In This Issue:
Rabbi Joel Grossman
Rabbi Chaim Jachter
This week's Parsha begins with the statement "Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt" (Bereishit 47:28). Rashi notes that the Parashah does not begin with a paragraph break in the Torah and explains that this suggests that as soon as Yaakov died, the "eyes and hearts of the Jewish people were closed" because of the suffering of the servitude which began after his death.
Rav Moshe Feinstein in his Darash Moshe poses two questions. Firstly, Yaakov was still alive at the beginning of the Parashah, so why is the allusion to the servitude placed here? Secondly, even after Yaakov died the servitude didn't begin until Yosef and his brothers died, as is indicated by the first few Pesukim of Parshat Shemot. If the servitude didn't start until much later, why does the Torah, at the beginning of Parshat VaYechi, connect it to the death of Yaakov?
Rav Moshe answers that Hashem started to find fault with the Jews for failing to appreciate that they were in exile. Even thought they lived in luxury, for Paroh treated them kindly, they should have realized that Hashem had not brought them to Egypt solely to enjoy it. During Yaakov's lifetime, they missed the fundamental lesson that being under the jurisdiction of another nation is itself a great exile, even when that nation treats them with kindness. The Jews first recognized this important fact only after their father died, when they discovered that without Paroh's permission they couldn't bury Yaakov with his fathers. They then realized that they were in exile and suddenly became aware of its implications. Yaakov, however, had begun to feel the exile from the moment he left his home in Canaan to set out for Egypt. For this reason, he didn't want to go to Egypt at all, in spite of the famine, until Hashem promised him "I shall go down with you to Egypt and I shall also surely bring you up" (Bereishit 46:4). The allusion to the exile at the hour of Yaakov's death indicates that this was the factor that showed Bnei Yisrael that they had in fact been in exile the entire time they were in Egypt.
Rav Nissan Alpert, the great student of Rav Moshe Feinstein, offered his own reason why this Parashah is not set off by a paragraph break. He said that life can be unpredictable and mysterious, a "closed book," its final chapter hidden from those in its midst. When people are in distress, they don't know where their salvation will come from. Did Yaakov ever dream that these years in Egypt would be his best? Did he ever imagine that he would see the face of his son Yosef again? That Yosef would have remained righteous?
There were many such surprises. At the end of the day, there is a very good reason why the Hebrew word for world is Olam (עלם), which has its roots in the word Ha'Leim (העלם), hidden.
Rav David Feinstein quotes the Gemara (Yoma 71a), which cites the Pasuk, "For they add to you length of days and years of life and peace" (Mishlei 3:2). The Gemara explains "years of life" to be a reference to the years of a person's life that are changed from bad to good. A person who lives through hardships and suffering appreciates the pleasant years that may follow much more than a person who has known only peace. Yaakov appreciated his years of peace and quiet all the more so after his years of suffering.
The Torah teaches us this important lesson without ever writing a word about the message of appreciating life and learning from all of our experiences, even the bad ones. As we conclude Sefer Bereishit and scream out the words Chazak Chazak VeNitChazeik, may we strengthen ourselves and our commitment to Hashem with the knowledge that everything He does for us in our best interest.
In Parashat Vayechi Yaakov Avinu confers brachot to all of his children and Yosef’s two sons. When Yosef brings his children before his father, Yaakov asks, “Mi eileh” “Who are these? (BeReishit 48:8).” Why doesn’t the Torah clarify that Yaakov knew that Yosef’s sons were Yaakov’s grandchildren? After his question, Yaakov proceeds to give the famous bracha, “HaMalach HaGoel Oti…” “The angel that protected me... (48:16).” At first, this bracha seems to be intended for Ephraim and Menashe, but it is apparent, based on the wording of the pasuk, that the bracha is intended for Yosef. If Yosef already received a bracha from Yaakov, then why does Yaakov give another bracha later to Yosef? Also, in past perakim, the other brachot were specific to the recipient. What makes Yosef so different to receive such a generic bracha, “haMalach haGoel...”?
