Friday, December 28, 2007

They Cried

One of the great joys of teaching is learning from my students – “umitalmidai yoteir mikulam.” This year it has been my honor to learn a great deal so far from all my great students in all my classes. What follows is an idea of one of my students that I thought was outstanding.
When Paroh dies the Jews cry out. The question arises, why did they cry out in pain and not celebrate when the king died. Many answers are offered and please think about your own answer before reading further.
Talya Miller suggested that The Jews cried out because they were used to being slaves. When the king died there was a chance for freedom, but what did freedom mean? How would it play out? As Paroh’s servants they were victims, but they also had a set schedule and meals provided. Perhaps they were calling out in pain because they didn’t want to let go of the situation they were stuck in, which was not without its benefits.
This fits with the fact that the Jewish People in the midbar were always yearning to go back to Egypt. They spoke of the food and the comfort. They feared the unknown and longed for what they knew. Perhaps this is foreshadowed in their cry when Paroh died.
The Talmud tells the story of a sick rabbi visited by another rabbi with healing powers. The second rabbi asked the first "is your illness dear to you?" The meaning of this may be that before you can let go of something "bad" you have to decide that you really don't want the benefits it brings. Sometimes things we decry are dearer to us than we readily admit.
G-d sought to take us out of Sivlot Mitzrayim. This is usually translated as the suffering of Egypt. But the word sivlot relates to the word savlanut, which means patience. Part of the problem was that The Jews had gotten used to their situation. We needed to lose our slave mentality and this was no easy task.
May we be blessed in our own lives to not resist freedom, to let go of our suffering. May we be blessed with individual and communal redemption soon. And may we be blessed to cry out in joy rather than sadness when we are released.

Shmot: And A Man Went

Every word of Torah is an available jewel. Let's look at one pasuk. Please think about this sentence: "Vayelech Ish MiBeit Levi Vayikach Et Bot Levi – And a man went from the house of Levi and took a daughter of Levi.”

In the craft of writing each item can be described actively or passively, and experts say one should generally go with active phrasing. Why? Being active is more highly considered than passivity. Hakadosh Baruch Hu (The Author) is first of all impressing upon us the fact that this unnamed man was a go-getter. This is clear because the events described here with two verbs could have been described with none. The line could read, "A marriage took place.” Similarly, the Ramban says that the word Vayikach always indicates someone having the gumption to do something new.

That this man was a doer is no surprise, once we're told where he came from. The house of Levi was made famous not by pacifism, rather by their rapid responses to injustice. In his blessing Yaakov warns Levi about tempering their anger. And according to Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, Yaakov's words allowed for the fact that in difficult times such as those described here, their vigilant approach was positive, even necessary.

You have to wonder why this woman is referred to as "daughter of Levi" considering her advanced age of a hundred and thirty. According to Rashi her youthfulness in every regard is reflected by this image.

The idea that this was a second marriage is deduced from the existence of older children in addition to the baby born soon after this marriage. The Ramban explains that Amram and Yocheved married once, some time before the decree. The previous births are not relevant here, but the birth of Moshe is THE story and therefore mentioned now.

The Ramban addresses why the man and woman are not named; suggesting it’s a literary technique of conserving words. The focus here is the birth of Moshe Rabeinu. Later, we're told more about Moshe as redeemer. Once the plot line is developed Moshe’s entire genealogy is listed.

Rashi tells the story of little Miriam convincing her father that he must immediately remarry her mother rather than caving in to Par'oh's threat.
The Kli Yakar writes that this story is alluded to by the Torah’s carefully chosen words: "Vayelech – he went " should be followed by a geographic location. Due to the absence of a named place, Chapel reframed the definition of "Vayelech" here, based on this word's usage elsewhere, in the context of divorce (Devarim 24:2). That a woman is aptly referred to as the bayit-home is evident from the Gemorah where Rav Yossi states " I've never called my wife my wife, rather have always referred to my wife as my home" - Shabbos 118b). (See “You’re My Home - Billy Joel ad. Loc.) The name Levi is significant, as we know from Leah's naming of the original Levi:" Now my husband will become close with me". Thus, from the words comes the story: the husband separated from his wife with whom he had been intimate, only to return to "bot Levi" the woman with whom he had been close with and would be close with again.

Rabbi Yisoschar Frand explains why these parents are not mentioned by name via a striking statement of the Rambam. The Rambam states that anyone can be a tzadik like Moshe Rabeinu. If the parents were named, we might attribute Moshe's accomplishments to his parents. The mishna in Avot states that one shouldn't assume greatness will come based on lineage because "Aina Yerusha Lach-these things aren't automatically inherited."

