Archive for the ‘Torah Portions’ Category

The Torah tells us that Yitzchak re-dug many of the same wells that his father Avraham had dug in his lifetime, an act necessitated by the fact that these earlier wells were filled in by the local inhabitants in the interim.  The Torah seems to emphasize the importance of these acts by having Yitzchak actually name the wells he re-digs.  Many commentators ask why the Torah needs to tell us this seemingly mundane fact.  Some even point out that doing so embarrasses Avraham; after all, it suggests his activities ultimately were for naught.

Traditional answers abound.  The emphasis on Yitzhak’s re-digging highlights his absolute commitment to perpetuating Avraham’s mission; the duplication of Avraham’s behavior is not a negative but the opposite – a positive sign of continuity in faith and behavior.

Another explanation suggests that ‘digging’ is a metaphor for spiritual activity – as in ‘digging’ deep into one’s soul to find out who he or she really is.  Yitzchak did not rely on Avraham’s spiritual journey to suffice for his own; he, too, needed to engage in such a process.

I’d like to offer an additional possibility based on the answer to another question about this week’s parsha.

Prior to the (in)famous incident of Eisav selling his birthright to Ya’akov, the Torah tells us that Eisav has just returned from the field and is starving from hunger.  As a result, he asks Ya’akov for the food he has just prepared, to which Ya’akov agrees so long as Eisav will sell his birthright.  Eisav’s response is fascinating.  Of course he will sell it; he’s about to die from hunger, so what good would the birthright do for him if he doesn’t make the deal – he’ll be dead anyway.

What makes this response so interesting is the fact that Eisav, if he really was about to die, ‘asked’ for the food.  Why didn’t he just take it.  He certainly was not embarrassed about stealing (and worse), so why the hesitation now, especially given the fact that he might even be justified from a halachik perspective.  After all, if someone is truly dying, pikuach nefesh (saving life) would permit him to steal food in order to live.  He certainly was strong enough to take it as well; why didn’t he?

A related question: If in fact Eisav was about to die, did Ya’akov even have the right to withhold the food since doing so might have caused his brother to die?

There is a wonderful answer provided by the Hizkuni that answers all of these questions.  But before we explore it, allow me to offer a little background.


Shawn Achor, the author of the book “The Happiness Advantage” and a professional speaker to boot once asked his audience to sing the song ‘Row Row Your Boat’ in a continuous fashion until he told them to stop (he quickly added: “And I mean to yourself, quietly” – apparently afraid of the sound produced by a roomful of tone deaf business executives singing together).  At the end of the experiment he asked everyone how long they ‘felt’ they had been singing.  The answers varied – from under a minute to as long as five minutes (when he did it in Singapore, the gap was even larger, from 20 seconds to more than eight minutes).  He then revealed that the real time was 70 seconds.

Why did everyone have such a different sense of how long it took?  Because, our author pointed out, everyone was in a different mindset despite being in the same physical space.  People who thought his presentation was going to be boring and couldn’t believe they had to sit through it often thought the experiment took much longer.  Those who were excited about it often thought it took shorter.  Same experiment; same amount of time; but due to ‘being elsewhere’ in their minds, a different sense of time followed.

Here are a couple of additional experiments that make this same point, namely that it is possible to change one’s present by ‘travelling in time’ to a different location and mindset.

The first one was conducted in 1979 with a group of men all of whom were 75 years old.  This group was taken on a weeklong retreat where they all had to ‘pretend’ to be 55.  The TV shows screened all were from 1959 (20 years earlier), as well were the magazines placed throughout the retreat center.  The men were asked to talk about their jobs when they were 55, and some even dressed how they would have dressed back then.  They talked about Eisenhower as the president.

At the end of the week the men were subjected to a battery of tests – such as vision, memory, posture and the like – all tests they had also taken prior to the retreat.  Somewhat amazingly, all the men improved dramatically … as if they had actually become younger.  Their vision improved by 10%, while their memory and posture also showed significant signs of improvement.  Strangers were shown before and after pictures of the group of men and asked to estimate their age for each individual.  On average, the strangers assumed the men after the retreat were three years younger than the men prior to the retreat.

But nothing changed physically.  They simply changed their mindset – travelled in time to 1959 and behaved as if that was their reality.  And in many ways, it did in fact become their reality.

The second experiment I want to share suggests that one can change his or her present also by travelling to the future.  In this case, experimenters told a group of highly allergic people they were rubbing poison ivy on one of their arms.  As it turned out, the bush they rubbed on their arms was a harmless shrub.  But it didn’t matter.  The subjects anticipated what they thought would happen – and it indeed did happen.  All of them began showing signs of infection, such as hives and boils.

On the other arm, then, the experimenters actually rubbed poison ivy, but this time told them that it was harmless.  Only 2 out of the 13 actually demonstrated signs of infection in this case, despite all of them actually being highly allergic.  Again, what they thought was going to happen actually influenced their present.

From these studies – and countless others – scientists conclude that it is possible to change one’s present by changing one’s mindset, that going in one’s mind to either the past or future can actually transform one’s present.  Moreover, very often when one ‘imagines’ an event in a different spatial or time zone, the brain neurons fired during that imagination are actually the exact same ones – and to the same degree – as if the person were presently experiencing what he was only imagining.


Let’s take what we’ve learned from these experiments and return to the Hizkuni.  Remember, he asked why did Eisav not simply take the food if he was going to die anyway.  His answer: Eisav wasn’t actually going to die, but was merely speaking metaphorically.  After all, he – along with Ya’akov – would have been familiar with God’s statement to Avraham, their grandfather, that they would one day inherit the land.  This statement, of course, is the content of the birthright.  Whoever possesses it possesses the land.  However, that is not the full statement made to Avraham.  God also promised him that this inheritance would not be immediate, that prior to it taking effect Avraham’s descendants would be slaves in Egypt for 400 years.

With this in mind we can now understand what Eisav actually said.  “I’m going to die, so what good is the birthright to me” really means: “I’m going to die before the birthright ever becomes relevant to my life; it’s more than 400 years off in the future, and by then I’ll be dead.  So what good is it for me if I’ll never enjoy the benefit.”  With that perspective, we now understand why he was happy to sell it, why he didn’t simply take the food, and why Ya’akov didn’t feel a need to give it to him right away; after all, he wasn’t actually dying.

From this insight we learn two important lessons.  One, of course, relates to delayed gratification.  Just because you don’t see the benefit immediately, doesn’t mean that it’s not important and not coming down the road.

Second, and how we can fortify ourselves to delay our gratification, relates to the experiments we discussed earlier.  I believe Ya’akov was a time traveler.  Yes, he knew like Eisav that he probably would never see in his lifetime the benefits of the birthright.  But that didn’t matter, because in his mind’s eye he could see how the birthright would benefit his children – his nation.  He no doubt enjoyed the same neurons firing as if he actually benefited directly himself.  He moved himself to a different time and that transformed his present and his present valuation of the birthright.


