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by Daneal Weiner
The Chasam Sofer asks why the opening verse of this weeks
says, "And Yaakov lived 17 years in Egypt…" while the very next verse continues with, "And the days of Yisrael drew near to die…"? About a half-century earlier Yaakov, after defeating the angel of Eisav, was blessed that he would be called Yisrael. Since then the Torah switched between using the two names. When it called him Yaakov it reflected him in a lower spiritual state while calling him Yisrael reflected his perfected state.
Our Rabbis say that one hour of this world is greater then all of the World to Come. How so? Because only in this world do we have the potential to earn the World to Come. In a single moment of repentance an entire World to Come may be earned! Once we die neither repentance nor mitsvos are options. So the Torah should have done the opposite. It should have opened with, "And Yisrael lived…" (reflecting his life of mitsvos) and then said, “And the days of Yaakov drew near…” (because once gone, no more earning potential)?
The Chasam Sofer answers focusing on the topic at hand. Yaakov is about to make Yoseph promise to bury him in Israel. The reason he goes from Yaakov to Yisrael is because the Torah is speaking only of his last 17 years in Egypt. The fact that he will be buried in Israel is greater then the 17 years he lived in Egypt!
Rav Moshe Wolfson says can’t be! As great as Israel is… [and Rav Wolfson, who’s come to the Old City every summer for the past 20 years and who has come a number of times just for Lag b’Omer and who plans to be here for the very special three day Purim and who has a book of Torah specifically on the holy places of Israel- he knows how great Israel is…] it can’t be his body tucked away in the Cave of the Patriarchs is more valuable then 17 years of life even if it was lived in Egypt!? A life of mitsvos anywhere must be greater than death! The holy words of the Chasam Sofer require further investigation.
A Gemorah in Kesuvos tells of the incredible passing of Rebbe Yehudah Hanasi- Rabbi Yehudah, the Prince. It was he who did the unimaginable work of compiling the Mishnah. The Gemorah says that after his death Rebbe Yehudah Hanasi appeared every Friday night at the Shabbos table to say Kiddush for his family. When word got out about it he stopped coming.
As remarkable as the story is in and of itself, according to Jewish law, one is not allowed to say a blessing on behalf of another unless both are obligated in the blessing. If Rebbe Yehudah Hanasi (Rebbe) was saying Kiddush for his family after he had died this means he WAS obligated in mitsvos in the afterlife! And then we have to ask, if he was obligated, why did he stop coming? It’s answered that Rebbe was a tremendously humble man. Once his weekly visits were found out he knew it would raise questions as to why other righteous men were not making coming back after they’ve died.
Switching over to the Jerusalem Talmud, also in Kesuvos, we find another incredible story of Rebbe Yehudah Hanasi. He used to say about himself, "Just as we read, ‘And Yaakov lived 17 years in Egypt,’ so too did Yehudah live 17 years in Tsippori." These do not sound like the words of a humble man.
The Talmud continues saying during 13 of Rebbe’s 17 years in Tsippori, he suffered from a terrible toothache. How much did it hurt? Being the leader of his generation, and understanding the relationship between Israel and her leaders, his suffering allowed it to be that for the entire 13 years not a single woman in all Israel died in childbirth nor did a single pregnancy miscarry. That’s how much it hurt. What was Rebbe’s heinous crime that he deserved 13 years if such suffering?
Once while walking in the market a calf had escaped from the clutches of the butcher and ran to Rebbe for protection. Rebbe said to it, "For this you were created." Rebbe wasn’t being callous with the animal. He was saying, "What are you here for? What are any of us here for? To serve Hashem. Man has free choice to do mitsvos. An animal doesn’t. What does an animal look forward to? To making a Shabbos meal! To have a Jew make a blessing over it! To giving hungry Yidden the strength to carry on in there service of Hashem. What do you want? To chew grass till you die a nevailah? This is the moment you’ve been waiting for!"
They were great, encouraging and absolutely true words Rebbe spoke. But for a Tannah, for the caliber of Rabbi whose name graces the pages of our Mishnah, they were insensitive words EVEN FOR A CALF! And because of this hairline crack in his character for THIRTEEN YEARS he suffered from a toothache because. Why a toothache? Because measure for measure, a toothache is not a life threatening illness and people would therefore be insensitive to his suffering!
His suffering ended when he noticed his daughter shooing a mouse out of the house and he said to her, "It is written in Psalms, ‘His mercy is upon all His works’ and we are supposed to emulate His ways."
It was also regarding these 13 years of suffering amongst the 17 years in Tsippori that Rebbe said they were like the 17 years Yaakov lived in Egypt. Why? Because after Yaakov had to flee from home and after being tricked by Lavan and after his favorite wife dying young and after his daughter being raped and after his favorite son lost from him for 22 years, the 17 years in Egypt were the most serene years of his life. The Zohar spells it out, not to think they were relatively serene years. "Yaakov had no grief in Egypt." In that light Rebbe Yehudah Hanasi compares his years in Tsippori to Yaakov Aveinu’s years in Egypt.
‘His mercy is upon all His works.’ May He have mercy on those who mock and belittle His holiest and most devoted servants.
Along with the title, Hanasi- the Prince, Rebbe Yehudah was also named Rebbe Hakadosh- the holy. As unimaginable as the Gemorah was which attested to his holiness, there is always far more beneath the surface. The Silent Prayer is the pinnacle of every prayer service and there are three blessing which open every Silent Prayer no matter what day or holiday. These three blessings correlate to the three forefathers. The first blessing is Magen Avraham. ‘Nuff said. The second blessing is Michayai Hamaysim, remembering Yitschak and the Akeida- binding. The third blessing in Hakel Hakadosh, correlating to Yaakov. The Megaleh Amukos writes that Yaakov’s blessing Hakadosh, and Rebbe Yehudah Hanasi’s other title Hakadosh are more than coincidental. In fact, the word Nasi- prince spelled Nun-Sin-Yud-Aleph is an acronym for Nitsuso Shel Yaakov Aveinu- a spark of Yaakov our father. The makeup of Rebbe’s soul was spark of Yaakov’s soul.
