Thursday, January 12, 2006

Parshas Vayechi - Chazak!

(בך יברך ישראל לאמור ישימך אלקים כאפרים וכמנשה (48:20
This blessing of Yaakov’s is one that we give our sons every Friday night, blessing them that they should grow up to be like Ephraim and Menashe. Of all of our ancestors, why do we specifically bless our children to be like Ephraim and Menashe and not Avrohom, Yitzchok, Yaakov, Yosef, or any of the other tribes? If there is something unique about them, why don’t we just choose one of them to mention; what is the intent of blessing our sons to be like both of them? The Mikdash Mordechai and Rav Eliezer Sorotzkin answer that almost from the beginning of time, there has been a problem of sibling rivalry, which was responsible for the first murder in history when Kayin killed his brother Hevel as he was jealous that his brother’s sacrifice found favor in Hashem’s eyes and his own did not. Yishmael had to be sent away to protect Yitzchok, and Yaakov had to flee for his life from his brother Eisav. Certainly Yaakov’s children were no strangers to jealousy, as they almost killed Yosef for being their father’s favorite child. On the other hand, Yaakov blessed the younger Ephraim to be greater than the older Menashe, which certainly would have been grounds for fighting and anger, yet we find no hint of ill will between them. As the Shabbos Queen comes to permeate our houses with an atmosphere of peace and tranquility, we specifically bless our sons that they should go in the ways of Ephraim and Menashe and there be only peace and harmony between them always.

(יששכר חמור גרם רובץ בין המשפתים (49:14
Rav Tzvi Markovitz questions why the tribe of Yissochor, whose descendants are known for their dedication to Torah study, is specifically compared to a donkey as opposed to any other animal. He posits that while the talmidei chachomim also “carry a load” similar to a donkey, this parallel isn’t sufficient, as there are other animals – such as horses – which are also capable of transporting heavy burdens. Rather, he points that all animals carrying loads must inevitably stop to rest, but there is a critical difference in how they do so. When horses stop for a break, their burden must be removed until they are ready to continue, as opposed to donkeys which are able to lay down and rest even while still carrying the weight on their backs. It is specifically to them that the tribe of Yissochor is compared, as those who “carry the load of Torah” must also periodically stop to recharge, but the distinguishing characteristic of true B’nei Torah is that even at these moments (e.g. bein ha’zmanim), they conduct themselves in accord with their year-round behavior, never casting off their “burden” for a moment. This can be contrasted to a well-known, if perhaps apocryphal, story which is related about Artistotle. As the story goes, in between lessons his students once bumped into him “on the wrong side of town,” in an area known for its immoral activites. Unable to reconcile his current behavior with the lofty philosophical teaching he espoused during his lectures, they asked for an explanation (what they were doing there has never been established). He allegedly answered them, “When class is in session, I am the great Aristotle, and I share my pearls of wisdom with the world. At other times, I am not the Aristotle with whom you are familiar,” a concept which the Torah hints to us is entirely foreign to our way of life.

(וירא מנוחה כי טוב ואת הארץ כי נעמה ויט שכמו לסבול ויהי למס עובד (49:15
Rav Yerucham Levovitz points out a seeming contradiction in our verse. It begins by referring to the good life of tranquility and the pleasant land enjoyed by the tribe of Yissochor, which is something we can all envision with little difficulty. It then continues to describe his life of tranquility as one in which he bent his shoulder to carry a heavy burden and to work hard, which hardly matches the mental images we conjured up. Rather, the Torah is teaching us that the true definition of peace and tranquility is the exact opposite of what people are accustomed to think. The American attitude is that true calm and serenity can only be had on a quiet beach, curled up with a good book, enjoying the backdrop of waves crashing and the sun warming our bodies, with nobody around to disturb or bother us (not even our cell or Blackberry). While this is indeed a pleasant mental image, it by definition restricts one’s inner state to be dependent on external factors beyond our control, implying that if we are unable to be in the situation and circumstances we would prefer, then inner bliss is unattainable at that moment. Upon reflection, we should realize that this could hardly be the meaning of true inner tranquility and satisfaction. Therefore the Torah comes to teach us that our goal in this world is to rise above whatever situations life may throw us, not to focus outward but inward. If we carry within ourselves an untouchable reserve of joy and serenity, then we will be able to be happy and calm throughout life’s journeys and tests, the circumstances of which are all too often beyond our control. By blessing Yissochor’s descendants to carry within themselves the yoke of Torah and mitzvos, Yaakov was revealing to them and to us the key to true simchas ha’chayim (happiness and peace).

