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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.

Chayei Sarah 5775-2014

“Are Marriages Made in Heaven?”

by Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Chayei Sarah, we read of the death and burial of Sarah, and of Abraham’s concern in his old age about finding a proper mate for his beloved son, Isaac.

It is in parashat Chayei Sarah that Abraham instructs his Damascan servant, Eliezer, to return to Abraham’s homeland and to his kindred, to Aram Naharaim, to the city of Nahor, to take a wife for Isaac. In the city of Nahor, Eliezer encounters the beautiful Rebecca, who agrees to give him water and offers to water his camels as well. Having fulfilled the omen that would determine the proper mate, Eliezer was convinced that this was indeed the right woman for his master’s son.

After relating the details of his improbable encounter to Rebecca’s family, Eliezer asks whether Laban and Bethuel, Rebecca’s brother and father, will allow Rebecca to return to Canaan to marry Abraham’s son.

Scripture, in Genesis 24:50, relates, וַיַּעַן לָבָן וּבְתוּאֵל וַיֹּאמְרוּ, מֵהשׁם יָצָא הַדָּבָר, לֹא נוּכַל דַּבֵּר אֵלֶיךָ, רַע אוֹ טוֹב, Then Laban and Bethuel answered and said, “The matter stemmed from the L-rd! We can say to you, neither bad nor good.” They then confirm that Eliezer may take Rebecca to Canaan to be a wife to his master’s son, as G-d has spoken.

This particular episode may very well be the original source of the popular expression, “a match made in heaven.”

There seems to be much support in Jewish tradition for the concept that matches are indeed made in heaven. In fact, the Talmud in Moed Katan 18b, cites three verses, one each from the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings, to confirm that marriages are the handiwork of the Al-mighty. The verse cited from the Torah, is the just-cited verse of Genesis 24:50, where Laban and Bethuel say that the matter stems from the L-rd. The verse from the Prophets, found in Judges 14:4, regarding Samson’s choice of Delilah as his wife, states that Samson’s father and mother knew not that it [the match with Delilah] was of the L-rd. The verse cited in Proverbs 19:14, proclaims that, “House and riches are the inheritance of fathers, but the prudent wife is of the L-rd.”

Many additional traditional sources may be brought to support the claim that marriage is Divinely directed. The well-known Talmudic citation in Sotah 2a states, that forty days before the creation of a child, a heavenly voice issues forth and proclaims, “The daughter of so and so shall marry so and so.”

Rabbi Yaakov Filber in his truly insightful writings on the weekly Torah portion, entitled, Chemdat Yamim, deals extensively with the issue of marriages being preordained. Rabbi Filber asks, if indeed a heavenly voice proclaims that a particular man shall marry a particular woman, and that, as Laban and Bethuel said, “the matter stems from the L-rd,” then what was the point of Abraham warning Eliezer not to take a woman of Canaan for his son Isaac? After all, the match was already a fait accompli. And what do we make of Eliezer’s warning to Laban and Bethuel, that if they refuse to allow Rebecca to go back to Canaan with him, Genesis 24:49, “Tell me, and I will turn to the right or to the left and leave.”

In his comprehensive analysis of the issue, Rabbi Filber cites a host of alternate sources that seem to indicate that marriages are not made in heaven. After all, the rabbis in the Talmud, Baba Batra 109b, advise that a person should always try to associate (for marriage purposes) with good people. Moses ultimately married the daughter of Jethro (an idolatrous priest of Midian), and begot a rebellious grandson, Jonathan. On the other hand, Aaron married the daughter of the righteous Aminadav, and had a most worthy grandson by the name of Pinchas.

The Talmud in Baba Batra 110a also recommends that he who takes a wife should inquire about the character of the bride’s brother, to see what kind of children he will have. The Talmud in Pesachim 49b advises that a person should sell all that he owns in order to marry the daughter of a scholar. If one does not marry the daughter of a scholar, the rabbis proceed to list the most desirable families in descending order. 1. The daughter of the great men of the generation (the civil communal leaders). 2. The daughter of the heads of synagogues. 3. The charity treasurer’s daughter. 4. The daughter of an elementary school teacher. What is the point of these recommendations, if Heaven has already decreed who one should marry?

