Vaera – Free Will Declined (Temporarily)

In this week’s Torah portion of Vaera, the Egyptians are pummeled by seven of the ten plagues. We also see in this parsha that in some instances Pharaoh himself  had a heavy heart and decided not to free the Jews, while in  other instances Hashem hardened Pharaoh’s heart to not let the Jewish people go.
In fact, the Torah relates before the start of all the plagues: “Hashem said to Moshe, ‘Behold I will make you a master, like an angel, in the eyes of Pharaoh and Aharon your brother will be your prophet. You will speak about all I command you and Aharon your brother will tell Pharaoh and send the Children of Israel from his land. And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart and make the signs and wonders numerous in the land of Egypt’” (Shemos 7:1-3).
The Ibn Ezra asks a very fair question: if Hashem hardened Pharaoh’s heart, what did he do wrong? What was his sin? The Ibn Ezra answers that Hashem gives wisdom to a person and implants in his heart a mind to accept the Force on High, to add to his good or to detract from his bad, as he explains more in depth in parshas Ki Sisa (31:18) and in Devarim (5:26): the reason “I hardened his heart” is in order to multiply My wonders (Ibn Ezra on verse 3). (Click here for Hebrew text.)
One might ask how this answers his question. Meaning, how does Hashem justify sending numerous plagues on the Egyptians to show off His wonders just because he gives wisdom to a person and implants in his heart a mind to accept the Force on High? To add to his good and detract from his bad? In essence the basic question is: What does the answer have to do with the question?

However, if we look more into the matter we will find, in fact, a major claim against Pharaoh. For as was mentioned earlier, Hashem did not harden Pharaoh’s heart throughout the plagues; it was only at various times. The other times Pharaoh himself hardened his heart and refused to give in to suffering inflicted by the plagues. As per example by the plague of hail, the Torah relates: “And Pharaoh saw the rain and hail diminishing as well as the voices and he continued to sin and his heart, as well as the heart of his servants became heavy. And Pharaoh’s heart was hardened and he did not send the Children of Israel as Hashem told, into the hands of Moshe” (Shemos 9:34, 35). The Ibn Ezra relates over there that the verse mentions that now  “he continued to sin” after he admitted ‘I have sinned this time,’ and it was clear what Moshe had said earlier: “And you and our servants I know that it is imminent that you will fear Hashem the G-D.” Yet, still, Pharaoh hardened his heart after this plague, more than the first ones. (Click here for Hebrew text.)

Meaning, Pharaoh himself, throughout the plagues, was very stubborn. And, even when he was about to give in, he buckled down and refused, and as a result of his unwillingness to cave in, “to add to his good and detract from his bad,” Hashem hardened his heart at other times and forced him to suffer the consequences. In fact the Ibn Ezra relates that when Hashem hardened Pharaoh’s heart after the plague of locust Hashem did this based on a gemara in Shabbos 104a, that one who comes to defile himself Hashem opens the doors to let it happen (Shemos 10:20). (Click here for Hebrew text)

In other words, Pharaoh was punished and caused himself to lose the right to have free will at all times. Hashem created man with a heart and mind receptive to Holy Wisdom from on High. The purpose of this wisdom is to do good and to stay away from bad. Hashem normally provides us with this Heavenly Wisdom to help us with our choices, to constantly grow; but it is all based on our free choice. But when Pharaoh chose to only use his free choice for evil, and to get worse and worse, he lost his opportunity to make his situation better for himself and his people, through his stubborn refusal to budge from his evil plight.

Hashem naturally helps a person to grow and stay away from bad. However we are
endowed with free choice and have the option to choose to go against nature. Pharaoh chose to lose his free will and let himself and his nation be contaminated by his stubbornness. For that he deserved his punishment.

Shemos – National Suicide

This week’s Torah portion of Shemos begins the second of the five books of the Torah. The Jews are enslaved in Egypt, and Hashem appoints Moshe as the fearless leader to redeem the Jewish people from Egyptian exile. Aharon, Moshe’s older brother, accompanies Moshe to speak to Pharaoh for the first time: “And afterwards Moshe and Aharon come and they say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what Hashem, Elokay Yisrael says, send out My nation so that they will make a holiday for Me in the desert. Pharaoh said, ‘Who is Hashem that I should listen to His voice to send out the Jews, I do not know Hashem and the Jews I will not send out.’ They said, Elokay HaIvrim called out to us that we should please go on a three day journey in the desert and give offerings to Hashem Elokeinu lest we will be smitten by disease or by the sword’” (Shemos 5:1-3).
The shortened version of the Ibn Ezra on this parsha mentions that the holiday they were to celebrate was either Pesach or the giving of the Torah. The longer version of the Ibn Ezra elaborates that after Aharon showed the signs [of the redemption to the Jewish people], both Moshe and Aharon came to Pharaoh and said: ‘This is what Hashem said,’ but Pharaoh never heard of that name of G-D before. They therefore added Elokay Yisrael but not Elokay Yaakov, to include the entire Jewish people. Pharaoh then asked who is this Hashem who is also Elokim (obviously not understanding who Moshe and Aharon were referring to). They answered that this Hashem is Elokay HaIvrim, which the Egyptians did know about, for Avraham was called an Ivri as well as Yitzhak his son, and Yaakov and his sons. They also explained why the Jewish people needed to  leave to celebrate a holiday, which was in order not to have a disease or the sword upon them (both the Jews and Egyptians). Later, when Pharaoh saw the wild beasts come and consume many Egyptians, he told them to go and give offerings to your G-D in our land. But Moshe replied that it would not be right to do that in this land; rather, they must travel three days in the desert, which was the distance to Har Sinai. Again, when the plague of locust struck, Pharaoh gave permission for some of the Jewish people to leave and offer their offerings. A third time, by the plague of darkness, he agreed to let everyone leave, on condition that their sheep would not go with them. Only when death struck the firstborns did Moshe’s words of “lest we will be smitten by disease” became clear to them. If they did not accede to Moshe’s demands, then they would all die (See later on 12:33). So the Egyptians banished them out of their land, to make their sacrifices, even lending them goods on their way out. (Click here, here, and here for Hebrew text.)
The Ibn Ezra is clearly indicating that Pharaoh and the Egyptians knew who Hashem was. He was the G-D of Yosef and the Jewish people, who accurately predicted and sent forth the seven years of famine and of plenty. Still in all Pharaoh was unfazed by Moshe and Aharon’s request.  When the plagues began striking the Egyptians, and when wild beasts started eating up many Egyptians, Pharaoh began to stir, but still he played games, and refused to completely agree to their wishes. The plagues continued, locust came, and then darkness, and Pharaoh was still playing games. He did not take Moshe and Aharon seriously even though the warning was clear that disease or the sword could come at any moment, affecting not only the Jews but the entire Egyptians people, Pharaoh included. Hashem, out of His benevolence and mercy sent many signs of the forth coming doom, but Pharaoh and the Egyptians refused to fully acquiesce, and refused to accept that Hashem really meant business, until a disease wiped out all the firstborn.  If Pharaoh and the Egyptians knew of Hashem and His abilities and saw them first hand, why did they not give in to His demands sooner? Were they in denial? And if they were, how could they remain in denial to the brink of national suicide?

It would seem that it is tremendously hard to give in to a request if it goes against everything you stand for or agree with. Whether for ideological reason, out of habit, or just because of the comfort state that one lives in, it is hard to make big changes or allow something to be done which you are in disagreement with. This extends even to the point where one knows who the petitioner is, the abilities He has and is starting to send warning signs of the impending doom but still they will not change until the brink of national suicide.

However the Ibn Ezra takes this one step further. He said: “But when they saw disease come and strike the firstborn then Moshe’s words of ‘lest we will be smitten by disease’ was clear to them and they said we will all die.” Meaning, their refusal to change was not simply denial; it reached the point where they were able to lose sight  of the clear and present danger they were actually in, even though they knew  and saw what they were potentially up against. And this continued until the danger was staring them straight in their face and it was almost too late. That is how far one’s stubbornness to not change can blind a person, and even a nation!

Vayechi – Brute Strength

There is a mysterious phrase written in the siddur after Shachris, immediately following the Thirteen Principles of Faith. It states in Hebrew and Aramaic: “For Your salvation I do long, Hashem. I do long, Hashem for Your salvation. Hashem, for

Your salvation I do long.”

  “לישועתך קיויתי ד’. קיויתי ד’ לישועתך. ד’ לישועתך קיויתי.”

This phrase is based on verse in this week’s Torah Portion of Vayechi, which is the first part of the phrase “For Your salvation I do long, Hashem” (49:18). This sentence is then arranged in two different ways. The Rabbeinu Bachye on this verse states that the Kabbalists, who know various names of Hashem, say in their incantations that within this verse, spelled forward and backwards, is one of the Names of Hashem, which wards off enemies on the path and forces them to retreat in order that one can go on his way freely (if said properly).

This verse is part of the blessing Yaakov gave to his son, Dan, at the end of his life: “Dan will avenge his people, like one, the tribes of Israel. Dan will be a serpent on the road, a viper on the path, which bites the horse’s heels, so its rider falls backwards. For Your salvation I do long, Hashem” (Breishis 49:16-18).

The Rabbeinu Bachye and virtually all the other early commentaries say that Yaakov based this blessing on a prophetic vision of Dan’s descendant Shimshon, the last of the Judges. Shimshon was blessed with unusually great strength from birth, when his mother swore he would be a nazir for life. The Rabbeinu Bachye  said that Shimshon did not need anyone’s assistance, nor a sword, shield, bow and arrow, or any other weapon of war; rather, he attacked  the Philistines with a donkey’s jaw, as Shimshon is quoted as saying: ‘With a donkey’s jaw I killed a thousand men’ (Shoftim 15:15, 16). The Torah compares him to a snake for a number of reasons. One of them is because Shimshon did not battle his enemy like other kings or judges with great armies; rather, he went out by himself in sudden ambush, like a viper jumps out of its lair (v. 16, 17).

The Rabbeinu Bachye says that Yaakov ended his blessing towards Dan with a prayer: “For your salvation I do long, Hashem.” And in fact Shimshon, knowing he could not rely on his strength anymore, used this pasuk, pronouncing Hashem’s name inside it, at the end of his life in order to knock down the pillars and kill himself and all the Philistines gathered inside the temple where he was bound. (Click here and here for Hebrew text.)

The Daas Zekeinim has a different understanding of why Yaakov ended his blessing to Dan the way he did. “When Yaakov Avinu prophetically saw the might of Shimshon he said that even though he will be a triumphant, mighty warrior it is not right to praise his might. We actually find when he (Shimshon) praised himself and said ‘with a donkey’s jaw I killed a thousand men,’ immediately afterwards he felt like he was going to die of thirst until he acknowledged and said ‘you gave [the enemy] in to the hand of your servant as a salvation…’ (Shoftim 15:18). He acknowledged that his strength only came from Hashem. This is the intent of the verse ‘Dan will be a serpent on the road’, and never the less the might and victory is Hashem’s as it is written, ‘For Your salvation I do long, Hashem.’” (Click here and here for Hebrew text.)
It is implicit from the Daas Zekeinim that Yaakov, from the fact that he had to reinforce Dan’s blessing, and Shimshon, from the incident of thirst, were both impressed by Shimshon’s brute strength. Yaakov therefore had to remind himself and Shimshon required a sign from Hashem in order to prompt him to acknowledge that Hashem is the one who gives people the strength and ability to win wars.How could Yaakov been “fooled”, even for a slight instant, by Shimshon’s brute strength and success? First off, he saw it in a vision from Hashem, Himself. Furthermore, Yaakov was known as “the simple man, who lived in tents,” as opposed to Esav, “the hunter”. Meaning, Yaakov focused his life on learning Torah in the beis medrish and was unimpressed with Esav’s strength and wild outdoor life; why was he so  awed by Shimshon?

Indeed, why did Shimshon require a reminder? He of course knew that he was a nazir and that if not for the extraordinary gifts which Hashem had endowed him, he would not be strong at all. He was living a life in which he was constantly reminded of  his nazirite status; how could he forget where all his might came from?

We must say that the show of brute strength, with all the accompanying glitz and glitter of success, was so striking that it could impress even Yaakov one of the greatest believers in Hashem, even at a time of prophecy, albeit for a slight moment. And even though Shimshon was a judge, a leader of the Jewish people, and had a constant reminders of whence his power came, still he needed to be faced with death in order to  remind him that his success came from Hashem. The lesson being that we have to constantly reinforce ourselves with faith in Hashem.

Vayigash – The Trap of Emotions

In this week’s Torah portion of Vayigash, Yosef reveals himself to his brothers in Egypt, after which he sends for his family to live with him.In response, Yaakov sends Yehuda on ahead of the family, to work with Yosef on setting up a Yeshiva and a place for the family to live in Goshen.
There is a fascinating Medrish Tanchuma (Parshas Vayigash, paragraph 9) which the Etz Yosef says describes why Yaakov picked Yehuda out of all the brothers, particularly given that Reuvain was the firstborn. “And Yehuda was sent before him to Yosef to take charge before he comes to Goshen and they came to the land of Goshen” (Breishis 46:28). On this the medrish says: “This was the intent of the verse in Yeshaya: ‘And the jealousy of Ephraim was removed’  (11:13). Our forefather Yaakov thought that Yehuda had killed Yosef when his special  coat was brought to him, as it says: ‘And he recognized it and he said, this is my son’s coat a wild animal has devoured him’ (Breishis 36:33). The wild animal refers to Yehuda, as it says: ‘Yehuda is a lion cub’ (Breishis 49:9). Yaakov thought about telling Yehuda that he was the one who killed him.Therefore Yaakov tore his garments…All the years that Yosef was away from his father, Yaakov felt in his heart that Yehuda had killed him. How do we know this? From Binyamin, for this is what Yehuda said to Yosef: ‘for your servant has guaranteed the safety of this lad.’[ First,]  he was willing to risk his life for Binyamin, and [second] it was discovered that Yosef was alive, and Yehuda was cleansed of any guilt. This is the application of the verse: ‘And the jealousy of Ephraim was removed,’ and therefore: ‘And Yehuda was sent before him.’” (Click here for Hebrew text.)As mentioned earlier, the Etz Yosef observes: “The medrish is giving another reason why Yehuda was sent in front of the family, and not Reuvain, who was the firstborn, or any other brother. And it is saying that because it was removed from his (Yaakov’s) heart the jealousy that he had for thinking that he (Yehuda) killed Yosef and now that he saw he was suspicious of him for naught he wanted to honor him to the opposite extreme by appointing him as the go between, between Yosef and the family which made him most honorable amongst the brothers…” (See also Brieshis Rabba 95:2 with the Maharz”u.)

In summary, we see that Yaakov had hatred and jealousy towards Yehuda as he thought he had killed Yosef. Only once Yehuda demonstrated that he was willing to risk his life for Binyamin, and Yosef was found to be alive, was Yehuda completely exonerated in Yaakov’s eyes.

We must say that this feeling of hatred and jealousy was on a very minute level, albeit had some kind of effect on him, for Hashem’s presence left him all the years that Yosef was away; “And he saw the wagons Yosef sent to carry him and Yaakov, their father’s spirit was rejuvenated” (Breishis 45:27). Rashi says on that pasuk that the Holy Presence rested upon him, which had previously left him( see Medrish Tanchuma , parshas Vayeshev,  paragraph 2). We cannot, however assume that this hatred and jealousy had any other further effect than to rid Yaakov of prophesy through Hashem’s presence. This is because, first off,  he is our forefather, one of the greatest human beings in the history of mankind and there is no indication anywhere that he had left this lofty status. Secondly, Yehuda was his son and there is a natural love from father to son, no matter how badly the son acts; especially if there is no concrete evidence of his wayward deeds. Third, we don’t find anywhere that this hatred manifested itself in the slightest bit outwardly towards Yehuda. He was never excommunicated by his father and, in fact, Yaakov never even said anything to him, and quite the opposite – he even entrusted him with Yosef’s brother Binyamin’s life when they went down to Egypt. It must be that this hatred was on a very miniscule level!

However, there are two blatant questions that can be asked on this Medrish:
(1) What was the jealousy that the Etz Yosef says Yaakov had? Normally we define jealousy as wanting something that someone else has; but that wasn’t  the case between Yaakov and Yehuda.
(2) Why did Yaakov need two things to absolve Yehuda of any guilt? Once he found out Yosef was alive,  no further proof is necessary! Yet it sounds as if  had Yehuda not been willing to risk his life for the sake of Binyamin, he would not have been found completely innocent in the eyes of Yaakov.

The Orchos Tzadikim in the chapter on jealousy gives an insight into the emotion of jealousy. “Jealousy stems from deficiency of the soul. If one is jealous of another’s handsome looks or strength, or wealth, then he does not desire what the Blessed Creator decreed… The one who is jealous robs himself for he is always downcast, his intellect is depleted because of the great jealousy buried within him, and his heart is not free to study and pray with proper concentration and to do good deeds.” (Click here, here and here for Hebrew text.)

The source of classical jealousy sounds like something that could be applied to Yaakov, and certainly the ramifications of this negative character trait can be seen in Yaakov, albeit on his own high level. It would seem that wanting what someone else has is only a manifestation of the feeling of jealousy; the root cause of jealousy lies in the feeling of not being satisfied with the lot Hashem gives you. We can therefore say that, on a very infinitesimal level, Yaakov must have been dissatisfied with what he thought Hashem decreed upon him, which he blamed on Yehuda, and the result was not that his prayers, Torah learning, and mitzvos [good deeds] were effected.  Rather for him, at the spiritual level that he resided, he lost the opportunity of receiving prophesy and the Holy Presence resting on him.

We see from this medrish that one can feel an emotion without it manifesting itself, but the root of the emotion is its essence, and this essence can still have devastating results.

It would also seem that the emotions of hatred and jealousy were engrained so deeply within Yaakov that he would not have been able to view Yehuda as completely innocent  upon the revelation that Yosef was still alive unless Yehuda was able to show that he was completely pure, which he did by risking his life for Binyamin.

It is possible for even a person as lofty as Yaakov Avinu to have  emotions so entrenched inside him that he can’t simply  detach himself from it, even when he knows without a fraction of a doubt that the feelings are a mistake. It might even take required steps on the part of the other party to help one get rid of his character flaw. This is how delicate emotions are in each and every one of us.

Miketz -Marriage Advice from a Righteous Man

In this week’s Torah portion of Miketz, Yosef HaTzadik names his first child Menashe. The Torah gives the reason behind the name: “And Yosef named the firstborn Menashe, for ‘G-D has caused me to forget all my toil and all my father’s house’” (Breishis 41:51).
The Rabbeinu Bachye observes that “based on this verse, Chazal (Bava Basra 12b) call the father’s house of one’s wife ‘Bei Nasa,’ meaning the forgotten house, based on the verse: ‘therefore a man should leave his father and his mother and cling to his wife and be one flesh’ (Breishis 2:24),’ so to a wife with her husband.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
There are many interpretations given for this verse. The Rada”k says that the Torah did not mean to say that a man should leave his father and mother for his wife and not serve them and honor them as best as possible. Rather, , the meaning of the verse is  that one is supposed to leave his father and mother, who he lived with until he got married,  and cling to his wife and live with her in one house. The Ramban adds that one should view his wife as a closer relative than his parents. The Sforno says that since the first woman was intended by Hashem to be similar to man as much as possible, to the extent the He formed her from man’s body, it is therefore proper that every man should attempt to marry a woman suitable for him, fit to cleave to him. Due to the fact that it will be necessary to leave his father and mother, there can be no real cleaving between those who are not alike; that is why it is best to be like-minded. In all their actions they will aim to attain the perfection intended by the creation of man, as if the two were one flesh.

The Rabbeinu Bachye does not directly comment on this verse in the first portion of Breishis, but we can glean a whole new insight based on the fact that he quoted it to explain why Yosef named his firstborn Menashe. It would seem strange that Yosef could forgot his father or would even want to forget his father, one of our forefathers, one of the greatest people in the history of mankind, who loved him and favored him more than any of his brother. Indeed, he was his prime talmid [pupil] in Torah learning; why would he want to forget such an illustrious person?

Furthermore, we know that Yosef did not forget his father. For after Yosef revealed himself to his brothers and sent for Yaakov to come to Egypt, the Torah says: “And the children of Yisrael did as they were told and Yosef gave them wagons upon the orders of Pharaoh and he gave them food for the way” (Breishis 45:21). The Rabbeinu Bachye comments on that verse that Yosef sent a sign to Yaakov that we were separated from each other when you were teaching me the topic of eglah arufa. For this reason the Torah later says: ‘and he saw the agalot (wagons), and Yaakov’s spirit was rejuvenated…;”meaning, Yosef remembered exactly what he was learning with his father at the time  he was sold to Egypt over two decades ago! So what,  according to the Rabbeinu Bachye, does Yosef mean when he says: “G-D has caused me to forget… all my father’s house?”

We must say therefore that of course one does not need to forget his past, and in fact Yosef did not forget his.  But in order to have ultimate quintessential marriage, one must view him or herself as if he or she completely forgot their parents’ house when they enter into marriage, in order to build a new, more powerful relationship  with one’s spouse. The home they build should be focused on developing the relationship between them, creating a bond of unity between themselves and no one else.

Vayeshev – Blocked From the Obvious

This week’s Torah portion of Vayeshev begins by recounting the drama that takes place between Yosef and his brothers, which ultimately lasts until the end of  Sefer Breishis.
Yosef’s brothers threw him into a pit which, while devoid of water, contained poisonous  snakes and scorpions. Even though the brothers convened a court and in their eyes legitimately found Yosef guilty of trying to kill them in both this world and the Next (which would give them the right to kill him before that happened), the brothers did not want blood on their hands. They therefore threw him into the pit, so that he might die in a back-handed manner. Instead,  Hashem made a miracle that the snakes and scorpions did not touch Yosef.

In the meantime the brothers “sat down to eat a meal, and they lifted their eyes and saw, and behold, a caravan of Yishmaelites were coming from Gilad, and their camels were carrying spices, balm, and lotus, they were going down to Egypt.  Yehuda said to his brothers, ‘What is the gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let’s sell him to the Yishmaelites, and our hands shall not be upon him, for he is our brother, our flesh.’ His brothers listened to him. Then Midianite men, merchants, passed by, and they pulled and lifted Yosef from the pit, and they sold Yosef to the Yishmaelites for twenty silver coins, and they brought Yosef to Egypt. Reuvain returned to the pit, and behold, Yosef was not in the pit; so he tore his garments. He returned to his brothers and said, ‘The boy is gone! And I, where will I go?’ They took Yosef’s coat, and they slaughtered a goat, and they dipped the coat in the blood. They sent the fine woolen coat, and they brought it to their father, and they said, ‘We have found this; please recognize if this is your son’s coat or not’” (Breishis 37:25-32).

The Chizkuni (based on the interpretation of events according to theRashbam) explains that after the brothers threw Yosef into the pit they sat far away to eat some bread so that they wouldn’t hear his cries for help. The brothers saw the Yishmaelite merchants coming their way but the Midianite merchants happened to be passing by the pit and heard Yosef screaming and crying. The Midianites took Yosef out of the pit and sold him to the Yishmaelites. The Yishmaelites then gave him back to the Midianites as a deposit for the sale and both of them sold Yosef to Potiphar in Egypt. This makes sense of the verses: “And the Midianites sold him in Egypt to Potiphar” (verse 36). Later the Torah says: “Potiphar bought him from the Yishmaelites” (39:1). And another verse states, when Yosef revealed himself to his brothers: “When you sold me to Egypt,” meaning all this was caused through their actions (45:4).

