Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Seven Times Seven? Yericho, Yovel & the Omer Count

A new shiur on the meaning of Sefiras HaOmer and the unique Kedusha of Shavuos. Click here to listen to the recording. 

A big thank you to Mrs. Shoshana Rivka Bloom of Link's TLC program for inviting me to speak.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Why Did He Take Us Out?

Firstly, a big Mazal Tov to the Perl, Bookbinder and Gordon families on the engagement of Rivkie Perl of Jerusalem to Shalom Bookbinder of Toronto! May the young couple be blessed with great Simcha & Shalom and all good things, עד בלי די!

A Yasher Koach to our dear friend Selwyn Gerber for hosting today's class and for bringing out an exceptional bottle of bourbon in celebration of Rivkie's engagement.

Click here to listen to the shiur, recorded live this afternoon at Gerber & Co.

Here's a preview: The shiur presents a new understanding of the Haggadah's mysterious line: "יכול מראש חודש, you might think [the story of the Exodus should be told] on Rosh Chodesh... the Torah therefore states, בעבור זה, 'it was for this' - [tell the story] at a time when Matzah and Marror are before you."

In other words, one might have thought Hashem took us out of Egypt because He wanted to rest His Shechina in the Mishkan on Rosh Chodesh Nisan. The Torah therefore teaches us that He did not do it for Himself, He did it for us. Now click on the link and listen, and you will understand. 

Friday, March 3, 2017

Shabbos at Sinai: Experiencing the Impossible

The Torah invests much ink and parchment in describing the buildup to the Ten Commandments. Remembering the seminal event of our history is a mitzvah in and of itself; we must read with a listening ear.
"Hashem came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain..." (Shemos 19:20)
It sounds as if the Creator of the Universe left heaven behind, entered our world and landed on a hill in the Sinai Desert, but this is not the whole story. The reality of the revelation was more complex.
"Hashem came down on Mount Sinai" - One might think He literally came down onto it, the verse therefore states [later], "You have seen that I have spoken to you from the heavens..." (20:19). [The combined verses] teach us that He bent the upper and lower heavens and spread them out on the mountain like a sheet on a bed. And then the divine throne - כסא הכבוד - descended on them. (Rashi ad loc. citing Mechilta)
Hashem was on the mountain and in heaven, at the very same time? Yes. He brought heaven down with Him. This resolves the contradiction and Rashi believes that this is the correct way to understand the text. 

Forgive me, but what exactly are we supposed to do with this information? Disregard it as inscrutable and irrelevant? If that were true, the Torah would not record it, Rashi would not comment, and we would all live happily ever after. Hashem is describing the scene for posterity and He is undoubtedly telling us something important. Our job is to figure out what that something is.
תורה היא וללמוד אני צריך

II

The Torah gives us two versions of the Ten Commandments, one on location in Parshas Yisro and one forty years later when Moshe reiterates them in Parshas Va'eschananEarly commentators posit that the first version appeared on the original tablets which were smashed by Moshe when he saw the Golden Calf, and the second version appeared on the second set of tablets (Gaon cited by Ibn Ezra). 

Although both versions are basically identical, significant discrepancies do appear in the fourth commandment, the mitzvah of Shabbos. In the first version, we are told to "remember" - זכור - the day of Shabbos to sanctify it, whereas in the in the second version, the mitzvah is not to remember, but to "guard" - שמור - the day of Shabbos to sanctify it. As the Ramban writes, this is indeed a fundamental change, for a mitzvah to "remember" requires a positive act, reciting Kiddush, as opposed to "guard" which is essentially passive, abstaining from violating Shabbos. 

The Gemora resolves the problem. שמור וזכור בדבור אחד נאמרו. Both obligations - to remember and to guard - are equally valid and were declared simultaneously by Hashem at Mount Sinai.