Interestingly, Rabbi Filber cites a Tosefta in Sotah 5, where Rabbi Meir warns that anyone who marries an improper woman violates five Torah violations: not being vengeful, not bearing a grudge, not hating your brother, loving your neighbor as thyself and the requirement to strive to live with your brother in peace. The rabbis even claim that one who marries an improper woman will most likely also violate the commandment to be fruitful and multiply, because he will eventually refrain from being with his wife. If Heaven has already decreed that he should marry this woman, how then can he be responsible for violating these Torah commandments? And if he does marry the right woman, then why does the Talmud suggest that such a person will be rewarded by being kissed by Elijah the Prophet, and that G-d will love him?

Rabbi Filber cites the Shee’bohlei Ha’leket (authored by Rabbi Tzidkiyahu ben Abraham 13c.), who carefully notes that Talmud states that the voice from Heaven announces, but does not decree, that this woman shall marry this man. It is only a heavenly announcement, not a decree. The ultimate decision regarding whether to marry a particular woman or not, or whether to marry a particular man or not, is in the hands of the individual man or woman, the prospective bride and groom. Otherwise, there would be no free will.

Heaven did not prevent Rebecca from choosing her own soulmate, and heaven could not prevent Samson from marrying the mate of his choosing. Rabbi Filber argues that an announcement from Heaven does not compel a person to fulfill that pronouncement. The pronouncement merely indicates that the Al-mighty seeks to aid the person to find the proper mate. But the final decision is always in the hands of the individual.

Rabbi Filber cites Maimonides who argues in his introduction to Avot, Sh’moneh Prakim chapter 8, that G-d cannot command one to perform a mitzvah.

The Ya’avetz, Rabbi Jacob Emden explains Maimonides’ statement by clarifying that even a Divine decree is never permanent, and cannot override a person’s free will. Rather, a Divine decree is much like a suggestion, indicating that if that path is chosen, it will be propitious, and if not, it may result in suffering.

Citing a version of the rabbinic statement in Moed Katan 18b, that every single day a voice goes out from Heaven and announces that this woman will marry that man, Rabbi Filber even suggests that a person’s status changes each day, confirming free will, and that matches are made according to each person’s status at that particular time.

In his analysis, Rabbi Filber concludes that one always has free will, and the ability to choose one’s own destiny is absolute.

May you be blessed.

Vayeira 5775-2014

“One Woman’s Cry”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeira, we read the well-known biblical narrative regarding the destruction of the evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

In Genesis 18:20-21 the Torah states, וַיֹּאמֶר השׁם, זַעֲקַת סְדֹם וַעֲמֹרָה כִּי רָבָּה וְחַטָּאתָם כִּי כָבְדָה מְאֹד. אֵרְדָה נָּא וְאֶרְאֶה הַכְּצַעֲקָתָהּ הַבָּאָה אֵלַי עָשׂוּ כָּלָה, וְאִם לֹא, אֵדָעָה  And G-d said, “Because the outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah has become great, and because their sin has been very grave, I will descend and see, if they act in accordance with its outcry–-then destruction! And if not, I will know.”

When Abraham learns of the Al-mighty’s plan to destroy Sodom, he pleads with G-d to save the city on behalf of the few righteous people who dwell in Sodom. But, even a few righteous people are not to be found. G-d then proceeds to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, allowing Lot and his family to escape destruction. Eventually, only Lot and two of his daughters survive.

The rabbis of the Talmud record many of the horrendous deeds of the Sodomites. The Sodomites’ practice was to offer perverse hospitality to travelers to whom they provided sleeping accommodations. If the guests were too tall for the short beds that were given, the Sodomites would cut off the guests’ limbs to make them fit. If the guests were too short for the beds, they would stretch the guests until their limbs would be ripped out of their sockets. Visitors who entered Sodom with money would be put to death and their money stolen. A farmer who displayed his produce publicly would soon find that the Sodomites would each take a small sample until nothing was left, each claiming that they had not really taken anything of value. In Sodom, vice was virtue, and virtue was vice. In fact, in Sodomite courts, the victims, rather than the evil perpetrators, were fined and punished. Through their perverse laws, the Sodomites became experts in the practice of adultery, incest and many other sexual crimes.

The commentators, however, are puzzled by the choice of words used by the Torah to describe the wickedness of the people of Sodom. When G-d says that He will go down to see the cries that came to Him, rather than using the Hebrew plural, הַכְּצַעֲקָתָם, (whether in accordance with their outcry) the feminine singular word, הַכְּצַעֲקָתָהּ, her cry, is used.