And now we can also return to the initial question about the Torah’s emphasis on the wells  Yitzchak dug.  According to the Ramban, each well represented one of the batei mikdash (Holy Temples).  Mayim Chaim, living waters, do not simply describe what can be found in a well; they also symbolize what the Temples offered to the Jewish people.  The Ramban then goes on to point out that each name given to the wells was significant.  The first one means contention, and indeed this appropriately describes what happened in the time of the First Temple.  There was contention between Am Yisrael and the nations, and the Temple was destroyed.  The second name means enmity, and here too this word describes the situation in the time of the destruction of the second Temple (in fact, this exact word is used in by Haman and others to describe their feelings towards the Jewish people, and then again in the Prophets to describe how the nations of the world felt about the Temple before its destruction).  The third name, however, is quite different – Rechovot, which means broad area, wide open, a horizon.  The Ramban writes that this describes how the 3rd Temple experience will be.  Everyone will have enough space, both physically and spiritually.  “From a narrow space I call out for God’s help, and God answers me from a broad wide open space.”  So, says the Ramban, this is what Yitzchak was thinking at the time of digging the third well.  Yes he may have been amongst strangers in a land not fully his own yet, but in his mind he was envisioning a time when Am Yisrael was safe and secure and able to fulfill its mission to influence the entire world.

And as we know, if that’s where your mind is at, so too are you.



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In the first parsha of the Book of Exodus Moshe meets God at the burning bush and is commanded to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt.  Moshe, of course, is a little skeptical and quite hesitant to take on this monumental task.  He expresses his concern thus: “Who am I that I should go unto Pharaoh, and that I should bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?”  (Exodus 3:11) Rashi comments on this verse that Moshe was in reality asking God two questions: 1) Who am I to lead the Jewish people?  Certainly there are more qualified and worthy candidates.  And 2) even if I was qualified, why do the Jewish people deserve such kindness?  They, too, are not overly worthy to merit such personal concern from the Creator of the World.  Or to quote Rashi directly, “And even if I am important, how did Israel merit that a miracle be done for them?”

In the very next verse, God answers Moshe’s challenge by assuring him that God will “be with you” — so even if you’re not worthy, don’t worry, you won’t be alone.  Regarding the second question — i.e., what merit do the Jewish people possess? — God is much more circumspect: “They will serve God upon this mountain (Mount Sinai) when you Moshe bring them out of Egypt.”  What does that mean?  Moshe asks God why the Jews deserve a miracle to be performed on their behalf and God simply says they will leave Egypt and one day arrive back in this same place that Moshe and God are now conversing.  Maybe this fact is interesting, but how does it satisfy Moshe’s concern?

To begin to answer this question, let’s try a little experiment.  Take your left hand and stretch it out all the way in front of you.  With the back of your hand facing you, raise the index finger of this hand in the air.  Now take your right hand and place it about six inches in front of your face, and then raise the index finger of this hand, too, straight in the air.  Close your left eye.  Do you best to align the two fingers so that the one on your right hand basically covers the one (further away) on your left hand.  Now move your right hand (and finger) ever so slightly to the left so you can now see both fingers.   Feel free to reread these directions to make sure you’re ready before moving on to the next step.

OK, now that you’re ready, I want you to quickly close your left eye and immediately open your right one.  After a minute or so, switch eyes again; and then again; and then again. 

If you did this experiment correctly, your right finger should have ‘jumped’ from the left of your left hand finger to the right of your left hand finger.  And then ‘jumped’ back.  If that didn’t happen, you’re probably left handed (and therefore you should do the exact same thing above … except everything in opposite), or your hands are too close to one another.

Assuming it worked, the question you might be asking is: Why? 

The answer is relatively simple.  Each of our eyes actually see things differently.  That might come as a shock at first, but upon further thought, it shouldn’t.  After all, they obviously are separate from one another, and therefore would have different angles — and different perspectives — on whatever they’re looking at.  The real question, then, is how do we see things so smoothly when both eyes are open?  If our eyes are seeing things differently, why don’t we see both images at the same time?  Why do we see only one?  The answer is we don’t actually see with our eyes.  We see with our brains. 

Yes the eyes bring in the information, but it is the brain that processes that information — two different views, for example — and produces a seemless picture of what is in front of us, of what we eventually ‘see’. 

What does this idea — that seeing is not done with the eyes alone but actually requires the brain as well to make sense of what we see — have to do with Moshe and the Children of Israel? 

To answer that question, we have to look at a comment from – of all people — Sigmund Freud.   Though not a regular commentator on the Torah, Freud did write a fairly popular book on the ‘character’ Moshe.  It was his last book, and it was entitled Moses and Monotheism.

Among some of the claims he makes in this book is the fact that the Moses character is anything but unique.  To the contrary, the story of Moses is a fairly popular ‘myth’ that exists in a whole host of cultures.  Gilgamesh, Oedipus, Cyrus, Romulous, Sargon, Paris and others are but a few examples of other Moses’s.  Each of these individuals, after all, was abandoned at birth by his natural parents, found by someone else who raised him, and then returned at some point in time in the future to his rightful position.  Gilgamesh’s father had a vision that his son would one day grow up to kill him, so he tossed him out of a tower — but unbeknownst to him, the baby landed on the back of an eagle and was gently placed on the ground where a poor passer-by rescued him and then raised him.  Oedipus, of course, was abandoned to the cruel forces of nature by his parents, as well, once they heard from the Oracle that he would grow up to kill his father and marry his mother.  Again, a poor person passed by and took pity on the baby — and then eventually gave him to a royal couple in a distant land.  Cyrus’s father, too, thought his son would grow to become a threat, so he also attempted to kill him but, as the pattern continues, was foiled.  In each of these cases — and many more — the abandoned child grows and one day triumphantly returns to the royal household to claim his rightful position.

As you can see, much of their story is also Moses’ story. 

To a religious Jew, what does this mean?  If Moses is not unique, if the same story happenned before, is our Torah not unique as well?  Is it all just a myth?

This question can be made even more difficult when one considers other ‘myths’ existing in concurrent cultures that paralleled other Biblical stories.  The Creation narrative, for example, has a counterpart in Sumerian culture called the Enuma Elish.  And, of course, there is the Epic of Gilgamesh that closely parallels our flood story as it appears in the Noah narrative.

What does all this mean?  Is the Torah just one more ancient collection of myths? 

Here’s where our finger experiment begins to be helpful.  Seeing, as you will recall, is not done with the eyes alone.  One must look with the brain as well.  

The eye might see similarities in these stories, but the brain knows this is but the first — and superficial — set of input.  The picture is not finished until it has had its turn.

And once it does, we realize that while these stories are similar, there are also key differences — and these differences make all the difference.

For example, in the Sumerian story of creation, there are many gods and they’re all fighting to see who is strongest.  The creation of man is not purposeful but rather an accident.  The focus of the story is on the gods; man’s existence is both incidental and inconsequential.  In the Biblical account, man’s creation is central and very much purposeful.  It’s all a part of God’s plan.   Our existence, therefore, is imbued with meaning.  The difference in the two flood accounts is even more pronounced.  In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the gods want to destroy mankind because they’re making too much noise and have become a nuisance.  In the Noah narrative, however, the flood is punishment for humanity’s immoral behavior — not because we’re annoying to God but rather because we treat one another poorly.  Not because we’re inconsequential but because we’re not living up to our potential.  God cares about how we behave.  And there’s an opportunity to change the decree.  If we do teshuva — if we repent — we would alter God’s plan.  We unfortunately don’t, and that’s tragic — and God mourns as well — but it doesn’t diminish our importance but simply highlights it.  

