Vayigash –  Segregation

The Shulchan Aruch in the beginning of the laws about Pas Yisrael (Yoreh Deah 112:1) says that the rabbis forbade Jews from eating home-baked bread made by a non-Jew, even if all of the ingredients are kosher and made in clean pans, because of intermarriage. Even if a priest dedicates himself to celibacy, and therefore does not have children, a Jew may not eat his bread because the Rabbis are concerned that if we get too friendly with them (i.e. sharing food or even buying and selling home bake goods) then we might come to marry their daughters or their acquaintances’ daughters. There is even an argument in the Shulchan Aruch on this topic as to whether we can eat from commercial bakeries owned by non-Jews, assuming everything is kosher. Most people are lenient and do in fact eat from non-Jewish-owned commercial entities because there is a disconnect between the seller and buyer, so there are no concerns about intermarriage. (Click here for Hebrew text.)

 The source of this rabbinic decree might have come from this week’s Torah portion of Vayigash according to the Sforno. After Yoseph reveals himself to the brothers and sends for his father and the rest of the family to move to Egypt, “G-D spoke to Israel in night visions and He said, ‘Yaakov, Yaakov.’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ And He said, ‘I am the G-D, G-D of your father. Have no fear of descending to Egypt, for I shall establish you as a great nation there…’” (Breishis 46:2, 3). The Sforno on pasuk 3 explains Hashem message to Yaakov, “I, Who told your father to not go down to Egypt (Breishis 26:2), tell you… If you remain here your children will intermarry and become absorbed by the Canaanites, but in Egypt they will not be able to do so, because the Egyptians may not eat bread with the Hebrews (Breishis 43:32); therefore they will be a separate, distinct people, as our sages state, The pasuk ‘And he became there a nation’ (Devarim 26:5), teaches us that they were distinguished there.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
The Sforno gives a very fascinating explanation of why Hashem told Yaakov not to be afraid about going down to Egypt. His family would be better off there, because there would be no need to worry about the issue of intermarriage and assimilation since the Egyptians would not want to mingle with them as it says in last week’s Torah portion of Miketz, “They served him separately and them separately and the Egyptians who ate with him separately, for the Egyptians could not bear to eat food with the Hebrews, it being loathsome to the Egyptians.” The Sforno explains there that Yosef “sat in his own room so that his brothers should not sense that he was also a Hebrew and because the Egyptians may not eat bread with the Hebrews therefore, he did not eat with his brothers, nor did he or his brothers eat with the Egyptians.” As a result, when Yaakov and his family came down to Egypt there was no concern of intermarriage because the Egyptians stayed away from them, and the Jews became a distinguished nation, to that effect as the Sforno concluded, quoting what we read in the Pesach Haggada. (Click here for Hebrew text.)

However, in the Pesach Haggada there is a different interpretation by various commentaries as to what it means that ‘they were distinctive there.’ The Kol Bo says all the Jews lived in one place, Goshen (which Pharaoh had in fact given to their great great grandmother, Sarah Immeinu many years back). They also wore their own style of clothing so that they wouldn’t mingle with the Egyptians. The Ritva in fact says that they wore tzitzis, and the Abarbanel adds that they kept their Hebraic names, spoke Hebrew, and dressed in their usual garb. If that is what kept them apart from the Egyptians and stopped assimilation, why couldn’t they do the same just living in Canaan? Why did they have to move to Egypt (barring the decree of exile, which the Sforno ignores anyways)? They could have lived in a ghetto in Canaan, spoken only Hebrew, have only Jewish names, distinctive clothing and even wear tzitzis to remind them of Hashem’s mitzvos. Their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents instilled this in them the emphasis of no intermarriage, which Avraham and Yitzchak went out of their way to emphasize is a big no-no; so why did they have to go to Egypt to escape the threat of intermarriage? (Click here for Hebrew text.)

We see from here how grave of a threat and temptation intermarriage is, even for the grandchildren of our forefathers. So much so that Hashem had to reassure Yaakov that the best thing for him and his family would be to move to Egypt. What then is the solution?

