Vayeishev – What’s Wrong?

When we read the account of Yosef’s unfair imprisonment – and his eventual release after the Egyptian ruler is informed by the sar hamashkim, the butler, of Yosef’s G-d-given ability to interpret dreams – there’s something that’s easily overlooked: the particular action that set Yosef’s liberation into motion.

Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky, zt”l, points out that the genesis of Yosef’s release from prison and ascension to the position of viceroy in Mitzrayim lies in his having noticed that his fellow prisoners, the king’s baker and butler, were crestfallen one morning.

He didn’t ignore that fact. “Why do you appear downcast  today?” he asked them (Beraishis 40:7). And they proceeded to tell him of their dreams, which he then interpreted.

“Come and see,” Rav Kaminetsky advises, “the greatness of Yosef,” who, after being wrongly imprisoned by other Egyptian officials, nevertheless, when he saw these officials in a state of depression or angst, was so concerned that he immediately asked them what was wrong.

That’s a lesson for life. When we see someone out of sorts, we are often inclined to ignore the person or even steer ourselves in another direction. But it is that inclination to avoid the sad person that should be ignored. We may not have the solution to the depressed person’s problem like Yosef had for his fellow inmates’ dilemma. But asking  “What’s wrong?” or “Can I help?” are the proper responses.  If only because they are expressions of concern. 

Which  may help lift the spirits of the inquiree. 

And even, perhaps, benefit the inquirer.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vayishlach – Much Vs. All

One might not expect the key to happiness to be hidden in the meeting of Yaakov and Esav recounted in the parsha. But it’s there. 

When Yaakov explains the lavish gifts he had sent ahead to his twin, the latter demurs, at least perfunctorily, and says, “I have much [already].”  Yaakov insists that Esav receive his gifts since “I have all [I need]” (Beraishis 33:9, 33:11).

Those focused on material wealth as providing happiness, explains the Kli Yakar on those sentences, can only ever claim to have “much,” not “all.” For, satisfaction will always be elusive. As Chazal say, “One who has one hundred wants 200)” (Koheles Rabbah 1:34).

In 1971, social scientists Philip Brickman and Donald T. Campbell coined the term “hedonic treadmill” to refer to the fact that, as a person makes more money or collects more possessions, expectations and desires rise in tandem, resulting in no permanent gain in happiness.

Happiness is born, rather, of an attitude, that of “I have all.” Whatever one has. “Who is wealthy?” Ben Zoma asks in Avos (4:1), and answers: “He who rejoices in what he has.” 

The mussar giant R’ Elya Lopian offered an enlightening parable based on the pasuk “Those who seek Hashem lack no good thing”  (Tehillim 34:11):

A man tells a visitor to his home how fortunate he is to be wealthy, and presents a cornucopia of expensive medications he has been able to amass to treat his many ailments.  The guest smiles inside at his own fortune – to have no need for any of the medications in the first place.

One can step onto the hedonic treadmill and spend one’s life fulfilling – or trying to fulfill – one’s material desires. But, just as it’s better to be healthy than to be sick even with a full medicine cabinet, so is it better to be happy with one’s lot rather than spending life in a never-ending spiral of striving. 

Those who seek to serve Hashem lack nothing. Their perspective on life and why they were created provides them the understanding that, whatever they have, they have everything. 

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vayeitzei – Stairway to Peoplehood

Sometimes an idea can only be possible after a certain point in history. One example might have to do with the imagery of Yaakov’s dream at the start of the parsha.

The message delivered to our forefather during that prophecy was “To you shall I give [Cna’an], and to your children.”  And: “All the families of the earth will be blessed through you, and through your children.” Yaakov, in his dream, is being reassured that, unlike Avraham and Yitzchak, all of his children will comprise the Jewish nation.

Even the stone on which he rested his head that night and later made into a monument to the revelation he received carries that message. According to the Midrash, it had originally been many stones, which fused into one, a metaphor for the family unity he would achieve. Rashi even comments elsewhere (Beraishis, 49:24) that the word for “stone” (even) itself is a contraction of the words av and ben, “father” and “son.”

But then there is the sulam, usually translated “ladder,” which plays the central role in Yaakov’s dream imagery.

