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B’shalach 5779-2019

“The שִׁירָהShira: The Source of All Song”

(Revised and updated from B’shalach 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat B’shalach, we encounter the שִׁירָה –“Shira,” literally, the song, namely the song that Moses and the People of Israel sang as they crossed the Red Sea. Because this song plays such a central role in Jewish history and Jewish life, the Shabbat on which it is read is called “Shabbat Shira,” the Sabbath of Song.

Until Moses and the People of Israel sang this song, no one in history had ever expressed gratitude to G-d through the medium of song. The Midrash Rabbah, on Exodus 23:4, states, that when Adam was created, he did not sing to G-d. When Abraham was saved from the fiery furnace, he did not sing to G-d. When Isaac was rescued from the sword of the Akeidah, he did not sing to G-d. When Jacob was saved when wrestling with the angel of Esau, he did not sing to G-d. But when Israel came to the seashore and the waters were split, they burst into song. As we read in Exodus 15:1, אָז יָשִׁיר מֹשֶׁה וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת לַהשׁם וַיֹּאמְרו, לֵאמֹר , Then Moses and the Children of Israel chose to sing this song to G-d, and they said: אָשִׁירָה לַהשׁם כִּי גָאֹה גָּאָה, סוּס וְרֹכְבוֹ רָמָה בַיָּם , I shall sing to G-d for he is exalted above all, horse and rider have been hurled into the sea.

If one were to look at the actual Torah text of the Shira one would note immediately that something profound is taking place in the narrative. The text of the Shira is structured “short brick over long brick, long brick over short brick,” as if a building is being built. And surely, with the recitation of the Shira, a structure of song and poetry was laid for all future generations. The Mechilta  B’shalach 3, states that even a simple maidservant at the sea perceived a higher degree of revelation than did the great prophet Ezekiel in his heavenly vision. It was there, at the sea, that Moses and the Jewish people understood their purpose in life as never before. Why were they exiled? Why were they enslaved? Why were they persecuted? Why the hopelessness they felt as they were surrounded by Pharaoh with the sea looming ahead of them? Just a few moments before it seemed that they were surely correct when they said that Moses and Aaron’s intervention in Egypt had only made things worse! And suddenly, at the sea, the Jewish people realized that all of G-d’s handiwork, all of their life experiences, all that they had endured, was really a Divine song, a Divine symphony; that every heretofore incomprehensible event, was, as the commentary in the ArtScroll Stone Chumash so beautifully remarks, a “part of a harmonious score,” composed by G-d Al-mighty, that led up to the greatest of all miracles.

In his masterpiece work, The Book of Our Heritage, Eliyahu Kitov writes about the Shira:

In addition to the ‘Song of the Sea,’ this portion [B’shalach] contains many other themes: the Exodus from Egypt, the splitting of the sea, the statutes and judgments given in Mara, the manna, the well, and the war with Amalek. Nevertheless, Israel selected only the theme of Shira as the name to be given to this Shabbat. For whenever Israel utters this song throughout the generations, it is as new for them. When they first sang it, G-d and His Hosts harkened, as it were, to the utterance of their mouths. At that hour, the souls of Israel attained the highest state of exaltation; their hearts became wellsprings overflowing with Torah, and the sound of their words was like the voice of the Al-mighty. Further, this Torah, which welled up from within them, preceded the Torah, which they heard from the Al-mighty on Mount Sinai.

Kitov continues, with emphasis,

With the strength of this song they ‘implanted’ song and rejoicing in the heart of Israel until the end of the generations. Whenever Israel would hence be delivered from their enemies and saved from distress, their hearts would then sing in praise to the G-d who had delivered them, and their thanksgiving would be not only on behalf of themselves, but for all G-d’s loving-kindness.

The Shira begins with the introduction: (Exodus 15:1) וַיֹּאמְרוּ, לֵאמֹר , and they spoke, saying. That is to say, the song which they spoke then, caused them to continue uttering song in all generations.

After all, why was this song so powerful? Perhaps because it was uttered in perfect faith. It was not sung because of the impact or the impression of the miracles that had taken place. Because the impact of miracles is only momentary, whereas true faith is endures forever. Finally, after much reluctance, Israel came to the realization at the seashore that all the bondage and affliction that they had endured until then was a form of test and method of purification, an act of G-d’s eternal loving-kindness. In all the Torah, G-d speaks and the people of Israel listen. In this portion, the people of Israel speak, and all the Hosts of Heaven listened because of its power, its sensitivity, and its purity of faith.

Have you ever stopped for a moment to ponder the nature of poetry or the miracle of music? Why should the combination of random sounds or random words, especially sounds without words, have such a profound impact on the human soul? Why should rhythm and rhyme be any different from any other combination of noises that are uttered by the human throat? Why should music, which is after all, only an organized or disorganized series of sounds (noises) of different lengths and different pitches, speak to us so profoundly? There really is no rhyme or reason, except to say that song is a singular gift of G-d. Song can make us laugh. Song can make us cry. Song can make us grieve, and song can make us overcome grief.

According to Jewish tradition, all song emanates from the purity and devotion of the song that the People of Israel sang more than 3300 years ago (2448 from creation/1313 BCE) at the crossing of the Red Sea.

May your lives be filled with joy, and may song burst forth from every human throat to declare that G-d is the source of all goodness. May His blessings prevail over all.

May you be blessed.

Shabbat Shira

In this week’s parasha, parashat B’shalach, we encounter the Shira, the song, namely the historic song that Moses and the People of Israel sang as they crossed the Red (Reed) Sea. Because this song plays a central role in Jewish history and Jewish life, the Shabbat on which it is read is called Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song.

Bo 5779-2019

“Nothing Stands in the Way of Teshuva!”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

As the parasha opens, G-d says to Moses, Exodus 10:1, בֹּא אֶל פַּרְעֹה:  כִּי אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת לִבּוֹ, וְאֶת לֵב עֲבָדָיו, לְמַעַן שִׁתִי אֹתֹתַי אֵלֶּה בְּקִרְבּוֹ , “Come to Pharaoh, for I have made his heart and the heart of his servants stubborn, so that I can put these signs of Mine in his midst.”

Rashi explains that G-d told Moses to go to Pharaoh to warn him that if he does not allow the people of Israel to leave, another plague, the plague of locust, would soon strike Egypt.

In Exodus 10:3, we see that Moses does exactly as instructed. Moses and Aaron both go to Pharaoh, and tell him, כֹּה אָמַר השׁם אֱ-לֹקֵי  הָעִבְרִים, עַד מָתַי מֵאַנְתָּ לֵעָנֹת מִפָּנָי; שַׁלַּח עַמִּי, וְיַעַבְדֻנִי , “So said the L-rd, G-d of the Hebrews: ‘Until when would you refuse to be humbled before Me? Send out My people so that they may serve Me.’”

G-d further declares, “For if you refuse to send My people forth, tomorrow I shall bring the locust swarm into your borders and cover the surface of the earth, so that no one will be able to see the earth, and it [the locust] will consume the remaining residue that was left to you by the hail. It will consume all the trees that will grow for you from the field. They [the locust] will fill your houses, the houses of your servants and the houses of all of Egypt, such as your fathers and your grandfathers have not seen from the day they came onto the earth until this day.”

