Post Archive for December 2014

Parashas Vayiggash

Last week’s parashah recounts how Yosef was appointed viceroy of Egypt, and how his brothers had an encounter with him without knowing who he was. At the end of the parashah, Yosef’s silver goblet is found in Binyamin’s sack, and Yosef declares that he will take Binyamin as a slave. At this beginning of this week’s parashah, Yehudah comes forward and asks Yosef to take him as a slave in Binyamin’s place. The parashah begins by stating as follows (Bereishis 44:18): “Then Yehudah approached him [Yosef] and said: ‘If you please, my lord, may your servant speak a word into my lord’s ears, and do not let your anger flare up at your servant, for you are like Pharaoh.’” Yehudah then proceeds with his plea. The Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah 93:6 quotes R. Siemon as teaching that Yehudah put forward an argument based on Torah law. (Maharzav finds a hint to this effect in Yehudah’s opening statement – it would have been enough for Yehudah to say “may your servant speak into my lord’s ears” without the added phrase “a word.” Maharzav, quoting other Midrashim, explains that the term “word” refers to a word of Torah law.) The area of Torah law on which Yehudah built his argument was the laws pertaining to thieves. The argument ran as follows: “In our manual of practices it is written (Shemos 22:2), ‘If he does not have [money to pay restitution], then he shall be sold [as a slave] for his theft.’ But this one [Binyamin] has money to pay.” The Maggid notes that it seems odd for Yehudah to put forward a Torah-based argument before an Egyptian official: Why would an Egyptian care what our Torah says?
The Maggid explains that Yehudah was not suggesting that Yosef ought to follow Torah law, but rather he was putting forward an argument based on ordinary human reason, an argument that applied to men of all nations. Of course the Torah’s laws are edicts issued to us by Hashem, but they also appeal to human intellect. Thus David HaMelech declares (Tehillim 19:9): “The orders of Hashem are upright, gladdening the heart.” Similarly, Shlomo HaMelech, speaking of Torah teachings, states (Mishlei 8:9): “They are all correct to one who understands, and upright to those who find knowledge.” Now, it appears on the surface that the law regarding thieves mentioned above is contrary to reason. Who would want to take a thief as a servant and bring him into his household? Wouldn’t one worry about having his household possessions stolen? But, after a closer look, we can see how the law makes sense.
The law deals with a thief who lacks money to pay restitution. Evidently it was for lack of money to meet his needs that the offender resorted to theft. We thus need not abhor him; as Shlomo HaMelech says (ibid. 6:30), “A thief is not scorned if he steals to satisfy his soul when he is hungry.” And there is no need for a person to worry that bringing the offender into his household poses a risk that his possessions will be stolen; if one provides the offender with what he needs, he is not pressed to steal. But if someone who has money steals, then surely one must worry about bringing him into one’s household, for providing his needs will not necessarily keep him from stealing. This was Yehudah’s argument to Yosef. Yehudah noted that Binyamin was rich, but still he was ostensibly found stealing. So it made no sense for Yosef to take Binyamin into his household, for Binyamin would take the opportunity to steal more. It must be, Yehudah argued, that Yosef knew that Binyamin did not steal his goblet, and had simply cooked up a libel against him.

