Thursday, December 31, 2015

Shmos: the cause of oppression

After Moshe chastises the two Israelites that the Midrash identifies as the dyamic duo of trouble, Dathan and Aviram, by asking why would one hit his fellow, he gets a response that he finds disconcerting and declares, "Achen nodah hadavar [so the matter is known]" The simple meaning is that the two know about his killing the Egyptian who beat the Israelite. But there is also a deeper meaning that Rashi quotes, "umidrasho noda li hadavar shehayiti tema alav, ma cheto Yisrael mikol shivim umos, lihiyros nirdim beavodas perach, aval roeh ani shehem reuyim lekach." According to the Midrash what is known is the matter that had puzzled Moshe, what was the sin of Yisrael that made it the most culpable among the 70 nations to be punished in backbreaking work. But now [from the behavior of Dathan and Aviram] he sees that they did deserve it.

My grandfather asks the following: Didn't Moshe know that the enslavement was decreed upon them at Brith beyn habetharim? Also wasn't he aware of the fact that among them were people who were idolaters, according to Midrashey Chazal?  They also committed other violations, so what was the key discovery in this particular incident?

He answers: Moshe didn't question why they were subjected to punishment but what made them guilty to the extent of warranting the level of oppression  signified by avodas perach. The answer that he discovered was that there were among them malishinim [talebearers or snitchers] who turn their own brothers in and that there is hatred among them, he declared, "Achen nodah hadavar."

This is similar to the account of R' Yochanan ben Zakay's respnse to seeing the daughter of Nakdimon ben Guriyon gathering barley grains from the the dung of the Arabs' animals (Kethuboth 66a). he cried and declared, "Fortunate are you Israel. at the time that they do the will of G-d, no nation or language has dominance over them. And at the time when they fail to do the will of G-d, they are persecuted at the hands of a low nation." This was the punishment that fell upon them at the time of the destruction of the second Temple, which Chazal say (Yoma 9a) occurred to a generation that did study Torah and observe mitzvos. Yet, it was destroyed  because of baseless hatred.

My grandfather then references Rabbeynu Bechayey who cited Midrash Tehillim about the relative merits of different generations and their outcomes. The children in the generation of Shaul and Shmuel were able to expound on the Torah with 49 different facet. Nevertheless, they would fail to achieve victory at war. Why? Because there were talebearers among them . In contrast, the generation of Achav was give to idolatry. However, because there were no talebearers among them, they would be victorious when they waged war, and not a single one would die on the battlefield.

P.S. My husband observed that this points out why that level of punishment but doesn't poinpoint why this particular type of punishment was meted out. A number of possible explanations come to mind:
 1. On a spiritual level, all of Klal Yisrael is one. That's the level they achieved in receiving the Torah -- not as many individuals -- as a single entity of Klal Yisrael. The malshin who pursues harm to his brother fails to see him as another limb on the same body. He doesn't understand that harming another is harming the larger collective entity. In that way, avodas perach that breaks the body is a physical manifestation of that spiritual reality of breaking apart the body made up of all the individuals of Klal Yisrael.
2. Based on the phonemes in perach, it can be read as peh rach, a soft mouth, that Chazal interpreted as Pharaoh's cleverness in duping the Israelites into servitude. So it refers to a corruption of speech, which would parallel the corruption of speech found in the actions of a malshin.
The corruption of speech is also at the heart of the incident that gave rise to the Egyptian's attempt to beat the husband of Shlomit bas Divri to death. Chazal say her name refers to her talkativeness that drew negative attention to her, culminating in her conception of the child who would become the mekalel  with the Egyptian.

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Thursday, December 24, 2015

Did Yosef forgive his brothers?

That's a bit of a trick question. In the shiur that Michal Horowitz gave today, she mentioned that Rav Moshe Feinstein said that Yosef never explicitly forgave his brothers, never saying so outright, and that kept the debt hanging over klal Yisrael that was collected in the form of the asara harugey malchus.  She said it to make the point that one should be sure to clearly say that they forgive so that there will not be a price to pay for the person or the person's descendants.

During the shiur someone asked if the brothers actually asked forgiveness. She said she wasn't certain that they did. It's true that they did not do so directly; however, in Vayechi, this week's parsha they do so indirectly after their father's death when they tell him that Yaakov said he should forgive them: "Ana sa na pesha achicha vechatatham ki raa gamlucha veata sa na lepesha avdey Elokey avicha. [Please forgive the transgrssion of your brothers and their sin, for they treatedf you badly, and now forgive the transgression of the ones who serve the G-d of your father] Yosef doesn't respond with "you are forgiven" but with what amounts to saying "there's nothing to forgive." What he says is: "Al titrau, ki hatachat Elokim ani? Veatem chashavtem alay raa, Elokim chashva letova. [Don't be afraid. Am I in place of G-d? You thought to cause me harm, but G-d had a plan for good]"

My grandfather offers this insight into Yosef's view of culpability in light of intent and effect. He starts by explaining the double language for wrongdoing that the brothers used in referring to their sin as they sinned both against Yosef and against G-d. The first part of Yosef's answer, "ki hatachat Elokim ani?" was making the point that he is not empowered to forgive them for a transgression against G-d.

