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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland

PARSHAS VAYEISHEV

Reuven heard, and he rescued him from their hand, He said, "We will not strike him mortally!" Shed no blood! Throw him into this pit." (37:21,22)

Reuven's plea to his brothers to spare Yosef's life did not go unnoticed. His goal was to circumvent a tragedy, so that he could return later and rescue Yosef from the pit. The Torah makes a point of emphasizing Reuven's intentions, which is in itself highly unusual. In connection with Reuven's praiseworthy act, the Midrash comments concerning a pasuk in Shir HaShirim (7:14), Hadudaim nasnu reiach, v'al pesachim kol megadim, "The mandrakes have given out their scent, and by our doors are all choice fruits." "The mandrakes have given out their scent" is a reference to Reuven. (Mandrakes have fertility-inducing powers. Reuven sought them to give to his mother Leah, so that she could bear more children. Rachel asked Leah for some of her mandrakes- a request to which she acquiesced. Leah then gave birth to Yissachar, Zevulun and Dinah; Rachel conceived and gave birth to Yosef. Hence, Reuven is identified with the dudaim.) "And by our doors are all choice fruits" refers to the neiros Chanukah, the lamps commemorating the Chanukah miracle, which are lit and placed at the front door of Jewish homes. The fact that Chazal find reference to Reuven in the first part of the pasuk and to the Chanukah lamps in the second half indicates that there is a connection between the two. What is the connection?

Horav Meir Bergman, Shlita, cites the Teshuvos HaRashba who questions why the Torah relates what went through Reuven's mind when he exhorted his brothers not to kill Yosef. Rarely does the Torah delve into an individual's inner thoughts. He deduces that the Torah records and publicly lauds those who perform mitzvos. Therefore, if the Torah does so, it is appropriate for us to follow this practice. Rav Bergman asserts that this is the factor underlying the concept of pirsumei nissa, publicizing a miracle. It is not sufficient merely to declare that a miracle has occurred. It is crucial that every aspect and detail of the miracle be underscored, such as for whom it was done and through whose merit the laws of "nature" were abrogated - just as the Torah did in Reuven's situation. The Torah glorifies Reuven's action because it is worthy of such special treatment.

Likewise, on Chanukah, we make a point to proclaim the miracles, specifying that they had been performed for our fathers, through the Kohanim, so that emphasis is placed on the "for whom" and the "through whom." All of this lends greater weight to the miracle which took place.

A similar rationale may be applied to Purim and the need for reading the Megillah. It is not enough merely to announce that a miracle occurred in Shushan. We must spell out to whom it happened, and how, and by whose merit it was catalyzed. In an effort to place greater focus on the miracle, we follow the reading of the Megillah with the Shoshanas Yaakov prose, in which the highlights of the Purim story are featured explicitly throughout.

Returning to the original Midrash that alludes to a correlation between Reuven and the miracle of Chanukah, "the mandrakes," which are symbolic of Reuven, "have given out their scent"; the Torah has declared and publicized Reuven's laudatory intentions concerning Yosef. Such a proclamation should be carried out to the fullest extent possible. It should be made known in fullest detail and spread as far as possible. Publicizing the miracle is a form of hodaah, paying gratitude. Thus, "by our doors are all choice fruits" - in compliance with the principle the Torah teaches us-- we, too, light the Chanukah candles near the front door in order to publicize the miracle to the fullest extent.

This idea is in direct contrast to those who choose to play down miracles, who refuse to call attention to themselves. Humility is valuable and has its place, but not at the expense of veiling Hashem's beneficence. When one has been blessed with a miracle, when he has been party to something out of the natural order of things, he should make an effort to declare his gratitude to Hashem. It is all part of recognizing the Source of all of our blessings.

