Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Vayechi 5775, December 2014: Achdut, Brotherhood

I have been waiting for this week's parsha since I began writing these weekly thoughts down. The reason I've been anticipating it so much is that there is an aspect of this week's sidra that the meforshim do not comment on and I feel strongly it is because they are men and largely missed seeing a point which women find fairly obvious and certainly intuitive, though the men I have discussed it with have uniformly agreed that it is correct. So I am grateful to have an opportunity to share this with another group of women.

This is the last parsha of sefer Bereishis, the first sefer of the Torah. We began back in Tishrei with parshas Bereishis, and the murder of Hevel by his brother Kayin. In the following week's reading, we read of (according to Yalkut Shmonei and other sources) Ham castrating his father Noach so as to prevent having to share the world with more siblings. Avram's brother Haran is so jealous of Avram's riches he demands to be thrown in a furnace himself (Tiferet Zion, Bereishis Rabbah) and the Angel of Death throws Haran's body at their father Terach's feet.  Yishmael shoots arrows at Yitzchak. Eisav will stop at nothing to kill Yaakov and only angels and miracles protect Israel. Yosef's brothers want to kill him. But they do not. They agree it would be inappropriate and would break halacha, and rather they sell him, though they take no precaution to ensure his safety or his life. Still, it is a bit of an improvement over actual fratricide and hatred which drives men to kill and maim themselves or their loved ones.

The brothers come to Egypt changed men, and Yosef learns they have always treated Binyamin with love; what's more, they regret having sold Yosef in his youth and truly show they wish they had the opportunity to demonstrate proper brotherly love. This is a huge new level of behavior in comparison to the previous generations evil and inability to experience teshuva.

Now we finally come to this week's parsha. Yes, all twelve shevatim receive their brochos, some for good, some bad; but not one speaks up and complains in the manner of Eisav. No one whines, "I get only two pesukim to my brocho?""I get warnings while he gets promises?""I am burdened while he is enriched?" Even more telling, however, is the moment beforehand, when the aged Yaakov gives his blessings to Yosef's two sons, Ephraim and Menashe. Yosef places his sons so that Menashe, the first born, is at his father's right, to receive the first blessing and the respect due to the elder son. Yaakov however crosses his hands and places his right hand on Ephraim's head, seeing prophetically that Yehoshua would descend from Ephraim (Midrash HaGadol). Yosef attempts to correct Yaakov, but Yaakov insists that he is giving the proper blessings to the proper men. And what happens? Nothing at all. Menashe and Ephraim accept their grandfather's statements with perfect peace and equanimity. There is never mentioned anywhere in Torah or commentary (so far as I know) a single word suggesting that there was any enmity between Menashe and Ephraim over the fact that the younger grandson received the older grandson's blessing. No bloodshed, no curses, no feuds, no anger, but rather joy at receiving a brocha directly from a grandfather who knew Avraham's tent, who was receiving direct prophecy, who was showing love to all his sons and the two grandsons he took to be his own. Nor is there ever any mention that any of Yaakov's other grandchildren held it against Ephraim and Menashe that they had been raised to the status of shevatim, as if they were directly sons of Yaakov, while they themselves were simply Yisroelim, b'nai Yisroel, among the people.

This is an incredible difference in behavior and outlook. To come from fratricide to true love through acceptance of the Torah and the teachings they received from Yaakov is an almost unbelievable advancement in civilization for the Jews.  It is at this point, at the end of sefer Bereishis, that we see they have truly become a nation, a people, under Torah. They are ready to suffer as a nation under a new Pharaoh, and survive it intact, and in fact to leave Egypt and receive the physical Torah and extensive teachings from Moshe only because they have learned to truly love each other completely and without reservation.  This is the mitzvah of achdut, loving our brother, literally and figuratively. We must show boundless, endless, perfect love to our own family but also to all our brothers in b'nai Yisroel. It is not always easy at all, I realize myself, and struggle with it daily. But it is the nature of Torah and the nature of the true people of Yisroel.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Vayigash 5775, December 2014: Welcoming

