Back to This Week's Parsha

Peninim on the Torah

subscribe.gif (2332 bytes)

Previous issues

Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Then Yehudah approached him and said. (44:18)

To approach someone prior to speaking to him is self-evident. Unless one wants to shout across the room, he must move over towards the individual with whom he is about to speak. Why does the Torah seem to underscore that Yehudah "approached" Yosef? It could have written simply that Yehudah spoke with Yosef, without mentioning that he approached him. Indeed, every word in the Torah has a purpose. The Torah is Divinely authored. Hashem places a word in the Torah for a distinct reason, to convey an important and meaningful message. What is Vayigash, "And he approached," teaching us?

Horav Nissan Alpert, zl, quotes the Midrash Rabbah which teaches that the word Vayigash indicates three things: an act of war; an action intimating appeasement; a move to prayer; milchamah, doron and tefillah. Rav Alpert relates that he heard from a prominent scholar that a similarity exists among the three hagashos, approaches. Just as departure from war demands preparation, so, too, do appeasement and prayer require an element of preparation. One must gather himself together, prepare himself physically and emotionally to mollify someone; likewise he must prepare himself when he is about to entreat Hashem.

Rav Alpert adds another similarity. In anticipation of battle, one must know his enemy, his strengths and weaknesses, his vulnerabilities and fortified strongholds. If one lacks proper reconnaissance, he will fall in battle. This applies equally to prayer. One must reconnoiter the area - but this time the reconnaissance is introspective; it is turned inward towards himself. He must prove himself, taking advantage of his strengths, and addressing his weakness as well. He must question himself concerning his relationship with Hashem. Only after self-examination and intense scrutiny of one's inner-self and attaining proper emotional composure, may one begin pouring out his heart in supplication to Hashem.

Similarly, when one needs to win over an individual in an attempt to appease him, the process of discovery is much the same. He asks himself: What type of person is he? What motivates him? What makes him happy? How can I penetrate his emotions, so that my appeal to him will be successful?

Prayer, warfare and appeasement - all require a Vayigash, an approach of coming closer. Yehudah's Vayigash to Yosef was an essential preamble to his successful appeal. If he had just barged in and begun speaking, he would have been met by a stone wall.

Yehudah needed to reach Yosef's innermost self. It was necessary for him to appeal to that which was closest to Yosef, to that which would effect the greatest success. This was reflected in Yosef's constant queries about their father, Yaakov Avinu. Even when he sent the brothers on the return trip, he told them to go in peace to their father. Yehudah understood that he had to play the "Yaakov card" with Yosef if he wanted to convince him to release Binyamin. Therefore, he told Yosef that his father would be grief-stricken if Binyamin did not return. His plan worked, as his "approach" led to Yosef's "revelation."

Now Yosef could not restrain himself in the presence of all who stood before him… Thus no one remained with him when Yosef made himself known to his brothers. (45:1)

If ever a passage in the Torah has been laden with ambiguity, it is the episode of Yosef with his brothers. Clearly, whatever explanation we offer is superficial. The story of Yosef and his brothers is replete with profound esoteric principles that absolutely defy our ability to understand. These are the ways of G-d. We are not capable of understanding Hashem's reasons for causing Yaakov's troubles, Yosef's loneliness, and the brothers' envy which precipitated the twenty-two year separation of the father from his beloved son. The manner in which Yosef and his brothers finally became reunited and reconciled is no less difficult to grasp. Among the many questions with which we grapple is the reason that Yosef withheld the information from his father. Why did he not immediately notify him that he was alive and well, living amid royalty and success in Egypt? Such behavior is not sensible, or so it seems to the casual reader. As originally mentioned, however, nothing in this parshah is simple, nor does that which appears to the naked eye represent the reality and hidden purpose of Hashem's Divine plan.

One question that is elementary in nature, but no less compelling, is: Why did the brothers not recognize Yosef during their encounter in Egypt? Does a person's appearance change that much in a span of a little over two decades? Furthermore, we know that Yosef's countenance matched that of his father, Yaakov Avinu. How could the brothers not notice this? The Midrash records much of the dialogue that ensued between Yosef and his brothers. He seems to have known so much about their family background. Why did this not raise suspicion in their minds?

The Alshich HaKadosh explains that everything Yosef did was in order to expunge his brothers' sin, so that they would not have to be punished in Olam Habba. By making them suffer in this world, they would atone for selling Yosef. Every aspect of the sin was cleansed middah k'neged middah, measure for measure. For example, the brothers caused Yosef to fear for his life. Likewise, Yosef gave them reason to be anxious about their own futures. They attempted to cover up their ruse concerning Yosef's disappearance by producing his bloodied tunic. Yosef repaid them with his own guile, concerning the silver goblet that was planted in Binyamin's sack. Shimon was the one who first suggested that Yosef be killed. Thus, he was the one whom Yosef imprisoned. It was tit for tat, for the purpose of atoning for their sins. The pain experienced in this world is nothing compared to that which one sustains in the World to Come.

Yosef understood that Heaven had given him a role to play in order to help his brothers. The dreams were part of the scenario. Thus, he was compelled to wait it out and not notify his father prematurely. It reached the point that he could no longer contain himself; he could not stand idly by as his brothers suffered. This, however, does not explain why the brothers did not recognize Yosef. How was he able to conceal himself from them?

In his Nachal Kedumim, the Chida, zl, teaches an important principle. As a result of the overwhelming animus that emanated from the brothers towards Yosef, they were blinded from the apparent truth that stood before them in all clarity without embellishment. This was why the truth evaded them. When enmity exists between people, they become blind to one another. The ability to discern and recognize one another is the direct result of the relationship which exists between them. If there is hatred - over time - they will no longer recognize one another. Yosef, however, did not hate his brothers. Thus, he recognized them. In contrast, they were blinded by animus. They could not see him standing before their eyes.

What was Yosef to do? He made all kinds of references to their family past, in the hope that something would click in their minds, and they would recognize that he was none other than Yosef standing before them. When this did not work, he became concerned. He understood what this psychological blindness meant: they still hated him. He could no longer constrain himself, feeling that he might as well reveal himself to them. Apparently, they were not going to realize who he was on their own. Their eyesight was limited by a strain of myopia that had its roots in the "heart." The brothers were not emotionally tuned into him. Despite all of the joy generated by Yosef's revelation, the pain that his brothers' envy and hatred had not yet been completely expunged distressed Yosef. He knew that the hatred that his brothers harbored towards him would not cease. The scourge of animosity fueled by envy and bitterness would fester until it would ultimately bring down the Bais Hamikdash.

This is why all of them - Yosef, as well as his brothers - broke into bitter weeping. They were overwhelmed by the truth, as they saw the "fruits" of the tree of prejudice.

Now Yosef could not restrain himself in the presence of all who stood before him. (45:1)

Rashi explains that Yosef could not allow the Egyptians to be present when he was putting his brothers to shame. The Midrash goes further, claiming that Yosef had placed himself in great danger, for if his brothers had decided to kill him, no one would have known one way or the other. He said, "Better I should be killed than I should humiliate my brothers in front of the Egyptians." Embarrassing someone is an egregious sin for which one loses his portion in Olam Habba, the World to Come. Ish L'reieihu quotes Horav Yosef Chaim Blau, Shlita, Rav of Ashkelon, who adds another rationale to explain Yosef's willingness to sacrifice his life rather than shame his brothers in public. Yosef sought to atone for his earlier sins as a youth, when he had tattled on his brothers. The message he was conveying to his father was that his brothers were up to no good. This caused them great embarrassment. Thus, he wanted to repair his earlier indiscretion by preventing his brothers' shame.

The following story is told concerning Horav Elchanan Wasserman, zl. He was attending a conference of gedolei Yisrael, the most prominent rabbinic leaders of the time. During the course of the conference an issue arose which required a special subcommittee, to be comprised of a select group of whom we might call the "executive leadership." As is often the case, there is the general membership and, exclusive of them, are the executives, the movers and shakers, who are the individuals that establish policy and make the decisions on which everybody else "votes."

The conference chairman announced that the next meeting was to be attended by a select group of rabbis, to whom an invitation had been extended and whose attendance was crucial to the meeting. The chairman was acutely aware that if the meeting were to be opened up to the entire assembly nothing would be accomplished. It was not as if the other rabbinic leaders were less distinguished, it was just impractical to invite everyone - only a select few. The problem was: no one was leaving the room.

