Friday, December 22, 2006

Parshas Mikeitz

ויהי מקץ שנתים ימים ופרעה חלם והנה עמד על היאר (41:1)

וידבר פרעה אל יוסף בחלמי הנני עמד על שפת היאר (41:17)

There are numerous discrepancies between the actual dreams of Pharaoh and the way in which he related them to Yosef. For example, in his dream he saw himself actually standing on the river, while in relating it to Yosef he claimed to have been standing on the banks of the river. Why did he change this detail when recounting his dream to Yosef?

Rabbeinu Bechaye explains that the Nile river was one of the Egyptian gods, and in envisioning himself literally standing on it, he was showing how wicked and conceited he was, in thinking himself even more mighty and powerful than the god he purported to worship, yet he was embarrassed to admit as such to Yosef, so he doctored it and reported having seen himself standing by the banks of the river. Yosef recognized the change and made no reference to the banks of the river in interpreting the dreams, as he knew that hadn’t been part of the original dream.

Rav Meir Shapiro and Rav Boruch Teumim-Frankel beautifully suggest that this is the meaning of the verse in Tehillim (81:6)עדות ביהוסף שמו בצאתו על ארץ מצרים שפת לא ידעתי אשמע , which can be read as referring to the testimony of Yosef upon his rise to greatness in Egypt, that he heard a reference to “the banks” of the river, but had no clue why it was being mentioned or how to interpret it as it hadn’t been part of the original dream!

והנה שבע פרות אחרות עולות אחריהן מן היאור רעות מראה ודקות בשר (41:3)

והנה שבע פרות אחרות עולות אחריהן דלות ורעות תואר מאד ורקות בשר (41:19)

There are numerous discrepancies between the actual dreams of Pharaoh and the way in which he related them to Yosef. For example, although in his dream he saw seven cows with ugly מראה, he related to Yosef that they had ugly תואר. What is the difference between these words, and why did he switch?

The Torah praises (29:17) Rochel and writes that she was both יפת תואר ויפת מראה. Rashi explains that these seemingly synonymous terms are not redundant, as the term תואר refers to the external appearance and beauty of one’s physical face, while מראה describes the internal, spiritual shine which radiates forth from within, both of which were present in Rochel.

Rabbi Mordechai Biser notes that Egyptian society was so materialistic and absorbed in the hedonistic pleasures of ths world that they were even buried with their possessions, as they couldn’t imagine a World to Come consisting of anything but more of the same physical pleasures which they viewed as the pinnacle of happiness. In his dream, Pharaoh was shown a destruction which would permeate to the inner core of his corrupt society, yet precisely because he was so indulgent, he wasn’t even able to grasp the hint. In his eyes beauty was skin deep, and he was unable to describe the animals as anything but ugly in their external appearance.

As the Ramban writes that the Egyptian exile contained within it the roots of all of the other four exiles which followed, it isn’t surprising us to find that the Greeks in the times of the Chashmonaim were so completely absorbed in the worship of external beauty that they reached the point of outlawing the study of the internal and spiritual Torah. Similarly, a person living in 21st-century America doesn’t need to think deeply in order to recognize that history repeats itself and to see how the superficial values of the Egyptians and Greeks fill the streets which surround us and permeate the very air which we breathe.

As we light our Chanuka menorahs and celebrate the miraculous triumph of the righteous Chashmonaim over these false world-views, it behooves us to take a moment to internalize the deeper understanding that this wasn’t merely a simple military victory, but rather the prevailing of the underlying spiritual philosophy for which the Chashmonaim stood, a philosophy of inner depth and spiritual beauty which we should strive to emulate and incorporate into our daily lives.

ועתה ירא פרעה איש נבון וחכם וישיתהו על ארץ מצרים (41:33)

After Yosef was freed from prison in order to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, he explained that they foretold seven years of abundance to be followed by seven years of famine. Therefore, he recommended the appointment of a wise advisor to oversee the project of storing for the famine during the years of plenty. Upon hearing this proposal, Pharaoh responded that there was nobody more fitting for the role than Yosef himself, who demonstrated great insight by suggesting such an idea.

