Friday, December 25, 2009

Parshat Vayigash - פרשת ויגש

"וְלֹא-יָכֹל יוֹסֵף לְהִתְאַפֵּק, לְכֹל הַנִּצָּבִים עָלָיו, וַיִּקְרָא, הוֹצִיאוּ כָל-אִישׁ מֵעָלָי; וְלֹא-עָמַד אִישׁ אִתּוֹ, בְּהִתְוַדַּע יוֹסֵף אֶל-אֶחָיו - Then Yoseph could not endure (/refrain himself) before all them that stood by him; and he cried: 'Remove every man from before me.' And there stood no man with him, while Yoseph made himself known unto his brothers."
(בראשית מה:א)

This verse comes at the very height of the drama of Yosef's story. It is at this point, having heard how his now-elderly father was so deeply troubled by his disappearance, that Yosef decides that has had enough and opts to reveal himself to his brothers.

Rashi's commentary on this verse explains that "לא היה יכול לסבול שיהיו מצריים נצבים עליו ושומעין שאחיו מתבישין בהועדו להם - He could not bear that there should be Egyptians standing before him and hearing that his brothers are shamed, when he makes himself known to them." It is abundantly clear from these words that Yoseph was suddenly overcome with the realisation that the game was over; that his brothers truly regretted their actions, and that there was no need to torture himself, or them, any longer.

If we put ourselves in Yoseph's shoes, we can imagine how it would have felt like for the duration of his twenty-two years away from his siblings. Yoseph knew that his prophetic vision of his family being subordinate to him was not a false one, and understood that the day would eventually come when he would see them again. When they finally did come to him, he did not reveal himself straight away. We can only imagine how tortuous it must have been for Yoseph to wait to reveal his identity to the brothers he loved so much.

At the same time, as the Yalkut Lekach Tov points out, Rabbi Yehudah Loeb Chasman writes in his work, Or Yahel, that Yoseph's feelings weren't just of love - he must have been acutely aware that the last time he spoke with his siblings on a brother-to-brother basis, he was cast into a pit to die, before being "saved" and sold to Yishamaelite traders as a slave.

I know that if I had been cast out of my family for having a seemingly wacky dream, I would probably have gently poked fun: "See, you do all have to worship me now!" But this was the farthest thing from Yoseph's mind. Amidst these crushing emotions, Yoseph held his nerve. While most people in Yoseph's position would have outed themselves there and then, Yoseph remained aware to the needs of his brothers. Even though he was deperate to rejoin his family, and even though he had reason to fear for his life, Yoseph had the presence of mind to order all the courthands out of the room. Despite the fact that ordering all his subjects out of the courtoom meant that he was left alone with potential murderers, Yoseph did the best he could to prevent himself from embarassing his brothers publicly, even if it meant costing him his life.

I don't think that I need to write much more - I just hope that we may we all learn the lesson Yoseph teaches us here, and that even in the most trying times, we may remain aware of our friends' feelings.

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Parshat Mikeitz - פרשת מקץ

I hope you'll forgive me, but I've been ill this week, so I haven't been able to prepare as I'd like to for my D'var Torah. As such, the following is adapted from a Dvar Torah by Rafi Jager on

"וְהִנֵּה שֶׁבַע-פָּרוֹת אֲחֵרוֹת, עֹלוֹת אַחֲרֵיהֶן, דַּלּוֹת וְרָעוֹת תֹּאַר מְאֹד, וְרַקּוֹת בָּשָׂר:  לֹא-רָאִיתִי כָהֵנָּה בְּכָל-אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, לָרֹעַ - And, behold, seven other kine came up after them, poor and very ill-favoured and lean-fleshed, such as I never saw in all the land of Egypt for badness"

Parshat Miketz opens with the recounting of Pharoh's fascinating nightmares. In his dreams, Pharoh sees seven weak cows consuming an equal number of stronger cows, and then views seven thin sheaves of corn swallowing seven healthy sheaves.

Not content with one description of the episode, the Torah then relates the whole dream again as Pharoh describes his unnerving experience to Joseph, in an attempt to gain some understanding as to the meaning of his vision.

Interestingly, there are several differences in the description of the cows and the sheaves between the first time the story is told and the second time it is recounted. Specifically, why did Pharoh describe the weak cows as being Dalot (B'reishit 41:19), literally translated as "poor", upon repeating the story to Yoseph? The terms used in the Torah at the time of the dream were "רָעוֹת מַרְאֶה, וְדַקּוֹת בָּשָׂר - ill favoured and lean-fleshed;" why did Pharoh opt to describe the event in different words?

Wouldn't it have been logical for the Torah to have used the same adjectives each time the story is told? Indeed, when Joseph presents his interpretation, he returns to the original description of the weak cows and does not refer to them by the adjective Pharos used. How did he know to avoid this word? Rashi explains that when Pharoh asked his sorcerers and wise men for their interpretation, they responded that he would have seven daughters whom he would bury, an explanation with which Pharoh was not satisfied. Again, how did Yoseph know the correct interpretation while the sorcerers and wise men did not? The Bet Halevi suggests that Pharoh intentionally misdescribed the cows to Yoseph as being דלות/poor to determine whether or not Yoseph was really receiving divine inspiration.

Yoseph though, realised the trick, and omited the misleading adjective when he offers his explanation of the dreams. Yoseph's message was as if to say to Pharoh that the cows had not actually been "poor" in the dream. From this, Pharoh understood that the spirit of G-d rested on Yoseph. The Bet Halevi further explains that it was this change in language itself - Pharoh's attempt to mislead him - which provided Yoseph the key to the dream's interpretation. In Hebrew, the adjective Dalot is reserved specifically for the description of inferior grain. Faced with the mystery of what the parable of the cows represented, Yoseph inferred from Pharoh's usage of the strange adjective Dalot that the cows were representative of grain. From this, Yoseph constructed his interpretation of seven years of plenty (good grain) and seven years of famine (inferior grain).

Thus, Yoseph drew his understanding of the dream from Pharoh's trick itself. He understood that Hashem's guiding hand can be seen in all facets of life, even through another person's attempt at deception. In the long run, everything is for the best and Yoseph understood that even if Pharoh was trying to deceive him, there must have been a hidden divine plan.

From this story, we can learn that faith in G-d can find its way into all aspects of life. There may be a positive result even from what may seem to be an absolutely negative situation. This is an important idea to take into consideration when dealing with interpersonal relationships, when someone has done something which clearly seems to be to your detriment. Hopefully, we can all develop our eyes and our interpretive skills to see the hidden good in everything.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Parshat Vayeshev and Chanukah - פרשת וישב וחג חנוכה

"וַתָּסַר בִּגְדֵי אַלְמְנוּתָהּ מֵעָלֶיהָ, וַתְּכַס בַּצָּעִיף וַתִּתְעַלָּף, וַתֵּשֶׁב בְּפֶתַח עֵינַיִם, אֲשֶׁר עַל-דֶּרֶךְ תִּמְנָתָה: כִּי רָאֲתָה, כִּי-גָדַל שֵׁלָה, וְהִוא, לֹא-נִתְּנָה לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה - And she put off from her the garments of her widowhood, and covered herself with her veil, and wrapped herself, and sat in the entrance of Enaim, which is by the way to Timnah; for she saw that Shelah was grown up, and she was not given unto him to wife."

Thus starts the intriguing and almost puzzling episode of Tamar, the widowed wife of Yehudah's son, Er. Prior to this Pasuk, Er had passed away and so, following the Jewish law of Yibum, whereby a childless widow is married off to her husband's brother, (ostensibly so that the family name may continue into future generations,) Tamar was then married to Onan. Because Onan failed to reproduce with her, Hashem had him killed.

At this point, Yehudah regarded Tamar as being accursed and was reluctant to hand her over to his remaining son, Shelah. Yehudah advises Tamar to behave like a widow until Shelah grows up, but when he does, Yehudah still refuses to allow Tamar and Shelah to marry.

The next part of the text seems highly controversial - after Yehudah's wife dies, Tamar acts in a rather peculiar manner; she "put off from her the garments of her widowhood, and covered herself with her veil, and wrapped herself, and sat in the entrance of Enaim, which is by the way to Timnah." As we read on, we understand that Tamar concealed herself as a prostitute and seduced Yehudah. To the causal reader, this appears to be bizarre behaviour. What on earth is going on?

To understand this passage, we need to know who Tamar was. Tamar was no ordinary woman - she was of fine stock; the daughter of Shem, and a Prophetess in her own right. As such, Tamar was an exceedingly great individual, and to imagine that her thoughts and actions were base would be a gross misjudgement.

Rather, Tamar knew that she was to be one of the ancestors of Mashiach. When she did not have children with her first husband, and then her second, she was deeply worried. When Shelah wasn't even married to her, Tamar knew that she had to take matters into her own hands. According to one opinion, this state of affairs occured as a result of the effors of the angels attempt to prevent the Mashiach from being born, (apparently, they were concerned by his tremendous holiness,) and so it had to be done in the lowest form possible, in a manner that would "slip under the radar."