The answers lie in Rashi’s interpretation of the word “haMalach.” Rashi explains that Yaakov referred to Yosef’s protecting angel, the angel of Galut, on the way to Lavan’s house. Yaakov realized that Yosef had built character in Galut and had raised sons in Galut. Yaakov wanted to make sure that his grandchildren were raised properly, so he asks Yosef, “Mi Eileh,” interpreted as Yaakov’s questioning Yosef upon the upbringing of his sons. Therefore, Yosef receives a bracha that was very specific to him, that Yosef should be protected in Galut. Yosef, an important figure, needed this bracha because he walked around with “a target on his back,” being blamed if something under his watch would go wrong. Yosef’s biblical example of a protective bracha can teach that Jewish power in Galut will never affect the fact that we will always be targets in Galut.
In the beginning of Parashat Vayechi, Yaakov asks Yosef to place his hand under his thigh and promise not to bury him in Mitzrayim. Rashi explains that this action was the sign of a Shevuah, an oath. The Maharal asks, why does Yaakov require Yosef to make the Shevuah in this way? Why couldn’t Yosef just swear by receiving an object from Yaakov like the protocol in other Shevuot? It is understandable regarding Avraham Avinu why he made Eliezer swear by placing his hand under Avraham’s thigh, namely, where his Brit Milah took place. As Rashi elucidates, this Mitzvah of Milah was the first given directly to Avraham and it came through much pain and was therefore precious to him. This idea, however, would not make sense concerning Yaakov unless we said that he just copied his grandfather, Avraham. Also, Yosef makes a Shevuah with his brothers but there is no mention of a Mila. So why does Yaakov make his Shevuah by employing this method of swearing over a thigh?
The Maharal answers that this was the way the people back then made Shevu’ot; the one swearing would place their hands under the other thigh of the person he is swearing to (as the Ibn Ezra points out in his commentary to Breishit 24:2 and confirmed by Da’at Mikra ad. loc.). Yaakov thought that if he did not do the Shevuah this way, when Yosef would ask him to go and bury his father, Paroh would respond that he did not make the Shevuah according to the law of the land, and, therefore, the Shevuah was null and void. Yaakov’s Shevuah to Yosef was made so Paroh would allow Yosef to bury him in Eretz Yisrael. However, one could say that Paroh still may not honor this Shavuah. Rashi answers that Yosef swore to Paroh that he would not let the people know that Paroh could not speak Hebrew, thereby ruining his godlike, all-knowing image. This Shavuah was what ensured that Paroh would honor any legitimate oath made by Yosef, as is if he did not Yosef could justifiably break his oath. This explains why Yaakov made Yosef swear over his thigh.
In Vayechi, the Torah states, "Shimon ViLevi Achim” “Shimon and Levi are brothers (Bereishit 49:5).” When Yaakov rebuked Shimon and Levi for being violent, he called them "Achim,” “brothers.” It seems that Yaakov was grouping Shimon and Levi together, but this appears difficult considering how far Shimon and Levi separated from each other over a long period of time. For instance, Moshe, Aharon, and Miriam, three of the leaders of Klal Yisrael throughout the Torah, came from Sheivet Levi, while the only personality of note emerging from Sheivet Shimon was Zimri Ben Salu and the 24,000 people that were killed along with him. In addition, both Shimon and Levi were two of the smallest Shevatim. However, Levi was small because they had the dangerous job of carrying the Aron. Alternatively, according to the Ramban, they were small because they were not part of the enslavement in Mitzraim, and therefore did not multiply like the rest of Bnei Yisrael. As the Torah states, "Vichasher Yaanu Oto Ken Yarbeh Vichen Yifrotz" “And just how they inflicted them that’s how much they multiplied and became fruitful (Shemot 1:12).” Shevet Shimon was small because of the many of them died in the incident with Zimri. Shimon also remained small because they were not given land like the rest of the Shevatim, as it states in Sefer Yehoshua "VaYihi Nachalatam BiToch Nachalat Bnei Yehuda" “And their portion was in the portion of Yehudah (Shemot 1:12).” Although Levi was also not given their own specific land, this is due to their holiness and their requirement to work in the Mishkan, as it states in Parashat Shofetim, "Hashem Who Nachalatam" “Hashem is their portion (Devarim 18:2).”
