Thursday, December 27, 2012

Audio Shiur: Parshat Vayechi - Seeing What's Real

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayechi - Seeing What's Real

While, on face value, Yaakov can't see very well at the end of his life, Chazal teach us that he could actually see quite well. It all depends on how you look at things. In the shiur we get quite deep...

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Saturday, December 22, 2012

A Old (and Modern) Pashkevil, and the Dangers of Radio (and iPods)

Over Chanukah, the family took a one-day trip to the Old City of Jerusalem, where the municipality offered self-guided tours for families. For a relatively modest fee we got a guidebook, a jelly doughnut for each of us (at the Marzipan bakery) and admission to three old city sites, as well as a couple of craft projects. There was even a musical performance. It was a really wonderful day; we toured at our own pace, and noticed some things in the Old City that we had taken for granted.
One of the sites that we visited was the Old Yishuv Museum, which, if you've ever been to the Old City, you've passed a hundred times. The museum houses artifacts that try and give you a sense of what life was like for Jews living in the Old City before the creation of the State. I can sum it up for you in two words: Really hard. Small tidbits that stuck with me: The mortality rate for newborns was 80%. Eighty. Women usually split each egg they acquired into four portions. And most people slept on mats on the floor, and a really generous husband would rent one of the six beds in the entire community for his wife to give birth. Like I said: Really hard.
As you walk through the rooms of the museum, you progress through different historical periods, and we came upon an early twentieth century room which displayed the following poster that appeared in the Old City. (Translation follows)

The Angel of Death in This Person's House (Heaven forbid)
Anyone who brings a "Radio" into his house, it is as if he brought the Angel of Death into his home, God forbid.
For, aside from the serious transgression and its terrible punishment, there is also the prohibition of "music in the house", about which our Sages said, the home with music will ultimately be destroyed...
Aside from this, his home becomes wide open for any prohibited matter, God forbid: to hear the nakedness of a woman's voice, to hear matters of scoffing, light-headedness, foolishness, profanity; to hear the voice of apostate preachers who influence with their words of apostasy, heresy, anarchy and abuse, God forbid.
To hear the "comedy" that they make from the reading of the holy Torah and the reading of the Megillah and the recitation of Selichot and from every holy matter, for this "comedy" uproots and weeds out any remnant of holy feeling in the heart of Israel, for the soul of a Jew used to wonder from trembling over the holiness of these matter when they were done in their [proper] holiness, in their time and place in an appropriate and customary manner. And this "comedy" blasphemies and extinguishes any spark of feeling of holiness, by transforming everything into an act of comedy and silliness for any religious ceremony; a mass "comedy:" that approaches the level of the conversation of those who sit in the gates and the melodies of drunks.
Sometimes this also causes the [gathering] of rabble-rousers and strangers in the house with the excuse of [wanting to] hear the "radio". The house loses in this manner the entire framework of life and any self-evaluation, because at the time that a person used to be free to think about his obligations in his world, instead he turns on the radio which chatters foolishness and nothingness - it sings and rings and confuses - and all the days in this home are like holidays and unadulterated joy which then leads to sorry, God forbid.
For this reason, anyone who cares about his soul and the souls of the people of his house will not allow this great destroyer to enter his home. "Leave, impure one!" he should say to it, and one who guards his soul will distance himself from it!
At the museum I couldn't help but think, "The more things change..." Just switch out "radio" for "Television", "Internet", "Cellphones" - and you've got the very same pashkevil you might find on the street today. You don't even have to change the words.
Except one thing did catch my attention, because there's certainly some truth to it. (Actually, there's truth to the whole thing. Any tool is dangerous - radio, telephone - even a pen and paper - depending on how you use it.) I've written before about how I enjoy running with my iPod, and enjoy a number of different podcasts. But I listen not just when I run, but also during my daily commute, when I'm doing housework (dishes, laundry and the like). But, if I'm honest with myself (and I don't think it's just me), sometimes we put on something in the background because we're trying to avoid the quiet. I'm not talking about loneliness; rather, we're trying to avoid forcing ourselves to use the quiet times in our day to do the cheshbon hanefesh - the personal introspection and self-evaluation so critical to spiritual growth.
And, it doesn't matter what's on: Jewish music, news podcast, TV in the background, as long as there's some noise, that's enough to prevent ourselves from thinking. And, sometimes I think that's exactly what I'm trying to avoid.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Pain of Losing a Child

In the wake of the terrible shootings late last week, my mind is filled with thoughts of the poor families struggling with the loss of their children. As I read through the parshiot describing the story of the sale of Yosef, the Torah provides a vivid picture of the scope of the pain of losing a child, as we watch Ya'akov mourn the apparent death of his beloved son Yosef.
When the brothers return home with the bloodied coat of Yosef we read that,
לג וַיַּכִּירָהּ וַיֹּאמֶר כְּתֹנֶת בְּנִי, חַיָּה רָעָה אֲכָלָתְהוּ; טָרֹף טֹרַף, יוֹסֵף.  לד וַיִּקְרַע יַעֲקֹב שִׂמְלֹתָיו, וַיָּשֶׂם שַׂק בְּמָתְנָיו; וַיִּתְאַבֵּל עַל-בְּנוֹ, יָמִים רַבִּים.  לה וַיָּקֻמוּ כָל-בָּנָיו וְכָל-בְּנֹתָיו לְנַחֲמוֹ, וַיְמָאֵן לְהִתְנַחֵם, וַיֹּאמֶר, כִּי-אֵרֵד אֶל-בְּנִי אָבֵל שְׁאֹלָה; וַיֵּבְךְּ אֹתוֹ, אָבִיו.
33 And he knew it, and said: 'It is my son's coat; an evil beast hath devoured him; Joseph is without doubt torn in pieces.' 34 And Jacob rent his garments, and put sackcloth upon his loins, and mourned for his son many days. 35 And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted; and he said: 'Nay, but I will go down to the grave to my son mourning.' And his father wept for him.

Rashi wonders why it is that Ya'akov refuses to accept the comfort and consolation of his remaining children? Why does Ya'akov never find consolation? Rashi explains
אין אדם יכול לקבל תנחומין על החי וסבור שמת, שעל המת נגזרה גזירה שישתכח מן הלב ולא על החי:
A person cannot be consoled for someone who is living who he considers dead, for only on the dead was a decree issued that he should be forgotten from the heart, and not on the living.

The ability to forget is a great blessing indeed. Without it we would cease to be able to function in life, constantly consumed not only by grief for the inevitable losses each of us endure, but also by the shame of our sins, the guilt for our transgressions, and the constant pain of lost opportunities and missteps. For this reason, God blessed us (most of us at least) with the ability to forget; to move on, and somehow go on with life. So, if Ya'akov could not forget, even many years later, that must mean that somehow, something went wrong. For this reason, Rashi concludes that somehow Ya'akov knew that Yosef was still alive, and therefore he refused to accept the finality of Yosef's death.
Yet, Maharshal (quoted in Siftei Chachamim) adds another explanation, writing that, "When a person inflicts pain upon himself, he does not recognize that he is doing so excessively, for he considers this great amount of pain to be insignificant."
Put another way, Ya'akov didn't want to forget. He insisted on remembering Yosef, despite the pain that memory caused.
Truth be told, no parent can truly forget a child. The loss of a child remains with a parent in a way that no other loss can, leaving a deep scar, which might close over time, but never truly heals. Ya'akov's refusal to be consoled isn't out of the ordinary. Rather, he reacts as every parent does: life does go on, but the pain remains.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Why Women Light: A New Perspective on an Old Halachah

A New Perspective on an Old Halachah

Recently, my wife and I were discussing the different reactions of local residents during the recent Operation Pillar of Defense "altercation". She noted that Anglo Olim, wanting to do their part, collected cakes, donations, and other supplies that they brought to the soldiers massing on the Gaza border not far away from our home. While Israelis were also involved in chesed during the harrowing days of the non-war, instead of preparing packages for soldiers, they were making meals and arranging babysitters for the harried wives who found themselves without their husbands, who were called up for Miluim and were themselves stationed outside of Gaza. When Israel finds itself forced to confront an aggressor, we immediately think of the soldiers and the different ways we can help them, either by sending pizzas, or socks, or moral support. But we sometimes forget that especially in Israel, during wartime a large percentage of the army consists of "older" reservists, who left wives and children behind to go protect their country.

While Jewish law exempts women from the obligation to fulfill most time-bound commandments (like shaking a Lulav, sitting in a Sukkah or wearing Tefillin), the Sages did not extend this exemption to the mitzvah of lighting candles on Chanukah.  In fact, the Gemara (Shabbat 23a) is unusually emphatic about this point stating that, האשה ודאי מדליקה – "a woman must certainly light," explaining that the Sages obligated women to light candles of Chanukah, שאף הן היו באותו הנס – "for they too were involved in that miracle."

What miracle were the women specifically involved in that makes it clear that women should be obligated to light the Chanukah menorah? Clearly, the Gemara does not refer to the miracle of the Menorah, as women had no role in the lighting of the Menorah in the Beit Hamikdash – or any other service in the Temple. So, the Gemara must refer to the role of women in the revolt that expelled the Greeks and returned the Jews to power. What role did they play, and why did that role make it obvious that women should also be obligated to light the Chanukah candles? Moreover, the obligation is especially ironic in light of the fact that most women never actually light despite their obligation to do so. Sephardic households uphold the custom that the head of the household – usually the male – lights the menorah for everyone. Even in Ashkenazic families, where each member of the family lights, in many if not most families, the wife/mother fulfills her obligation through the lighting of her husband. If we truly wished to highlight the role that women played in the Chanukah miracle, in addition to including them in the obligation to light, wouldn't the Sages have specified that they themselves actually, physically light the candles on Chanukah?

The Rishonim offer two general explanations for the role that women played in the Chanukah victory. But, during a shiur with my students in Orot on this subject, I discovered a third, compelling explanation for the Gemara that resonates with us, especially today.