He (Yaakov) recognized it and he said, "My son's tunic! A savage beast devoured him." (37:33)

The Midrash ponders why Yaakov Avinu was punished to the extent that he had to utter the words, kesones beni, "My son's tunic!" Chazal explain that Hashem rewards and punishes middah k'neged middah, measure for measure. One is "reimbursed" in a manner quite similar to his actions. Yaakov misled his father, Yitzchak Avinu, when he donned Eisav's garment. For this, he paid dearly. This is not the venue to discuss whether Yaakov acted inappropriately by taking the berachos, blessings, for himself. Rivkah Imeinu, his mother, told him to take them. The wicked Eisav could not have received those blessings. Apparently, Yaakov was only punished for wearing a garment that deceived Yitzchak, causing him to ask, "Are you my son, Eisav?" Perhaps there was another way for someone of the calibre of Yaakov Avinu, the chosen one of the Patriarchs, to have received the blessing that was rightfully his.

Measure for measure seems to be a theme, weaving its course through the parsha. Yosef HaTzadik said three things concerning his brothers: they ate eivar min hachai, flesh from a living animal; they abused the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah; they were gazing inappropriately at the pagan women who inhabited the land. Chazal note that Yosef was punished measure for measure, in consonance with what he related about his brothers. Furthermore, Chazal explain why the Torah interrupts the narrative dealing with the sale of Yosef into slavery and his travails in Egypt, by introducing the story of Yehudah and Tamar in a similar manner. It is to juxtapose the word haker, recognize, used by Yehudah to his father when he presented Yosef's bloodied tunic, onto the word, haker, used by Tamar in her message to Yehudah, indicating the father of her unborn children. Why does a simple word make a difference?

Horav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zl, explains that when Yehudah heard the familiar ring of "haker," he was reminded that the humiliation he was experiencing at the hands of Tamar was retribution for his callousness in dealing with Yosef. Likewise, when Yosef saw his brothers slaughtering the goat and not eating it while it was still living, it indicated to him that he had erred terribly concerning them.

We must understand that Divine Justice is not punitive to "avenge" a sin, but rather to instruct and educate, to demonstrate to a person where he went wrong, so that he will know how to correct his misdeed. Middah k'neged middah pinpoints the reason for the punishment, and tracks the actions leading up to it. As a result, one knows in which areas he is deficient and how to rectify the problems. One who takes his humiliation seriously, realizing that Hashem is conveying a message to him, has the ability to circumvent additional, more painful punishment. Thus, he has acknowledged his failing, such that no further punishment is necessary.

When the Chafetz Chaim, zl, was a youth, he was privy to an odious incident in his community. A poor widow could not pay her rent. It was in the cold of winter, and she begged her Jewish landlord to have pity on her and not evict her from the house. She pleaded, she cried. The response was negative. The heartless man refused to listen, and he threw her out in the cold. The Chafetz Chaim took notice of the incident. A few years later, he was surprised that the landlord had not received any Heavenly "intervention" for his ghastly deed. He remarked, "Impossible. It is impossible that something so evil will be ignored. Hashem follows through on the cases of widows." Ten years elapsed, and word was received that one day the landlord was walking through the street when he "chanced" upon a mad dog who bit him. The landlord died shortly thereafter. Hashem was biding His time.

The Chafetz Chaim's son, Rav Leib, zl, recounted that a butcher in Radin once grabbed a yeshivah student and placed him - in place of his own son - to be conscripted into the Russian Army. The city raised an uproar which, after some time, quieted down, as all such outrages tend to do. The Chafetz Chaim once again remarked that he did not believe that such a travesty would go unpunished. Surely, the butcher would receive his rightful due from the Heavenly Tribunal.

Thirty years went by, and, suddenly, "out of the blue," the butcher's son-- who was now a grown man-- became ill with a serious disease. In a very short time, the illness ran its course, and he died. Thirty years. No evil deed goes unpunished. What we do to others - the manner in which we act towards others- will return to haunt us. We cannot escape Hashem's retribution.

There is a flipside to middah k'neged middah. In his commentary to the Torah, Rashi questions the necessity of saving Noach from the Deluge by means of an Ark that took one hundred twenty years to construct. Certainly, Hashem had other less "elaborate" avenues of escape available to spare Noach and his family. He explains that the Ark was designed to inspire the wicked people of Noach's generation, who, upon noticing him working so hard, would ask what he was doing and to question why. Noach's response might have motivated the people to repent. Sadly, they chose to continue their evil behavior until their society came to an abrupt end.

