Post Archive for December 2012

Parashas Vayechi

This week’s parashah recounts the events surrounding Yaakov Avinu’s death. After recounting Yaakov’s burial, the Torah relates (Bereishis 50:15): “When Yosef’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said: ‘Perhaps Yosef will harbor hatred toward us, and then he will surely repay us for all the evil we did to him.’” The brothers then turned to Yosef with a plea for mercy. The Maggid discusses what they had in mind. He says that they surely did not suspect that Yosef would, far be it, do them active harm. But still they were concerned that he would act toward them according to the principle that “any Torah scholar who does not bear a grudge and take revenge like a snake is not a [true] Torah scholar” (Yoma 22b-23a). The notion of a Torah scholar bearing a grudge and taking revenge against someone who offended him involves the scholar’s refusal to help the offender when he is in need. The Maggid presents an analogy to a doctor and his patient. If the patient offends the doctor, the doctor will not strike back by injuring him, but he may stop treating him, and then the patient will surely suffer, for his illness will overtake him. Yosef’s brothers were afraid that Yosef would refuse to care for them, and they would then automatically fall into straits. In particular, they saw that after Yaakov’s death, the Egyptians’ attitude toward them turned negative, and they feared that if Yosef stopped looking after them, the Egyptians would ravage them.
In the course of developing the above explanation, the Maggid discusses how we plead to Hashem not to abandon us when we stray. The Torah describes the dire result that ensues when Hashem withdraws His watchful care over us (Devarim 31:16-17): “And Hashem said to Moshe, ‘Behold, you will lie with your forefathers, and this people will rise up, and stray after the gods of foreigners of the land, in whose midst they are coming, and they will forsake Me, and breach My covenant which I have sealed with them. And then My anger will be kindled against them on that day, and I will abandon them, and I will hide My face from them, and they will be devoured, and many evils and troubles shall come upon them.” If we had our own independent power, we could fight our enemies without Hashem’s help, and so we would not be distressed if Hashem turned away from us. But since we depend entirely on Hashem for our security, if He withdraws His protection – even without actively operating against us – our enemies will devour us. We thus declare (Tehillim 44:10-12, homiletically): “If You but neglect us and refrain from going forth with our legions, You cast us into disgrace. You cause us to retreat before the oppressor, and our antagonists plunder for themselves. You give us over like sheep to be devoured; You scatter us among the nations.” And so we pray (Tehillim 28:1): “To You, Hashem I call – my Rock, be not deaf to me, for should You be silent toward me, I would be likened to those who descend to the grave.” We plead with Hashem not to turn aside from us and ignore us, for if He does so, we will automatically be doomed to misfortune.
I add a final note: The idea the Maggid brings out above is reflected in the selichos of Asarah B’Teves, which we observed this past Sunday. In the second selichah, we say: “Compassionate One, my God, do not neglect me unto eternity. The days of my mourning have grown long, and still my heart groans. Return, O God, to my Tent – do not forsake Your place. Through this my days of mourning will come to an end, as You come to pay the reward You promised me.” May we soon merit seeing ourselves openly under Hashem’s constant care and protection.
Note: This coming Sunday, the 17th of Teves, is the Maggid’s Yahrzeit.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayiggash

This week’s parashah recounts how Yosef revealed his identity to his brothers and arranged for Yaakov to come to Egypt to be with him. Yaakov arrived in Egypt during the second year of the famine, and the Torah describes the events that took place upon his arrival. At the end of the parashah, the Torah relates how the Egyptians, having run out of money, asked Yosef to let them sell themselves and their land to him for bread and obtained his assent to this arrangement.
The Maggid notes a number of puzzling aspects of the account of the interchange between the Egyptians and Yosef. The Egyptians say (Bereishis 47:19): “Buy us and our land for bread, and we along with our land will be slaves to Pharaoh.” Here, the Egyptians use repetitive language, for once Yosef bought the Egyptians and their land in his capacity of viceroy on Pharaoh’s behalf, then obviously they and their land would become Pharaoh’s property. The Egyptians continue (ibid.): “Provide seed, so that we may live and not die, and that the land will not be desolate.” Next, the Torah relates (ibid. 47:20): “So Yosef bought all the land in Egypt for Pharaoh, for each of the Egyptians sold his field, because the famine had overwhelmed them, and the land became Pharaoh’s.” Here, again, we have repetitive language: If Yosef bought all the land for Pharaoh, then obviously all the land became Pharaoh’s.
Shortly afterward, Yosef tells the Egyptians (ibid. 47:23): “Behold, I have bought you this day and your land for Pharaoh. Here is seed for you, so that you may sow the land.” This statement is odd; it is phrased as if Yosef is giving the Egyptians news that they did not know before. Yosef continues (ibid. 47:24): “And it will be at the harvests, that you will give a fifth to Pharaoh, and four parts will be yours, for seed of the field, and for your food, and for those of your households, and for food for your little ones.” Here, the phrase “and it will be at the harvests” seems unnecessary. Finally, the whole discussion about seed – the Egyptians’ request for seed and Yosef’s agreement to provide it – is bewildering. If the land was stricken by famine, what use was it for the Egyptians to have seed to plant?
Regarding this last point, the Maggid cites a Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 89:9 relating that upon Yaakov’s arrival, the famine stopped. He notes that, while we must accept what our Sages told us, it still would be worthwhile to try to explain how a famine that was supposed to last seven years lasted only two. Indeed, it seems that this outcome contradicts Yosef’s earlier statement to his brothers (Bereishis 45:6): “For this has been two years of famine in the midst of the land, and there are yet five years during which there will be neither plowing nor harvesting.” The Maggid offers an explanation for the end of the famine, and in the process resolves the difficulties raised above.
The Maggid begins by noting that the famine in Egypt was a supernatural occurrence – a Divinely-engineered miracle. Indeed, the Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 90:6 and 91:5) relates that the famine set in suddenly, and all the grain the people had kept for themselves during the years of plenty instantly rotted. Even the bread they had in their baskets rotted, the moment the seven years of plenty ended. The reason Hashem brought on this miraculous famine was that He wanted all the money and property in Egypt to be concentrated in the hands of Pharaoh. Hashem had promised Avraham that his descendants would leave Egypt with great wealth, and having all of Egypt’s assets concentrated in one place would make it easy for the Jews departing Egypt to collect the promised wealth. While the produce the Egyptians had stored away for themselves rotted, the produce stored in Pharaoh’s storehouses in accordance with Yosef’s instructions remained intact. In fact, during the years of plenty, Pharaoh’s storehouses were endowed with special blessing (Bereishis Rabbah 90:5). Thus, while the famine brought suffering to both the people and the animals of Egypt and its surroundings, it brought Pharaoh tremendous good, for he acquired thereby all the money and land in Egypt. Hashem orchestrated this sequence of events so that everyone would come to Yosef to buy grain, and he would thereby amass for Pharaoh a huge amount of money.
We can now see that there is no contradiction between Yosef’s statement to his brothers and the termination of the famine upon Yaakov’s arrival. The decree of famine was not imposed on the lands owned by Pharaoh. On the contrary, Hashem desired to bless his storehouses, so that, as we explained, he would amass great wealth that the Jews could eventually take. At the very same time that the provisions that the residents of Egypt and its neighbors had stored away rotted, Pharaoh’s storehouses were blessed. During the years of famine, what the Egyptians sowed did not grow at all, for Hashem had cursed their land, but when Pharaoh’s lands were sown, they produced an abundant crop. Accordingly, the Egyptians asked Yosef: “Buy us and our land for bread, and we along with our land will be slaves to Pharaoh; provide seed, so that we may live and not die, and that the land will not be desolate.” The repetitive language here and later in the passage emphasizes that the land was being taken over specifically by Pharaoh. Once the land became Pharaoh’s property, the Egyptians could sow it and reap a successful crop.
This is why the people asked for seed, even through the land had been cursed with famine – when the land entered Pharaoh’s possession, the curse was reversed. And accordingly, Yosef told them: “Behold, I have bought you this day and your land for Pharaoh.” He was stressing to the Egyptians the great favor he was doing them by buying their land from them on Pharaoh’s behalf, thus placing the land under Pharaoh’s aegis and thereby removing the curse. Yosef then continued: “Here is seed for you, so that you may sow the land.” Now that Yosef had taken over the people’s land on Pharaoh’s behalf, he could give them seed to sow. At this point, the famine effectively had come to an end.
After giving the people seed, Yosef told them: “And it will be at the harvests, that you will give a fifth to Pharaoh, and four parts will be yours.” Yosef chose his words here carefully. He deliberately did not simply say that the people should give a fifth of their crop to Pharaoh and keep the other four fifths for themselves. Had he done so, each Egyptian would have divided his field into two separate plots, with one plot a fifth the size of his entire field designated for Pharaoh and the other plot for himself. And had the field been divided in this way, the plot designated for Pharaoh would have flourished while the plot the Egyptian designated for himself would have remained cursed and grown nothing. The Egyptians would have then been empty-handed. Yosef therefore wisely and charitably advised them to sow their fields with the intent that Pharaoh have a one-fifth share in the crop produced in every section of the field – that they should divide each bunch of grain harvested into a one-fifth part for Pharaoh and a four-fifths part for themselves. In this way, the entire field would produce a successful crop, and the Egyptians would have an ample share.

David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Mikeitz

Part 1
This week’s parashah begins (Bereishis 41:1): “And it came to pass at the end of two full years, that Pharaoh dreamt – and, behold, he stood by the river.” The Midrash remarks (Bereishis Rabbah 89:4): “And other people do not dream? But this dream was the dream of one who ruled over the entire world.” The Maggid explains this Midrash as follows. In Torah narratives, the Hebrew text ordinarily puts the verb before the subject, and, indeed, this pattern is followed subsequently in describing Pharaoh’s actions. But in the above verse, the Hebrew text puts the subject before the verb. It appears that the Torah seeks to emphasize that it was Pharaoh who had dreamt. This is what prompts the Midrash to ask: “What is so special about the fact that Pharaoh dreamt – other people dream also.” The Midrash then answers: “This dream was the dream of one who ruled over the entire world.” In other words, Pharaoh’s dream was a special dream, well beyond the ordinary.
The Maggid shows how we can use this teaching to answer a question than many ask: Given that the chief cupbearer knew of Yosef’s ability to interpret dreams, why did he not go to Yosef secretly, present Pharaoh’s dream as his own (like the one he had when he was in jail), and get Yosef to tell him what it meant? He could then go to Pharaoh, give him the interpretation, and receive great honor for his show of wisdom, just as Pharaoh in fact honored Yosef in the end. The reason the chief cupbearer did not take this course was that he understood that Pharaoh’s dream was that of a world ruler and had to be treated as such. He knew that if he went to Yosef and present the dream as his own, Yosef would give him an explanation befitting a commoner, which would surely be off the mark.
