Thursday, December 26, 2019

Yosef and Yehudah -- oil and menorah

We have been reading these past two weeks about the tragic descent of Yosef, who is first thrown into a pit by his brothers, then sold into slavery, where he is falsely accused by Eishes Potifar and thrown into prison, and then, just as he thinks he has found someone who can help win his release, he is promptly forgotten about by the Sar haMashkim the moment the Sar steps out of prison himself.  And so we find Yosef languishing in prison, seemingly with no hope of escape.  All that is about to change as Yosef is called out of prison to interpret Pharoah's mysterious dreams.  “Va’yiritzuhu min ha’bor” -- Rashi struggles to explain the use of the term “bor” in place of was called in last week’s parsha a “beis ha’sohar.”  Why change terms?  The Zohar solves the problem by reading the pasuk as bringing our narrative fill circle.  The pasuk is not referring to the prison, but rather is referring back to the original pit, that bor where he brothers threw him.  Yosef is on the way out of that pit, on the way to reconciliation with his brothers and fulfillment of his own dreams.

In last week’s parsha (sorry for no post last week – bad cold) the Torah interrupted the Yosef-narrative with the story of Yehudah and Tamar.  There is a parallelism between the stories: both Yosef and Yehudah are rejected by their brothers (as Rashi explains, when the brothers saw the pain caused by Yehudah's plan of selling Yosef they removed him from his position of leadership); both are tempted by women; both Tamar and Eishes Potifar according to Chazal had intentions l’shem shamayim.  Ultimately both narratives intersect in next week’s parsha (will be away from home so probably no post then either) -– VaYigash eilav Yehudah -– and come to a resolution.  From a literary perspective the story is a work of art; if I remember correctly Robert Alter has a wonderful chapter on this whole episode in his book The Art of Biblical Narrative. 

The pshat / narrative relationship between the two stories clues us in to dig deeper into what is going on here.  Malbi”m explains Yehudah’s relationship with Tamar leads to the birth of children from whom will stem the lineage of Mashiach ben David.  At the very moment that the story of Yosef’s sale to Egypt portends our descent into exile, the seeds of redemption are being planted!  At the same time that we are reading of Yosef coming into Egypt, which serves as the paradigm for our physical survival in alien galus culture, we are reading about Yehudah, who keeps the spiritual promise of redemption burning.

This contrast can help us understand another element of the story that will come up in next weeks' parsha.  Rashi tells us that Yaakov sent Yehudah ahead to establish a yeshiva in Goshen before the family arrived.  Why did he need to send Yehudah?  Why not entrust the job to Yosef, who was already there?

We all know that Chanukah celebrates the miracle of the Chashmonaim finding a pure jug of oil that stayed lit for 8 days.  But what about the menorah itself?  Chazal (Menachos 28) tell us that the Chashmonaim did not have the solid gold menorah of the Mikdash; they were forced to light with a plain metal menorah.  Why did a miracle happen to preserve a jug of pure oil, even though technically tumah hutra b’tzibur and any oil could be used, but no miracle happened to ensure the integrity of the menorah itself?

Rav Kook suggests an answer that I am going to take the liberty of reformulating to fit our theme: oil = the spiritual light of Judaism = Yehudah.  Menorah = the physical structure that the light rests on = Yosef.  Yosef looks like an Egyptian, talks like an Egyptian, dresses like an Egyptian –- like a chameleon, he changes his colors to blend in with his environment.  By doing so he is able to become “hu ha’mashbir” who provides for his brothers, and indeed, ensures all of Egypt’s survival during years of famine.  Yehudah, on the other hand, remains in Canaan with his father and brothers.  Yehudah is even willing to sacrifice himself rather than allow Binyamin to be taken into the alien Egyptian society.

When it comes to our material survival, especially in galus, external trappings don’t really matter that much.  Even if the menorah of gold is not available, we can make due with second best.  You can dress like an Egyptian and talk like an Egyptian and still make it.  But when it comes to our spiritual inner core, there are no compromises.  Only the purest of the pure will ever be acceptable. 