The Be'er Mayim Chaim explains that Hashem's plan was to reward Noach, middah k'neged middah. One who serves Hashem from his "easy chair"- without going out of his way, in no way straining himself to do more, better and with greater effort- will experience a similar response for his reward. Hashem will reward him, but it will be simple and straightforward - no heroics - and Hashem will not go "out of His way" to change the natural order. In Noach's case, it was necessary to save Noach, not only from the waters, but also from the people and the animals who sought to kill him. Noach needed a miracle, and in order to receive one, he needed to deserve it. A miracle occurs in order to acknowledge someone who has gone out of his way to serve Hashem. Noach did. He was, therefore, spared.

Commensurate with our investment, we will reap reward. This applies in the physical/material world, and, surely so, in the spiritual dimension. Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, relates that a man once asked why he was having such a difficult time selling his apartment. It was a beautiful apartment in one of Yerushalayim's most impressive neighborhoods, and he just could not get a customer. This was despite the fact that anyone else in his complex who put up his apartment for sale - sold it immediately. What was wrong?

Rav Zilberstein shared the following vignette with him. One day, he davened Shacharis in a shul in Yerushalayim. The gabai, sexton, was attempting to sell the aliyos to a non-responsive congregation. He was offering shlishi, for five shekalim, and no takers had emerged. It was embarrassing for the shul and the Torah! Rav Zilberstein could no longer contain himself, so he rose to the lectern and addressed the assemblage. "Does anyone realize that the Torah is being publicly humiliated? No one is willing to spend five shekalim ($1.25) for a chance to recite a brachah, blessing, over the Torah? We have such a wonderful opportunity to give honor to the Torah, and we fail to do so. Is this not outrageous?" It did not take but a moment, and the aliyah was sold.

Rav Zilberstein looked at the petitioner and said, "Tell me, perhaps you, too, had an opportunity to perform a mitzvah which might have cost a few shekalim, and you ignored it. Do you realize that this causes humiliation in the spiritual realm? Think about it. That might be the reason for your lack of success in selling your apartment." Perhaps we should also introspect, to explore whether we are being a bit too casual and complacent in our own mitzvah observance.

And all his sons and all his daughters arose to comfort him, but he refused to comfort himself. (37:35)

A Jew has a unique neshamah, soul, whose flame continues to burn, regardless of the "beating" it has taken as a result of a person's wandering away from the Torah way of life. Years of assimilation and alienation can suddenly be erased, as the neshamah is inspired to return to its source. It might seem to the spectator that the words of inspiration, the many talks, pleas and encouragements had all been for naught, and then, suddenly, as if from nowhere, the individual for whom we had all given up hope returns. He comes home, his neshamah ablaze with a passion to serve Hashem and regain the days, months and years during which he had been astray. He is embraced and welcomed home, because his Father in Heaven never despaired of his return.

The following episode took place in a shul, one week-night after the rav had concluded his nightly dvar Torah between Minchah and Maariv. It was the week of Parashas Vayeishev, and the rav had quoted a Torah thought from the Ohr HaChaim Hakadosh, then he added his own vignette. What happened afterwards is "textbook kiruv" outreach which should inspire us all. The Ohr HaChaim wonders how Yaakov Avinu's sons and daughters comforted him. What could they have done that might have consoled him? He responds that when the family saw how distraught Yaakov was over the loss of Yosef, they reasoned that if they all were to come forward - sons, daughters, and their individual families - Yaakov would take note of his remaining family. Thus, some of the pain concerning the loss of Yosef would dissipate. In other words, they did nothing other than all assemble together as a unit, to demonstrate to their father that a substantial family was still left.

It was a good idea, but they had yet to realize the intense love that Yaakov had for Yosef - both physically and spiritually. Yosef's spiritual potential vis-?-vis the future Jewish nation was awesome. The loss he had experienced was devastating. No, Yaakov could not be comforted over such a loss. All of the children could not replace one Yosef.