The chairman once again announced that the meeting was only for those who had received prior invitations. Again, no one budged. This time the chairman became indignant and announced that, if necessary, he would have those who did not have invitations physically removed from the room. Still no one moved from their seats. Finally, the entire room stood in shock as Rav Elchanan rose from his seat and shuffled out of the room. When he did this, he was soon followed by a number of leaders who "also" did not have invitations. What happened? Rav Elchanan realized that it was embarrassing for some of the rabbinic leaders to get up and concede that they had not been included among the movers and shakers. When they saw Rav Elchanan Wasserman, one of the undisputed gedolei hador, leaving the room they also left. They did not know, however, that the venerable gaon returned by a back door. He was not going to allow anyone to feel ashamed, so he also walked out. Once he left, it was no longer embarrassing to leave. Greatness is defined not by the respect one receives, but by the respect one gives.

And Yisrael said, "How great! My son Yosef still lives!" (45:28)

Yaakov Avinu was ecstatic. His long-lost son, Yosef, was alive - physically and spiritually. Not only had he risen to a position of great distinction in his newly-adopted country, but he had maintained all of the strict spiritual standards that had been so much a part of his early life. The Patriarch had to see this for himself. His sons' report gave him hope, but, until he saw it for himself, he was still anxious concerning Yosef's spiritual erudition. The Midrash makes an interesting comment which focuses on Yaakov's use of the word rav, "how great". Rav kocho, "How great is Yosef's strength of character?" He experienced so much travail in his life, yet he still remains steadfast in his commitment and faith in Hashem. He is much more righteous than I,who sinned with the words, nisterah darki mei Hashem, "My way is hidden from Hashem" (Yeshayah 40:27). (Yeshaya HaNavi admonishes Jews who despair, thinking that G-d ignores or forsakes them. Hashem withholds His salvation for reasons beyond our grasp.)

In his commentary to the Midrash, the Matnos Kehunah questions the Patriarch's assumption that Yosef never questioned Hashem. While it is true that he withstood the test presented by Potifar's wife and the many other trials and challenges that confronted him in life, who says that he did not have "issues" concerning his treatment by Hashem? How do we know that Yosef never felt in his heart, shoin genuck, "enough is enough, I have suffered so much"?

The Baalei Mussar, Ethicists, explain this based upon a principle advanced by the Alter m'Novaradok, zl. The Alter explains that the ability to withstand Hashem's trials is based upon one's ultimate faith in the Almighty. One whose conviction is, at best, shaky, who complains concerning his state of adversity, will not have the fortitude necessary to traverse future trials successfully. One who does not sense Hashem's Presence with him at all times - if he despairs that he is all alone - will be unable to battle with the yetzer hora, evil-inclination. To win at battle one needs to feel a sense of confidence, he must believe in himself, his weapons, his strategy. If he is not confident in winning, he might as well not bother, because he will inevitably lose. Therefore, if Yosef had successfully withstood Potifar's wife's banishments, if he had been able to overcome her wiles, he obviously believed wholeheartedly in Hashem. Otherwise, he could not have successfully overcome the temptation.

He fell on his neck, and he continued to cry on his neck. (46:29)

The meeting of father and son was certainly an emotionally-powered reunion. The love they manifested towards one another was unusual. This, coupled with the twenty-two year forced separation, created a situation in which their first encounter was a heightened opportunity for intense expression of love. This is why Rashi quotes Chazal, who say that it was only Yosef who hugged and kissed his father. Yaakov Avinu, at that exalted moment - instead of embracing his son - was reciting Shema Yisrael. Then Yaakov concluded the meeting with, Amussa ha'paam, acharei re'osi es panecha, "Now that I have seen your face I can die" (ibid 30). This statement is inspirational. Surely, Yaakov could have found another time to recite Krias Shema. Obviously, something was unique about this moment which was best expressed through the recitation of Krias Shema. How are we to understand this?

Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, quotes a beautiful explanation he heard from his venerable Rebbe, Horav Shlomo Breuer, zl. We must bear in mind that, for the duration of the twenty-two years that Yosef was separated from Yaakov, the Patriarch was in a state of ceaseless mourning. He dressed in sackcloth and cried over what he thought was the inconsolable loss of his beloved son, Yosef. Thus, Yaakov's life had little value to him. A life beset with grief is a life of pain and anxiety. The reader should not misunderstand this statement. It is not that Yaakov did not value his G-d-given life. A gift from G-d is invaluable. It is just that when he recited Krias Shema and articulated the words: V'ahavta es Hashem Elockecha b'chol… nafshecha, "Love Hashem, Your G-d, will all… of your soul," he had a problem. It was not much of a challenge for Yaakov to offer up his life for Hashem. In his present state, he felt that he was not giving up much. Life as it was was almost worthless to him. He was not giving up anything enviable. His life was almost totally spiritual. The physical dimension was tragically torn from him with Yosef's loss.

Now, however, after seeing that not only was Yosef physically alive and well, but also equally spiritually healthy, he was ecstatic. His son was wearing the crown of viceroy of Egypt, with all the pomp and glory that accompanied this position. He was totally committed to Hashem, and he had raised an observant family. Yaakov's life once again was treasured. It was precious. Every minute with Yosef was dear to him. It was precisely at this exalted moment, a moment during which his life transitioned, a moment when life had taken on a new and greater meaning and value, that he chose to offer it to Hashem. It was now necessary to recite Krias Shema, because b'chol nafshecha, "with all of your soul," had taken on new meaning. This is why the Patriarch declared, Amussa ha'paam, "I am now prepared to offer everything" - even my precious life - to Hashem - if the need arises.

Veritably, every life is a gift from G-d, regardless of how fortunate one seems to be, or how difficult the life is. Does the above explanation suggest that a wretched life filled with troubles is any less precious than one which is filled with good fortune and joy? Is the value of Hashem's gift of life to be measured by how much joy, health and welfare one has? Is b'chol nafshecha measured by how one feels about his life? Indeed, the opposite may be derived from the above p'shat, explanation.

Yaakov Avinu was readily prepared to relinquish his life for Hashem. He felt, however, that his life had very little value, because it was filled with such emotional pain. He wanted to give "more" to Hashem than a life replete with troubles and pain. In other words, the Patriarch felt that perhaps his contribution was not as "worthy" as that of others - who had so much more.

In his Pirkei Machashavah, Horav Ezriel Tauber, Shlita, aptly describes the meaning of chaim birtzono, life in accordance with Hashem's will. Imagine, an elderly Jew of one-hundred years, who is on a respirator. He is being kept alive by machines. Otherwise, he is not functioning; his mind is no longer working; he is not aware of anything that is taking place in his proximity. The patient has had a very good life and has amassed an incredible fortune of one hundred million dollars. He has one son, a ben Torah b'm'lo muvan ha'milah, in the fullest extent of the word, deeply committed to halachah and someone, who will apply a large amount of his future inheritance to tzedakah, charitable endeavors. Indeed, he has in his mind many Torah institutions which stand to benefit from his impending inheritance. His goal is singular and simple: l'harbos kavod Shomayim b'olam, to increase the glory of Heaven in the world.

At that moment, Eliyahu HaNavi reveals himself to him, to inform him that his father will pass from this world in two more days. He even gives him the time of death. One thing, however, can circumvent his father's demise for one extra minute: the son must be willing to relinquish his entire inheritance! All the charity which he had planned on giving - every act of lovingkindness for which the money would have been used - all goes down the drain. There will be no money; all this in exchange for one more minute of life on the respirator. Now, what will the son reply? What will he say to Eliyahu HaNavi? All the tzedakah and chesed that can be achieved in exchange for what? Life on a respirator with no knowledge of anything? This is clearly what the son will respond, "Do it! Allow my father to leave the world as was originally predestined."

The Torah, however, does not agree with this. Not only must everything be done to keep the patient alive, if gentiles were to threaten to kill out an entire city if they do not kill this man - it would be patently prohibited. Even if all of Klal Yisrael hung in the balance, it would still be prohibited to allow the patient to die before his time - and if his "life" could be somehow extended by even one minute, and it is not - it is tantamount to murder! This is the value of life.

Rav Tauber relates how his own father was suffering greatly during the twilight years of his life. A man who in his youth had been healthy and vigorous, leading a robust life of devotion to Torah study and dissemination; a man who reached out to many Jews, whose home was the central address for acts of chesed, had become ill and physically frail, wheelchair bound, and totally incapable of caring for himself. He required assistance on a constant basis, which deprived him of his dignity, wreaking havoc on his self-esteem. Needless to say, his father was in a pitiful state, both physically and emotionally.