Pharaoh requested Yosef to interpret his dreams. After doing so, why did Yosef proceed to offer advice on how best to deal with the ramifications of his interpretation of the dreams, something which wasn’t at all requested of him? Further, why did Pharaoh not only not mind that Yosef had overstepped his mandate, but became so impressed with him that he appointed him to oversee the new project?

The Vilna Gaon answers with a brilliant explanation. A person who is told that his dream refers to events in the distant future has no reason to believe the interpretation given to him, as there is no way to test its accuracy. In fact, an interpreter who doubts his abilities would be wise to offer such an explanation so that there is no way for him to be proved wrong and his reputation ruined.

Yosef, on the other hand, told Pharaoh that his dream referred to the immediate beginning of seven years of plenty, which would be immediately followed by seven years of famine. Logically, Pharaoh should believe Yosef’s explanation, for he would be foolish to make up an interpretation which would promptly be proven incorrect.

Still, even when the years of plenty began, Pharaoh didn’t necessarily need to be convinced of Yosef’s wisdom. He could have insisted on waiting for seven years to see whether the famine would indeed begin as Yosef had predicted, or even for 14 years to see if the famine would end as he had forecasted. Hashem recognized the danger of such a potential reaction, as in that case Pharaoh wouldn’t trust Yosef sufficiently to appoint him to oversee the project from the very beginning.

As a result, the Medrash says that Hashem caused Pharaoh to forget part of his dream, specifically the part in which Yosef’s recommendation to appoint a wise man to oversee the storage project was actually spelled out explicitly! Upon hearing that Yosef not only offered a plausible and verifiable interpretation of his dreams but also refreshed his memory about a portion of the dream which even he had forgotten, Pharaoh exclaimed (41:39) ויאמר פרעה אל יוסף אחרי הודיע אלקים את כל זאת אין נבון וחכם כמוך, which can be understood to mean that after Hashem has informed you of all of this, including the part of the dream that even I forgot, surely there is nobody wiser than you in the kingdom!

ויאמר יהודה אל ישראל אביו שלחה הנער אתי ונקומה ונלכה

ונחיה ולא נמות גם אנחנו גם אתה גם טפנו (43:8)

There is a Talmudic principle (Bava Metzia 62a) known as חייך קודמין – saving one’s own life comes before all others. However, in the unthinkable situation in which one may additionally save only one’s father or one’s own son, as occurred all too often during the Holocaust, who has precedence?

Yehuda requests that Yaakov send Binyomin down to Egypt with him and entrust him with ensuring Binyomin’s safe return, so that there will be food to eat so that we (the brothers), you (our father), and our children shouldn’t die of starvation. Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky derives a fascinating inference from the wording of this verse. He maintains that the Torah is prioritizing for us who has precedence when it comes to saving lives. The Holy Torah, which contains the answer to every question, answers this one by mentioning the saving of their father Yaakov before that of their own children to teach us that one’s father has priority.

ויאמר חלילה לי מעשות זאת האיש אשר נמצא הגביע בידו

הוא יהיה לי עבד ואתם עלו לשלום אל אביכם (44:17)

Rav Zev Leff questions how Parshas Mikeitz could end at this dramatic point in the action. Yaakov had been terrified to send Binyomin down to Egypt as Yosef had demanded, as he represented the last vestige of his beloved wife Rochel. As the food supply began to be depleted, Yaakov had no alternative but to rely on Yehuda’s personal guarantee to insure Binyomin’s safe return. Although the brothers had been confused and scared by Yosef’s accusations that they were spies and then his invitation for them to be his personal guests at a banquet, they thought that the coast was clear when they were finally able to set out on their return journey, armed with Binyomin, Shimon, and a new supply of food.

Much to their chagrin, shortly after setting out on their trip, they were accosted and Binyomin was “found” to have stolen Yosef’s divining goblet, which would presumably require the brothers to leave him in Egypt and return empty-handed to their heart-broken father. Could there be a worse place in the plot line to interrupt with “to be continued” than at this climactic moment?

Rav Leff answers that this was done intentionally in order to teach us that no matter how bad things may seem at any point in our lives, we must always remember that there is another chapter waiting to be turned just around the corner. However long it may take us to ultimately realize it, there will finally come a time when we will be able to retroactively understand the Divine Providence and the good which were germinating in what seemed to be life’s darkest moments.

Rav Meir Shapiro beautifully points out that Dovid Hamelech writes (Tehillim 116:13) כוס ישועות אשא ובשם ד' אקרא – the cup of salvation I will raise and I will call out in the name of Hashem – all in one verse, for when good things occur, we have no problem seeing the good and praising Hashem immediately. When it comes to the bad, however, Dovid writes in the same chapter (116:3-4) צרה ויגון אמצא ובשם ד' אקרא – I will find troubles and suffering, and I will call out in the name of Hashem – spread out over two different verses.

Regardless of whether I will raise the cup of salvations or whether I will find troubles and suffering, I will ultimately call out in Hashem’s name just the same. The only difference is that when things seem difficult, we sometimes have to patiently wait until the next verse, or in our case even the next parsha, until we are able to recognize the good that will ultimately make us call to Hashem to express our praise and gratitude. Even if we aren’t there yet and aren’t able to see the good that currently lies hidden, the knowledge that it is there and we will eventually understand it should give us the strength to persevere with faith and trust until it is revealed.

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

1) According to one of Rashi’s explanations (42:1), in spite of the famine, Yaakov and his sons still had food remaining. The Ramban writes (12:10) that Avrohom committed a great sin when he left the land of Canaan to descend to Egypt during a famine instead of remaining in Canaan and trusting in Hashem. If they still had enough to eat, why did Yaakov send the brothers to Egypt to buy more food, which would also seem to represent a lack of trust and faith in Hashem?

2) When Yosef’s brothers arrived in Egypt to purchase grain, he immediately recognized them, but they were unable to recognize him (42:8). Rashi explains that when he was separated from them at the age of 17, they already had beards but he did not, and as a result, the change in his appearance misled all of the brothers. Even if he now had a beard, why didn’t they recognize his face, which Rashi (37:2) writes resembled that of their father Yaakov, or his voice? (Tzafnas Paneiach, Yishm’ru Daas, Mishmeres Ariel, Derech Sicha, Even Meira)

3) When Lavan accused Yaakov of stealing his idols, Yaakov – not realizing that his beloved wife Rochel had indeed taken them – declared his innocence and said (31:32) that the person with whom Lavan will find his idols won’t live. Even though Lavan didn’t find his idols, Rashi writes that this curse still caused Rochel to die prematurely, as a curse on condition still takes effect even if the condition is unfulfilled. When the brothers told Menashe (44:9) that the one in whose sack he finds the goblet will die, why didn’t Binyomin die young from this curse, especially in light of the fact that the condition was fulfilled when Menashe found the goblet in Binyomin’s sack? (Moshav Z’keinim quoted in Taam V’Daas, Yad Av, Tiv HaTorah)

4) At the end of each parsha, a line customarily appears in the Chumash stating how many total verses are in that parsha. Why does the line printed at the end of Parshas Mikeitz give not only the total numbers of verses (146) but also the number of words (2025)? (Genuzos HaGra)

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Monday, December 18, 2006


On Chanuka we add a paragraph to the Shemoneh Esrei prayers and to Birkas HaMazon in which we thank Hashem for the miracles which He performed at this time. After describing all of the miracles which Hashem performed for our ancestors, this paragraph, known as “Al HaNissim,” concludes וקבעו שמונת ימי חנוכה אלו להודות ולהלל לשמך הגדול – and they (the sages) established the 8 days of Chanuka to give thanks and praise to Your Holy name. In the “Al Hanissim” paragraph which is added on Purim, no analogous mention is made of the manner in which we commemorate the miracles Hashem performed for Mordechai and Esther. Further, if they opted to discuss our religious obligations on Chanuka, why is no mention made of the requirement to light the menorah, which is traditionally considered to be the primary mitzvah associated with publicizing the miracle of Chanuka?

Secondly, the song known as “Maoz Tzur” which is traditionally sung each day after lighting the menorah refers to the enactment of Chanuka as בני בינה ימי שמונה קבעו שיר ורננים – men of insight established 8 days for singing and rejoicing. As there are numerous words in Hebrew to connote wisdom (e.g. חכמה, דעה), why are they specifically referred to as בני בינה – men of understanding? Finally is the famous question attributed to the Beis Yosef: if there was enough oil for one day, then the miracle was in reality only for the last 7 days, so why is Chanuka commemorated for 8 days and not for 7?

Before beginning to answer these questions, let us pose one additional question, the answer to which will provide the key to addressing these questions. Studying science and revealing the depth and intricacy of Hashem’s Creation often brings people to believe in Hashem as they marvel at the impossibility of it all occurring by chance. As history teaches that although the ancient Greeks were on the cutting edge of science and knowledge of the natural world, why were they also the biggest heretics?

This last question may be answered with a parable. There were two families who performed tremendous acts of chesed (kindness). The first family noticed a poor homeless beggar and invited him to their home for a warm supper, a shower, a change of clothes, and a good night’s sleep. The second family heard of the plight of a young abandoned baby and with great mercy adopted him and raised him as their very own. While both are admirable, praiseworthy acts, the latter clearly far outweighs the former, as it is an obligation for life versus a commitment of one night.

Yet upon speaking with the homeless man and the adopted child and measuring their levels of gratitude, one would surprisingly find the homeless man gushing with effusive praise for his compassionate hosts, while the child will be far less enthusiastic. The explanation for this phenomenon is that because he was adopted at such a young age, the child has grown accustomed to their myriad acts of kindness to the point of taking them for granted and assuming that they occur automatically, whereas the homeless man is able to recognize the magnitude of their unexpected thoughtfulness.

Similarly, the ancient Greeks were leaders at furthering the understanding and awareness of the natural world, but they were led astray by the very fact that the focus of their inquiries – nature – is by definition constant and self-perpetuating. This led them to take nature for granted and to view it as an independent power unto itself. Not surprisingly, the gematria (numerical value) of the word הטבע (nature) is the same (86) as that of אלקים, yet they erred in concluding that nature is a god rather than His work and the way in which His Divine Will manifests itself in this world.

This introduction provides a deeper understanding of the victory of the Chashmonaim over the Greeks. The struggle wasn’t merely military in nature, but it represented a battle over this fundamental mistake made by the Greeks. The Chashmonaim realized that everything in the world comes from Hashem, and everything – including nature itself – is in reality a miracle. The Ramban writes (Shemos 13:16) that from clear and open miracles a person should come to recognize that even the mundane things he takes for granted, such as nature, as also miraculous, albeit in a “hidden” form. This concept is so fundamental to Jewish belief that he concludes that one who denies this has no portion in the Torah.

In this light, we can now appreciate the answer given by the Alter of Kelm to the well-known question of the Beis Yosef. The question was that because there was enough oil to burn on the first day, no miracle occurred and therefore Chanuka should be celebrated only for the 7 days that the oil burned “miraculously.” The Altar of Kelm answers that the miracle of the first day is that oil burns at all! One will argue that this isn’t miraculous, but just the functioning of the laws of nature, but this is exactly the point! The first day of Chanuka commemorates the recognition that nature itself is a creation of Hashem, and just because one is accustomed to it on a daily basis, it is no less miraculous than the fact that the oil burned for longer than it was supposed to!

The Gemora in Taanis (25a) relates that one Friday, the daughter of Rav Chanina ben Dosa accidentally put vinegar in the Shabbos candles instead of oil. Her father wasn’t fazed, as he unequivocally declared that “He who told oil to burn can tell vinegar to burn.” He recognized clearly that the accepted laws of nature are essentially arbitrary; if Hashem willed them to be another way, they could just as easily be completely different. He understood that there is nothing intrinsically more miraculous in the burning of oil than that of vinegar, as nature is just another, more hidden, form of a miracle. Not surprisingly, the Gemora concludes that for somebody on such a level, an open miracle occurred and he lit his Havdolah candle from those very same vinegar candles which were still burning strong!

In a similar vein, Rav Moshe Feinstein answers another difficulty raised with the wording of the “Al Hanisim” prayers for Chanuka. Why is no mention made of the most well-known miracle associated with Chanuka, the burning of the oil for 8 days? Based on the above, he suggests that it is indeed mentioned, in the words והדליקו נרות בחצרות קדשך – they lit candles in Your Holy Temple. One may point out this this wasn’t the miracle of the oil, as they had enough oil to burn initially, but this is exactly the point! That the oil burned at all was the first miracle of the oil, and one no less miraculous than that which occurred on the remaining 7 days!

In light of the above, Rav Shmuel Rozovsky beautifully explains why the sages are specifically referred to as בני בינה. Rashi writes (Devorim 1:13) that binah is specifically used to connote the wisdom of being מבין דבר מתוך דבר – extrapolating from one concept and using it to understand something else. This is the precise description of the Chashmonaim, who acted in line with the aforementioned Ramban’s principle, and from the open miracle that they witnessed on the last 7 days, they were able to step back and use it to recognize that the lighting of the first day had been just as miraculous.

This was their conquest over the Greeks and their pagan philosophy. Had they only established a holiday of 7 days, they would have missed the entire point. The Greeks also would have agreed to make a holiday commemorating the latter 7 days, but that was their entire defeat. We therefore stress that the wise and understanding men established 8 days for singing and praising; the fact that they made it 8 and not 7 is precisely the proof that they were בני בינה!

The Gemora in Berachos (7b) states that in naming her 4th son Yehuda in order to express her gratitude to Hashem (Bereishis 29:35), Leah became the first person in history to thank Hashem. How can it be that the righteous Avrohom, Sorah, Yitzchok, Rivkah, and Yaakov never once thanked Hashem? The K’sav Sofer answers that they thanked Hashem repeatedly, but only for the open miracles. Leah was the first person to thank Hashem for something which could be classified as “natural,” the birth of 4 sons. She recognized that nature is also a miracle and requires just as much gratitude as the open miracles!

The Bach writes (Orach Chaim 670) that the Greeks were able to control and overpower the Jews at that time because they weakened themselves in their Divine Service. The Shem Mi’Shmuel clarifies that the Bach doesn’t mean to say that they weren’t observing the mitzvos. They were doing everything that they were required to do, but they were doing it כמצוות אנשים מלומדה – from rote and habit.

In discussing how long the menorah must burn, the Gemora (Shabbos 21b) doesn’t give an amount of time as one would expect but rather an unusual measurement: עד שתכלה רגל מן השוק, until people’s feet are no longer walking around outside in the marketplace (where they will be able to see the menorahs, and hence there is no further purpose in publicizing the miracle).

The Chiddushei HaRim suggests that the word “ha’regel” (the foot) can also be read “hergel” (habit). The foot is the part of the body which is farthest from the brain, and as such it is the most capable of functioning on “automatic pilot” without any thought at all. The Gemora can be re-read to require “ad she’tich’leh hergel min ha’shok.” A person only fulfills his obligation on Chanuka when he turns off the “cruise control” and begins to act in a thought-out, premeditated manner.