On Shabbos we are about to enter the month of Teves.  The Ch haRI”M explains the name Teves comes from the same root as “ha’tavas ha’neiros,” cleaning out the wicks and preparing the menorah for new candles to be lit.  Teves is not the ohr itself -– it’s the physical preparation needed to make ready to receive the ohr.  It’s the Yosef of the story -- “Tvoach tevach v’hachaein,” Yosef commands in our parsha; take the last letter of tevach and the letters of hachein and it spells Chanukah--- laying the physical groundwork upon which a Yehudah can flourish.   Tavas = Aramaic for “tov.”  Not lashon kodesh, because, like Yosef, the “tov” has to dress itself up in the garb of Aramaic.  Teves is the start of the three month period (Teves, Shevat, Adar) where Tziporah had to hide Moshe Rabeinu from the world because the Egyptians counted on a 9 month pregnancy and didn’t realize he would be born early.  Moshe is there, just hidden; Yosef is behind that Egyptian dress, he is just in disguise.  Cleaning out the dirty wicks ain't pretty, but underneath the grime is a pnimiyus of tov preparing the way for those new wicks to produce the ohr.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Yisrael / Yaakov

Let me start with an observation of the Chasam Sofer (d"h va'yivaser Yaakov):

Yaakov managed to wrestle with Eisav’s angel (see Malbi”m who says this is not some external enemy, but is the darker side within Yaakov himself -– a very modern reading) and win and as a result he is given the name Yisrael.  Right after that it seems that the wheels fall off the bus.  First comes the parsha of Dinah.  That is followed by the death of Devorah, the nursemaid of Rivka, as well (according to Chazal) as Rivka herself.  Yaakov resumes his travels only to have Rachel die in childbirth.  Finally we have the sin (or non-sin, as Chazal read it) of Reuvain being “bilbeil yetzuei aviv,” whatever that means.  

What happened?  How can so much unravel so quickly after Yaakov reached such heights?

Second point: once the Torah tells us that “Va’yisa Yisrael va’yeit ohalo mei’hala l’Migdal Eider,” the beginning of the next pasuk, the phrase that introduces the episode with Reuvain, “Va’yehi bishkon Yisrael ba’aretz ha’hi…” seems entirely redundant.  (34:21-35:1)  Absent any indication that Yaakov had moved elsewhere, we would automatically assume that the story took place in the previously mentioned location.  What is the Torah adding?

Netziv explains that the Torah is not talking here about Yaakov’s physical location -– it’s talking about his mental space.  Yisrael = the higher plane of Yaakov’s being, the aspect of his consciousness most connected with G-d.  “Va’yisa Yisrael” –- Yaakov’s head was travelling in the clouds in a positive sense.  He was trying to reconnect to G-d after the death of his mother.  “Vayishkon Yisrael” –- Yaakov was engaged in hisbodedus and hisbonenus, reconnecting with the Shechina.  Had it been me saying the next sentence  you would all jump on me, but it’s not me, it’s the Netziv: it’s precisely because Yaakov was so removed from the daily concerns of olam ha’zeh, precisely because he was caught up in being Yisrael at the expense of his being Yaakov, that Reuvain was able to get into trouble right under his nose.

The gemara darshens that one who calls Avraham by the name Avram has violated an issur.  However, even though Yaakov’s name was changed to Yisrael, his old name still remains in use.  Shem m’Shmuel quotes his father the Sochotchover as explaining that the root of the name Yaakov = EKV, heel, the lowest of low in a human being.   Living on the highest plane, being Yisrael, is possible not in spite of, but aderaba, because of the connection that remains to that level of Yaakov, of recognizing one’s own shortcomings, limits, and failures.

If you become Yisrael but drop the Yaakov, then the wheels inevitably fall off the bus.

A little rant you can skip: If you open any Jewish newspaper these days, you have to admire our accomplishments as Yisrael.  Do you remember when the siyum ha’shas was held in MSG?  Back in those days they didn’t even think that they would even fill the Garden.  Now, there will be spillover because even MetLife Stadium cannot hold all the participants. We’re doing great, aren’t we!  More people learning, more yeshivos, more Torah. 