Explanation 1: The Actions of Chanah the Daughter of Matityahu – The Actions of A Woman Prompted the Men to Rebel

Commenting on the Gemara in Shabbat, Rashi writes,
שגזרו יוונים על כל בתולות הנשואות להיבעל לטפסר תחילה, ועל יד אשה נעשה הנס
For the Greeks had decreed that every married virgin must first cohabitate with the [Greek] general. And, the miracle took place through the actions of a woman.
Rashi's comment alludes to a critical story that appears in full in the Otzar Hamidrashim (Chanukah pp. 189-190) The Midrash relates:
כיון שראו יונים שאין ישראל מרגישין בגזירותיהם, עמדו וגזרו עליהם גזירה מרה ועכורה, שלא תכנס כלה בלילה הראשון מחופתה אלא אצל ההגמון שבמקום ההוא. כיון ששמעו ישראל כך רפו ידיהם ותשש כחם ונמנעו מלארס, והיו בנות ישראל בוגרות ומזקינות כשהן בתולות...והיו יונים מתעללות בבתולות ישראל, ונהגו בדבר הזה שלש שנים ושמונה חדשים, עד שבא מעשה של בת מתתיהו כהן גדול שנשאת לבן חשמונאי ואלעזר היה שמו, כיון שהגיע יום שמחתה הושיבוה באפריון, וכשהגיע זמן הסעודה נתקבצו כל גדולי ישראל לכבוד מתתיהו ובן חשמונאי שלא היו באותו הדור גדולים מהם, וכשישבו לסעוד עמדה חנה בת מתתיהו מעל אפריון וספקה כפיה זו על זו וקרעה פורפירון שלה ועמדה לפני כל ישראל כשהיא מגולה ולפני אביה ואמה וחותנה. כיון שראו אחיה כך נתביישו ונתנו פניהם בקרקע וקרעו בגדיהם, ועמדו עליה להרגה, אמרה להם שמעוני אחיי ודודיי, ומה אם בשביל שעמדתי לפני צדיקים ערומה בלי שום עבירה הרי אתם מתקנאים בי, ואין אתם מתקנאים למסרני ביד ערל להתעולל בי! הלא יש לכם ללמוד משמעון ולוי אחי דינה שלא היו אלא שנים וקנאו לאחותם והרגו כרך כשכם ומסרו נפשם על ייחוד של מקום ועזרם ה' ולא הכלימם, ואתם חמשה אחים יהודה יוחנן יונתן שמעון ואלעזר, ופרחי כהונה יותר ממאתים בחור, שימו בטחונכם על המקום והוא יעזור אתכם שנאמר כי אין מעצור לה' להושיע וגו' (ש"א =שמואל א'= י"ד). ופתחה פיה בבכיה ואמרה רבש"ע אם לא תחוס עלינו חוס על קדושת שמך הגדול שנקרא עלינו ונקום היום נקמתנו. באותה שעה נתקנאו אחיה ואמרו בואו ונטול עצה מה נעשה...
When the Greeks realized that Israel was not affected by their decrees they rose and issued a bitter, ugly decree, that a bride on the first night [after her wedding] must leave her wedding canopy for [the bed of] the local hegemony. When Israel heard this their hands weakened and their strength abated, and they refrained from betrothing…and the Greeks would mistreat the daughters of Israel. They maintained this practice for three years and eight months, until the daughter of Matityahu the High Priest because engaged to a Hasmonean by the name of Elazar.
When the day of her joy[ous wedding] arrived, they seated her in a throne. At the time of the meal, all the elders of Israel gathered in honor of Matiyahu and this son of the Hasmoneans, for there were no greater in that generation than them. When they sat down to the meal, Chanah the daughter of Matityahu rose from upon her throne, clapped her hands together, and ripped her garment and stood revealed before all of Israel, her father, mother and her in-laws.
When her brothers witnessed this act they were embarrassed and looked towards the ground and tore their garments, and then began to approach her to kill her [for her terrible act]. She said to them, "Hear me my brothers and cousins! If you are zealous towards me for the fact that I stood naked before righteous people without committing any sin, yet, you are not zealous to hand me over to an uncircumcised heather to mistreat me!? We must learn from Shimon and Levi the brothers of Dinah, who were only two, but still zealously endangered their lives to destroy Shechem for the sake of God's name – and God helped them and did not shame them! And you are five brothers, Yehudah, Yochanan, Yonatan, Shimon and Elazar – and the young priests number over two hundred – place your trust in God and He will help you, as it is written, 'for there is no restraint to the LORD to save by many or by few.'" (Shmuel 1 14:6) Then, she burst into tears and said, "Lord of the Universe – if You do not have compassion upon us, have compassion upon the holiness of your great Name by which we are called, and avenge our vengeance on this day!"
At that moment, her brother were zealous and said, let us gather and consider what course of action we should take…
This incredibly powerful story speaks for itself. The brazen, almost unthinkable act of a single pious girl shook the Jews to their very core, forcing them once and for all to overcome their fear and rise up against the Greek oppression.

Explanation 2:  The Actions of Yehudit – Jewish Women Took Up Arms Themselves

The Gemara (Megillah 4) notes that women are obligated in the reading of the Megillah, for, just as we find regarding Chanukah, on Purim as well, אף הן היו באותו הנס – "they were also in that miracle." Women's involvement in the Purim miracle is relatively obvious: Esther played the primary role in saving the Jewish people from extinction. Yet, Tosfot on that Gemara add that, בחנוכה על ידי יהודית – "on Chanukah [women were involved in the miracle] through the actions of Yehudit." This, of course, refers to the story related in the Book of Yehudit (which, like the Book of the Macabees, never made it into Tanach), which relates the story of a widow named Yehudit, who ingratiates herself with the Greeks to gain their trust, only to lure the Greek General Holofernes into her tent, where she chops off his head, throwing the Greek army into turmoil.
In reality, it's difficult to know whether the story actually took place at all – as different versions of it appear in the Midrash. (In fact, the continuation of the Midrash quoted above suggests that the brothers used Chanah herself as bait for the Greek general), but the gist of this interpretation is clear: in the story of Chanukah of Chanukah, the women couldn't allow themselves to sit on the sidelines. Rather, when needed, they themselves fought to rid the nation of the invading Greek armies.

Explanation 3: Women as Supporters, Sending their Husbands to Fight

When I taught these sources during a class on Midrash at Orot, I began by asking the class whether women may light Chanukah candles at all. One married student answered that she knew that she in fact could. How did she know? She knew because the issue had already come up at home, and she would be lighting in her home that year, on behalf of her husband.
"Where is your husband?" I asked her. "Why won't he be lighting for you?"
"He's an officer in the army, currently in a training course, and he won't be home for Chanukah," she explained. "So we already planned for the fact that I would light at home, and he would fulfill his obligation through my lighting."
Hearing her words, I found myself truly moved by her nonchalance. She didn't think much of it, but how often do we consider the wives of our soldiers, who send their husbands to defend the Jewish nation, maintaining homes, raising families – or even just suffering many, many nights of loneliness – on our behalf.
I believe that this might very well be another meaning of the Gemara's statement that women too were involved in the miraculous victory of Chanukah. Even if the women never physically fought in any of the battles, Jewish women paid a very heavy price for the victory over the Greeks. They encouraged their husbands and sons to go out to war; they maintained their homes during the months of battle; and too many of them made the ultimate sacrifice when their loved ones never returned home. Even victory carries a heavy price.
If the victory of Chanukah represented the last Jewish military victory before the destruction of the Second Beit Hamikdash, today, we truly merit to live in a time when we can enjoy the great gift of our return to that very same Land. Yet, that gift is not free. We continue to pay a heavy price to ensure Jewish sovereignty over the Promised Land.
This Chanukah, as we light our Chanukah candles, let us resolve to focus on the great sacrifices that Jewish women have made to ensure Jewish freedom, whether those sacrifices were בימים ההם – "in those days", or whether they are בזמן הזה – "in our days as well."

Chanukah Sameach!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Parshat Vayeishev: Yosef as a Model for the Jews in Exile

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vayeishev: Yosef as a Model for the Jews in Exile

The text describing Yosef's years of service in the house of Potifar - and the Midrashim Rashi mentions, provide a clear blueprint of the Jewish experience in the exile.

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The Connection Between Yosef and Chanukah - A Shiur by the Rav

The Connection Between Yosef and Chanukah
A Shiur by the Rav

I was looking for a file on my hard drive and found this article. I think that I listened to a shiur given by the Rav one year and was so blow away by it that I transcribed it as best I could. Any errors of transcription or explanation are mine, and mine alone. It also appears in Days of Deliverance. (Joseph and Hanukkah - p. 155) It's a truly powerful shiur - and remains relevant and timely today, perhaps even more so.

The story of Yosef is a paradoxical drama. On the one hand, it really should not happen, and yet it does. The entire episode is completely absurd – with too many crazy details and unanswered questions.
1. Doesn't Ya'akov understand the important rule: parents should not give one child preferential treatment to one child over another? It’s one thing to love one child more than another, but that doesn’t have to manifest itself in such a public display. Why does Ya'akov make the כתנת פסים for Yosef, especially when it creates such jealousy between the brothers?
2. How can the brothers sell their brother into slavery? Isn’t that a moral law that they know to be despicable?
3. How can Ya'akov send Yosef to שכם when he knows that the brothers hate Yosef? Clearly, he knows very well how the brothers feel about Yosef. Now, all of the sudden, why is he worried about שלום אחיך בשכם? It’s very unusual that he should all of the sudden be worried.
4. Where does ראובן go? After he intervenes, why does he suddenly disappear? חז"ל say that it was the day that he served his father, so he had to go. But, wouldn’t the best way to serve his father be to protect Yosef and save his father from distress. Why disappear if you know that your brothers want to commit murder?
5. Yehudah’s actions and explanations are also quite difficult. On the one hand, we find later that he’s brave enough to take on the entire nation of Egypt to protect Binyamin. Yet, he’s unwilling to kill Yosef, and gives a pretty weak explanation: מה בצע כי נהרג את אחינו וכסינו את דמו.
6. After Yosef rises to his highest level in Egypt (he always rises to the top) and becomes the manager of Egypt, he knows how much his father loves him. Can’t he send a letter or a messenger to his father to tell him that he’s alive? רמב"ן addresses this question.