After confronting both Shimon and Yehuda individually, Yosaif identifies himself to his brothers and sends them back to their father Yaakov to bring the entire extended family to Egypt, where Yosaif can provide for them and ensure their safety. To ensure that Yaakov will fully believe the brothers that Yosaif is alive and moreover in control of all national logistical affairs throughout the mighty country of Egypt, he selects specific gifts to evoke memories of the last Torah lessons Yaakov taught him in his youth, when Yaakov accompanied him on the first section of his journey which led to his enslavement and ultimately his rise to power, specifically wagons and calves. Ironically, the brothers are sent home to Yaakov with physical reminders of the laws of the egla arufa, the calf whose neck is broken when a stranger is found dead outside village boundaries when it cannot be determined who is responsible for the death and the nearest population center must as a group take responsibility for not ensuring his safety.  The brothers, who when they saw Yosaif, the outsider among them, plotted themselves together to kill him, to trap him, and eventually just to sell him into slavery as an equivalent to murder, must return to their father with this reminder, and inform him that despite their own insistence years before that Yosaif must be dead, he is in fact alive and well. Chizkuni even writes that Yosaif feared the brothers would in fact refuse to tell Yaakov, and explicitly asked them to have Binyamin be the one to explain to their father if necessary to get around their own complicity and oaths to secrecy.

Why was it necessary for Yosaif to bring Yaakov and all his family to Egypt? Ramban says that had he tried on his own to send enough for all his family in the manner they were accustomed to, the Egyptians would have suspected he was stealing the wealth of their country and sending it to Canaan instead; in fact the Tz'enah Ur'enah says explicitly that Yosaif only sent special gifts with his brothers on their return at Pharaoh's urging. Each brother was given food, changes of clothes, and silver coins.  Finally, Yaakov and all his family and holdings arrive in Egypt. The midrash tells a story also given in the Tz'enah Ur'enah that when Yaakov first met Pharaoh at Pharaoh's palace, there was an idol in the entranceway. Miraculously, when Avraham had approached the Pharaoh of his day, a door had lifted itself up and removed the idol as the tzaddik entered, and this was repeated at Yaakov's arrival. The Jews are allowed to settle in Goshen.
Making guests feel like they belong.
What do we see here? Many of the aspects of hachnasos orchim, the welcoming and care of guests. This mitzvah extends well beyond the occasional invitation to others to join in a Sabbath meal. For it begins with their arrival and entry in the home, which must feel comfortable to them. Their time in the home must be full of nourishment, be it spiritual or edible or educational, whatever was promised and is expected. They must feel at peace and rich spiritually as their visit comes to an end. And finally, we must do all we can to ensure their safe and happy departure, not just so that they will think of us fondly, but so that we are truly fulfilling the mitzvah. I myself remember households in which the woman of the home was so welcoming that when I visited she genuinely made it feel as though it was I who was presenting her with a gift by taking her time and effort from her.

The haftarah of this weeks parsha (from Yechezkel) reminds us just how much this sidra relates to the fulfillment of the preconditions of the coming of Moshiach. Let us all remember what we can do and how fully we must do these mitzvahs to hasten that day! Have a wonderful Shabbos, all.

It takes more than cookies.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Mikaitz 5775, December 2014: Memory and Dedication

I had a little dreidel, with a "gimmel" for "Gilad."
Forgetting, remembering, dedications, rededications; it can be hard to make sense of this parsha other than as a narrative. Almost every year as well, parshat Mikaitz is read on the Shabbos of Chanukah, which naturally can't be a coincidence. How do we reconcile these disparate parts of history?

