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Bo 5775-2015

“The Intuitive Jew”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Bo, the eighth and ninth plagues–locusts and darkness, are visited upon the Egyptians. At long last, the tenth and final plague, the Death of the First Born, strikes the Egyptians and the Israelites triumphantly depart from Egypt to freedom.

In Exodus 13:3, Moses says to the newly-liberated people, זָכוֹר אֶת הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר יְצָאתֶם מִמִּצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים, כִּי בְּחֹזֶק יָד הוֹצִיא הַשׁם אֶתְכֶם מִזֶּה, Remember this day on which you departed from Egypt, from the house of bondage-–for with a strong hand, G-d removed you from here.

The people have just been freed from 110 years of slavery. The “iron” of liberation is still burning hot! Yet, Moses is concerned that, in future years, the emancipated slaves and their offspring will fail to fully appreciate the extent of their miraculous liberation from Egypt. Moses even reminds the people (perhaps with tongue-in-cheek), Exodus 13:3, וְלֹא יֵאָכֵל חָמֵץ, Therefore, Chametz (leaven) may not be eaten!

Rashi cites the Mechilta, which derives from the word זָכוֹר, remember, that every Jew must remember the Exodus every single day. The commandment to remember is fulfilled by reciting the third paragraph of the Shema, שְׁמַע, prayer each day, which concludes with the statement, “I am the L-rd your G-d who took you [the Children of Israel] out of the land of Egypt.”

The fact that Rashi not only emphasizes the importance of remembering, but states that “one must remember every single day,” implies that remembering even a profound historical experience such as the Exodus, can be extremely challenging.

Even from a contemporary perspective, it is virtually inconceivable that an American soldier who fought in the American Revolutionary War would ever forget that miraculous victory, in which a group of gangly, untrained, Colonial fighters defeated the British, the most powerful military force on the face of the earth at that time. Is it possible that Americans today, who are blessed with so much good as a result of the Revolutionary War, would forget the immense gift that the martyred Revolutionary soldiers bequeathed to them?

Of course, the same could be said of the Haganah forces of the Israeli War of Independence, or the miracle of the Six Day War in 1967. Could soldiers who fought in these battles or citizens who lived through those challenging times ever forget the miracles they saw? And even if they do remember, will they be able to meet even the greater challenge of passing on that same passion to the next generation, and the generations that follow!

By noting that the word “Zachor” is in the infinitive form rather than the imperative, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch captures the exquisite nuances of the Hebrew word “Zachor,” remember. Rabbi Hirsch declares that the Torah thus implies that the experience of the Exodus must always be kept in remembrance. The Exodus experience must become an essential ingredient of the Jewish character and persona, very much like breathing, like the beating of a Jewish heart. It must be intuitive, part of the very essence of every Jew. Not an easy task, to be sure.

I vividly recall my chemistry professor, who would say to his students, “Gentlemen, if I wake you at two in the morning, and ask you the oxidation number of the element Iron (FE), I expect you to know it spontaneously!” When the great professional basketball players approach the hoop for a “simple” lay up, they respond intuitively, even though, the pass may come from behind their backs, and require all sorts of contortions of the body. All these movements are performed very naturally and virtually unconsciously. That is the way the Jew must feel, not only about the Exodus from Egypt, but about every aspect of being a Jew.

The word “Zachor” is repeated many times in the Bible. Perhaps the most frequently repeated reference is the citation from the Ten Commandments that is recited as part of the Shabbat morning Kiddush. The Bible in Exodus 20:8 states, זָכוֹר אֶת יוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת לְקַדְּשׁוֹ, Remember the Sabbath day, to sanctify it.

I recently had a conversation with a very successful 80-year-old businessman, who became more observant in his later years. First he made his home kosher, then started to observe the Shabbat and now attends synagogue three times a day for daily prayers.

He said to me that he used to regard the Sabbath as a terrible burden, as one unending series of “nos” and “don’ts.” He literally dreaded the Sabbath day. This man, who is still very active and successful in business, informed me that today he deeply cherishes every single aspect of the Sabbath day, very much like a parent’s love for a child. He related his love for the Sabbath day to me with such a profound passion, that I felt embarrassed by my own inadequate feelings.

The message of “Zachor” is a most profound and powerful message. Being Jewish and loving G-d must always be at the top of our consciousness, and our most deeply-felt commitment. It is the love of G-d and His Torah that has to be our most passionate emotion. Our thirst for the Al-mighty can never be sated. We must all strive to become “Intuitive Jews.”

May you be blessed.

Va’eira 5775-2015

“The Measure of Brotherly Love”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Va’eira, we read of the Al-mighty’s renewed promise of redemption, the genealogy of Moses and Aaron and the first seven of the ten plagues that are visited upon Egypt.

After being reassured by G-d that the redemption is at hand, Moses is instructed by the Al-mighty to go to Pharaoh, and to demand that Pharaoh send the Children of Israel from his land. Moses however, demurs, saying, Exodus 6:12, הֵן בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא שָׁמְעוּ אֵלַי, וְאֵיךְ יִשְׁמָעֵנִי פַרְעֹה, וַאֲנִי עֲרַל שְׂפָתָיִם, “Behold the Children of Israel have not listened to me, so how will Pharaoh listen to me? And I am slow to speak!”

G-d, however, persists, and commands both Moses and Aaron regarding the Children of Israel and Pharaoh, to take the Children of Israel out of the land of Egypt.

Unexpectedly, the Biblical narrative abruptly stops, and the Torah begins to list the genealogy of the tribes of Israel, beginning with the tribes of Reuben and Simeon, and concluding with the tribe of Levi.

Rashi explains that the reason that the Torah provides the genealogical list of the tribes at this point is to record the pedigree of the tribe of Levi and its most noted members, Moses and Aaron. The descendants of Reuben and Simeon are listed only to allow the Torah to focus on the genealogy of the tribe of Levi.

Thus, when listing the Levite families in Exodus 6:20, the Torah records that Amram married his aunt, Jochebed, who bore him Aaron and Moses. This then is followed by records of the family of Levi and the listing of the sons of Aaron.

The genealogy concludes with the statement in Exodus 6:26-27, הוּא אַהֲרֹן וּמֹשֶׁה אֲשֶׁר אָמַר הַשׁם לָהֶם, הוֹצִיאוּ אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם עַל צִבְאֹתָם. הֵם הַמְדַבְּרִים אֶל פַּרְעֹה מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם, לְהוֹצִיא אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרָיִם, הוּא מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן, This was Aaron and Moses to whom G-d said: “Take the Children of Israel out of Egypt according to their legions.” They were the ones who spoke to Pharaoh, king of Egypt, to take the Children of Israel out of the land of Egypt; this was Moses and Aaron.