We see from this Sforno that the best solution is not to just dress, speak, act, and live differently from the non-Jews, because they still might be attractive to us and find a way into our society. The best thing is segregation. When they feel they can’t be close to us, that keeps them away, and makes us distinguished and distinctive. From the fact that Hashem assured Yaakov that segregation was the best thing for him and his family, it must mean that that was not a reason for anything bad to happen to them in Egypt, i.e. that was not the cause for the Egyptian bondage. On the contrary, we saw with Yoseph that the Egyptians and Hebrews were able to get along quite fine, even if they could not eat together. The slavery was a Heavenly punishment that was discussed already previously in parashios; therefore we see that segregation, the attitude that Jews and non-Jews can’t mingle with each other, not that it is negative but the acknowledgement that we are different, might very well be the best way to stop the threat of intermarriage.

Good Shabbos and easy fast of Asara b’Teves,
Rabbi Dovid Shmuel Milder

Vayigash – Anger Management Solution

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 The Ramban opens his letter to his son saying, “Constantly act by talking all your words softly, to every person, at all times. In this way you will be saved from anger, which is a bad attribute that causes people to sin. As Chaza”l (Nedarim 22a) say, ‘All who are angry, all sorts of Gehenom control him as it says (Koheles11:10) ‘remove anger from your heart, and take off bad from your flesh,’ and bad only refers here to Gehenom as it says (Mishley 16:4) ‘and also the wicked for the day of bad.'” (Click here for Hebrew text.)

The beginning of Orchos Tzadikim, in The Gate of Anger, states: “Anger is an evil trait. Just as scurvy is a disease of the body, so anger is a disease of the soul… Our sages have said further (Nedarim 22b): ‘If one gets angry, even the Shechina is of no account to him…And he also forgets his learning and grows in stupidity… and it is known that his sins are more than his merits…’ and his punishment is very great…” (Click here for Hebrew text.)

If this is how terrible the character flaw of anger is, then why does the Rabbeinu Bachye in his introduction to this week’s Torah portion of Vayigash say that “it is well known that Yosef should not have been the one showing anger over his stolen goblet, but rather Yehuda and his brothers, who were in fact innocent of the crime since the whole thing was a setup, were the ones that should have been angry. Nevertheless, Yehuda the great wise one, powerful physically and spiritually, was able to overcome his proclivity and did not become angry. Even though it was fitting for them to be angry, Yehuda saw that it wasn’t the time or place to get angry,  but rather to speak gently in order to calm down the wrath of the master, Yosef.” How can Rabbeinu Bachye say that the brothers were the ones that really should have been mad? No one deserves to be angry, because anger is such a bad character trait as we saw above! So what does Rabbeinu Bachye mean when he says the brothers were deserving of feeling angry?

 It must be that anger is a very different negative character trait than most character flaws, in that it comes spontaneously onto a person, whereas other characters flaws are developed. This is why there is no prohibition of becoming angry in the Torah but there are prohibitions against other emotions, such as jealousy, “Don’t covet” (Shemos 20:14), hatred, “Don’t hate your brother in your heart” (Vayikra19:17), and haughtiness. As the Orchos Tzadikim says in the beginning of The Gate of Pride, “Pride is the coin the Great, Blessed King has invalidated and which He has extorted us about in His Torah, as it is written: ‘Take heed lest you forget Hashem your G-D’ (Devarim8:11) for the proud man forgets his Creator…” The feelings of pride, hatred, and jealousy develop inside a person and get worse over time, so the Torah prohibits one to develop those negative attributes. But anger is a spontaneous emotion, which is why it makes sense that in their circumstances the Rabbeinu Bachye says Yehuda and his brothers were the ones who should have been experiencing it, not Yosef. This is also why the Torah didn’t place a prohibition against becoming angry. However, since if you let it fester, it is so unhealthy, Hashem created a system to manage anger which the Ramban says is to always speak softly. That will diffuse the feeling of anger that might be triggered when someone is being irritating, which might naturally spark anger.