Nachum Sarna, among other Biblical and ancient near east scholars, notes that Biblical Jews would not only have heard of these other stories but probably would have been extremely familiar with their details.  That’s important, for when they heard the Biblical account, they would have heard the differences stand out loud and clear.  They would have understood — they would have ‘seen’ — the deeper meaning in the differences of the two stories.  Take, for example, the Gilgamesh flood story.  It ends with a raven being sent out to herald the end of the flood.  In the Biblical account, of course, the raven was sent first, while it is the dove that eventually symbolizes the end.  A raven represents evil, and no doubt people who heard the Gilgamesh story knew that its appearance was a bad omen for the future of mankind.  The flood might have ended, but humanity is still without meaning and Godly protection.  Life is still – to quote Hobbes – nasty, Brutish and short. 

Ahhh, but what about the Biblical narrative and its dove ending.  Obviously the reader was to take a different message home — humanity has hope, God cares for us and things are looking up. 

A difference makes all the difference.

Allow me to offer an analogy to drive this point home.

As we all know, greenhouse gas emissions is a real environmental problem.  What we may not know, however, is that ruminents — that’s cows, sheep and other cud-chewing animals — are some of the worst polluters.   Their emissions — passing gas in the form of belching, burping and, well, there’s no nice way to say this, so I’ll just have to say it, farting — are 25% more potent than the emissions of a car.  All told, the methane produced by these animals represents a 50% greater carbon dioxide threat to the environment than the entire transportatation industry.

Interestingly enough, Kangaroos don’t produce methane.  Somehow the bacteria in their stomachs break down waste in a much more environmentally friendly way.  As a result, some environmentalists have suggested that people stop eating cows and throw some ‘roo burgers on the grill instead.  For Kosher consumers this is obviously not an option, so it was with great interest that I read about another related solution: Somehow try to transplant the bacteria that normally resides inside a kangaroo’s stomach into the stomach of a cow.  If this plan were to work, the cow would no longer produce the offending – in more ways than one – gas.  The result: One day soon, perhaps, when you come across a cow, something will be quite different.  Yes, he will look like a cow.  And yes, he’ll sound like one as well, not to mention taste like one too.  But he won’t smell like one.  In this regard, he’ll be a kangaroo inside — and that will make all the difference. 

That, I believe, is what all these parallel stories outside of the Bible are as well.  Yes, they exist.  To ignore them is simply silly.  It is not an act of faith but rather ignorance.  To ignore their differences, though, is even sillier.  Yes, they may appear on the outside to be similar, but on the inside they’re really a kangaroo.  Something totally different.  And that difference makes all the difference. 


Let’s now return to Freud’s initial point.  Yes, Moshe’s story exists elsewhere.  But not really, for as we already know, there’s got to be much more to the story than at first glance.  And indeed there is.

Consider but a few important distinctions between the life of Moshe and the lives of all these other individuals.  Moshe’s parents did not want to kill him; they were trying to save him.  Not so with the others whose parents feared their child would overthrow them.  And, of course, Moshe was not after his own glory — as all these others were when they finally returned to their position of royalty — but rather, he was interested in spreading liberty and freedom to others.  His story is not about hoarding wealth, taking power from one and keeping it for himself, but rather taking power from one and diffusing it to all. 

And most importantly, when Moshe realized that it was time to return ‘home’ — to return to his true self — he wasn’t returning to royalty and wealth and power.  He was returning to his suffering people.  His true lot was not separate from others, but rather with the masses.  It was not to elevate himself above others, but rather to elevate the others. 

The message of the Moses story, therefore, is the exact opposite of all these other individuals.  It is a story of freedom, equality and human dignity.

Freud missed all that, and therefore he missed the whole story.


Before ending, let me add one more thing, for I believe there is a deeper point here as well.  Remember our very first question — what was the merit the Jewish people possessed to inspire God to perform a miracle on their behalf?  If you recall, we were somewhat confused by God’s answer, for all God said was that someday the Jews would return to Sinai.

Now we can understand how this cryptic response makes perfect sense.  Rashi argues that this return to Sinai IS the merit Moshe was asking about.  One day in the future, Rashi argues, the Jewish people will return to Sinai and accept the Torah, and it is for this great act that God is now prepared to save them.

How can that be? you might ask.  It doesn’t make any sense.  God is rewarding them for something they haven’t even done yet.  It’s not a part of the story, so how can it be included?

The answer, of course, is that we don’t see with our eyes but rather with our brain.  True, the event of Sinai has not yet happenned.  We can’t yet see it.  But faith means ‘seeing’ something that’s not there, understanding that there is a parallel reality not obvious but no less real.  Sometimes this unseen reality will be deep within something, hidden from the physical eye, such as the fundamental lessons of the Bible narrative that can only be seen when contrasted with the relatively similar stories of other ancient cultures.  Other times this reality will be unseen because it hasn’t yet happenned.  That might bother the eye, but the brain understands it without a problem.

I once heard the following story.  A man had a sudden heart attack and almost died, but miraculously was saved at the last moment.  When he awoke, he asked his Rabbi why he survived.  “What great deed did I do to merit this wonderful miracle?”  The Rabbi learned with him the Rashi we just explored.  “Maybe it wasn’t some great deed you already did,” responded the Rabbi.  “Maybe you were saved for some act you are going to do.” 

What we plan to do in the future doesn’t seem to be a part of our story.  Or at least it shouldn’t be.  After all, it hasn’t happened yet.  But for those people of vision — those who see with their eyes and their brain (and for that matter, their heart as well) — well, then, the future is also a part of who they are, and a part of their story now. 

And the lesson for us, therefore, is quite simple.  When we look at life — whether we are looking at our situation, our friends, our family — we must remember there is always much more than meets the eye.  Our situation might include something wonderful that has not yet happened, so don’t despair.  Our friends and family might possess some quality deep within that we can’t yet see, so don’t diminish.  There is greatness all around — at least for those who can see.

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How many Jews do you know are named Josef (or Yosef in Hebrew)?  Probably a bunch.  And what about Yehuda?  Also a fare number I would guess.  But what about Menashe?  Here, I would imagine, the number plummets.  No one names their child Menashe.  That fact, in and of itself, is not so interesting; no one names their kids a lot of names.  However, in Parshat VaYechi, just as Jacob (Yakov) is about to die, he calls in his grandchildren Ephraim and Menashe and gives them a blessing.  And part of that blessing Jewish parents throughout the generations have offered their own children, including children today.  Indeed, the prayer that our children “May you be like Ephraim and Menashe” is a weekly refrain at Shabbat dinner tables across the world.

Why?  If Menashe is not a good enough name to name our children (and that is understandable, as subsequent ‘Menashes’ as well as specific descendants of this first Menashe were not always stellar models of Jewish leadership), why in the world do we bless them with the hope that they ‘will be like’ Ephraim and Menashe?  What’s so special about these two boys that inspire us to bless our children to be like them?

Perhaps the answer to this question can be found in another question: When the two boys approach Yakov, Yosef their father configures them such that Menashe the older one will have Yakov’s right hand placed upon him while Ephraim, the younger one, will have Yakov’s left hand placed on him.  This is quite natural, as the ‘right’ symbolizes strength, and it is appropriate to give the ‘stronger’ blessing to the older child.  Yakov, however, changes things around and crosses his hands, thus offering the better blessing as it were to the younger Ephraim rather than the older Menashe.  Why?

The answer to this second question is a story.