Parashas Mikeitz

In this week’s parashah, we read about how Egypt enjoyed seven years of plenty, during which they stored a portion of their crops (as Yosef had advised them), and then Egypt and the surrounding areas, including Canaan, were struck with famine. The Torah relates (Bereishis 42:3):
Now Yaakov saw that there were provisions in Egypt, and Yaakov said unto his sons: “Why do you make yourselves conspicuous?” And he said: “Behold, I have heard that there are provisions in Egypt. Go down there, and buy for us from there, so that we may live, and not die.”
The Gemara in Taanis 10b, quoted by Rashi in his commentary on the above passage, explains that at the time Yaakov and his family had food, but Yaakov told his sons to go to Egypt and buy food anyway, so that they would not stand out among the Edomites and Yishmaelites. The Maggid asks why Yaakov’s family had food while everyone else did not. Later, as Yaakov’s sons prepared to return home after their trip, Yosef (in his position as viceroy of Egypt) ordered that their money be placed back in their sacks. On the surface, the Maggid notes, it appears that Yosef was embezzling from the Egyptian treasury; we have to analyze why he ordered that the money be returned.
The Maggid explains the matter as follows. Our Sages tell us that there were two reasons why Hashem brought the famine: (1) to induce Yaakov and his family to move to Egypt, after they ran out of food, and (2) to fulfill His promise to Avraham that his descendants would go out from Egypt with great wealth (all the money that Egypt collected from the sale of food ultimately ended up in the Jewish People’s hands when they left Egypt). Under the first reason, Yaakov and his family had to be stricken by the famine. But under the second reason, there was no need for Yaakov and his family to be stricken by the famine, for there would be no gain thereby. It is like a garment merchant who needs a garment for himself and takes one from his stock – there is no need for him to pay, for he would just be moving his money from one pocket to another. Similarly, everyone else in the area had to be stricken with the famine so that they would give over their money to Egypt in exchange for food, but this reason did not apply to Yaakov and his family, for the money Egypt collected from the sales of food was destined to become theirs.
When the famine first struck, it was not yet time for Yaakov and his family to move to Egypt. Thus, at this time, there was no need for Yaakov and his family to suffer from the famine, for neither of the above two reasons applied to them then. Therefore the famine initially did not affect them. There were affected by the famine only later, when the time came for them to move to Egypt. Thus, when the famine first struck, Yaakov and his family had food, and the only reason why Yaakov sent his sons to Egypt to buy food was to avoid standing out among the Edomites and Yishmaelites. And after they bought the food, Yosef ordered that their money be returned to them. He reasoned that if the money were kept in Egypt, it ultimately would be returned to the Jewish People, so he might as well return it to them right away.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayeishev

This week’s parashah describes the conflict between Yosef and his brothers. The conflict reaches a climax when Yosef goes out, at Yaakov’s request, to check on his brothers as they tended the flock. The brothers see him from a distance and say to each other (Bereishis 37:19): “Look, that dreamer is coming! So now, come and let us kill him ….” As Yosef reaches the brothers, they strip him of his special tunic and throw him into a pit. Then a Yishmaelite caravan approaches, and Yehudah says (ibid. 37:26): “What gain will there be if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Yishmaelites, but let our hand not be upon him ….” The Maggid notes that Yehudah’s question is peculiar, especially in view of Onkelos’s rendering of the question: “What monetary benefit will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood?” Did the brothers intend to achieve a monetary gain by killing Yosef? Also, it is puzzling that Yehudah mentions the covering up of Yosef’s blood; seemingly this detail is inconsequential.
In developing an explanation of Yehudah’s question, the Maggid starts by examining the Torah’s statement that a person who injures his fellow man must be punished measure for measure (Vayikra 24:20): “A break for a break, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth – just as he will have inflicted [literally, will give] an injury on a person, so shall be inflicted on him.” The Gemara in Bava Kamma 83b-84b explains that the Torah is calling for monetary compensation: from the Torah’s use of the term “giving,” the Gemara concludes that the Torah is calling for a punishment involving giving, namely a monetary penalty.
The Maggid notes that we can conceive of two possible reasons behind the Torah’s directive. The purpose could be to avenge the wrong done and give the victim satisfaction over the revenge exacted for the assault against him. Alternatively, the purpose could be to deter the offender, as well as others, from committing such an offence in the future, along the lines of a statement the Torah makes in a similar context (Devarim 17:13): “And all the people will hear and be struck with fear, and they will not commit willful wrong anymore.” A verse in Tehillim indicates the true purpose. David HaMelech declares (Tehillim 19:10): “The judgments of Hashem are true, altogether just.” David’s intent is to say that the purpose behind Hashem’s judgments is to promote truth and justice – to admonish the masses and keep them, along with the person being punished, from committing similar wrongs in the future. In this vein, the Gemara in Sanhedrin 43a states that when someone was taken out to be stoned to death, an announcement would be made: “So-and-so is being taken out to be stoned for committing such-and-such a sin.” Furthermore, the stoning would be carried out in public. This shows that the main purpose of the punishment is not to take revenge (for there is no real benefit to this), but rather to deter others from committing a similar wrong.
Since the purpose of punishment is deterrence, we can understand well the Gemara’s explanation of the verse in Vayikra, for a monetary penalty is usually an adequate deterrent. In addition, we can appreciate the Torah’s choice of words in saying that just as the offender “will give” an injury to his fellow, so will be given to him. On a simple level it would have made more sense for the Torah to say “just as he gave an injury to his fellow, so will be given to him.” But in light of our discussion, we can see that the Torah is saying that the punishment the offender is given parallels the wrong that he might commit in the future, to keep him from committing it.
We can now turn to Yehudah’s question. As we consider the brothers’ plan to kill Yosef, far be it from us to imagine that they were going to commit murder, spilling an innocent man’s blood. Surely they must have judged Yosef as deserving the death penalty under Torah law, and indeed various statements of our Sages indicate explicitly that they made such a judgment. Nonetheless, Yehudah advised the brothers that they ought not kill Yosef. He argued as follows: “It is true, as you say, that under Torah law Yosef deserves the death penalty. But let us consider the matter carefully. The Torah’s purpose in imposing punishment is not for revenge, but rather to deter the public from committing similar crimes. Killing Yosef now will not serve this purpose. You will be forced to cover up Yosef’s blood so that no one will know what happened. And thus we will not achieve the benefit usually gained from the monetary and other punishments that the Torah imposes. This being so, let our hand not be upon him.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