If Rebbe was but an ember of the flame of Yaakov, and if Rebbe, as we saw in the Gemorah Kesuvos, was obligate in mitsvos even after he died, how much more so on top of how much more so was Yaakov Aveinu obligated in mitsvos after he died. And in fact, about Yaakov Aveinu our Rabbis say he did not die. As the verse said, Yisrael’s days [on earth] drew near to die. But he would live on.
Now we can see how beautiful an answer we heard from the Chasam Sofer. Regarding his life in Egypt the Torah refers to him by Yaakov because it pales, in comparison, to his quality of life once he is brought to Israel.
Just when you thought it was over, Rav Wolfson delves into the matter even deeper. Of all the times that names Yaakov and Yisrael appear in the Torah, why was Vayichi Yaakov- And Yaakov lived, chosen to reveal the relationship between Yaakov and Rebbe?
The Torah scroll distinguishes new subjects and, therefore, new parshas with gaps in the text. Sometimes a gap will appear within a line and sometimes the space will extend to the end of a line and a new paragraph begins. The laws of inscription of a Torah scroll dictate that there be at least a gap 9 letters long between one parsha and the next. Parshas Vayichi, however, follows the previous parsha without a gap. This parsha is called ‘closed’ since it does not ‘open’ with the ‘gap’.
Our Rabbis in Midrash ask, "Why is Parshas Vayichi ‘closed’?" They answer, "Because with the death of Yaakov the eyes and hearts of Israel (the other Jews in Egypt) became ‘closed’." Although no physical enslavement began until the last of the 12 Brothers had died, with Yaakov gone their spiritual protection was gone. It was only a matter of time till the enslavement began. As it turns out, the two words "Vayichi Yaakov"- And Yaakov lived, plus the space between the two words equals 9 spaces. The words Vayichi Yaakov are written were words should not be written.
As we said earlier, Rebbe Hakadosh compiled the Mishnah. Not ‘wrote’ but ‘compiled’ because the Mishnah is made up of sayings, principles, laws, cases and traditions of the Rabbis of that and previous generations. They all learned from their teachers before them. And they from their teachers before them, etc., etc., all the way back to Moshe at Mt. Sinai. This information wasn’t written into the 5 Books of the Written Law. All the details explaining the Written Law was transmitted as the Oral Law. After approximately 1500 years of purely oral transmission Rebbe Hakadosh committed onto paper the Oral Law. Now written were words where they should not be written, just like the words of Vayichi Yaakov. Why did Rebbe do that? As the Midrash said on Vayichi Yaakov, the eyes and the hearts of Israel were closed.
Rebbe lived after the destruction of the Second Temple, when our spiritual protection was gone. With the Sanhedrin vanquished, the Sages persecuted, and Israel scattered to the corners of the world. Who would be the eyes and hearts of the people? Who could lead and teach the next generations? Rebbe saw the critical need to commit to writing even that which should not be written. Yehudah lived 17 years in Tsippori like Vayichi Yaakov because that is where his compilation of the Mishnah took place.
There are three meals on Shabbos that correlate to the three forefathers. Friday night is Yitschak. Shabbos day is Avraham. And Shalosh Seudos is Yaakov. Just as Rebbe was alive after his death, how much more so is Yaakov alive after his death. Just as Rebbe was obligated in Mitsvos after his death, how much more is Yaakov obligated in Mitsvos after his death. Just as Rebbe returned to make kiddush for his children, how much more so does Yaakov return to make Kiddush for his children. And so for Yaakov’s Shalosh Seudos we do not need to make kiddush because our father is making it for us.
I spoke to an observant man a couple weeks ago, a visitor from the states. I explained to him that to maintain his standards of kashrus from the states he can not eat food marked as kosher by the Rabbinate, known to have the lowest standards. Especially not this shemittah year when the problems are more severe. He asked me, if their standards are so low, below acceptability, then why do so many observant people he knows here eat Rabbinate food? I again explained to him the problems and what the Rabbinate was trying to accomplish. The Rabbinate, themselves, maintain a second higher standard under Mehadrin! The Rabbinate doesn’t eat Rabbinate, they eat Mehadrin. What does that say!? Regarding the others I said, "Keeping kosher in the states is a religious act. It gets kept. But people come to Israel and keeping kosher suddenly becomes a political act. They will blindly eat whatever the ‘state’ puts out."
Not even two weeks later this man is joining friends at substandard restaurants. I asked him what he was doing? He said he asked around and people told him that really the differences in standards "was just politics." I’m glad I wasn’t sitting because I would have fell off my chair. "Besides," he added, "I was never the ‘stringent’ type." Then he asked me if I joined the 200,000 person protest of the governments threats of giving up Jerusalem? I explained, using other words, there is no 11th commandment, "Thou shall protest and thou will live on the land I promised your ancestors." I wonder where those 200,000 people were when the government threatened giving up Judaism?
"“Vayichi Yaakov," why is it closed? Because the eyes and hearts of Israel are closed. The ABC’s of Jewish law are seen as stringencies. A threat against the land stirs more emotions than a threat against the Torah that gives the land its value.
When our forefather Yaakov visits this Shabbos afternoon, let’s pry open just one eye and grab hold of just one heart string, and join him in entreating (49:18), "Lishu’asecha kivisi Hashem"- For Your salvation do I long, O’ Hashem! In one moment of repentance an entire World to Come may be earned.
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