Thus ended the Ohr HaChaim's dvar Torah. The rav now added his own novel suggestion. He explained that Hashem is also a loving father, to whom each and every Jew/child is of incalculable significance. He mourns the spiritual alienation of each child. The loss of a Jew causes Hashem great pain. Imagine, Hashem peers into the bais hamedrash and, when He sees the empty seat of an individual, He mourns his spiritual demise. Thus, when all of His remaining children, those Jews who have maintained their observance and retained their relationship with their Heavenly Father, assemble and show their increased numbers, it gives Hashem pride and joy. Perhaps this will cause His mourning to subside.

Our task is to - in some way - decrease Hashem's "pain" over the loss of His children. Hashem, however, refuses to be comforted! Each and every Jew comprises a world on his own. He matters - regardless of how far, how long and how deeply he has strayed. Hashem misses him, grieves over his forfeiture from the religion of his ancestors, and awaits his return. Every Jewish soul that is missing is a discreet reason to lament.

The rav's words struck a chord in the hearts of his listeners. Unbeknownst to him, an individual was seated in the shul who was not a regular participant in the services. In fact, he never came, having halted his practice of Judaism quite some time previously. It just happened that he had yahrzeit for his father, who had been a member in the shul, so he came to recite kaddish. Over the years, the rav had spoken to him numerous times, in an attempt to jumpstart his Jewish observance - all to no avail. Something happened, however, that night which was unlike any other time. He had just heard that every Jew is important to Hashem, and that the Almighty waits for the return of each individual. Yes, Hashem still loved him. He had hope. He could return home and be accepted. He came over to the rav and asked for "directions." He was coming home.

As she was taken out, she sent word to her father-in-law, saying, "By the man to whom this belongs I am with child." (38:25) We live during a time in which our people sorely need some form of hope, something to hold, something to stabilize our lives in a world society constantly being plummeted by winds of confusion. What has kept us resolute and unwavering in our commitment has been the belief in the advent of Moshiach Tzidkeinu. It would, thus, make sense that we do everything within our power to "expedite" this process. What can we do to bring Moshiach? It might be more judicious to focus on what it is we are doing - however inadvertently - to delay his arrival. While this author has never claimed to have the answers, one subtle lesson can be derived from an incident in this parshah, which should prove to be a powerful lesson for us all.

The Torah records the passing of Yehuda's two sons, Er and Onan. Er's widow, Tamar, who is identified by Chazal as the daughter of Shem ben Noach, was to marry Onan, her brother-in-law, in order to "raise up" offspring for his deceased brother. Onan was really not interested in having a child that would be regarded as belonging to his brother; therefore, he was careful not to impregnate her. He, too, died young and it was not yet time for the next brother, Sheilah, to marry Tamar. Yehudah was hesitant to have Sheilah marry Tamar, lest he, too, die prematurely. He told Tamar to wait for Sheilah to grow up, and then they would marry. The years passed, and Tamar sensed that her marriage to Sheilah would probably never occur.

Tamar decided on a course of action which, to the uneducated, may appear to be unbecoming, but was totally l'shem Shomayim, for the sake of Heaven. She presented herself as a woman of ill-repute and arranged a liaison with Yehudah, during which she became pregnant. The incident was part of a Divine plan to cloak the seeds of malchus Bais David, the Davidic dynasty, and eventually Moshiach Tzidkeinu, in a veil of ambiguity and moral murkiness. Not only is Yehudah not to be blamed for his tryst, he remains as chaste and righteous as he was before. The entire episode was forced upon him by the Divine Hand. This is not the forum to explain the "why," but rather to discuss how Tamar, who became the matriarch of the Davidic dynasty, handled herself and to learn from her actions.

When word reached Yehudah that his daughter-in-law was pregnant, thus guilty of an adulterous act, he said, "Bring her out, so that she may be burnt." Tamar's response displays her unusual character: subtly, she sent a message to Yehudah that the man who had deposited with her a seal, its cord and a staff, was the father of the children growing in her womb. This was a coded message to which only Yehudah would respond - if he so chose. He was the father; he knew it, and she knew it; yet, she was prepared to die, rather than divulge his secret, to humiliate him publicly. Tamar's sensitivity to another person's feelings - even at the risk of her own life - and Yehudah's strength of character in accepting and confessing his participation in this liaison, are the traits upon which the seeds of the Davidic dynasty were established.