Make no mistake about it, it is a great thing.  But at the same time, we’ve lost site of the fact that outside our little bubbles , whether it be Teaneck, the 5Towns, Boro Park, Lakewood etc., there is a world of Jews who are just plain Yaakovs and barely that, and there is utter decimation and chaos.  Considering the lack of basic Jewish education and the intermarriage rate, what are the odds of the grandchildren of young assimilated American Jews today retaining any vestige of their jewishness, or even being Jewish at all, in two generations?  There is a complete disconnect between the world we live in –- not just on issues of halacha, but even on "political" issues like support of the State of Israel --  and the world they live in.  Yisrael -– the middle letters spell "rosh" -– is completely cut off from Yaakov = eikev, the heel.  That is a very, very bad thing for them, and for us as well.

Monday, December 09, 2019

dont wait for the pitchforks

1) My wife made the following observation:  Yaakov is the model of the Jew in galus.  The Torah tells us that when Yaakov heard Lavan’s sons murmuring accusations against him, he realized that it was time to leave.  He didn’t wait for them to sharpen the pitchforks and come after him.

Listen to the rhetoric of the Labour party.  Listen to the rhetoric of the Democrat party.  Listen to the reports of what is already happening in France, in Belgium, in other parts of Europe.  Don’t wait for the pitchforks.

2) “V’atah haloch halacha ki nichsof nishsafta l’beis avicha lamah ganavta…” (31:30)

Chasam Sofer asks mah inyan the reisha of the pasuk to the seifa of the pasuk.  What does Yaakov wanting to return to his father’s house have to do with the theft of the terafim?  One surely does not excuse the other or explain the other.

He gives a pilpulistic answer, but the Rishonim are already bothered by this question and explain al pi peshat that Lavan was saying that he understood that Yaakov ran out not because he was a thief, but because he was so anxious to get back to this father’s house.  Nonetheless, the terafim were missing and Yaakov or someone in his family must have taken them.

Rav Drook quoted a nice explanation of the pasuk b’shem R’ Shimon Shkop, but the idea is already found in the Malbim.  Imagine a kollel guy who spends pesach with his in-laws and when it's time to return home he packs up their large screen TV along with his own luggage.  When the shverr runs after him to ask what's going on, it’s not the theft per se which is so troubling -– the shverr can afford another large screen TV.  What bothers him more is what someone who ostensibly is immersed in Torah would need a large screen TV for.  Here too, Lavan was saying to Yaakov Avninu, “You claim to be so anxious to leave here and return to your holy father’s house.  Avodah zarah is an anathema to your father!  So why did you walk out with my idols in your trunk?”  It’s the hypocrisy which stings and stinks more than theft itself.

You don't have to actually walk out with the TV to be guilty of theft.  Sometimes it's the deyos and ideas of the outside world that we steal and bring into our world even though they are completely incongruous with what our lifestyle should be.

Thursday, December 05, 2019

persuasion, not coercion

I know at least I am starting off with a good question when I find myself following in the footsteps as R' Eliezer Eisenberg, who was also bothered by the problem that troubled me when I was going over the parsha:
After Yaakov had a dream where he received nevuas Elokim that told him to leave Lavan, why did he seek Rachel and Leah's advice and consent about leaving?
Please see his post.  While he brings achronei ha'meforshim that address this, I turned back to some of the rishonim:

Ralbag writes that the whole point of the Torah telling us this story is to teach us that one should not impose one’s will on one’s household through coercion, but rather one should try to explain and persuade so that others willingly follow.  (Sounds like a good lesson for kiruv, or for dealing with not-yet-religious members of our community -- persuade, encourage, but don't knock people over the head with a rolling pin.)  It was only after he first explained why he wanted to leave that Yaakov then added, by-the-way, that a malach also told me to leave.  Yaakov did not want that to be the primary reason for Rachel and Leah to listen to him, but he also did not want to omit it entirely because he wanted his wives to also get credit for obeying the dvar Hashem. 