The brothers did not know what had happened, and when Reuvain went to the pit and did not find Yosef, they all thought a wild animal must have devoured him. They weren’t even lying to their father, for if they would have sold him to anyone there would not have been a nation or kingdom on earth where they would not have inquired about their brother, until they were able to ascertain whether he was dead or alive. Furthermore, if they had actually been unsure whether he was alive or dead, would they not have recognized his features or the way he spoke [when they were in Egypt]? Indeed, Yosef also dropped three hints for them, beginning when he told Binyamin: “May G-D favor you my son” (43:29), then when he gave him five times the amount of goods to take home (verse 34), and finally when he sat the brothers in order of oldest to youngest. They should have been quite suspicious. Rather it must be as was explained [that they thought surely a wild animal consumed Yosef]. (Click here for Hebrew text.)

At the time of the confrontation between Yosef and his brothers in Egypt everyone was much older and wiser. Furthermore they were Yaakov’s sons; they were not naïve at all. Finally, there was no clue whatsoever that he was actually eaten up by a wild animal. They dipped Yosef’s coat in blood as a sign of what they thought happened and sent the coat through messengers because they couldn’t face their father and see his reaction. Yaakov made the logical conclusion from what he saw with his own eyes. So how could the brothers have been so convinced he was dead to the extent that they would be able to ignore all the signs pointing to the fact he is alive? How could they have totally missed the boat, with the facts literally going right over their heads?!

It must be that once someone makes up their mind about something it is extremely hard to change it. Even if all the evidence seems to indicate the opposite, the person will be unable to pick up on it because he or she is stuck in their own reality. That is why the brothers never suspected that the Egyptian viceroy was Yosef before he revealed himself, and, really, even after he revealed himself, it took time to digest.

Vayishlach – Block Out

This week’s Torah portion of Vayishlach presents us with the third mitzvah in the Torah, the commandment not to eat the gid hanasheh [sciatic nerve]. This mitzvah is based on the incident where Yaakov won a fight with an angel, but not before the angel crippled his sciatic nerve. The Sforno learns that Hashem sent down this angel, with the purpose of the encounter being to send a message to Yaakov that Hashem would save him and his children in all confrontations with Esav. And even though there might be material loss at times, such as his crippled nerve, ultimately, there will be salvation and blessing. At first the angel was powerless against Yaakov because Yaakov attached himself to Hashem fully and constantly in thought and speech; but the angel eventually began telling Yaakov of the sins the future leaders of Israel would commit, which made Yaakov start to worry. This ultimately detached him from Hashem, which allowed the angel to smite him in the hallow of his thigh (the location of the sciatic nerve) during the skirmish. When the sun rose the next day Yaakov was healed.

The Torah ends this episode by stating: “Therefore the Children of Israel do not eat the sciatic nerve which is on the socket of the hip until this day, for he touched the socket of Yaakov’s hip by the sciatic nerve” (Breishis 32:33). The Sforno explains why it is forbidden to eat this area on a kosher animal: “In order so that the damage inflicted [by the angel] when he touched the hip socket, will not be a damage which we are concerned about.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)

As Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz puts it: “The prohibition to eat the gid hanasheh, the sinew of the thigh vein, is not in memory of this event, but to demonstrate for all time that the damage inflicted upon Yaakov by the angel is of no account to us and we eschew it completely to indicate that it is of no importance to us.”

One would think that if this episode was really of no importance, then there would be no reason to forbid eating that area. Should we not just ignore the whole issue if we truly don’t care? Why make a big deal out of it and make a mitzvah to not eat it, simply to show it is unessential to us? It sounds counterproductive!

However, it would seem that if we were permitted to eat this area of the thigh, then every time it was on someone’s plate in front of them they might start thinking about the incident of Yaakov and the angel and get all worked up about it. That is human nature, to have a physical stimulus trigger thoughts in one’s head. And even after 4,000 years it can’t simply be ignored! Therefore, we have to actively take it out of our consciousness by not being put into a situation where we might get worked up about it.

We learn from here an important lesson often overlooked! Something that is bothering you cannot just be ignored. It just doesn’t work that way. One has to take steps to eliminate or handle the bothersome problem.

Vayetzei – A Light unto the Nations

There is a verse in this week’s Torah portion of Vayetzei which has become a very famous song. It happens to have been my Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Alter Chanoch Henoch Leibowitz zt”l’s, favorite song.
“והיה זרעך כעפר הארץ ופרצת ימה וקדמה וצפנה ונגבה ונברכו בך כל משפחת האדמה ובזרעך.”

“And your offspring will be like the dust of the earth and you will spread out west and east and north and south and all the families on earth will be blessed because of you and your offspring” (Breishis 28:14).