Rav Hutner once received a letter from a distraught talmid who was suffering a slump. In his response Rav Hutner thanked him for his uplifting letter, explaining that feeling tension means the battle is half won. He proposes that we mistakenly imagine the Chafetz Chaim coming out of the womb as the inspiration of a nation. Rav Hutner writes that in all likeliness Rav Yisrael Meir Kagan underwent great, unimaginable turmoil towards becoming the Chofetz Chaim. Rav Hutner said that this talmid’s sense of frustration was an indication of his desire to reclaim his potential greatness. The comfort and complacency that sometimes accompany early success can be a curse in disguise, leaving a legacy of comfortable complacency. Perhaps (if we're allowed to say this) Moshe’s early disappointments in confronting both Par'oh and his own nation were necessary pieces of the process of his becoming Moshe Rabeinu.

None of us are born into a vacuum. And we are born in certain times and places for specific reasons. The Eben Ezra posits that Moshe Rabeinu was raised in Par'ohs palace in preparation for his role. There Moshe attained the assertiveness and lack of star-struckedness needed to depose the king of Egypt. Who our parents are can not be minimized as a major in who we become. However, there is also the concept of the crown of Torah's availability to all, and the statement of the Rambam about us all being able to achieve Moshe’s greatness, though often reinterpreted and weakened, must be reckoned with at face value.

May G-d bless us all to become who we're meant to be, through much joy, and with as little pain as possible.

Shmot: Elusive Empathy

“And it was during those days, and Moshe grew up,
and went out to his brothers, and saw in their suffering.”

“I feel your pain.” “I hear you.” “That must be hard.” These are actual attempts we make at empathy. But do people really care? Is it possible to empathize?
Rashi says that Moshe “put his eyes and heart into suffering with them.” The Torah’s words indicate what Rashi is getting at, that Moshe truly put his whole being into the suffering of his brothers. He was aware of current events and did not stay insulated from the reality of his times. He grew from being a child and prepared himself to face the world as an adult. Beyond awareness understanding he actually picked himself up, left his own world and physically visited the situation of his brothers. Then he moved on to truly seeing their pain.
The Medrash says that Moshe put his shoulder under their loads and shared the weight with them. While the help he could offer to a mass of enslaved human beings may have been negligible, the benefit he gained from putting his shoulder next to theirs was inestimable. He felt what they felt; he experienced the muscular soreness, the devestation of spirit.
The rabbis list forty-eight ways through which one integrates Torah into his being. One of these ways of acquiring Torah is to carry the burden of another (“Nosei BeOl Im Chaveiro – Avot 6:6). Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz (the spiritual guide -mashgiach of the Mir Yeshiva in Poland. Lived from 1874-1936) points out that Torah means all of Torah. While many might perceive a religious person who is lacking in empathy as deficient in his Torah observance toward other people, it is broader than that. As Rabbi Abraham Twerski puts it, “ Since true empathy and sharing another’s burden is an essential for Torah, one cannot be Torah observant if one is derelict in this trait.”
May we be blessed to truly empathise. G-d knows it’s not easy.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Vayechi - Yaakov/Yisrael

Rav Chaim Schmuelvitz suggests that the name Yisrael connotes happiness while Yaakov reflects sadness. He says this is clear at the start of VaYechi: “And it came to pass after these things that someone said to Yoseph: 'Behold, your father is sick.' And he took with him his two sons, Menasheh and Ephraim. And someone informed Yaakov, and said: 'Behold, your son Yosef is coming to you.' And Yisrael strengthened himself, and sat upon the bed.” (There’s an interesting literary parallelism – first someone tells Yosef something about his father, then his father is told something about him. Wonder what the message is in that little piece of Torah poetry.)
First sad, then reinvigorated; Yaakov then Yisrael. This reminds me of an interview I saw in which Robert Klein was asked if he sees himself or someone else when he watches videos of his old performances. He said that he actually sees different people, not him as he knows himself now. We are all (hopefully) different people during different ages, different moods, different times.

Yaakov was sometimes so sad that he was a different person. And yet he was always forefather and role model. Different states of mind are opportuniteies, not excuses. This is a difficult truth, true nonetheless. Wherever we're at and whoever we are at any moment we are expected to be our best, to do to our best to be close to G-d.

