Vayeishev 5777

Avoiding Hatred[1]

ויהי יוסף יפה-תאר ויפה מראה
And Yosef was beautiful in form and appearance[2]

Yosef had just been sold by his brothers into slavery. He became the servant of Potiphar in Egypt, and ended up becoming promoted to overseeing Potiphar’s entire household. The Torah then describes Yosef’s appearance. Rashi[3] explains this bizarre juxtaposition by quoting the Midrash[4] as follows: Once Yosef saw that he was in a position of power, he began to eat and drink and “curl his hair”. Hashem responded by accusing Yosef of forgetting the fact that his father is in mourning (since he thought that Yosef was dead). Yosef should dare act so haughty? As a punishment Hashem sent Potiphar’s wife to try to seduce him, which the very next verse describes. There’s a lot going on here that needs explanation. What’s this idea of curling his hair? Was he trying to doll himself up? Who was he trying to impress? How could Yosef forget his father[5]?

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Vayishlash 5777

The Hidden Daughter[1]

ויקם בלילה הוא ויקח את-שתי נשיו ואת-שתי שפחתיו ואת-אחד עשר ילדיו ויעבר את מעבר יבק
And [Yaakov] got up that night and took his 2 wives, his 2 maidservants and his 11 children, and he passed the river Yabok[2]

As Yaakov and his family were about to confront his wicked brother Eisav, they were frightened for their life. The Torah describes their journey the night before the encounter. Rashi is bothered[3] why the verse specifies that Yaakov only took eleven of his children. At that time, he had eleven sons and one daughter, Dinah. Where was Dinah? Quoting the Midrash[4], Rashi says we learn from here that Yaakov hid Dinah in a box, so that Eisav wouldn’t notice her and want to marry her. Chazal say that this decision caused Yaakov to be punished, since he prevented his daughter from being a positive influence on his brother. She could have helped him change his ways.

 

There are numerous questions that can be asked on this Midrash. The Torah only mentions eleven children. Who says it was Dinah that was missing[5]? Maybe it was one of Yaakov’s sons? Another question is why was Yaakov punished for not wanting his daughter to be married to Eisav? Eisav could have just as likely been a negative influence on her as she a positive influence on him! As well[6], we see Leah was praised for not wanting to marry Eisav[7]; why wasn’t she punished? She could have been a positive influence on him as well. Also, how could Yaakov ever think that Dinah could get Eisav to change his ways? He grew up around Avraham, Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivka, and nothing they did affected him. Why was Yaakov held accountable for this?

To answer the first question, another needs to be asked. Why was the Temple built in the portion of Israel belonging to the tribe of Benjamin? Chazal say[8] the reason is because he was the only one of the twelve tribes to not bow down to Eisav (as they did in this parsha[9]), since he wasn’t born yet. This gave him a merit above his other brothers. If when Yaakov took eleven of his children to confront Eisav, the twelfth was one of his sons, then they also wouldn’t have bowed to him. Why then would the Temple have been built in Benjamin’s portion? It must be that all the sons were present, leaving Dinah the one missing[10].

There’s a short story related in the gemarra[11] about the great-grandson of Rabbi Elazar[12]. He was known to have a very bad reputation, and was involved in several lewd activities. Rebbe[13] sought him out in order to help him mend his ways. Rebbe offered his daughter to this person in marriage if he promised to return to observance. He changed his ways, and there are two versions of what happened next. One version is they got married, and then got divorced; the other is he never agreed to marry her. Regardless of what happened, the gemarra says it was because he was concerned, lest people think he changed his ways because of her. This is very surprising. How could this person be so ungrateful? He finally got his life in order, and he doesn’t want to give her credit?

The answer must be that it wasn’t this woman who changed him. It was Rebbe’s offer to this man. Giving your daughter to someone shows an incredible amount of trust. The mere offer tells the person that you believe in them. This show of faith had a tremendous impact on the person. They felt like they were somebody, that they could do so much more. They weren’t as bad a person as they thought. This is why he didn’t want people to think she changed him, because it wouldn’t be true. Just the offer alone was enough to trigger him to change his life around.

It could be suggested that the same is true with Dinah. It’s not that she would have been able to affect Eisav. Eisav at this point wouldn’t have thought he could ever change. He was too deep in his bad ways. No one could have been a positive influence. However, if Yaakov showed Eisav that he believed in him, that he knew he was better than this, by offering his daughter in marriage, this would have had a similar effect on him. Because Yaakov didn’t show Eisav this trust, he was punished[14].

There’s another approach to this Midrash that I want to share. Eisav’s modus operandi was pure din, strict justice[15]. With pure din there’s no such thing as repentance. A person does something wrong, there’s no way to undo it. Eisav felt that since he had separated himself from klal yisroel, the Jewish people, there was no way for him to ever return. This led him to go deeper and deeper into sin. This explains why he could do some of the worst sins all in one day, the day his grandfather died[16].

The Ramchal[17] explains why Hashem created the universe. Hashem is koolo chesed, the embodiment (so to speak) of loving-kindness. He wanted to bestow good onto others. What’s the best way to bestow good? Not to simply give it. Bread that is given as a gift doesn’t taste as good as that which was earned[18]. He gave us a world and the opportunity to earn our good. We earn it by doing mitzvos and following His will. Chazal say that the world was originally created with middas hadin, the attribute of strict justice[19]. Hashem saw that the world wouldn’t last this way, so he joined together with it middas harachamim, the attribute of compassion. This gives us the ability to repent. Why is strict justice preferable? It would have been the ultimate chesed. Without the ability to repent, life would be much more challenging. The more challenge, the more reward earned[20]. The motivation was purely giving. The problem is it’s not practical. Therefore, compassion was made part of the equation. We see from here that din and chesed are not contradictory. In fact, din in its essence is chesed itself.

We see an example of this with Dinah. What’s the significance of the name Dinah? The verses describe what went into each of the names of Yaakov’s children[21], but by Dinah the Torah doesn’t give an explanation. Rashi[22] explains the background to Dinah’s name. At that time Leah already had six sons, Bilhah and Zilpah each had two, giving Yaakov ten sons in total. Rachel still had no children. Leah knew through prophecy that Yaakov was destined to have twelve sons from his four wives. Rashi says that she was דנה דין בעצמה, made a judgment for herself. Leah was pregnant, and if she gave birth to another son that would mean Rachel could have only one son. This would make her have fewer sons than any of Yaakov’s other wives. After realizing this, Leah prayed that her child be a daughter[23]. She wanted to prevent her sister from this humiliation. This is why her daughter was named Dinah, from the word din, judge.

The question could be asked: why was this consideration called din. It was really a simple math calculation, or cheshbon. She should have been called Cheshbonah. Rav Beryl Whitman explains that the prayer of Leah was pure din, the attribute of strict justice. From the aspect of din, each of the four wives should have had four sons, to make twelve. The fact that Leah got more was because she felt rejected by Yaakov[24], so Hashem showed her compassion and gave her more than the rest. Leah prayed that Hashem not give her compassion, rather treat her according to strict justice. This was all so her sister Rachel wouldn’t be embarrassed.

Now we can understand what Dinah could have done for Eisav. Dinah was the manifestation of din expressing חסד, loving-kindness. Her mother’s concern for her sister was the reason for Dina’s existence. This would have showed Eisav that he could return to good, he could be part of klal yisroel, and still keep with his mode of din. Repentance for the past and changing for the better are not a contradiction to that. It’s never too late to return.

Good Shabbos

[1] Based on a devar torah told to me by my chashuve roommate Chezky Freund from Cleveland, quoting Rav Beryl Whitman

[2] Genesis 32:23

[3] Ad. loc.

[4] Bereishis Rabbah 76:9 and Tanchuma Yashan Vayishlach § 19

[5] This is asked by the Vilna Gaon in Kol Eliyahu ad. loc. and Torah Temimah Chapter 32 § 9.

[6] This and the previous question are asked by Sifsei Chachamim ad. loc., see their answers, as well as Torah Temimah’s shocking answer, loc. cit.

