Friday, January 5, 2024

Is My Father Still Alive? A (Belated) Vayigash Thought Le'Ilui Nishmat Werner (Binyamin Ben Mordechai Dov) Fleischmann

Everyone talks about why when Yosef finally reveals himself to his brothers he asks, "Is my father still alive?" There are many answers. But I'm thinking that whatever we want to say about that specific question in that moment there's a broader context to consider. In the big picture Yaakov is always split between being Yosef's father and being the father of his other sons. This is true in terms of how they saw him as their father and how he related to them as his children.

Yaakov clearly treated Yosef in one way (special clothing, spending time just with him, sending him to check on the brothers/others) and the brothers another way. I don't think that Yosef ever refers to Yosef as "our father" or that the brothers ever refer to his as father of all of them, they just speak of father of them ("we are 10 sons") and also - by the way - of a brother who's now gone.

So when Yosef asks - if just his father is still alive, it's not such big news. They were talking about their father, and it's true that he was just one living body and soul, but in essence Yosef's father and the brother's father were quite different, like two fathers. So it makes sense to stress this point, putting it out there that his father is special to him, that through this whole story Yaakov as a split father is key (spiritually keeping Yosef strong, sensing spiritually - if not consciously - that Yosef was still alive, and on the other hand being deceived by the brothers and having tension with them over the fact that Yosef died under their watch.) (It's ironic that Yosef died under the brothers' watch, even though he was sent to watch them).

I always thought it odd that we speak only of the story of Yosef and his brothers, why not speak of the story of Yosef's sons. I think calling these brothers sons would highlight their unity, that they were born to the same father. Speaking of Yosef and his brothers highlights the division between them, the fact that as independent humans these sons split into groups of brothers, a group of 10 and a group of one (plus his dad). (This fits with the brothers' saying we are ten sons, and then there's one who is not here. He was never with them, in their group.

In hard times we sing Am Yisrael Chai + Od Avinu Chai. I think this harkens back to Yosef asking, "Is my father still alive?" We say that Our Father in Heaven is still alive and connected to us. What helps this to be so? The fact that are sing TOGETHER and say OUR father, rather than singing alone about MY father. When is it true that Am Yisrael Chai? When we embrace each other - correcting the mistakes made by all involved in dividing sons and brothers in this story.

May we be blessed to be living embodiments of Hineh mah tov u'mah na'im shevet achim gam yachad. May our Father in Heaven be proud of each one of us, and also of all of us together. And may our father - the father of Barry and Neil - be proud of each of us and of both of us, his two sons, two dear brothers, together.

Thursday, September 1, 2022

Shoftim Haiku With Notes



We need protection
Of the gates into our soul (1)
Shoftim VeShotrim

Bribes will blind your eyes
And the world is filled with them (2)
Beware subtle bribes

Seek justice justice
For Jewish brothers, others
Mayor Koch's pshat (3)

This dead man will die
Already gone long ago
As some dead men live (4)

Two or three eidim
The third counts like the second
For better or worse (5)

Listen to the judge
When he says that right is right
Or that left is left (6)

(1) The Sefer Yetzirah and others explain in a mystical/metaphorical way that the command to defend our gates applies not only to our cities but tour bodies. Our orifices are our gates and we must protect our souls by defending what we allow inside us. When the Torah speaks of social justice there is also an element of treating ourselves justly and wisely as well.

(2) Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman explains that the world can to some extent offer bribes of a variety of material forms. We must be on guard to adhere to the truth and not be swayed by the bribes of this world. Along these lines Rav Chaim Schmuelewitz said "there are no doubts, only desires." We must be on guard to do what is good and right and to try to be as objective as possible, staying as free as we can from vested interests, which can be viewed as forms of bribes as well.

(3) When Koch was hosting his Ask The Mayor radio program one evening years ago, a man called up and said that Hatzalah – an ambulance corps under Jewish auspices - wouldn't take him because he wasn't Jewish. Koch said flatly that he didn't believe the man because a rabbi had taught him this traditional Jewish understanding of the seemingly redundant wording of “justice, justice shall you seek.

(4) The Torah states that via testimony of valid witnesses "yumat hameit" – “the dead man shall die.” The rabbis explain that an immoral person is like dead when alive. The rabbis add that righteous people live on after they die, through the ripple effect of the just acts which filled their lives.

(5) The rabbis say that the Torah says two or three people count as valid witnesses to teach us that if the two witnesses are found to be con artists, the third person is held accountable too for having latched onto them. The lesson, developed in the Talmud’s Tractate Makkot, is that it is a positive thing to connect to good people. Just as we are held accountable for associating with people that are cold or unjust, so too we are credited for supporting and associating with those who are righteous and courageous.

(6) See Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein’s Torah Temimah. The statement rabbis of the Talmud that says that we must listen even if leading rabbis say left is right is often quoted in certain Orthodox circles. The Torah Temimah quotes a statement from the Talmudic scholars that state outright the sensible reverse: that we should only listen when they say right is right or left is left. But when what we are told is clearly wrong then we must not obey.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Replacing Pinchas

This is on last week’s parsha. I’ve been thinking and rethinking it and wanted to share it even though the parsha may seem to have passed. It is an adaptation of the ideas of Rabbi Yitzchak Twersky. In three instances where I added my own thoughts, I put them in parentheses, followed by the word “Me.”)

There are four topics in Parshat Pinchas: 1) the postscript to the Pinchas’ actions, 2) the dividing of Israel according to inheritance, including lists of lineage and the episode of the daughters of Tzlofchod, 3) the choice of Yehoshua to take over for Moshe, and 4) the regular-temidim and Mussaf Korbanot. What is the connecting theme of these topics?

The common theme here is the concept of korban (which is normally translated as sacrifice, but really means an act that increases closeness to G-d - Me).

The killing of Zimri is described by Chazal in terminology of sacrifice. We’re told in 25:6 – that Zimri was makriv a Midianite woman, towards the opening of the Ohel Moed. Also, Pinchas is rewarded with kehunah, and we’re informed that he brought kaparah for the Jewish People. The Medrash asks about the use of the word kaparah – “did he offer a korban that this word is used?” And the Medrash explains that his killing a wicked man was considered like offering a sacrifice.

These same phrases are repeated in the story of Bnot Tzlofchod (27:1, 5). Their approach of Moshe is preceded by the word vatikravna, then there’s a mention of being towards the opening of the Ohel Moed. Additionally we’re told that Moshe was makriv their words – lifnei Hashem.

The symbol used for the passing on of leadership to Yehoshua is semicha, a physical act commonly used in the avodah of korbanot.

The last part of the Parsha is actually about korbanot.

The deeper theme here is that of replacement, a foundation of what korbanot are about. By attacking Zimri and Kazbi, Pinchas replaced G-d’s Kin’ah with his own (25:11). Also, Hashem was intent upon destroying Am Yisrael, but we’re told that He did not destroy them, because the killing of Zimri and Kazbi replaced that of Bnei Yisrael (velo kiniti et Bnei Yisrael). These replacements are the undercurrent of the korban that the Medrash says that Zimri and Kazbi became.

The section that discusses the division of the land deals with the generation that replaced those who left Mitzrayim. As described in Shemot 3:8, the Yotz’ai Mitzrayim were originally meant to inherit the land but the next generation inherited in their stead.

Bnot Tzlofchod replaced the men (father, brothers) that were not there to inherit the land.

Yehoshua replaced Moshe.

Karbanot are based on the principal of the animal replacing us.

There are two seemingly out of place references in this parsha to people who were killed out. These can be explained in the light of the approach we’ve developed.

26:9-11 speaks of Korach and co. Their desire was to replace Moshe and Aharon. Their names are evoked by the daughters of Tzlofchod. We can now see that Bnot Tzlofchod are drawing a contrast between their father (who they wish to rightfully fill in for) and Korach who had an insincere personal agenda motivating his demand for replacement.

26:19 refers to Eir and Onan. At the center of that story is Onan’s refusal to replace the lineage of his deceased brother.

There is also reference to the death of Aharon’s sons. They brought a korban that did not serve to replace them, thus their lives were taken. Aharon and others who brought korbanot correctly were replaced by their korban.

That this portion focuses on replacement is not surprising taken in light of what precedes it. The previous portion focuses on abuses of this concept. Bilam continuously uses korbanot towards accomplishing his evil designs. Also, at the end of the parsha Bnei Yisrael are involved with zivchei meitim.

Going back to Bilam, there is a striking similarity between Bilam’s story and the story of the Akeida. Chazal note the description of Bilam rising early and preparing his donkey for his journey, and imagine G-d telling him, “Wicked one, Avraham already preceded you in rising early.” These two personalities personify self-centeredness on the one hand, and self-sacrifice on the other. Also, it is not arbitrarily that the Mishna in Avot chose to contrast the students of Avraham and the followers of Bilam. (Some commentaries explain that Chazal contrast the students, because sometimes the differences can be hard to detect in the masters – Me.)

Finally, Pinchas put himself in danger. Like Yitzchak, he was willing to sacrifice his own life and was then replaced and saved. (Normally, one can not become a Kohein. Even as a gift from G-d we don’t see another example of this once it was set who the Kohanim were. Rav Nachman Kahane suggests that Pinchas actually became a new person, and the person he became was a Kohein. Within the terminology we’ve been using, you could say that the old Pinchas was replaced by a new one! - Me )

In conclusion, this parsha presents a restatement of the fundamental concept of replacement as it relates to true service of G-d.

P.S. Unrelated (although everything is really related) parsha point: Rav Nachman Kahane notes the striking similarity between the Dovid vs. Goliad story and the Pinchas vs. Zimri story.

Friday, March 17, 2017

A Leader Who Carries the Nation in His Heart – Parashat Tetzaveh
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites
This week’s parasha – Tetzaveh – deals with the clothing worn by the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, in the Temple.  These were valuable clothes meant to symbolize the Kohen’s respectable status and the fact that he was chosen to serve the nation and sacrifice its sacrifices.
One of the pieces of clothing worn by the Kohen was the “choshen”, the breastplate.  This was a square piece of material embroidered with valuable stones that had the names of the twelve tribes etched on them.  The sages of the Talmud (Tractate Yoma, page 73) teach us that the choshen was not just a piece of decorative jewelry.  It served a practical purpose for the entire nation.
When the nation faced a significant dilemma requiring a decision, they would present the problem to the Kohen Gadol and the answer would be given from G-d through the stones of the choshen and the letters etched on them.  The etched letters of the choshen would shine but not in any logical order that would signify a clear and definitive answer.  The Kohen would have to combine the letters that shone and deduce the answer to the dilemma presented to him.  This is possibly why this clothing was called “urim ve’tumim”, referring to the light.
The reason the answer was given in this unclear manner, leaving the Kohen to decipher G-d’s message from the shining letters, is hinted at in our parasha.  One of the halachot (Jewish laws) regarding wearing the choshen stipulates that the choshen must be placed over the Kohen’s heart:
…and the choshen will not move off the ephod. You shall place the Urim and the Tummim into the choshen of judgment so that they will be over Aaron's heart when he comes before the Lord, and Aaron will carry the judgment of the children of Israel over his heart before the Lord at all times.
(Shmot 28, 28 - 30)
This unusual law stipulating where on the Kohen Gadol’s body this clothing must be positioned does not exist with any other item of his clothing.  The other items must be worn by the Kohen when working in the Temple, but if they move slightly out of place, there is no problem.  Only with the choshen do we find a specific directive that it must not move from its designated place.
This law teaches us about the essence of a true leader.  Obviously a leader is obligated to lead his nation wisely, and make decisions after properly considering all the necessary information.  But there is another side to this coin.  A leader who only makes decisions with cold logic will ultimately end up disconnected from his nation.  Analytical considerations do not suffice in determining serious moral issues.  Room must be made for feelings as well.  Sometimes, rational decisions lead us in a certain direction, but when we listen to the sounds emanating from our hearts, other considerations arise which we did not consider when weighing pros and cons.  Listening to these feelings adds a deeper dimension to decision-making.
A leader must not ignore the feelings of his public; he must make room for the “heart”, feeling his nation’s pain and distress, feeling what they are experiencing on a day-to-day basis, and thus attempting to alleviate their hardships.  A leader whose decisions stem from awareness of his nation’s feelings is the one who will arrive at decisions that are beneficial for it.
Only the Kohen wears the choshen etched with the names of the tribes on his heart.  He is the one who can combine the shining letters and create the relevant and best answer for the given situation.  Only a leader who carries the nation in his heart, is sensitive to its troubles and needs, can find the answer, because the decision is based on a combination of factors.
This concept is true for each and every one of us.  It is only the person who carries the suffering of others in his heart, who is aware of another’s distress or pain, can help him and offer the wisest advice which will be the most beneficial. 

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Parshat Bo

איש מאת רעהו וגו'. לעיל ג' כ"ב כתיב ושאלה אשה משכנתה ומגרת ביתה, שאז היו הדברים שיצאו מיד, ולא היה התרועעות לישראל עם אנשי מצרים רק עם שכנות, אבל כאשר עלה כי לא נגאלו עד שהשהה י"ב חודש שהיה משפט מצרים, וממכת ערוב ואילך השיגו התרועעות הרבה, ולא עוד אלא במכת חשך שלא קמו איש מתחתיו ג' ימים והאיך התענו כולם ג' ימים, אלא ישראל שהיה אור במושבותם הושיטו להם מזון וכל ההכרחי, ולא שמחו לאידם ולא נקמו בהם, ובזה השיגו ישראל חן גדול בעיניהם:
Mind blowing Netziv, in which he says that the Jews asked for things from their friends the Egyptians because a connection had developed between them in the later plagues. Paticularly he says, they connected during darkness because the only reason the Egyptians did not starve to death and die is because the Jews helped them.
This also fits with the Ibn Ezra who ways that some of the plagues hit both the Jews and the Egyptians. And this is backed up by Moshe saying that he wanted the suffering to stop for the Jewish People.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Dad not in good shape based on all physical measures.  if you see this pray for Binyamin ben Chana.  Just back from ICU, going to try to sleep.....

G-d tells Moshe, in VaEira, his mission , twice. one is phrased more per Jewish People, one more universal. 2 levels/approaches...

We all live 2 lives - Jewish and universal.....

Friday, January 20, 2017


Right before candle lighting I feel a calling to share.  Dad is in ICU.  I am sick w fever and cough and all that jazz.  Brother will be sleeping in ICU.

If you see this say a prayer for Binyamin ben Chana, a survivor over and over again, a superman, who came back again and again.

I can't read the opening words of Sefer Shemot without thinking of the closing words of Sefer Breishit.  Specifically Yosef's assurance to the brothers that he will sustain them.  And then a page turns and Yosef is gone and completely unknown to the leader of Egypt.  That's life.  We're so here and so strong one second, but then the page can so easily turn.  And in a second...

May we be blessed to humbly, kindly, joyfully, generously, embrace life while we are vibrantly still living it.

Shabbat Shalom.

Shemot - Guest Post

Please continue to have Rabbi Hoffman in mind in your prayers for a complete & speedy recovery, among the ill of the nation.
                                                                           Setting the Stage

                                             By Rabbi Joshua (dramatically known as the Hoffer) Hoffman

  The Talmud (Shabbos 12) tells us that a father should never favor one son over another, because as a result of the two measures of silk by which Yaakov favored Yosef, our ancestors ended up in Egypt. This passage is a bit difficult, because exile was already foretold at the bris ben habesarim, many years before. The Netziv explains simply that the favoritism Yaakov showed would have been enough on its own to cause the exile.

  Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt"l, however, based on a midrash cited in the Torah Shleima, took the gemara in a non-literal way. The Rabbis tell us that Yaakov sought to sit in tranquility, but the trouble with Yosef arose. What this means is that he wanted Mashiach to come, and he could have. Just as the 210 years the Jews spent in Egypt were considered as 400 years, so too, the 20 years Yaakov spent with Lavan could have been considered as 400 years. The only reason that didn't happen is that the brothers did not appreciate the principle of how good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together. As representatives of G-d in the world, the nation had to be unified,reflecting the Unity of G-d. The Midrash in fact says that Yehudah went down from his brothers, Yosef went down to Mitzrayim, and Yaakov mourned. And G-d was busy sowing the seeds of Mashiach. The conflict of the brothers necessitated the preparation for the path of Mashiach.

  This conflict then had to be resolved in order for redemption to come. We find at the end of Parshas Vayechi that the brothers, speaking in the name of their departed father, asked Yosef for forgiveness. 
  Interestingly, Rabbeinu Bachya notes that we never find explicitly that Yosef did indeed forgive his brothers. Why not? Perhaps Yosef believed that the brothers first needed to forgive themselves and not become mired in a black sheep complex, thinking they could never change. As my teacher, Rav Aharon Soloveichik zt"l explained, that is why he put them in a situation in which they had to save Binyamin, to convince them that given the chance they would not repeat the same mistake as they did with Yosef. 

  I believe that the symbiotic relationship between Moshe and Aharon, as displayed in the book of Shemos, served as a further impetus to the tribes, setting up a model of brotherly love, with Aharon wholeheartedly accepting his younger brother as his successor in leading the people to redemption.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Sometime I want to hide in public, post in the least likely place to be seen.  Dad is in bad shape at the moment.  It happened suddently.  I am ill, have been for days.  Anything could happen with dad.  I have to be ready, but am in denial.  And I'm sick w possible pneumonia.  Dad probably has pneumonia, with serious complications. Was there all day, needed to go home.....

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Vayechi Thought

The seventh time that Yosef cries in his serialized Torah drama is when the brothers approach him after Yaakov dies, saying (in Yaakov's name) that he should not take revenge for what they did to him.

He is, perhaps, struck by how wealth and power are a facade and that all the power in the world is no match for the strength inherent in being connected to your family. He cries, as he realizes, that while he seems to be the one who has what they lack, and that he is the one providing for them, the opposite may be more true. They have something he always wanted, each other.

(Based on words of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, in "Yosef's Tears")