In his Sefer MeiEin Beit HaShoeiva, Rav Shimon Schwab offers an answer to the problem of Yaakov grouping Shimon and Levi together despite their extreme differences. He answers that while both of the brothers heard the "Musar" from their father, Levi took his father’s words to heart and tried to change his qualities for the better based on his father’s rebuke. On the other hand, Shimon did not try as hard to change. Levi strived to grow in Torah and Mitzvot, and as a result, he merited a greater reward in the end. The difference between Shimon and Levi came full circle in Parashat Pinchas when Pinchas, a member of Shevet Levi and who was zealous for the sake of Hashem, had to kill the head of Shevet Shimon, Zimri, who represented how Shimon did not do Teshuva like Levi.
Although Yaakov grouped Shimon and Levi together when rebuking them, only Levi did Teshuvah as a result of Yaakov's words. Over time, the two brothers separated from each other in both values and goals. We can learn from the idea presented by Rav Schwab how important it is for one to learn from the criticism and Musar that he receives. One should try his best to change his ways for the better. With the help of Hashem, we will take this challenge that RavSchwab presents seriously, and we will choose to follow the path of Torah and Mitzvot like Levi.
Everyone has heard the term “an offer you can’t refuse.” If Hashem was making that offer, it would no longer be an offer but rather it would be “an order you must obey.” Yet in this week’s Parashah, we find Moshe going to Har HaElokim, where he finds a burning bush telling him to take B’nei Yisrael out of Mitzrayim. Shockingly, Moshe refuses. One common explanation for Moshe’s refusal is that he was humble and did not want to take the job. This answer is very difficult, because if Hashem thought Moshe was right for the job, then he was right for the job and should not have had a choice. In addition, Rashi (Shemot 4:10) quotes a Midrash that says that the conversation between Moshe and Hashem lasted a week. Moshe was the most humble person ever, but after a week of Hashem telling him something, one would think that Moshe would get the picture, stop being humble, and take the job already! Humility is not a reason to disobey Hashem! Moshe must have had a much better reason than that.
Rav Baruch Leff suggests an answer in the name of Rav Yaakov Weinberg, the Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Israel in Baltimore,that Moshe and Hashem went back and forth over this command. The pasuk states, “Vayichar Af Hashem BeMoshe,” “Hashem became angry with Moshe (Shemot 4:14).” After that, Moshe is directly commanded to go on his mission and after being directly commanded, Moshe could not refuse. Every one of Hashem’s offers before He became angry was just a strong recommendation but afterwards there was no saying no. This answer fits perfectly with Moshe’s humility. Moshe was humble when leadership was recommended, but when Hashem wanted it done and commanded Moshe to take B’nei Yisrael out of Mitzrayim, he listened.
Parashat Shemot begins by listing the names of Yaakov's descendants who traveled to Mitzraim. Rashi points out that the mentioning of Bnei Yaakov seems rather superfluous, as this had already been mentioned earlier. He answers that this repetition demonstrates Hashem’s love for Bnei Yaakov.
Although it seems very simple, Rashi’s explanation teaches us a significant lesson. The Pesukim dealing with Yaakov’s descendants contain an overwhelming amount of pronouns. However, a minute amount of pronouns exist in the Pesukim that discuss life in Mitzrayim (except for Moshe); we see the use of names only regarding Shifrah and Puah. A clear example of the lack of names is the first two Pesukim in Perek Bet, which state, "Vayeilech Ish MiBeit Levi VaYikach Et Bat Levi VaTahar HaIsha VaTeiled Bein” “And a man from the house of Levi took the daughter of Levi and the woman conceived and gave birth (Shemot 2:1-2).” Perhaps the lack on names when describing life in Mitzraim is because contrary to Hashem and the Jewish people, the Egyptians tried to demoralize us, and therefore our names were meaningless. The names of Shifrah and Puah were mentioned because they were not treated as subhuman, as they were Egyptian nurses. Moshe's name was also used because he was raised as a Mitzri, not a despised Jew. The contrast between the two peoples and their ways is one that affected our forefathers and still affects us today. In Germany, during the Holocaust, demoralization was the Nazis’ main psychological weapon. In Israel nowadays, this is epitome of Israel’s dilemma in Gaza and against all terrorists. Like the Mitzrim, terrorists do not value dignity and life. Therefore, it is our job as the Jewish people to continue to keep our morals, to always value actions that enhance life instead of diminishing it.
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