At that point, Pharaoh’s servants, who are desperately frightened, beg him to let the people go so that Egypt would not be destroyed. Pharaoh, however, refuses to allow the Israelite children to leave with their parents, and proceeds to chase Moses and Aaron away. G-d then strikes Egypt with the eighth plague, the locust.

The issue that has long confounded the commentators is the question of Pharaoh’s free-will and his ability to repent.

In his Mishneh Torah, the Laws of Teshuva/Repentance, Maimonides lists 24 people who will not receive a share in the World to Come. However, if even these most wicked people repent before they die, they too will gain entry into the World to Come, since “Nothing can stand in the way of Teshuva.”

According to the great Maimonides, (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance, 3:14), even a person who denies G-d’s existence his entire life and repents only in his final moments can earn a share in the World to Come. Any wicked person or apostate who repents, whether privately or publicly, will be accepted. And even if that person is still somewhat rebellious, and repents in private rather than in public, their Teshuva will be accepted.

The Talmud in Brachot 10a, tells the story of King Hezekiah, who, when he took critically ill, was visited by the prophet Isaiah, who told him that not only would he die, but that he would also have no portion in the World to Come because he (Hezekiah) failed to participate in the mitzvah of being fruitful and multiply.

Hezekiah explained to Isaiah that he refrained from bearing children because he had received a vision that his children would be wicked. Isaiah told the king that he should not try to discern the secrets of G-d, but rather fulfill the mitzvah that G-d commanded him, since G-d will do as He pleases. Eventually, King Hezekiah takes Isaiah’s daughter for a wife, who bears two sons, Manasseh and Rabshakeh.

The righteous King Hezekiah did all he could to change the fate of his children by giving them a proper education, to no avail. Rabshakeh dies and Manasseh becomes one of the most evil kings in the history of the Jewish people.

The Midrash Sifre on Deuteronomy 6:5, cites the verses is Chronicles II 33:10-13, describing how the Assyrian king took Manasseh in chains, exiling him to Babylon.

The Jerusalem Talmud Sanhedrin 10:2, describes the extent of Manasseh’s wickedness, that even when he was tortured, he refused to abandon his worship of idols. When he no longer could endure the torture, he remembered that his righteous father, Hezekiah, had taught him the Biblical verse (Deuteronomy 4:30), “When you are in distress and all these things have befallen you at the end of days, you shall return to the L-rd, your G-d, and hearken to His voice. For the L-rd your G-d is a merciful G-d, He will not abandon you, nor destroy you, and He will not forget the covenant of your forefathers that He swore to them.”

The Talmud relates that the angels in Heaven tried to seal off all the avenues of repentance for Manasseh. Yet, G-d dug a channel under the heavenly throne, allowing Manasseh to repent and return to Jerusalem and to his kingship.

If even the wicked King Manasseh could repent, how then could the doors of repentance be sealed for Pharaoh?

Rabbi Shimon Schwab, explains that Pharaoh too could repent, and achieve forgiveness, but only if he underwent a total transformation.

This is the message that G-d sent through Moses to Pharaoh, when Moses said to Pharaoh in G-d’s name: “Until when will you refuse to be humble before Me?”

G-d had hardened Pharaoh’s heart, yet He continued to give Pharaoh the option to repent by humbling himself before G-d. However, if Pharaoh preferred to remain on his throne so he could be worshiped as the god of Egypt, G-d would continue to harden Pharaoh’s heart, and repentance for him impossible.

G-d knew that Pharaoh had the ability to humble himself. The only question was, how long it would take Pharaoh to finally do so. True Teshuva is not remorse for a specific transgression. It is much more, as is indicated in the High Holiday prayer in which we declare, “Behold, I am before You like a vessel filled with shame and humiliation” (Talmud Brachot 17a, the prayer of Rabbah). It is only when we humble ourselves, entirely and completely, that G-d enables the truly penitent to do Teshuva, even for the sins about which we are told atonement is impossible.

A fascinating Midrash in Pirkei D’Rav Eliezer maintains that Pharaoh eventually did do Teshuva. The Book of Jonah 3:6, reports that Jonah’s appeal to the king of Nineveh and the people of Nineveh to repent, was met by the king’s total contrition, “He rose from his throne removed his robe from upon himself, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat on the ashes.” The Midrash states that the king of Nineveh was none other than Pharaoh (some say a reincarnation of Pharaoh).

Nothing stands in the way of Teshuva. The choice to repent is never taken away from anyone.

May you be blessed.

Va’eira 5779-2019

The Cups of Redemption

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Va’eira, contains the Torah’s source for the custom of drinking four cups of wine at the Passover Seder. The four cups, represent the “four languages of redemption” that are mentioned in this week’s parasha.

In the opening verses of parashat Va’eira, the Al-mighty informed Moses that He had established a covenant with the patriarchs to give them the land of Canaan. Furthermore, G-d states that He has heard the groans of the Children of Israel who are enslaved in Egypt, and that He has remembered His covenant.

It is clear that G-d is about to intervene on behalf of His people.

In Exodus 6:6-7, G-d declares, “Therefore, say to the Children of Israel, I am the L-rd: וְהוֹצֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם מִתַּחַת סִבְלֹת מִצְרַיִם, וְהִצַּלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם מֵעֲבֹדָתָם, וְגָאַלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם בִּזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה וּבִשְׁפָטִים גְּדֹלִים. וְלָקַחְתִּי אֶתְכֶם לִי לְעָם, וְהָיִיתִי לָכֶם לֵא־לֹקִים, וִידַעְתֶּם כִּי אֲנִי השׁם אֱ־לֹקֵיכֶם הַמּוֹצִיא אֶתְכֶם מִתַּחַת סִבְלוֹת מִצְרָיִם , I shall take you out from under the burdens of Egypt; I shall rescue you from their service; I shall redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. I shall take you to Me for a people and I shall be a G-d to you; and you shall know that I am Hashem, the L-rd your G-d, Who takes you out from under the burdens of Egypt.”

These four languages of redemption: 1. “I shall take you out from under the burdens of Egypt.” 2. “I shall rescue you.” 3. “I shall redeem you.” and 4. “I shall take you to Me for a people,” are represented at the Passover Seder by the four cups of wine.

There is also a fifth language of redemption, found in Exodus 6:8, וְהֵבֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נָשָׂאתִי אֶת יָדִי, לָתֵת אֹתָהּ לְאַבְרָהָם לְיִצְחָק וּלְיַעֲקֹב , “and I shall bring you to the land about which I raised my hand to give it to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” This fifth language of redemption, in which G-d promises to bring His people to the land of Israel, has not been entirely fulfilled–-hence the fifth cup of wine, that is designated as the Cup of Elijah. This cup is filled, but not drunk.