Yosef then addresses the the transgression against him, and says it doesn't require forgiveness.  Yosef points out that it is true that they had bad intentions toward him, but G-d had good ones. As a bad outcome was averted, so was the negative account of a bad deed. Yosef was applying  the princple of crediting for intentions is only on the positive side. That is "machshava tova Hakadosh Barush Hu metzrfa lema'ase [Hashem adds on the credit of good intentions to the deed]" but not the reverse. Yosef insisted there was no bad deed on record, only bad intent, and that doesn't count by itself.

Monday, December 21, 2015

The 10th of Teves

While the world may still be celebrating the holiday season, the holiday of Chanukah came to an end at the beginning of last week. This week is another significant date in the Jewish calendar, but it is a sad rather than a joyous occasion. On Tuesday, it is the 10th of Teves [sometimes spelled Tevet].

On this date, 2449 years ago, Nebuchadnetzar, King of Babylon, laid siege on  Jerusalem.. That is what marked the beginning of the loss of the first Temple, which occurred nearly 3 years later on the 9th of Av. Like, the 9th of Av, the 17th of Tammuz, and Tzom Gedalia, thisfast is, therefore, concerned with the loss of the Temple and Jewish sovereignty.

Some sources describe this as one of the "low" fasts, though that gives a false impression. The fast of Teves has very high priority in Jewish tradition. It shares the distinction of Yom Kippur of being observed as fast even if it falls out on the Sabbath. Practically speaking, it never falls out that way because of the calendar set up, but the theoretical possibility is significant.
In his blog, Rabbi Chaim Brown expounds on this point:

The same is not true even of 9 Av. Why is 10 Teves more significant than other fast days? Why should the beginning of the siege process that years later led to churban be more significant than the churban itself?
Chasam Sofer explains that 17 Tammuz is a fast which commemorates past events – the walls of Yerushalayim were breached. 9 Av is a fast which commemorates past events – thechurban, among other tragedies, took place. Same for the fast of Gedlaya. Not so the fast of 10 Teves. True, the siege was put in place on 10 Teves, but other enemies has also laid siege to Yerushalayim and they were defeated. There was time yet to avert a churban. The fast of 10 Teves is not a fast that commemorates events which already occurred, but is rather a fast of an eis tzarah, a fast to avert future tragedy.
The failure to rebuild the Mikdash is tantamount to witnessing its destruction. The din v’cheshbon[spiritual reckoning] of whether this year will be another year of continued churban or whether this year will be the year we avert 9 Av and witness the rebuilding of the Mikdash occurs on 10 Teves. The future is in our hands to determine.
.That is something to think about as we mourn both the distant and all-too-recent past events. What happened in Sandy Hook last Friday showed us all too clearly an eis tzara is. We want to do all that we can to avoid future such tragedies.
Two other events which are related to the first days of Tevet are the completionof the translation of the Torah into Greek on the Eighth of Tevet by the "Seventy Scholars" in the days of Ptolemy and the death of Ezra on the ninth of Tevet.
One more point about this date: The 10th of Teves is a day marked for remembering tragedies, even those that are not recorded. In the State of Israel, this is the day designated for saying Kaddish (the Jewish prayer for the deceased) for people whose date of deaths has not been determined. Read more at

Friday, December 18, 2015

Yaakov's relief

After Yaakov is reunited with Yosef, he exclaims, "amuta hapa'am" that he will die this time (46:30). Rashi quotes the midrashic interpretation that before he had seen him, Yaakov was certain that he would suffer two deaths: one in this world and one in the next, for the shechina  had departed from him. Thinking that Yosef had died, he though that it was required (and that the loss of one of his children signified Yaakov's own loss of his share in the next world). However, now that he saw Yosef alive, he knew he would only die in this world.

My grandfather raises a question on Yaakov's assumption that he would lose his share in the next world. After all,  he has credit for so many good deeds.  He suggests that the loss of even just a small part of his portion in the next world would be tantamount to death, as is the connotation of "mitchayev benafsho" that Chazal speak of.

Yaakov thought that Yosef would not have died if his father were free of sin and, consequently, believed his son's death a sign of his own spiritual demise.

Related post '

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Pharaoh's praise of Yosef

After Yosef interprets Pharaoh's dream and advises him what to do, the king exclaims on Yosef's having ruach Elokim and possessing unusal understanding and wisdom The two terms navon vechacham refer to different forms of intelligence. According to the Ramban navon refers to yosef's understanding of how to manage the inahbitants of Egyts with respect to allocating bread according to the household numbers, to supply them with sufficient amounts to sustain them and to sell the surplus to other land in order to acquire wealth for Pharaoh. The term chachamrefers to his wisdom in knowing how to kee the crops from rotting, whtat to mix with each type in order to preserve it.

