Shemos – Daughter of G-D: Respecting Status

An astonishing thing is often overlooked in this week’s Torah portion of Shemos, when Pharaoh’s daughter did something akin to Avraham Avinu.  While totally steeped in the idolatry and black magic for which the Egyptian culture was known, she, completely independently, found G-D and denounced idolatry. This is why “she just happened” to be by the Nile River, in the right place at the right time, as Baby Moses was floating down the river in a basket. Indeed, this is why she is known as Basya, Daughter of G-D. The Torah relates: “Pharaohs daughter went down to bathe by the River and her maidens walked along the River. She saw the basket among the reeds and she sent her maidservant and she took it” (Shemos 2:5).
The Gemara in Sotah 12b elaborates about what exactly took place at the time: “The verse states: ‘And the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe [lirḥotz] in the river’ (Exodus 2:5). Rabbi Yoḥanan says in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai: This teaches that she came down to the river to cleanse herself from the impurity of her father’s idols, as she was immersing herself as part of the conversion process. And similarly it states: ‘When the Lord shall have washed [raḥatz] away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and shall have purged the blood of Jerusalem from the midst thereof, by the spirit of judgment, and by the spirit of destruction’ (Isaiah 4:4). This washing clearly refers to the purging of spiritual sins, rather than bathing for the sake of cleanliness. The verse continues: ‘And her maidens walked along [holekhot] by the riverside’ (Exodus 2:5). Rabbi Yoḥanan says: This walking is nothing other than the terminology of going toward death, and similarly it states: ‘Behold, I am going [holekh] to die’ (Genesis 25:32). The verse continues: “And she saw the ark among the willows” (Exodus 2:5). Once her maidens saw that the daughter of Pharaoh was intending to save Moses, they said to her: Our mistress, the custom of the world is that when a king of flesh and blood decrees a decree, even if all the world does not fulfill it, at least his children and members of his household fulfill it, and yet you are violating the decree of your father. After the maidens tried to convince her not to save Moses, the angel Gabriel came and beat them to the ground and they died. The verse concludes: “And she sent amatah to take it” (Exodus 2:5). Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Neḥemya disagree as to the definition of the word “amatah.” One says that it means her arm, and one says that it means her maidservant. The Gemara explains: The one who says that it means her arm explained it in this manner, as it is written “amatah,” which denotes her forearm. And the one who says that it means her maidservant explained it in this manner because it does not explicitly write the more common term: Her hand [yadah]. Therefore, he understands that this is the alternative term for a maidservant, ama. The Gemara asks: And according to the one who says that it means her maidservant, didn’t you say earlier: Gabriel came and beat them to the ground and the maidservants died, so how could Pharaoh’s daughter send her? The Gemara answers: It must be that Gabriel left her one maidservant, as it is not proper that a princess should stand alone.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
The life of Moshe Rabbeinu, which means the future of the Jewish People and in fact the whole world, hung in the balance. Would he be saved or not? Pharaoh’s daughter saw the child floating down the river and wanted to save him. Her companions tried to stop her, but the angel Gavriel struck them dead. The Tanna who said that she stuck out her hand and brought in the basket obviously was learning that there was an open miracle performed, by her arm stretching many amos, or cubits, long in order to save Moshe. However, according to the other opinion, Moshe being saved was relatively within the boundaries of nature beside the angel Gabriel’s intervention. That being the case, why then was one maidservant left alive simply because it is improper for a princess to be left alone?  Wasn’t there a chance that the last maidservant might dissuade her from saving the baby? Granted, at this moment, she was making a statement, separating herself from her father’s idolatrous way of life, essentially at risk of leaving the palace all together; but it still must have been a very highly sensitive emotional time, especially with her entire entourage mysteriously dropping dead on the banks besides her. Why take the risk and leave one alive? Because that’s proper manners? If she can potentially be the one to convince her to turn back then any hope of saving Klal Yisrael might be all over!

Imagine if The G-D of Legions, King of All Kings, The Holy One Blessed Be He, lihavdil, was in His war room with the angel Gabriel and they were strategizing a mission of how to best save Moshe Rabbeinu from drowning in the Nile and saving the entire Jewish People. This would have ramifications for the entire world’s existence, for if the Jewish People  would not have been redeemed from Egypt to get to  Har Sinai in order to accept Hashem’s Torah, then Hashem would have destroyed the world. So there was a lot on the line. Hashem decided to conduct things within the natural realm of the world and he warned Gabriel that he could take out all of Basya’s friends besides one, because it would be a lack of proper respect for a princess to be left alone. So now that she had her one maidservant, the maidservant could go and fetch the basket, using normal means of saving Klal Yisrael, and no massive miracle had to take place. But why risk the chance of saving one maidservant just because it is improper to leave her alone? The world was hanging in the balance; why is derech eretz, proper manners, taken into account at such a delicate time as this? Gabriel should not have taken any risks, wiped them all out, and ,if need be, since there was no other means of saving Moshe, then there is no choice but to rely on a miracle! But now that he had to take proper manners into account and must save one of them, it then put everything back into the rule and order of nature, and there is a slight risk that the whole mission might fall apart. Was it really worth even taking a slight risk like that during such an important mission?

The answer is YES! We see to what extent one has to treat another person with the proper respect he or she deserves, no matter what the dire situation anyone is in. Derech Eretz Kodmah LiTorah, proper manners supersedes the Torah! In this case it means that respecting others status comes before rational logic of getting things done properly without taking any risks even at such an ominous time in history!

Vayigash – Political Juggling

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The very end of this week’s Torah portion of Vayigash describes how Yosef, with his masterful knowledge and expertise, single-handedly came up with a way to save Egypt and the countries around it from a deadly, paralyzing famine, after 7 years of plenty, exactly as predicted from his interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams. He found favor in the eyes of the nation, for Hashem brings success to those that fear Him!

