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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


It happened at the end of two years to the day. (41:1)

The Yalkut Shimoni, cited by Rashi at the end of Parashas Va'yeishav, attributes Yosef's "extra" years of incarceration to the fact that he asked the sar ha'mashkim, chamberlain of the cupbearers, to remember him to Pharaoh. He stated his request to be remembered twice, which explains the two years of incarceration. Chazal end with a pasuk in Tehillim 40:5, "Fortunate is the man who has placed his reliance upon Hashem and has not turned to the arrogant ones." This refers to one who does not rely on Egypt to sustain him. Incredible! On the one hand, Chazal consider Yosef to be the symbol of bitachon, faith and trust, in the Almighty. On the other hand, they criticize him and hold him in contempt because he turned to the "arrogant" Egyptian for help in securing his release from prison. How are we to understand this apparent contradiction?

Horav Baruch Mordechai Ezrachi, Shlita, explains this in the following manner: In the Talmud Yevamos 121b, Chazal cite the pasuk in Tehillim 50:3, "And his surroundings are exceedingly turbulent." They glean from here that Hashem deals strictly with those surrounding Him, even to a hair's breath. This is derived from the relationship between the word "nisarah," stormy/turbulent, and "k'chut ha'saarah," like a thread of hair. We learn from here that the Almighty deals with those who are close to Him in the most strict measures. If they deviate ever so slightly, He punishes them in an uncompromising and severe manner. Now, let us ask ourselves: if one were to question one of those "close ones" concerning whether he is willing to relinquish his "position" of proximity to Hashem, so that he would not have to be subject to such exacting discipline, - what would he respond? Unquestionably, he would never trade positions, even for a moment!

In fact, anyone who would entertain this opportunity, clearly is not one of Hashem's "close ones." Why is this? Why are they inclined to live by the rule of a "hairbreadth"? The answer, explains Horav Ezrachi, emanates from the fact that to them it is not a hairbreadth; it is a wide gap. Their proximity to Hashem lends them a greater and more profound perspective on service to Hashem and responsibility to the klal, community. Yosef Ha'tzaddik's relationship to Hashem dictated that he should not turn to the Egyptian for anything. To us, as individuals who are far removed from such a lofty spiritual plateau, it appears that Yosef really did nothing more than the usual hishtadlus, endeavor, on behalf of his freedom. Would we not have mentioned to the Egyptian, "Remember me when you go out"? It is merely a deviation of a hairbreadth. Perhaps this deviation is minute to us, but for Yosef Ha'tzaddik it constitutes a major departure from what is expected of him.

To have bitachon in Hashem is a primary component of Jewish theology. One must never give up hope for salvation. Chazal say, "Even if a sharp knife is resting on one's throat, he should not despair, he should not give up hope." For some people, every waking moment in the day is a lesson in emunah, belief, and bitachon, trust in the Almighty. They persevere amidst pain and anguish, with no prospects for a natural cure; never does their trust in Hashem wane, never does it falter. Everyone has his own "pekel," package, of tzaros, troubles and misfortunes. For some, it is health related, for others, it could be a situation in chinuch ha'banim, raising children - educational, emotional, social, or shidduchim, marriage. Each person is doled out his "pekel" package, in accordance with his ability to manage with the problem.

Klal Yisrael has undergone misfortunes that would have destroyed a lesser people. Only our trust in the Almighty has sustained us physically and spiritually throughout our ordeals. The Holocaust was a particular period of our history in which cataclysmic persecution put the emunah and bitachon of a Jew to its greatest test. Countless narratives have related the spiritual heroism of Jews, their overwhelming adherence to their faith in the face of overwhelming affliction, their trust in the Almighty against all odds.

I recently heard a story about a Jewish doctor who lived in Germany prior to World War II. He was a brilliant physician, whose fame had preceded him. For this reason, the accursed Nazis did not immediately send him to the gas chamber, but, instead, placed him in charge of the camp's hospital. He was to treat the SS men and even those Jews who, because of their importance to the "cause," were given medical treatment until the moment that they were no longer needed. The doctor did everything he could to help his brethren, even at times at great risk to his own existence. He was, however, not able to deal with the pain and suffering and brutal death which he witnessed the Nazis perpetrating upon his brethren.

This feeling of helplessness led to a deep depression that had severe physical side effects. He stopped eating; he lost his will to live. Soon he became a skeleton of skin and bones, waiting for the angel of death to relieve him of his misery. The Nazis did not "provide" for sick people in their concentration camps. They were immediately sent to their "final solution".

Our doctor had a boyhood friend, a gentile with whom he had spent many years in medical school. Following their graduation, they had worked together on a number of research projects. The non-Jewish doctor was always in awe of his Jewish friend's brilliance. Indeed, he was the doctor to whom all of the German physicians would turn to if they, or a member of their family, had become ill. Over the years, the doctor had become the medical director of a large German hospital. Despite his eminence and success, he was a compassionate human being who was seriously troubled by the horrible crimes against humanity -- especially the Jews -- that his people were organizing. He was determined to do something, however minor, to help the hapless Jewish People. He decided that he was going to attempt to save one Jew, one single solitary Jew. This would be his good deed, this would be his contribution to humanity which would "cleanse" the stench of German evil from him.

He sent a letter to the Gestapo hierarchy requesting one Jewish "specimen" from the camps whom he could use for research. This way he could attempt to save a Jewish soul. The Gestapo agreed, on the condition that when his treatment of the patient was completed, he would have him returned to the camp to be killed with everyone else. He traveled to Auschwitz to look for that unique patient whom he would save. One can only begin to imagine his joy when he found his long-lost friend interred in the infirmary of the death camp. He immediately requested from the commandant that he release this depressed, sickly patient so that he could be used for his research project.

He took his friend back to Germany and placed him in his hospital. He was able to secure the finest nurses for him and provided the best medical treatment for him. Slowly, the doctor began to return to the world of the "living." During his treatment period, the war ended, and he was now able to leave as a free man. He was no longer a prisoner of the Nazis. He was, however, still a prisoner of his own mind. He could not reconcile himself with the questions he had regarding the catastrophe that had befallen his People. He requested that his friend please locate a Jew who had survived the concentration camps so that he could pose his questions to him.

There happened to be a survivor in the hospital, a strictly observant Jew, whose external appearance, his beard and payos together with his piercing eyes, bespoke an individual who had lived in the shadow of death and, as a result, had become a better, more spiritual person. Indeed, one could sense in talking to him that he was in the presence of a Heavenly Angel. When this saintly man came to visit the doctor who was recuperating, the doctor cried out, "My brother, how is it possible to continue on, to live with hope after the terrible destruction that was wrought upon us? How can we not give up hope?"

The Jew answered him saying, "What kept me going throughout the bitter war? Let me tell you. I am a chasid of the great tzaddik, Rav Nachman Breslover, who died as a very young man. He was stricken with tuberculosis at the young age of thirty. He suffered indescribable pain, becoming weaker every day. He would cough up blood amidst excruciating pain, but he never complained. As he was nearing his end, he convened his "tish," table, when the Rebbe and chasidim would sing and listen to words of Torah. During the "tish," he began to cough up so much blood that he began to choke. We could see his agony and his torment. Yet, in the middle of this scene, the Rebbe cried out, 'Yehudim, Jews; it is forbidden to ever give up hope. Even in a situation such as mine, when all of the doctors have said it is hopeless, I do not give up hope! I still believe with my whole heart that I will continue to live.' The Rebbe's hope, his total trust in the Almighty, infused me with courage and hope to go on despite the challenges which I confronted." When the doctor heard these emotional words, he exclaimed, "You have consoled me!"

Let us hope that those sincere emotional words will inspire all of us.

Yosef called the name of his first born Menashe, for G-d has made me forget all my hardship… And the name of the second he called Efraim for, G-d has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering. (41:51,52)

As Yosef named his second son, he chose to emphasize that Egypt was not his home; it was "eretz anyi," land of my suffering, even though this land had been the source of his eminence. Here, he had become known; here, he had become wealthy and powerful; here, he went from being a lowly slave to associate ruler of the country. Yet, he wanted to remember and inculcate this idea in his children: Egypt is not our home; it is eretz anyi, the land of aniyus-affliction, suffering and poverty. Horav Chizkiyahu Cohen, zl, comments that the greatest "ani," poor man, is an "ani b'daas," one who is deficient in his mind, one who lacks wisdom. In Egypt, Yosef was far-removed from daas Torah, the Torah perspective of his father. Yosef sought to convey to his sons that Egypt was the land where they happened to live. It was not, however, their home. It was a land whose values, culture and lifestyle was antithetical to the way of life mandated for a Jew. Egyptian "weltanschauung" did not represent the Torah point of view and way of life. Horav Cohen supports this thesis with an exposition of the Daas Zekeinim m'Baalei Tosfos. They attribute Efraim's name to the root word "eifar," which means dust. The Patriarchs, Avraham and Yitzchak, Yosef's ancestors, had a distinct relationship with "eifar." In his humility, Avraham compared himself to the dust of the earth. Yitzchak, as the perfect sacrifice, is considered before Hashem as if his eifar, ashes/dust, had been on top of the Mizbayach, Altar, as atonement for Klal Yisrael. The name Efraim, which is a plural form of "eifar," recalls the two Patriarchs, the legacy that they bequeathed to their descendants. Yosef underscored this legacy in naming his son, telling him to follow in the Patriarch's footsteps by perceiving Egypt as eretz anyi, a land foreign to the Jewish way of life.