Generally, the Torah does not give reasons for mitzvos, however, Shabbos is one of the exceptions, and here we find another major discrepancy between the two versions of the Fourth Commandment. According to the first version, working for six days and resting on the seventh affirms that Hashem created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. The second version, however, makes no mention of creation. Rather, it states that by observing Shabbos we affirm the Exodus from Egypt. Both ideas find expression in Kiddush, where Shabbos is said to be both זכר למעשה בראשית, commemorating creation, and זכר ליציאת מצרים, commemorating the Exodus.


III

The changes to the text of the Fourth Commandment are not random; they are complementary. There are two ways for man to relate to God and, correspondingly, there are two types of holiness and two dimensions to Shabbos. 

As the infinite and timeless being that created our universe, God is unfathomable to the human mind. Awareness of God thus generates awe and humility, turning man into a vessel for Kedusha. It takes work to gain and maintain this awareness and that is the mitzvah of "Zachor." We must engage in a positive act, the verbal declaration of Kiddush, to sanctify the day of Shabbos with an awareness of the Creator. This is the original Shabbos recorded in the first version of the Ten Commandments.

When the Jews sinned and built a Golden Calf, it became clear that this ideal was too challenging. Human beings are born, raised, and live out their lives trapped inside a physical universe. As such, our minds are more comfortable with the concrete than the abstract, and a physical idol seems more real than something we cannot see or touch. Even if man knows the truth, it is unrealistic to expect him to maintain an uninterrupted awareness of the Creator. And so, for the second set of tablets, Hashem emphasized a more accessible type of Kedusha: awareness of Hashem's presence in our world. While Hashem's essence is infinite and unknowable, He is also the one who entered Egypt and saved the Jewish People. The truth is, we know Him well; He cares for us and He is a constant presence in our lives. No effort is needed to generate this Kedusha; it is always there. We need only to preserve it and abstain from violating it. This is the mitzvah of "Shamor."


"It is a sign between Me and you." The day of Shabbos speaks to fullness of our relationship and as such both types of Kedusha are present: God as Creator and God as Redeemer. The Creator is beyond us; the Redeemer is with us. This dichotomy is the paradox of the God/man relationship - and it cannot be any other way. One type of Kedusha without the other is not only incomplete, it is false. A person who accepts God as Creator but denies His involvement in our lives is no less a heretic than the person who humanizes God and relates to Him as a friend. An authentic experience of God requires the coexistence of both perspectives: שמור וזכור בדבור אחד נאמרו. Hashem said "guard" and "remember" simultaneously. This is the unified Kedusha of Shabbos.


IV

The duality of man's relationship with Hashem finds expression in the beracha we recite before performing a mitzvah. 
Blessed are You Hashem our lord, King of the Universe, Who sanctified us with His mitzvos and commanded us to...
The sentence begins by referring to Hashem in second person (blessed are You) and then switches mid-sentence to third person (His mitzvos). It is grammatically inconsistent and deliberately so. As we prepare to perform a mitzvah, we encounter the impossible, the concurrent presence and distance of the God Who sanctifies us.

Returning now to Sinai, the meaning of the contradictory verses is clear. When giving the commandments, Hashem spoke to us from the mountain and from heaven. Yes, that is impossible, but it is the familiar impossibility we call Kedusha.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Flavor of Love: Towards a New Appreciation of the Manna

Although Pharaoh capitulated at the tenth plague and finally freed the Jews, Hashem wasn't done with him yet.
I shall strengthen Pharaoh's heart and he will pursue you. (Shemos 14:4)
Pharaoh pursues the Jews to the sea, the sea splits, and then... you know the story. The question is why? Why split the sea? If Hashem wanted to kill Pharaoh and destroy his army, He had ample opportunity to do it in Egypt during the Ten Plagues. There was no need for yet another miracle.



As the Egyptian army closed in on the Jews, Hashem told Moshe exactly why this was happening.

ואיכבדה בפרעה ובכל חילו ברכבו ובפרשיו - "I will be glorified through Pharaoh, and through his entire army, his chariots and his horsemen. (14:17; see also 14:18, 14:4)
Hashem split for the sea for His kavod, His honor and glory. Assuming that the Creator is not insecure or arrogant, how are we to understand the meaning of this? 