Yosef’s plan was to collect all the extra abundance of grain and produce that was harvested in the 7 years of plenty, to store them in warehouses as rations for the following 7 years of famine. He intentionally did not start to give out the rations to the people until they desperately needed them, lest they starve to death, and they gladly gave all their money in exchange for food. Once the money was all spent, they gave all their sheep and cattle in exchange for food. This all took place during the first two years of famine. Then, after two years of famine, Yaakov came down to Egypt with his family and the famine stopped, miraculously. So when the people came to Yosef begging for more food this time in exchange for land and their own servitude, Yosef took their land, but told them that he would give them seeds to plant, to produce crops. They would then be sharecroppers of the land, keeping 4/5 of what they produce, and they must give 1/5 to the king; which became a permanent tax. But Yosef never enslaved them, just used them as sharecroppers. Indeed, sharecroppers normally receive 1/5 of the profit whereas the owners receive the other 4/5, but Yosef switched that around, to which Pharaoh acquiesced, and the populace was quite pleased. As the pasuk says: “They replied, ‘You have saved our lives! Let us find favor in my lord’s eyes, and we will be slaves to Pharaoh’” (Breishis 47:25).

The Ralbag learns a very important lesson from the leadership of Yosef: “It is befitting of a person who has control over other people’s possessions that he should treat them with the utmost honesty and put as much effort as possible in ensuring their success, as well as not accepting anything from them even though he is the reason why the owners have their possession (or investments.) This is why the Torah tells us that Yosef brought all the money he earned, when selling grain, to the palace of Pharaoh and did not keep one iota. He then brought all the sheep and cattle to Pharaoh once the citizens had no money left. Afterwards he bought all the lands for Pharaoh in a way that Pharaoh was entitled to a fifth of the produce of the land. This was all due to [Yosef’s] good protection of the success over what he was commanded to accomplish, albeit that he contrived such a thing with much intellect, in a fashion that the citizens gave thanks to him and they said he had rejuvenated them,” [still in all he didn’t take anything for himself, though he deserved to receive part of what he earned.] (Click here for Hebrew text.)
Certainly Yosef must have had some salary or stipend that Pharaoh gave him to support himself and his immediate family. Yet Yosef treated his job with the utmost scrupulousness and didn’t take even one cent from anything that he collected while sustaining the Egyptians and the nations around them. He even put intense effort in ensuring the citizens had the best end of the deal, giving them 4/5 of the crops they produced and only taxing 1/5 for the king, as well as not truly enslaving them. With much effort, a thought out plan, and a lot of help from Hashem, Yosef brought the Egyptians and everyone else out of the great economic strife they were in. The citizens acknowledged his sincerity and success because he was honest and true to his word.

The Torah also tells us that: “Only the farmland of the priests he did not buy, for the priests had an allotment from Pharaoh, and they ate their allotment that Pharaoh had given them; therefore, they did not sell their farmland” (Breishis 47:22). The priests refered to here were the leaders of the communities, like the heads of local or state government; those that maintained law and order within the populace.

The lesson the Ralbag learns from this is that “it is befitting for a ruler, when he wants to do something which would be very difficult on his followers, that he should appease the leaders of his nation in a fashion that they will agree with his plan of action. If he does not do that in this exact manner, they might rebel against him. For this reason we find that when Yosef collected the grain for Pharaoh during the 7 years of plenty, besides what was needed to feed the citizens, Pharaoh made a condition to give the ministers of the land all their needs for provisions during the seven years of famine. This was the reason he was able to convince the citizens that he will sell them what’s needed on his own terms. He was not afraid the nation would rebel and steal the grain or assassinate him and steal the grain because he had the backing of the leaders.”
Yosef and Pharaoh understood that the devised plan would be very difficult to execute. Confiscating all the accumulated wealth, especially during such years of plenty, with only dreams as assurance to the populace that it is worth it and they should be trusted, would be hard for anyone to swallow. They knew they needed the support and backing of the lay leaders and local government officials to execute their plans. Therefore they guaranteed the local ministers all the provisions needed, up front, in exchange for keeping peace and civility during the tumultuous times, and it worked. 

But why wasn’t this looked at as a bribe, or even just unfair or unjust behavior which should have sparked a rebellion? Why were the upper echelons, the leaders, being treated differently and more favorably than the rest of the populace? Where was the justice, equality, and honesty in that?

We must say that since Yosef himself, the head honcho, took full responsibility for everything, acted with the utmost sincerity, honesty and efforts, which everyone was able to see and appreciate, then even if there were some decisions that might have looked, to the outside, a bit sketchy, they could and would be overlooked by the populace, since Yosef had earned their love and respect, as well as there being a system of everything being kept under control.

This is a lesson that the Ralbag learns for each one of us, even till today. We see from here that by going out of one’s way, above and beyond to ensure one can be trusted, that he really is honest and he sincerely puts all his efforts in creating a system of success then people will trust him no matter what type of decisions he makes.

Miketz – Never Forget the Golden Years

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In this week’s Torah portion of Miketz, Yosef marries Osnas bas Potiphar. There are two sons born to them, Menashe and Ephraim. The Torah, when talking about Yosef naming Ephraim, says: “And the second one he named Ephraim, for ‘God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction’” וְאֵ֛ת שֵׁ֥ם הַשֵּׁנִ֖י קָרָ֣א אֶפְרָ֑יִם כִּֽי־הִפְרַ֥נִי אֱלֹהִ֖ים בְּאֶ֥רֶץ עָנְיִֽי: (Breishis 41:52).

However the Daas Zekeinim adds that Yosef also named Ephraim after his grandfather and great grandfather, Avraham and Yitzchok. For they were referred to as ashes, אפר. Avraham, as it says “…although I am dust and ashes” (Breishis 18:27). Yitzchok was like ashes on the alter [by the Binding of Isaac (Akeidas Yitzchok)]. For Ephraim sounds like two [sets] of ashes (plural). This is why the Jews are referred to as Ephraim, as it says, “Is Ephraim a son who is dear to Me” (Yirmiyahu 31:19). (Click here for Hebrew text.)
This pasuk in Yirmiyahu has not only become a famous kumzitz song, but we say it every year in our mussaf shemone esray on Rosh Hashana. It is also the last pasuk of one the haftorahs recited on Rosh Hashana:

“Is Ephraim a son who is dear to Me? Is he a child who is dandled? For whenever I speak of him, I still remember him: therefore, My very innards are agitated for him; I will surely have compassion on him,” says the Lord. יטהֲבֵן֩ יַקִּ֨יר לִ֜י אֶפְרַ֗יִם אִם יֶ֣לֶד שַֽׁעֲשׁוּעִ֔ים כִּֽי־מִדֵּ֚י דַבְּרִי֙ בּ֔וֹ זָכֹ֥ר אֶזְכְּרֶ֖נּוּ ע֑וֹד עַל־כֵּ֗ן הָמ֚וּ מֵעַי֙ ל֔וֹ רַחֵ֥ם אֲרַֽחֲמֶ֖נּוּ נְאֻם־יְהֹוָֽה:

The Radak on this pasuk in Yirmiyahu says that Hashem is saying: “The fact that I remember him constantly is as if he is a dear son to me who never sinned in my life just like a father who delights in his beloved son. At all times when I speak to the prophets I mention my love that precedes me [and so when they leave and they pass by He takes their affairs with Him at all times.] Therefore when I remember the earlier love My ‘innards’ are agitated for him in his terrible state in exile. I will have mercy upon him and I will take him out of exile.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
Yirmiyahu is telling us how Hashem still loves his children even though they sinned, including the 3 cardinal sins of idolatry, adultery, and murder. For this they deserved to be exiled from their land and the first Beis Hamikdash destroyed. Indeed, they even intermarried in exile. Still, in all, Hashem did not stop loving them and eventually out of His own abundance of mercy redeemed them from exile into Israel and built the second Beis Hamikdash. However, in order to keep the abundance of love flowing, the Radak says that Hashem would frequently remind Himself of the early years, when the Jewish People were a delight, like a beloved son that didn’t do anything wrong. According to the Daas Zekeinim quoted above, this refers to the Jewish people in their infancy, in the times of Avraham and Yitzchok, which is why the Jewish people here are referred to as Ephraim.
But if Hashem is that naturally loving father, why does He need the reminder of the early years? His compassion and mercy for his precious son should always be there no matter what wrong the son does? It must be that because the son betrayed his father and did grievous sins which warranted a reprimand, or in this case a severe punishment, then a reminder of the early years is needed to arouse the original love for the child when they were just freshly born into this world; cute and innocent. For the love now is tainted by the fact that the son, Klal Yisrael, has betrayed and been sinful to Hashem.

Based on the fact that we should emulate Hashem, there is a very important lesson that comes from this pasuk. There are times when our children do things which are wrong and can get the parents upset, and which have repercussions, sometimes severe repercussions. An extreme example is if a child decides to intermarry. We see from here that we are not supposed to be overwhelmed by our natural love of our children and overlook the wrong they have done. Rather, steps must be taken to show your dislike towards their decisions. Yet, once that happens, it might become hard for the parents to love them the same way again, and, in severe circumstances like intermarriage, they might want to disown them. However we also see from here that it is fitting for the parents to look back on the early years, when their son or daughter was nice, cute, and innocent, beloved and cherished by their parents. The parents should constantly be reminding themselves of yesteryear, to arouse love and mercy upon their wayward children, as if they never sinned, while still punishing them for the wrong they have done. In this way they won’t completely disown them and are ready to invite them back, and even possibly try to help them back at any moment in order that they have the potential to return on the positive path of serving Hashem just as Hashem treated the Jewish people in Babylonian exile.

Vayeishev – Four Cup of Wine at the Seder: Appreciating the Process of Salvation

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ישועת ד’ כהרף עין is a saying posted on the wall of Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim’s main office in Queens, NY. It means “Salvation of Hashem is like the blink of an eye.” This does not mean we can expect or, G-D forbid, demand that Hashem rescue us from our calamities instantaneously, like in the blink of the eye; rather, it can happen and we must believe it is possible. When it does happen there is much to be thankful for at its realization. However, as we will see from a medrish in this week’s Torah portion of Vayeishev, there is more of an appreciation of Hashem’s salvation when it happens through an extended process.

The Torah portion relates that the chief butler of Pharaoh was thrown in jail over a fly found in Pharaoh’s goblet. The chief butler had a dream in jail which Yosef explained to him. The Torah describes the dream, saying: “So the chief cupbearer related his dream to Joseph, and he said to him, ‘In my dream, behold, a vine is before me. And on the vine are three tendrils and it seemed to be blossoming, and its buds came out; [then] its clusters ripened into grapes. And Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand, and I took the grapes and squeezed them into Pharaoh’s cup, and I placed the cup on Pharaoh’s palm.’ And Joseph said to him, “This is its meaning: the three tendrils are three days. In another three days, Pharaoh will number you [with the other officers], and he will restore you to your position, and you will place Pharaoh’s cup into his hand, according to [your] previous custom, when you were his cupbearer” (Breishis 40:9-13).

However the Medrish Rabba (Vayeishev 88:5) relates that there was actually a deeper meaning behind the dream. “’So the chief cupbearer related his dream to Joseph, and he said to him, ‘In my dream, behold, a vine is before me.’ This refers to the Jewish people as it says, ‘You uprooted a vine from Egypt’ (Tehillim 80:9). The vine had 3 tendrils [representing] Moshe, Aharon, and Miriam. ‘And it seemed to be blossoming’ [refers to] the blossoming of the Jewish redemption. ‘And its buds came out’ [refers] to the budding of the Jewish redemption. ‘Its clusters ripened into grapes’ represents that a vine which blossoms immediately buds and grapes that are budding immediately ripen. ‘And the cup of Pharaoh was in my hand.’ From where did the Rabbis enact four cups on the night of the seder? Rav Huna said in the name of Binayah in accordance with the four types of redemptions that were mentioned by Egypt, ‘And I took you out,’ ‘And I saved you,’ ‘And I redeemed you,’ and I took you.’ Rebbe Shmuel bar Nachman said, in accordance to the four cups mentioned here… Rebbe Levi said in accordance with the four kingdoms. Rebbe Yehoshua ben Levi said in accordance with the four cups of poison that Hashem will serve the non-Jews… And in accordance with those Hashem will give the Jews four cups of salvation in the future to come as it says, ‘The Lord is my allotted portion and my cup’ (Tehillim 16:5), I shall lift up a cup of salvations, and I shall call out in the name of the Lord, (Tehillim 116:13)…”