The word occurs only this one time in the Torah, and its etymology is unclear.  But an Arabic cognate of the word refers to steps ascending a mountain.  The easiest way to ascend a mountain is a spiral path. That fact, and the possibly related Aramaic word “mesalsel” – to twist into curls – might lead one to imagine Yaakov’s ladder as something akin to a spiral staircase.

Which speculation leads to a fascinating thought that couldn’t have been thought until the 1960s.

Considering that the assurance given Yaakov in his dream was essentially a “genetic” one – that all his progeny would be part of Klal Yisrael — might the sulam have been not a simple ladder but rather something reminiscent of, and symbolizing, the essential structure of the molecule that carries genetic information – a double helix? 

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Toldos – Knowing That One Doesn’t Know

As the tale goes, a learned non-Jewish cleric challenges the town’s Jewish populace to have its greatest scholar meet him on a bridge over a raging river, each a heavy weight tied to his foot. The first to be stumped by a question about the Torah will be cast by the other into the waters.  

The only volunteer is Shmiel, a decidedly unlearned tailor. He insists he can better the priest and, well, he’s the only candidate.

At the appointed time, Shmiel and his opponent take their positions on the bridge, ball and chain attached to each man’s foot, a crowd on the river bank.

The non-Jewish cleric benevolently offers Shmiel the first shot. “What does ‘aini yode’a’ mean?” Shmiel booms out.

The cleric, not pausing a second, accurately answers: “I do not know!”  The crowd gasps and Shmiel, beaming triumphantly, pushes his momentarily confused opponent off the bridge into the raging waters. 

Back at the shtetl town hall, Shmiel is roundly congratulated for his ploy.  “How did you come up with so brilliant an idea?” he is asked.  Radiating modesty, Shmiel explains, “Well, I was reading the ‘teitch’ (the once-popular Yiddish translation of Rashi’s commentary on the Torah) and I saw the words ‘aini yode’ah’ in Rashi’s commentary. I didn’t know what the phrase meant, and so I looked at the teitch and saw, in Yiddish, the words ‘I don’t know’.”   

“So I figured,” Shmiel explained sagely, “if the holy teitch didn’t know what the words meant, there was no way some priest would!”

The story is good for more than a laugh. It raises the significant fact that Rashi, the “father of all commentaries,” occasionally, including in our parsha, writes that he “doesn’t know” the reason for something – in our case, about why the Torah has to reinform us that Rivka was the mother of Yaakov and Esav (Beraishis 28:5).

“I don’t know” is a phrase as important as it is rare these days, when self-assuredness seems all too often to stand in for self-respect, when opinions are routinely proffered as unassailable fact, when people are permitted – even expected – to state without doubt what they cannot possibly know to be true.

Rashi’s modest example is one we would be wise to more often emulate. As the Gemara puts it: “Teach your tongue to say ‘I do not know’” (Berachos, 4a).

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Chayei Sara – Death and Marriage

That a man’s gifting of something of worth to a woman can effect a marriage if both parties agree is derived through exegesis from, of all places, Avraham’s purchase of a burial site for his wife Sarah (Kiddushin, 2a).

A strange derivation, to be sure. But since techias hameisim, revival of the dead, is a tenet of Jewish belief, burial, through Jewish eyes, should be seen not as the disposal of a body but rather a safekeeping or, better, a “planting,” for eventual “regrowth.”

(For millennia, the idea of rejuvenating a physical body seemed a notion beyond credulity… until the discovery of DNA and, more recently, the successful cloning of higher organisms.)

Thus, the burial/marriage comparison is somewhat more comprehensible than it might have been at first thought. For marriage is the means of “seeding” the next generation. (The term kever, “grave” used as a euphemism for rechem, “womb,” as in Niddah 21a, further supports that idea.)

The earliest burials at the Me’aras Hamachpeila were of Adam and Chava, the latter of whom was given her name, which means “the source of all life,” ironically, only after she and her husband had made death part of nature. Immortality of  a sort, even before techyas hameisim, can be achieved through the creation of future generations.

And so, it is meaningful that the parsha describing the burial of Sara is called by its opening words, Chayei Sarah – the Life of Sarah. 

For just as children are keys to generational immortality, so is burial a prelude to life. 

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran