Category Archives: PARSHA

Parshas Vayechi – The Real Man in the Moon

In a good example of Talmudic humor, Rav Nachman reacted to Rav Yitzḥak’s recounting of what Rabi Yochanan said, that “Our patriarch Yaakov did not die,” with a wry question: “So was it for naught that the eulogizers eulogized him and the embalmers embalmed him and the buriers buried him?” (Taanis, 5b).

The way to understand the contention that Yaakov didn’t die, I think (and it’s borne out of the verses quoted in that Gemara), is that he lives on — as the patriarch whose children, all of them, became the progenitors of Klal Yisrael — through the eternal Jewish people.

The Midrash in Vayeishev, commenting on Yosef’s dream about the sun, moon and stars bowing to him, has Yaakov wondering, “Who revealed to him that my [secret] name is ‘sun’?”

It’s interesting to reflect (pun intended) on the fact that the moon — the symbol, in its waxing and waning, and in its role in the Jewish calendar, of Klal Yisrael — reflects the light of the sun.  We reflect Yaakov, are the continuation of his life.

Even more interesting, according to the Tikkunei Zohar, “the image of Yaakov is carved out [i.e. visible] in the moon.”

© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Vayigash – Being Pushed, Being Loved

One of the hardest of life’s lessons to learn, a truth born of challenges we all first encounter in childhood but that persist well beyond, is realizing that being shouldered with responsibility needn’t bespeak lording but love.

Rashi comments on Hashem’s repetition of Yaakov Avinu’s name, calling him “Yaakov, Yaakov” (Beraishis, 46:2), as a lashon chibah, a locution of endearment.

The full Midrash from which Rashi quotes, though, adds “lashon ziruz” — a locution of motivation, of pushing to action. 

In last week’s parshah, the Midrash has Yaakov hinting to Hashem a desire for an end to the relentless challenges that confronted him throughout his life, regarding Lavan, Esav, Rochel, Dina, Yosef, Shimon and Binyamin (43:14).

But in this week’s parshah, Hashem hints back that what might seem to be burdens are in truth opportunities. Yaakov’s life was unimaginably hard, but by living it he became Yaakov Avinu.

With the term “Yaakov, Yaakov,” Hashem signals that being given the responsibility to shoulder challenges — ziruz — can be inseparable from, indeed an expression of, chibah — love.

And that is true not only when the “pushing” is coming from Above, but also when it’s coming from a parent, spouse or friend.

Parshas Miketz — Lying Eyes

A botanist named Joseph Banks who was aboard Captain James Cook’s 1770 voyage recorded in his diary that while the 106-foot-long Endeavour sailed along the east coast of Australia, native fishermen totally ignored the large boat, the likes of which they surely had never before seen. 

Rashi (Beraishis 42:8) quotes the Gemara that explains the reason Yosef’s brothers didn’t recognize him when they appeared before him in his role as second in command of Egypt: They had last seen him beardless and now he was a grown man with a full beard. 

But Yosef, the Midrash says, looked just like his father Yaakov, whom the brothers knew as a grown man, if one considerably older than the Yosef facing them.

Perhaps there was another element at play here, too, the sort of cognitive dissonance that might explain the Australian aborigines’ lack of reaction to the sudden appearance of the large ship. It has been speculated that they had no model in their imaginations for a vessel like the Endeavour and so their minds blocked out what was before their eyes, rendering it invisible.

The very last place Yosef’s brothers could have imagined him being was on a throne in a powerful country. They had left him in the hands of slave-traders and “knew” that he was, if he was even alive, toiling as a lowly servant.  Might that “knowledge” have been at least part of why his face didn’t register with them, why they couldn’t see him even as he was right before their eyes?

Even in our times, we see the incredible power of preconceptions, how blinding they can be.  Even when faced with overwhelming evidence for the truth of something, it can still remain for millions of people an unthinkable thought, and render what is right in front of them effectively invisible.

© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran

However, Reality

The Hebrew word for “mourning” is introduced in Vayeishev to describe Yaakov’s response to the apparent death of his son Yosef: “Vayis’abel (Beraishis 37:34).

The word “eivel” — “mourning” — is composed of the same letters, in the same order, as the word “aval” — “however.”

“However” bespeaks an interruption of a thought.  And mourning — the facing of mortality forced by the death of someone close — is an interruption of life, of living, as we all do, without constantly thinking about death.