The whole story appears incredible – it’s hard to believe that it happened, but it did. We cannot deal with each question separately. But, we can try and answer all of these questions using five words: וימצאהו איש והנה תעה בשדה – these words not only answer the story, but also give us insight into all of Jewish history.
Usually, the Torah never tells us about details, and unimportant facts. In fact, it should just have said, וילך יוסף לשכם. Who cares about the fact that he can’t find the right way and that he has to ask for directions on the road?
Who is the איש in this story? Who is this strange man? Who is the “certain man?”  According to the Rav, he’s a peculiar man, a strange man, a mysterious man. Who is this strange, peculiar, mysterious man? Why is he eavesdropping on the brothers that he knows where they are going?
Rashi explains that he’s גבריאל. גבריאל is the executor of Jewish history. He is the executor of the Jewish destiny that is planned by God. The strange, unique Jewish destiny is controlled by this גבריאל.
והנה תעה בשדה – who was lost? יוסף. He was lost in the field. He hadn’t made a decision, and didn’t know where to go. So, he became an instrument in the hands of Jewish destiny – one that we have great difficulty understanding.

When אברהם entered into the covenantal agreement with הקב"ה, we know what אברהם gets out of the deal. But what does God get out of the deal? It seems that what God gets out of the deal is Jewish suffering: וענו אותם ארבע מאות שנה. While אברהם doesn’t have to pay, Ya'akov does have to pay the debt that’s owed, so Yosef is the first one to fall into the hands of the Jewish historical destiny. He is the first to realize the destiny of Jewish history. Look at Rashi on וישלחהו מעמק חברון – what does that mean? Rashi notes that חברון is in on a mountain, so what valley does the Torah refer to? אלא מעצה עמוקה של אותו צדיק הקבור בחברון לקיים מה שנאמר לאברהם בין הבתרים: כי גר יהיה זרעך. Yosef is the first one to pay up on this debt. Yosef doesn’t make the final decision – he places himself in the hands of the איש, he surrenders to the איש – the destiny of the Jewish people.
All the crazy, compulsory decisions and actions made by the different people in the story – not because they considered the actions sound and good, but rather because they were forced by the sheer impact of historical destiny and the historical realizations of Jewish destiny, to act in the way that God desired. Ya'akov and the brothers don’t make their decisions. Rather, the mysterious man made those decisions, and he tells them that the realization of Jewish historical destiny begins in דותן. Sometimes God acts all by himself. Sometimes he sends an איש to act on His behalf, with God supervising.

This brings us to a truth in Jewish historical philosophy: God uses man as the tool in order to realize His will. Yosef was the tool God elected, and once chosen, he is driven by this mysterious איש into history:
There are three possible ways of understanding the relationship between God and man in the realization of history:
1.    God does not use man as the one who fulfills and executes His will. He does everything Himself. He makes decrees, and fulfills them himself. All man can do is to watch, admire, adore and accept God’s will. At times this happens. God makes the plan and man has no mission whatsoever. The מבול is an example: but we’re talking about good – God’s salvation of the world. Another example is when God saves חזקיהו even though he couldn’t muster an army together.
2.    In this case, man’s role is not to execute the will of God, but to herald God’s greatness. One such example is בני ישראל in מצרים. Then, there was no role assigned to man. Man becomes a kind of announcer, he is the prophet, the messenger as far as God’s word is concerned, but not as far as God’s actions are concerned. This was Moshe’s role in Egypt. He is the representative of God, but not as far as bringing redemption to the people. He tells them what to do, what will happen, how to behave. But the drama of יציאת מצרים happens only at the hand of God. For this reason, Moshe isn’t mentioned during the הגדה – we say לא על ידי מלאך, לא על ידי שליח, etc.
3.    Man engages in action that brings about the will of God. God wants man to participate in the process, to join God. But then God demands from man not just action, but sacrifice, as if the final outcome depended on man exclusively. Man allegedly becomes the central actor: God determines the destiny, either letting man win or lose; yet, in such cases, God demands heroic action – not just courageous action, but heroic action, which demands sacrifice. There’s a difference between כח – strength, and גבורה – heroism. During the blessings recited each morning we refer to God as, אוזר ישראל בגבורה. Every nation has physical strength. As far as כח is concerned, we aren’t distinguished for our כח. Many non-Jews have כח. But Jews have גבורה, which we have engaged in for the last 4500 years. Jewish existence is a heroic existence. As far as יציאת מצרים in concerned, man is not involved in the salvation. He does not participate in the event. He has no share in the planning or the execution. Therefore, man doesn’t suffer either.

Yosef isn’t so lucky. He is destined to play a role in the formation of Jewish history, so he must pay a price as well. Because he plays a role in Jewish destiny and executes God’s will, he must suffer at the same time. At that time, the will of God is to have the people leave the Promised Land, and He chooses Yosef to be the instrument of that exile. חז"ל say that if Yosef had not complied, they would have brought Ya'akov in chains in captivity.

מדרש תהלים (בובר) מזמור קה ד"ה [ה] ויקרא רעב
[ה] ויקרא רעב על הארץ. אמר ר' יהודה בר נחמני בשם ר' שמעון בן לקיש ראוי היה יעקב לירד במצרים בשלשלאות של ברזל, ועשה הקב"ה כמה מנגנאות כדי להורידו בכבודו, לכך נאמר ויקרא רעב על הארץ, וכל כך למה ויבא (יוסף) [ישראל] מצרים (/תהלים ק"ה/ פסוק כג). אמר ר' פנחס הכהן [בר המא] משל לפרה שהיו מבקשין למשוך אותה למקולין שלה, ולא היתה נמשכת, מה עשו, משכו בנה תחלה, והיתה רצה אחוריו, כך קודם שבא יעקב למצרים כמה מנגנאות נעשו, שיעשו אחי יוסף כל אותן הדברים, כדי שירד יוסף למצרים, ואחרי כן ירד יעקב אחריו למצרים.

Rather, Yaakov got the smooth, painless method. But, had he refused to go, he would have been brought as a prisoner, and not with receptions and pomp. God’s will would have been done.

In spite of all his successes, Yosef is a tragic figure in many respects:
It’s not pleasant to be the target of envy and hatred. He is persecuted because of who he is, because of his talents and visions, and because he rises above everyone else.
•    He is sold into slavery for thirteen years (seventeen years old when he’s sold, and he’s thirty when he rises to the monarchy in Egypt). For thirteen years, he’s lonely, alone in strange land. He remains attached to his family. Anyone else would have tried to erase any memory of his family, trying to completely forget everyone else. But he does not, and he remains devoted to his family. He always maintains that he belongs in ארץ העבריים – that he has been plucked from the Promised Land, and that’s really where he belongs. (This connection to ארץ ישראל manifests itself in his great desire to be buried in the land of Israel.)
•    Even when he rises to power, he remains lonely and can never integrate himself into the Egyptian people. He always remains separate from them.
בראשית פרק מג
(לב) וישימו לו לבדו ולהם לבדם ולמצרים האכלים אתו לבדם כי לא יוכלון המצרים לאכל את העברים לחם כי תועבה הוא למצרים:
We understand why the brothers can’t eat with the Egyptians – they had just come from a foreign land. But why can’t Yosef eat with the Egyptians? He’s the Prime Minister! Apparently, he can be the Prime Minister of the country, but he can’t become an Egyptian. He never feels comfortable and integrated into Egyptian society. He lives a life alone – he is forever lonely in Egypt. They need him in Egypt – they tolerate him. But they never really accept him. He leaves instructions twice in the Torah to bring him out of Egypt after he’s already dead: once in ויחי, and again in בשלח. In the first instance he says, והעליתם את עצמותי מזה – take me out of this place. Yet, in בשלח he says, והעליתם את עצמותי מזה אתכם. What’s the difference between the two? The second time is Moshe’s interpretation: he realizes that Yosef wants to leave not for cultural reasons, to be connected to his father. But rather, because he wants to be buried with the Jewish people because he says אתכם – “I am one of you, and I belong to the Jewish people. Even while I was Prime Minister, the most powerful person in the entire nation of Egypt, and even when I accused you of being spies, I had never forgotten that I was אתכם – I never forgot where I belong.”

For the privilege of being the instrument of God’s will in bringing about Jewish history, Yosef must suffer. He must live through the long dark night of loneliness, in order to become God’s messenger. Why does Yosef get two portions in בני ישראל? He gets a greater portion because he spends longer time in exile than everyone else – 22 long bleak years of loneliness, surrounded by strangers.

In simple terms, Yosef’s job is to bring Ya'akov into a land of slavery. But, it isn’t so simple – it’s much more sophisticated and deeper than just this. This must be true because Yosef is not the first person to spend time in exile. Rather, he follows in the footsteps of his father Ya'akov.