The Yefe Toar, bothered by the fact that it seems clear from the pesukim that Yosef interpreted the dreams differently, points out “the truth is that it was known that Hashem did not want to show [the butler and baker] what would become of them after 3 days. Only because what transpired as a result was [Yosef] was released from prison which eventually led to the redemption of the Jewish people, therefore Hashem orchestrated all these causes, and therefore it makes sense to attribute everything to the Jews who were the ultimate purpose of these dreams… ‘The vine that budded immediately ripened,’ this is coming to hint to 3 types of redemptions: buds, clusters, and grapes. The buds hinted to the beginning of the redemption when Moshe revealed himself to them as the progenitor of their redemption. The clusters refer to going out of Egypt, for then they started to see the fruits of redemption. The Grapes refers to the splitting of the sea, which completed their redemption. ‘From where did the Rabbi enact four cups?’ The Medrish answered that we learn from here that on Pesach we drink the cups because of freedom as it says, ‘I shall lift up a cup of salvations’… this is why we relied on this Torah portion for the amount of cups, for it hints to the redemption and Yosef went free because of this.” (Click here and here for Hebrew text.)
Hashem could have redeemed us in the blink of an eye, as soon as Moshe came back to Egypt, but there was a whole process to our freedom. Why was the redemption drawn out at the cost of the extra pain and suffering, until they were completely free?
Rav Yisrael Salanter in his 7th letter of Ohr Yisrael begins: “Everything in the world is brought into existence through the process of cause and effect. The harvest of produce is the result of many preceding causes, such as planting seeds and plowing. The acquisition of money results from causes such as commercial transaction and leasing. Each cause is the effect of a preceding one. For example, seeding a field is the initial cause of grain sprouting. The seeding itself is the result of the person who plants the seeds, and the planting of the seeds is the result of his desire either to utilize the grain or to earn money through his labor. In the final analysis, there is no effect without a preceding cause that generates it. Likewise, there is no cause that is not generated by a preceding one. Ultimately, this chain of cause and effect traces back to the first, essential Cause – The Almighty.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
We see from this Medrish that the Sages, when enacting the four cups of wine in appreciation of Hashem saving us from the clutches of Pharaoh and Egyptian bondage, recognized the cause and effect that ultimately led back to Hashem. Indeed, going all the way back to when Yosef interpreted the dreams for the butler and baker and how everything ultimately connected, piece by piece, until the final redemption at the sea.

This very enactment proves that one will appreciate seeing a process of salvation at work and in this way will have more of an appreciation of the way Hashem runs this world then if he would be saved in the blink of an eye, though more flashy, and possibly less strenuous, but lacking in the clear appreciation that one could potentially have by looking back and seeing a whole process unfolding.

Vayishlach – Loving Your Enemy

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Yaakov prepared for combat with Esav at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion of Vayishlach. Fearing the worst, he split up his camp, prayed to Hashem for salvation, and sent a peace envoys ‘with giftsto try to divert the incoming attack of Esav and his 400 mightiest warriors. The Torah portion begins: “Yaakov sent angels ahead of him to his brother Esav, to the land of Seir, the field of Edom. And he commanded them, saying: “So shall you say to my master to Esav, ‘Thus said your servant Yaakov, “I have sojourned with Lavan, and I have tarried until now. And I have acquired oxen and donkeys, flocks, manservants, and maidservants, and I have sent to tell [this] to my master, to find favor in your eyes’ ” (Breishis 32:4-6).

The Ralbag learns a very fascinating lesson from this initial confrontation. He says: “It is befitting for one who has someone who hates him and he wants to remove the hatred from him, that he should come close to him with all his might and tell him some personal news. In this way he is bringing their hearts closer by not hiding anything. The point being that a person only informs his loved ones of personal news and hides it from his haters. With this, if so, by making a foundation in his heart that he is a loved one, and breaking his heart, you will remove the hatred from him. For this reason Yaakov sent messengers to Esav to inform him about what had happened to him in order to calm his heart that he is a loved one.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
There was an obvious rift between Esav and Yaakov. Esav wanted to kill Yaakov at some point for “stealing” the birthright and blessings. He even sent his son to do the duty many years before, but his son only took all of Yaakov’s possessions which left him penniless and utterly embarrassed because he had no gifts in hand when he met his bride to be, Rochel, at the well. Granted that now he is trying to appease him, but how is it humanly possible to treat your enemy as your loved one by giving him personal information which most people wouldn’t divulge to a random stranger off the street, no less a sworn enemy?

It would seem that Yaakov, though apprehensive and ready to prepare for battle if need be, sincerely felt brotherly love, and sent a delegation to talk with Esav in a manner that only two loving friends or family would engage in.  Real sincerity must have been there, if it was to be successful in removing the hatred from Esav’s heart. It was not an allusion or trick, because people can see right through that. Indeed, it also seems from this Ralbag that, on the contrary, a person who hates another cannot simply tell his enemy personal information. There is something innately blocking him from doing that, and therefore by telling that information it demonstrates sincerity, which can melt the heart of your enemy.

The fact that the Ralbag brings this as a lesson shows us that this can be done by anyone, not just a Yaakov Avinu. As hard as it is to go over to someone with whom you are not on good terms and start engaging in small talk and treating him or her like your friend, if one can muster up the will and power to do so, then inevitably it will remove hatred from his or her heart, because you are sincerely showing love towards that person.

Vayetzei – Handling Depression

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In the beginning of this week’s Torah portion of Vayetzei, Yaakov, sometime after leaving his parents, is promised by Hashem in the famous dream of the Angels going up and down the ladder, that he will have many offspring. Furthermore: “And behold, I am with you, and I will guard you wherever you go, and I will restore you to this land, for I will not forsake you until I have done what I have spoken concerning you” (Breishis 28:15).