We have a repeated motif of men who forget what they should remember in the seemingly simple story. First Pharaoh's butler has forgotten to tell Pharaoh about Yosaif, whom he met in prison; Pharaoh himself forgets his dreams yet remembers that he had the dreams and can remember the details when prompted by Yosaif. In fact Pharaoh grants Yosaif the name, "Tzafnas Pane'ach," meaning "he who reveals the hidden/forgotten." When Yaakov's ten oldest sons encounter Yosaif for the first time in Egypt, they don't recognize him; Rashi says this is because they physically couldn't recognize him as an adult having not seen him since his youth; Chizkuni says the new name and his Egyptian dress confused them; but Ramban writes that it is the expectation, the memory, the though that makes the difference, and Yosaif expected his brothers to show up eventually to make use of Egypt's grain stores, while the brothers had no expectation of discovering their young brother sold into slavery to appear in the guise of the most senior civil servant in all of Egypt. Finally in one of the most poignant memory lapses in all of Torah, when they are brought back to Egypt after their second visit and accused of having stolen  the goblet, Ramban states that they answered the accusation sure that such a thing could not have happened and declaring that if it had, the brother who had stolen should be killed and the other ten taken as slaves; they had not learned from their father's declaration to Lavan that anyone from his household who would have stolen Lavan's idols deserved to be killed, which resulted directly in Rachel's death.

Toldos Yitzchak tells us that at the moment the goblet was discovered in Binyomin's bag, the brothers each tore their clothes in distress., explicitly because they realize that they deserved imprisonment or slavery for the crime of selling Yosaif, but now they had brought punishment down on Binyomin as well, despite his innocence. Binyomin too tore his clothing due to his better understanding of the curse now upon him and his distress for his brothers' pain and here is a key to understanding our connections.  For the midrash tells us that it is in recompense for tearing his garments when he was guiltless that Binyomin became the forefather of Mordechai, co-savior along with Esther of the Jewish people in the time of the first exile into Persia.

A hint of this is also given earlier in the parsha, when we are told (Chizkuni) that after designating Yosaif as the proper authority to carry out the plan of warehousing grain, Pharaoh dressed Yosaif in his own jewelry and second-best robes, and had him sent out through the city in the second royal chariot, with runners announcing before him, "Here rides the young ruler!" It's very reminiscent of Mordechai being brought through the streets in Achasueros's robes and chariot, with Haman leading him and calling out "This is what is done for he whom the king wishes to honor!"
The young man on the left in the garb of a Maccabee is my son ;)
Now we see a connection to Purim, but what does that have to do with Chanukah? Purim celebrates our re-dedication as a people, our willingness to sacrifice and act to show our devotion and loyalty to G-d and to our nationhood. It is the events of Megillat Esther which allowed the building of the second Beis HaMikdash. And in fact, our haftarah for Shabbos Chanukah speaks primarily of the people and the Kohen Gadol, and then of the menorah; it doesn't speak mainly of the Beis HaMikdash itself. It also promises to punish Bavel for destroying the first.  It tells that the holiness of the people with miraculously "clean" the garments of the Kohen Gadol, remove the stains of sin, and infuse all of B'nai Yistroel with purity.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Vayeishev 5775, December 2014: The Tzaddik in Each of Us

This week's parsha is often difficult for people to understand as a simple narrative, but two simple keys open the door to comprehension.

1. Almost every action in the parsha involves tzaddikim acting l'shaym Shamayim (according to what they understand is G-d's law), and
2. Tzaddikim are not Malachim, angels. Tzaddikim are by definition human beings with free will, who have a desire to put G-d's law and G-d's will ahead of their own desires at all times.

We discussed this a few weeks ago briefly in trying to understand the situation with Esav and Yaakov. Both had free will, both grew up with Torah learning opportunities, both had the ability to make choices in behavior and fulfillment of G-d's commandments. So it is with any tzaddik. He has the opportunity to fulfill mitzvahs and the understanding of what those are, but he must make the choice to act and follow through to actually become a tzaddik. Merely thinking or learning is not enough.