My grandfather adds that Yosef was unusal in that he not only had the spiritual connection to G-d but that he also was street smart about managing daily life in earthly matters. Pharaoh recognized this combined ability in Yosef's identifying the solution to the problem when giving the interpretation of the message G-d was sending in the form of a dream.

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Saturday, December 05, 2015

8 great things about Chanukah

Chanukah begins Sunday night.

Those who really know me may be surprised at the title on this post because I have expressioned aversion for numbers in titles as a gimmick to grab attention. However, 8 is not only a number associated with Chanukah but a sign of what the holiday is about. The number 8 represents the level that rises above nature -- represented by the number 7 to correspond to the days of the week. (See )
It was a miracle that the Jews won over a foe that vastly outnumbered them, and it was a miracle that they found the oil which allowed them to light the menorah in a state of purity -- to set the tone for the start as aiming for the highest possible level rather than settling for the bedieved [expedient, though far from ideal, course of action].

But the title promises a list, and here it is:

1. Like Purim, the holiday of Chanukah owes quite a bit to a female heroine. Yehudith, who was as brave as she was beautiful, slew the (see
2. Relaxation time for women: es, the opposite of what one normally thinks of for a holiday. To recall the role of women in this holiday, it is a custom brought down for halacha that women are to refrain from work while the Chanukah lights burn. No laundry, sewing, etc. to be done then, rather like on Rosh Chodesh, which always also falls out towards the end of Chanukah. 
3. You have great menu options. Dairy, though not quite as etched in custom as they are for Shavuous (see, dairy dishes are traditional to recall that Yehudith served the enemy's general dairy dishes to make him sleepy before she killed him. Of course, you don't have to serve them for all 8 days, and you don't have to serve meat either, as is traditional on other Jewish holidays.
4. You have your choice of sufganiyot [donuts] or latkes [potato pancakes] for treats in honor of the holiday (see
5.Gelt -- that's not gifts, but gelt, which is the tradition of the holiday. The chocolate coins to represent gelt are also a nice treat.
6. Chanukah really is the most budget friendly holiday, considering that it lasts 8 days. You only have to buy the olive oil and wicks. Menorahs that hold them can be purchased for as little as $4  and can be used from year to year. No major investment in wine, matzah, or a lulav set is required. Gifts, as hinted above, are not at all mandatory.
7. No need to cook massive meals; family get togethers are completely optional
8. No need to rearrange your work schedule altogether because this is a holiday that extends into the weekday.
And because the shamash adds on a 9th candle, here's one more: Chanukah is proof of the assertion that "a man's reach must exceed his grasp/ or what's a Heaven for?" (Robert Browning). And it was Yehudith who pointed it out when she galvanized her people to fight and not merely to accept the status quo under foreign rule.
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Thursday, December 03, 2015

Reuven's motivation

In the event that culminated in the sale of Yosef, his brothers first determine that he should be executed.. Reuven is the one who thwarts that plan by suggesting that he be thrown into a pit. The text attests to his intention to save his brother's life and to return him to their father in 37:22. Rashi explains that those words, lema'an hitzil oto miyadam lehashivo el aviv are the expresion of ruach hakodesh that reveals what he really intended when he made that suggestion. His thinking was that as the bechor, and the biggest of the brothers, he would bear the brunt of the blame.

My grandfather points out that the source for this is Midrash Rabbah 84: 15 in which Rav Nechamya offers that explanation for Reuven's concern. The supercommentary on Rashi, Sifsei Chachamim, quotes the Maharshal's question on this: Why bring up that reason? Why not just say that Reuven was righteous and didn't want to spill blood?

The answer can be found in the revelation of the Reuven's nature that comes through Yaakov's brachos to his sons.  If Yaakov blessed Yehudah, the son who said, "ma betza" arguing to sell Yosef in order to gain some advantage, then why did he hold back a blessing from Reuven who  saved his life and intended to return him to his father?  The absence of the bracha indicates that even though he did save him, Reuven's intentions here were not leshem shamayim but to save himself from being blamed by his father.

My grandfather says that in his view, Yehudah merited a blessing when Reuven did not because he had the guts to speak openly to his brother and not to hide his intentions.  I'd add that this fits with the idea of Yehudah meriting kingship and the trait that we see in David who speaks up honestly, as  a leader should.

My granfather continues to say that the text indicates that by stressing "lehashivo el aviv," [to return him to his father] a phrase that appears to be redundant after it already said "lemaan hitzil oto miyadam" [in order to save him from their hands]. That phrase clarifies that Reuven wasn't thinking of saving Yosef for his brother's sake but for his own, that is not to be blamed in the matter.

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