Part 2
In telling Pharaoh about Yosef, the chief cupbearer said (Bereishis 41:11-13): “And we dreamed a dream one night, I and he – each man according to the interpretation of his dream did we dream. And with us there was a young Hebrew man, servant to the captain of the guard, and we told him, and he interpreted to us our dreams – to each man according to his dream he did interpret. And it came to pass that as he interpreted to us, so it was – me he [i.e., Pharaoh] restored to my post, and him he hanged.” The Maggid calls attention to a point of phrasing in the cupbearer’s statement: He says “we dreamed a dream” rather than “we dreamed dreams.” In fact, when the chief cupbearer and the chief baker explained their consternation to Yosef on the morning after their dreams, they said (Bereishis 40:8): “We dreamed a dream.” The chief cupbearer and the chief baker considered their dreams so similar that they were in effect one dream, and the two men expected that the dreams had the same meaning. Thus, after Yosef finished interpreting the chief cupbearer’s dream and the chief baker then turned to him to tell him his dream, the chief baker said (Bereishis 40:16): “I, too, in my dream ….” He considered himself in a “me, too” situation. And when the chief cupbearer related the event to Pharaoh, he deliberately used the singular term “dream” to stress the close similarity of the two dreams. Indeed, the chief cupbearer’s statement can rendered as saying “we dreamed one dream on a certain night.” Yet, despite the close similarity of the dreams, Yosef concluded, with wondrous discernment, that the two dreams were to be regarded as separate dreams, and he gave them diametrically opposite interpretations. This extraordinary display of wisdom showed clearly that Yosef was endowed with Divine inspiration.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayeishev

This week’s parashah opens with the words (Bereishis 37:1): “And Yaakov settled in the land of his father’s sojourning, in the land of Canaan.” The opening Midrash in the section in Midrash Rabbah on the parashah expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 84:1):
It is written (Yeshayah 57:13): “When you muster yourselves together, your assemblies shall save you [literally, let your assemblies save you] (בְּזַעֲקֵךְ יַצִּילֻךְ קִבּוּצַיִךְ). It was taught: “His [Yaakov’s] assembling and the assembling of his sons saved him from the hand of Eisav. It is written further (ibid.): “The wind will carry them all off, a breath will clear them away.” This refers to Eisav and his chieftains. And it written further (ibid.): “And he who takes refuge in Me shall inherit the land.” This refers to Yaakov – thus, “And Yaakov settled.”
Although the word זַעֲקֵךְ can denote crying out, the Maggid understands that the Midrash is reading the word זַעֲקֵךְ in the verse in Yeshayah as denoting mustering [cf. Metzudos], as in Shoftim 4:10 (“And Barak mustered Naftali and Zevulun at Kadesh”) or Shoftim 4:13 (“And Sisera mustered his chariots”). It seems that the Midrash is saying that the simple act of assembling brings us salvation. The Maggid asks: How can this be?
The Maggid then presents an answer. There is a fundamental difference between how the Jews wage war and how other nations wage war. The fighting power of other nations stems from the might of their soldiers and the potency of their weapons. The more soldiers and weapons a nation has at its disposal, the better the chance it has to win. The Jewish People, however, do not rely on their own might, but instead rely on Hashem to crush their enemies. Thus it is written (Zechariah 4:6): “‘Not through an army and not through might [shall you prevail], but through My spirit,’ said Hashem, Master of Legions.” Jewish soldiers occasionally bear weapons, but, in truth, the weapons are not needed to bring them victory, but only to give them an emotional boost.
Now, given that Hashem is fighting the Jewish People’s battles, and they have no real need for weapons, we might also think that there is no need for the Jews to assemble themselves to wage war, for Hashem does not need a large contingent of soldiers to save His people. Indeed, precisely this reasoning led Yehoshua to go out to his first battle against Ai with a limited number of men; for the second battle, Hashem directed him to take the entire Jewish People. Why, in truth, do the Jewish People have to assemble for battle?
The reason is that, although our fate does not depend on our physical might, it does depend on our spiritual worthiness: Hashem looks for some merit in us order to judge us deserving of salvation. Hashem therefore desires that we assemble for battle, so that our collective merit and eminence should be apparent. In this vein, our Sages say (Berachos 8a), the prayer of an assembled community is greater than that of individuals, as it is written (Iyov 36:5, homiletically), “Behold, God does not reject the great.” When we Jews assemble together in large numbers to pray to Hashem for help, Hashem counts it as a great merit for us that we all have cast their burden on Him with solid faith in His saving power, and it is through this merit that we gain victory.
This is what the Midrash is saying when it teaches that the simple act of assembling brings us salvation. And this is how Yaakov gained his deliverance from Eisav. Although he prepared for battle, dividing his company into two camps, in actuality his battle preparations made no contribution toward his deliverance. It was solely on account of the faith Yaakov and his sons showed in Hashem’s saving power that Hashem saved them. Accordingly, the Midrash applies to Yaakov the words of Yeshayah’s prophecy: “He who takes refuge in Me shall inherit the land.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator