Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Parshas Vayechi - Chazak!

וירא ישראל את בני יוסף ויאמר מי אלה ויאמר יוסף אל אביו בני הם אשר נתנ לי אלקים בזה (48:8-9)

ביקש לברכם ונסתלקה שכינה ממנו לפי שעתיד ירבעם ואחאב לצאת מאפרים ויהוא ובניו ממנשה. מהיכן יצאו אלו שאינן ראוין לברכה? הראה לו שטר אירוסין ושטר כתובה (רש"י)

Rashi writes that although Yaakov initially intended to bless Yosef’s sons Ephraim and Menashe, he grew hesitant when he became aware that they would have wicked descendants. Yosef attempted to reassure Yaakov by showing him proof that he married their mother according to Jewish law. Although this was commendable, how did it assuage Yaakov’s concern that their offspring would include evil men?

The Torah L’Daas (Vol. 1) and Peninei Kedem offer a clever explanation based on the answer to a well-known question. A ben sorer u’moreh (wayward son) is put to death at a young age for the relatively minor (and non-capital) crimes of disobeying his parents, stealing from them, and overeating. Rashi explains (Devorim 21:18) that he is killed על שם סופו – although his present actions don’t justify the death penalty, because they reveal that he is headed down a path that will lead that way, it is preferable for him to die now while he is still relatively innocent.

On the other hand, when Yishmael was sick in the desert and Hashem wished to miraculously create a well to heal him, the Heavenly angels challenged why He would help somebody whose descendants would later kill the Jewish people. Hashem answered that He only judges people באשר חוא שם – based on their actions at the present moment without taking into account what will happen in the future. If so, why is the wayward son punished based on his future actions?

The Maharsha answers that the mother of the ben sorer u’moreh was a beautiful non-Jewish woman who was captured during war (Rashi Devorim 21:11). Even though the Torah permitted marrying her, it was only done as a concession to the yetzer hara (evil inclination) and in a sense, the child is considered to be the product of a sinful relationship. As a result, he is judged more stringently and held accountable for his future actions, as opposed to Yishmael who was born from a permitted relationship.

In light of this distinction, when Yosef saw Yaakov refraining from blessing Ephraim and Menashe based on their future wicked descendants, he demonstrated that they were legitimate children from a proper marriage and therefore should only be judged based on their present (righteous) actions!


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 and gave each of them a blessing which was uniquely suited for his unique role within the Jewish nation. In blessing Yissochar, whose descendants are traditionally associated with the study of Torah, Yaakov said, “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 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 Yissochar, which we can envision with little difficulty. However, just as we begin dreaming about the tropical pleasures that Yissochar 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. This hardly matches the mental images we would associate with Yissochar’s lot based on Yaakov’s initial description.

The following story will help us resolve this difficulty. During World War II, the students of the Mir yeshiva fled through many countries on their way to freedom in the United States. During one stage of their flight, they were on a boat which encountered choppy waters. Many of those on the ship became quite anxious as the boat was tossed and turned, wondering if they would ever reach their destination.

Meanwhile, their illustrious Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz, was oblivious to the situation around him, completely absorbed in the difficult work Shev Shmaitsa that he was studying. One of the students approached him for guidance and comfort, asking “Where are we holding?” As the student was referring to the boat’s plight, 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 teaches 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.

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

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 unshakable reserve of inner joy and serenity, we will be able to remain happy and calm throughout life’s journeys and trials, the circumstances of which are all too often beyond our control. By blessing Yissochar 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’chaim (happiness and peace).


ויהי למס עובד (49:15)

The Gemora in Megilla (3a) notes that because the letters in the Tablets were carved out from one side all the way through to the other (Shemos 32:15), 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.

In his blessing to his son Yissochar, who was traditionally known as one of the tribes most dedicated to Torah study, Yaakov said ויהי למס עובד. It has 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!


והנה עמך שמעי בן גרא ... והוא קללני קללה נמרצת ... ואשבע לו בד' לאמר אם אמיתך בחרב ועתה אל תנקהו כי איש חכם אתה וידעת את אשר תעשה לו והורדת את שיבתו בדם שאול (מלכים 1 2:8-9 – הפטרה)

At the end of Dovid HaMelech’s life, he gave his final instructions to his son Shlomo, who would succeed him as king. He commanded Shlomo to remember the vicious curses which Shimi ben Geira had heaped upon him. However, because Dovid had sworn to Shimi that he wouldn’t kill him for his actions, he advised Shlomo to use his wisdom to find a means to avenge his disgrace and execute Shimi.

Shlomo dutifully called Shimi and commanded him to build a house in Jerusalem, informing him that he must remain within the city limits, for on the day that he departs he will be killed (2:36-37). Shimi agreed to the terms, built a house in Jerusalem, and refrained from exiting the city for three years. At that time, two of his slaves escaped, and he pursued them out of the city to bring them back. Upon hearing of this, Shlomo summoned Shimi and decreed that because he violated their agreement, he was to be killed.