After this episode, the Torah remarks: “Now Yaakov lifted his feet and went to the land of the people of the East” (Breishis 29:1). The Radak explains what it means by “Yaakov lifted his feet.” “Since G-D promised him and showed him this great vision he was happy and he easily lifted his feet and walked joyously, with a good heart. For originally, he was walking with weakened feet, like a person running away from his father’s house depressed. But he did not run away in a rush like one who runs away from the sword because he was not afraid of the sword of his brother as long as his father was alive.”(Click here for Hebrew text.)   It sounds like on some level Yaakov was depressed; Hashem lifted his spirits, and Yaakov was elated with joy after being promised blessing, security, and salvation by Hashem.

How could Yaakov Avinu be depressed after he took away the blessings from his brother and was told by his parents to leave his home? Aren’t we supposed to serve Hashem with joy and accept with a full heart anything that Hashem brings our way, no matter how dire the circumstances may be? If that’s the case, how could Yaakov, one of our forefathers, a role model for his descendants, feel a sense of depression?

We have to put things into perspective; Yaakov always did the right thing. He sat in the tent learning Torah most of his younger years, and the Torah testifies that he was a sincere person. Yaakov did as he was told from beginning to end. He listened to his mother when she told him to get the blessings. He now listened to his father (and mother) to go find a wife by his uncle Lavan. Yaakov wasn’t afraid of any danger, as the Radak said that he had nothing to worry about until his father died. It must be that he was simply upset to be the focal point of all that family stress, which in fact Esav was causing.

His depression must not have even affected him in a great manner, for Chazal testify that after he left his parents’ house he learned diligently in Yeshiva Shem ViEver for 14 years, unhindered by anything, to the point that when calculating the amount of years Yosef was away from Yaakov, which was a punishment for Yaakov not honoring his parents, those 14 years were not included in the calculation. Therefore it must be that during his time in yeshiva he put all his strength and effort into his learning of Torah. Furthermore, if his depression would have actually affect the way he served Hashem, then he would not have been deserving of Hashem coming to him and assuring him that He would be with him wherever he goes and that his future looked very bright, since he would not have deserved all that attention from Hashem. If this then is the case, what does the Radak mean that Yaakov was depressed?

We must say Yaakov still is only human, and on some miniscule level, which manifested itself in the way he walked, he looked depressed, even if for the most part he served Hashem to the utmost, putting in all the proper emotions and abilities into his service of Hashem. However, once he received chizuk [words of encouragement from Hashem] he was a new man, with a spring in his step, which gave him a whole new level of joy and elation.

It would seem that it is human nature for people to feel depressed at times, and it is a great kindness for others to lend a hand of security and encouragement to uplift that person. However, there are still expectations and responsibilities to learn; how to handle or control one’s depression so that it will not get in one’s way of walking on Hashem’s path and doing His will.

Toldos -Two for the Price of One

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King of…the Jungle?

The first encounter with Avimelech, King of the Plishtim, was when Avraham told Sarah to say that she was his sister, because he feared that if the Plishtim knew she was his wife they would kill him. Instead they simply took Sarah and gave her to the king. G-D told Avimelech in a dream to not touch her, ‘lest I kill you.’ Avimelech in essence exclaimed: “What did I do wrong!”  “O Lord, will You kill even a righteous nation? Did he not say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she, even she said, ‘He is my brother.’ With the innocence of my heart and with the purity of my hands have I done this” (Breishis 20:4, 5). Eventually Avimelech made a treaty with Avraham acknowledging that “G-D is with you in all that you do” (Breishis 21:22).

Again in this week’s Torah portion of Toldos, Yitzchak was forced to go down to Gerar, the capital city of the Plishtim, due to a severe famine. He told his wife, Rivka, to tell them that she was his sister, out of the same fear of her being taken away and Yitzchak being killed. They did indeed leave them alone, but Avimelech caught them one day being too friendly with each other and again said: “What did I do wrong!”  The Torah says: “So Avimelech called Yitzchak, and he said, “Behold, she is your wife; so how could you have said, ‘She is my sister’?” And Isaac said to him, “Because I said, ‘Lest I die because of her.’ And Avimelech said, “What have you done to us? The most prominent of the people might easily have lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us. And Avimelech commanded all the people, saying, “Whoever touches this man or his wife shall be put to death” (Breishis 26:9-11).

After this episode the Torah relates: “And Yitzchak sowed in that land, and he found in that year a hundred fold, and the Lord blessed him. And the man became great, and he grew constantly greater until he had grown very great. And he had possessions of sheep and possessions of cattle and much production, and the Philistines envied him” (Breishis 26:12-14). Yitzchok then dug up the well his father had dug, which the Plishtim had closed, saying: “They may become a source of danger to us because of marauding troops that may invade us,” as Rashi on pasuk 15 mentions. Avimelech then told Yitzchak to leave them. Yitzchak) settled in the Valley of Gerar not too far away, and the Plishtim shepherds argued with Yitzchok’s shepherds, and again closed up wells which Yitzchok had dug. Yitzchok then dug one more well, which they didn’t touch, but Yitzchok decided to move to Be’er Sheva. All this time Hashem had granted Yitzchok much financial success even though there was a famine in the land. The Targum Yonasan on pasuk 26 points out that even the Plishtim in the vicinity reaped the benefits of Hashem’s blessing to Yitzchok.

At that point Avimelech ran after Yitzchok. Yitzchok asked him what he wanted; you hate me and drove me away from you. Avimelech responded that he wanted to reaffirm the treaty he made with Avraham, Yitzchok’s father: “We have seen that the Lord was with you; so we said: Let there now be an oath between us, between ourselves and you, and let us form a covenant with you. If you do [not] harm us, as we have not touched you, and as we have done with you only good, and we sent you away in peace, [so do] you now, blessed of the Lord.”

The Daas Zekeinim on this pasuk asserts that Avimelech “is compared to a lion which got a bone stuck in his throat and says anyone who comes and takes out the bone shall receive much riches. A bird came, which was a crane with a long neck, and said I will get it out. The bird stuck its head inside the lion’s mouth and took out the bone. After he took it out he asked for his reward. The lion said to him, ‘Isn’t it enough that I sent you away in peace and didn’t eat you when you stuck your head down my throat, you now have the audacity to ask for your reward?’ So to Avimelech said to Yitzchok, ‘We did a great kindness to you by sending you away in peace because our way of life is to hurt anyone that comes our way.’” (Click here and here for Hebrew text.)

