Friday, January 05, 2007

Parshas Vayechi - Chazak!!

ישימך אלקים כאפרים וכמנשה (48:20) בך יברך ישראל לאמור

As a fulfillment of Yaakov’s blessing to Yosef, fathers bless their sons on Friday night 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, Meged Yosef, and Rav Eliezer Sorotzkin answer that almost from the beginning of time, there has been a problem of sibling rivalry. It 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 Torah scholars 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, Rav Markovitz points out 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 lie 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, 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 activities. Unable to reconcile his current behavior with the lofty philosophical teachings 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)

Prior to his death, Yaakov gathered together his 12 sons, who represented the 12 tribes from which all Jews would be descended, and gave each of them a blessing which was uniquely suited for his unique role within the Jewish nation. In blessing his son Yissachar, whose descendants are traditionally associated with the study of Torah, Yaakov noted that “he saw that peaceful serenity is good and that the land was enjoyable, and he bent his shoulder to bear a heavy load.”

Rav Yerucham Levovitz, the great Mashgiach (spiritual supervisor) of the Mir yeshiva in Europe, points out an apparent contradiction in the verse. It begins by referring to the comfortable life of tranquility and the pleasant land enjoyed by the tribe of Yissachar, something which we can relate to and envision with little difficulty. However, just as we begin dreaming about the tropical pleasures that Yissachar must have had, Yaakov continues and describes his life of tranquility as one in which he bent his shoulder to work hard and carry a weighty burden, which hardly matches the mental images we would associate with Yissachar’s lot based on his initial description.

During World War II, all of European Jewry was under attack and in shambles. Even those who managed to hide or escape lived daily with the fear that numerous family members were unaccounted for and may not have been as fortunate. In the midst of all of this unprecedented destruction and uncertainty, the students of the Mir yeshiva stuck together and fled across Russia to Japan, China, and ultimately to freedom in the United States.

During one stage of their flight, they were on a boat which encountered choppy waters. As if they didn’t have enough to worry about regarding the plight of their brethren back in Eastern Europe, many of those on the boat became quite anxious as the boat was tossed and turned, wondering if they would ever reach their intended destination. Meanwhile, the illustrious Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz, was oblivious to the situation around him, completely absorbed in the difficult book Shev Shmaitsa that he was studying. Somebody approached him for guidance and comfort, asking “Where are we holding?” As he was referring to the plight of the boat, he was quite taken aback when Rav Chaim, completely engrossed in his studies, took it as a question about the book and innocently responded, “Shmaitsa Gimel (Chapter 3)!”

Rav Yerucham explains that Yaakov was coming to teach us that the true definition of peace and tranquility is the exact opposite of what people are accustomed to thinking. The American attitude is that true calm and serenity can only be had on a quiet beach, curled up with a good book and a martini, enjoying the backdrop of gentle waves crashing and the sun warming our bodies, with nobody around to disturb us (not even our Blackberries).

While this is indeed a pleasant and appealing mental image, it by definition restricts our inner state and makes it dependent on external factors beyond our control, implying that if we are unable to be in the situation and circumstances that we would ideally prefer, then inner bliss is unfortunately unattainable at that moment. After a bit of reflection, we should realize that this could hardly be the meaning of true inner tranquility and satisfaction.

The Torah comes to teach us that our mission in this world is to rise above whatever situations life may throw our way, not to focus outward but inward. If we carry within ourselves an untouchable reserve of inner joy and serenity, then we will be able to remain happy and calm throughout life’s journeys and tests, the circumstances of which are all too often beyond our control. By blessing Yissachar and his descendants to carry within themselves the yoke of studying Torah and doing mitzvos, Yaakov was revealing to them – and to us – the key to true simchas ha’chayim (happiness and peace).


וזאת אשר דבר להם אביהם ויברך אותם איש אשר כברבתו ברך אותם (49:28)

The Torah seems to indicate that Yaakov blessed each and every one of his sons. This is difficult to understand, as Rashi seems to explain his words to Reuven, Shimon, and Levi more like words of rebuke than of blessing. In what way was his harsh criticism considered a blessing?

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 a person’s friend has a large 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 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 his own personal “holes” which need fixing, and he suggests that this is the intent of the Mishnah in Avos (4:2) ובורח מן העבירה – a person 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 their personal weak spots to their attention, Yaakov was indeed giving them a tremendous blessing.

However, Rav Dovid Feinstein adds that the rebuke can only be considered a blessing if one indeed accepts it and learns from it. Rav Shimon Schwab notes that although Yaakov referred to Shimon and Levi as “brothers” (49:5) and seemed to equate them in all of their actions, Levi’s descendants became one of the tribes of Torah scholars while Shimon’s descendants included Zimri who sinned publicly with a Midianite woman (Bamidbar 25:6, 14).

Rav Schwab posits that the difference between them 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. Yaakov teaches that if a person learns from his flaws and difficulties and repents his ways, he can turn even his biggest mistakes into the greatest of blessings.


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

1) Rashi writes (47:29) that in requesting Yosef to place his hand under his thigh, Yaakov was requesting him to take an oath not to bury him in Egypt. The Ramban (26:5) writes that the Avos only observed 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 of Yosef 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? (Chida, Shu”t Avnei Nezer Yoreh Deah 2:306)

2) It is customary to quote the blessing which Yaakov gave to his grandchildren (48:20) as fathers bless their sons every Friday night that they should grow up to be like Ephraim and Menashe. While doing so, should one place only one hand on his child’s head or do so with both hands? (Siddur Yaavetz, Vilna Gaon quoted in Torah Temimah Bamidbar 6:23 footnote 131)

3) The blessing which Yaakov gave to Yehuda (49:8-12) contains all of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet except for one. What letter is missing, and what is its significance? (Rabbeinu Bechaye)

4) Rashi writes (49:13) that the tribe of Zevulun engaged in commerce and shared their profits with the tribe of Yissochor in order to allow them to be free to engage in the study of Torah. For enabling this Torah learning, the tribe of Zevulun receives half of the reward for the study that occurs as a result of their financial support. Is the reward given to Zevulun deducted from that which the Torah scholars of Yissochor will receive for their learning? (Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh Shemos 30:13, Chiddushei HaRim Avos 2:12, Vilna Gaon quoted in Taam V’Daas, Shu”t Igros Moshe Yoreh Deah 4:37, Chavatzeles HaSharon)

5) Other than before going to bed, when is a person supposed to say לישועתך קויתי ד' – I await Your salvation, Hashem – part of the blessing Yaakov gave to Dan (49:18)? (Mishnah Berurah 230:7)

6) When Shimi ben Geira cursed Dovid HaMelech, Dovid ordered that he not be punished for doing so, explaining (Shmuel 2 16:11) that “Hashem told him to curse me.” Before his death, why did Dovid then command his son Shlomo (Melochim 1 2:9) to hold him accountable for his actions and avenge the curse by using his wisdom to bring Shimi down to the grave in blood?


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