Many commentators, as well as Rashi, are puzzled by the change in the order of the names of Aaron and Moses in the two verses. Rashi explains that the Torah purposely lists Aaron before Moses in certain places and in other places records Moses before Aaron, in order to teach that both Moses and Aaron are of equal stature. (Rashi, quoting the Mechilta 12:1 and Shir Ha’Shirim Rabba 4:5).

The commentators question the assertion that Aaron could possibly be as great as Moses. After all, Moses spent forty days and forty nights in Heaven with the Al-mighty (Deuteronomy 9:11). The Torah testifies (Numbers 12:3) that Moses was the most humble man on the face of the earth, and that, of course, implies that he was more humble than Aaron as well. Scripture declares (Deuteronomy 34:10) that no prophet in Israel has ever arisen as great as Moses. How then could Moses and Aaron be considered equal to one another?

The Da’at Sofrim argues that the verse comes to underscore that Moses and Aaron were equal in humility. The Da’at Sofrim further asserts that just as it is customary for a great person to be given proper honor, so too is it customary, even in the best families, to ensure that the firstborn be accorded the proper respect.

However, says the Da’at Sofrim, these two great redeemers, Moses and Aaron, knew that the older must submit to the younger, since Aaron knew that his younger brother was to fulfill a greater task. Yet, with all his greatness, Moses knew to accord the proper honor to Aaron, the firstborn. Although the greatness of Aaron paled in comparison to the greatness of Moses, because of their mutual respect, they are seen as equal to one another.

The Malbim points out that both brothers played significant, but different, roles. When it came to the physical task of leading the Jews out of Egypt, Aaron played the more significant role, because the people were more attracted to him and his generous personality. Therefore, he alone spoke to the Children of Israel. However, when it came to the need to separate the people from the intense spiritual impurity of the Egyptians, Moses played the primary role.

The Torah Temimah notes a slightly different distinction in the brothers’ roles. When it came to acting as a spokesman, the Torah Temimah asserts, as did the Malbim, that Aaron’s role was primary. However, it was Moses who played the primary role in orchestrating the exodus from Egypt. The Torah Temimah points out that in verse 26, which specifically speaks of taking the Jews out of Egypt, Aaron is mentioned first. However, in verse 27 which refers to “speaking,” Moses is mentioned first, reversing the order that we might have expected. This, explains the Torah Temimah, is Scriptures’ way of indicating that both Moses and Aaron were equal to one another. Although they were both worthy and capable of being the speaker and the executor, Moses was given the primary role.

The Ha’amek Davar notes that the Israelites regarded Aaron as primary, even over Moses, because the people were never in a position to recognize Moses’ greatness, since he was raised in Pharaoh’s palace and spent much time in Midian. Thus, the people more easily recognized the sanctity and greatness of Aaron over Moses. However, in Pharaoh’s eyes, Moses was always recognized as greater, since Pharaoh already knew Moses’ brilliance from his youth, but he was not really familiar with Aaron.

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, the former Chief Rabbi of Israel, notes that throughout the book of Genesis, families are rent asunder because of lack of domestic tranquility. Brothers fight against brothers: Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers.

The book of Exodus marks a radical departure from the contentious family relations. When Moses returns from Midian (Exodus 4:27), he is greeted by his brother, Aaron, with a kiss. When the elders of Israel see the brotherly love between Moses and Aaron, the people are profoundly impressed. They are so deeply moved by the display of brotherly love that Scripture reports, Exodus 4:31, וַיַּאֲמֵן הָעָם, And the people believed.

The people were convinced that such brotherly love could only happen due to Divine intervention. Immediately, Scripture reports: “And they [the people] heard that G-d had remembered the Children of Israel and that He saw their affliction, and they bowed their heads and prostrated themselves.”

The powerful demonstration of brotherly love between Moses and Aaron gave people hope, hope that redemption was at hand. Just as these brothers can love one another, so can there ultimately be peace for the Jewish people, and G-d will ultimately redeem His people from the enslavement and persecution of Egypt.

When these two great men, Moses and Aaron, demonstrated to the people that brothers can cherish each other, the people were reassured that redemption is indeed possible, and that its arrival is imminent.

May you be blessed.

Shemot 5775-2015

“Moses–The Mysterious Early Years”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shemot, the Torah reports that Moses, the Jewish child who was rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter and raised as an Egyptian in Pharaoh’s palace, grew up identifying with his Jewish brothers.

In Exodus 2:11, scripture records, וַיְהִי בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם, וַיִּגְדַּל מֹשֶׁה וַיֵּצֵא אֶל אֶחָיו, וַיַּרְא בְּסִבְלֹתָם , And it happened in those days that Moses grew up and went out to his brethren and observed their burdens.

The Torah narrative itself tells little about Moses’ formative years. All we know is that he was found by Pharaoh’s daughter in the water, given over to his biological mother for several years until he was weaned, and then returned to Pharaoh’s palace. There is a difference of opinion among the rabbis of the Midrash as to whether Moses was twenty or forty years old when he finally went out to look at the burdens of his brothers.

Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov the extraordinary commentator and compiler, fills in many of the details of Moses’ life by gathering Midrashim from many sources, reconciling them and reconstructing the early years of the life of Moses.

Rabbi Kitov reports that Moses grew up in Pharaoh’s palace, where he was accorded great respect and honor, more than any other member of Pharaoh’s household. He was more handsome, more brilliant, and braver than anyone else in Egypt. As he was the reputed “son” of the daughter of Pharaoh, he was regarded as the natural heir to the throne. The few “insiders” who were aware of Moses’ Hebrew origins kept quiet about his background, for fear of offending Pharaoh and his daughter.

Even though Pharaoh at times had second thoughts about Moses, he eventually convinced himself that Moses was the biological child of his daughter and thus his own biological offspring. He therefore offered Moses the authority over whatever he wanted. Moses asked for free reign over the workers of Egypt.

Although Moses’ true intentions were to help the Hebrew slaves, no one but he and Bitya, Pharaoh’s daughter, knew the real reason for his desire to aid the slaves.

The true hero of this story is Bitya (see Shemot 5760-1999), Moses’ adopted mother who strongly encouraged her son to go out to meet his biological brothers, the Jews, and advised Moses to pay no heed to those Egyptians who insincerely honored and fawned over him.

In his role as the supervisor of the workers and slaves, Moses frequently visited the land of Goshen. It was in his role as an overseer that Moses introduced and developed advanced technology that was used by the Egyptian workers. He reportedly built ships and invented machinery for cutting and shaping stones. He developed new types of weapons for battle, and uncovered novel ways of drawing water from underground sources. All the while, Moses kept his distance from his Jewish brothers. Those Jews who knew of Moses’ Hebrew origins, resented his seeming indifference to their suffering. But Moses was hardly indifferent to his brothers’ travails.