In the Talmud, Elijah the prophet is the ultimate resolver of all unresolved questions, including whether there should be four or five cups of wine at the Passover Seder. As a compromise, the fifth cup is designated as the Cup of Elijah, in acknowledgment of the not-yet fulfilled Divine promise to bring all of the People of Israel to the land of Israel.

Rabbi Asher Weiss in his erudite volume, Rav Asher on the Parasha, offers a profound insight into the Torah’s four languages of liberation. Rabbi Weiss suggests that these languages of liberation reflect the different levels of oppression and suffering that slaves are generally subjected to.

There are slaves, suggests Rabbi Weiss, who suffer unceasingly under the hands of cruel and tyrannical masters, who mercilessly abuse their slaves, both physically and mentally. There are, however, says Rabbi Weiss, more fortunate slaves who have more merciful masters, who may not suffer from the physical and mental abuse at the hands of the master, but suffer from the backbreaking labors imposed upon them. Even more fortunate are those slaves who are only required to perform menial tasks, such as light household work. These slaves also suffer, perhaps not physically, but emotionally, since they are subject to the will of another human being and do not have the freedom to lead their lives according to their own will.

According to Rabbi Weiss, when it describes the liberation of our ancestors from Egypt, the Torah addresses all these aspects of slavery:

Pharaoh held B’nei Yisrael in an iron grasp of horrific wickedness. He subjected them to death, torture and grueling labors. From all these harsh decrees, Hashem rescued us. He “removed us” from beneath the burden of cruel abuse. He “rescued us” from the difficult labors they imposed upon us. He “redeemed us” from the degradation of slavery. Yet paramount in significance, was the great kindness that He showed us, by “bringing us” to Him, and making us into His nation.

While we, who live in freedom, may not be physically enslaved, we are, nevertheless, often subject to great rigors and challenges in our lives. Some of us are greatly oppressed by other members of society, by parents, spouses, children, bosses, and teachers, figures of authority and individuals who have significant control over our lives or our environment. The emotional punishments that we may actually be subjected to may be as severe as the pain from brutal blows, broken bones and broken spirits.

Others are spared the emotional “torture,” but find the day-to-day responsibilities terribly burdensome, making it virtually impossible to find personal fulfillment, joy in life and reason to smile. The responsibilities we often face, are simply overwhelming and never let up.

Others, have it easier, born with a silver spoon in their mouths, they never seem to have to worry about money or finances, and never have to work too hard. But, even these blessed individuals, often do not feel free or independent, because even those with minimal responsibilities, find that achieving personal satisfaction is a most difficult challenge.

It is only when we feel embraced by the Divine that we are truly liberated. As rabbinic tradition teaches in Ethics of the Fathers, 6:2, אֵין לְךָ בֶּן חוֹרִין אֶלָּא מִי שֶׁעוֹסֵק בְּתַלְמוּד בַּתּוֹרָה , there is no one who is truly free, except one who engages in Torah.

It’s only when G-d takes us to Him, or more likely when we bring ourselves to G-d, that we feel truly free and liberated. It is only then, that we can fully celebrate the Festival of Freedom, our own personal Passover, our own personal exodus, and our own personal splitting of the Red Sea.

May you be blessed.

Shemot 5779-2018

Getting the Jews Out of Egypt-–Two Views

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shemot, we read of the enslavement of the Jews in Egypt by Pharaoh, as well as the birth of Moses and G-d’s selection of Moses to lead the people out of Egyptian bondage.

The story seems straightforward, although there are a few bumps along the way. G-d tells Moses at the Burning Bush that he will lead the people out of Egypt, and that Pharaoh will not let the people go until the Al-mighty performs a series of wonders. After that, Pharaoh and the Egyptians will expel the Israelites and even chase them out of Egypt.

Rabbi Ben-Zion Firer, through a subtle textual analysis, shows that Moses and G-d had different approaches regarding the process of redeeming the Jews.

Because of his special relationship with Pharaoh, Moses had hoped that he, as an adopted Egyptian, would be able to convince the Egyptian sovereign to let the Hebrew people go. G-d, however, felt that it must not be Moses the Egyptian, but Moses the strong and proud Jew, who would lead His children out of bondage.

Because of the rapidly increasing Jewish birthrate, the new king of Egypt, who did not know Joseph, thought that the Children of Israel were growing too numerous and too strong and had become a security threat to his people. Rabbi Firer suggests that Pharaoh’s strategy was to make life so miserable for the Hebrews, that they would willingly flee Egypt. Pharaoh therefore says to his nation, Exodus 1:10, הָבָה נִתְחַכְּמָה לוֹ,  פֶּן יִרְבֶּה, וְהָיָה כִּי תִקְרֶאנָה מִלְחָמָה וְנוֹסַף גַּם הוּא עַל שֹׂנְאֵינוּ, וְנִלְחַם בָּנוּ, וְעָלָה מִן הָאָרֶץ , “Come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they become numerous, and it may be, that if war will occur, they too may join our enemies and wage war against us, and go up from the land.”

The literal meaning of this verse seems to be that Pharaoh was fearful that if a foreign army would invade, the increasingly numerous Israelites would help the enemy army defeat Egypt and then leave the country.

Rabbi Firer offers a fascinating alternative interpretation. Pharaoh said, “Let us deal with them wisely, so that the Israelites will go up from the land, and leave and not be a threat to Egypt.” However, when Moses approached Pharaoh in G-d’s name and said, “Let my people go,” Pharaoh had a sudden change of heart, which is the typical experience of Jewish history. When Jews wish to live in peace in a non-Jewish land, the local non-Jewish residents make life so difficult for them, hoping that they will leave. But when Jews want to leave a country, suddenly they are locked in ghettos, and are not permitted to leave.

When the daughter of Pharaoh went down to bathe in the river, she opened up the ark and saw a little boy crying, and had compassion for him. She immediately identified the child as one of the Jewish children. She said, Exodus 2:6, מִיַּלְדֵי הָעִבְרִים זֶה , “This is one of the Hebrew boys.”

These words played a decisive role in Jewish destiny. Had Moses not been identified as a Jew, but rather as a child found in the river, he would have grown up as an Egyptian and could have easily convinced Pharaoh that it was in Pharaoh’s own interest and to Egypt’s benefit to rid the country of the Israelites. It would not have been necessary for Pharaoh to “deal with them wisely.” But, now that Moses has been identified as a Jew, the Egyptians will pay no heed to his suggestion.

Moses grows up and goes out to his brothers and sees their suffering. He sees an Egyptian beating one of his brothers, a Hebrew. He turns one way and the other, to make certain that no one is watching, kills the Egyptian and buries him in the sand. Moses was concerned that no one would witness his deed, because he still hoped to pass as an Egyptian. But, once he kills an Egyptian who was beating a Jew, he could never get away with pretending that he was Egyptian.

That is exactly what happens the next day. When Moses sees two Jews fighting, he intervenes, condemning the fighters. One of them said, Exodus 2:14, “Who made you an officer and judge over us? Do you want to kill us like you killed the Egyptian?” Moses knew that the thing was now known, and was afraid.

If Moses was fearful, why didn’t he run at that moment?

Only afterward, when Pharaoh heard of the incident, and sought to kill him (Exodus 2:15), did Moses flee, because now, he was certain that the jig was up, and that he could never again pass as an Egyptian.

According to Rabbi Firer, after all this, Moses still hoped that he could pass as an Egyptian. He flees to Midian and meets Jethro’s daughters at the well. When they return, the daughters tell their father, Exodus 2:19, אִישׁ מִצְרִי הִצִּילָנוּ מִיַּד הָרֹעִים , “an Egyptian man saved us from the hands of the shepherds.” It seems likely that even in Midian, Moses sought to maintain his Egyptian identity, because he hoped that, as an Egyptian, he would one day be in a position to save the Jewish people back in Egypt.

That is why, according to Rabbi Firer, Moses refused, again and again, to accept the mission of G-d, to take the Jewish people out of Egypt. His notion was to save the Jewish people as an Egyptian. He hoped to one day return to Egypt, where he would advise Pharaoh to expel the Jews from Egypt.

When Moses says to G-d, in Exodus 3:11, מִי אָנֹכִי כִּי אֵלֵךְ אֶל פַּרְעֹה, וְכִי אוֹצִיא אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרָיִם , “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh that I should take the Children of Israel out of Egypt?” Rabbi Firer interprets this as if Moses is asking G-d, whether he should go as an Egyptian or as a Jew? G-d tells him that even though it will cause additional hardship for the Jewish people, and Pharaoh will refuse, he must go as a Jew.

Why didn’t G-d allow Moses to approach Pharaoh as an Egyptian, which might perhaps result in accelerating the exodus?

Apparently, G-d felt that it was necessary to harden Pharaoh’s heart, so that he would experience the ten plagues. It was necessary for G-d to punish the Egyptians, because they had gone beyond the “call of duty,” of enslaving and oppressing the Jewish people. Once they started murdering the Jewish children by throwing them into the river, it was necessary for G-d to exact full retribution. That could not have happened had Moses petitioned Pharaoh to let the people go, and Pharaoh would have responded, “You are welcome to leave.”

As the Psalmist says (Psalms 33:11), עֲצַת השׁם, לְעוֹלָם תַּעֲמֹד , G-d’s scheme always prevails.

May you be blessed.

Vayechi 5779-2018

Jacob Blesses His Grandchildren

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Vayechi, is a parasha that contains an abundance of blessings. In the early part of the parasha, Jacob blesses his grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe. The parasha concludes with Jacob blessing his twelve sons.

In Genesis 48:15-16, the Torah records Jacob’s blessings to his grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe, וַיְבָרֶךְ אֶת יוֹסֵף וַיֹּאמַר, הָאֱ־לֹקִים אֲשֶׁר הִתְהַלְּכוּ אֲבֹתַי לְפָנָיו אַבְרָהָם וְיִצְחָק, הָאֱ־לֹקִים הָרֹעֶה אֹתִי מֵעוֹדִי עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה. הַמַּלְאָךְ הַגֹּאֵל אֹתִי מִכָּל רָע יְבָרֵךְ אֶת הַנְּעָרִים, וְיִקָּרֵא בָהֶם שְׁמִי וְשֵׁם אֲבֹתַי אַבְרָהָם וְיִצְחָק, וְיִדְגּוּ לָרֹב בְּקֶרֶב הָאָרֶץ , And he [Jacob] blessed Joseph, and he said, “Oh G-d before Whom my forefather Abraham and Isaac walked–-G-d Who shepherds me from my inception until this day: May the angel who redeems me from all evil, bless the lads, and may my name be declared upon them, and the names of my forefathers, Abraham and Isaac, and may they proliferate abundantly like fish within the land.”

Although the verse states that Jacob blessed “Joseph,” the blessing is actually directed at Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Menashe. After all, what could be a greater blessing for a parent, than to have children who are blessed.

In Genesis 48:20, Jacob concludes his blessing to his grandchildren, saying, בְּךָ יְבָרֵךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר, יְשִׂמְךָ אֱ־לֹקִים כְּאֶפְרַיִם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁה וַיָּשֶׂם אֶת אֶפְרַיִם לִפְנֵי מְנַשֶּׁה , “By you shall Israel bless saying, ‘May G-d make you like Ephraim and like Menashe’”–-and he put Ephraim before Menashe.

The Yalkut Yehuda notes that Jacob blesses the Jewish people to be like Ephraim and like Menashe, and not like Abraham, Isaac or Jacob, or the twelve tribes. Clearly, Jacob saw that the period of the exile in Egypt was about to begin for the Children of Israel. Jacob knew that during an exile, the identity of the people of Israel would be in jeopardy, so he blessed them to be like Ephraim and Menashe, who were the first Jews born, raised and educated outside of Israel. Despite the fact that they grew up in the cauldron of assimilation of Egypt, they remained loyal to the House of Israel.

The Yalkut Yehuda also notes that a child at his circumcision is also blessed to be like Ephraim and Menashe. The blessing effectively declares that this new child should remain strong in his convictions like Ephraim and Menashe, and not break the Brit, the covenant, between him and the G-d of Israel.

Throughout the millennia of Jewish history, the words, “May G-d make you like Ephraim and Menashe” have become the powerful standard blessing for male Jewish children. It is customary for parents to bless their sons on Friday night with these words, which express the hope that every Jewish son will follow the path of Joseph’s two sons.

What was it that distinguished Ephraim and Menashe from all the others?

Rabbi Meir Bergman cited in Peninim on the Torah says that unfortunately, it is very common for members of each generation to decline in spirituality from the previous generation as they become increasingly distant from the source of spirituality. Because of the powerful blandishments of assimilation and the environment, it is difficult for children to maintain the level of spirituality of their parents and grandparents. However, this was not the case with Ephraim and Menashe. Even though they were born in an environment that was extremely seductive and entirely inimical to the values of their fathers and forefathers, Ephraim and Menashe remained loyal to the faith of their ancestors. In fact, they were of such great stature that they were accorded the honor and distinction of being blessed by their grandfather as if they were his own sons. In Genesis 48:5,Jacob confirms their special status by declaring,אֶפְרַיִם וּמְנַשֶּׁה, כִּרְאוּבֵן וְשִׁמְעוֹן יִהְיוּ לִי , Ephraim and Menashe shall be mine like Reuben and Simeon.

The monumental achievement of Ephraim and Menashe was that not only did they not decline in their commitment and spirituality, they maintained the stature of the greats of the previous generation.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The fast of the 10th of Tevet will be observed this year on Tuesday, December 18, 2018, from dawn to nightfall. It commemorates the start of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, which led to the ultimate destruction of the Temple on the 9th of Av.

Vayigash 5779-2018

“The Innocent Victim”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayigash, the Torah describes the dramatic moment when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers.

Prior to revealing himself, Joseph had accused his brothers of being spies, and arrested his brother, Simeon, holding him hostage, until the other brothers return from Canaan and bring along with them their now grown up “little brother” Benjamin.