Over Chanuka I travelled to the North of Israel with my family and some friends.  On the last day of the trip I suggested we visit a Museum in Zippori, a small town that once served as the site of the Sanhedrin and where Rabbi Judah the Prince wrote the Mishna.  The kids, as you might imagine, were less than thrilled with this suggestion, but I convinced them it would be well worth their while, arguing that the museum there is one of the best in the country.  I had not visited there for some ten years, but “if memory served me correct” I said, everyone would be blown away by how well done and inspiring the exhibit was.  Unfortunately, memory did not serve me correct.  What I had thought was a multi-media tour de force was in actuality just a few glass panels of the time-line of Jewish history.  I had thought there would be amazing graphics, advanced computers and spectacular interactive experiences.  None of that was there (though thankfully the kids still had a great time as the site also has archeological digs and beautiful views and lots of places to run around in and explore).

So what happenned?  How did my memory fail me so?  The answer unfortunately has to do with my profession – Rabbi – and my achille’s heel – a love of talking.  Apparently, the last time I had visited the site I was with my parents.  Apparently we saw these same simple panels of glass with a Jewish history time line.  But rather than skipping right over them as I did with the kids, my parents – perhaps because they had not seen me for some time, perhaps because they have a high tolerance for pain — humored me and allowed me to wax (I hope eloquently) for a couple of hours about everything I knew about Jewish history.  Just a few one-line entries on the different panels — such as “Judah the Prince edits the Mishna” — apparently was all I needed to offer lengthy lectures on a variety of subjects.

Memory is a strange bird.  Scientists now know that we don’t remember everything exactly as it happenned.  That would take up too much of our brain’s harddrive.  Instead, we remember the ’emotion’ of the experience, and then file that away in a safe place. When the time comes to recall the event, we recall that ’emotion’ and then recreate the event’s extensive details based on the somewhat smaller memory the brain actually saved.  That’s what happenned with me in Zippori.  I remember having a great time – remember, I love speaking.  I remember it being very informative, and I remember it taking a long time.  I just assumed it was due to the exhibit itself; I was wrong.  As it turned out, it was because I’m a human wind bag.

Now what does all this have to do with our question? 

Simply this: Don’t trust your memory.  It can play tricks on you.  And for that reason, don’t dwell in the past too much either.  It may or may not be real.  Rather, draw inspiration and guidance from the past, but don’t live there.  To the contrary, live in the present, make an impact now.  And, of course, plan for the future. 

This is a message I believe Yakov wanted to share with his children and grandchildren … especially as they entered the next stage of their lives, one that would unfortunately come to include slavery in Egypt.  When people suffer, they might naturally look backwards and recall the ‘glory days’ — the time when everything was so much better.  And then they might just as naturally forget about trying to make their daily lives any better, or think about the future altogether.  Yakov wanted to make sure that didn’t happen.

And how do I know this?  I don’t, of course, but there is one big clue in the way he gave his blessings to his two grandsons.  Remember, he switched hands, so that his stronger hand rested on the younger.  Why?  What did he know about Ephraim that made him favor him over Menashe?

One possibility is that he knew absolutely nothing — except for their names.  But that’s all he needed.  The name Menashe comes from the word forget.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests that Yosef named Menashe, the older son, this name as a way of trying to forget all the suffering he had endured — fighting with his brothers, being sold into slavery, being wrongly accused by the wife of Potifar, being thrown into prison …  Yosef had a lot to forget.  But, of course, when you name a child ‘forget my past’ it’s very hard to do anything but.  A few years later, though, he had another son, and this one he named Ephraim, which means God has made me fruitful (or perhaps, I will be fruitful).  Yosef’s perspective has entirely changed.  Now he is filled with gratitude, not bitterness.  Now he is looking at life as invested with meaning and hope.  He has accomplished something important, and not only that, he will continue to accomplish, to ‘be fruitful.’ 

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch offers another explanation of the root ‘nasheh’ which stands at the center of Menasheh.  Perhaps it doesn’t mean ‘to forget’ but rather ‘to be a creditor.’  [This interpretation comes from Rav Hirsch’s understanding of the root of the word for women, Nashim.  He says that historically women have been creditors – having lent out more than they have received in return.  But someday soon they will become collectors, which is to say everything they gave out will be returned.]  If this interpretation is correct, then Yosef wasn’t trying to forget the past necessarily, but he might still have been bitter over it.  I feel like a creditor, he was saying, which means that he felt he had been taken advantage of (which of course he was).  The result: He felt that he deserved the right to focus on himself, worry about his needs and stop giving to others.  “I deserve it” is the cry of the wronged creditor.  But again, after a few years he has another son.  By now he realizes that all his experiences had meaning.  He is now ready to ‘be fruitful’ — to give to others, to look outwards rather than inwards.

Whichever interpretation one prefers, we now have enough information to answer both of our questions.  Yakov preferred Ephraim because he wanted to emphasize the importance of faith in the future and the need to enter that future with others.  This was no doubt a difficult message for him to offer his children and grandchildren.  After all, he had suffered a tremendous amount as well.  He lived a good portion of his life in exile as well.  He had been tricked by family and had his life threatened – and forever altered – by a brother as well.  Yet, rather than dwelling on the past, something that might have been quite natural as he lay on his deathbed, Yakov uses his last moments of life to focus on the future.  Yes we all suffer.  And you now what, my descendants are now going to begin a very dark period of time where they will suffer even more than I did in my youth.  No matter.  Make sure you always focus on the future and believe that things can get better.  Because if you maintain your faith, they will.

This idea, in turn, explains why we bless our children today with the blessing of ‘may you be like Ephraim and Menashe’ even though we don’t really want them to actually be like Menashe.  We bless them not because of anything they did in particular (or not necessarily – I’ll talk about that in a minute), but rather for who they are.  They are the first grandchildren that interact with their grandfather.  Even Yakov didn’t have this type of relationship with his grandfather Abraham.  Yakov blesses them to emphasize the need for continuity, the need to look beyond your own life and even the life of your children.  Consider all future generations.  They too are your progeny.


There might be another reason why we bless our children to be like Ephraim and Menashe, and this has to do with the second interpretation we offered above (Rav Hirsch’s).  If you recall, we used his insight not emphasize the future but rather the need to work with others.  That, too, fits perfectly with why we might be interested in praising Ephraim and Menashe.  After all, they are the first brothers in the Bible who don’t fight.  Really.  Consider the list: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and of course Josef and his brothers.  Talk about disfunction.  But then come along two kids who we might expect to be rivals for their father’s attention and to be his heir.  But we don’t see anything like that all.  Which is a very good thing, because eventually Jewish history requires brothers (and sisters) to get along.  Case in point: The next sibling group we are introduced to is composed of Moses, Aaron and Miriam.  Their ability to work together is what saves the entire nation of Israel.  Indeed, Jewish peoplehood is built on their family strength more than anything else.  Until Ephraim and Menasheh, though, they had no model to emulate — only disunity and hatred.  Ephraim and Menasheh change all that, providing a powerful example of the importance of friendship amongst siblings.  And that, it seems, is something quite worthwhile to praise and bless at a Shabbat table every week.     

The answer to this question is a story. I forgot. We can’t rely on memory. Have to live in present and future.

What does Yakov know about boys. Nothing, just name. Menashe – to forget. Also creditor. Both inwards rather than outwards. Took courage to give this blessing. Especially as they go to slavery. Hope. Unity.

This is answer why Ephraim and Menashe. They’re grandkids. Represent future. That’s what we bless.  Another related reason, parallel to r. hirsh. don’t fight. becomes model for moshe and aron. blessing is to move forward, faith, action and together.

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Mahatma Gandhi once said, “If you want there to be change, you must be the change.”   What did he mean by this statement?

(If you don’t have time for the full answer, go down to after the three asteriks below).

I believe one way to answer this question is to look at an odd arrangement of verses in the Torah portion this last week (Va’era).  God tells Moses and Aharon that they are to speak to the Jewish people and to Pharaoh and liberate the Jewish people from Egyptian bondage.  The dramatic story of the Exodus from Egypt then continues with the introduction of the ten plagues … but before it does, there is a strange digression in the text in which the family lineage of three of the tribes — Reuben, Simon and Levi — is explored in depth.  Why?  Why interrupt one of the most powerful stories of all time with such mundane information.  It seems totally out of place – both textually and spiritually.

Before we answer this question, let us note another oddity, and that is in the verse that immediately precedes this strange digression, the verse we have already mentioned above about “God commanding Moses and Aharon to speak to the Jewish people and to Pharaoh to liberate the Jewish people …”  Why must Moses and Aharon speak first to the Jewish people?  Moses has already told them that he is representing their interests in front of Pharaoh.  If the goal is the liberate the Jews — and every commentator agrees that this is indeed the essential mission — then why speak to the Jews at all.  Pharaoh is the one holding them captive.  Speak to him directly!  Insist that he let them go!  What does Moses have to say to the Jews themselves?

One possible answer – mentioned by many – is that Moses had to convince the Jewish people first and foremost that they deserved – and would receive – liberation.  If they doubted the possibility themselves, or worse, if they didn’t even want to leave, then there was no way Moses would be able to convince Pharaoh to let them go.  And indeed, that was a distinct possibility.  The Netzivdraws a comparison  between the Jewish people and a bird held in the hand of a King.  At any moment, the King could strangle the bird and kill it; so too with the Jewish people.  At any moment, Pharaoh could decide he’s had enough and slaughter all of his slaves.  Only God could rescue us (and God did, with an “outstretched arm”).

But another possibility could also exist.  Let’s  say the King opened his hand to let the bird go free … there’s no guarantee that the bird would would chooseto fly away.  Maybe it felt comfortable in the hands of the King; maybe it had no idea of where it should go and figured it might as well stay in the place it knows as opposed to travel to a place it doesn’t know; or maybe it was just too tired to fly away.  So too with the Jewish people.  Even if God smote Pharoah and forced him to ‘open his hands’ so the Jews could leave, the Jews still had to have the desire to take the first step and actually leave

It was to convince the Jews that they needed this desire — that they were indeed commanded to take the first step — that inspired God’s command to Moses and Aharon to firstspeak to the Jewish people about their liberation and only afterwards address Pharoah.  (This is the reason, says the Netziv, why the Torah describes God also liberating the Jewish people with “a strong hand.”  The “outstretched hand” above refers to the times when God save the Jewish people from Pharoah, while the “strong hand” refers to the times when God saves the Jewish people from themselves).

The Meshech Chochmah goes a step further.  He notes that not only were some of the slaves fearful of leaving Egypt, and thus in need of some persuasion from Moses and Aharon, but they were actually content with their lives in Egypt.  And not only that … Some of the Jews were actually slave-owners themselves!  This is a shocking statement, but after a moment or two of reflection, it seems entirely plausible.  After all, even during the dark days of the Holocaust, there were some Jews who preferred to take advantage of the misery of their fellow Jews and elevate themselves as a result of denigrating their brothers and sisters.  And it doesn’t just seem possible from a logical point of view; textually, too, it makes sense that some Jews might have been slaveholders. 

And here is where we get back to our initial question, the question of why the Torah digresses to include the family lineage of the tribes of Reuben, Simon and Levi.  The Meshech Chochmah notes that each of these three tribes did not have a complete inheritance in the land of Israel once the Jewish people are in fact liberated and brought to their homeland.  Levi, of course, is not allowed to own land at all; Reuben is relegated to the other side of the Jordan river; and Simon’s population is spread throughout the entire land.  The Meshech Chochmah then goes on to note that we are told that the tribe of Levi never was enslaved in Egypt.  Perhaps this fact is the reason why they are not allowed to inherit land in the future, he suggests.  Perhaps one can only acquire a reward if he first suffers for it.  If that is true, he continues, then perhaps Reuben and Simon also were prevented from a complete inheritance for the same reason.  And if all three of them were not enslaved during this time, does it not seem entirely feasible that some of their members took advantage of the situation — of their elevated and protected status — and actually enslaved some of their brothers and sisters?


From these two insights — first the one from the Netziv and then the Meshech Chochmah’s  — an incredibly powerful lesson becomes apparent.  Before God commanded Moses to speak to Pharoah, God insisted that he must first address the Jewish people, and not just address them, but give them reproof.  “Before I can go tell Pharoah to let you go,” Moses seemed to be saying, “You must first be completely worthy of being let go.  You must have the desire for liberation (Netziv); and you must not have any flaws or negative behaviors similar to the Egyptians (Meshech Chochmah).  We must get our own house in order before we can insist on the same from anyone else, no matter how evil and wrong the other may be.”

This idea is, of course, relevant for all of us today.  If we want something to happen, or someone to change their ways, then we must be sure we are pure in our actions first.  Or, to quote Gandhi, if we want change, we must be the change.

Therefore, if a parent wants their child to become a scholar and to be more dedicated to Jewish learning, then the first step is not to send them to a Jewish school or another extracurricular activity, but for the parent to enroll him or herself in a serious learning program.  The child will learn that the parent values education, and then want the same for him or herself.  [This insight is affirmed in the wonderfully entertaining book Freakonomics.   In it, the authors prove that one of the greatest indications of academic success is the presence of books in the house in which the child grows up — mind you, not children’s books, but adult books read by the adults in the house.  This fact, surprising though it sounds, provides a much greater indication of later academic success than what I would have thought would play that role: actually reading to one’s kids.  No, the studies argue, reading to one’s kids is not the best thing you can do (though of course it helps); rather, reading yourself is even a more powerful aid. 

Similarly, if one feels that not enough dedication is being devoted to a specific cause — let’s say the building up of the land of Israel — then the answer is not to critique those who you feel lack the dedication, but rather to redouble one’s own efforts at expressing one’s commitment to the cause.

And so too with our difficult relations with fellow Jews of different backgrounds and religious or political beliefs.  If you want peace amongst us, then finding the flaws in our fellow Jews is not the right path.  Rather, one must become a walking Ohev Israel – Love of Israel.  He must greet every person with a smile, a warm embrace and loving concern. 

If we want change to come, we must be the change.

Or as Michael Jackson once sang, “I’m starting with the man in the mirror.”

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A friend of mine recently purchase a Toyata Prius, one of the more popular new hybrid cars.  When I asked him how he liked it, he enthusiastically responded, noting of course that in addition to being a good car, it was a car that was also good for the world.   And indeed, environmentalists the world over have highlighted the importance of purchasing such a car as a means to hopefully improve the Earth’s situation vis-a-vis global warming.  My friend then added one more comment, one that I found particularly shocking: Apparently, in addition to being the car of choice for environmentally conscious individuals, the Prius is also the favored car of gang members — that’s right, gangs! — in the Los Angeles area.  Isn’t that nice, I thought; even criminals are beginning to have a conscious about global issues.   It reminded me of a joke I once heard by the comedian Paul Rodriguez: “The good thing about gang is, at least they carpool.”