Hashem came to Yaakov in the famous dream of a ladder spanning from the ground
to heaven with angels going up and down it. There are many interpretations of the dream in Chaza”l. Focusing specifically on this verse, the Rada”k says that Hashem told Yaakov: “Because of you and your offspring all the families will be blessed for one who performs the mitzvos of Hashem and he recognizes that He is alone and Master of the World is subsisting the world and the world exists because of him.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
The Mesillas Yesharim (Chapter 1) tells us: “If one has control over himself and clings to his Creator, and only uses this world to help him serve Hashem, he will be elevated and the world itself will be elevated with him. For it is a great benefit for all of creation to be used by man in his holy perfection, sanctified by Hashem.”
The Mesillas Yesharim is teaching us that the whole world was created for one purpose, to serve humanity. If a person uses the world in the correct manner he becomes a better person and the world becomes a better place. This is real tikkun olam! (Click here and here for Hebrew text.)

The Rada”k, at first glance, is taking this concept one step further. If we perform Torah and mitzvos and have a strong belief in Hashem then all the families on earth will be blessed, simply because we are fulfilling the purpose for which the world exists. It makes logical sense, that if we use the properties of this world the world will become better.  Trees being used in building a shul or making a Torah, cows being used to make a Klaf (parchment) for a Torah or tefillin, or being slaughtered properly to eat with a blessing, are all examples of elevating the status of creation from something mundane to something holy, thereby fulfilling the purpose of creation. But what did a family in China or Africa or wherever else do to deserve a blessing; simply because we are observing the mitzvos properly and have a high belief in Hashem? On the contrary, every human being was endowed with free choice, and we have a choice to fix the world or destroy it – which includes Jews and non-Jews alike! So how can my Torah observance, wherever I live, make a difference to the rest of humanity? Is it magic?

Another question is, if it truly is “magic,” meaning that if Hashem just blesses all the families of the earth because of what the Jews do, then why does the pasuk (verse) say: “When you will be scattered?” Why is it when we will be scattered throughout the world then all the families of the earth will be blessed, if we observe the mitzvos and have a high belief in Hashem? Can’t that be accomplished if we were all together?

Rather, it would seem that our optimal Torah observance and belief in Hashem is not just “magical,” but, rather, when people around us see our commitment to Hashem and his Torah it makes a tremendous impact and can influence them to be better people. That is why everyone would be deserving of blessing; the more sincerity we have in our Torah observance, the more of an impact it will have on the world. The world in its totality will be a better place with everyone and everything fulfilling their mission in life.

Toldos – Red in His Eyes

In this week’s Torah portion of Toldos we find the emergence of two opposite personalities, Yaakov and Esav. The first event recorded in the Torah of the two brothers (outside the womb) is the sale of the firstborn birthright. “Yaakov was cooking up a stew and Esav came from the field and he was exhausted. Esav said to Yaakov, ‘Please pour for me from this reddish red stuff for I am exhausted.’ Therefore he was called Edom [The Red One]. Yaakov said, ‘Sell your first born birthright to me today.’ Esav said, ‘I am going to die, what is the firstborn birthright to me?’ Yaakov said, ‘Swear to me today.’ He swore to him and he sold his firstborn birthright to Yaakov. And Yaakov gave to Esav bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and he got up and he left, and Esav belittled the firstborn birthright” (Bereishis 25:29-31).
The Rashbam, in his own clarification of this episode, explains that Esav was a hunter and Yaakov was the shepherd of his father’s flock. One day, when Esav came back from a hunt, he was exhausted and, quickly asking for something, repeated his words: ‘reddish red stuff,’ as is not uncommon to do when rushed. Since he was exhausted and starving it was as if he was asking to be quickly given something to eat. The reason he was known as “Edom” is because he had a red complexion and an appetite for red foods. Ultimately, due to his being famishmed, he sold his firstborn birthright. He was called Edom in dishonor, for because of a red-looking food he sold his firstborn birthright. Yaakov wanted Esav to sell the birthright immediately, so he asked Esav: ‘Immediately sell to me the monetary aspect of your portion of the birthright which father is supposed to give to you and then I will give you the food as testimony and a guarantee of the deal.’ We find this also by the agreement between Lavan and Yaakov at the end of the Torah portion of Vayetzei, where afterwards they ate together by a monument (31:46). When Esav gave the excuse that he was going to die, he said: ‘Every day I go to hunt wild animals in the forest where bears, lions and other dangerous animals are common place and I am putting my life on the line so why should I wait to accept my portion of the firstborn birthright after our father dies?’ This was the point at which Esav belittled the firstborn birthright. So Esav sold the birthright for money, and afterwards Yaakov gave Esav the food to seal the deal, as was the tradition in that day and age. The Torah points out that Esav belittled the birthright because in the end he regretted what he did, as it writes [when he finds out Yaakov received the blessings]: ‘My firstborn birthright he took.’ The Torah therefore is informing us of his stupidity; now, when he was eating, he belittles the firstborn birthright; but in the end he regretted it. (Click here, here, here, here and here for Hebrew text.)

