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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 events that catalyzed Yosef's release from prison began two years to the day after the sar ha'mashkim, Chamberlain of the Cupbearers, was himself released from prison. Yosef had been imprisoned for twelve years. Chazal tell us that Yosef erred when he asked for the chamberlain's assistance in procuring his release from prison. Because Yosef placed his trust in the chamberlain, rather than Hashem, his sentence was increased by two years. Interestingly, Chazal make an apparently paradoxical statement. They initially describe Yosef as someone who placed his complete trust in the Almighty. Thus, he was inappropriate in relying on Pharaoh's servant to help him out of prison. If it was wrong to seek human intervention, how can he be credited for relying solely on Hashem? He had no alternative but to rely on Hashem. Furthermore, what was so inappropriate about turning to the cupbearer? Everyone has to make his hishtadlus, endeavoring, to create a medium upon which Hashem will confer His blessing. Yosef was mishtadel. Why should he be held in contempt for doing what every gadol, Torah luminary, has done?

The Chazon Ish, zl, explains that while it is true that Yosef was to be mishtadel, he did not have to approach an individual who, by his very nature, was not a kind and benevolent person. When Yosef approached Pharaoh's cupbearer, it was clear that this was his final alternative. He was acting out of yiush, hopelessness. A hishtadlus of yiush is not a true hishtadlus and is, thus, inappropriate. In other words, it was appropriate for Yosef to ask someone for assistance - but not of an Egyptian whose perspective in assisting him was negative. Yosef should have trusted Hashem by being mishtadel through normal channels. Asking an individual who is not known for his favors is not considered hishtadlus. It is an act of desperation, of giving up hope.

Horav Chaim Kamil, zl, offers an alternative explanation. The criticism was assessed against Yosef for the actual hishtadlus, because he should have realized by this time that Hashem was dealing with him b'derech neis, through miracles. Nature did not play a role in Yosef's existence. Everything that he achieved, every situation from which he was extricated, occurred miraculously. He should have understood that Hashem was watching over him in a unique manner, so that he should let things happen on their "own."

What seems to be questionable, according to both of these explanations, is that after all was said and done, it was the cupbearer that served as the medium for Yosef's release. Apparently there was a purpose and benefit to this hishtadlus. If so, why is Yosef criticized? Rav Kamil explains that while Yosef's hishtadlus did, indeed, produce fruit, it was, nonetheless, a hishtadlus that was not consistent with his elevated spiritual stature. To beg, to act obsequiously, is below the dignity and bearing of a tzaddik. He should have prayed to Hashem and hoped that his entreaty would effect a positive response.

Yosef remained in prison for two additional years after the cupbearer was released. This should not be viewed as a punishment for asking the cupbearer for assistance, but, rather, to provide him with an opportunity to "reflect" and "review" the underlying concepts relating to bitachon, trust, in the Almighty. He needed a refresher course, and when he completed this "two year" course, he was ready to leave prison and become the viceroy of Egypt. He was no longer a lowly slave begging for an Egyptian cupbearer to help him; he was Yosef, the viceroy of Egypt, who was acutely aware that all assistance is ultimately from Hashem. He left prison with class. This idea is consistent with the comment made by the Zohar HaKadosh that it was Hashem Who personally caused Yosef to leave the prison at the appointed time. In the end, Yosef's release and salvation were the results of his deep commitment and trust in Hashem - not the result of the intervention of the Egyptian. This is why he exited the prison with glory and honor. The catalyst of our salvation determines the means and the manner of our salvation.

Then the Chamberlain of the Cupbearers spoke up before Pharaoh, "My transgressions do I mention today." (41:9)

If we follow the Chamberlain's monologue, we notice a vestige of arrogance: "My transgressions do I mention today." He could have simply said, "I remember my transgressions."

Why does he emphasize that "I" mention it today? He continues to say, "Pharaoh had placed me in the ward of house of the Chamberlain of the Butchers - me and the chamberlain of the Bakers." He adds that, "We dreamt a dream - I and he." If they had a dream, then obviously it was I and he. Why does he reiterate the "I" factor?