Rashi on Genesis 18:21 declares: צַעֲקַת רִיבָה אַחַת שֶׁהָרְגוּ מִיתָה מְשֻׁנָּה עַל שֶׁנָתְנָה מָזוֹן לְעָנִי , Citing the sages of the Talmud, Sanhedrin 109b, Rashi explains that the word “her cries” refers to the cries of one particular young girl whom the Sodomites killed in an unnatural manner, for secretly providing food to a poor man.

Some claim that the particular young girl who defied the laws of Sodom was Plotit, Lot’s daughter. Since it was a regular sport for the Sodomites to watch the poor languish and die in their city, when they saw that the impoverished victim did not die, they soon discovered that he was being secretly fed. According to tradition, they tied Plotit to a tree, covered her with honey, and left her to be stung to death by bees. Her cries reached up to heaven (Vayeira 5763-2002).

Many years ago, I heard Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski speak at an AJOP Convention about the very serious “singles” problem that confronts contemporary Jewish society, and, in particular, the observant Jewish community, focusing on the large number of single women who are unable to find appropriate mates.

Rabbi Twerski interpreted the above-cited verse homiletically, noting that because of the cries of a single woman, the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were unilaterally destroyed. If that is the case, argued Rabbi Twerski, what will be the penalty of contemporary Jewry for the cries of the hundreds, perhaps thousands of women, who are crying out for help, receiving little help and little sympathy?

It is unclear why there appear to be so many eligible and engaging young women who are unmarried. Of course, women face greater pressure because of their ticking biological clocks. Men can more easily afford to take their time. It may also be that because men have more mobility, when they leave the traditional Orthodox community, they seem to vanish. Whereas women, usually remain within the community, in their attempts to hopefully find their own personal happiness.

In the Upper West Side community of Manhattan, there have been many attempts to help single women. There was, for a time, a significant communal effort to encourage families to invite singles to organized meals, where designated hosts would try to introduce young men and women to each other. Aish HaTorah, at one point, promoted speed dating. Rabbi Mark Wildes and Manhattan Jewish Experience have been doing a great job with younger singles. Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis of Hineni offers large classes for singles. She and her staff are deeply involved in Shidduchim, finding mates. Of course, the internet dating sites have been extremely helpful. SawYouAtSinai, Frumster and YU Connects, are considered successful matchmaking venues. NJOP is proud that over the years, the singles dinners that our organization has sponsored have successfully introduced young couples. My own feeling is that Torah classes often prove to be a great meeting venue, because it is where quality people go, and can meet like-minded people.

But it is not only in the area of Shadchanut (matchmaking) that women need help. The Agunah issue has yet to be resolved. Unfortunately, many women are unable to obtain their religious divorce, get, from recalcitrant husbands. Although efforts have been made, and organizations have been founded, to help these “anchored” women, there is still much to do.

Single motherhood and fatherhood have become an increasing communal concern, as balancing a career with child rearing is much more difficult in a one parent family.

For Jewish women it seems that these are the “best of times and the worst of times.” Fortunately, we have also seen the burgeoning growth of educational opportunities for women, even in the traditional community. Women are rising to the highest levels of academia, and have emerged as exemplars of Jewish learning and teaching. While much has been accomplished on behalf of women in the last quarter century in the traditional Jewish community, much is the result of the advocacy on behalf of women by women. Yet, trying issues remain, and much remains to be done for women.

We must bear in mind that because of the cries of one single woman, the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were entirely destroyed. Surely, we must all open our ears and hearts to listen to the cries, to respond to, and address the challenges that some women face.

May you be blessed.

Lech Lecha 5775-2014

“Lot Grows Increasingly Estranged from his Uncle Abram”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Lech Lecha, Abram (he has not yet been renamed Abraham) concludes the journey he has made from Ur Kasdim and Charan and arrives in Canaan, a journey that will impact on the destiny of the Jewish people and the world.

Scripture, in Genesis 12:4, tells us, וַיֵּלֶךְ אַבְרָם כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר אֵלָיו השׁם, וַיֵּלֶךְ אִתּוֹ לוֹט, וְאַבְרָם בֶּן חָמֵשׁ שָׁנִים וְשִׁבְעִים שָׁנָה בְּצֵאתוֹ מֵחָרָן, The first thing that Scripture notes after stating that Abram went as G-d had spoken to him, was that Lot went with Abram, and that Abram was 75 years old when he left Canaan.