(ויהי למס עובד (49:15
The Gemora in Megilla (3a) notes that because the letters in the Luchos (Tablets) were carved out from one side all the way through to the other, it was a miracle that the letters “ם” and “ס” remained in place. All of the other letters were partially connected to the rock around them, but because these two letters were circular, the piece of stone in the middle formed from carving them out was completely unattached and would have fallen out if not for this miracle. Our verse is part of the blessing to Yissochor, who was traditionally known (together with Levi) as one of the tribes most dedicated to Torah study. It has also been a sad fact throughout Jewish history that the institutions and individuals focused on learning and teaching Torah have often found themselves strapped for funds and without any apparent source of assistance. Rav Gedalyah Schorr beautifully suggests that Yaakov specifically referred to Yissochor’s descendants with these two letters to hint that just as these letters inexplicably remained intact even without any support, so too will those who dedicate their lives to the study and teaching of Torah miraculously succeed in their mission!

(וזאת אשר דבר להם אביהם ויברך אותם איש אשר כברבתו ברך אותם (49:28
The Torah seems to indicate that Yaakov blessed every single one of his sons. This is difficult to understand, as his words to Reuven, Shimon, and Levi seem more like words of rebuke than of blessing (see Rashi). Rav Uri Weissblum answers that we must redefine our understanding of a blessing. If somebody is sick but doesn’t realize it, or perhaps knows that he is sick but is unable to diagnose his illness, a doctor who comes along and points out to him his sickness and clarifies its treatment is indeed offering him a tremendous gift. Similarly, if one’s friend has a big pot with a hole in the side, rather than giving him gifts to put in the pot which will only fall out and leave him with nothing, the preferable option would be to point out to bring the hole to his attention so that he may fix it, at which point he will then be able to retain his future acquisitions. Therefore, Yaakov felt that the most appropriate “blessing” he could offer to his 3 eldest sons was to point out to them characteristics which needed improvement (Reuven’s impetuosity and Shimon and Levi’s anger). Calling their spiritual illnesses to their attention would allow them to “plug the holes,” become whole, and ready for future blessings. Rav Yisroel Salanter points out that everybody has their own personal “holes” which need fixing, and he suggests this is the intent of the Mishnah (Avos 4:2) ובורח מן העבירה in advising that one should flee from “the sin.” He explains that every person has within himself one bad middah (character trait) which forms the root of his personal issues and difficulties, which of course the yetzer hara (evil inclination) will attempt to hide and disguise so as to prevent its cure. By calling it to their attention, Yaakov was indeed giving them a tremendous blessing. Rav Shimon Schwab notes that even though Yaakov referred to Shimon and Levi as “brothers” (49:5) and seems to equate them in all of their actions, we later find that Levi’s descendants became one of the tribes of Torah scholars, while Shimon’s descendants include Zimri who sinned publicly with a Midianite woman (Bamidbar 25:6, 14). He posits that the difference was that unlike Shimon, Levi accepted the rebuke, internalized his father’s words, and uprooted his negative character traits, and indeed it was Levi’s descendant Pinchas who would kill Shimon’s offspring Zimri for his sin. We may derive from here that it is not one’s sins or what happens to a person that is critical, but rather what he makes of them. If he learns from his flaws and difficulties and repents his ways, he can turn even his biggest mistakes into blessings.

אנא שא נא פשע אחיך וחטאתם כי רעה גמלוך ... ויאמר אליהם יוסף אל תיראו כי התחת אלקים אני (50:17-19
Although it would appear that Yosef attempted to calm and reassure his brothers, Rabbeinu Bechaye notes that nevertheless he never said explicitly that he actually forgave them for their actions. As a result, they passed away still responsible for this unforgiven sin, which is why their descendants were later punished through the עשרה הרוגי מלכות (the ten great Rabbis who were tortuously killed by the Romans). There are those who suggest that his comment is the source for the custom when appeasing and asking forgiveness from one we have hurt or wronged to insist that they actually say the words “I forgive you.” Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv brings a proof to Rabbeinu Bechaye’s explanation from a Gemora in Yoma (87a). The Gemora there says that if one hurt or insulted his friend, he is only required to attempt to appease him up to three times, and it derives this from the words of the brothers to Yosef (50:17). However, if Yosef indeed forgave his brothers after their third attempt, what proof would the Gemora have that if he wasn’t yet appeased that they wouldn’t have been obligated to try further? Therefore, it must be that the Gemora also understands that Yosef never actually forgave them, and nevertheless it derives from the fact that they didn’t pursue the matter that one is only required to make 3 attempts at forgiveness!

Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):

1) Rashi explains (47:29) that Yaakov requested that Yosef perform a חסד של אמת - a pure act of kindness – in burying him, as normally the motivations of one who does a good deed are slightly colored by his hope of receiving some form of payback, but when burying the dead, no form of payback is possible and the kindness is therefore 100% pure. Yet Rashi writes (48:22) that Yaakov promised Yosef an extra part of Eretz Yisroel in addition to his regular inheritance as a reward for the exertion he would make in arranging Yaakov’s burial, which would seem to contradict the above, as Yosef would now be doing so in order to receive a reward. (Paneiach Raza, Ohr HaChayim HaKadosh, Bod Kodesh)

2) The Ramban (26:5) writes that the Avos only kept the mitzvos when they were in Eretz Yisroel, and therefore Yaakov was permitted to marry two sisters when he was outside of Eretz Yisroel. If so, what was the purpose in Yosef’s swearing not to bury his father in Egypt, as he took the oath outside of Eretz Yisroel and according to the Ramban it wasn’t binding? (Chid”a, Shu”t Avnei Nezer Yoreh Deah 2:306)

3) How could Rashi say (48:9) that Yosef showed his kesuva document to Yaakov when the Torah relates in the very next verse (48:10) that Yaakov was blind due to old age? (M’rafsin Igri)

4) Rashi tells us (48:9) that Yosef showed his kesuva to Yaakov to prove to him that he had properly married Osnas and that Ephraim and Menashe were his legitimate children. We know that at every wedding we must have two kosher Jewish witnesses who aren’t related to the bride or groom in order for the marriage to be valid. Where did Yosef find witnesses in Egypt? (Taam V’Daas, M’rafsin Igri)

5) In this week’s Parsha, Yaakov gives the well-known blessing which we are accustomed to give our sons every Friday night (ישימך אלקים כאפרים וכמנשה). Yet the Targum Yonason ben Uziel on this verse (48:20) writes that this blessing is specifically to be given on the day of a boy’s bris mila (circumcision). Where is this hinted to in the verse, which he is ostensibly coming to translate into Aramaic, and why is this blessing particularly appropriate to be given at that time? (Imrei De’ah, Nesivos Rabboseinu, Mi’shulchano Shel Beis HaLevi)

6) Rashi (49:3) quotes the Gemora in Yevamos (76a) which states that Reuven came from the first drop of Yaakov’s strength, as he had never had an accidental emission his entire life. We also know that with every single one of the brothers had a twin sister (Rashi 35:17). As Yaakov called Reuven his b’chor (firstborn), that would imply that Reuven was born before his twin sister. However, Rashi earlier (25:26) explains that Yaakov came out holding his twin Eisav’s heel because he was entitled to be the firstborn. He compares this to a tube in which one places two rocks; when turning it over to empty it, the first one to come out will actually be the last one to have been inserted, and the first one to have gone in will actually come out last. Therefore, Yaakov was actually conceived first and was attempting to block Eisav’s delivery so that he could rightfully be the firstborn. According to this logic, if Reuven was born before his twin sister, then he wasn’t the first drop of Yaakov’s strength but rather his sister was? (Chid"a in P'nei Dovid, Be'er B'sadeh 25:26, Matamei Yaakov)

7) Rashi writes (49:7) that all teachers of young children come from the tribe of Shimon in order to disperse them. However, the reason Yaakov gives for wanting them spread out is due to their intense anger, and the Mishna (Avos 2:5) advises that לא הקפדן מלמד – those who are strict and angry shouldn’t be teachers, so why were the teachers from the tribe of Shimon? (Aleinu L'shabeiach, Mishmeres Ariel)


Blogger Yiddishkeit said...

Truly spectacular - I don't know where you find the time to write so much!

Thu Jan 12, 06:19:00 PM  
Blogger Parsha Potpourri said...

Neither do I! :)

But thanks for the support, and thanks even more for the wonderful press you give me on your page!

If you have any suggestions for how to improve, feel free to share. And if you're interested, this is actually the abridged version, as I write up 3-5 times more than this each week. If you want to get on my email list for either the long or short one, just drop me a line.

Fri Jan 13, 02:35:00 AM  
Blogger Pragmatician said...

Great selection of d'var Torahs.
It always puzzled me that the Avos had what appears to be little insight over the impact of favoring one child over the other.
Since they must've had a reason it is indeed fitting to bless our children after the one person that accepted his parent’s (grandfather) judgment without questioning.

Mon Jan 16, 04:26:00 AM  

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