Post Archive for December 2011

Parashas Vayiggash

This week’s parashah opens with Yehudah’s plea to the viceroy of Egypt (whom he did not know to be his own brother Yosef) to free Binyamin and take him as a slave in Binyamin’s stead. Yehudah reviews some of the family background, including Yosef’s apparent death, and then says (Bereishis 44:30-31): “And now, when I come to your servant my father, and the lad [Binyamin] is not with us – since his [my father’s] soul is bound up with his [the lad’s] soul – it will come to pass, when he sees that the lad is not with us, that he will die, and your servants will have brought the gray hairs of your servant our father with sorrow down to the grave.” The Maggid asks why Yehudah includes the phrase “when he sees that the lad with not with us.” The phrase appears unnecessary, for the message seemingly would get across well enough without it: “When I come your servant my father, and the lad is not with us – since his [my father’s] soul is bound up with his [the lad’s] soul – it will come to pass that he will die.” The Maggid also asks on what grounds Yehudah argues, as suggested by the phrase “and now” at the beginning of the quoted segment, that what he had said up to that point proved conclusively that Yaakov would die if the brothers returned without Binyamin.
The Maggid explains that Yehudah was apparently seeking to pre-empt a possible counterargument that the viceroy whom he stood before might make. The viceroy might claim that the only reason Yaakov cherished Binyamin so much was because of his exemplary conduct (following in his forefathers’ footsteps), but once he heard that Binyamin had been caught stealing his silver goblet, Yaakov’s esteem for Binyamin would dissipate entirely and he would feel no sorrow over losing him. On the contrary, Yaakov, given his own saintliness, would regard Binyamin as an embarrassment. Yehudah therefore astutely presented facts that would nullify such a claim. He said (ibid. 44:20-29):
We said to my lord: “We have a father, an old man, and a young child of his old age; his brother is dead, and he alone is left from his mother, and his father loves him.” And you said to your servants: “Bring him down to me, that I may set my eye on him.” And we said to my lord: “The lad cannot leave his father, for if he should leave his father, he [his father] would die.” … And our father said: “Go back, buy us a little food.” And we said: “We cannot go down. If our youngest brother will be with us, then will we go down, for we may not see the man’s face unless our youngest brother is with us.” And your servant my father said to us: “You know that my wife bore me two sons; one left me, and I said to myself, ‘Surely he has been torn to pieces,’ and I have not seen him since. And if you take this one also from me, and harm befalls him, you will bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave. “
Yehudah was pointing out that Yaakov feared deeply that Binyamin would meet the same tragic end as his brother Yosef, and that from the moment Binyamin left home to go to Egypt with his brothers he was gripped with worry that Binyamin would not return. And he was telling the viceroy that, this being so, “when he sees that the lad with not with us” – the very second he sees that Binyamin is missing – Yaakov will die instantly, for he will automatically conclude that Binyamin had been killed. There would be no chance to tell Yaakov what had actually happened, and thus no chance for Yaakov’s attachment to Binyamin to be dissolved by hearing Binyamin had been found guilty of theft.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Mikeitz

In this week’s parashah we read about how Yaakov’s ten oldest sons traveled to Egypt to buy food, and received tough treatment from the Egyptian viceroy – who, unknown to them, was their brother Yosef whom they had sold into slavery years before. As the sons prepared to make their second trip to Egypt, this time with the youngest brother Binyamin, Yaakov gave them the following blessing (Bereishis 43:14): “May God Almighty (Ei­-l Shadd-ai) grant you mercy before the man.” The Midrash remarks (Bereishis Rabbah 92:1):
R. Pinchas expounded in the name of R. Hoshaia: “‘Fortunate is the man who is chastised by Y-ah’ (Tehillim 94:12). Here, Hashem’s four-letter name is not used, but rather specifically the name Y-ah. It is a like a person who is being sentenced by a judge and cries out in agony: ‘Yaah, yaah – enough (dai), enough.’ Thus said Yaakov: ‘May the One who in the future will say “enough” to affliction now say “enough” to my afflictions.’”
The Midrash remarks further (Bereishis Rabbah 92:3):
R. Yoshia ben Levi interpreted Yaakov’s statement as referring to the exiles. Yaakov said: “May God Almighty grant you mercy.” It is written (Tehillim 106:46): “He caused them to be treated with mercy by all their captors.” Yaakov continued: “Before the man.” Here, “the man” alludes to the Holy One Blessed Be He, as it is written (Shemos 15:3): “Hashem is a man of war, Hashem is His Name.”