Tamar knew that she had to was part of the chain that led to the birth of Moshiach, and as such, she strove to ensure that this happened. Even though her action constituted prostitution, the ideal and the manner in which she did the deed was on the very highest level. Another aspect to be understood is learned by tracing the geneology of our Mashiach. In contrast to other religions, our Messiah is not immaculate; he is the polar opposite of a pure-blooded Messiah; he comes from a rather dubious background indeed. His lineage is shadowed and shameful: his father descended from Moab, a product of incest between Lot and his daughter after Sodom's destruction, and this chain goes all way down to Ruth, of whom he is a direct descendant of Ruth. Again, Ruth is no "pure-blood" either; she is a convert to Judaism. The lesson we may learn from all of this is that although some of the components leading up to King David and Mashiach are rather "shady," we see that this does not prevent their seed reaching the highest heights. I find this lesson particularly apt, given that Parshat Vayeshev always occurs in close proximity to Chanukah - the shared lesson is that out of the deepest darkness comes the greatest light.

Rav Avigdor Nevenzahl, former rabbi of the Old City of Jerusalem, raises an intriguing question about the Chanukah story. To perform the mitzvah of lighting the Menorah, two things were needed: שמן זית (pure oil) and the מנורת הזהב (The Golden Menorah). In the Chaunkah story, the magnificent Menorah of gold was stolen by the Greeks and although the Maccebees managed to take back the Bet Hamikdash, they were stuck without this glorious artefact.

As such, they were forced to make do with an impromptu, temporary solution; the Maccabees took their spears and cast them into a rudimentary menorah and a replacement forged of tin-coated-iron was made. Only years layer could the Jews replace this with an higher quality silver Menorah, and only decades afterward di they finally exchange this for a splendid Golden Menorah that was worthy of its place in the Bet Hamikdash

The question that Rav Nevenzahl poses is that if God decided to show the Jews where the last bottle of pure oil was hidden, why didn't He similarly produce another miracule whereby the Menorah would have been revealed to the Jews' eyes so that the oil would be utilised in the proper manner?

Rav Nevenzahl's answers by examining the qualities of the two components of the mitzvah of lighting the Menorah. One part is the pure olive oil, and the other is Menorah itself. The Golden Menorah was an emblem of physical beauty, and signified all that which is external. A menorah is only good for lighting as long as it has candles or oil in it. While it might be nice to look at, it serves no real purpose. The pure olive oil, on the other hand, represented a more refined type of beauty - it was the spiritual ingredient and was symbolic of that which is internal. So, says Rav Nevenzahl, the miracle of Chanukah was "limited" to the finding of the oil, and not to the finding of the Menorah. Through His actions, Hashem sent out a crucial message - that the inner, the more spiritual, is always more important than the outer, more basic and physical. Whereas the Greeks and the Helenists valued physical beauty, Hashem showed the Jews that real beauty will always out.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and a Chag Urim Sameach!

Friday, December 04, 2009

Parshat Vayishlach - פרשת וישלח

" וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב, לְבַדּוֹ; וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ, עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר - And Ya'akov was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day."

These words are the basis form the basis for the famous commentary by Rashi that the reason why Ya'akov was left alone at this time was because he returned to the other side of the Jordan river to retrieve some "פכים קטנים - small jugs" that had accidentally been left behind.

One of the traditional lessons we learn from this episode is that we must always appreciate what we have; even though Ya'akov had crossed a river with his family and almost all their possesions, he took the time to go back to collect some relatively inexpensive items because he refused to let things go to waste. Quoting Chazal, Rashi adds that this appreciation was borne of Ya'akov's honesty - one who is honest and works hard for what he has develops a sensitivity to looking after what he has, whereas someone less honest is less likely to care for his belongings.

While this is very much true, I would like to mention what the Yalkut Re'uveini and the Maharsha have to say on this episode. They claim that the jugs retrieved by Ya'akov went on to be used later on in the Tanach; apparently years later, when Shaul was appointed king by Shmuel, oil from one of these jugs.

Even more incredibly, the Midrash of the Yalkut Re'uveini and the Maharsha posits that Ya'akov's urge to collect his forgotten possessions had huge ramifications for the Chanukah story. Then, after the destruction of the Second Beit Hamikdash the Maccabees searched high and low for some oil to relight the Menorah with, and eventually found one solitary jug. This jug, so the Midrash says, is one of those that Ya'akov originally felt so compelled to go back for. (With Chanukah just around the corner, it's amazing to stop and consider that Parshat Vayishlach is always in close proximity to the festival of lights; and that each year we relate this incident close to the time we celebrate the eventual finding of this jug of oil.)

A friend of mine once taught me something by R' Nachman of Uman; all that we have in this world is given to us for a reason. As long as we have something, we have it so that we may use it for becoming closer to God. Whether Ya'akov Avinu knew precisely why he had to go back for the jugs is something I do not know, but we may learn from his behaviour the imperative to treat our possesions with care and consideration

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

For the refuah shelaimah u'mehirah of Rut Nechamah Bat Revital