Seeing how the Israelites suffered, Moses convinced Pharaoh that by refusing to give the Hebrew slaves a day off and forcing them to perform many forms of unnatural work, Pharaoh was actually damaging the economy of Egypt. Once persuaded that the economy of Egypt needed healthy, strong and well-motivated slaves, Pharaoh relieved the Israelites of work on Shabbat. Moses taught the slaves how to work smartly to avoid injury, and even tended to those who were hurt. No one suspected that Moses was doing this to help the Jews, since they all saw it as an effort to enhance Egypt’s economy.

G-d, however, saw in Moses’ great concern for his brothers, the making of a natural leader for His people. The Midrash says that because of the way that Moses reached out to his brothers, he was rewarded by Heaven with perfect health throughout his long life. He was also rewarded after his passing to be personally buried by the Al-mighty Himself (Deuteronomy 34).

Obviously, in the midst of the brutal enslavement and persecution of the Hebrew slaves, for a man like Moses to emerge from a Jewish family to lead the Children of Israel from slavery to freedom, many fortuitous elements had to come together. In light of the sparse information provided by the Torah, Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov’s rich analysis and insights add much to our understanding of the man Moses and his emergence as the great leader of his people of Israel.

May you be blessed.

Vayechi 5775-2015

“Jacob Remembers Rachel”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayechi, Jacob, who has been living in Egypt for seventeen years, makes his son, Joseph, swear that he not be buried in Egypt. Jacob insists that his body be transported out of Egypt and that his final resting place be in the Machpelah tomb with his forefathers, Abraham and Isaac.

Scripture, in Genesis 47:29 states, וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ, אִם נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ, שִׂים נָא יָדְךָ תַּחַת יְרֵכִי, וְעָשִׂיתָ עִמָּדִי חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת, אַל נָא תִקְבְּרֵנִי בְּמִצְרָיִם, Jacob called for his son Joseph and said to him, please – “If I have found favor in your eyes, please place your hand under my thigh and do kindness and truth with me–please do not bury me in Egypt.” Joseph swears to his father, and Israel (Jacob) bows down toward the head of the bed.

When Joseph is informed (Genesis 48) that his father is ill, Joseph takes his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, to see his ailing father. After recounting a bit of history confirming that G-d has given him the land of Canaan, Jacob announces, Genesis 48:5, אֶפְרַיִם וּמְנַשֶּׁה, כִּרְאוּבֵן וְשִׁמְעוֹן יִהְיוּ לִי, that Joseph’s two sons who were born in Egypt will now belong to him [Jacob], and that Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine [Jacob’s] like Reuben and Simeon. Any children who are born to Joseph afterward, will be Joseph’s and will be included in the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh.

Unexpectedly, Jacob raises the issue of Joseph’s mother, Rachel. Although Joseph had already sworn to his father that he will make certain to bury his father in Canaan, Jacob recalls, Genesis 48:7, וַאֲנִי בְּבֹאִי מִפַּדָּן, מֵתָה עָלַי רָחֵל בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן בַּדֶּרֶךְ, בְּעוֹד כִּבְרַת אֶרֶץ לָבֹא אֶפְרָתָה, וָאֶקְבְּרֶהָ שָּׁם בְּדֶרֶךְ אֶפְרָת הִוא בֵּית לָחֶם, “But as for me–when I came from Paddan, Rachel died on me in the land of Canaan on the road while there was still a stretch of land to go to Ephrath; and I buried her there on the road to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem.”

Rashi explains that Jacob raises the issue of the burial of Rachel with Joseph because, even though Jacob is insisting that Joseph make the great effort to bury him in Canaan, Jacob did not do the same for Rachel who died on the way to Bethlehem. Jacob was apparently anticipating that Joseph might object to Jacob’s request to be buried in the Cave of Machpelah, especially since Jacob did not make the extra effort on behalf of Joseph’s mother, Rachel.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that during this entire conversation, the Torah refers to Jacob as “Jacob,” and not as “Israel.” Only when Jacob confers the tribal status on Manasseh and Ephraim does it say, Genesis 48:2, וַיִּתְחַזֵּק יִשְׂרָאֵל, and “Israel” became strong when Joseph approached him.

Rabbi Hirsch argues that when Jacob confers tribal status on Ephraim and Manasseh, it is a personal decision, because of his overwhelming love for Joseph (hence the use of the name “Jacob”), and entirely unrelated to national considerations. Jacob was concerned that Rachel would be forgotten, and that her grave would not be frequently visited. Ten tribes of Israel would certainly go to the Machpelah Cave to visit Abraham, Isaac, their father, Jacob, and their mother, Leah. But who would visit Rachel’s grave? Possibly only the descendants of Joseph and Benjamin.

Because Jacob feared that Rachel’s memory would effectively be forgotten, he decided that Joseph, Rachel’s first-born, must assume the position of the first-born of the tribes. By designating the two sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh to be counted among the tribes like Reuben and Simeon, Jacob thus bequeathed to Joseph the double portion due to the first-born.

With two new tribes emerging from Joseph, there will be more immediate family to remember, visit and care for Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel, who is buried in Bethlehem.

Jacob was clearly demonstrating his undying affection for Rachel, and, in so doing, granted to Rachel in her death, what she never merited to receive during her lifetime.

May you be blessed.

Vayigash 5775-2014

“Joseph Calms His Brothers”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayigash, Joseph dramatically reveals himself to his brothers.

Scripture reports that Joseph could no longer restrain himself in the presence of those who stood before him, and called out to remove everyone. Only he, alone with his brothers, were there when he revealed his identity.

Genesis 45:3, describes the highly charged moment: וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף אֶל אֶחָיו, אֲנִי יוֹסֵף, הַעוֹד אָבִי חָי, וְלֹא יָכְלוּ אֶחָיו לַעֲנוֹת אֹתוֹ כִּי נִבְהֲלוּ מִפָּנָיו, And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph, is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him because they were terrified before him.

The Egyptian tyrant who now stands before Jacob’s sons accusing them of being spies, who arrested their brother, Simeon, and had just accused their youngest brother Benjamin of being a thief, this cruel and inhuman monster who threatens now to turn them all into slaves, suddenly reveals himself as their brother! Not only their brother, but their long-lost brother, whom they had sold as a slave to the Ishmaelites twenty-two years ago! It is certainly no surprise that they were in shock and speechless.