So how could Yaakov favor Yosaif over his brothers? Yosaif had the greatness of Reuven, the nobility of Yehuda, the prophetic ability of Levi, and the wisdom in Torah of Yissachar (Rabbi Behaya according to Chazal); he also had remarkable similarities to Yaakov himself. Yaakov also saw prophetically that Yosaif had a great destiny (Pirkei d'Rabbi Eliezer).  It was because of Yoseif's great Torah knowledge that Yaakov made him a gift of a special dyed silk garment (Bereishis Rabbah).
Silk woven in many colors
Ruach haKodesh rested on Yosaif and he had two dreams of the future, one in which sheaves of wheat representing his brothers bowed to the one representing him; and one in which the sun and moon and stars bowed to him. Both dreams were truly the prophetic dreams of a tzaddik. But to tell them to his brothers was simply the act of a young man mature in Torah but possibly immature in personal relationships. In any case, (Zahor haGadol), the fact that the brothers doubted the veracity of the dreams delayed the rulership of Yosaif over Egypt for twenty two years, for the fulfillment of any true dream is still dependent on the interpretation, and they ridiculed it, as did even Yaakov after the second dream.

Yaakov sent Yosaif out to find his brothers in Sh'chem; he thought that keeping him fairly near would protect him. On the way, Yosaif encountered the Malach Gavriel, who tried to persuade him to turn back, hinting at him by saying that the brothers had journeyed away that the brothers had not only traveled geographically but felt they had distanced their bonds of brotherhood with Yosaif.

The brothers saw Yosaif approaching and as tzaddikim discussed what was appropriate to be done with him. Was he liable for death for what they perceived as repeated lashon hara?  They sat in judgement because they considered that he had attempted to kill them with his words to their father reporting what he perceived as capitol crimes but which were in fact innocent actions (supposed offenses against kashrus, supposed improper affairs with women). Yosaif the tzaddik was zealous in protecting Torah. Yet Yosaif the youth was not mature enough in behavior and decision making to discern the truth of the situation in each event. Reuven interceded though, feeling that while they were acting in a Torah manner, it was possible the brothers as a group also didn't have the full picture of Yosaif's actions, and might come to regret putting him to death.  Yehuda then took the lead in convincing the brothers that by their understanding of Torah, it might be proper to sell Yosaif as a slave, but not to put him to death.

This now gives us the ability to appreciate what's often seen as the "interruption" of the story of Yehuda and Tamar. It's not truly an interruption, it makes perfect sense at this juncture to see the continuation of multiple tzaddikim all acting at odds because of different understandings of a single situation. Yehuda married his oldest son Er to Tamar, daughter of Shem. Her Torah learning was so great that it was reflected in her physical beauty, and Er chose not to risk harming that physical beauty by impregnating her. For this sin, as well as for that of his father in making Yaakov believe his son Yosaif had died (Tanhuma Buber), he was condemned to death. The tzaddik Yehuda now followed his understanding of halacha immediately and married his second son Onan to her in levirate marriage. Onan however behaved the same as his older brother and was likewise punished. Yehuda then feared that there was some aveira related to Tamar herself that was causing his sons to die, and tried to postpone a second levirate marriage between her and his third son Shaila.

Tamar, being truly a tzaddekes, arranged to marry Yehuda himself according to halacha, in order to fulfill the Torah commandments. This is why rather than any true payments she accepted from him only three symbolic ones, a ring (a usual requirement of Jewish legal marriage), a staff (representing the poles of a chuppah), and his tallis kattan (some say his cloak) (representing the chuppah itself).  When it was obvious that she was pregnant and she was brought before the Torah court, she refused to humiliate Yehuda even at the risk of her own life. Yehuda himself realized what the truth of the matter was, and that she was in fact permitted to him since her marriages to his older two sons had never been consummated. It says both in Sotah and Rashi that in fact a heavenly voice rang out announcing that Tamar would be the ancestress of royalty and prophets, and in fact that the line of descent from her and Yehuda would bring about Moshiach.

And so it is that the nature of a Tzaddik is not to be inhuman, removed, or even perfect in understanding. It is to be trying at all times to act l'shaim Shamayim, with only Torah intentions, which can only happen if we strive to learn Torah and understand it as best we individually can with our own intellects and ability.
We can each strive to learn Torah and become Tzaddikim

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Vayishlach 5775, December 2014; Becoming a People

This week's parsha culminates so many ideas we've discussed in previous weeks. We discussed how to live among the nations. We learn here fully how to approach them, first by preparing with tefillah, then with gifts, then with preparing for war both through flattery and then clearly displaying our strengths (when Yaakov refers to possessing an ox, a donkey, sheep, menservants and maidservants, he is actually invoking Yosaif, Yissachar, the faithful Jewish people, Dovid haMelech, and Avigayil, according to Bereishis Rabbah).  For we, the Jewish people, are destined as we know to live spread out among the nations.

At the same time many suggestions for Jewish behavior are given: to lie low and remain as invisible as possible so as not to provoke the non-Jewish authorities, and to prepare for our encounters with them if there is any danger. Yet we are also taught (again, according to Bereishis Rabbah) that because Yaakov humbled himself excessively before Eisav eight times, G-d decreed that eight mighty rulers should descend from Eisav before ever a king of Israel should arise. Yaakov successfully entreated that their power over the land and over taxation should be spread out over centuries, so as not to overburden the Jewish people.

Yaakov battles with Eisav's angel. The midrash teaches the angel was sent directly by G-d to this encounter (in fact, angels are never able to use free will to do as they choose, which is why they cannot truly fulfill mitzvahs). The single man was able to counter equally the sar, the angel representing an entire nation, throughout the night. In the end, the angel succeeded in injuring Yaakov's thigh. The Ramban says this act is symbolic of the fact that in times of trouble the nations of the world will come close to destroying the entire Jewish nation, but never can. The question is asked why the other forefathers were never afflicted by an angelic battle? Avraham was G-d's pillar of kindness, Yitzchak of justice. But Yaakov was the pillar of Torah. It is Torah which is the key to Jewish survival, and so it is that which would have to be wiped out entirely to exterminate the Jewish people. In the time of Moshiach's arrival, Torah scholars and supporters (represented by the thigh) will be few. Yet their devotion will be enough, no matter how much the nations attempt to deprive the Jews of Torah study (Kovetz Igros). It is this angel, recognizing that Yaakov's support of Torah can never be extinguished, who renames him Yisroel, he who has prevailed against celestial and mortal beings.

The Jewish people has indeed become a people, a nation, and not just a family.

This is the critical point for the story of Dina, which I am actually not going to discuss in much detail here this year (another year, another thought). But suffice it to say, the massed kings of Edom determine to destroy Yaakov's family entirely for Shimon and Levi's killing of the population of Sh'chem.  The kings' advisors refused to participate and warned the rulers of the power of the Jewish people, that their G-d protects them, that he saved Avraham from multiple threats and tests, that he protected Yitzchak from Yishmael, and that Yaakov had prospered in all he had done, even surviving an attempted attack by Aisav himself backed by 400 men. The Edomi soldiers left their camps and the kings abandoned the attack (Sefer Hayashar).

So we have become a true nation among nations. Why at this moment? Just because of the battle with Sh'chem? No. Immediately after this we learn of the death of Rivka, Yaakov's mother, and then the death of Rochel his wife. It is well known that Rochel's spiritual tears at the time of the later exile brought about by Nebuchadnezzar saved the Jewish people, where no other entreaties moved G-d to promise redemption (Rebbe Kehana). The Jewish people needed to become a true nation before the deaths of the two great matriarchs, otherwise it is possible that losing the great spiritual leadership of both of them at once might have extinguished or at least damped down the flame of Torah and holiness.