Chazal derived a powerful moral rule from Tamar's actions: "It is better that a person throw himself into a fiery furnace, rather than shame his neighbor in public." Chazal continue with other similar statements, exhorting us to be sensitive to another person's feelings. This incident laid the framework for Moshiach Tzidkeinu. Obviously, it reveals something about the nature of the Jewish moral code and its demands upon each and every one of us. Sensitivity to the dignity of our fellow man is not too much to expect, but, without it, we are of limited value. It is our source of hope and, indeed, our only reason for hope.

She caught hold of him by his garment, saying, "Lie with me." (39:12)

It is not uncommon for one to justify his actions by comparing himself to others. His situation is always worse, and, therefore, he should be allowed certain leniencies. He has always been deprived, so now he should be permitted to get away with some modified expectations. The Torah does not agree with such a rationale. When Yosef was confronted by the wife of Potifar, much went through his mind. Her blandishments were becoming too much for him to handle. Yosef was at the breaking-point. It was crunch time, and he was about to give in. At this point, an image of his father, Yaakov Avinu, appeared to him and said, "Yosef! In the future, the Kohen Gadol will wear the Choshen, Breastplate, inscribed with the names of the twelve shevatim, tribes. Your name is supposed to be included among them. Do you wish to have your name removed?"

A powerful Chazal. Horav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, zl, derived an important lesson from Chazal. If Yosef had compared himself to his brothers, he could have easily found a rationale to support his behavior. Indeed, he was actually more righteous than they. He was kidnapped as a young boy and sent to live in the moral filth of Egyptian society, spending time incarcerated in prison together with the dregs of society. No one encouraged him. He was alone, with no mentor, no inspiration, no one to reinforce the moral imperatives that his father had taught him. Certainly, if he were to yield to temptation, he could find a way to justify himself. He did not have it as easy as his brothers, since they grew up under the watchful eye of Yaakov. Yet, they sold him into slavery. Maybe he would be doing something wrong, but compared to his brothers, he was a tzaddik, righteous person. Look at how they had treated him. Yet, their names were not threatened with removal from the Choshen.

This is what Yosef could have argued, and we probably would have understood his position. Regrettably, this was not Yaakov's message. His father intimated that people are judged by what they themselves do - not in comparison to others. What others do is not a mitigating factor in one's personal demeanor. Yosef realized that to yield to Potifar's wife would be a sin, for which he would jeopardize his nitzchios, eternity. He would lose his place among the Twelve Tribes. Nothing could justify that!

u'mishpatime baal yedaum - such judgments - they know them not.
The non-Jews also have laws. What is the meaning of "such judgments - they know not"? This is an aspect of the seven mitzvos of Bnei Noach, to establish dinim, laws. Horav Yaakov Kamenetsky, zl, explains that the fulfillment of the Noachidic demand to have dinim, is achieved by the legislative process of writing laws and establishing a court system to adjudicate these laws. Jewish laws are given to us in the Torah, dictated by the Divine Author, which grants these laws an entirely different perspective.

Why were the mishpatim of the Torah not given also to the non-Jewish world? It certainly would not have caused any harm. Rav Yaakov explains that even the mishpatim, rational laws, that are found in the Torah are bound up together with the chukim, laws that defy human rationale. They might make sense to us, but each law has a deeper reason that does not enter into the scope of our limited purview. For example, the laws pertaining to an eved Ivri, Hebrew bondsman, dictate that he work for only six years. The reason is that Hashem created the world in six days. Thus, the law commemorates the creation of the world in six days and alludes to the mitzvah of Shabbos; all of this suggests the deeper rationale behind the laws concerning eved Ivri. It is a simple law, but its profundity is mindboggling. Every nation accepts the commandment, "Do not kill," but the rationale for the other nations is different than for us. We are taught that murder is prohibited because man is created b'tzelem Elokim, in G-d's image, an idea totally foreign to secular law. Even our mishpatim are intricately connected in some way with our chukim, which is unlike anything in the secular code of law. "Such judgments - they know them not."

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