My friend then corrected me and informed me that the gangs did not favor the Prius due to it’s environmental credentials, but rather because it was an incredibly quiet car.  In fact, the Prius is so quiet when switched to the electric mode (as opposed to when it used a traditional gas engine), it is nearly impossible to hear the car as it approaches … and that’s exactly the reason why the gangs love it.  When they are planning a drive by shooting, the element of surprise is key … and the Prius provides that much needed element.

After absorbing the absurdity of the situation for a few moments, it hit me that there is an important lesson here: The Prius is successful, in part, because it has the ability to ‘speak’ to many different populations — as exhibited by my friend’s appreciation fo the car — he an environmentally sensitive Orthodox Jerusalem Jew — as well as the love of the car by the Crips and Bloods of Los Angeles.  Obviously, any car — and product for that matter — that can speak to such a wide audience is going to succeed.

So, too, I believe is the case with words.  If one envisions his or her words being successfully accepted by a wide audience, the speaker must realize that they must have the ability to speak to different people at different places in their life.  I can’t simply assume that because I have a good product — an important message in this case — it will automatically be accepted by all.  I must work at making sure it can be accepted by all, that  it’s packaged in a way that speaks to different people’s specific concerns and interests.

Let me give you a Torah example of what I mean.  In this week’s Torah portion, Va’era, the great Torah commentator Rashi notes that the Torah often interchanges the person to whom God addresses as the ‘leader’ of the Jewish people.   Sometimes it says that God speaks to Aharon and asks him to convey a message, and sometimes it says that God speaks to Moses and asks him to convey a message.  From this, Rashi asserts that Moses and Aharon must be equal in leadership importance.

“But how can that be?” Rabbi Aron Soloveitchik asks.  Moses is known to be the true leader of that generation, one of the greatest leaders of all time.  The Sages state explicitly that there has never been a Prophet as great as Moses.  How can Rashi possibly say that Moses and Aharon his brother are on equal footing?

Rabbi Soloveitchik answers the question by pointing out an interesting Midrash:  When the Torah tells us that Aharon goes out to greet his brother Moses (after Moses has been away from Egypt for a while following his killing of an Egyptians), it says that Aharon kissed his brother at their reunion.  The Midrash says this kiss was like Kindness kissing Justice and Peace kissing Truth.   Aharon was known to possess the former qualities (of Hesed – kindness and Shalom – peace), while Moses was known for the latter (Tzedek – justice and Emet – truth).

 What Rashi was saying then when he said that Moses and Aharon were equal was not that they were actually both equally signficant leaders of the Jewish people — everyone would admit that Moses was the more essential leader — but rather that the qualities represented by the two brothers were equally important.

Sometimes, some people must be lead with kindness and peace; if they heard the absolute truth and were held to a standard of absolute justice they would collapse under the burden.  For (a silly) example, imagine you want your child to try something new that they’re afraid to do, but you think — perhaps even know — that they’ll love it once they try it and will actually be quite successful at it.  Such a child might need some prodding to encourage them to take a chance.  This is the time to build their self-confidence.  It is not the time to point out all their flaws, true though they may be.  Similarly, there are other times one must insist on justice and truth, for if one did not, the child could begin going down the wrong path and returning them would be even more painful than the initial difficulty of insisting on these attributes.

The Torah itself provides additional examples.  Notice when God commands one of the brothers to speak to the Pharoah.  Usually, the recipient of the command is Moses.  That’s because God wants truth spoken to power, and for that Moses is the right man.  Pharoah cannot be coddled; he’s a wicked person.  He must be told in no uncertain terms that what he’s doing is wrong and against humanity.  One cannot make peace with such a person, hoping that, as Winston Churchill once colorfully commented, “you can feed a hungry tiger a little piece of meat in the hope that he won’t eat you also.”  Appeasement in such a case won’t work.

However, when God wants a message delayed to the Jewish people, it is Aharon who is usually selected to be the messenger.  That’s because the Jewish people are downtrodden, beaten and in need of inspiration not insistence.  They need to have the self confidence restored and hope in the future reestablished.   They have to be told that they can do it (which of course they can, but only with great difficulty … and that truth can be left out at this point in time); they have to have their concerns addressed and peace made with their fears.

A good leader should possess the qualities of both Moses and Aharon, and even more importantly, know when to use his or her different qualities based on the needs of the different people he or she is trying to lead.  It’s not enough to have the right message; a leader must also learn what’s necessary for people to be able to hear the message.

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With apologies for the length of this post … 

In last week’s Torah portion, VaYechi, the patriarch Jacob — well over 100 years old — lies close to death surrounded by his loving family.   In a touching scene, just before he passes from this world to the next, Jacob gathers his children close to him — the future 12 tribes of Israel are all there — and offers each son specific words of praise, encouragement, blessing and prophecy, as well as a little reproof and constructive criticism where appropriate. 

One of the more significant blessings he offers is to his son Yehuda (Judah), to whom he promises “The scepter shall never depart from Yehuda, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet.”  About this blessing, the Sages teach that Yehudah is to be considered the leader of the twelve tribes after Jacob dies, and that the right of leadership — the right to be King in future generations — will always be possessed by the descendants of Yehuda.

The question is why?  Why is Yehuda selected to be the eternal source of Jewish royalty and leadership?  He’s not the first born (Reuven is), nor is he without sin (remember, he was involved in the sale of his brother Joseph into slavery), nor was he the favorite of his father (Joseph was).

This selection by Jacob is even more surprising when one considers the scene that immediately preceded it.  Prior to calling in all his children to receive a blessing, Jacob requests that Joseph join him separately for a few minutes.  During this private visit, Jacob blesses Joseph and honors him by declaring that Joseph’s two sons, Jacob’s grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe, will henceforth be elevated in status and be considered heads of future tribes in their own right, equal in importance to any of Jacob’s other children.  It appears, then, that Jacob still very much favors Joseph; after all, none of the other brothers, including Yehuda, receive a similar honor of having their children blessed independently or having their inheritance doubled as it were by having their children elevated to the higher status.

If Jacob loves and favors Joseph so much, why didn’t he choose him and his descendants to be the leaders of the newly formed Jewish people?  The question becomes even stronger when one recalls the fact that Joseph is already a leader!  He is the vice-roy of Egypt.  Moreover, he has excelled in leadership in every position he was ever placed, from running Potiphar’s house, to gaining prominence in the prison he was sentenced to unfairly, to Pharoah’s government and even now amongst his family upon their arrival in Egypt. 

Why is Yehuda selected as the leader and Joseph not?