It’s interesting to note that the parsha includes not only the interruption of Yaakov’s life by Yosef’s disappearance – his aveilus – but a striking interruption of the narrative flow of the parsha itself, in the form of  the account of Yehudah and Tamar. 

And that narrative also presents yet another interruption, this one, of Yehudah’s life. He is suddenly, unexpectedly, forced to confront the reality of his role in Tamar’s pregnancy.  Yes, Tamar tells him when he seeks to punish her, you seem innocent and I seem guilty.  However, she continues, please recognize these personal items… (38:25). That, for Yehudah, is an aval moment too.

© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Thinking Out of the Box

Yaakov famously sequestered Dinah his daughter in a box as he prepared to meet Esav his brother.

That, according to the Midrash Rabbah brought by Rashi (Beraishis 32:23). His reason for hiding Dinah, the Midrash notes, was because he feared that Esav would, upon seeing her, wish to marry her. And he didn’t want to take that chance.

But there’s a phrase in the Midrash, though, that is easily overlooked. Not only did he put his daughter in a box, he “locked her in.”

What that seems to indicate is that Yaakov knew that, as Chazal explain at the very beginning of the saga of Dinah’s abduction and rape by Shechem, she was a yatzanis, an “outgoing personality.” She was a naturally curious person. And so, prudently, her father locked her in, since he feared she might emerge during his meeting with Esav to witness the goings-on.

And, according to the Midrash, Yaakov is faulted for that, since, had Dinah in fact been seen by Esav and ended up marrying him, she might have been able to turn his life around and alter the enmity he held in his heart for Yaakov.

But wasn’t Yaakov right to do what he did?  

Apparently not. The question is why.

What occurs is that children have natural proclivities and tendencies.  There are times, to be sure, indeed many times, when a child has to receive “no” as an answer.

But squelching a child’s nature is not a good idea. It can easily backfire.  Ideal child rearing is channeling the child’s nature, not seeking to squelch it. (See Malbim on Chanoch lina’ar al pi darko (Mishlei 22:6).

My wife and I know a couple whose little boy seemed obsessed with airplanes, beyond the normal interest in such things of all little boys. The parents didn’t try to dissuade him from his desire, as he grew, to fly or work with planes, to force him, so to speak, into a box. They allowed him to express it, and the little boy is grown today, a yeshiva (and flight school) graduate who is a certified air traffic controller, and he’s raising a beautiful, Torah-centered family with his wife, our daughter.

© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Undeserving (parshas Vayeitzei)

Some people’s default attitude in life is “I really deserve more than I have”; others are prone to feeling that “I really don’t deserve what I have.”

Most people fall somewhere on the spectrum between those two extremes, and most people also may experience one of the attitudes at some points, the other at others.

Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, the Kotzker Rebbe, pointed out that, even though Jews are descended from 12 tribes, the sons of Yaakov, we are called Jews (Yehudim, in Hebrew), after only one of those progenitors, Yehudah, or Judah.

That, he contended, is because Jews are meant to embody the sentiment that yielded Yehudah his name — his mother Leah’s declaration at his birth that she was the beneficiary of what she “didn’t deserve.”

Since Yaakov had children from four women and Leah knew her husband was destined to father 12 sons, she expected to bear only three.  Yehudah was her fourth.  And she acknowledged (“odeh,” the root of “Yehudah”) the fact that she had “received more than my share” (Beraishis 29:35; see Rashi).

Traditionally, the first words to leave a Jew’s mouth each morning upon awakening are “Modeh Ani” (or, for a woman, “Modah Ani”) — “I acknowledge.” The acknowledgment is for having woken up, for life itself.  A Jew is meant to take nothing for granted, to take everything he has as a divine gift.

Mind Hunter (parshas Toldos)

Yaakov’s middah is emes, truth, and so Rashi parses Yaakov’s misleading words to Yitzchak to make them true at least on some level.  For instance, allowing his father to believe it is Esav to whom he is speaking, Yaakov says “I am Esav your firstborn.” Rashi interjects a presumed pause in the sentence, rendering it “I am [the one bringing you food]; Esav is your firstborn” (Braishis, 27:19).