Ya'akov is also taken away from his parents’ home at a young age. Ya'akov also spends that long dark night of loneliness in his uncle’s home, living in exile. Avraham didn’t live in exile – he was deported and just visited there for a short time. Yitzchak couldn’t even leave the land of Israel. Ya'akov is the first person to spend time in exile. What did he have to do there? Why send him there - to what purpose? Again, when we examine the story that drives יעקב into גלות we find that the השגחה uses יצחק and רבקה in a very strange unusual story to bring about the השגחה פרטית.
Looking at the events surrounding Ya'akov’s flight from עשו, we must raise several questions:
1.    What’s the big deal about the ברכה? Why can’t Yitzchak give עשו a ברכה?
2.    Why does עשו take the blessings so seriously?
3.    Why does יצחק then later turn around and give the original ברכה to Ya'akov, as if he had intended to do so throughout?
Again, we find the paradoxical unfolding of history – too many good questions. Again, we find that Ya'akov is the instrument in the hands of God. So why send him into exile? What is the purpose of Yaakov’s exile? What does he prove? He proves that the word of the covenant continues not just in the Promised Land, but in the exile as well. After 20 years in חרן, his commitment to God and God’s way of life; his commitment to the Promised Land – all remain after his time in exile. His task is to prove that יהדות is universal, regardless of place, and whether or not they’re in ארץ ישראל.
This is the point of the Midrash when it states: עם לבן גרתי ואת תריג מצוות שמרתי. Chazal don’t just like playing with words. Here, they focus on the idea of גרתי – it’s only a temporary time. I always felt like a stranger in the land of לבן – never assimilating, never integrating, never accepting לבן’s morals, ethics or way of life. I was always a גר – and I kept the תריג מצוות – keeping the Torah. After twenty years, Ya'akov remains as committed to his father, his grandfather’s covenant, as he was on that first night at הר המוריה.
Why was it necessary to prove the capability of the covenantal way of life outside of the Promised Land? Why did anyone have to prove this? Why does Ya'akov have to go into חרן to prove the universality of this way of life? Because ultimately, there would come a time of payment where the people would leave their land, and God had to prove that it was truly possible to live outside of the Promised Land, and remain loyal to the ways of the God of Avraham. Only when the people can retain the Jewish identity after hundreds of years of slavery in Egypt can the covenant remain. Therefore, God uses Ya'akov as an instrument to prove that this covenant can exist even outside of the Land, and that the deal with Avraham will go on. And, if one person can do it, then certainly a whole nation can do it.

Yosef has a similar task. He too had to prove that the moral laws are not based on geography or chronology. (The Rav added, that if he could, he would have added the fourteenth אני מאמין: אני מאמין באמונה שלמה שכל התורה כולה יכולה להתקיים בכל מקום ובכל זמן. If you don’t accept that one, then what’s the use of the first thirteen? If it’s dependent upon chronology or geography, there are Jews throughout the entire world, throughout all times!)

But, what’s the difference between Yaakov’s mission and Yosef’s mission? Why the repetition?
1. Yaakov had to prove that one can maintain his identity to God and the Jewish people in poverty and depression: no matter how downtrodden the immigrant, no matter how hard the work, if he makes up his mind, he can maintain that allegiance to God. But Yosef had to demonstrate that even with enormous success, admiration and unqualified power are not incongruous with a Jewish, spiritual lifestyle. In the eyes of the Torah, no matter how successful he is or how miserably he fails, Ya'akov and Yosef show us that he remains obligated to maintaining an allegiance to the Jewish way of life.
2. חרן was a desolate country. Yosef remained loyal to God in the most advanced country in the world. Historically, the Jew has remained loyal to his tradition in poverty. However, he failed miserably in maintaining that spiritual connection in material wealth. The challenge of poverty and persecution we met and passed with flying colors. But the challenge of wealth and prominence, of over saturation with cultural values, of prominence in society -- that challenge we failed miserably. 
Today, the Jew has never been freer, wealthier, more successful and more prominent. But at the same time, the Jewish commitment to the ancient lifestyle that we have defended with blood sweat and tears – that is something that we haven’t lived up to.

What is חנוכה? How does God act with the חשמונאים? Is that relationship similar to the way that He relates to Moshe, just telling him what’s going to happen and doing it all by Himself? Or, does He involve them in the process, demanding that they play a critical role – total commitment and heroic action, including sacrifice - in the salvation of the covenantal community?
(Later, Moshe does become involved, not at the יציאת מצרים – but after the עגל הזהב, when God wants to condemn the entire community, there Moshe becomes involved and takes a primary role in history, saving the Jewish people. There Moshe has the courage and the will to give God a sort of ultimatum – without the Jewish people I don’t want to be a part of that history! With the first עשרת הדברות, Moshe is just a mailman, a messenger. But with the second לוחות, it’sפסל לך – you must make the לוחות – you are involved and you participate in the formation of history. In becoming involved in the process, Moshe became the רבן של נביאים – the greatest of all prophets.)

Of course the חשמונאים fought like lions – and when you fight, there is sacrifice. Many people died, because when there’s battle, people die. רבים ביד מעטים, טמאים ביד טהורים, גבורים ביד חלשים – their hands must have been involved. God was involved, and helped them, but man had to start. Their initiative and engagement, their sacrifice – saved us even today, and for that we are grateful.

It seems that the על הנסים is out of order: it should say על המלחמות ועל התשועות ועל הגבורות ועל הנסים. Why put them seemingly out of order? Because we really thank God for two things: we thank Him for His hand in our victory, without which we would have lost the war. First you have to thank God. But we had to start and get involved. So, then we have thanks for the people that had the courage and determination to get involved and fight with great suffering and sacrifice on our behalf. פרקן is the Aramic translation of גאולה. Why use the Aramaic substitute of גאולה and not Hebrew? Because גאולה in Hebrew is the term reserved for יציאת מצרים and ימות המשיח. Without the war the Jewish people would have been lost, but it’s not the ultimate redemption.