Perhaps the answer can be found in a story told about one of Israel’s modern leaders, and one of my favorite Rabbis, Rabbi Shlomo Goren.  Rabbi Goren lived during the establishment of the modern State of Israel and was one of its most important religious figures during the early years.  Perhaps the reader will remember him best for the picture of him standing next to the Western Wall following Israel’s recapture of Jerusalem’s old city in the 1967 Six Day War; in this famous photo, Rabbi Goren is surrounded by fellow soldiers as blows a shofar and holds a Torah Scroll.  Less famous but perhaps more inspiring is how this picture came about.  Rabbi Goren was always known to run ahead of soldiers — ahead of the front line — and blow his shofar as he hurled himself towards the enemy.  As he did so fearlessly, his presence both frightened and disoriented the enemy soldiers he was charging — here they saw a ‘crazy’ man running at them without concern for his well being — as well as inspired the Israeli soldiers following him — “after all, if he is able to charge so fearlessly and yet he doesn’t even have a weapon, then certainly we should charge without fear even more so,” they must have thought.  Thanks to this trait, Rabbi Goren was amongst the first to arrive at the Temple Mount.

Years earlier, just as Israel was being established in 1948, and Rabbi Goren was but a regular — i.e., non-Rabbinic — soldier in the nascent Israeli Army, David Ben Gurion approached him and asked him to ‘hang up’ his rifle and become the first Chief Rabbi of the Army.  Ben Gurion’s motivation was simple; there were a number of religious soldiers in the army and they would feel more comfortable if a Rabbi was available to them to insure their service was completed according to Halacha.  Rabbi Goren at first demurred; he would have preferred remaining a regular soldier with his unit.  After Ben Gurion pressed, however, he ultimately accepted … but with one condition.  Rabbi Goren would indeed become the Chief Rabbi for the Army, but only if he was the Rabbi for all the soldiers and not just the religious ones.  This meant that he would not just worry about the religious and spiritual needs of those halachikally observant soldiers, but would provide services and supervision and inspiration for everyone.

Here’s one example of how he understood this condition: Every kitchen in the army had to be kosher, regardless of whether or not the soldiers eating in that kitchen cared.   Once, during one of his many field visits, Rabbi Goren confronted a young commander who had already become somewhat famous — Ariel Sharon — about the lack of kashrut in his paratroopers unit.  Sharon shot back, telling the Rabbi that “as soon as he had one religious soldier in his unit — he had no such soldiers at the time — he would be willing to make the kitchen kosher.  Until that time, though, he would do nothing more.”  On the spot, Rabbi Goren volunteered to join Sharon’s unit and undertook the rigorous training to become a paratrooper.  Of course, during one of his practice jumps he broke his leg.  But no matter, he still received his wings … and Sharon agree to make his unit’s kitchen kosher as a result.


How does all this help answer our question about Jacob’s preference for Yehuda’s leadership as opposed to that of Joseph’s?  

Rabbi Goren, it seems to me, was a wonderful leader.  And what made him such a good leader was two-fold.  First, he felt a tremendous responsibility for all of Am Yisrael, for every Jew and not just those of his ilk.  Second, he demonstrated this responsibility by drawing closer to the people he was supposed to lead, not — as some leaders often do — by elevating himself above them.  He did not insist that the kitchen become kosher because he outranked Ariel Sharon, which he did at the time, but rather joined Sharon’s unit and showed him that he was one of them.  His leadership emanated from his ability to be apart of those he lead.

This insight, I believe, helps explain the difference between Joseph and Yehuda.  Yes, Joseph was an excellent leader, and yes, he of course had tremendous concern for those under his charge.  However, he was not a part of the people he ruled.  Through no fault of his own, he was always above them, separate from them.  Though the leader of Egypt, he was still viewed as an outsider to Egyptians.  And though a leader of his brothers — he after all had enabled them to come to Egypt — he still lived separate from them.

Contrast that with Yehuda.  Throughout the Torah we are told that he is “with his brothers” — he remains with his brothers during the sale of Joseph, he returns to his brothers after the incident with Tamar, he travels with his brothers, and now, as they set up shop in Egypt, Yehuda and his brothers live together in the Land of Goshen.  Joseph, meanwhile, remains alone in a different part of the country.  Yehuda, it seems the Torah is telling us, is from the people he aspires to lead.  He thus understands them better and represents their needs better.

Consider, for example, the word he uses to express his sense of responsibility for the family.  When he needs to convince his father Jacob that he should allow Benjamin to go with Yehuda back to Egypt (because Joseph, then unrecognizable to the brothers, had insisted the brothers not return to Egypt to receive more food unless Benjamin was with them), Yehuda says that he will serve as an arev for Benjamin’s safe return.  Arev is usually translated as guarantor — someone who takes responsibility for another — but as Rabbi Shmuel Goldin points out there are additional ways to understand this word.  Consider, for example, some of the other common Hebrew words that utilize the same root.  There is erev, which refers to evening, the time period between day and night, the time period that connects day and night.  A Ta’arovet is a mixture of food.  An eruv is an halachik creation that enables a Jew to carry on Shabbat within a designated area.  Most of us familiar with this term assume that the eruv itself refers to the strings or walls placed around a city that changes the status of the city from a public area (where carrying is not allowed on Shabbat) to a private area (where it is allowed, like in someone’s own house which is also surrounded by walls).  The truth is, though, the word eruv specifically refers to a meal placed somewhere within the city that is available to anyone residing therein.  It is this meal — since it is available to whoever in the city would want to eat it — that transforms the large area from a public space to a private space; it is this meal — the eruv — that connects all the various residents into one cohesive unit.

One can begin to see a pattern emerging.  Yes, to be an arev means to accept responsibility for others, but it also means to express this responsibility not from above — like Joseph — but from within.  This was Yehuda.  He had the ability to lead, but not in a way that separated himself from others but rather in a way that brought him closer to them (and they closer to one another). 

When one is type of leader, his effectiveness as a leader becomes that much greater.  People trust him more, are willing to follow him more and are prepared to sacrifice more, aware of course that the leader would not ask anything of them he (or she) himself was not willing to do first.

Here’s one more story about Rabbi Goren that demonstrates this last point:  On May 14, 1948 the Jordanians were set to invade Jerusalem.  There was not enough manpower to dig the ditches necessary to repel — or at least slow down — the invasion that would no doubt be led by tanks.  The commander of the Jerusalem forces asked Rabbi Goren to ask the many Yeshiva students in Jerusalem for help; perhaps they could fulfill the necessary role of digging the ditches in the absence of availability of any soldiers.  At first, Rabbi Goren hesitated since digging the ditches would necessitate violation of the Shabbat.   And even if he felt such a violation was necessary in this case, the Yeshiva students and their Rabbis surely would not agree.  Nevertheless, realizing that the students were essential for the defense of the city, and realizing that no other person could make the request, he set out to visit Yeshiva after Yeshiva, mobilizing students for the work.  “Rabbi Goren, by his great conviction, was able to convince yeshiva students taht the pikuach nefesh (need to save lives) involved in saving the city required doing this work on Shabbat, making it not a sin at all but indeed a requirement.  The students were persuaded by Rabbi Goren, and worked all night digging trenches in the northern part of the city.  On the morning of the next day, the Jordanian tanks approached the city and first tank that entered fell into one of the anti-tank trenches.  When a second started to go in, the rest of the tanks turned around and went back.  The city was saved from the Jordanian forces in great part due to the initiative of Rabbi Goren” (Shalom Freedman’s Rabbi Shlomo Goren, page 38).  

The students would not have listened to the Jerusalem commander.  They did however listen to Rabbi Goren because he was one of them — at least in the sense he could speak their language and address their religious concerns.  And while many other Rabbis could have perhaps made the same request, most did not, partly because they did not come from the Army or the perspective of State building.  Rabbi Goren, of course, did come from such a perspective and thus understood what was at stake. 

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When I first moved to Israel I befriended an individual who used to call me Tzadik(Righteous One).  I must admit I found the practice somewhat gratifying.  There I would be walking the streets and my friend would call out to me from across the way: “Tzadik! How are you? Tzadik! Let’s get together soon. Tzadik …”  What an uplifting feeling.  Here for the whole world to hear was a person calling me the Righteous One.  I certainly felt special.

 … And then one day I saw my friend get in an argument with someone who had just hit his car.  And to my surprise I heard him — in the heat of the moment and certainly not as a term of endearment — use myname to address the other person: “Tzadik, why did you do that?”  Then a few days later I heard him use the name again to speak to a couple of people he never met before. “How did he come to call them Tzadik?” I thought; he just met them and cannot possibly know what type of people they are.  Then it all became clear a few days after that.  I was eating at his house and his son decided to spill some soup all over the table.  I say ‘decided’ because it was clearly not an accident.  He lifted his bowl for all to see, and then with great gusto flipped it upside down.  “Tzadik,” my friend called out, “Why did you do that?”

And thus I began to understand the appellation “Tzadik” did not necessarily imply the what it suggested.

I thought of this story the other day when I began to read the weekly Torah portion (VaYeshev).  One of the main themes of this portion is the life of Joseph — how he is sold into slavery but then redeemed by Potiphar, a powerful Egyptian … only to have Potiphar’s wife attempt to seduce him … and when he rejects her advances he is framed for a crime he did not commit and imprisoned in a dungeon … where he meets servants of the Pharoah and interprets their dreams … a skill which ultimately leeds him out of prison and into a position of viceroy for all of Egypt, second to only Pharoah.  The Haftarah for this portion, as well as our Sages in the Talmud, call Joseph a Tzadik.

Why?  I don’t think they’re playing the same game with Joseph as my friend did with me, and yet … Joseph does not appear to be such a Tzadik from the text of the Torah.  He is young and brash, a little bit vain and seems, at least in the beginning, insensitive to the needs of others.  This is not to say he doesn’t do amazing and tzadik-like things; he does.  But, by and large, his entire life does not seem to be one characterized by what we would normally consider to be the life of a Tzadik.  Certainly when one compares his life to some of the other main players depicted in the Torah.  Abraham, for example, is never called a Tzadik, though certainly his life is no less impressive (and many would argue significantly more so) than Joseph’s life.  Rather, he is simply called a father.  Moses, too, is not called a Tzadik, but rather is given the much more modest appellation Teacher.

So why is Joseph called a Tzadik?  Rabbi Shmuel Goldin suggests one possible answer might be connected to a larger historical phenomanon.  Up until this point in time God speaks directly to all the main players.  God and Abraham, for example, have a number of conversations; so too with regards to Jacob.  But in this next generation — with regards to the children of Jacob, of which Joseph is a member — God becomes shockingly silent.  God no longer speaks directly to the main actors and no longer guides them in an obvious way along the path God has chosen.

And how does Joseph react to this silence?  In a sentence: Joseph sees God everywhere!  When Potiphar’s wife attempts to seduce him, he refuses on the grounds that it would be a sin against God.  When he succeeds in the dungeon and is able to interpret the dreams of the servants of Pharoah he gives God the exclusive credit.  So, too, a little while later when Pharoah himself requests Joseph’s help.  And then even years later when his brothers — who sold him into slavery — descend to Egypt and meet up again with him, Joseph bears no grudges and simply says that everything was a blessing from God. 

This is what makes Joseph a Tzadik.  In a world in which God is silent, in a world in which God appears absent, Joseph sees God everywhere.

This idea is an incredibly powerful idea.  It suggests that a world filled without doubt is not such a bad place after all.  To the contrary, it is only in such a world that an individual has the opportunity to express a certain type of faith – a faith lacking certitude – and it is this type of faith that in turn enables a person to become a Tzadik.   When beauty, inspiration and kindness are everywhere obvious, seeing these qualities is not particularly special.  But when they are hidden, the person who finds them — and better, creates them — nevertheless is to be praised. 

This insight helps explain an interesting Talmudic dictum that appears elsewhere: “The Sages are more important than the Prophets.”  At first glance, this statement doesn’t make much sense.  The Prophets — people like Jeremiah, Isaiah and Amos — are the inspiration of our people.  We read their words every week in Synagogue along the Torah reading.  They spoke directly with God!  How can we say that the Sages, as important as they are, supercede the significance of the Prophets.

 Rav Kook offers one possible explanation.  He says that the Prophets provide inspiration but don’t always know how to bring the inspiration to fulfillment.  They saw with great clarity the problems of society — the idol worshipping, the abandonment of the poor, the arrogance of leadership — but didn’t not necessarily know how to solve these problems.  They also saw the great promise of society, but again, did not always have the tools to ensure the success of their vision.   In contrast, the Sages did.  Their emphasis on law and practice enabled the people to integrate the vision of the Prophets into their daily lives.  It enabled the people to progress incrementally yet consistently towards the fulfillment of the vision.  In many respects, this situation reminds me of JFK’s announcement that the US was going to go to the moon within 10 years.  He possessed a clear vision of what he wanted, and this vision inspired people.  Of course, JFK personally had no clue of how to actually achieve this vision.  That would require the talents of scientists, astronauts, financiers, astronomers, etc. .  In a similar way, the Prophets provided the vision and the Sages ensured its successful implementation.  And thus, says Rav Kook, the Sages are more important than the Prophets.

 Based on what we said above about Joseph, we can offer a different interpretation of this Talmudic dictum as well.  “Everything that happened to our forefathers also happenned to the nation of Israel,” thus teaches the Ramban.  This means that a parallel exists to the situation in which God spoke to Abraham yet required Joseph to find God without the benefit of direct contact.  And that parallel is as follows:  When the nation was formed God once again spoke directly to the players involved, from Moses the Leader to Aaron his brother and to all the people that accepted the Torah at Mount Sinai.  Afterwards, when the Jews entered Israel, God continued to speak to the leaders of the people — and these included the Prophets.  Eventually, though, this direct contact ended and the nation had to demonstrate faith and fidelity to God without the aid of direct contact.  This was the period of the Sages.  They, like Joseph before them, did not shirk their responsibility; Judaism did not suffer from the silence.  To the contrary, Judaism flourished under their guidance.  Their love for God was no less than those before them but rather filled with intense passion and expansive wisdom.  From doubt sprang forth action, commitment and growth.

Today, I feel perhaps we are in a third go round of this phenomonon.  When the state of Israel was founded, people saw God in a whole host of ways.  Rav Soloveitchik writes (I’ll speak more about this in a future blog) that he saw God in the UN when it enabled the birth of the State.  Others saw God in the fact that a small citizen army was able to defeat the invading masses of trained soldiers from the surrounding enemy states.  Still others saw God in the miracle of the 6 Day War and the reunification of Jerusalem.  Today, however, it is more difficult to see God’s hand directly involved in Israel’s day-to-day affairs.  As Joseph and our Sages before have taught us, though, we should not fear, nor should we retreat.  Rather, we must search out and find God in our daily lives and the daily operations of our State, and if need be, create the opportunities for others to see God through our actions as representatives of God. 

If we do so, we will once again proven that a time of doubt is not something to fear but rather relish.  It is a time when we truly get to prove who we are, what we believe and what we can achieve.

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