a far-flung interpretation, rather than the obvious interpretation of plenty and famine, which was the correct one? The Maggid explains that the wise men were accustomed to this method of interpretation, because it is the typical way that dreams are intepreted. Dreams are like prophecies, which usually reflect what will happen in the distant future. Now, various outcomes are possible, depending on circumstances. A dream, therefore, is usually only a vague hint, open to multiple meanings. Interpreters thus take an abstract approach. The situation with Pharaoh’s dreams, however, was an exception. The two dreams were of a similar nature, and appeared one right after the other. Pharaoh’s wise men, who were not really so sharp, missed this pattern. But Yosef, with his Divinely-inspired wisdom, noticed it and realized, as he told Pharaoh, that the dreams would come to fruition very soon. Hence, the dreams were not vague hints, but literal portrayals of what would come to be, and Yosef intepreted them accordingly.
Yosef then advised Pharaoh to appoint a wise and understanding man to take charge of the preparations for the approaching events. Many commentators ask: What led Yosef to offer unsolicited advice? We can ask further: Why did Pharaoh’s wise men view Yosef’s advice with favor? And why was their approval to Yosef’s credit? The Maggid explains with a parable. A certain king’s son fell gravely ill. The king called in his medical experts, who tried various sophisticated remedies, but failed to cure the boy. The king then issued a general call for aid throughout his entire kingdom. Now, there was a doctor in the royal capital who, although virtually unknown, was very sharp. He came to the palace to offer his services. He examined the boy, and saw that he could cure him with some common herbs. At the same time, he realized that if he proposed such a regimen he would be ridiculed, after the experts had failed with more sophisticated remedies. So he said to the king: “Your Majesty, your son can be cured with some simple herbs, but you will need someone with great skill to prepare them properly.” The king’s experts were pleased with this advice, for each of them figured that he would be the one chosen to prepare the herbs. Similarly, Pharaoh’s wise men offered a sophisticated interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams, while Yosef offered a simple one, but he then shrewdly proposed a plan that would lead the wise men to view his approach with favor.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Chanukah – Thanking and Praising Hashem

A central theme of Chanukah is our duty to thank and praise Hashem – l’hodos ul’hallel. During Chanukah we focus on thanking and praising Hashem for the miraculous victory over our oppressors and the miracle of the menorah oil. Yet, in truth, through the ordinary operation of the world, Hashem is doing wondrous kindnesses for us all the time. We can thus take the observance of Chanukah as an opportunity to rejuvenate our enthusiasm for thanking and praising Hashem for the everyday wonders and blessings He provides us.
In Bereishis Rabbah 8:1, the Midrash teaches that man was the last to be created, and also appears last in the chorus of praise to Hashem. In support of the latter point, the Midrash cites Tehillim 148, a psalm we say every day in Pesukei D’Zimra, which describes this chorus of praise. The psalm begins with the heavenly realm: the angels, the sun, the moon, the stars, and so on. It then continues with the earthly realm: the sea and its creatures; fire, hail, snow, and wind; mountains, hills, and trees; animals, insects, and birds. Finally comes man: the nations of the world with their kings, officers, and judges; men and women, the old and the young.
The Maggid, in Ohel Yaakov, parashas Bereishis, expounds on this Midrash. He explains that man was created last because he incorporates the traits of all other creations. As the Zohar on parashas Bereishis says, man is a “miniature universe,” encompassing all the rest of creation. The Maggid then goes on to explain why man appears last in the chorus of praise.
He brings out the point through an analogy to a nobleman who goes traveling with his entire household, his family and all his servants, and spends some time in an inn. The servants dine on modest fare, and accumulate limited expenses, while the nobleman and his family dine on delicacies and accumulate enormous expenses. When the time comes to settle up with the innkeeper, the nobleman asks him for an itemized bill showing the charges for each member of his party. He then collects from the servants the modest sum charged for what they consumed, adds the large sum charged for what he and his family consumed, and pays the innkeeper on behalf of the entire group.
Man is a nobleman whose “household” comprises all the other creations of the world – which, as our Sages teach, are all servants of man (Kiddushin 82b). Now, the entire world owes Hashem praise for what He provides. Yet, except for man, the creations of the world can express only limited praise. They lack free will and the power of speech. Man, who possesses these special assets, can express more meaningful praise. Moreover, man is the master over all other creations, and is endowed with all their traits. He therefore has the duty to pay Hashem the balance of the praise He is due. Man is mentioned last in Tehillim 148 because he brings the world’s praise to Hashem to its fitting completion. When man praises Hashem with his entire being, it is if the entire world is offering Hashem the grandest praise.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayishlach

This week’s parashah describes Yaakov’s encounter with Eisav upon returning from Charan. The Midrash relates (Bereishis Rabbah 75:13):
Yaakov saw Eisav coming from a distance. He lifted his eyes upward, cried, and prayed to Hashem for mercy. Hashem heard his prayer and promised to save him from all his troubles in the merit of Yaakov, as it is written (Tehillim 20:2): “Hashem shall answer you on the day of trouble; the Name of the God of Yaakov shall raise you on high.”
The Maggid raises the following questions.
1. Why does the Midrash make a point of noting that Eisav was coming “from a distance”?
2. What information is the Midrash conveying by saying that Yaakov prayed to Hashem? Would we have thought he might do otherwise?
3. What does it mean that Yaakov will be saved in the merit of Yaakov?
The Maggid explains with a parable. In a certain village, many of the residents were stricken with various diseases, but there was no doctor in the village to care for them. The only doctor available was the local baron’s doctor in the provincial capital some distance away. Now, in the village lived a man who was a close friend of the baron. This man had been healthy, but one day he got a minor headache. It was an ailment that he could have taken care of on his own, but instead he let it go until his situation got serious. The villagers then sent a message to the baron that his friend was sick, and the baron sent the doctor. The man’s family asked him why he acted as he did, and he replied: “I know I could have originally taken care of my illness myself. But I deliberately let it go in order to get the baron to send his doctor here. Now the other sick people in the village can also be treated.”
The parallel is as follows. Yaakov’s prayer to Hashem was a plea for miraculous Divine help. Yet, he did not need an extraordinary level of Divine help for the encounter with Eisav that he was facing at the moment. He had come back from Charan with a considerable force, sufficient to overcome Eisav’s, and it would have been enough for him to ask Hashem for success in the battle within His ordinary operation of the world. Why, then, did he pray for miraculous help? The answer is that he saw Eisav coming “from a distance” – that, in the future, Eisav’s descendants would threaten to decimate his descendants. He therefore deliberately prayed for miraculous Divine providence, in order to make such miraculous providence available for his descendants. This is what the Midrash means when it says that Yaakov will be saved in the merit of Yaakov – Hashem grants us, the Nation of Yaakov, miraculous protection against the Nation of Eisav, in the merit of the special prayer of our forefather Yaakov.
David Zucker, Site Administrator