This is the connection between Yosef and the story of Chanukah – the total sacrificial involvement to exhibit the courage to engage and get involved in the destiny of Jewish history.

Then the Rav said,
“It’s premature...I have a feeling that ארץ ישראל is going to confront a war. How and when – I hope not. I pray that this confrontation takes not place, but I’m not sure that my prayer is accepted. The way destiny is unfolding lately, will be like אברהם העברי – כל העולם בצד אחד – the whole world on one side, and אברהם on the other side. Has the Jew the courage and heroic quality of his ancestors to confront the world and defy the world? I hope yes. Whether it will be necessary, I don’t know. This is what every Jew should have in mind.”

The story of Chanukah is typical of all of our confrontations in גלות. What was the emblem of Yosef? Was the shield of Yosef?  What’s his coat of arms? His symbol is his coat of many colors. The brothers knew it, and they stripped him of it when they wanted to weaken him. What does the כתנת הפסים represent? It’s the symbol of the Jewish people, of the חשמונאים and of us as well.

Yosef dreams of his sheath, which rose up and the other sheaths came around and bowed down to his sheath. The brothers were not jealous of him because of that dream. They hated him, but weren’t envious of him because of it. Yet, in the second dream he dreams of the sun, the moon and the stars. After this dream, his brothers are now jealous of him. Yosef has two visions: one of material and economic power, which came true totally. These are the אלומות – the sheaths. But the other dream revolves around spiritual greatness, and not just powerful and feared by people – loved and revered by people. He wants to be worshipped by the sun and the moon and the stars. Can one person combine both qualities of economic, military power, and also the dream of spiritual greatness and moral heights? Can one person unite both elements of power and greatness together with spirituality and visionary leadership? Are they mutually exclusive, or can they be merged? Apparently, Yosef thought yes, and he combines them, and this combination is symbolized by the כתנת פסים – many colors that contradict one-another, but somehow synthesize together.

This is the vision of the Jew throughout history – to achieve power and greatness and success; this is the Jew’s reputation of a good merchant and businessman. Without this quality, we couldn’t have survived. But at the same time, that Jew comes home for Shabbos from peddling his wares, with another dream of spiritual greatness – השמש והירח והכוכבים – to be great spiritual personalities.

That is what the חשמונאים were as well. They fought well, and hard. But as soon as they laid down their arms, their interests turned to the בית המקדש, to the פך השמן and to returning to spirituality and greatness.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Seeing the Signs - A Message from Rav Zalman Sorotzkin

This was shared with me a couple of weeks ago, but I haven't had time to share it...sorry for the delay.

The Torah tells us that after Yosef was born, Yaakov realized that the time had come to return home. Yet, when we look at the text, it seems that something else also contributed to Yaakov's desire to leave Haran and return the the Land of Canaan. It seems that he no longer got along with his brothers-in-law as well as he used to.

וַיִּשְׁמַע, אֶת-דִּבְרֵי בְנֵי-לָבָן לֵאמֹר, לָקַח יַעֲקֹב, אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר לְאָבִינוּ; וּמֵאֲשֶׁר לְאָבִינוּ--עָשָׂה, אֵת כָּל-הַכָּבֹד הַזֶּה. וַיַּרְא יַעֲקֹב, אֶת-פְּנֵי לָבָן; וְהִנֵּה אֵינֶנּוּ עִמּוֹ, כִּתְמוֹל שִׁלְשׁוֹם .וַיֹּאמֶר ה'אֶל-יַעֲקֹב, שׁוּב אֶל-אֶרֶץ אֲבוֹתֶיךָ וּלְמוֹלַדְתֶּךָ; וְאֶהְיֶה, עִמָּךְ  - בראשית לא:א-ג
And he heard the words of Laban's sons, saying: 'Jacob hath taken away all that was our father's; and of that which was our father's hath he gotten all this wealth.'  And Jacob beheld the countenance of Laban, and, behold, it was not toward him as beforetime. And the LORD said unto Jacob: 'Return unto the land of thy fathers, and to thy kindred; and I will be with thee.' (Bereishit 31:1-3)

Commenting on this interesting progression in the Torah, Rav Zalman Sorotzkin writes in his commentary to the Chumash (called Oznayim L'torah),

Translation: According to the order of the verses it emerges that after Lavan and his sons began to speak and look with an evil eye towards Ya'akov, only then did God say to him, "Return to the Land of your fathers." This is a sign for the children, that at the moment that the Holy One wishes that [his children] should return to their borders, he places in the hearts of the nations [the desire] to do evil to, and to afflict Israel in the lands of their dispersion. Fortunate is the Jew, who sees the finger of God in this matter, and hears the voice of God calling to him, "Return to the Land of your Fathers."
Fortunate indeed.