According to Genesis 11:28,  Lot’s father, Haran, had died. A well-known Midrash, relates that Haran had been “incinerated” in a fiery furnace by King Amraphel because of his lack of respect for the pagan gods. The fact that the Torah emphasizes that Lot went with Abram, implies that there was an extremely close relationship between Abram and his orphaned nephew.

The Torah (Genesis 12:5) then proceeds to state, וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָם אֶת שָׂרַי אִשְׁתּוֹ וְאֶת לוֹט בֶּן אָחִיו וְאֶת כָּל רְכוּשָׁם אֲשֶׁר רָכָשׁוּ וְאֶת הַנֶּפֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ בְחָרָן, וַיֵּצְאוּ לָלֶכֶת אַרְצָה כְּנַעַן, וַיָּבֹאוּ אַרְצָה כְּנָעַן, Abram took his wife, Sarai, and his nephew, Lot, and all the wealth that they had amassed, and the people that they had acquired in Charan, and they embarked for the land of Canaan, and they came to the land of Canaan. Although Lot had been mentioned previously (in verse 4) as the first to accompany Abram, already by verse 5, Lot followed Abram’s wife, Sarai. Apparently, the distancing had already begun.

Abram starts to make his mark in Canaan by building altars throughout the land, and calling out the name of G-d, in the hope of persuading the local people to adopt his monotheistic beliefs. Abram continues his travels, journeying steadily toward the south, but Lot is no longer mentioned.

In Genesis 12:10 the Torah states that a famine has struck the land of Canaan and Abram is forced to go to Egypt. Although Sarai, Abram’s wife is mentioned as being with Abram, Lot is not mentioned until Abram and Sarai are expelled from Egypt.

In Genesis 13:1, Scripture records,  וַיַּעַל אַבְרָם מִמִּצְרַיִם הוּא וְאִשְׁתּוֹ וְכָל אֲשֶׁר לוֹ, וְלוֹט עִמּוֹ הַנֶּגְבָּה, Abram went up from Egypt, he and his wife, and all that was his, and Lot with him, to the south. Scripture also notes that Abram had now become a very wealthy man, laden with cattle, silver and gold. In fact, Abram’s possessions are mentioned in the verse even before Lot, indicating a further distancing.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik points to a further textual distinction underscoring the distancing between Abram and Lot. When the Biblical narrative in Genesis 12:5 introduces Lot, we are told that Abram took Sarai his wife and Lot his nephew, and all their possessions, and the souls they had made. The verse actually uses the Hebrew conjunctive word, “Eht,” four times, implying there was a very close relationship and a powerful bond, not only between Abram and Sarai, but also between Abram and Lot, all the possessions and all the souls that accompanied them on the journey. However, in Genesis 13:1, when Abram departs from Egypt, the Hebrew term “im” is used, and they no longer appear as one large cohesive family, whose property was shared, in a common household. It seems, in fact, that Lot is hardly a member of Abram’s family. He may be biologically related to Abram, he may be friendly with Abram, but something happened along the way to create a distance. Rabbi Soloveitchik suggests that Lot’s success in Egypt led to a parting between Lot and Abram’s family.

Scripture, in Genesis 13:5, states: וְגַם לְלוֹט הַהֹלֵךְ אֶת אַבְרָם הָיָה צֹאן וּבָקָר וְאֹהָלִים, Because of Lot’s closeness with Abram, Lot merited to have hoards of flocks, herds and tents. The abundance of their collective possessions was so great that the land could not support them dwelling together.

What was it that changed the close symbiotic relationship that Abram and Lot once had into a relationship that was growing more and more distanced? So distant in fact, that Lot actually finds new compatriots in, of all places, Sodom.

Rabbi Soloveitchik suggests that Abram, Sarai and Lot’s sojourn in Egypt was over an extended period of time, and perhaps lasted several years. During that time, Abram succeeded economically, becoming even wealthier. Lot, as well, benefitted from Abram’s economic prowess.

What was the cause of Lot’s estrangement? Apparently Lot was dazzled by the environment, seduced by Egyptian riches, its great technology and materialistic culture. While Abram, the farmer and the shepherd, saw Egypt as a primitive land of pagan culture, Lot saw Egypt as a gold mine of new technology, and advanced industry. Lot could not resist the environmental influences.

“This,” says Rabbi Soloveitchik, “is basically the acid test of a Jew: whether he can resist pressures, environmental pressures, if he could withstand the impact of great material culture which is morally and ethically very primitive. Abram could resist but Lot could not.”

Of course, an even greater estrangement occurs when Lot soon chooses to move toward Sodom, eventually deciding to live among its wicked citizens. In short order, Lot becomes a judge and an enforcer of the Sodomite lifestyle.

The rest is history, a tragic history that has unfortunately been repeated throughout Jewish history by other would-be “Lots.”

May you be blessed.

Noah 5775-2014

“The Fate of Humankind is Sealed”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Noah, we read of the deluge that inundated the world, ending human life on earth except for the eight people who were aboard the ark with Noah.

The final verses of parashat Bereshith speak of the corruption of humankind. The Torah reports (Genesis 6:5), that G-d saw that the wickedness of humankind upon the earth was great, and that all of human thoughts were directed toward doing evil. G-d regretted having made humankind, and announced, Genesis 6:7, אֶמְחֶה אֶת הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר בָּרָאתִי מֵעַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה מֵאָדָם עַד בְּהֵמָה עַד רֶמֶשׂ וְעַד עוֹף הַשָּׁמָיִם,  כִּי נִחַמְתִּי כִּי עֲשִׂיתִם, I will blot out humankind whom I created, from off the face of the earth–-from man to animal, to creeping things, and to birds of the sky; for I have reconsidered My having made them.

In the opening verses of parashat Noah, Genesis 6:9, we are introduced to Noah as a righteous and perfect man in his generation who walked with G-d. The Torah recalls, once again, the terrible corruption of humankind. Genesis 6:11, וַתִּשָּׁחֵת הָאָרֶץ לִפְנֵי הָאֱ-לֹקִים וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ חָמָס  Now the earth had become corrupted before G-d; and the earth had become filled with robbery. G-d determines to punish the evil people, Genesis 6:13, וַיֹּאמֶר אֱ-לֹקִים לְנֹחַ, קֵץ כָּל בָּשָׂר בָּא לְפָנַי כִּי מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ חָמָס מִפְּנֵיהֶם, וְהִנְנִי מַשְׁחִיתָם אֶת הָאָרֶץ, G-d said to Noah, “The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth is filled with robbery through them; and behold, I am about to destroy them from the earth.” G-d then instructs Noah to begin constructing the Ark out of gopher wood.

Apparently, the sin that sealed the fate of the generation of Noah was חָמָס, robbery and thievery. Rabbi Johanan, in tractate Sanhedrin 108a, states: “Come and see how awesome is the power of thievery (חָמָס). After all, the generation of the flood transgressed all of the sins, but the decree was not issued until they began to engage in thievery. As it is written, Genesis 6:13, ‘The end of all flesh has become before Me, for the earth is filled with robbery through them.’” Similarly, the Midrash Rabbah 38:6 states, “the generation of the flood was immersed in thievery. Therefore, nothing survived.”

The question is asked widely among the commentaries: Why did the sin of thievery bring about the fateful decree of total destruction? After all, the people were corrupt in many aspects of life, perhaps all aspects of life. They were, in fact, particularly sexually corrupt with both humans and animals.

Ethics of our Fathers (Avot 1:17) notes that the world exists on three things, “Justice, truth and peace.” The crime of thievery however, leads to great interpersonal discord, ultimately resulting in an upheaval of the entire social order, making justice impossible. Without the fundamental structure of justice, the earth could not survive, and had to be destroyed.

The Meloh Ha’Omer states that our compassionate G-d never immediately punishes a sinner with death (Midrash Rabbah, Leviticus 17:4). Usually, Divine punishment is meted out first by striking one’s wealth and wherewithal. However, if the loss of wealth does not impact upon one’s wicked behavior to bring about repentance, then the evil person is punished physically. Thus, we see that a person’s wealth and wherewithal can serve as a protective atonement for one’s soul, but only when the wealth belongs to the evil perpetrator. However, if it is stolen wealth, it can never serve as atonement.