However, talking softly isn’t just a system to calm oneself down; it can also be used as a weapon or mechanism against other people who are angry at you, to calm them down and diffuse the situation. Rabbeinu Bachye, as he always does in his introduction to the Torah portion quotes a pasuk from Mishley. “A gentle reply turns away wrath, but a galling word incites anger” (15:1). “Shlomo Hamelech (the author of Mishley) is warning a person in this pasuk to raise one’s soul and habituate one’s natural tendency and speech in replying gently to others, because replying gently quiets and puts to rest anger towards an angry person. Antagonizing words which are the opposite of replying gently cause a buildup of anger and wrath.” Rabbeinu Bachye goes on to describe the power of speech in general; how it is a great power that can influence good and bad, life and death, as we see speech being related to learning Torah but also to speaking lashon hara/slander. Then he says, “And because speech is a major component for saving one’s soul and body, or G-D forbid causing its destruction, King Shlomo comes and teaches knowledge to the nation that they should strengthen themselves in this attribute of replying softly because it calms wrath, even the wrath of the king as he says, ‘the king’s wrath is like angels of death’ (Mishley 16:14). Now Yehuda ben Yaakov excelled in this attribute for he spoke to Yosef softly and in this way calmed his wrath that he was showing them, for he was angry over the incident of the goblet [found in Binyamin’s sack.]” (Click here for Hebrew text.)

 We see from Rabbeinu Bachye that speaking softly doesn’t just calm oneself down but can calm others down, even an angry leader. The reason why soft speech even has an influence on others is as the Ramban writes later in his letter to his son, “Therefore I will explain to you how to act with the trait of humility, to walk in it constantly. All your words should be said gently… and if someone calls out for you don’t answer him loudly, rather gently, like one who stands before his master.” Speaking gently has a calming effect which makes others perceive that you are humbling yourself before them, and therefore they feel obliged to act in kind and treat you with some level of respect. That is why the anger resides on both sides, you are feeling ashamed or humbled by your actions of speaking gently and he feels respected.

Vayigash – Trying Harder

In this week’s Torah portion of Vayigash, Yosef ensured that his father and family were safely brought down to Egypt in order to take proper care of them. Thus making certain the next step in the destiny of the Jewish people, promised to Avraham, would be fulfilled.

Yet, the medrish, Pirkei diRebbe Eliezer (perek 39) relates, “Rebbe Yishmael says, ten times did the sons of Yaakov say to Yosef ‘Our father, your servant,’ and Yosef heard these words and was quiet, and being quiet is like acquiescing, therefore his life was shortened by ten years.” The Bayis Hagadol explains that because the reward for honoring one’s parents is long life, therefore, G-D forbid, the punishment for disrespect is a shortened life. The medrish continues, “Yosef heard that his father came to the border of Egypt, and he took all the people with him to greet his father. A whole nation usually comes out to greet the king, but the king does not go out to greet any person, but you learn from here that one’s father is like a king.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
If one analyzes what happened here, it is quite mystifying why Yosef was punished by having ten years subtracted from his life, he should have lived to 120 and instead he lived to 110  even if at first glance it seems to be measure for measure. First off, the Bayis Hagadol points out that only five times does it mention in the Torah that Yosef’s brothers said to Yosef, ‘Our father, your servant,’  once at the end of parshas Miketz (43:28), and four times in the beginning of parshas Vayigash (44: 24, 27, 30, & 31), but because there was an interpreter between them who repeated what they said to Yosef it was considered ten times. So really, he heard his brothers call their father ‘your master’ five times but it was just quoted over again to Yosef because he had to pretend he did not understand what they were saying so that they wouldn’t figure out who he was. Yosef was not ready to reveal himself to his brothers and he wanted to make sure to reveal himself at the proper time so that all his plans would work out smoothly, to be able to properly take care of his father and show him the respect that he was due. So Yosef had to stay silent even though it looked like he was agreeing that his father was his servant, which looked like a sign of disrespect, but no one knew who he was and he was in fact being quiet out of respect for his father since this was all part of the plan to safely reacquaint himself with his father and resettle him in Egypt. Furthermore, he really only heard his brothers talk that way five times and the interpreter, Yosef’s son, who was only acting, was really just a puppet; so what did Yosef do wrong and why was he so severely punished for disrespecting his father? He didn’t actively do anything and his intent, on the contrary, was to prepare for showing tremendous respect to his father which in fact Rebbe Yishmael goes on to show that he did beginning with when Yaakov first came to Egypt. Yosef, the leader of the country, came to greet him, forgoing his position and treating Yaakov like a king because he was his father. Then he sustained and took care of his father and family for the rest of his life; what greater respect is there? So what did Yosef do to deserve a punishment of  his life cut short by ten years?