(This last point is very interesting as it implies that had Rachel and Leah just agreed to go for logical reasons without knowing the nevuah, it would not have been enough -- they also had to act with deliberate intent to fulfill ratzon Hashem.  Tzarich more iyun into this.)

A clue to another possible answer can be found in a Seforno at the end of this episode.  Rachel and Leah say to Yaakov, “Kol asher amar Elokim eilecha aseh,” (31:16) whatever G-d wants you to do, go ahead and do it.  Seforno comments: “Kol asher amar Elokim – bilvad aseh.  N’hag v’leiuch v’al titol reshus.”  Meaning, G-d told you to leave, so do exactly and just what G-d said –- leave.  Don’t make a goodbye party, don’t ask for permission, just follow the instructions and walk out the door.

I hopefully am not reading too much in, but it sounds to me like Yaakov’s discussion with Rachel and Leah was not about whether they should leave – the answer to that was dictated by the malach -- but rather the discussion was about how they should make their departure.  Imagine an angel came and told you to quit your job.  Does that mean walk out the door same day, or does that mean give two weeks notice?  There is wiggle room to interpret it either way.  So Yaakov, being a good husband, especially in this case where the issue revolves around the in-laws, does what any good husband would do – they ask their wife for advice.

Lastly, Abarbanel has a hard to digest comment that he makes not in direct response to this question, but which touches on it anyway.  He writes in connection with Yaakov’s discussion with Rachel and Leah that “lo haya lo koach la’leches im lo b’ratzon nashav v’cheftzeihen v’da’atan” – he would not have had the strength to leave if not for his wives’ consent and it being in accord with their wishes.  Hard to fathom what he means – Yaakov would not have obeyed the nevuah had Rachel and Leah protested? I don’t see how you can say that about Yaakov Avinu, but that's what Abarbanel writes. 

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

reputational risk

The parsha relates that when Yaakov’s flocks increased dramatically in size because of all the spotted and speckled sheep being born, the children of Lavan began to complain that Yaakov’s riches were earned off Lavan’s back and Yaakov had taken his wealth from their father.  No matter that Yaakov had separated off Lavan’s sheep to make sure there was no mixing between the flocks, they still grumbled.

The parsha then continues that Yaakov noticed that Lavan himself now looked askance at Yaakov (31:2).  Yaakov then knew, and was told by Hashem, that it was time to leave.

What changed?  Despite being tricked into marrying Leah, despite being forced to work for years to even earn the right to marry Rachel and Leah, despite being constantly cheated and having the terms of his employment constantly changed (31:41), for 20 years Yaakov tolerated it and did not just walk out the door.  What now suddenly made things worse, made things unbearable?

An amazing Seforno: “Va’yar Yaakov es pnei Lavan – ra’ah she’kibel es ha’lashon ha’ra.” 
A crook, a cheat, a ganav, someone who doesn’t play fair –- that Yaakov can live with.  A ba’al lashon ha’ra -– now all bets are off.  That’s too much.

You could turn this into a mussar vort on the chomer ha’issur of lashon ha’ra vs other issurim, but maybe the pshat is simpler than that.  In business there is something called reputational risk.  A potential loss of $ is bad, but even worse than that is a potential loss of trustworthiness or credibility.  You can always make more $, but it’s not so easy to recover one’s good name once it is lost.  Yaakov could tolerate to some degree losing money, wages, etc.  However, once Lavan’s children began to attack his reputation, his trustworthiness, that he could not abide.  “Titein emes l’Yaakov” -– to Yaakov, his credibility was the most precious commodity and one he refused to put it at risk.

for those who said tein tal u'bracha tonight (dec 4)

See Yabi'a Omer  vol 5 siman 15: since in Eretz Yisrael they have already been saying tein tal u'matar from 7 Cheshvan, if you make a mistake in chu"l and add it in when you weren't supposed to you don't have to go back and repeat.

(I would not have figured this out from reading O.C. 117:3.)