Kafui tov! What an ingrate!! The crane just saved the lion’s life and not only does he not give him the promised reward, he says you are lucky I didn’t kill you? So too Avimelech says you are lucky I didn’t harm you when I sent you away. Yet now it seems like he wants him back because of the blessing on his land, so he has claims against Yitzchok for leaving his vicinity. What kind of chutzpah is that?
What’s even worse is that Avimelech sounds like he is being authentic. He really feels insulted that Yitzchok left, even though he didn’t harm him as they did to most people. What did we do wrong?!

Is it really possible for someone to think that it is perfectly alright to hurt people, just part of their normal way of life, to the point that it is an act of kindness not to hurt them? Furthermore, why was Avimelech compared to a lion, specifically?
It would seem that this misguided philosophy in life stems from a negative character trait of a brute or bully. There are people who are tough and controlling; that is their demeanor. They think they are always correct and that they do nothing wrong. If that is their attitude they cannot admit they are wrong, and they even believe they are righteous, always having an excuse for their actions. No wonder they can convince themselves that there is nothing wrong with hurting people.


On the flip side here is an example of true sincerity from the very same episode.

Appreciating What You Do

We all know that every single sentence, word, and even a letter in the Torah have a lesson, or halacha that Hashem is teaching us. In this week’s Torah portion of Toldos we find one of the smallest pesukim in the Torah it is only 3 words: “וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב יִצְחָ֖ק בִּגְרָֽר,” “And Yitzchok lived in Gerar” (Breishis 26:6).

We have to put the pesukim in context in order to appreciate the lesson that is being related from this seemingly simple pasuk. The Torah at the beginning of the perek relates: “And there was a famine in the land, aside from the first famine that had been in the days of Abraham, and Isaac went to Avimelech the king of the Philistines, to Gerar. And the Lord appeared to him, and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land that I will tell you. Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you, and I will bless you, for to you and to your seed will I give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham, your father. And I will multiply your seed like the stars of the heavens, and I will give your seed all these lands, and all the nations of the earth will bless themselves by your seed, Because Abraham hearkened to My voice, and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My instructions” (Breishis 26:1-5).

After Hashem tells Yitzchak not to go down to Egypt though there is a famine, rather just stay in Gerar, because Hashem will take care of him, but not only that, everything and everyone around him will be blessed, the Torah then says in pasuk 6: “And Yitzchok lived in Gerar.” The Ibn Ezra says we learn from here that Yitzchok “did as Hashem commanded of him.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)

What kind of lesson is this, why would we not think Yitzchak would do as Hashem commanded? Yitzchak grew up in Avraham’s household, the Ibn Ezra explains the previous pasuk to be telling us that the reason why Hashem is promising Yitzchak all this blessing is because his father, Avraham, followed him with blind faith to the land of Israel, was willing to sacrifice his only son on Hashem’s command, observed all the mitzvos of the Written Torah and it’s Oral explanation, as well as performed a bris on himself, his children and all his servants. So Yitzchak was raised in a house which was deeply G-D fearing and surrounded by belief and trust in Hashem. Yitzchak himself was a very holy person who dedicated himself to Hashem by completely acquiescing to being offered on the alter. On top of all that, he didn’t just figure out that Hashem wanted him to stay in Israel, Hashem came to him in prophesy and actually told him. So of course he would listen, why does the Torah have to write three extra words to praise him for that, even if it is a time of famine, Hashem still assured him that He will take care of him and even bring blessing to all those around Yitzchak?

We can learn a very powerful lesson from these 3 words. We have to give ourselves credit where credit is due. We can’t underestimate how incredible it is to follow the command of the King of all Kings, Master of the Universe, Blessed Be He. Doing Hashem will, observing His commandments is a big deal and what even seems to be a menial job as what Yitzchak did deserves 3 extra words to be written in the Torah. That is the emphasis the Ibn Ezra is pointing out that the Torah is teaching us.

And by not underestimating and by giving ourselves credit for doing Hashem’s will day in and day out it should better our service of Hashem!

Chayei Sarah – Saving the Best for Last

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The motto “Save the best for last” is a real concept in Judaism, with major ramifications as we see in a medrish on this week’s Torah portion of Chayei Sarah.  In the parsha, after Eliezer and the House of Besuel agreed that Rivka should marry Yitzchok, Eliezer, who was Avraham’s chief servant, gave gifts to Rivka and her family. As it says:  “And the servant took out silver articles and golden articles and garments, and he gave [them] to Rebecca, and he gave delicacies to her brother and to her mother” (Breishis 24:53).

The Medrish Rabba quotes Rav Huna to say that “silver articles” refers to instruments that women used to sew or wash themselves, like a washbasin. The Rabbanan say that “delicacies” refers to popcorn (popped kernels of any grain to be exact) and nuts. The Medrish asks: is popcorn really more desireable than everything else? Rather, it is coming to teach us that when a person is embarking on a journey and doesn’t have proper provisions, he is in in great pain and suffering. Similarly, it says that before the Jews  left Egypt “Each woman shall borrow from her neighbor and from the dweller in her house silver and gold objects and garments…” (Shemos 3:22). Were clothes really most desirable? Rather, it is coming to teach us that if one is going on a journey and doesn’t have any clothing, it causes pain and suffering. Similarly, it says in Ezra (1:6): “And all those around them strengthened their hands with vessels of silver, with gold, with possessions, with cattle, and with delicacies, besides all that was donated” (Breishis Rabba 60:11).

The Matnos Kehuna explains that when the medrish asked about popcorn and clothing, it was because it was mentioned last, and we save the best for last; hence, they must be favorite.  The Matnos Kehuna explains the answer of the Medrish that food, as well as clothing, are indeed the favorite because without them there would be pain and suffering. Therefore this is what he took to support himself on the journey. This pasuk in Ezra supports the notion that the delicacies are mentioned last because they are more beloved than anything else.