Elsewhere in the same section, the Midrash expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 92:2):
“For this let every devout man pray at a time when [trouble] abides (eis metzo)” (Tehillim 32:6). At a time when the day has run its course (mitzui ha-yom), at a time when the judgment has run its course, at a time when the soul has run its course, at a time when the accounting has run its course. When Yaakov saw that the account had run its course, he began pouring forth supplications, saying: “May God Almighty (Ei-l Shadd-ai) grant you mercy before the man.”
The Maggid explains these Midrashim in terms of the principle that the experiences of the forefathers presage those of the Jewish People throughout history. He brings out the message with a clever parable.
A little baby boy who was being fed by a wet-nurse got sick. His parents took him to a doctor, who told them that the baby would recover readily if he would be made to vomit. He recommended that the wet-nurse take a certain vomiting-inducing drug, so that the baby would ingest the drug as he nursed and would be led to vomit as needed. The nurse realized that the drug would have a very harsh effect on her, but she willingly accepted this suffering because she wanted the baby to get well. So she started taking the drug. She got down half the prescribed dose and started feeling extremely sick. She approached the doctor and said: “I think the amount of drug I have taken so far is enough to cure the baby, and I can stop now rather than take the rest.” The doctor replied: “I am sorry, my dear lady, but you must take the full dose for the treatment to work.”
The nurse listened to the doctor and took the rest of the drug, and afterward began to nurse the baby. After he had taken in a bit of her milk, he started vomiting nonstop and lost all his strength. The doctor was quickly called in. When he arrived and saw how violently the baby was vomiting, he said: “I have to admit that I made a mistake and prescribed an excessive dose. But don’t worry – I know how to bring the baby out of this state.” He squirted a few drops of a very potent antidote into the baby’s mouth, and the baby stopped vomiting. The nurse then started to wail, and she said: “Why did I have to take all this harsh medicine and suffer so much? When I had taken half the dose, I told you it was enough. Why did I have to go through all this agony for nothing?”
The parallel is as follows. Our forefathers went through a variety of harsh experiences that they themselves, based on their own actions, did not deserve, but were brought upon them for the sake of their descendants. By going through these troubles and gaining salvation from them, they produced a reservoir of salvation which their descendants could draw from in times of need throughout all generations. Yaakov, the premier forefather (all of whose sons served as the head of a Jewish tribe) and the last among them, bore an especially trying series of misfortunes – each of which, in some form, would later befall the Jewish People later in history. Although he suffered tremendously, he accepted the suffering for the benefit of his descendants.
But when Yaakov went through the tragedy of losing Yosef, with all the fallout that ensued, his suffering became overwhelming. Knowing that whatever he went through was only a small fraction of what his descendants would go through, he thought to himself: “If my descendants go through the degree of suffering that is foreshadowed by the suffering I am going through now, surely they will not have the wherewithal to survive.” He therefore pleaded with Hashem to relieve his descendants of such suffering, and Hashem assented. Yaakov then had a claim against Hashem: “I knew that You would show pity for my descendants and refrain from bringing on them the severe suffering foreshadowed by my suffering. When, then, did You bring this suffering on me for nothing?”
We can now understand what R. Hoshaia means when he compares Yaakov to a person being sentenced by a judge and crying out in agony, “Yaah, yaah – enough (dai), enough,” and then describes him pleading: “May the One who in the future will say ‘enough’ to affliction now say ‘enough’ to my afflictions.” Yaakov is not, far be it, rebelling against afflictions. Rather, he is saying to Hashem: “Since You will ultimately say ‘enough’ to the afflictions of my descendants, You can say ‘enough’ to my afflictions now. I do not need to go through further afflictions for their sake.” The teaching of R. Yoshia ben Levi follows the same line: Yaakov is saying that since Hashem will arrange for the Jewish People to be treated with a measure of mercy while in exile, He can grant his sons a measure of mercy as they travel to Egypt. The Midrash linking Yaakov’s plea to Tehillim 32:6 is in a similar vein. Yaakov pled for mercy only after he saw that “the judgment had run its course” – that is, that the afflictions he and sons were suffering had begun to go beyond what was needed to safeguard future generations. Had this not been so, Yaakov would have willingly endured further afflictions for the sake of his descendants.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Haftaras Vayeishev

This week’s haftarah from the Book of Amos closes with the following passage (Amos 3:1-8):
Hear this word that Hashem has spoken regarding you, O Children of Yisrael – regarding the whole family which I brought up out of the land of Egypt, saying: “You alone have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore, I will take account of you regarding all your iniquities. Do two people walk together, if they have not so planned? Does a lion roar in the forest, when it has no prey? Does a young lion give forth its voice from its den, if it has not made a catch? Does a bird fall into a trap on the ground if there is no snare? Does a trap lift off the ground without making a catch? Can a shofar be blown in a city, and the people not tremble? Can evil befall a city if Hashem did not bring it about? For the Lord God will do nothing without revealing His counsel to His servants the prophets. The lion has roared – who will not fear? The Lord God, has spoken – who will not convey the prophecy?”