Joseph asks his brothers to come near and to approach him, and once again identifies himself by saying, Genesis 45:4, אֲנִי יוֹסֵף אֲחִיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי מִצְרָיְמָה, “I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold into Egypt.” There is no question that the brothers at this moment were convinced that all is lost, and that the guillotine blade was about to drop. There really was no hope. Their evil deed had finally been publicly exposed, and they would have to pay with their lives.

Instead, their brother Joseph’s tone changes, as he generously and gently says, Genesis 45:5, וְעַתָּה אַל תֵּעָצְבוּ, וְאַל יִחַר בְּעֵינֵיכֶם, כִּי מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי הֵנָּה, כִּי לְמִחְיָה שְׁלָחַנִי אֱ-לֹקִים לִפְנֵיכֶם, “And now, be not distressed, nor reproach yourselves for having sold me here, for it was to preserve life that G-d sent me ahead of you.”

Joseph explains, Genesis 45:6-8, “For those two years has the hunger years been in the midst of the land, and there are yet five years in which there shall be neither plowing nor harvest. Thus G-d has sent me ahead of you, to ensure your survival in the land, and to save your lives by a great deliverance. And now: It was not you who sent me here, but G-d; He has made me father to Pharaoh, master of his entire household, and ruler throughout the entire land of Egypt.”

While Scripture describes this most dramatic moment, we can not really know the thoughts in Joseph’s head or the brothers’ feelings at this time. Fortunately, the The Malbim, one of the greatest contemporary interpreters of Bible, fills in the details with rich commentary.

The Malbim sees the scene as follows: Joseph could no longer hold himself in from the emotional encounter with his brothers, who were standing before him. He demands that all the people leave the room when he reveals himself. Joseph began to cry so loudly, that all of Egypt, even Pharaoh’s entourage heard his crying. The brothers had no idea why Joseph was crying or why he cleared the room. The brothers were astounded, frozen in fear, fearful of vengeance. In fact, when Joseph then asked if his father was still alive, they assumed that Joseph meant, is my father still alive after all the grief that you had caused him by selling me?

Joseph reveals himself, but the brothers do not respond. The Malbim suggests that Joseph was under the impression that the brothers did not answer him because either they did not believe that he was really Joseph, or because they still harbored hatred for him, and regretted only that they had sold him rather than killed him, allowing him to become an authority over them. A third possibility is that they were truly regretful and penitent for the evil that they had done to their brother.

The Malbim explains that Joseph responds to all three possibilities. He reveals himself by saying, “I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold to Egypt.” Only Joseph could have known that fact. There was no longer any room for doubt that the man standing before them was their long-lost brother Joseph.

Assuming that they were regretful for the terrible deed that they committed, Joseph says, Genesis 45:5, וְעַתָּה אַל תֵּעָצְבוּ, “Do not be distressed.” To address the possibility that they still hated him, Joseph says to them, וְאַל יִחַר בְּעֵינֵיכֶם, “Do not reproach yourselves for not having finished me off. For if you are fearful that I will avenge you, do not be afraid, for G-d sent me here to save people. Your resentment of my elevated royal status will also be of no benefit, for clearly you have no ability to cause me harm. Furthermore, there is good reason to abandon your feelings of vengeance, because your lives, the lives of your families and the lives of the entire world depend upon me, since there are five more years of famine and the world must be saved.”

When Joseph tells his brothers, that “it was not you who sent me here, but G-d,” the Malbim sees in Joseph’s words to his brothers a powerful theological lesson to them regarding Divine intervention.

Joseph boldly tells his brothers that they are not responsible for their actions, because everything that had occurred was Divinely ordained. He is, in effect, saying to his brothers: “You were like vessels in the hands of G-d, and the resulting sale benefitted all of humankind. If you are saddened by the fact that you became the Divine instrument to allow this evil to occur, there is no reason to be sad, because you did me and the world the greatest favor. Look at my position in the kingdom of Pharaoh.”

The Malbim offers a powerful parable of a man who threw his neighbor into the ocean. Although the victim could have drowned, he survives and in the process finds a most precious stone in the sea. Says Joseph, “As a result of your actions, I have become, אָב לְפַרְעֹה, A father who offers advice to Pharaoh (through the dream), וּלְאָדוֹן לְכָל בֵּיתוֹ, in charge of his entire palace, and eventually becoming, וּמֹשֵׁל בְּכָל אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם, the ruler of all of Egypt. This is hardly a reason to be sad.”

The traumatized brothers are persuaded by Joseph to calm down. Only then, does Joseph advise his brothers to hurry back to Canaan, to tell their grieving father, Jacob, Genesis 45:9, that “G-d has made me [Joseph] master of all of Egypt. Come down to me; do not delay.”

The Malbim in his inimitable style, analyzes every word carefully to reveal the intimate secrets of the text and the true inner feelings of the Biblical characters.

While we usually gloss over these details when reading these narratives, the Malbim finds treasures in every single word. How fortunate are we to be able to share in his insights.

May you be blessed.

Mikeitz 5775-2014

“Why Did Joseph, the Viceroy of Egypt, Never Contact His Aged Father?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Mikeitz, Joseph, the poor Hebrew slave boy who had been imprisoned on false charges for thirteen years, is brought before Pharaoh to interpret Pharaoh’s esoteric dreams.

Joseph’s rise to power in Egypt is meteoric. After interpreting Pharaoh’s dream, he is appointed to the second most powerful position in Egypt and is given authority over all of Egypt. He marries an Egyptian wife, who gives birth to two children, Ephraim and Menashe.

In anticipation of Joseph’s prediction of seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, an order is issued to collect one fifth of the produce of Egypt, and to store the food for the coming years of famine. When the years of famine arrive, Joseph assumes the role of personally dispensing and distributing the food.

Due to the famine, which affects Canaan as well, Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt to buy food for their families. In this manner is Joseph’s dream of the brothers bowing down to him fulfilled. Joseph, who has been separated from his family for twenty-two years, confronts his brothers and accuses them of being spies. The parasha ends with the brothers’ second visit, and Joseph accusing his brother, Benjamin, of having stolen his chalice.

Seven years of plenty and two years of famine have passed, yet Joseph, the supreme authority in Egypt, never contacts his family in Canaan. In fact, Joseph seems to show no interest in being reunited with his family or even visiting his aged father, who has, for twenty-two years, been mourning for Joseph, thinking that his beloved son was dead.

It could be that Joseph was simply overwhelmed by the demands and responsibilities of his executive position, and could not spare the time to visit his father in Canaan. But, Joseph certainly could have sent a personal messenger to his aged father. Knowing of the impending famine, he should have warned his family, and informed them that there was grain to be had in Egypt.

Perhaps the most compelling reason for Joseph not contacting his family was the fact that Joseph felt deeply betrayed by them. Not only did his brothers sell him as a slave, but due to his father’s “irresponsible” parenting, Jacob’s household became highly dysfunctional, leading to the brother’s unbridled animosity toward Joseph. And just as Judah had previously fallen out with his brothers (Genesis 38), wanting nothing to do with his family after they accused him of being responsible for the sale of Joseph, so too did Joseph feel only ill will toward his family, and had little desire to reunite with them.

The textural proof of Joseph’s ill will toward his family is to be found in the name that Joseph gives his oldest son, Menashe. Genesis 41:51, וַיִּקְרָא יוֹסֵף אֶת שֵׁם הַבְּכוֹר מְנַשֶּׁה,  כִּי נַשַּׁנִי אֱ-לֹקִים אֶת כָּל עֲמָלִי וְאֵת כָּל בֵּית אָבִי, And Joseph named the firstborn, Menashe, for, “G-d has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s household.” The name Ephraim, which means that G-d has made Joseph fruitful in the land of his suffering, also suggests that has found the fulfilment in Egypt that had eluded him when he was with his family in Canaan.

The idea that Joseph was just so angry with his brothers and his father, is seen by the sages as not enough of a reason for Joseph to completely disconnect from his family. They therefore state that when the brothers sold Joseph, they made a solemn ban against divulging what they had done to Joseph. Some of the commentators suggest that Joseph too, was forbidden, against his will, to contact his father or to disclose his whereabouts. The reason for this ban was to allow for the fulfillment of the providential prophecy that the Children of Israel will be exiled to Egypt. It is also argued that Joseph had to be separated from his father so that Jacob could be punished, measure-for-measure, for having abandoned his own parents for twenty-two years.

Apparently, in sync with the sages, the Ha’amek Davar suggests that the real reason that Joseph never took steps to contact his father was so that his dreams would be fulfilled. Joseph always regarded his dreams as a form of prophecy, and saw it as his duty to make certain that they come to fruition.

Rabbi Hayyim Angel, in his erudite new publication, A Synagogue Companion, cites a number of other cogent reasons for Joseph’s failure to “call home.” Rabbi Yehuda HaHasid, maintains that Joseph never contacted his father so that family unity could be preserved. After all, revealing himself to his family would have destroyed the family structure forever, as Jacob would have learned the full extent of the perfidy committed by his sons against Joseph.

The Ramban rejects the idea that Joseph was forced to swear, as the reason for never contacting his father. The Ramban argues that in addition to wanting to see his original dreams realized and his brothers prostrated before him, Joseph also wanted to see if his brothers had sincerely repented for what they had done to him. Joseph needed to create a scenario in which Benjamin would be held hostage, in order to subject his brothers to a loyalty test for Benjamin, a test that they had miserably failed with Joseph himself.

The Abarbanel takes issue with the Ramban’s suggestion, stating that Joseph, an all-powerful ruler, hardly needed Benjamin to come bow down before him. Rather, it was necessary for Joseph to exact measure-for-measure punishment upon his brothers. Joseph needed to be cruel to his brothers, just as his brothers had been cruel to him. Joseph accused his brothers of being spies because they had accused him of spreading bad reports. Joseph throws his brother Simeon into prison, because his brothers had thrown him into a pit. Benjamin was to be taken as a slave, because his brothers had sold Joseph into slavery. All these individual actions had to be fulfilled, in order to ensure that the brothers were truly penitent.

All this would not have been possible had Joseph contacted his father.

May you be blessed.

The joyous festival of Chanukah begins this Tuesday night, December 16th, 2014, and continues for eight days, through Wednesday evening, December 24th, 2014.

Wishing you all a very Happy Chanukah!

Vayeishev 5775-2014

“Who Sold Joseph?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeishev, we read of the sale of Joseph.

The sale of Joseph plays a key role in Jewish history, drawing the Jewish people down to Egypt and into Egyptian enslavement, culminating with the Exodus and the liberation from Egypt.

Not only did the sale of Joseph lead to Jewish enslavement and liberation, but, according to tradition, the sale of Joseph was the reason for the tragic martyrdom of ten great sages during the reign of the Roman Emperor Hadrian (76-138 ACE), for having defied an imperial edict against founding schools for study of Torah. The loss of these ten great sages is regarded as so devastating, that it is included in the Yom Kippur liturgy and again in the elegies that are chanted on the national day of mourning, Tisha B’Av.

Philip Birnbaum, in his High Holiday Prayer Book, translates the Yom Kippur poem about the Ten Martyrs as follows:

These martyrs I will remember, and my soul is melting with secret sorrow. Evil men have devoured us and eagerly consumed us. In the days of the tyrant there was no reprieve for the ten who were put to death by the Roman government.

Having learned from the sages how to interpret the written law, the tyrant maliciously turned to the scriptural passage, which reads: “Whoever kidnaps a man and sells him, or if he is found in his possession, must be put to death.” (Exodus 21:16). He commanded to fill his palace with shoes, and arrogantly summoned ten great sages who were completely versed in the law. He said to them: “Judge this matter objectively, pervert it not with falsehood, but pass on it truthfully; if a man is caught kidnaping one of his brothers of the Children of Israel, treating him as a slave and selling him?” They answered, “That thief shall die!” (Deuteronomy 24:7).

Then he [the tyrant] exclaimed: “Where are your fathers who sold their brother [Joseph] to a caravan of Ishmaelites and bartered him for shoes?! You must submit to the judgment of Heaven, for since the days of your fathers, there has been none like you. If they were alive, I would convict them in your presence; but now it is you who must atone for the iniquity of your fathers.”

The ten sages asked the tyrant for three days reprieve to confer with Heaven to determine what their fate should be. Rabbi Yishmael, the High Priest, received the Heavenly response: “Submit, beloved saints, for I have heard from behind the curtain that this would be your fate.” Rabbi Yishmael reported to his colleagues the word of G-d. At that moment, Hadrian commanded to slay the ten sages with force.

But who actually sold Joseph?

The biblical narrative is so obscure that Rabbi Yehudah Nachshoni, in his studies on the weekly parasha, begins his analysis regarding who sold Joseph to Egypt with the following comment: “The commentators discuss the identity of those who sold Yosef. As far as the verses in the Torah are concerned, they conceal more than they reveal, and they sometimes even seem to be contradictory.”

How does Joseph, one of the twelve sons of Jacob who dwells in Canaan, become a slave in Egypt?

Joseph was sent by his father, Jacob, to Shechem to check on the well-being of his brothers who had gone there to shepherd the family’s flocks.