May we be so blessed.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Your Blessings Count

Yaakov's blessings makes it clear that he gave special attention to the strengths of each of his children. If Rav Hirsch is correct in suggesting that Yitzchak and Rivka ruined Eisav by trying to squeeze him into a Yaakov shaped box, we can infer that Yaakov responded to this mistake by being super cautious in focusing on the specific needs of each of his offspring. (Such reactions are neither unreasonable nor uncommon. I have a dear friend who's father who is sometimes less careful than he should be with the secrets people entrust him with, while his son is probably the most discreet, trustworthy person I know.)

Some of Yaakov's blessings sound less like blessings than statements of fact. The lesson may be that our greatest blessings are the givens we are given. Yaakov points to the negative in some of his son's personalities, (like violence for Shimon and Levi) indicating that strengths can be a double-edged sword. That which makes us who we are in a positive light will be the flaw that brings us down (G-d forbid) if we are not careful. This fits with Rav Hirsch's observation that had Eisav's inclinations been properly channeled world history would have played out differently.

Yaakov goes out of his way to show his children that everyone has his own strength. Some may receive titles that others don't but no one is insignificant in the eyes of G-d. When Yosef sees that Yaakov seems to have favored Ephrayim over the first born Menashe he is bothered enough to forcibly correct the mistake his father made by switching his hands. Yaakov tells Yosef that he knows what he's doing, and that Ephrayim will be "greater" than Menashe. While Yosef might have feared a repetition of history in the worst way, Yaakov was telling him that that need not be the case.

Parents and teachers know that pretending that everyone is equal is neither fair nor honest, and kids don't buy it anyway. While everyone is equally important, not everyone is blessed with the same gift. We are each talented even though we don't all become famous for our political acumen or other traits that history tends to photograph. Denying the fact that one child stands out in ways that the other does not can foster jealousy rather than prevent it. Parents should strive to teach themselves and then their children that one person may be noticed for a talent that another lacks, but this does not give the first person a right to be haughty, nor does it permit the second person to be resentful. This is difficult master or even to understand at any age.

Perhaps in blessing Ephrayim and Menashe, Yaakov was noting that they were role models because they knew who they were and harbored neither boastfulness nor resentfulness. And in blessing our children to be like Ephrayim and Menashe we are blessing them to be people that accept their place in life, realizing that despite the title or attention attached to their name, they are all holy children of their parents and of G-d. (I find it fascinating that we all know the names Ephrayim and Menashe, and we all know the story of the switching of the hands. But how many of us don't have to remind ourselves as we reread the story which one was really the first born and which one Yaakov gave precedence to?)

The Ari-Zal (Rabbi Isaac Luria 1534-1572) notes that Yaakov called all of his sons together before he blessed them. Calling them together and blessing them publicly served to drive home an important truth. Every son of Yaakov had to remember that just like he had his own unique role, so did each of his brothers. We too have to remember this lesson, that while we are unique so is everyone else.

May we each be blessed to embrace our own blessing with gratefulness and equanimity.

(I am grateful to Phil Chernofsky whose ideas in Torah Tidbits provided the fodder for much of this piece)

Friday, December 14, 2007

Yosef's Plan

Brotherly Help

Giving bread is noble. Giving someone himself is greater than that. Yosef saw a subtle opportunity before him. Beneath providing the brothers with food was Yosef's plan to give them something more. If he had appeared sight unseen in his old home or had he revealed himself when the brothers arrived in Egypt the chance could have been lost forever.

The brothers were living with the unique combination of guilt and denial that allows people to function after they've done something wrong. They knew what they'd done and lived on with the lies they created. Had Yosef confronted them cold, they would probably have been overwhelmed by being so exposed and reacted with irrational, embarrassed attempts to push away the incriminating reality that Yosef represented. And if they did apologize or repent, how could such reconciliation or such repentance be real?

Had he confronted them immediately Yosef and the brothers would have still wondered if they would do the same thing again, given the chance. The question wouldn't go away. But once the brothers were exposed, their self-esteem would never return.

Because he was human what the brothers did to Yosef hurt him. But worse than the hurt was the loneliness. Even being king cannot replace broken familial bonds. Despite his anger, the part of Yosef that missed his family won out. He wondered if there could be reconciliation. Or would the brothers be too ashamed to make up? Would they be able to look him in the eye, to look themselves in the mirror? A potential answer to these questions presented itself when Yosef’s brothers appeared before him. That meeting paved a path to peace.

He insisted that they were spies even after they presented the plausible story of being a family with one brother missing and one left at home. Why doesn't Yosef agree to check out their alibi by letting them bring the youngest brother? The answer is that accusing them of being spies guaranteed that they wouldn't talk to anyone on their journey home. Had he pulled back on the spy angle they could have small talked with an Egyptian at the inn going home (a six-day journey*) and mentioned the viceroy’s demands. Knowing where Yosef came from, an Egyptian could have told the brothers the story of this youngster from Canaan's emergence to power. They would have figured out that this was Yosef and his plan would have been foiled. But the spy allegation guaranteed the brothers’ insulation until the right moment.

Yosef’s plan hinged on the fact that the brothers said that they were a family. He remembered how they had once they lost a certain family member with ostensible ease. When they’d plotted against Yosef, they continuously referred to him as "him." They told their father that "his son" was gone. Yosef hoped to reveal that they now actually cared about losing a brother. He wanted them to show it rather than simply say it. He wanted and needed to see it, and he wanted them to see it for their own sake.

It was a delicate proposition, but Yosef wanted the change in the brothers to emerge holistically. In the end Yosef proved that his brothers cared and had grown into a family. This restoration of self-esteem to the brothers earned placement before even respect for his father. That's why Yosef didn’t go home or send word early on.

May G-d bless us to succeed in giving the gift of self to others and ourselves. May a real sense of brotherhood lead us to personal and national redemption. May the story of Yosef and his brothers inspire us to return to G-d, to each other and ourselves.



The brothers are unable to speak to Yosef. The Beis HaLevi famously says it was embarrassment -that Yosef called them - specifically Yehuda - on their lie, . "You say you care about your father and little brother," he says to them, "but I am Yosef and I wonder is MY father still alive? Remember what you did to him? Your actions contradict your words."

The Beis HaLevi supports his view with the medrash which seems arbitrary in it’s juxtaposition of Yosef’s question to his brothers and the statement G-d will make to us one day. Just as Yosef states "I am Yosef" and then questions the brothers about how genuine they are in their care, G-d will one day announce to our souls, “I am G-d.” And then he will point out – “maasecha sotrim devarecha, your actions contradict your words.”

Rabbi Bernard Weinberger, author of Shemen HaTov suggests and then proves that it wasn’t embarrassment. The brothers were speechless for another reason. They had never recognized Yosef for who he really was. Long before his beard and position disguised his identity, Yosef was a mystery to his brothers. Rather than trust him at his word, or hope he was something they couldn’t understand they made him into something clear. The brothers decided Yosef was a scoundrel, a threat, a potential murderer, a baby, a daddy’s boy (or worse, depending on who you read and how you think).

Who was Yosef really? Yosef was a tzaddik. He was The Tzaddik. He’s the standard, the bar, the paradigm, the only ancestor that holds the title of Tzaddik as the way that we remember him. The brothers didn’t get it for a long time. When they finally got it, they were speechless. Here was the little twerp and he was ruler of Egypt. And what really got them was that he was righteous, G-d fearing. It was clear. He wasn’t just their father’s favorite or the tattletale they took him for. He was a Tzaddik! Who knew? They thought he was such a nebbish. Now they were speechless.

One day we’ll stand before G-d and He won’t have to point out the contradictions between what we say and what we do. He won’t have to. We’ll see G-d’s glory. We’ll understand and we’ll be speechless.

May we be blessed to get it in regard to each other to the best of our ability as soon as we can.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

(Mikeitz) (Out Of Order)

This morning, Jeremy, one of the four kollel members in my school told me an amazing vort that he just heard at a Sheva Brachot from Rabbi David Luchins.

Rabbi Luchins stated that it's known that criminal prison is a late development in world history. It certainly did not exist in biblical times. (Wikipedia confirms that "for most of history, imprisoning has not been a punishment in itself, but rather a way to lock up criminals until corporal or capital punishment.) The question is - why does it seem that Yosef was thrown into jail as a punishment, in the modern sense? Another question is why Yosef in his high position is consistently deferential to the kohanim of Mitzryim.

The medrash says that Potiphar had a quandry - it was word against word. (I once heard Nechama Leibowitz say that "this wasn't te first time he heard a story like this.) He needed a decision, so he went to the priests, who served as judicial advisers. The evidence at hand was a ripped piece off or Yosef's shirt. The kohanim made a simple conclusion, if the rip was in the front this meant that Potiphar's wife was in the right, as was telling everyone within earshot that he attacked her. If the rip was in the back, then his story was supported - that he ran away as she was trying to seduce him.