After eating a meal with his brothers in Egypt, Joseph has his servant plant his valuable personal goblet in Benjamin’s sack, so that he can accuse Benjamin of theft. The brothers come back to Joseph’s palace to fight for Benjamin’s release.

The two potential leaders of the people of Israel, Joseph and Judah, have a major confrontation (Vayigash 5772-2011). The Midrash even says that Judah threatened to destroy all of Egypt if Benjamin were not released. Eventually, Judah’s selfless offer to remain as a hostage in place of Benjamin, touches Joseph, who demands that everyone, except for his brothers, leave his chamber.

Joseph cries in a loud voice, that all of Egypt hears. Finally, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and says, in Genesis 45:3, אֲנִי יוֹסֵף, הַעוֹד אָבִי חָי  “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” His brothers are so stunned, they can not answer him.

Joseph tries to reassure his brothers, telling them that it is all part of a Divine plan, and that they should not to be distressed. After all, he says, Genesis 45:5,כִּי לְמִחְיָה שְׁלָחַנִי אֱ־לֹקִים לִפְנֵיכֶם , “It was to be a provider that G-d sent me ahead of you, to save humanity from famine.”

The rabbis wonder: Why did Joseph ask, “Is my father still alive?” when he revealed himself.

We have already explained in our previous Torah messages (Vayigash 5763-2002) that Joseph, of course, had been informed earlier (Genesis 43:28) that his father, Jacob, was still alive, at least he was at the time the brothers left Canaan. According to this interpretation, Joseph was really asking himself, “Is my father still alive in me? Do I still want to be part of this, until now, terribly dysfunctional family? Am I capable of forgiving everyone, so I can rejoin the family as one of Jacob’s sons?”

There may, however, be another important interpretation with a profound message.

Until now, the brothers of Joseph felt that whatever they had done to Joseph as a young lad was totally deserved and justified. They had concluded that Joseph was in the category of a רוֹדֵףRoh’dayph, a pursuer, who was trying to destroy their family and upend Jewish destiny–at least according to their understanding. Not only did Joseph bring evil reports home to their father Jacob about his brothers, he was trying to prevent Jewish history from advancing the way it was meant to. The only regret that they had previously expressed (Genesis 41:21), was that they had been unkind when they heard Joseph’s cries, and did not respond when he was in the pit. Otherwise, they were absolutely certain that what they had done had enabled G-d’s mission to be properly fulfilled.

What, then, was the meaning of Joseph’s question to his brothers, “Is my father still alive?”

Joseph was not, in fact, inquiring about his father’s physical well-being. Rather, he was questioning the brothers about the emotional toll that their actions had taken on their father, Jacob. “While you (my brothers) might have thought that I was guilty and deserving of this punishment of not only being sold as a slave to Egypt, but perhaps even of death, there was another innocent victim who suffered, even more than I, as a result of your actions. What about our father, Jacob? Why do you not express any remorse concerning him? Is he still alive, or did he bury himself in grief for the last 22 years because his son was missing, and thought to be dead? How could you be so blasé and indifferent about your father’s sufferings all these years? The Torah even testifies (Genesis 37:35) that Jacob could not be comforted.”

In life, there are few negative actions that do not have profound ramifications, bringing grief, disgrace or despair upon the innocent.

One who takes another person’s life, not only harms the victim, but also the victim’s family, children, parents, all of whom are unable to be comforted. A wife loses a husband, a child loses a parent, a community might lose a respected and valued leader.

One who speaks evil or talks negatively of another person, undoubtedly hurts innocent people as well. It is not only the person who speaks the evil and the person about whom the evil is spoken, but also those who hear the evil words, become victims. One who suffers the consequences of evil speech, might lose a job, or lose the respect of others, resulting in their families paying a price as well.

It is almost impossible to trespass one of the Torah’s statutes, without hurting a host of usually innocent people.

This is the message that Joseph was attempting to convey to his brothers. “You thought you were totally justified in trying to get rid of me, but how was it possible all these years for you to neglect to feel for our old father, who never recovered from the loss of a son, and is still grieving back in Canaan?”

“What were you thinking, brothers? How could you not be concerned about Jacob, your own flesh-and-blood, your elderly father?”

These lessons, of course, have broad implications in contemporary times as well. Innocent people pay the price for other people’s mistakes all the time. It is impossible to be too careful or overly concerned for the feelings of the innocent and the impact upon their lives.

Joseph’s brothers eventually learn their lesson, and express regret over what happened to their brother (Genesis 42:21). It is only because of their remorse, that the People of Israel were able to move on, and eventually capture the land of Israel and live there, at least for a period of time, in peace and tranquility.

May you be blessed.

Mikeitz 5779-2018

“Why Did You Treat Me So Badly?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Mikeitz, Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream and is appointed Viceroy of all Egypt. The downtrodden slave boy rises from prison to the peak of power in the great land of Egypt.

Joseph’s meteoric ascent enables him to implement his advice to Pharaoh to save Egypt from the impending famine by storing food for the years of famine, during the years of plenty. As a result, only the land of Egypt had food, and Jacob, who dwells with his family in Canaan, is forced to send his sons to Egypt to purchase grain to keep their families alive.

When the brothers arrive in Egypt, Joseph recognizes them, but they fail to recognize him. He accuses them of being spies, holds Simeon as a hostage and insists that they bring their youngest brother to Egypt to prove their innocence.

When the food that they had purchased from their first journey was entirely consumed, Jacob urges his sons to go down to Egypt once again, to purchase more food. Judah reminds his father that Joseph had demanded that their younger brother be brought down with them this time, and that they cannot go down without Benjamin.

Jacob (scripture uses the name “Israel”) gets very upset and blurts out to them, in Genesis 43:6, לָמָה הֲרֵעֹתֶם לִי, לְהַגִּיד לָאִישׁ, הַעוֹד לָכֶם אָח , “Why did you treat me so badly by telling the man that you have another brother?” The brothers reply, (Genesis 43:7), הֲיָדוֹעַ נֵדַע כִּי יֹאמַר, הוֹרִידוּ אֶת אֲחִיכֶם , “Could we possibly have known that he would say, ‘Bring your brother down?’”

The commentators explain that whenever Jacob assumes the role of patriarch of the Jewish nation, scripture recognizes him as “Israel,” rather than “Jacob.” It is also common for scripture to use the name “Israel” when Jacob refers to something pertaining to the destiny of the Jewish people, rather than something that applies only to Jacob and his family.

In this instance, Jacob is teaching a profound lesson to the younger and the future generations, therefore, in keeping with his patriarchal role, Jacob is called “Israel.” The Ha’amek Davar says, that we learn from Jacob that whenever Jews are forced to appear before leaders who are not friendly to them, they should be circumspect in what information they offer, never revealing more than they have to. Since the seemingly unfriendly viceroy had not specifically asked them about any additional brothers, they should not have offered the information and instead, should have simply told Joseph that, “We, your servants, are 12 brothers.”

Both the Akeidat Yitzchak and the Abarbanel, say, that in this manner, the brothers defended themselves against Jacob’s claim that they had spoken out of turn.  And, that while Joseph had thoroughly questioned them, there was nothing in his manner that led them to believe they should be measured in their response.

The Midrash in Bereishith Rabbah 91, offers a remarkable interpretation for this verse. The Midrash says that, in his entire life, Jacob never uttered anything in vain–except in this particular instance. In response to Jacob’s outburst, the Holy One, blessed be He, said, “I [G-d] am working to make his son into the ruler of Egypt, and he says, ‘Why are you treating me badly?’”

Rabbi Nison Alpert, in his comments on the weekly portion, asked: What was it that Jacob said that deserved such a stinging reproach from G-d? How would Jacob know that Joseph was still alive? After all, he was led to believe that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal? Nevertheless, the Midrash argues that Jacob’s words: “Why did you treat me badly?” were inappropriate.

Rabbi Alpert suggests that perhaps one reason why G-d rebukes Jacob is because more than two decades had already elapsed since Joseph vanished, and by this time, the Al-mighty assumed that Jacob had reconciled his grief over the loss of his child, and come to terms with G-d’s intentions. Perhaps when Jacob first saw the bloody coat that he thought belonged to his son, he would have been justified in his anger at his other children, and cry out, “Why did you treat me so badly?” But, not so many years later.

Jacob had already had sufficient time to work out his grief, but he did not, and that is why G-d was angry.

Perhaps acknowledging that parents never truly overcome their grief over a deceased or missing child, Rabbi Alpert suggests another way of looking at G-d’s rebuke. G-d is not really rebuking Jacob. In fact, the Midrash is actually praising Jacob, saying that throughout his entire life, Jacob had never spoken a single word in vain other than in this instance. Can you imagine never second-guessing G-d, except for one instance? Never wondering about why G-d overlooks certain actions and punishes other actions? Why G-d brings calamity upon the world?

Both of these messages are applicable to contemporary Jewish life today. We are well familiar with the rabbinic statement (Brachot 60b) that, כָּל דְּעָבִיד רַחְמָנָא לְטַב עָבִיד , that everything that G-d does, is always for the good.

The Jewish people from time immemorial have witnessed evil upon evil, yet they still survive. Not only survive, but thrive, like never before. There is 3,300 years of empirical evidence that G-d has watched over and protected His people. Yet, because of the intensity of the evil that Jews experience, it is hard to conclude that it is all for the good, even though we believe that ultimately it will all prove to be good.

A significant lesson to be gleaned from this parasha and others is the importance of being optimistic even in the face of extraordinary reasons to feel otherwise. Jews must look for, and aspire for daylight, even though it is now frighteningly dark outside. We must trust in G-d’s loving-kindness, even though we are in pain.

There is a wonderful statement of faith that is quite popular in Israel today, that states, מִי שֶׁמַּאֲמִין לֹא מְפַחֵד , one who has faith is never afraid. This powerful message is communicated to us through the story of father Jacob and his sons. Even when Jews think that we are being treated badly, we should know that the Al-mighty always has our back, and that ultimately a bright day will dawn. No matter the circumstance, we must boldly proclaim, that the sun will definitely shine again, and shower good and blessing upon all G-d’s children.

May you be blessed.

The festival of Chanukah began on Sunday night, December 2nd, 2018 and continues through nightfall on  Monday evening, December 10, 2018.

Wishing all a happy Chanukah festival.

 

Vayeishev 5779-2018

The Mystical Aspects of the Sale of Joseph

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

 

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeishev, we read of the sale of Joseph by his brothers, which resulted in Joseph being sold to Egypt to serve as a slave in Potiphar’s house. This sale, of course, changed the course of Jewish history.

In his fascinating book, Outlooks and Insights on the Weekly Torah Portion, Rabbi Zev Leff, presents an intriguing, and somewhat mystical, interpretation of the sale of Joseph. While the full scheme of the sale of Joseph is quite complex, I will attempt to share with you some highlights of Rabbi Leff’s cogent analysis.

Jacob, whose name was changed to Yisrael, emerges as the father of the Children of Israel and the Jewish people. Each one of Jacob’s 12 talented sons embodied a specific quality that would be needed by their descendants, the 12 Tribes, to create the Jewish people. At that time, only one person, Jacob himself, embodied all 12 traits.

Since Jacob’s intent had been to marry Rachel, but was deceived by Laban into marrying Leah, Jacob’s true firstborn was his son Joseph. That is confirmed as well, when, at the end of his life, Jacob blesses his children (Genesis 48:5), and turns the tribe of Joseph into two tribes, Ephraim and Menasseh, giving Joseph the double portion that rightfully belongs to the firstborn child.

Tradition teaches that Joseph was a replica of his father, Jacob, both physically and spiritually, and actually possessed all of the traits that Jacob possessed that were needed to build the Jewish people.

Rabbi Leff maintains that Joseph’s role was to serve as a facilitator to the other tribes–to help them develop their own unique qualities, and enable them to make their contributions to further Jewish posterity.

For this to happen, it was necessary for Joseph to go down to Egypt to make preparations for his brothers’ eventual arrival there. In Egypt, under Joseph’s influence, the brothers began to develop their special skills. The next step was for the 12 Tribes to develop even further in the land of Canaan. It was Joseph’s descendant, Joshua, the son of Nun, who led the army that conquered the land, so that the tribes could evolve even further. Ultimately, it will be Mashiach, the son of Joseph, who will serve as the forerunner to prepare the way for Mashiach, the son of David, the ultimate Messiah.

The birth of the 12 sons of Jacob, served to mark a change of eras from that of the forefathers to the that of the tribes.

The fundamental question, notes Rabbi Leff, is whether the 12 brothers represent the start of incipient Klal Yisrael, the People of Israel, or do they represent an earlier incarnation. That question hinges on their spiritual status–were they full Jews or were they Noahides?

The brothers themselves identified as full Jews, at least in an early form, and felt that it was time for them to fulfill their individual roles to begin shaping the destiny of the People of Israel. Joseph, however, disagreed, viewing them as precursors to the nation, but not yet fully formed. Joseph saw himself as the person responsible for steering and leading his brothers, to help them become fully ready for their future roles.

Joseph watched his brothers vigilantly, to help guide them and enable them to fulfill their destined roles. The fact that the Torah (Genesis 37:2) describes Joseph as וְהוּא נַעַר , that he was “a youth,” suggests that his role was to “arouse” their talents and help them blossom.

The Torah, in Genesis 37:2, reports, וַיָּבֵא יוֹסֵף אֶת דִּבָּתָם רָעָה , that Joseph, as part of his role to guide his brothers and help them develop, would bring evil reports about them to their father. However, instead of just reporting his brother’s behavior to his father and allowing Jacob to decide whether there was guilt in his brothers’ actions, Joseph concluded that his brothers were sinners, which aroused great hatred on the part of his siblings.

When the Torah reports, in Genesis 37:3, וְיִשְׂרָאֵל אָהַב אֶת יוֹסֵף מִכָּל בָּנָיו , that Israel loved Joseph more than all of his sons, it literally means “from all his sons.” Jacob’s love for Joseph was an outgrowth of love of all his children, because he viewed Joseph as their embodiment, who would shepherd them into their roles in Jewish life.