When the brothers see Joseph from afar, their hatred of him is kindled and they decide to murder Joseph. When Reuben, the oldest brother, hears his siblings’ scheme to murder Joseph, to throw him into one of the pits and report to their father, Jacob, that a wild animal had eaten Joseph, Reuben suggests not to harm the lad. Instead, he advises his brothers to throw Joseph into a pit unharmed, and let him die of starvation. Scripture reveals that Reuben’s intention was to return later and save his brother.

After throwing Joseph into the pit, scripture reports, Genesis 37:25, וַיֵּשְׁבוּ לֶאֱכָל לֶחֶם, וַיִּשְׂאוּ עֵינֵיהֶם וַיִּרְאוּ, וְהִנֵּה אֹרְחַת יִשְׁמְעֵאלִים בָּאָה מִגִּלְעָד

They [Joseph’s brothers] sat to eat food; they raised their eyes and they saw, behold!–-a caravan of Ishmaelites was coming from Gilead.

Judah then tells his brothers, Genesis 37:26, “What gain will there be if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let our hand not be upon him.” The brothers agree with Judah and it is at this point, in Genesis, 37:28, that the Bible notes, וַיַּעַבְרוּ אֲנָשִׁים מִדְיָנִים סֹחֲרִים, וַיִּמְשְׁכוּ וַיַּעֲלוּ אֶת יוֹסֵף מִן הַבּוֹר, וַיִּמְכְּרוּ אֶת יוֹסֵף לַיִּשְׁמְעֵאלִים, בְּעֶשְׂרִים כָּסֶף, וַיָּבִיאוּ אֶת יוֹסֵף מִצְרָיְמָה  Midianite traders passed by and they drew Joseph up and lifted him out of the pit and sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. Then they brought Joseph to Egypt.

The Bible thereafter reports (Genesis 37:36),  וְהַמְּדָנִים מָכְרוּ אֹתוֹ אֶל מִצְרָיִם, לְפוֹטִיפַר סְרִיס פַּרְעֹה, שַׂר הַטַּבָּחִים Now the Medanites had sold him to Egypt, to Potiphar, a courtier of Pharaoh, the chamberlain of the butchers.

Rashi maintains that from his understanding of the Biblical narrative, it was clearly the brothers, the sons of Jacob, who sold Joseph. The text that follows informs the readers that Joseph was subsequently sold many times. According to Rashi, the brothers drew Joseph out of the pit and sold him to the Ishmaelites, the Ishmaelites in turn sold him to the Midianites, and the Medanites to the Egyptians. Rashi appears to identify the Medanites as a brother clan of the Midianites. What remains unresolved according to Rashi’s interpretation is the statement in Genesis 39:1, where the Torah describes Potiphar as having bought Joseph “from the hand of the Ishmaelites who brought him down there.”

However, not all commentators agree with Rashi that Joseph was sold by his brothers. Rabbi Nachshoni cites the interpretation of the Rashbam, calling his elucidation of the text regarding the sale of Joseph “revolutionary.”

While it is true that the brothers spoke about selling Joseph, apparently, while they were waiting for the Ishmaelites to come, a caravan of Midianites passed by, who heard Joseph’s cries from the pit. The Midianites then drew Joseph from the pit and sold him to the Ishmaelites, who sold him to Potiphar. The Rashbam suggests that it is very possible that Joseph’s brothers did not even know about the sale.

When Joseph later identifies himself to his brethren, Genesis 45:4, declaring,  אֲנִי יוֹסֵף אֲחִיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי מִצְרָיְמָה “I am Joseph, your brother. It is me whom you sold into Egypt,” Joseph does not mean to say that they actually sold him, but rather that they caused him to be sold.

Despite the fact that they did not actually sell him, the brothers’ actions are considered sinful, for it was as if they sold him.

Unfortunately, Hadrian and other enemies of the Jews are never interested in actual facts, fine print or the nuances of the text, and will use any pretense to blame the Jews.

When Joseph later identifies himself to his brothers, and tries to calm them about the role they played in selling him to Egypt, he says, Genesis 45:5, וְעַתָּה אַל תֵּעָצְבוּ וְאַל יִחַר בְּעֵינֵיכֶם כִּי מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי, הֵנָּה, כִּי לְמִחְיָה שְׁלָחַנִי אֱ-לֹקִים לִפְנֵיכֶם “Now, be not distressed nor reproach yourself for having sold me here, for it was to be a provider that G-d sent me ahead of you.” Joseph explains that the brothers’ actions were actually part of a Divine plan to ensure the survival of the land and to sustain the people for a momentous deliverance. Joseph specifically says in Genesis 45:8, וְעַתָּה, לֹא אַתֶּם שְׁלַחְתֶּם אֹתִי הֵנָּה, כִּי הָאֱ-לֹקִים, “And now; it was not you who sent me here, but G-d.”

No matter whether his brothers pulled Joseph out of the pit and sold him to the Ishmaelites or whether the Midianites pulled Joseph out of the pit, when our enemies seek to harm us, even the most indisputable evidence will not be allowed to interfere with their nefarious plans.

Fortunately, the Al-mighty is always there to watch over His people and to protect them.

May you be blessed.

Vayishlach 5775-2014

“She Called His Name ‘Ben Oni’”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayishlach, Jacob, after many years of separation, finally reunites with his long-estranged brother Esau, on his way to return to Canaan.

After the traumatic abduction and rape of Dina in the city of Shechem, Jacob returns to Beth El, where he vowed 22 years earlier (Genesis 28:22), will be the site of G-d’s house.

During his years with Laban in Canaan, Jacob and his wives were blessed with 11 sons and one daughter. They were now only one son away from fulfilling the long-held prediction of producing a family of 12 male tribes. Leah had given birth to six sons and a daughter,and Bilhah and Zilpah, the two handmaidens who became Jacob’s wives, each had two sons.

After many years of barrenness, Rachel finally gave birth to a child who was named Joseph, which, in Hebrew, means both “to collect” and “to add,” indicating that G-d had taken away her shame of being barren, and in the hope that Rachel soon would bear more children. Eight years had passed since Joseph was born, and Rachel longed for another child.

Journeying from Beth El, Jacob and his family were only a short distance from their destination, when, on the way to Efrat, Rachel went into labor with her second child for whom she had longed so profoundly.

The delivery, however, was fraught with difficulty and Rachel was close to death. Seeing how desperate the situation was, the midwife encouraged Rachel by saying, Genesis 35:17, “Have no fear, for this one, too, is a son for you.” Scripture in Genesis 35:18, describes the tragic outcome. וַיְהִי בְּצֵאת נַפְשָׁהּ כִּי מֵתָה, וַתִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ ,בֶּן אוֹנִי, וְאָבִיו קָרָא לוֹ בִנְיָמִין and it came to pass, as her soul was departing, for she died, that she called his name “Ben Oni,” but his father called him “Benjamin.”