Horav Aizik Ausband, Shlita, views this to be typical of human nature. The average human being, unless he is refined, invariably emphasizes and promotes himself in speech, action, and at every opportunity that avails itself. It is always about "I" or "me." By our very nature, we think first and foremost about ourselves. This is not why Hashem created us. He created us to be a conduit to help others - not just ourselves.

Rav Aizik relates that in the city of Kelm, home to the famous Mussar movement, where the emphasis was placed on ethics and character refinement, the word "I" was never used. It was always the collective "we" or "us." The individual was always a part of the entire community, not a person in his own right. A man once knocked on the door. When asked, "Who is there?" he responded naturally, saying, "I" or "Me." No answer. He knocked again, only to receive the same response. It was only after he stated his name that the door was opened for him. "I" was not an acceptable response.

They then said to one another, "Indeed we are guilty concerning our brother inasmuch as we saw his heartfelt anguish as he pleaded with us, and we paid no heedů" Reuven spoke up to them saying, "Did I not speak to you saying, 'Do not sin against the boy?'" (42:21,22)

There seems to be a clear difference of opinion between the brothers and Reuven with regard to their behavior concerning the sale of Yosef. The commentators elaborate on this. Apparently, the brothers felt strongly that Yosef was a serious threat to their spiritual future. Yosef was disparaging them, and this would lead to their exclusion from becoming the progenitors of Klal Yisrael. Indeed, Chazal say that they acted with mesiras nefesh, self-sacrifice, against Yosef, because they felt that if they were to be deposed, it would create a chillul Hashem, desecration of Hashem's Name. They did agree, however, that they should have demonstrated greater compassion towards Yosef. As far as halachah was concerned, he was a rodef, pursuer, bent on destroying them, and they had the right to protect themselves.

Reuven, on the other hand, disagreed. He felt that the actual sale was a sin and that Yosef was not guilty of being a rodef. Incredible! Two gedolei olam, world Torah leaders, viewed the same episode from different vantage points and arrived at two distinct renderings of the law. The other brothers felt that Yosef was guilty and deserved the penalty of death. Reuven disagreed. Why did Reuven perceive the situation in a different light?

Chazal tell us that Reuven was impressed when Yosef, in relating his dream, mentioned, "And eleven stars bowed down to me." Reuven said, "Yosef is including me among the brothers, as a full-fledged member of the Shivtei Kah, Tribes of Hashem." While this dream catalyzed greater hatred towards Yosef from the brothers, it created an inextricable bond of love towards him from Reuven. In addition, Reuven was undergoing a process of teshuvah, repentance, for his part in moving his mother's bed. Thus, Reuven was in a totally different state of mind than his brothers. He had thought that he had been excluded from the Tribal hierarchy as a result of his impetuous act of moving the bed, and yet Yosef included him. This increased his love for Yosef. Reuven, in a state of contrition himself, observed the scenario from a more passive perspective.

Horav Aharon Kotler, zl, derives from here that Reuven's frame of mind allowed him to view the brothers' actions against Yosef with greater depth and understanding. He did not see Yosef's dreams as an act of redifah, pursuit, against them. He perceived Yosef through a different spectrum and, thus, rendered a more favorable decision concerning him.

Horav Avraham Schorr, Shlita, supplements this idea, suggesting that Rav Aharon is teaching us another lesson. Upon hearing Yosef's dream and realizing that Yosef included him among the Shevatim, Reuven felt indebted to Yosef. This heightened sense of hakoras hatov, debt of gratitude, to Yosef, catalyzed within him an ability to view Yosef in a different light. The brothers had an external, superficial perspective of Yosef, while Reuven, because of his hakoras hatov, saw beyond the outward fa?ade of malicious activity, and, instead, saw the truth - Yosef's innocence; his intentions had been noble. He had not been seeking to harm them.