Parashas Vayishlach

Regarding the night before Yaakov’s encounter with Eisav, the Torah writes (Bereishis 32:25): “And Yaakov remained alone, and a man grappled with him until dawn.” The Midrash expounds (Bereishis Rabbah 77:1):
It is written (Devarim 33:26): “There is none like God, Yeshurun – He rides across heaven to help you.” … R. Berechya said in the name of R. Siemon: “There is none like God. And who is like God, Yeshurun? Yisrael, the elder [i.e., Yaakov]. Regarding Hashem it is written (Yeshayah 2:11):  “Hashem alone will be exalted on that day.” And regarding Yaakov it is written: “And Yaakov remained alone.”
The Maggid sets out to explain this Midrash. He begins with a teaching from Shabbos 133b. It is written (Shemos 15:2): “This is my God, and I will glorify Him.” The Gemara expounds: “‘And I will glorify Him (ואנוהו)’ – be like Him (הוי דומה לו). Just as He is gracious and compassionate, so you, too, be gracious and compassionate.” The Gemara is calling on us to emulate Hashem as much as we can. Now, the Midrash we quoted from Bereishis Rabbah notes that one of Hashem’s traits is that there is none like Him. Accordingly, we must emulate Hashem in this respect as well, and develop ourselves into a unique nation within the world. In this vein, the Gemara teaches (Berachos 6b):
The Holy One Blessed Be He said to Klal Yisrael: “You have made Me a unique entity within the world, and I will make you a unique entity within the world.” You have made Me a unique entity within the world – as it is written (Devarim 6:4): “Hear, O Yisrael, Hashem, our God, Hashem is one.” And I shall make you a unique entity within the world – as it is written (Divrei HaYamim Alef 17:21): “And who is like Your people Yisrael, a unique nation upon the earth.”
We can take the matter a step further. Beyond the duty of the Jewish People as a whole to stand out as unique among the nations of the world, it is the duty of each individual Jew to make himself outstanding. The Gemara in Sanhedrin 37a teaches that Hashem started the world with a single man so that each person would say, “On my account the world was created.” Elsewhere, the Gemara develops a related theme. At the end of Sefer Koheles, Shlomo HaMelech states (Koheles 12:13): “The matter has ended, all has been heard. Fear God and keep His commandments, for that is the entirety of man.” The Gemara in Berachos 6b teaches the entire world was created only for the sake of the man who fears God and keeps His commandments. We see from these two Talmudic teachings that a single upright and wholehearted man is enough to warrant the creation of the entire world. Each Jew must strive to perfect his character to the point where he could be that one man.
Avraham, in his time, served in this role. Regarding him, Hashem exhorts (Yeshayah 51:2): “Look to Avraham your forefather … for when he was but one alone I summoned him.” Hashem called Avraham “one” because he was wholehearted in deed and of perfect character in every respect. Thus it was with Yitzchak as well. And thus it was with Yaakov, whom the Torah calls a “wholehearted man” (Bereishis 25:27).  It is in this vein that the Midrash we quoted at the outset draws a comparison between Hashem and Yaakov: “There is none like God. And who is like God, Yeshurun? Yisrael, the elder. Regarding Hashem it is written, ‘Hashem alone will be exalted on that day,’ and regarding Yaakov it is written, ‘and Yaakov remained alone.’” Just as Hashem is unique, so, too, Yaakov was unique – and it is our mission to make ourselves unique as well.
David Zucker, Site Administrator