A clue to the answer appears later in the Parsha, in the story of the manna. When the Jews run out of Matzah, they complain.

The entire community of Bnei Yisroel complained to Moshe and Aaron in the desert. The Bnei Yisroel said to them, “If only Hashem had killed us in the land of Egypt when we sat by the meat pot, when we ate bread to the fill! You have taken us out to this desert to kill this entire congregation by starvation!” (Shemos 16:2-3)
Yes, it is a big chutzpah, but worse, it's heresy. The Jews accuse Moshe and Aaron of bringing them into the desert when they should know good and well that Hashem is the one who took them out of Egypt. Ignoring their pleas for food, Moshe and Aaron address the basic issue of faith first. 

Moshe and Aaron said to the entire Bnei Yisroel, “Tonight you will know that Hashem took you out of the land of Egypt, ובקר וראיתם את כבוד י-ה-ו-ה, and in the morning you will see the glory of Hashem. Your complaints against Hashem have been heard. What are we that you complain against us?” (ibid 16:6-7)

Moshe explains: "When Hashem gives you (quail) meat to eat in the evening and (manna) bread to the fill in the morning..." (ibid 16:8). In other words, since you seem to think we took you out of Egypt, the arrival of quail tonight will prove that Hashem orchestrated the Exodus, and in the morning, with the arrival of the manna, you will witness His glory.



Quail vs. Manna

According to the Ibn Ezra, both the quail and the manna served as "signs" that Hashem took them out of Egypt. The Ramban, however, points to the plain meaning of Moshe's words. The manna's function was different. It was an experience of Hashem's honor and glory, His kavod


What does this mean? What is Hashem's "kavod"?



The Ramban explains that the quail and the manna are not comparable. The quail were ordinary birds that were brought in by a strong wind; the manna was a unique creation ex nihilo. When Hashem performs extraordinary wonders, the full extent of His power and sovereignty - כבוד מלכותו - is made manifest. This, writes the Ramban, was what Moshe meant when he said, "In the morning you will see the kavod of Hashem."



The distinction between the quail and the manna is clear, but it raises a different question. Was the manna really necessary? If the arrival of the quail reminded the nation that Hashem took them out of Egypt, why the need for another miracle? If Hashem wanted to give the Jews bread, He could deliver sacks of flour the same way He delivered flocks of quail. Why perform the super-miracle of the manna?



Living on Light

The Ramban continues his comments on this verse with a description of the extraordinary nature of the manna. Extraordinary is an understatement. He begins by quoting Rabbi Akivah (Yoma 75b) who said that angels eat manna. The Ramban explains that to make manna, Hashem took the spiritual light that emanates from His Shechina and gave it physical form. Manna is the splendor of the Shechina corporealized!

It goes without saying that I don't have the foggiest clue what this means. To borrow an Artscrollism, Kabbalistic concepts are "beyond the scope of this elucidation" (see header). Nonetheless, I quote it for it brings us to the Ramban's next big idea.

If the manna was so lofty and spiritual, how did it sustain men of flesh and blood? The truth is, ordinary mortals cannot live on manna. However, the Jews of that generation were not ordinary. They witnessed the splitting of the sea, and it changed them. When the sea split, it was a revelation of God greater than the prophet Yechezkel ever saw. In the words of the Ramban, the souls of the Jews were "elevated" by the experience, and that is what made it possible for them to live on manna, the food of angels.

The Ramban thus links the sea and the manna: both are manifestations of the Shechina, and as such, the sea is what made the manna possible. These two miracles also share another distinction, a most puzzling common denominator: both the splitting of the sea and the manna stand out as the greatest miracles of our history - and we didn't need either of them. Both could be deleted from our history with no negative effect. But the question answers itself. It certainly is true that we did not need the manna or the sea - and that is exactly the point. These miracles functioned solely to reveal the kavod of Hashem.

If Pharaoh did not pursue the Jews and the sea never split, then the Exodus would simply be the salvation of an oppressed people. Had the manna never appeared, the quail would serve to keep the Jews alive in the desert. The formative miracles of our history would all be purely utilitarian, and this was not Hashem's intent.

The completely unnecessary revelation at the sea and the edible light called manna were Hashem's way of saying that something else is happening here: the Creator desires an intimate relationship with man. Hashem wants the Chosen People to recognize His kavod and to know who He is. He therefore orchestrated a ruse, a transparent excuse to reveal Himself for no reason other than love itself.

A Nes of Faithfulness; a Nes of Kindness

Now we understand Hashem's response to the Jew's embarrassing failure of faith. When the Jews forgot their history and blamed Moshe for taking them into the desert, Hashem refreshes the their memory with a replay of the two fundamental messages of the Exodus. First, He restores their faith by delivering quail and reminding them that He took them out of Egypt. This happens at night, matching the original emancipation - the Tenth Plague - which occurred at midnight. Hashem then reveals his kavod with the manna in the morning, just as the Jews experienced the splitting of the sea in the morning.

The timing of these events has great symbolic significance. The rising sun proclaims Hashem's kindness and the darkness of night calls for faith. This dichotomy, the contrast of day and night, was spelled out by the Psalmist. "To speak of your kindness in the morning and of your faithfulness in the evening" (Tehillim 92:3). Taking us out of Egypt was a divine act of faithfulness, a fulfilment of Hashem's promise to Avrahom. That is why it occurred at night, a time of faith. In contrast, the forefathers were never told about the revelation at the sea. It was a surprise gift; an expression of Hashem's love for His fiancee, the Chosen Nation. That is why it occurred in the morning, a time of kindness.

The same is true for the quail and the manna. Providing food was an act of faithfulness - Hashem had to take responsibility for the nation's survival - and so it came at night, like the freedom from slavery. But the manna, the light of the Shechina, was a divine kiss, if you will, and that is why it came with the rising sun, like the splitting of the sea. 

Faithometer

Hashem introduced the manna with these words:
"I will rain down bread for you from the heavens. The nation will go out and collect each day's ration daily, in order for Me to test them, will they follow my instructions or not." (16:4)
What is the test of the manna? The Ramban explains that it is not easy for people to live in a desert and have to rely on miracles for survival. To agree to such an existence requires an extraordinary degree of faith. By entering the desert after the Exodus the Jews demonstrated their loyalty and Hashem took note. "I remember the the kindness of your youth, the love of your nuptials; you followed after Me into the desert, a land where nothing grows" (Yermiyah 2:2). With the challenge of manna, Hashem continually tested the strength of the nation's loyalty.

The manna thus served as a barometer of faith and a geiger counter for sin. "Just as the prophets would speak to the Jews [about crimes they hide] in holes and cracks, so too the manna would tell the Jews what [lurks] in the holes and cracks" (Yoma 75a). Manna fell at the front door of the righteous, but the less righteous you were, the further you had to travel to find your portion of manna (ibid). It was a symbiotic relationship: manna produced faith and faith produced manna.

Stop Praying?

When the Jews were trapped between the enemy and the sea, they were obviously terrified. Some began to cry out in prayer (14:10). Moshe said to the people, "Do not be afraid! Stand and watch the salvation of Hashem... Hashem will do battle for you, and you will be silent!" (14:13). Hashem then said to Moshe, "Why do you cry out to me? Speak to the Jews and move!" (14:14).

It is surprising enough to hear Moshe telling people to stop praying, stranger yet, Hashem tells Moshe to stop too! Why is everyone so down on prayer?

The Ohr HaChaim explains that prayer may be an appropriate response in a crisis, but it is not always sufficient. Sometimes extra merit is required for salvation and the call of the hour is not prayer, but an act of faith. The blind march of the people directly into the deadly waves was needed to induce the divine intervention that split the sea.

Once again we find that the manna and the sea share a basic feature. This time it is not the quality or the purpose of the miracle, but the driving force behind it: faith. Both at the sea and in the desert, acts of faith produced acts of God. The reason is easy to understand. When we rise above self-centered, predictable behavior and demonstrate our love with a sacrificial gesture, Hashem responds in kind, violating the natural order to reveal His love for us. Ironically, on both sides of the relationship, meaning is derived specifically from the needlessness of it all. As in human relationships, love between man and God finds expression in the things you don't have to do. (See Mesilas Yesharim, chap. 18)

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Give Love, Get Love: Why Moshe Was Chosen

Only thirty-two verses into the Book of Shemos and the Jewish People are already enslaved and oppressed, Pharaoh is engaged in genocide, and the young Moshe is comfortably ensconced in the royal palace. 

"And it happened in those days that Moshe grew up. He went out to his brethren, וירא בסבלותם, and he saw their burdens..." (2:11). 

Rashi explains. "He saw their burdens: נתן עיניו ולבו להיות מיצר עליהם. Translated literally, "He set his eyes and heart to be distressed about them." In plain English, Moshe invested the necessary effort to feel their pain. Although the phrase "he saw their burdens" is ambiguous, the introductory words "he went out to his brethren" indicates that Moshe was not a gawker or a journalist. Moshe cared about the Jews and related to them as a brother.

The depth of Moshe's empathy is described by the Midrash (Shemos Rabba 1:27).
"He saw their burdens" - What does "he saw" mean? [Moshe] saw their burdens and he cried. He said, "I feel your pain. I wish I could die for you! There is no labor more difficult than working with cement." He shouldered [their burdens] and helped everyone.
Rabbi Eliezer the son of Rabbi Yossi HaGalilee said, [Moshe] saw the burden of adults on children and the burden of children on adults, the burden of men on women and the burden of women on men, the burden of the elderly on the young and the burden of the young on the elderly. Abandoning his rank, he went and lightened their burdens. [He did it all] acting as if he was assisting Pharaoh.
God said, "You abandoned your own business and went to see the pain of the Jews and you treated them like brothers, I too will abandon the upper and lower realms and I will speak with you." This is what the verse states [by the burning bush]: "Hashem saw that he turned to look" (3:4), i.e., God saw that Moshe turned away from his own business to see their burdens, that is why "God called to him from within the bush..." (ibid). 
It was not the arrogance of noblesse oblige that motivated Moshe's charitable activities, nor feelings of guilt for his privileged position. Moshe was driven by a simple and pure love for his fellow Jews, his "brethren." However, the Midrash makes it clear that the selection of Moshe was not due to his love for the Jews or even for attempting to alleviate their suffering. Moshe was chosen specifically because he abandoned his rank and went down into the trenches. This elicited a matching divine response: "I too will abandon the upper and lower realms and I will speak with you." 

The Good Kapos

To help oversee the massive slave population, the Egyptians appointed Jews to serve as taskmasters, similar to the system of Kapos implemented millennia later by the Nazis. When Pharaoh gave the order to cease providing straw for bricks, it became the responsibility of the Jewish taskmasters to enforce the quota. Jews scoured the countryside in search of straw, but they came up short. 
The Jewish taskmasters appointed by Pharaoh's supervisors were beaten... The Jewish taskmasters went and cried to Pharaoh, "Why have you done this to your servants? Your servants are not provided with straw and we are told to make bricks?! Your servants were beaten! It is a national injustice!" [Pharaoh] replied, "You are lazy! Lazy! That is why you say let us go bring offerings to Hashem..."  
Rashi quotes a Midrash: 
The taskmasters were Jewish and they took pity on their fellow [Jews] and would not pressure them. When they supplied the bricks to the Egyptian supervisors and the total was lacking, they beat them for not pushing the workers [to complete the quota]. The Jewish taskmasters were therefore rewarded [years later] by [being appointed to] the Sanhedrin, the High Court.   
To qualify for the Sanhedrin, a great legal mind is insufficient. Hashem wants justices of great compassion; men willing to take a beating for their fellow Jew. (Compassion is actually a legislated Halachic requirement for a judge, cf. Hilchos Sanhedrin 2:3.) 

However, there is another point here. The taskmasters bravely challenged Pharaoh and declared, וחטאת עמך - "It is a national injustice!" Those who stood up against the tyrannical decrees of the Egyptian State are the ones selected to serve on the High Court in the future Jewish State. Hashem directs the flow of His Torah, His Halacha, and His Justice into the world through individuals who sacrificed for justice. Once again, we find the courageous acts of the righteous eliciting a matching divine response.

I Will Be What I Will Be

At the burning bush, Moshe asks Hashem what he should tell the people when they ask for God's name. Hashem responds, "I will be what I will be" (3:14). The answer is a riddle and the Ramban quotes a Midrash to explain it. "Just as you will be with Me, so will I be with you. If they open their hands and act charitably, then I too will open My hand... and if they don't open their hands..." 

Hashem is saying that He relates to the Jews "measure for measure." If the Jews practice caring and kindness toward each other, then Hashem will do the same for the nation. And if they don't, He won't either. This is what Hashem meant when He said, "I will be what I will be." What I will be is an open question. It depends on you.

Hashem Saw and Hashem Knew
And it was in this long era that the king of Egypt died. The Jews sighed from the work and they cried out and their cries rose up to God from the work. God heard their groans and God remembered his Bris, his covenant, with Avraham, with Yitzchok and with Yaakov. God saw the Bnei Yisroel and God knew. (3:23-25)
"And God knew"? What does that mean? Rashi explains: נתן עליהם לב ולא העלים עיניו. Hashem focused on their plight and determined to address the issue.

This explains "and God knew," but what about "God saw"? What does that mean? The verse already stated that Hashem heard the cries of the nation and remembered His promise to their forefathers. What is added by saying that he "saw" the Jewish People?

We know from Moshe that going to "see" the Jews does not refer to mere observation, it means experiencing deep empathy. The word is surely being used in the same sense here. Hashem saw and felt the pain of the Jewish People. 

At the burning bush we learned that when Jews are charitable, Hashem responds in kind. Putting these facts together, we can say that Hashem "saw" the Jews and focused on their plight because Moshe "saw" the Jews and focused on their plight. This explains why Hashem's "seeing" the Jews appears after remembering the Bris with the Avos. Hashem's empathy is a new and unplanned component of the redemption, one not included in the original Bris but inspired and brought down by Moshe.

I called my father in Israel this morning to present this insight and hear his reaction. He was positive. When I asked where this extra divine empathy might have expressed itself, my father immediately came up with an excellent suggestion. He noted that Hashem did not send an angel to redeem the Jews from Egypt, but took them out בכבודו ובעצמו, "personally." As the Torah records and as the Haggadah emphasizes, at midnight of the Tenth Plague, Hashem Himself entered Egypt to save the Jews. This is certainly an expression of divine love, one which does not appear in Hashem's promise to the Avos.

I am delighted with my father's pshat, for the singularity of divine revelation is the perfect response to the singularity of human kindness. Moshe lowered himself from his upper class perch, rolled up his sleeves and got into the trenches with the oppressed Jews, simply because he loved them. When the time came for redemption, Hashem did the exact the same thing. "I will be what I will be." When Jews love each other, Hashem loves them too.

After hearing my father's insight in the Kollel on Thursday night, Mr. Ben Schuraytz pointed out another parallel between the acts of Moshe and the Tenth Plague. When Moshe went out to his brethren to see their burdens, he strikes down an Egyptian who was beating a Jew. This is an apt description of what Hashem does in the Tenth Plague: He strikes down the leadership responsible for the oppression of the Jewish People. It is noteworthy that the Torah used the word ויך, "and he smote," to describe Moshe's killing of the Egyptian, the very same word it uses for the plagues, מכות. The parallel is even more striking when we consider the Midrash, quoted by Rashi, that Moshe killed the Egyptian by uttering a Name of God. Moshe knew that invoking the Divine Presence would bring about the death of the Egyptian - and Hashem later uses the very same method in the Tenth Plague! Revelation itself is what kills the firstborn. In both empathy and in justice, Hashem mimics Moshe.

"If I am not for myself, then who is for me?" When a Jew loves, then Hashem loves, and Hashem directs His blessings to the nation through the Jew who inspired the divine love in the first place. As the Midrash taught, Moshe was selected to be our savior because he cared.

Monday, January 9, 2017

On the Trail of Blessings: What Did Yosef Want?

I had a short and sweet insight just this morning and Jeff Rohatiner encouraged me to share it on the blog. Torah has a life of its own and the little insight has grown into part 7.25 of the Trail Series

Yosef was unable to control his emotions... "I am Yosef! Is my father still alive?" (45:1,3)
Apparently, Yosef was not finished with his brothers. His plan was as yet incomplete, but he was unable to follow through. Compassion for his brothers forced him to reveal his identity prematurely.

What more did Yosef want to do? What was his plan? According to some (Hakesav V'HaKabala; Meshech Chochma) Yosef wanted his father Yaakov to come down to Egypt and bow before him in fulfillment of his second dream. Whatever Yosef's intentions were, it is clear that he miscalculated. He was too weak to bring his plan to fruition.

Strange. Why would Yosef make a plan that he could not carry out? The answer is that Yosef failed to account for something. When Yaakov sent the brothers back to Egypt, he gave them a blessing.
Yaakov their father said to them, ... "The Almighty God - אל שדי - should grant you compassion before that man." (43:14)
Yosef was strong, but he could not withstand the blessing of Yaakov. A divine wave of compassion forced Yosef to abandon his plan and reveal his identity. 

A Father's Blessing

On second thought, Yosef was a very wise man and he should have anticipated this. Yaakov's blessing was not an oversight. On the contrary, it was exactly what Yosef wanted. 

Hashem granted Avrohom the power to bless (12:2) and the power to curse (12:3). Yosef knew that his father Yaakov inherited these powers, and Yosef also knew that blessings and curses function well even when the recipient is unknown. Yitzchok unknowingly blessed Yaakov and Yaakov unknowingly cursed Rachel. Nonetheless, ignorance did not mitigate the effect of their words.

Yosef wanted a Beracha from his father, a Beracha that God should grant him compassion for his brothers. As a teenager, Yosef would speak Lashon HaRa about them, but as a mature adult, he would do no such thing. Unwilling to tell his father that the brothers sold him into slavery, the only way Yosef could get the Beracha he so desperately needed was to orchestrate a ruse. And it worked! Yaakov asks God to grant "that man" compassion and we watch as Yosef's heart melts

A Blessing and a Curse

Blessings and curses play yet another role in our story. When Yosef first set his eyes on Binyomin, he blesses him. אלוהים יחנך בני - "May God have pity on you, my son" (43:29). That's a surprising thing to say. Why would Binyomin need divine pity?

Yosef was planning ahead. He intended to frame his brothers and he correctly predicted their reaction. When accused of stealing Yosef's goblet, the brothers say, "He among your servants with whom it is found should die!" (44:9). The brothers unwittingly curse Binyomin and this is why Yosef preemptively blessed Binyomin with divine pity. 

Now we have a faceoff. It's the brother's curse against Yosef's blessing. Who wins? Yosef! Unlike Rachel who was killed by Yaakov's curse, Binyomin survives his brother's curse and does not die. What Yosef is demonstrating is that the family legacy, the power to bless and the power to curse, belongs not to the brothers, but to him! Yosef is the inheritor of the legacy of Avroham, Yitzchok and Yaakov! 

This is exactly what the brothers were afraid of. As they understood it, Yosef's dreams foretold that he would seize the family blessings and rule over them. That is why they hated him and now Yosef shows them that they were right. Yosef could seize power, but he doesn't. Instead, Yosef shares the destiny of the nation with all of his eleven brothers. 

In the end, the brothers were right about the dreams, but wrong about Yosef.


[Continue the series with part 7.5 by clicking here.]