[7] See Rashi to 29:17

[8] The Torah Temimah loc. cit. quotes this from the “Aggados” found in parshas Vezos HaBeracha, but it’s unclear what he was referring to. Kol Eliyahu loc. cit. quotes this idea from the gemarra, but this doesn’t seem to be in our versions of the Bavli or Yerushalmi. The Chida in Chomas Anach to Mikeitz § 16 quotes this in the name of רז”ל, again unclear as to who he is referring to. Yalkut Me’am Loez to Deuteronomy 33:12 brings this idea, and the editor sources it from “מפרשים”. The rishon Akeidas Yitzchak parshas Vayishlach Sha’ar 26 states this as an unsourced fact. The earliest sources I could find for this idea were the commentaries of the Baalei Toasafos to Deuteronomy 33:8 as well as Hadar Zekeinim (also from the Baalei Tosafos) to Deuteronomy 33:12, both citing יש מפרשים. This is probably the מפרשים that Me’am Loez was quoting. Presumably this refers to Rabbi Yehudah ben Eliezer (a.k.a. Riva, one of the Baalei Tosafos), since in his commentary to Deuteronomy loc. cit., he quotes this idea in the name of Rabbeinu Tam from Orleans (not to be confused with Rashi’s grandson). This seems to be the earliest source for this idea. However, I later discovered the Penimim MiShulchan HaGra agree that what we have in Kol Eliyahu is mistaken, and this idea is not found in the gemarra. They say the source is from Targum Sheni to Esther 3:3. See there with Pas’shegen HaKesav

[9] Genesis 33:3

[10] This is the Kol Eliyahu and Torah Temimah’s answer, loc. cit.

[11] Bava Metzia 85a

[12] The son of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, both he and his father were very righteous scholars

[13] Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, also known as Rabbeinu HaKadosh

[14] I heard a similar idea in the name of Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, that Yaakov should have at least offered her to Eisav. In truth though, this doesn’t completely work with what Rashi loc. cit. wrote, שמא תחזירנו למוטב, lest she return him to good, or Tanchuma Yashan loc. cit. which he is quoting

[15] Zohar Bereishis p. 137b

[16] See Bava Basra 16b

[17] Deresh Hashem 1:2, Da’as Tevunos § 18, and Klalei Pischei Chochmah VeDaas § 1 Cf. Maharal’s Be’er HaGoleh 4:6 (Machon Yerushalayim ed., see fn. 555), who gives a different explanation

[18] This concept is known as נהמא דכיסופא, the bread of shame

[19] See Rashi to Genesis 1:1 s.v. ברא אלקים, quoting Bereishis Rabbah 12:15

[20] Avos 5:23

[21] For example: see Genesis 29:32

[22] To ibid 30:21, quoting Berachos 60a and Midrash Tanchuma Vayeitzei § 8

[23] Cf. Bereishis Rabbah 72:6, which says it was Rachel’s prayers which made Leah have a girl

[24] See ibid 29:31

Vayeitzei 5777

Tzaddik VeRah Lo, Rasha VeTov Lo – The righteous suffer and the wicked prosper[1]

ויצא יעקב מבאר שבע וילך חרנה
Yaakov left Be’er Sheva and went to Charan[2]

This week’s parsha begins Yaakov’s journey to find a wife. He had just found out his brother was planning to kill him, so he took the opportunity to find refuge with his uncle Lavan. Rashi[3] is bothered that the Torah already described at the end of last week’s parsha[4] (only five verses earlier) that Yaakov went to Padan Aram, which is located in Charan. Why is the Torah repeating itself, telling us again at the beginning of the parsha that Yaakov went to Charan? He answers the reason is because the Torah interrupted the narrative of Yaakov’s flight to describe Eisav marrying the daughter of Yishmael[5]. Now that the Torah is resuming Yaakov’s journey, the story is started anew.