Rabbi Leff writes,

The brothers viewed Joseph as a threat to the nation, which in their view had already come into being…They viewed their father’s love for Joseph as coming at their expense, and thus estranged themselves from him, and could not find the ability to speak of him in a friendly manner. In their view, Joseph was a threat to the ultimate harmonious perfection that had to be reached through the unity of each Tribe contributing its unique portion, and not usurping the role of another Tribe.

Joseph’s brothers eventually deemed Joseph to be a רוֹדֵףrodef, a pursuer, who presented a threat to them, both in terms of their physical being, and also in terms of their destiny as the founders of the People of Israel. They, therefore, concluded that Joseph was worthy of death. Eventually, they gave in to Reuben, who pleaded with them not to kill their brother, and agreed with Judah to sell Joseph as a slave.

Rabbi Leff maintains that the brothers felt certain that they acted with proper intentions, and therefore did not regret the sale. The only regret that they later expressed (Genesis 42:21), was that they felt that they could have demonstrated more mercy when they heard Joseph’s cries.

Our Rabbis say that while the brothers felt certain that they were innocent, and that their actions would save the Jewish people, they were nevertheless punished because their judgment was tinged by jealousy. As a result of their jealousy, they, and those who came after them, had to suffer dire consequences. The baseless hatred for which the Second Temple was destroyed, mirrors the hatred of Joseph’s brothers for Joseph.

The tragedy of Joseph and his brothers continues to haunt the Jewish people to this very day. Our failure to identify and comprehend our own true intentions, let alone the intentions of others, is a source of great misunderstanding within ourselves and interferes with our interpersonal relationships. We are, very often, quick to judge others, and even, at times, too quick to judge ourselves. We need to look inside ourselves to question our own motivations.

In the spiritual world, no deeds go unaccounted. Whether we must ultimately pay for them, or are rewarded for them immediately, is impossible to know. Yet, we can certainly learn from the story of Jacob, Joseph, and the brothers, that every deed needs to be carefully considered, because of its broad implications on Jewish posterity.

May you be blessed.

The festival of Chanukah begins on Sunday night, December 2nd, 2018 and continues through Monday night, December 10, 2018.

Wishing all a happy Chanukah festival.

 

Vayishlach 5779-2018

Jacob’s Challenging Life

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

 

As this week’s parasha, parashat Vayishlach, opens, we find a fearful patriarch Jacob sending a huge tribute of flocks and farm animals to his brother Esau, from whom he had fled more than 20 years earlier.

Jacob, whom the Bible (Genesis 25:27) describes as אִישׁ תָּם, יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים, an innocent man who dwells in tents, seems to be anything but. Jacob’s life is clearly the life of a man who is carrying an extraordinary “pekl,” which in Yiddish means, a “burdensome life.” The traumatic encounter that was about to take place between Jacob and his vengeful brother is but a single example of Jacob’s challenges.

Even before he was born, we are told (Genesis 25:22), that Jacob and his brother Esau, were fighting in their mother’s womb. Early in his life, Jacob develops a hostile relationship with his older brother Esau, after Esau sells his birthright to Jacob in return for a bowl of lentil soup. Esau, however, remains forever resentful of Jacob for taking advantage of his hunger and weariness.

The calamities in Jacob’s life are legion, but many are a result of Jacob’s own actions. Jacob must flee from his parents’ home, because he has tricked his brother out of his blessings by masquerading as Esau.

When Jacob flees to Charan, to escape Esau’s wrath, he runs right into the arms of an equally dangerous character, Laban. Laban deceives Jacob out of marrying Rachel, the woman he truly loved, and Jacob has to work an additional seven years for Rachel’s hand in marriage.

The Bible, (Genesis 31:7), testifies that Laban also cheats Jacob out of his wages multiple times. Eventually, Jacob has to run away from Laban’s house as well.

The trials and travails continue. As previously noted, parashat Vayishlach opens when Jacob is returning to Canaan, and is about to confront his brother Esau. But first he is met by Esau’s archangel who wishes to kill him. In that battle, the sinew of Jacob’s thigh is injured, and Jacob walks away limping.

After a challenging reunion with Esau, Jacob heads to Canaan. Soon after he enters the land of Canaan, Jacob’s beloved wife, Rachel, whose barrenness was also a source of great pain to Jacob, gives birth to her second child and dies in childbirth. When Jacob finally seeks to dwell in peace in Canaan, jealousy and enmity break out between his children. His beloved son, Joseph, is sold into slavery by his brothers.

Jacob never gets to experience peace and tranquility in the land of Canaan. Before he passes away in Egypt, he tells Pharaoh (Genesis 47:9), יְמֵי שְׁנֵי מְגוּרַי…מְעַט וְרָעִים הָיוּ יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיַּי, “the years of my life… have been few and bitter.” Only when he passes away and is buried in the Machpelah Cave, does Jacob finally “rest in peace.”

Unfortunately, Jacob’s challenging life was not unique. In fact, all of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs experienced much suffering. The entire book of Job features the life of a man who experiences great suffering.

As Jews, we are grateful that despite all the tests and trials, the Jewish people have survived. But, aside from “surviving,” there is little reason to rejoice. The history of our people is replete with the horrors of repeated Jewish suffering, long before the Holocaust. The list is never-ending: the destruction of the first and second Temples; the Bar Kochba rebellion; the exiles of Jews to Assyria, Babylon and Persia; the Spanish Inquisition; the decrees of 1648-1649.

Despite what seems to be the Jewish “destiny” of suffering, few of us today can truly conceive of a life of constant pain and suffering. For most of us, encounters with people with debilitating lifelong illnesses, or those who survive traumatic accidents with little “quality of life,” are infrequent. Of course, we often hear of abused children of drug-addicted parents, born and raised in poverty, but we rarely personally encounter such people. It’s hard for most Jewish people to relate to persistent suffering, and because of our own blessings, we rarely dwell on the lives of the many millions of people throughout the world who suffer daily.

Jacob could have easily said to the Al-mighty, “G-d, why did you choose me? Why must I suffer these many afflictions? What did I do to deserve this?” Jacob’s complaints would be legitimate, even if he did, at times, cause, or contribute to, his own pain.

Despite his many travails, despite his need to flee from his parents’ home, and his experiences of being constantly cheated by Laban, Jacob never despaired. He was determined to make things work. He kept moving forward, confronting his every challenge. He may have been sad, but he never became bitter. In fact, toward the end of his life, when Jacob blesses his grandchildren, Ephraim and Manasseh, he proclaims (Genesis 48:16), הַמַּלְאָךְ הַגֹּאֵל אֹתִי מִכָּל רָע ,  “May the Angel who saved me from all evil, bless these children.” It’s an amazing statement from the man who suffered so greatly.