The Chizkuni, when explaining the Rashbam’s version of the events that took place, adds that because Esav did not want people to think hewas a fool for selling his firstborn birthright, belittled it and said it was not worth much to him. But in the end he regretted having sold it. (Click here for Hebrew text.)

Esav was not rebelling when he sold the birthright – it was an act of utter stupidity. Who knows how much money the double-portion-inheritance would be worth when Yitzhak passed away?  Yaakov specifically bought the monetary aspect of the birthright; definitely something Esav wanted and regretted giving. What caught Esav off guard? Was he so tired that he couldn’t think straight and therefore made such a blunder? That couldn’t be true, because he had the presence of mind to swear on the deal. It wasn’t an easy and fast transaction. Could a bowl of lentil soup really smell that good?

We see from hear how complex one’s physical desires are. For it wasn’t just the fact that it was a bowl of lentil soup; rather, it was red. If it would not have been red it would seem from the Rashbam that Esav would never have made the deal. But when he saw red, and he was attracted to red things, it entrapped him! Yes, he was tired and ravenous, but to give up all that money doesn’t make sense! This is the strength of  physical desire. It is mesmerizing and  tantalizing, and if a person does not have control over it he can enter a trance, even swearing on things which he really does not mean, and make stupid deals which he will regret.

Esav’s physical attraction to or obsession with red things was his ultimate demise. What he tried to hide with excuses was what he became known for: Edom, the one who couldn’t keep his desires in check. How important it is for one to work on self-control and never ever let physical desires run your life!

Chayei Sarah – Two Faced Politician

Did you ever wonder what Lavan’s profession was? The Medrish Rabba (Breishis 60:7) says he was a politician and the Maharz”u on the Medrish says his name wasn’t really Lavan it was either Kemuel (Listed in the end of last week’s Torah Portion) or Bilaam (Yes, the famous Bilaam, see Targum Yonasan ben Uziel in Bamidbar 22:5).
That Medrish Rabba in fact makes an argument for why he was known as Lavan: “Rebbe Yitzhak says it was praise, he was dexterous and clever. However Rebbe Brechya said it had a negative connotation meaning white with wickedness.”

Rashi on the Medrish explains that according to Rebbe Yitzhak he was Second in Command, a ruler who would protect the wronged and “whiten” (or defend) their deeds and would judge court cases between a man and his fellow, and whiten (or clarify) judgement. The Etz Yosef adds that this was a great praise for him. According to Rebbe Brechya his wickedness was as white, or clear for everyone to see. (Click here for Hebrew text)

If we accept the argument that the name of Lavan was a great praise, we must also then say that he was a very complex individual. For it would seem that Lavan was a very honest individual who was always trying to make peace and always supportive of the underdog. He was known for this, and had the power and intelligence to carry out this noble lifestyle. On the other hand we know Lavan was also a sly con artist. Rashi in the Chumash (Breishis 29:18) says that Yaakov had to give Rachel signs before their wedding night because he knew [Lavan] was a fraudster. Even worse, we say in the Haggada: “Go and learn what Lavan the Aramean attempted to do to our father Yaakov! For Pharaoh decreed only against the males and Lavan attempted to uproot everything, as it says (Devarim 26:5) ‘An Aramean attempted to destroy my father, and he descended to Egypt etc.’” Lavan was a worse villain than Pharaoh!

How could someone known to be so evil and dishonest also have a reputation for standing up for honesty and pursuing peace?

There are a number of indicators in Chumash (with Rashi) that Lavan had an eye for wealth. This seems to have been the source of his downfall, as we see in this week’s Torah portion of Chayei Sarah, regarding when Rivka comes home with Eliezer, Avraham’s servant: “Rivka had a brother whose name was Lavan: Lavan ran to the man, outside to the spring” (24:29). Rashi asks why Lavan ran, and for what did he run for? Rashi answers that when he saw the nose ring [given to Rivka, Lavan said to himself] ‘he must be rich’ and he wanted to eye his money.

When Rachel brings Yaakov home, the Torah relates: “And it was, when Lavan heard the news of Yaakov his sister’s son, he ran towards him, embraced him, kissed him, and took him to his house; he recounted to Lavan all these events” (Breishis 29:13). Rashi on that pasuk says that Lavan thought he was carrying money, because in the previous visit the servant of his house came with ten loaded camels.

We see from this how complex a human being is. A person can be a beloved leader, helping the underdog, and determined to resolve justice with a good name, while simultaneously being so corrupt that he is known throughout history as the prototypical swindler, a person worse than the evil Pharaoh. All because money got the better of him.