Rachel was buried on the road to Efrat, in Bethlehem. And Jacob built a monument over her grave, which remains there until today (at the time of the writing of the Bible).

The rabbis seek to understand the reasons for Rachel’s premature death. Some suggest that it was due to a curse that Jacob had unwittingly uttered. Not knowing that Rachel had stolen her father’s Terafim (pagan gods), Genesis 31:19, Jacob assured Laban, declaring, Genesis 31:32: “With whomever you find your gods, he shall not live.”

The Nachmanides (Deuteronomy 18:25), attributes Rachel’s death to the great holiness of the land of Israel. Since the Torah would later forbid a man to be married to two sisters, once Jacob arrived in the land of Israel, Rachel died as they entered the land.

Also requiring elucidation is why Rachel called the child “Ben Oni,” while Jacob insisted on calling the child “Benjamin.” Nachmanides and the The Ibn Ezra suggest that “Ben Oni” literally means the son of my mourning, indicating that Rachel attributed her death to the child’s birth. As for the name “Benjamin,” Rashi at first suggests that the name is a contraction of the words, “ben yamin,” the son of my right, which in this instance means, son of the south. This honorific name is given to the child Benjamin, because he is the only one of Jacob’s children who merited to be born in Canaan, which is south of Padam Aram.

Rashi, alternatively, suggests that the word “yamin” (יָמִין) can mean “days,” like the Hebrew word, “yamim” (יָמִים),  as if to declare that Benjamin was the son of Jacob’s advanced days and years.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, suggests that the word “Ohn” (אוֹן), the root of the name “Ben Oni,” means to have a legal title to something. Rachel calls the child “Ben Oni” because she feels keenly that something that is hers is being forcefully taken away from her. Thus, it becomes the son of my grief, the son of my departure, which will soon be mourned. Jacob, however, calls his son “Benjamin,” the son of the right hand, the son of strength and power, stressing the brighter meaning of the word Ohn.

Some commentators suggest that the name “Ben Oni” is an allusion to Rachel’s theft of the household gods from Laban’s home, and the oath that Jacob had sworn. Thus, “Ben Oni” would mean, the son of my iniquity, and “Benjamin” would mean the son of my oath.

The Da’at Sofrim notes that Rachel refuses to accept the consoling words of the midwife, who says that another child is being born to you. Instead, she is determined to perpetuate her pain and suffering even after she expires, by naming the child “Ben Oni.” Jacob does not agree that the child should bear a name that would constantly remind him of his mother’s pain and suffering, and calls him “Binyamin.”

Rav Mordechai Rogov, cited by Rabbi Sheinbaum in Pninim on the Torah, suggests that both Jacob and Rachel had the same objective in mind when they named their child, only the emphasis was different. As the labor pains became unbearable, Rachel knew that she would die, and had one last wish. She named the child “Ben Oni” because she wanted the child to remember throughout the duration of his life, his sorrowful beginning and the tragic end of his mother’s life. Hoping that the name would inspire her child to always remember his mother, and the sacrifice she made to bring him into the world, she believed that the name would assure that the child would remain loyal to her values and the values of his father.

Jacob was also hoping that his son would choose the proper path, and therefore chose the name, “Binyamin,” the son of my right hand. This name, implying courage, strength, fortitude and fearlessness, would reflect the qualities that his son would need to fulfill Rachel’s legacy.

It was Jacob’s profound hope that by focusing on the positive, Benjamin would be more inclined to take the message of his name to heart, and fulfill the wishes of both parents to lead an upright moral and ethical life.

May you be blessed.

Vayeitzei 5775-2014

“Twenty Years in the House of Laban”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeitzei, Jacob follows his parents’ advice to leave home in order to escape the wrath of his brother Esau. He departs from Beersheba and sets out for his mother Rebecca’s ancestral home in Haran.

Scripture, in Genesis 28:11, declares: וַיִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם וַיָּלֶן שָׁם, כִּי בָא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ that Jacob came upon a certain place (in Bet El) and spent the night there because the sun had set. It is at this location that Jacob dreams his famous dream of a ladder set on earth leading up to heaven and the angels of G-d ascending and descending upon the ladder.

Jacob spends the next twenty years in Haran, at the home of his mother’s brother, Laban. It is in Haran that Jacob marries Laban’s daughters Rachel and Leah, whose handmaidens, Bilhah and Zilpah, eventually became his wives as well. He and his wives are blessed with twelve sons. Unfortunately, Rachel dies in childbirth with the twelfth son–Benjamin.

As noted above, Jacob’s journey begins with the setting sun. His journey, however, concludes in parashat Vayishlach, Genesis 32:27, with the rising sun. Before the momentous encounter of Jacob and Esau, Jacob wrestles with an angel, who changes Jacob’s name to Israel. As the sun rises, the desperate angel cries out to Jacob, שַׁלְּחֵנִי, כִּי עָלָה הַשָּׁחַר, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.”

The popular contemporary commentator, Dr. Avivah Zornberg, sees the twenty years that Jacob spent in Laban’s house and Jacob’s struggle with the “dark forces” during this time, as a major epoch in Jacob’s life. Dr. Zornberg refers to this period as “the dark night of the soul,” during which Jacob was repeatedly victimized by Laban, and confronts his own propensity for deception.

The first few verses of parashat Vayeitzei provide insight as to how Jacob managed to face the “dark forces,” and enable him to triumph over the challenges that he is about to face.

The ladder in Jacob’s dream represents to some, the ascent of humankind toward G-d–the religious growth that is necessary for wholesome human development. In order to succeed in this spiritual transformation, only small, but consistent, changes need to be made, step by step. Sufficient time must also be allotted to regain footing between steps, before taking additional steps. Despite proceeding cautiously during this religious development, missteps are inevitable. But, with the proper precautions and devotion, it is possible to recover and continue climbing, forging ahead until ultimately succeeding.

The metaphor of the ladder/staircase warns of the dangers of leaping headfirst into faith with unbridled bursts of enthusiasm. Gaining proper focus and building faith must be a deliberate and careful process. The danger to those who throw themselves into faith in one fell swoop is well known: the faster the embrace of faith, the faster the falling out.

For Jacob to succeed, he needed to go through the step-by-step process of building his faith, encountering challenges, yet always forging ahead.

Fatigued from his journey, Jacob falls asleep. When Jacob awakens from his sleep, he recognizes the overwhelming sanctity of the place, which is filled with the presence of G-d. Scripture testifies that Jacob was a frightened young man. Genesis 28:17 states, וַיִּירָא, וַיֹּאמַר, מַה נּוֹרָא הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה, אֵין זֶה כִּי אִם בֵּית אֱ-לֹקִים, וְזֶה שַׁעַר הַשָּׁמָיִם, And he [Jacob] became frightened and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of G-d, and this is the gate of the heavens.”

Jacob, who had never been away from home before, and was likely ashamed of why he had left, would probably not have overcome his fears had G-d not appeared to reassure him that his mission will succeed and that he would return home safely. It was exactly what Jacob needed at that moment.

When Jacob finally makes the decision to leave Laban and return to Canaan, it is this dream and G-d’s appearance to him that he recalls, indicating that G-d’s reassurance was with him throughout the twenty years of the “dark night of the soul” that he experienced. It was the assurance that he received from G-d as a young man that gave Jacob the courage to forge ahead, despite the horrible treatment he endured at the hands of his uncle, the treacherous and perfidious Laban.

The Hebrew Bible may legitimately be regarded as a would-be “reality show” for future generations. Its narratives are meant to teach lessons and convey profound messages not only to the People of Israel but to all the children of G-d. The narrative of parashat Vayeitzei is certainly a profound story with a profound message. Those who grow in their faith and those who grow faithfully and successfully are those who proceed step-by-step, slowly, cautiously, carefully, and calculatingly. Those who rush in, unfortunately, often fail.

The experiences and challenges of Jacob teach us that human beings can endure great hardships and significant challenges as long as they feel that they are walking with G-d, Who protects them.

The “Omnipresent” G-d is always there. The only question is whether people will feel confident enough to allow Him to put His hand under their arm and direct them in the path of holiness and spirituality.

May you be blessed.

Toledot 5775-2014

“Good Families Bad Children, Bad Families Good Children”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Toledot, we read of the birth of Esau and Jacob, the twin sons who were born to Isaac and Rebecca, and the children’s very different development and the lifestyles that they each chose for themselves.

In Genesis 25:19, the Torah announces: וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת יִצְחָק בֶּן אַבְרָהָם, אַבְרָהָם הוֹלִיד אֶת יִצְחָק, and these are the offspring of Isaac, son of Abraham–-Abraham begot Isaac. The rabbis are perplexed by the seemingly unnecessary repetition in the verse. After proclaiming that these are the offspring of Isaac, the son of Abraham, why was it necessary for the verse to state that Abraham begot Isaac?

Rashi offers two reasons for the repetition. He first suggests that since the Al-mighty in Genesis 17:5 gave Abram the new name Abraham, which means that he will be the father of a multitude of nations, the Torah confirms the beginning of the fulfillment of that role by stating that, “Abraham begot Isaac.”

Rashi also cites a Midrash that asserts that the scoffers of Abraham’s generation claimed that Abimelech, the king of Gerar, who had taken Sarah to his palace, had really fathered Isaac. After all, despite the many years that she and Abraham lived together, Sarah never became pregnant. Therefore, the Al-mighty fashioned Isaac’s face to be identical to Abraham’s, to serve as indisputable evidence that Abraham fathered Isaac. Hence, the reason for the scriptural emphasis.

The Tanchuma Yashan in Toledot 1 asks: But, after all, Abraham bore many children? Genesis 15:14, testifies that Hagar bore a son to Abraham, whose name was Ishmael, and Genesis 25:2 records that Abraham had six additional sons with Keturah. Why then does scripture here identify only Isaac as Abraham’s son?

The Midrash suggests that the reason that only Isaac is mentioned is because Isaac was Abraham’s primary progeny and the main source of his joy and pride. As we know too well, there are children who are ashamed of their parents, like Abraham was of his father, Terach, and Rachel and Leah were of their father, Laban. There are also parents who are shamed by their children, for example, Abraham by Ishmael and even Isaac ultimately understood that Esau was not worthy of receiving the Abrahamic blessing. This was not so in the case of Abraham, who was particularly honored and elevated by his righteous son, Isaac. To mark this special relationship, the Torah explicitly states that Abraham begot Isaac.

The Midrash Hagadol claims that people would constantly praise Abraham for meriting to have a son as wonderful as Isaac. The Radak suggests, that because Isaac was so scrupulously honest, thoroughly faithful, determined to live by following the straight path, and, like his father, demonstrated love to all of G-d’s creations, people would immediately identify him as the son of Abraham.

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for children to also visit great shame and ignominy upon their parents. Some commentators (Midrash Rabba Numbers 21:4) suggest that the verse purposely omits the birth of Ishmael, because Ishmael traveled in the wrong circles and was consistently involved in evil, thereby not only compromising his own good name, but disgracing the name and reputation of his family as well.

The rabbis of the Talmud underscore how easy it is for a child to be drawn in to the evil patterns of one’s family. The Talmud in Eruvin 70b suggests that the inheritance that is bequeathed to a child is very much like the limb (foot) of the father. Just as one sheep follows another, so do children follow their parents’ example.  The Talmud Ketubot 63a affirms that the actions of the mother are often mimicked by her daughters.

Scripture records that while familial behavioral patterns are common, there are many exceptions to this rule, for both good and evil. The saintly prophet, Eli, Samuel I 2:12, had sons who were wicked. On the other hand, Rebecca, the wife of Isaac, came from the rather shady family whose members included the notorious characters Bethuel and Laban. But, Rebecca was able to swim against the tide, emerging righteous and chaste.

Despite biological propensities and tendencies, each person must be judged on his or her own merits. The importance of checking family roots and backgrounds notwithstanding, we see (Genesis 25:20) that Abraham did not hesitate to marry off his very spiritual and righteous son Isaac, to Rebecca, the daughter of Bethuel the Aramite, and the sister of Laban the Aramite. Rebecca was able to overcome the grave disadvantage of being the daughter and sister of wicked people, and a product of the wicked environment in which she was nurtured. Rebecca did not learn from their nefarious deeds, and instead blossomed as a rose in a thorn bush.

While the lessons of parashat Toledot, are particularly relevant, emphasizing the importance of family background, the actions of the individuals have the ability to trump the biological and familial factors. The Torah, in Genesis 25:27, states, וַיִּגְדְּלוּ הַנְּעָרִים, וַיְהִי עֵשָׂו אִישׁ יֹדֵעַ צַיִד, אִישׁ שָׂדֶה, וְיַעֲקֹב אִישׁ תָּם, יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים when the boys grew older, Esau became the hunter and Jacob became the innocent man who dwelled in tents. We see clearly that the factors that determine the character of a person are  their personal developmental experiences and the paths that they personally choose to follow in life.

Unfortunately, there are many children from good families who become entangled in the negative elements of their environments, forsaking all they learned when they were young. Fortunately, there are also those who emerge from difficult and challenging backgrounds, who pull themselves up to become great people and even greater leaders.

May you be blessed.