Rabbi Joseph Shaul Nathanson, cited in Eesh L’ray’ay’hoo, offers the following parable: A stork once stood by the river hunting for food. Sighting its prey, the bird inserted its beak into the water and pulled out a fish, ready to devour it. The fish mournfully began crying for its life: “Please, don’t kill me, I am one of G-d’s creations.” Upon opening its mouth to plead for its life, the fish actually dropped a smaller fish that it was about to swallow. The stork said, “Such a hypocrite you are. You eat your brother and plead with me not to devour you?” So, says Rabbi Nathanson, the people of the generation of the flood were truly worthy of punishment for the many sins that they had committed. Yet, G-d’s compassion held sway. However, when He saw that the people were stealing one from another, their pleas for mercy were ignored, since they themselves had rejected the pleas of all the victims of their theft.

The Ramban writes that thievery is a rational law of nature, which should be intuitively acknowledged by all as sinful. After all, since no one wishes to be victimized by the loss of property, everyone should strictly refrain from stealing. That is why a thief is so broadly detested in the eyes of G-d and by society.

The Da’at Sofrim also argues that the fate of humankind was sealed because of חָמָס, thievery, because it is such a logical precept. The fact that the people were so thoroughly immersed in thievery indicates that the generation of the flood had lost its capacity for rational thought. Engaging in such wholesale thievery implies that the people of Noah’s generation no longer had any chance of returning humankind to morality. Despite their many other sins, it was חָמָס  Chah’mas that sealed their fate.

Apparently, the behavior of the people of the generation of the flood progressively deteriorated. When they first became corrupt, they engaged in sins covertly before G-d, such as sexual immorality and idolatry. But later, when the earth had become filled with robbery, their sinfulness and evil became obvious to all. Those who sin privately often still have a sense of right and wrong. Hence, the need for privacy. But once people develop a habit of sinning, immoral behavior becomes more broadly accepted, soon becoming normative, resulting in public and shameless illicitness..

Thus we see that חָמָס, thievery, sealed their fate.

May you be blessed.

Bereshith 5775-2014

“The Sad Destiny of the Firstborn Children”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

A prominent feature of the book of Genesis is the struggle for family leadership between the firstborn and the younger siblings. The “strugglers” include: Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Reuben and Judah, Joseph and Judah, Menashe and Ephraim.

It is fascinating that, in each case, the younger child emerges as the victor over the biological firstborn, indicating that the birthright is not a factor of chronological age, but rather a factor of the spiritual character of the child who is eventually chosen to serve as the firstborn.

In his popular Bible study guide entitled, Sh’aylot V’nosim B’Tanach (Questions and Themes in Bible) Professor Menashe Duvshani analyzes these filial rivalries. In parashat Bereshith, Cain, the first human child, is born to his parents, Adam and Eve. Nevertheless, G-d prefers his younger brother, Abel. Even after Abel’s death at Cain’s hand, the birthright is transferred to Seth, the youngest son. The family of the firstborn, Cain, as well as his descendants, are ultimately lost in the great flood.

Despite being the first born son of Abraham, Ishmael does not emerge as the leader. Instead, the birthright passes to Isaac. It is through Isaac, the son of Sarah, that G-d promises Abraham that the Divine destiny shall pass. Ishmael subsequently becomes estranged from both his family and from the land, settling outside of the land of Israel.

Although Esau was born before his twin brother Jacob, the birthright passes to Jacob because he was considered the more worthy child. Jacob is blessed twice by Isaac, first unwittingly (when Isaac intended to bless Esau), with blessings of economic success and temporal power over nations. The second blessing, that Isaac knowingly blesses Jacob, passes the Divine Abrahamic covenant on to Jacob (Genesis 28:4).