Although in hindsight this represented a brilliant method of reconciling Dovid’s desire to have Shimi punished with his promise not to directly kill Shimi for his act of rebellion, how did Shlomo know that his plan would succeed, as we find that Shimi managed to abide by the condition for three years before an unexpected episode caused him to stumble? Why did Shimi, who was a wise man who understood the consequences of leaving Jerusalem and managed to refrain from doing so for three years, suddenly commit such a foolish mistake, one for which he paid dearly with his life?

The Alshich HaKadosh explains that Shlomo, in his great wisdom, understood human nature profoundly. A person’s natural inclination is to crave freedom and to resist any restraint placed upon it. Although Shimi’s “jail” didn’t resemble the typical cell, in that he was free to enjoy everything offered by the greatest city on earth, he was nevertheless artificially confined. Shlomo recognized that sooner or later, Shimi’s need to feel free and unrestrained would win out and he would violate the terms of their arrangement. When this eventually occurred, Shlomo was ready and waiting to execute Shimi in a dignified manner, just as his father had requested!


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

1) Rashi notes (47:28) that Parshas Vayechi is a parsha stumah and explains that because Yaakov died, the hearts of the Jewish people became closed – and therefore so too the parsha – from the pain and suffering of the subsequent enslavement. As the Medrash teaches that the Egyptians didn’t begin to enslave the Jews until Yosef and all of his brothers had also passed away, which doesn’t occur in Parshas Vayechi, why were the Jews’ hearts already closed? (Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, S’fas Emes, Darash Moshe, Ayeles HaShachar, Peninim Vol. 6)

2) Rashi writes (47:29) that Yaakov requested that Yosef perform a חסד של אמת – a pure act of kindness – in burying him. When burying the dead no payback is possible, and the kindness is therefore 100% pure. How can this be reconciled with Rashi’s comment (48:22) that Yaakov promised Yosef an extra part of Israel as a reward for the exertion he would make in arranging Yaakov’s burial? (Paneiach Raza, Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh, Bod Kodesh, Ayeles HaShachar)

3) The Parshas Derachim writes that Rochel died just as Yaakov prepared to enter Israel (48:7) because he was only permitted to be married to two sisters outside of Israel. Tosefos writes (Yevamos 20b) that a Kohen who marries a widow and is then anointed as Kohen Gadol (who may not marry a widow) can remain married since she was permissible to him at the time of their marriage. Why wasn’t Yaakov similarly allowed to remain married to two sisters in Israel since they were both permitted to him when he married them? (Matamei Yaakov, M’rafsin Igri)

4) Rashi writes (48:9) that Yosef showed his kesuva (marriage document) to Yaakov to prove to him that he had properly and legally married his wife Osnas and that Ephraim and Menashe were his legitimate children. As every wedding must have two kosher Jewish witnesses who aren’t related to the bride or groom for the marriage to be valid, where did Yosef find such witnesses in Egypt? (Ayeles HaShachar, Taam V’Daas, Chavatzeles HaSharon, K’Motzei Shalal Rav, M’rafsin Igri)

5) Rashi writes (49:3) that Reuven came from the first drop of Yaakov’s strength. Rashi also writes (35:17) that each of the brothers had a twin sister. As Yaakov called Reuven his bechor, this implies that Reuven was born before his twin sister. However, Rashi earlier (25:26) explains that Yaakov came out holding Eisav’s heel because he was conceived first and was entitled to be the firstborn. Rashi compares this to a test tube in which one places two rocks; when turning it over to empty it, the first one to have gone in will come out last. According to this logic, if Reuven was born before his twin sister, shouldn’t his sister have been considered the first drop of Yaakov’s strength and not him? (P’nei Dovid, Be’er B’sadeh 25:26, Matamei Yaakov)

6) Rashi writes (49:7) that Yaakov wished to disperse the tribe of Shimon due to their intense anger. He blessed them that all teachers of young children should come from that tribe, which would require them to spread out throughout the land of Israel. As the Mishnah in Avos (2:5) advises that לא הקפדן מלמד – those who are strict and angry shouldn’t be teachers – why were the teachers from the tribe of Shimon? (Sefer HaGematrios, Aleinu L’shabeiach, Mishmeres Ariel)

7) Rashi writes (49:13) that the tribe of Zevulun engaged in commerce and shared their profits with the tribe of Yissochar so that they would 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 it possible to make a similar arrangement regarding other mitzvos, where the supporter who enables the fulfillment of the mitzvah will receive half of the reward, or is this opportunity uniquely available for the enabling of Torah study? (Derech Sicha)


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