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Toldos 5777

The Answered Prayer[1]

ויעתר יצחק לה’ לנכח אשתו כי עקרה היא ויעתר לו יקוק ותהר רבקה אשתו
Yitzchak entreated to Hashem, opposite his wife, because she was barren. Hashem was appeased and Rivka his wife conceived[2]

We can learn many things about prayer from this verse. First, the Torah uses an unusual word for prayer, ויעתר. Usually it uses a word like ויתפלל, translated as prayed, or ויצעק, he cried out. What does the verb here mean? Rashi explains[3] it denotes increase; a large amount. Yitzchak and Rivka didn’t just pray; they prayed a lot. They desperately wanted children, and weren’t letting up. They weren’t taking no for an answer. Rashi also explains it denotes pleading, begging and convincing. It sounds like Hashem didn’t want to give them children, and they had to convince Him to change His mind. The question is, why should that be? More on that later. Rabbeinu Bachaye3 gives a few more explanations of the word ויעתר, based on the Midrash. One explanation it is based off the word עתר, to overturn. Through the power of prayer, Yitzchak was able to overturn his fate. That is what prayer generally is: it’s the power to change nature. Despite the fact that Rivka was barren, the prayer worked.

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Chayei Sarah 5777

The Undetected Bias[1]

 …לא-תקח אשה לבני מבנות הכנעני אשר אנכי יושב בקרבו: כי אל-ארצי ואל-מולדתי תלך ולקחת אשה לבני ליצחק: ויאמר אליו העבד אולי לא-תאבה האשה ללכת אחרי אל-הארץ הזאת…‏
“Don’t take a wife for my son from the Canaanite women amongst which I dwell. Rather you shall go to my land and my birthplace; [there] you shall take a wife for my son Yitzchak”. The servant responded to him: “Perhaps the woman will not come with me to travel to this land…”[2]

Parshas Chayei Sarah describes Avraham’s servant Eliezer’s[3] mission to find a wife for Yitzchak. Avraham was very specific with what he was looking for in a wife for his son. He was concerned with the negative influence his neighbors could have on his son. Therefore, he preferred to find someone from where he originated. After giving strict instructions to Eliezer, his servant responded with a question. Maybe the woman won’t want to return with him to this land. It was a legitimate question. However, Avraham responded that no matter what, he won’t allow his son to leave the land of Israel.

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Vayeira 5777

Laughing at good news[1]

ויאמר שוב אשוב אליך כעת חיה והנה-בן לשרה אשתך ושרה שמעת פתח האהל והוא אחריו: ותצחק שרה בקרבה לאמר אחרי בלתי לי עדנה ואדני זקן: ויאמר יקוק אל אברהם למה זה צחקה שרה לאמר האף אמנם אלד ואני זקן: ותכחש שרה לאמר לא צחקתי כי יראה ויאמר כי צחקת
[The Angel] said: “I will surely return at this time [next year] and behold, Sarah your wife will have a son”. Sarah [in the meantime] was listening at the entrance to the tent, and he/it was behind him. Sarah laughed within, saying: “After no longer having my period? As well, my husband is old?!” Hashem said to Avraham, why is it that Sarah laughed, saying: “Is it true that I’ll give birth, since I am old?” Sarah denied [this], and said, “I didn’t laugh!” because she was afraid. He said: “Actually, you laughed”.[2]

One of the hardest to understand episodes in Sefer Bereishis is the story of Sarah’s reaction to the good news that she’ll have a son. Three Angels, in the guise of desert travelers, approached Avraham’s tent and were invited to a meal[3]. These Angels each had a specific mission[4]. One came to announce that Sarah, despite her old age and being barren, will have a son. Besides all the strange grammatical anomalies and inconsistencies in this story[5], just the basic elements of the story are hard to understand. Avraham had been promised by Hashem to have many descendants[6]. While he already had a child with Sarah’s maidservant Hagar, why was it so hard for Sarah to believe that she’d bear a child? It’s true that some commentaries say[7] that Avraham didn’t realize these people were Angels, so perhaps Sarah took this news as some stranger giving her false hope. However, knowing the promise to Avraham, if some stranger says similarly, what’s there to laugh about?

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