Despite being the first born child of Jacob, Reuben nevertheless loses the birthright, as it passes to Judah, another of Jacob’s firstborn children. Reuben is thought to have committed three improper acts which cause him to fall out of favor: 1. After the death of Rachel, Reuben moved his father’s bed into his mother Leah’s tent, an act that was regarded as violation of his father’s bed (Genesis 35:22). Even on his deathbed, in his blessing to his children, Jacob is still angry, recalling Reuben’s grievous sin, and transfers the birthright from Reuben. 2. Reuben, the eldest son, failed to save Joseph from the hands of his brothers, and was unable to stop the sale of Joseph to the Midianites. 3. When Jacob’s children wish to go down to Egypt to buy more food, Jacob refuses to allow Benjamin to go with them. At that time, Reuben suggests to his father, Genesis 42:37, אֶת שְׁנֵי בָנַי תָּמִית, אִם לֹא אֲבִיאֶנּוּ אֵלֶיךָ,  You may kill my two sons if I do not bring him [Benjamin] back to you. Jacob is appalled by Reuben’s irrational suggestion, yet, subsequently, readily accepts Judah’s offer to act as surety for Benjamin.

By accepting full responsibility for his brother Benjamin, Judah emerges as the leader of his brothers. It is therefore Judah whom Jacob chooses to send ahead to Goshen, before they arrive in Egypt (Genesis 46:28), and who represents the brothers before Pharaoh (Genesis 44:14). The birthright is thus conferred upon Judah.

The rivalry for the birthright continues, as Judah now struggles with Joseph. The competition between Judah and Joseph that takes place in Egypt, is, in fact, representative of the long historic struggle between these two tribes that occurs in future generations, as to who was to emerge as the supreme leader of Israel.

In later years, during the times of the judges and the kings, the tribe of Ephraim (the descendants of Joseph’s oldest son) saw itself as a chosen tribe, since Joshua, the great conqueror of the land, was of the tribe of Ephraim. During the reigns of King David and Solomon, the struggle between Judah and Ephraim abated, but eventually resumed, resulting in the split of the kingdom after the death of King Solomon.

Obviously, when Joseph reigned over Egypt, the hand of Joseph was superior, confirmed by Jacob who doubled the tribal inheritance of Joseph by converting the tribe of Joseph into two separate tribes (Genesis 48:5). In Jacob’s final message to his children, Judah and Joseph receive the most extensive and generous blessings.

In the time of King David, the monarchy was firmly in the hands of the tribe of Judah. However, according to Chronicles I, 5:1-2, the birthright remained with Joseph.

Although the reason is not stated, Jacob transfers the birthright from Joseph’s oldest son, Menashe, to the younger son, Ephraim (Genesis 48:19), predicting that Ephraim will be greater than Menashe.

Clearly, every single firstborn child in the book of Genesis winds up on the short end. The fact that the birthright is always transferred from the older son cannot be merely coincidence. Apparently, the Torah wishes to teach that one does not merit the birthright simply by accident of birth. The privilege of the birthright belongs to the child who merits it, even though that child may be younger.

A similar pattern is seen with the eventual chosenness of the People of Israel, who were certainly not the oldest among the nations. When the Jewish people emerged from Egypt, dozens of other sovereign states already existed, far more powerful and more numerous than Israel. These nations, like Egypt, already possessed developed lands and had created advanced civilizations. The Edomites even had an established monarchy. Why then did G-d choose the People of Israel, a numerically small nation who had been lowly slaves to Pharaoh? Apparently, to teach that G-d does not choose based on external or physical merits, but rather uses a higher yardstick.

The principle of spiritual chosenness is confirmed by the story of the selection of King David as king, when the prophet Samuel is sent to Jesse in Bethlehem to choose a successor to King Saul. At the behest of G-d, he does not choose the handsome and valiant first born, Eliav, but instead chooses David, the youngest of Jesse’s many sons. In fact, scripture relates that G-d instructs Samuel not to choose Eliav despite his stature and comeliness, Samuel I 16:7, כִּי הָאָדָם יִרְאֶה לַעֵינַיִם, וַהשׁם יִרְאֶה לַלֵּבָב, because the human being can only see with his eyes, but G-d can see into the heart.

The Divine method of choosing continues until this day. As the Talmud states (Sanhedrin 106a), רַחֲמָנָא לִבָּא בָּעֵי, G-d’s utmost desire is to feel the yearnings of the hearts of His creations. He therefore chooses to reward those followers who merit the Divine blessing on the basis of their inner spiritual commitment, faith and sincerity.

May you be blessed.

The intermediary days of Sukkot (Chol HaMoed) are observed through Wednesday, October 15th. On Wednesday evening, the festival of Shemini Atzeret commences, and is celebrated on Thursday, October 16th. The final day of the festival, Simchat Torah, begins on Thursday evening, October 16th and continues through Friday, October 17th.