One day, his son came to visit and took one look at his father, and he realized that he must say something that would have a heartening effect on his condition. Fortunately, the right words came to mind. "Abba, Father, you agree that Hashem created you perfectly." No response. "Father," he asked, "what is the most significant mitzvah for a Jew to observe?" His father continued his silence momentarily and then murmured, "V'chai ba'hem, 'And you should live by them.' Every mitzvah in the Torah is exempted when it comes up against the negation of human life. [One must give up his life when he must decide between living and transgressing the three cardinal sins of murder, adultery and idol worship, because to commit one of these sins is simply not living]. Clearly V'chai ba'hem must be the primary mitzvah of the Torah. Now, let me ask you: It is axiomatic that every mitzvah of the Torah must be carried out lishmah, for its sake, for the sake of the mitzvah, because this is the will of Hashem. The mitzvah of V'chai ba'hem is probably the most difficult mitzvah to execute, solely because it is Hashem's will. There is always an ulterior motive, albeit positive, like Torah study, acts of lovingkindness, areas of service to others for which 'life' is a prerequisite.

"Now, Hashem has placed you in a wheelchair which precludes your ability to do any of the myriad chesed activities for which you have previously been noted. You are physically limited in many ways. Indeed, your life is totally devoted to Hashem. You live for Hashem - and only for Hashem! The Almighty wants you to do nothing else but live only for Him; this is v'chai ba'hem at its apex!"

These words assuaged his father's mood and gave him the chizuk, strength and encouragement, to carry on. It also teaches us an important lesson about life as a Jew: it is sacrosanct. It is Hashem's greatest gift to us. We must value and appreciate it as such and be willing to relinquish it for Him when the need arises. This is what is meant by b'chol nafshecha, "with all of your soul."

Va'ani Tefillah

The Tefillin contain four parshios within them. They are V'hayah ki yeviacha; Kadeish Li kol b'chor - V'haya im shamoa; Shema Yisrael. Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, explains the significance of these parshios as two sets, each set focusing on a distinct area. The first two parshios refer to the guf, human body, thus connoting its holiness. This is why we have many mitzvos which pertain to the body, laws which regulate what we may ingest, what we may wear, what we should eat, etc. As a result of our body's kedushah, holiness, it retains an element of sanctity even after the soul has left it; thus it must be treated as a davar she'b'kedusahah, holy object.

The other two parshios address kabbolas ol malchus Shomayim, accepting the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven upon us. They correspond to the sanctity of our neshamah, soul, spiritual dimension. When we wear both Tefillin, there is a confluence of guf/nefesh - ruach/neshamah, all of our physical aspects with those of the spirit. We are, thus, intimating that we bind both body and soul to the will of Hashem. While this may not run through our minds on a daily basis, due to the rush of life - perhaps it should.

The idea of being surrounded by mitzvos, ensconced in carrying out the will of G-d, applies to women as well - although they do not have the mitzvah of Tefillin. Rav Schwab explains that in the absence of the mitzvah of Tefillin, women's use of the mikveh replaces this feeling. By immersing herself in the water, a woman is surrounded by the mitzvah, thereby expressing the dedication of her guf and neshamah to the execution of the will of Hashem.

Sponsored in memory of our dear father and grandfather
Harry Weiss
Morry & Judy Weiss, Erwin & Myra Weiss and Grandchildren
Gary & Hildee Weiss, Jeff & Karen Weiss,
Zev & Rachel Weiss, Elie & Sara Weiss, &Brian

"Love and memories are gifts from G-d that death cannot destroy"

Peninim on the Torah is in its 20th year of publication. The first fifteen years have been published in book form.

The Fifteenth volume is available at your local book seller or directly from Rabbi Scheinbaum.

He can be contacted at 216-321-5838 ext. 165 or by fax at 216-321-0588

Discounts are available for bulk orders or Chinuch/Kiruv organizations.


This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Permission is granted to redistribute electronically or on paper,
provided that this notice is included intact.
For information on subscriptions, archives, and
other Shema Yisrael Classes,
send mail to
Jerusalem, Israel