Yet one misleading phrase still stands out: “Come eat of my hunted [food]” (ibid), says Yaakov, offering his father the goat meat he could mistake for game.  But it was neither Yaakov’s food – his mother Rivka had prepared it – nor had it been “hunted.”

What occurs is that “hunting” is a word we’ve seen earlier, as the Torah’s description of Nimrod, “a powerful hunter” (ibid 10:9).  And there, Rashi explains that what Nimrod “hunted” and captured were people’s minds.  He used words and subterfuge to amass followers.

Perhaps here, too, Yaakov was subtly, slyly “confessing” to his father that he was engaged in a subterfuge, presenting himself as someone he wasn’t, offering his “hunting” to Yitzchak, his ability to navigate a tricky world.  Thereby demonstrating that he, Yaakov, too, was capable of dealing with that challenging world no less than his brother, something that, as the Malbim and others explain, Yitzchak had assumed was not true.

“If Only…”

It’s human nature, when faced with something tragic, or even just disturbing, to say to oneself, “If only…”  

“If only I had done this… or we had done that… or not done this… or not done that, we could have avoided this outcome.”

But human nature can be misleading. A thought I once heard from someone who couldn’t remember its source suggests that the repetition of the phrase, “the years of Sarah’s life,” in the first pasuk of the parsha, even though the pasuk opened with “And the lifetime of Sarah was 127 years,” teaches us to resist our proclivity to imagine that things could have been different had we only acted differently.

To be sure, there are rightful regrets that we may have. Someone grown obese and unhealthy after overeating junk food for years has good reason to say, “if only.”

But more often than not, post-facto calculi are wrongheaded.  We might think that had Sarah not been told (as per a famous Midrash) about her son having been bound on an altar, she wouldn’t have died at the moment she did, having been spared the shock.

But Sarah’s death was divinely ordained for that moment. “The years of Sarah’s life” were the years granted her. The proximate cause of her death wasn’t its ultimate cause. Its ultimate cause was Hashem’s will.

Someone who comes down with Covid-19 might kick himself for having worn only a simple mask, not an expensive, surgical-quality one.  Or for having spaced himself only 6 feet from others, instead of 10.  We are required to do what is normative practice to prevent sickness — but only that.  And if one had done that and still became sick, he is wrong to agonize over not having done more. He needs to recognize Hashem’s will and now do what is normative practice to, with Hashem’s help, recover.

When Innocence Really Isn’t

Remarkably, in response to Avimelech’s protest over being punished for taking Sarah, Hashem confirms the king’s insistence that he had acted innocently, believing that Avraham and Sarah, as they had claimed, were brother and sister.

“I, too, knew,” Hashem tells Avimelech in a dream, “that it was in the innocence of your heart that you did this” (Beraishis, 20:6).

So why didn’t Hashem merely prevent Avimelech from touching Sarah?  Why were the king and his family and entourage punished?

Perhaps the answer lies in what Avraham told Avimelech in explanation for having misled him: “Because I said ‘There is no fear of G-d in this place’ ” (ibid, 11).

A leader has the ability, and responsibility, to influence the mores of his society. If the society evidences lack of “fear of G-d,” its leadership is implicated.

No, Thank You

When, as they approach Egypt, Avram asks Sarai to pretend she is his sister, he explains “so that it will be good for me and I will remain alive because of you.” (Beraishis, 12:13)

Rashi’s comment on the words “it will be good for me” – “so that they [the Egyptians] will give me gifts” – puzzled me, as they surely have many, for years.  Avram, who later in the parshah (14:23) spurned even a shoelace from the king of Sdom, is concerned with gifts?

An intriguing possible understanding of Rashi’s words occurred to me. Shlomo HaMelech, in Mishlei (15:27) teaches us that “the one who hates gifts will live.”

It may be that the greatest expression of that attitude isn’t only “in theory,” in hating the idea of gifts, but in actual practice – namely, that it’s the attitude toward an actual proffered gift that helps ensure life. 

And so, perhaps Avram wanted gifts to be offered to him, so that he could “hate” the fact that he received them… with the result being that, as he continues, “I will remain alive…” – echoing Shlomo HaMelech’s words.

Postscript: Interestingly, the concept of shunning gifts as bolstering life is reflected in a snippet from a 1960s folk song:

“Some people never get, some never give;

“Some people never die and some never live.”

Yesh chachmah bagoyim.