Of course the rip was in the back but Potiphar was now stuck, because how could he discredit the words his wife said. So the Kohanim suggested that he put Yosef aside in the holding pen, till something was figured out. And his life was spared, and then he fell between the cracks and ended up being forgotten there for a long time. Yosef was forever grateful to the Egyptian priests who saved his life. (The two officers were clearly put there only as an interim thing while it was decided if they'd each live or die.)

The Chidushei HaRim says that we will all ascend and be judged one day. And we will come before G-d with our torn shirt. And we will claim that the rip is in the back because we were running away. But G-d will know the truth and the evidence will be clear.

Monday, December 10, 2007


Three Metaphors, One Lesson

1) A tapestry of knots and loose ends seems a waste of yarn. But turn it over and you find a beautiful picture, realizing in embarrassment you were viewing the wrong side of the picture.

2) Someone never saw bread and then witnessed the baking process from it's earliest stages. He doesn't understand why someone buries a perfect seed, chops down the lovely plant that sprouts, picks out grains to smash, throws a mixture of grain and water to a fiery destruction in a furnace. The baking bread's scent causes the man's mouth to water. And as this fellow enjoys a slice of hot bread with butter, all the preliminary stages finally make sense.

3) Ten brothers travel far during famine to get food for the family. They encounter the Secretary of Agriculture, the most powerful man in a country, and things start spiraling downward. Mishaps escalate into impending tragedy; they are arrested as spies, one is taken hostage, their baby brother is summoned and accused of stealing, and that's just part of it. They wonder why this is happening as they ineffectively spin wheels, helplessly handling the situation. All of this changes with two spoken words. This leader tells them who he is, and the puzzle is solved. Joseph's brothers see with clarity endemic of hindsight the sense in all they endured in Egypt.

The Chafetz Chaim presents the story of Yosef and his brothers as a powerful parable for our lives. Sometimes the details of life can border on unbearable. We look at what we're told is beautiful to see only loose ends and question marks. We witness seemingly senseless cutting down of our precious efforts. One day we will retrospectively understand. And there will be no need for explanatory speeches. We will hear the two words"Ani Hashem" spoken directly to us, and everything will make sense. May we be blessed to hear these words even now to whatever extent possible.

Friday, December 7, 2007


Everyone asks what Yosef is doing to the brothers. It seems best understood as a plan of growth. Some say he was helping them do teshuva. Phrased more broadly, he was helping them become the best human beings they could be. He was placing them in a similar situation to the one they had mishandled when he was at the center of it. Now with Binyamin in the middle they get it right. This is but one of myriad examples of how to view the Torah as a guide book for growth.

One of the fascinating aspects of Torah for me is the fact that it is so layered. People are always asking if Medrashim are to be taken literally or not. For me, for now, they simply are. They're a part of the picture. And like any good story, midrashim are true, whether they happened or not.

The medrash adds a fascinating subtext to the story of Yosef and the brothers. When the Torah he states that "his father wept for him" - the medrash adds that (although in literal context this seems to refer to Yaakov crying for Yosef) this refers to Yitzchak's crying for Yaakov.

Yitzchak did not cry for Yosef because he knew prophetically that Yosef was alive. But he cried for Yaakv, feeling his pain. And why didn't he tell Yaakov what he knew? It seems that unless you're told to tell someone something you're told, you're not supposed to. (This is the true meaning of G-d telling Moshe LAIMOR - he tells him when he should pass words on, and otherwise he understood not to.) (This also explains why Rivka didn't tell Yitzchak what she knew about Yaakov and Eisav.)

Rabbi Abraham Twerski (a master of modern day mussar teaching, and my hero) writes (in living each day on Miketz) this idea. And he stresses that the lesson of this is how careful we should be with our own speech. Yitzchak would have loved to tell Yaakov what he knew but he never spoke without thinking first, and his thinking told him that it was not proper to share what he knew.

At the very start of the parsha we're told of Paroh's dream. There seem to be extra words - the sick alves come out of the Nile and stand NEXT TO TH HEALTHY ONES. Rabbi Twersky comments that the seemingly extra words teach a crucial life lesson. If the sick cows weren't i close proximity to the healthy cows, the healthy cows couldn't have been effected. The lesson is that many of us get too close for comfort to negative influences. And then when the sickness spreads we wonder. He says that we need to learn mussar and live mussar and try our best to protect ourselves from surrounding negative influences that threaten to invade at any time. He speaks of drugs as an example of something that was once peripheral to mainstream society, but somehow it got close, and now it's penetrated into every community.