We derive from here that through the attribute of hakoras hatov, we are able to view a person whose actions might not be above-board in a positive light. Hakoras hatov gives us a new set of spectacles which enable us to see clearer and with greater optimism. After all, when we realize that we are indebted to someone, we tend to be melamed z'chus, find merit, in everything that he does.

We can take this one step further. We owe our greatest and continued debt of gratitude to the Almighty for sustaining and providing us with our lives, our welfare and everything that accompanies it. Given this reality, how then can we criticize Him when things just do not seem to go our way? The only answer to this question is the obvious: Those who criticize Hashem do not really appreciate the benefits they receive from Him. They take everything for granted until they are deprived of something. Then, they know Who to criticize. If we were to give thanks to Whom it belongs, we would never find fault when something that seems to be negative occurs. We would realize that everything comes from the same Source - One that is good and beneficial.

So Yehudah said, "What can we say to my lord? How can we speak? And how can we justify ourselves? G-d has uncovered the sin of your servants. Here we are! We are ready to be slaves to my lord - both we and the one in whose hand the goblet was found."(44:16)

When we peruse the pesukim analytically, we note an almost paradoxical behavior on the part of Yehudah. Initially, when the brothers approached Yosef, we see Yehudah speaking in an almost obsequious manner, "Hashem has uncovered the sin of your servants. How can we justify ourselves? We are all prepared to become slaves." Then, almost suddenly, we see an about face, as Yehudah approached Yosef and spoke sternly to him. In the beginning of Parashas Vayigash, Rashi cites the Midrash which records their dialogue. Yehudah was prepared to go to war against Yosef and all of Egypt. "I will kill you and Pharaoh!" Yehudah declared. Thus, transforming from hachnaah, from being subdued and lowly, to a declaration of war seems a bit irrational. What happened? What occurred the moment that Yosef replied to Yehudah's offer that they all be slaves? "It would be sacrilegious for me to do this. The man in whose possession the goblet was found, only he shall be my slave, and - as for you - go up in peace to your father." (Ibid 44:17)

Horav Sholom Schwadron, zl, cites Horav Elya Lopian, zl, who explains what took place. We are acutely aware of the terrible tragedy that took place when the Roman government sentenced ten of Klal Yisrael's greatest Torah luminaries, the Asarah Harugei Malchus, to die in the most cruel and horrific manner as a result of what his brothers did to Yosef. When the decree was made, the Tannaim decided among themselves to have Rabbi Yishmael ascend to Heaven to confirm this decree and the reason for it. When we hear this, we wonder: What difference does it make? Does the fact that the gezeirah, decree, emanates from on High change the nature of the decree? Is there a purpose to having Rabbi Yishmael confirm the decree?

There certainly is. Indeed, if the Ten Martyrs had known that this decree was not against them, they would not have reacted the way that they did by going to their deaths willingly, with dignity. They would have fought! They would have uttered incantations to protect themselves. The gentile executioner had no power over these tzaddikim, saintly rabbis, unless they gave him permission to kill them. They were so holy that the power of life and death was within their ability. By using the Shem Hameforash, Ineffable Name, they could bring someone back to life, or vice versa. Were they really afraid of their enemies? Did they have to submit to the executioner? No! They did so because Rabbi Yishmael returned with a Heavenly message: It is Hashem's decree. To try to undermine it would be futile. They would go to their deaths with dignity and pride, as befitting gedolei Yisrael, Torah leaders.

Another case in point is related in Meseches Kallah. It once happened that Rabbi Chanina ben Teradyon, one of the Ten Martyrs, mistakenly exchanged money designated for Purim with money set aside for charity. When he realized what had happened, he remarked, "Oy, maybe I was guilty of Heavenly death." At that very moment, there was a knock at his door, and the executioner came in, wrapped him in a Torah scroll, and took him outside to be burned alive with the Torah. Miraculously, the fire did not "want" to burn Rabbi Chanina. At that moment the executioner asked, "Are you Rabbi Chanina? Perhaps, I made a mistake and I took out the wrong rabbi."

"No, you did not err. I am Rabbi Chanina," the sage replied. "Why then does the fire not consume you?" the gentile asked.

Rabbi Chanina's reply should make us shudder. "I made a vow in Hashem's Name that the fire would not hurt me until I confirmed with Heaven that this was a Heavenly decree. Please wait a moment while I make this confirmation." The executioner waited for Rabbi Chanina's reply from Heaven.

During these moments, the executioner was pondering. Individuals such as these great rabbinic sages have the power to sway decrees of life and death. Yet, the Roman government seems to have power over them. Why? What determines when they fall under the dominion of the Romans and when they do not? The executioner turned to Rabbi Chanina and commanded, "Quickly, rise up and flee from here. Whatever punishment the government wants to give you, I will take instead. Go save yourself!"

"Vacuous one! Do you not understand? Heaven has approved my execution. What will I gain by running? If you do not kill me, then it will be the bears in the forest who will devour me. When Hashem makes a decree - it is final. My time has come, regardless of what you do or do not do. You will, however, be punished by Heaven for your complicity in my death," replied Rabbi Chanina.

When the executioner heard these poignant, but powerful, words, he flung himself into the fire together with Rabbi Chanina. As his soul left him, he cried out, "I will die with you; I will be buried with you; and I will continue to live with you." Immediately, a Heavenly voice declared, "Rabbi Chanina and his executioner are both destined to enter Olam Habah, the World to Come." We now have a glimpse as to how one of the saintly Tannaim left this world.

Bearing this in mind, let us return to Yehudah and his brothers. We now understand the rationale for their seemingly contradictory actions. These were individuals who were pure and holy. The only criticism levied against them was their involvement in the sale of Yosef, an activity which they validated according to halachah. Despite their justification, they felt that their ordeal in Egypt must have been prompted by some infraction on their part. They accepted this and, therefore, acceded to all of Yosef's demands. After all, it was ordained by Heaven. Hashem wants us to suffer for our part in the sale of Yosef. We accept the decree and are all willing to be slaves to the viceroy.

It was when the viceroy said that only Binyamin, the only brother who had not been involved in the sale of Yosef, was to be incarcerated that their quiescent attitude quickly changed. If this was a Heavenly decree for their sin, then Binyamin should have been the one to be released. Apparently, this was nothing more than Egyptian evil orchestrated by a diabolical viceroy. That was something which they could not and would not tolerate. Yehudah approached Yosef and demonstrated his physical ability to conquer Egypt - if necessary.

This powerful insight into the workings of Heaven illuminates for us many of the "responses" our saintly forebears have given to the various decrees that have been made against us. They were able to confirm the source - and the corresponding reaction.

Va'ani Tefillah

Hodu l'Hashem kiru bi' Shemo
hodiu ba'amim alilosav

Give thanks to Hashem, declare His Name, make His acts known among the peoples.

Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, explains that hodaah, giving thanks, is not an innate characteristic. We must be taught to appreciate and pay gratitude. Does not every mother tell her child constantly, "Say thank you." From the time we are born, everything that we have is given to us. Parents, grandparents, friends, neighbors all give and give, but the One Who constantly gives is Hashem, the Source of everything. David Hamelech composed Hodu and addresses the entire nation: "Thank Hashem and make the nations know of His deeds." Thus, this prayer at the beginning of our daily tefillah reminds us not to take life for granted. We must attach ourselves to Hashem and remember that we are indebted to Him.

Avraham Avinu was known to "call out in Hashem's Name," Va'yikra b'shem Hashem (Bereishis 12:8). This means simply that he proclaimed Hashem's existence to the world community. Horav S.R. Hirsch, zl, goes a step further. He points out that Vayikra b'shem Hashem really means: "He called everything by the Name of Hashem." In other words, he declared to the world that everything that exists was created by Hashem. After we have digested the idea that everything is from Hashem and He is the One to Whom we must pay gratitude, we now have the obligation to spread this idea throughout the world. This is done, says Rav Schwab, by our constant recognition through speech, attributing everything to Hashem. Hence, we use such phrases as, "Baruch Hashem," and "Im yirtzeh Hashem."

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