The Etz Yosef spells the matter out a bit more clearly. He explains that the Medrish first asks: “Is popcorn really more beloved than anything else?” And the Medrish “answers that for Eliezer it was because that was his sustenance on his journey.” The Etz Yosef went on to explain that there are objects that, taken in a vacuum, are seemingly not cherished, but because of circumstance (time, location, etc.) are beloved in that area. (Click here for Hebrew text.)

In any event we see clearly that the motto “saving the best for last” is indeed a real thing. However we have to understand to what extent this assumption is made. If you take the second example used in the medrish you find something quite astonishing! You would think that if the Jewish women would be able to borrow anything from their Egyptian counterparts, they would ask for jewelry, fine gold and silver utensils, anything precious to them, which they did. But the medrish is telling us they saved the best for last, which was clothing. The clothing was the best because it was the most useful for them on their journey. Wouldn’t you think that something so essential would be asked to be borrowed first, just in case the Egyptians would change their minds part way and not let them take anything else? Why take the chance of taking too much advantage of the enemy?

It must be that the concept of saving the best for last is so naturally engrained in one’s psyche that that is how a person would automatically act, even at such a perilous time such as this one. They were preparing for a journey which they didn’t even know when it would end, and asking their enemy for anything, which normally could very easily backfire.

For this reason as well, Eliezer gave out his nosh last as presents to the family, not because he wanted to give Rivka first then her mother and brother. If the silver washing basin or golden sewing needle would have been his favorite he would have given that last. But because the nosh, his energy for the journey until now, was what he cherished most, so he gave it last.

 And so too when the exiles in the time of Ezra were preparing for their return to Israel to rebuild the Beis HaMikdash, they packed their food provisions last because those were the most favorite, beloved, and cherished items for them at that very moment, upon their journey from Babylon back to Israel.
It would seem unless explicitly expressed or premeditated otherwise we can assume that it is natural habit that a person saves the best for last.
אחרון אחרון חביב!

Vayera – The Source for the Concept of Tefilla

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After Avimelech, the King of the Plishtim (Philistines), took Sarah away from Avraham, Hashem came to Avimelech in a dream and told him not to touch her and to return her to Avraham. He then promised that Avraham would pray on his behalf, for Hashem made a miracle and closed up every hole in his, his wife, and maidservants’ bodies. The Torah testifies that: “Avraham prayed to G-D and G-D healed Avimelech, his wife, and his maids, and they were relieved” (Breishis 20:17).
The Medrish Rabba (Seder Vayera 52:13) relates on this pasuk, “ויתפלל אברהם אל האלוקים” : Rebbe Chama bar Rebbe Chanina said that from the beginning of this sefer [book] until now it never used this type of terminology; once Avraham Avinu prayed he untied that knot. “For Hashem had completely restrained every orifice” (pasuk 18), the mouth was restrained, the throat was restrained, the ears were restrained, up top was restrained, and down below was restrained, and everyone said it was because of the matter of Sarah the wife of Avraham. (Click here and here for Hebrew text.)

There are many explanations of what this medrish means. The Maharz”u says that the terminology (or format) of tefilla was not used until this point, when Hashem told Avimelech that Avraham would pray for him, and then the Torah relates that Avraham indeed prayed on his behalf. What the medrish means when it says “he untied this knot” would seem (according to the Maharz”u) to be that the word tefila comes from the pasuk “Naftuli Elokim Niftalti” (Breishis 30:8), the reason why Rochel named Bilhah’s second son Naftali. Rashi there explains that the word “Naftuli” comes from the phrase “ikesh upisalto,” which means perverse and crooked. Onkelos there says it stems from the word “bausi bi’ischonanti,” which means request while beseeching. But they are both the truth, for Hashem originally made the world straight but through man’s sin the straightness has become crooked and perverseness has entered the world. So tefilla, praying, exists to straighten the crooked and remove the perverse.
According to the Maharz”u, tefilla, prayer, came to straighten out the perverseness and crookedness of the world that came about as a result of sin, which made crooked the straightness that Hashem originally created the world with. This fits perfectly into what Avraham did; for the straight sense of the word, Hashem created man with holes in his body to help him function and Hashem blocked up those holes in Avimelech’s body because of the sin he committed of abducting Sarah. So Avraham prayed on his behalf to straighten out the corruption and crookedness Avimelech had created for himself. The Rada”l says that there was never a time until now that someone had prayed and Hashem had answered them, resulting in reversing a Heavenly decree, until Avraham came around and reopened these openings. This is why we say in our Shemone Esray “Magen Avraham,” that Hashem is Avraham’s Protector, for because of him the Gates of Kindness were opened to listen to prayer.
According to the Rada”l this was the first time Hashem answered the prayers of someone and reversed a heavenly decree, therefore we recognize the fact that Avraham opened the Gates of Kindness so that Hashem answers our prayers by saying in our Shemone Esray at least 3 times daily, “Baruch Ata Hashem Magen Avraham.”
 However the Yidei Moshe has a different take on this. He says this is the first time someone ever prayed an incredibly intense prayer, ויתפלל comes from the word פלילים, wondrous, just as it says by Pinchas, ויפלל פנחס, Pinchas did wondrous feats. It says that they needed something really big to happen, and that was referring to the incredibly intense prayer needed to untie the knot for all their limbs were closed, the mouth, ears, etc. as the Medrish explains.
According to the Yidei Moshe, this was the first time in history that someone prayed a very intense prayer and Avraham did so because it was a very dire situation; all the orifices of the king of the Philistine’s body and of his wife and servants were closed up. It was seeing clear and present danger, directly in front of his face, which inspired him to pray such an intense prayer, as never prayed before in history!

But why hadn’t this happen before? Surely Avraham himself was in other circumstances where he had to pray on behalf of others, or even himself, like when he beseeched Hashem to save Sodom earlier on in the Torah portion. That was also a circumstance of clear and present danger; he knew that fire and brimstone would hail down from Heaven and wipe out whole cities. Both situations were dealing with bad people, and Avraham was using his feelings of mercy and grace to pray on their behalf. But, still, by Avimelech, king of the Philistines, he prayed with more intensity? Why is this so? Indeed the Yidei Moshe did not say because he was trying to get Sarah back after she was captured, rather it is because he saw the dire situation they were in. That made a difference! The fact that Avraham saw with his own eyes the suffering Avimelech was going through prompted him to pray a very intense prayer, even more so than knowing that moments later whole cities would be violently wiped out.

A little more inspiration, actually seeing a reality check in front of one’s eyes, can transform one’s prayers from intense to really intense and make a world of a difference to the point that it was something never done before until then.

Lech Licha – Blind Faith: A History of the Arab World

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Towards the end of this week’s Torah Portion of Lech Licha Hashem gives a blessing to Yishmael because Avraham, his father, prayed to Hashem that he should receive a blessing; not because he was part of the covenant with Yitzchok, as the Rabbeinu Bachye (17:20) points out based on the pesukim in the Torah: “And regarding Ishmael, I have heard you; behold I have blessed him, and I will make him fruitful, and I will multiply him exceedingly; he will beget twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation. But My covenant I will establish with Yitzchok, whom Sarah will bear to you at this time next year.” (Breishis 17:20, 21).

The Rabbeinu Bachye goes on to explain in more detail the blessing given to Yishmael, and how it came into fruition. “Yishmael had 12 sons who were enumerated by name at the end of the Torah portion of Chaye Sarah. It was written there: ‘The first born of Yshmael was Nevayot, [then came] Kedar, Adabel, Mivasem, Mashma, Domeh, Masa, Chadad, Teimah, Yitur, Nafish, and Kedmah, which equal out to 12.’ The fact that it says he begot 12 princes and not 12 nations is to show us their leadership and the profound greatness which was placed upon them because of the blessing, more so than on other nations, just as Hashem the Blessed One promised:  ‘Behold I will bless him and cause him to multiply very, very much.’ There is another implication to the word ‘princes,’ ‘נשיאים’ in that they disappear from the world after their profound greatness. For it comes from the pasuk, ‘נְשִׂיאִ֣ים וְ֖רוּחַ, Clouds and wind’(Mishlei 25:14), and it is coming to hint that they will be destroyed and lost from the world, like the language of ‘Just as a cloud is consumed and goes away’ (Iyov 7:9). This is also why the word for princes in this pasuk is spelled ‘נְשִׂיאִם֙’ without a yud towards the end of the word. The pasuk is coming to teach you about the kingdom of Yishmael that in the beginning they will be strong and in the end they will be weak. So to the angel said to Hagar ‘And he will be a pere adam’ (Breishis 16:12), meaning he will act amongst people like a barbarian who defeats everyone, and afterwards the hand of everyone will be upon him.”

Yishmael and his descendants were blessed by Hashem, due to Avraham’s merit and prayers, to be great and mighty rulers of enormous multitudes, for a long period of time; but only temporarily. Yet their time seemed not to have come too quickly, as Rabbeinu Bachye writes in the name of Rabbeinu Chananel: “We have seen that this promise was delayed for them by 2,333 years and this delay was not because of their sins, and they were yearning for its fulfillment all these years, and in the end it was fulfilled, and afterwards their empire was strengthened. As for us, whose kingdom was taken away because of our sins, and a time of 1,335 years was set, all the more so we should be yearning for His promise and never give up!”  (Click here for Hebrew text.)

We must put into perspective what Rabbeinu Chananel means, and the lesson he is trying to drive home. It so happens that his calculations are exact, for Avraham and Yishmael had a bris in the year 2047 (on the Jewish calendar) and Yishmael’s reign started in 4374 (622 C.E.) which is the year Mohamad fled Mecca, which started the Arab conquest, ten years before they spread throughout the world (4374-2047=2,337 years which is just 4 years off of Rabbeinu Chananel’s calculation of 2,333).

The 1,335 referenced for the Jewish people is referring to the second to last pasuk of Daniel, where it is discussing the Final Redemption and coming of Moshiach. It writes there: “Fortunate is he who waits and reaches days of one thousand, three hundred, and thirty-five” (Daniel 12:12). What this number means is completely obscured; it definitely does not mean, according to Rabbeinu Chananel, that Moshiach was supposed to come 1,335 years after the time of Daniel, for Daniel lived between 3304-3399 / 457-362 BCE which means, at latest, from Daniel’s death, 362 BCE. 1,335 years later would put it at the year 973 CE, and Rabbeinu Chananel lived from 965 CE until 1055 CE, which would have made him 8 years old at the time. It is evident that he wrote this many years later, and yet still said with confidence that ‘all the more so we Jews should have full trust in Hashem for our reckoning since there is some timetable even though that timetable is totally incomprehensible, and was purposefully written in that fashion.’ In fact, the Metzudas Dovid, many centuries later, said on that pasuk in Daniel: “It says happy is the one who waits for it and will then reach that moment and it then explains what we are hoping for which reaches a certain number but we don’t know what this is referring to (anything of its kind).”

Rabbeinu Chananel is trying to teach us a lesson from Yishmael’s descendants. Just as they knew without a doubt, and had blind faith that Hashem’s blessing and promise to them would one day come to fruition, as it did, all the more so we have to have unyielding trust in Hashem that He will bring the ultimate salvation to his Chosen People. Why should it be so obvious for us? Rabbeinu Chananel says our kingdom was only taken away from us because of our sins so it is up to us to repent and rectify the matter but it is also because we were given a number to look forward to, a sign, and though it is obscure and unknown, it is something to “hang our hats on,” as an impetus to strengthen our trust that His word will come true.

The History of the world is quite vast! It took 1,656 years before Hashem decided to send the flood. Yishmael and his descendants, the Arab world, were steadfast for 2,333 years in their blind faith and trust in Hashem, without any indications of when His promise to them would be fulfilled, and look where they are today!

We not only have that clarity of belief in Hashem, just as they do, but Hashem, out of his love and mercy for us, gave us some hint, albeit a very subtle one, in order to strengthen our yearning, drive for the End of Days and our Salvation.