We must say that Yosef’s intent was to show respect for his father, and in fact he did actively show tremendous respect for his father, and he was concerned about the status and welfare of his father the entire time, and at the time of listening to his brothers and the interpreter his motives were also respect for his father.  However, his lack of action and silence in the face of such a comment as ‘Our father, your servant,’ although he was not ready to reveal himself to his brother, was taken “in the eyes” of Hashem as a disrespect to his father because it must be if he would have really been vigilant at honoring his father he would have found a way to not allow them to talk in such a manner. He could have changed the subject or walked out, as he did when he felt he had to cry a couple of times in last week’s Torah portion, or some other way, whatever way would work. Since he didn’t take that initiative, even  though his disrespect was as passive as it was, on his level, according to what was expected of a Yosef Hatzadik, it was a lack of honor to his father deserving of punishment measure for measure.

We learn from here how careful we must be to measure our actions and even inactions, for even if we might seem to mean well, we still might not be living up to our fullest potential and what is expected of us.

Vayigash – Career of the Righteous

After Yosef revealed himself to his brothers, he brought them down with their father and rest of the family to sojourn in Egypt, specifically in the land of Goshen. “Yosef said to his brothers and to his father’s household, ‘I will go up and tell Pharaoh, and I will say to him, my brothers and my father’s household who were in the land of Canaan have come to me. The men are shepherds, for they were [always] owners of livestock, and their flocks and their cattle and all they have they have brought’” (Breishis 46:31, 32).

Why were the brothers shepherds and why does it seem that many of the major Jewish leaders throughout Tanach were shepherds at some point in time?

Rabbeinu Bachye
enlightens us with a fascinating answer. He begins by saying that Yosef was emphasizing that the brothers were shepherds of their own flock so that it would not be misunderstood and thought that they tended others’ sheep, being in the business of investments. That is why Yosef added: “for they were [always] owners of livestock;” to inform everyone that the sheep did not belong to others, but were their own, for they were very wealthy. The reason why the brothers chose this profession, which was also the profession of their forefathers, was twofold:

  1. There was tremendous profit in wool, milk, and offspring. It also doesn’t require a lot of great toil, and is without sin. About this King Shlomo said, “Know well the condition of your flocks; give your attention to the herds” (Mishlei 27:23).
  2. The brothers knew that they and their offspring would be exiled to Egypt and because the Egyptians worshiped the form of a sheep, the brothers therefore took upon this profession so that their descendants would accustom themselves to it and the worshiping of sheep would be foreign to them.

We also find that most of the righteous and prophets were shepherds. We find by Hevel, “Behold Hevel was a shepherd of sheep” (Breishis 4:2). So too Moshe: “And Moshe was a shepherd” (Shemos 3:1). So was the prophet Shmuel, as well as King Shaul, and King Dovid; they were all shepherds. The reason they chose to be shepherds were in order to stay away from populated areas since many sins stem from being among people. For example: lashon hara and rechilus (slander and gossiping), swearing falsely, inappropriate relationships, stealing, and extortion. The more one stays away from people, the easier he escapes the trap of sin. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
It would seem that besides being an easy and affluent job, being a shepherd seems to be an honest job that can keep one out of trouble. The brothers had the impeccable idea and deep insight into human dynamic that by going into this profession they would create a habit inside their family of treating sheep as mere animals that can be controlled and manipulated for business purposes. By accustoming themselves to treating them as their own flock, which is guided by them, it created a sense of reality which made it virtually impossible for their descendants to be lured into the idolatrous tendencies of the Egyptians that viewed sheep as gods.

It would also seem that other righteous people and prophets used this profession to create a habit in order to distance oneself from sin, for it surely wasn’t something that they did their entire lives. For Moshe Rabbeinu, the prophet Shmuel, King Shaul, and King Dovid  weren’t shepherds, away from civilization, their entire lives since each of them was a leader in their generation! It would seem that by just going into this profession, it puts one in a position to avoid all these sins, as it will accustom a person to stay distant from those sins even when they are forced to go into public office and handle a wide array of people. Those years of being a shepherd built up the fortitude and habit in each one of them to appreciate and imbibe the sense to stay away from those sins so that when they came into the public spotlight, they were sensitive to these issues and knew how to act accordingly for the most part.

We see from here how important it is to choose a clean and honest profession because it can make such an impact on a person which will create habits and have ramifications on how he and even his future descendants will act, and G-D forbid the opposite could be true as well, that choosing a dishonest and sleezy profession might have a very negative impact on you and your family.

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.