The Maggid notes that the various rhetorical questions that this passage presents are puzzling, but Amos’s message can be explained well through the following Midrashic commentary on the passage (Yalkut Shimoni, Nach, 540):
“Can a shofar be blown in a city, and the people not tremble?” We can explain this verse with a parable. A country was ridden with invading soldiers, and a certain elder there warned all its residents of the danger. All those who listened to him were saved, while all those who did not listen were killed by the invaders. Thus it is written (Yechezkel 3:17): “O son of man, I have set you as a sentinel for the House of Israel; You hear the word from My mouth and you warn them of Me.” And similarly here. Can a shofar be blown in a city – on Rosh Hashanah – and the people not tremble? If evil befalls a city, Hashem did not bring it about [homiletical rendering of the end of the verse]. Hashem does not desire the death of evildoers, as it is written (Yechezkel 18:32): “For I do not desire the death of the one who deserves to die.”
The key idea is reflected in Amos’s statement that “the Lord God will do nothing without revealing His counsel to His servants the prophets.” When a mortal man plans to cause a person harm, he hides his plan so that the person will not guard himself against them. By contrast, when Hashem plans to inflict harm on people, He discloses His plan to the prophets, in order to stir the people to repent and thereby escape the harm. The above Midrash brings out this idea. If, far be it, Hashem wished for the wicked to die, He would pass sentence on them without notice. But instead He openly informs one and all of the day He sits in judgment. As it is written (Tehillim 81:4-5): “Blow the shofar at the moon’s renewal, at the time appointed for our festival day [Rosh Hashanah]. For it is a decree unto Yisrael, a judgment [day] for the God of Yaakov.” Announcing the day of judgment is an act of love on Hashem’s part, aimed at leading the wayward to return to Him. Hashem opens the way to repentance to all sinners who wish to forsake their evil ways. He gives us the opportunity to prepare ourselves for the day of judgment and develop strategies for shielding ourselves against negative decrees. And so, Amos tells us, those who feel no fear when the shofar is blown and are not stirred to repent have only themselves to blame when misfortune befalls them. They have no cause to complain about how Hashem treated them, for Hashem mercifully gave fair warning.
With this background, the Maggid proceeds to explain Hashem’s declaration in the passage from the haftarah sentence by sentence. Hashem begins: “You alone have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore, I will take account of you regarding all your iniquities.” Hashem is telling us that, out of His love for us, He takes account of us regarding our sins, and sends us warning of the punishment we face for them, so that we can take steps to avoid it. Hashem continues: “Do two people walk together, if they have not so planned?” If two people are on friendly terms, they will plan a joint journey and walk together. But if one person plans to destroy another person, he will hide from his intended victim to keep the victim from noticing his plan. Hashem then says: “Does a lion roar in the forest, when it has no prey? Does a young lion give forth its voice from its den, if it has not made a catch?” These rhetorical questions bring out the same idea: Before the lion catches his prey, it refrains from roaring, so that the prey it is stalking will not flee.