It has been cynically suggested that while Orthodox Jews are traditionally subdivided into the categories of FFB (Frum From Birth) and BT (Baal Teshuva), most of them fall into a 3rd category, FFH (Frum From Habit), people who keep Shabbos because they did it last week, and who eat kosher because that’s what they did growing up. Chanuka is a time to work to overcome this and become thinking Jews!

The question with which we began was why the “Al Hanisim” on Chanuka concludes with how the miracles are commemorated, and once it does so, why does it only mention the need to give thanks while overlooking the lighting of the menorah? Rabbi Yosef Sonnenschein suggests that because the goal of Chanuka is to overcome the power of habit, giving thanks to Hashem is an integral part of the holiday.

If a person does most mitzvos, including lighting the menorah, without proper intent, it definitely takes away from the value of the mitzvah, but at the end of the day the mitzvah was still done. The burning menorah publicizes the miracle to all who see it regardless of the concentration, or lack thereof, of the one who lit it. Gratitude, on the other hand, if offered unenthusiastically, isn’t considered as having been given yet somewhat deficiently; it’s meaningless and wasn’t given at all! If a person doesn’t feel that somebody has benefited him, or ascribes to him ulterior motives, or simply doesn’t feel appreciative, then saying an insincere “thank you” is hollow and worthless.

Although it is incredibly difficult to feel and express proper appreciatin for Hashem’s kindnesses, this is no excuse. Rav Nosson Wachtfogel points out that the days of Chanuka are miraculous days, a time of being above the laws of nature. The “Al Hanisim” prayer stresses that this is a time when Hashem delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak and the many into the hands of the few. Let us use this precious opportunity to recognize that even what is cloaked in the guise of nature is indeed miraculous, and to reflect upon the numerous miracles which Hashem performs for us every second of every day, and to thank Him with hearts full of gratitude!

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

1) On Chanuka we add a paragraph, known as “Al Hanissim,” to the Shemoneh Esrei prayers and to Birkas HaMazon in which we give thanks to Hashem for the miracles, for the redemption, for the acts of might, for the salvations, and for the wars which He performed for our ancestors at this time. Wouldn’t we have been better off without wars? Why are we giving thanks for them? (Leket Sichos Mussar, Noam Hamussar, Derech Sicha Biurei Ha’Tefilla, Shiurei Bina)

2) The song known as “Maoz Tzur” which is traditionally sung each day after lighting the menorah states ומנותר קנקנים נעשה נס לשושנים – with the remaining oil, a miracle occurred for the roses. Why are the Chashmonaim compared to flowers, and why specifically to roses?

3) The song known as “Maoz Tzur” which is traditionally sung each day after lighting the menorah states regarding Haman רוב בניו וקניניו על העץ תלית – the majority of his sons and possessions You hung on the tree. As the Pirkei D’Rav Eliezer states that Haman had 40 sons and only 10 of them were hung with him, in what way were the majority of his sons hanged? Also, in what way were his possessions hung on the tree? (Torah L’Daas Vol. 9)

4) Why is virtually no mention made of the festival of Chanuka and its pertinent laws anywhere in the Mishnah? (Chasam Sofer)

5) The Gemora in Shabbos (23b) states that a person who is careful regarding the mitzvah of lighting the candles of Shabbos and Chanuka will merit sons who are Torah scholars. Why won’t he be rewarded by becoming a sage himself? (Pri Chodosh)

6) How were the Greeks able to render the oil in the Beis HaMikdash impure when the Gemora in Pesochim (17a) states that many of the liquids, including the oil, which were used in the Beis HaMikdash (משקה בית מטבחיא) aren’t susceptible to becoming impure? (Shu”t Beis Yitzchok Orach Chaim 110, Imrei Daas Moadim, Chiddushei HaRim)

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