While on the topic of despair and bitterness, I’d like to offer words of tribute to an amazing couple, Eydl and Chaim Reznik. I have had the good fortune to meet Eydl and Chaim Reznik in the early years of the Lincoln Square Synagogue Beginners Service. They have lived in the holy city of Tzfat, Israel for over 20 years. Eydl and Chaim Reznik are parents of six children, some of whom are already married. Six years ago, Chaim was diagnosed with ALS. Today, he can only move his eyes, and communicates through a special computer. Yet, he, together with his family, continues to forge ahead heroically.

A few weeks ago on Erev Shabbat, I had the privilege of speaking with Chaim through his computer. He asked me to share with him a Dvar Torah, which I did. He was overjoyed to hear the words of Torah. He is truly heroic.

Presumably, we can all learn from adversity. However, some degrees of adversity are on an entirely different level. May the Al-mighty not test us the way he tested Chaim Reznik and father Jacob.

Our Forefather, Jacob, teaches us the important lesson of perseverance. So do Chaim Reznik and his family. May he have
רְפוּאָה שְׁלֵמָה , Refuah Sh’laima — a speedy recovery.

May you be blessed.

Vayeitzei 5779-2018

“The Deceivers are Deceived”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

 

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeitzei, we find Jacob fleeing for his life from his brother Esau’s wrath, because Jacob had deceived Esau of his birthright and stolen his brother’s blessing.

Both Isaac and Rebecca urge Jacob to run to Paddan-Aram, to the house of Bethuel, Rebecca’s father, and to take a wife from there of the daughters of Laban, Rebecca’s brother.

What was the possible purpose of sending Jacob, whom the Torah (Genesis 25:27) calls an אִישׁ תָּם ,“ish tam,” an innocent man, to dwell in the house of Laban, the most ruthless con-man of the ancient Middle East? (see Vayeitzei 5763-2002)

It could very well be that both Rebecca and Isaac are determined to wean their son, Jacob, from his propensity of deceiving others, by sending him to live with his exceedingly unprincipled uncle. The would-be “innocent” Jacob is no match for his wily Uncle Laban, who literally “fleeces” poor Jacob.

Immediately upon his arrival at his uncle’s home, Laban exploits Jacob, making him work for several weeks before offering him the possibility of compensation. Jacob then offers to work for Laban for seven years for the hand of Laban’s beautiful daughter, Rachel. Ruthless Laban, however, at the last moment, switches his daughters and gives Jacob his daughter Leah instead. In this manner, Laban forces Jacob to work an extra seven years for Rachel.

Finally, when Laban attempts to spell out what Jacob’s compensation will be as a married man, Laban deceives Jacob by removing all the healthy, white sheep and the strong goats, so that Jacob’s compensation would be only the weak and spotted animals.

G-d is with Jacob, and the weak animals give birth to the healthy animals while the inferior ones go to Laban.

After 20 years of abuse, a desperate Jacob finally calls both his wives, Rachel and Leah, into the field for a consultation and says (Genesis 31:5-6): רֹאֶה אָנֹכִי אֶת פְּנֵי אֲבִיכֶן כִּי אֵינֶנּוּ אֵלַי כִּתְמֹל שִׁלְשֹׁם, וֵאלֹהֵי אָבִי הָיָה עִמָּדִי. וְאַתֵּנָה יְדַעְתֶּן, כִּי בְּכָל כֹּחִי עָבַדְתִּי אֶת אֲבִיכֶן “I have noticed that your father’s disposition is not toward me as in earlier days; but the G-d of my father was with me. Now you have known that it was with all my might that I served your father, yet your father mocked me and changed my wage a hundred times. But G-d did not permit him to harm me.”

Both Rachel and Leah agree that Laban has not treated their husband or their family fairly. In fact, they accuse their father, Laban, of treating his own daughters and grandchildren as strangers, and of stealing all their wherewithal.

It was then, that Jacob arose, took his wives and children, and led them away from Laban to begin the long trek to his father Isaac’s house, in the land of Canaan.

Eventually, Laban hears of Jacob’s departure, chases after him, and a major confrontation takes place. Laban wants to harm Jacob, but G-d prevents him from doing so. Eventually, they separate, each going to their own land.

Rabbi Yaakov Filber looks at this portion from the point of view of Jewish business law and doctrine. Rabbi Filber notes that the Torah was the first legal document to champion the rights of the worker. The Torah, in Leviticus 19:13, writes, לֹא תָלִין פְּעֻלַּת שָׂכִיר אִתְּךָ עַד בֹּקֶר , A worker’s wage shall not remain with you overnight until morning. In Deuteronomy 24:15, the Torah explains that one must pay a hired person on the same day,כִּי עָנִי הוּא, וְאֵלָיו הוּא נֹשֵׂא אֶת נַפְשׁוֹ , for he is poor and his life depends on it.

Rabbi Filber cites the Ohr HaChaim, who states that failing to pay a salary on time is not only sinful for failing to fulfill a financial obligation, but is actually an issue of life and death. Workers are not slaves. The Torah in Leviticus 25:55 states, כִּי לִי בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל עֲבָדִים , the People of Israel cannot be servants to other servants, only to G-d. That is why workers have the prerogative to leave their employers even in the middle of the working day (Bava Metzia 10a).

Rabbi Filber cogently points out that employer-employee issues are not one-sided. Just as an employer may not exploit an employee, an employee may not take unfair advantage of his employer as well. When he works, a laborer must work with total commitment. If he has to say בִּרְכַּת הַמָּזוֹן , birkat hamazon (Grace After Meals), he should say the shortened version so he doesn’t steal time from his employer. This is what Jacob meant when he said to his wives, בְּכָל כֹּחִי עָבַדְתִּי אֶת אֲבִיכֶן,With all my strength, I worked for your father.”

Maimonides states that an employee must behave in an ethical manner. A worker who was hired to work during the day, is not permitted to do the work at night and rent himself out during the day to perform another job. He may not starve himself and give his food to his children, because he will not be sufficiently strong to do the work that he was hired to do.

Rabbi Filber cites the beautiful Midrash Talpiot concerning Enoch, the descendant of Seth. The Torah (Genesis 5:24) says, וַיִּתְהַלֵּךְ חֲנוֹךְ אֶת הָאֱ־לֹקִים, וְאֵינֶנּוּ, כִּי לָקַח אֹתוֹ אֱ־לֹקִים, And Enoch walked with G-d; then he was no more, for G-d had taken him. What did Enoch do to deserve to be taken?

Says the Midrash: Enoch, who was a shoemaker, would offer up a special prayer before every stitch, to dedicate his spiritual intentions to the Creator. Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, the great ethicist, comments on this Midrash saying that one may not conclude that Enoch’s spiritual musings were intended to bring him closer to G-d at the expense of the owner of the shoes, since that is forbidden. Rather, Enoch’s intentions were to focus his attention on making certain that every single stitch was properly sewn and sufficiently strong so that the shoes he produced would be the best quality for their owners.

There is not a single story in the Torah, or even a single line or word, that doesn’t have a cogent eternal message. We are fortunate, to not only learn from the good deeds of our ancestors, but also from their mistakes. It is virtually impossible to turn a page in our Scriptures or any of our holy books, without learning a life lesson that has ultimate and eternal value.

May you be blessed.