This initial series of rhetorical questions relates to how a mortal man acts when he plans to bring a person harm. Hashem, on the other hand, before He brings a person misfortune, calls out in full voice so that the person can save himself. The next series of rhetorical questions develops this idea. Hashem says: “Does a bird fall into a trap on the ground if there is no snare?” He is saying that misfortune will not hover over a person to entrap him unless the person harbors within his soul a snare – that is, a sin. As the Gemara says (Shabbos 55a): “No affliction comes upon a person unless he is guilty of some sin.” Hashem continues: “Does a trap lift off the ground without making a catch?” This rhetorical question reflects the other side of the coin – that, without repentance, no sin is passed over without some punishment. If the trap of sin is set off, it surely will catch the evildoer. We therefore have no reason to regard prophecies of retribution with askance, for we could have figured out on our own that our sins will lead to our being punished, for Hashem is a God of absolute justice. It is out of His great compassion that He sends us such prophecies to warn us in advance, so that we may repent and save ourselves. Hashem then continues further: “Can a shofar be blown in a city, and the people not tremble? If evil befalls a city, Hashem did not bring it about.” If we disregard the shofar blast that Hashem sends as a warning, and we fail to repent, the misfortune we ultimately suffer is not Hashem’s doing, but our own. Hashem then says: “For the Lord God will do nothing without revealing His counsel to His servants the prophets.” Hashem announces the impending punishment to give us a chance to repent, and if misfortune strikes, we ourselves are at fault. It is just as in the Midrash’s parable about the people in the invader-ridden country who were warned by one of the elders. If we disregard Hashem’s danger warning, we will be smitten. But if we heed the warning, we will be safe.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayishlach

This week’s parashah recounts Yaakov’s encounter with Eisav. Upon returning to Eretz Yisrael, Yaakov sent messengers to Eisav to inform him of his return. The messengers came back to Yaakov with a report that Eisav was heading toward him with a legion of four hundred men. Yaakov was struck with fear, and he prayed to Hashem to save him. He also sent Eisav a series of gifts to appease him. Ultimately the two brothers met, and Yaakov bowed down before Eisav seven times. The Midrash remarks (Bereishis Rabbah 75:2):
In connection with this episode, R. Yehudah bar Siemon expounded on the following verse (Mishlei 25:26): “Like a muddied spring and a ruined fountain, so is the righteous one who bows before the wicked.” Said R. Yehudah bar Siemon: “Just a spring cannot become muddied and a fountain cannot be ruined, so, too, a righteous man cannot bow before a wicked one. And like a muddied spring and a ruined fountain, so is the righteous one who causes himself to bow before the wicked. Said the Holy One Blessed Be He: ‘He [Eisav] was going his own way, and you sent messengers to tell him, “Thus said your servant Yaakov ….”’”
The Maggid raises two questions about this teaching. First, it seems self-contradictory. R. Yehudah bar Siemon initially says: “Just a spring cannot become muddied and a fountain cannot be ruined, so, too, a righteous man cannot bow before a wicked one. “ He is saying it cannot happen. But then he says: “And like a muddied spring and a ruined fountain, so is the righteous one who causes himself to bow before the wicked.” How can we understand this curious reversal? Second, regarding the verse from Mishlei itself, what is the meaning of the simile of the muddied spring and ruined fountain?
The Maggid then answers as follows. Yeshayah declares (verse 12:3): “And you shall joyfully draw water from the springs of salvation.” Yeshayah is saying that Divine salvation is like a spring. Just as someone who needs water can procure it easily from a flowing spring, so, too, someone who needs Divine salvation can procure it easily through prayer. As it is written (Yeshayah 56:1): “My salvation is near in coming.” And similarly (Tehillim 85:10): “Indeed, His salvation is near to those who fear Him.” When we pray, we are not – far be it – trying to get Hashem to “change His mind” and grant us something He was not originally planning to provide us. Rather, we are tapping into the spring of salvation that He makes available to us for our taking by coming near to Him. As indicated in Tehillim 33:22, the extent of the blessing we receive from Hashem is determined by the extent to which we turn to Him and put our hope and trust in Him.
Now, a spring will continue to gush forth so long as the earth surrounding it is solid. But if the surrounding earth is soft and weak, it will cave in and stop up the spring with mud. Similarly, if a person’s faith in Hashem is solid, and he relies with firm and vibrant conviction on Hashem’s protection, then his spring of salvation will flow with vigor. But if a person’s faith is shaky and weak, and he is in constant fear that misfortune will sprout in some area of his life, his fears muck up his spring of salvation and cause its flow to cease.
Thus, R. Yehudah bar Siemon first says: “Just a spring cannot become muddied and a fountain cannot be ruined, so, too, a righteous man cannot bow before a wicked one.” Just as in the natural order of the world, a flowing spring does not suddenly become muddied, so, too, in the normal order of the world, a righteous man is not suddenly led to bow before a wicked one. R. Yehudah bar Siemon then says: “And like a muddied spring and a ruined fountain, so is the righteous one who causes himself to bow before the wicked.” In both the case of the spring and the case of the righteous man, a downturn is induced by an abnormal weakening in the foundations. R. Yehudah bar Siemon speaks of a righteous man who causes himself to bow before the wicked – the righteous man brings degradation on his own self by straying from the path of faith and trust in Hashem and allowing fear of the wicked to enter his heart. Yaakov strayed in this way – he was afraid of Eisav and was thereby led to engage in diplomacy with him by sending messengers. Hashem rebuked him for this action, saying: “Eisav was going his own way, and you sent messengers to him. You committed a misstep.”
In describing Yaakov’s reaction to the report of Eisav’s approach with a massive legion, the Torah says that “Yaakov was very frightened, and he was distressed” (Bereishis 32:8). We can interpret this statement in line with the discussion above. Yaakov understood that by sending the messengers, he himself had created the situation that prompted his fright. He therefore was distressed over what he had done, deeply regretting his misguided move.
David Zucker, Site Administrator