So Yosef's brothers, ten of them, went to buy grain from Egypt. (42:3)

Rashi questions the Torah's usage of the term "Yosef's brothers," as opposed to "Yaakov's sons." Furthermore, why does the Torah state that ten brothers went down to Egypt? We are told in the next pasuk that Binyamin went down. Is there a reason that the Torah emphasizes the number ten? Rashi explains that by referring to them as Yosef's brothers, the Torah seeks to emphasize that they all were remorseful over the sale of Yosef. Consequently, they went with brotherly affection to find and redeem him at all costs. Their sentiments towards him were not uniform, since some brothers had stronger filial feelings towards Yosef than others. We are, therefore, told that there were ten brothers with ten distinct levels of concern about their brother. Yet, they were totally united in their quest to purchase grain from Egypt.

Horav David Feinstein, Shlita, supplements this exegesis. He observes that the Hebrew word "ach," brother, is etymologically related to two other words, one meaning "sorrow" and the other meaning "to sew together." A brother's obligation encompasses both of these concepts. A brother has a natural inclination to be sensitive to the worry or sorrow of his brother. Likewise, when one brother has a problem, his brothers are obligated to join together with him to minister to his needs.

With this in mind, Horav Feinstein posits that the term "achei Yosef," Yosef's brothers, has an additional connotation. Had the Torah referred to them simply as Yaakov's sons, we might be led to believe that their desire to liberate Yosef reflected their concern for their father's feelings. Now that the Torah emphasizes that they came as Yosef's brothers, it attests to their genuine concern and sorrow as true brothers who were naturally trying to help him. Their collective feelings notwithstanding, they were still ten brothers with ten individual degrees of sensitivity. It would serve us well to take this thesis into mind in regard to our interpersonal relationships with our friends. After all, are not all Jews brethren?

Indeed, we are guilty concerning our brother in as much as we saw his heartfelt anguish when he pleaded with us. (42:21)

If we peruse the preceding parsha, which relates the story of the sale of Yosef to the Yishmaelim, we notice that there is no mention of Yosef pleading with his brothers. It is only from their vidui, confession, that we are able to derive that he pleaded with them not to sell him. Horav Yosef Konvitz, zl, observes, that implicit in the brother's statement, is that this pleading must have taken place only at the moment that they decided to sell him to the Arab merchants. Why? Why did he not implore then earlier, when they were throwing him into the pit? Was his life not in danger then? What delayed his plea?

Horav Konvitz explains that as long as the danger was concentrated on his physical well-being, Yosef was prepared to accept the pain and suffering as yesurim shel ahavah, pain inflicted by Hashem out of deep love. Yosef was willing to accept Hashem's decree, as long as his spiritual status-quo remained intact. When his brothers decided to sell him to the Arabs, Yosef became afraid. He was experiencing a clear and present danger to his neshamah, soul. If he were sold to the pagans, there was the distinct possibility that by living among them, he would slowly acculturate and eventually assimilate. Now he began to beg. He implored his brothers, "Please do not sell me. Please do not cast me off to live among the nations of the world." This is implied by the brother's statement when they said, "We saw tzoras nafsho," translated as heartfelt anguish, but quite possibly referring to the anguish of his nefesh, soul, the fear that his soul would now suffer. As long as the danger was only to his physical being, Yosef accepted his fate. When his neshamah hung in the balance, he poured out his heart to them to listen to him. Regrettably, they did not.

Vignettes on the Parsha

That we may live and not die. (42:2)

The word "v'nichyeh," that we may live, has two connotations. It can either mean life in its most rudimentary sense, as opposed to death. It can also mean a life of luxury. The Netziv,zl, notes that Yaakov said "That we may live and not die." They were to purchase only enough food to live in a simple manner, for it is prohibited to live in luxury at a time when the world is suffering famine.


And he said to them, You are spies!" (42:9)

Yosef accused his brothers of coming to spy out the land of Egypt. The Zohar Hakadosh says that the word "meraglim," spies, is related to the meraglim of Moshe's time, who spoke lashon hora against Eretz Yisrael. Eretz Tzvi explains that the sin of lashon hora, disparaging speech, is the result of sinaas chinam, unwarranted hatred. Yosef was implying to his brothers that they were meraglim, that they were guilty of the sin of sinaas chinam, which would eventually result in the sin of lashon hora, the catalyst of the downfall of the meraglim.


Then Reuven told his father saying "You may slay my two sons." (42:37)

Yaakov Avinu did not accept Reuven's "suggestion," because it was not true mesiras negesh, self-sacrifice. The Bais Yisrael explains that mesiras nefesh must be unequivocal, as in the case of Yehudah, who was prepared to give up his portion in this world and Olam Habah. Reuven had four sons; he offered two. This is a compromising form of mesiras nefesh.


Why do you repay evil for good? (44:4)

Why did he not simply ask them why they stole the silver goblet? Minchah Belulah derives from here that the infraction of kefias tov, ingratitude, is more severe than the act of stealing. We may suggest the following rationale: one who steals reacts selfishly to an overriding desire or need, while one who lacks appreciation manifests an innate character flaw or moral deficiency. He cares for no one but himself.

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