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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Since G-d has informed you of all this, there can be no one so discerning and wise as you. (41:39)

The Maggid, zl, of Dubno, once went on a fundraising trip for a matter of great urgency. During his travels, he chanced upon a large store filled with all types of merchandise. Since the owner of the store was Jewish, the Maggid approached him and asked for a handsome donation. When the would-be-benefactor heard the amount the Maggid was requesting, he became quite disturbed. He responded somewhat incredulously, "Does the Maggid think that I am a wealthy man? Does the rav think that I own all of the merchandise in the store? Is this why I am being asked to contribute such a significant sum of money? Let it be known that it is a great error to assume that I am wealthy. Most of the merchandise is bought on credit. I do not own it. It is on loan."

The man's declaration did not faze the Maggid. He replied with a smile, "I now know what Pharaoh meant when he said, 'Since G-d has informed you of all this, there can be no one so discerning and wise as you.' How did Pharaoh know for certain that Yosef was discerning and wise? Was it not Yosef who explicitly told Pharaoh, 'That is beyond me; it is G-d Who will respond with Pharaoh's welfare' (ibid 41:16)? In other words, Yosef was merely a medium for conveying the word of G-d. How is this an indication of his own exceptional cognitive abilities? The answer is that the individual who possesses wisdom, who is discerning, he can be entrusted with even greater wisdom. Pharaoh told Yosef, the mere fact that G-d has 'lent' you an uncanny brilliance, albeit briefly, is a clear indication that you are not a simple individual. G-d does not lend wisdom to a fool. Likewise, my friend, it might be true that most of your merchandise is sold to you on credit, but one does not give credit to a poor man. The fact that people trust you with such great amounts of money proves that you are, indeed, a wealthy man."

It is a nice story with a thoughtful lesson. I think we might offer an alternative exegesis concerning Pharaoh's awareness of Yosef's unique insight. The Midrash distinguishes between a navon and a chacham. A chacham is one who possesses wisdom. A navon is one who is meivin davar mitoch davar, able to understand one thing from another, one who possesses common sense. The Midrash asserts that one who is a navon, but does not possess added wisdom, is similar to a strong warrior who has no weapons. A chacham who lacks binah, common sense, is likened to one who has weapons, but is too weak to really use them. Clearly, the individual who possesses both qualities, navon and chacham, is prepared for battle, since he is strong and armed.

When Pharaoh addressed Yosef, he commented on the fact that Yosef not only was wise, but he was also able to make use of his wisdom, since he was a navon. Pharaoh was emphasizing that had Yosef only possessed wisdom, it would have been of little benefit, since he would have lacked the common sense to use it properly, to the greatest advantage. Hashem had not placed wisdom in a vessel that had limited potential for generating positive growth.

Common sense plays a critical role in the personal and public life of the individual. Chazal's analogy to one who is armed, but has no strength, is very appropriate. I would go so far as to say that one who lacks common sense is destructive. In fact, his wisdom can engender negative consequences, because he lacks the common sense to channel it properly. In his commentary to Parashas Yisro, Sforno makes an insightful comment. Yisro noted that Moshe Rabbeinu chose judges to assist him with the heavy judicial workload. He mentioned four qualifications which were the criteria for choosing judges: able men; who fear G-d; men of truth; who hate bribes. Regrettably, Moshe was not able to find individuals who possessed all four attributes. He, therefore, chose those who possessed the most important quality: anshei chayil, able men, who are meivin davar, well-versed in the law, who could determine the veracity of a matter and bring it to a definite conclusion. In other words, he chose a navon over a yarei Shomayim, G-d fearing man of truth, who hates bribes, because one must possess seichal, common sense, a strong character and the ability to make a decision. Wisdom, without the ability to execute it, is insufficient to meet the goal of achievement.

You shall be in charge of my place and by your command shall all my people be sustained; only by the throne shall I outrank you. (41:39)

Pharaoh elevated Yosef to an unprecedented position of power. He was as close to being the monarch as one could be. Pharaoh added one strange comment: He was going to remain king; Yosef could be everything else, but absolute monarchy, the final control, was in Pharaoh's hands. He controlled the sovereign scepter. What makes this comment unusual is that Pharaoh could have simply said that Yosef would be second-in-command. He was the viceroy, a heartbeat away from ultimate leadership. Why did Pharaoh emphasize that he would retain the throne, that he would be king? It seems unnecessary for Pharaoh to mention his own position. This was about Yosef - not Pharaoh.

Furthermore, Pharaoh was not acting in a manner typical of the average pagan. Clearly, he lost no love for the Hebrew slave who had just the other day been taken from the dungeon. When the wine steward introduced Yosef as the interpreter of his dream, he prefaced his words with: naar, eved Ivri; a fool who was not suitable for leadership of any kind; a slave, who, according to Egyptian dictate, could never ascend to a position of leadership, or don the regal garb of monarchy; a Hebrew who was not versed in the Egyptian language. In other words: Yosef did not possess the characteristics required of Egyptian hierarchy. If so, why was Pharaoh lauding him?

Horav Simcha HaKohen Shepps, zl, asserts that herein emerges the ugly truth about anti-Semitism. Pharaoh was well aware of Yosef's exceptional qualities. He even publicized them to his nation. Why did he do it? It was purely for selfish reasons. He wanted Yosef elevated to viceroy for personal reasons. If he was so prodigious, if he was so superior to the average citizen, then Pharaoh wanted everyone to know that he/Pharaoh was still one step above Yosef. As great as Yosef was - Pharaoh was even greater. This move was not for Yosef's benefit. It was purely to stroke the evil Pharaoh's insatiable ego. This is what Pharaoh meant when he said, "By your command shall all my people be sustained; only by the throne shall I outrank you." Only because of the throne: I am doing this so that my throne will be above yours.

We have been witness to this phenomenon throughout Jewish history. Our host nations would elevate select members of the Jewish community in order to squeeze whatever they could from them. It was never for us. It was always for them. As soon as the despots received what they needed, they immediately began to establish decrees and instigate pogroms. After all, they no longer needed us.

This is the underlying meaning of the prayer which we say: Nechshavnu katzon la'tevach yuval, "We have been considered like sheep being led to the slaughter." Why are our troubles in galus, exile, compared to that of sheep being led to the slaughter? Veritably, it is specifically in this area that the gentile nations take advantage of us. A sheep is not slaughtered as long as it produces wool, milk and its other by-products. The little sheep is allowed to grow as long as its owner benefits. As soon as he sees that he has nothing more to gain, he gets rid of the sheep. Lamentably, the Jewish People have suffered like the sheep. The nations among whom we have dwelled have taken whatever they could extract from us and, when there was nothing left to drain, they have discarded us like sheep. This phenomenon started with Pharaoh and has continued to haunt us until this very day.

Yosef recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. (42:8)

The question is clear: How could the brothers have been so oblivious to the obvious? The Torah responds to this pressing question with an answer that strengthens the question: They did not recognize him. How could they not recognize Yosef? Everything he had told them pointed to one solution: he was Yosef. One only has to peruse the Midrashim and Chazal to recognize the depth of the dialogue that ensued between Yosef and his brothers. How could they be so blind to something so self-evident? Chazal tell us that Yosef now had a beard. The change in his facial countenance - coupled with his royal garb - rendered him somewhat unrecognizable. This also seems farfetched.

I think the answer is obvious: When someone is blind, he cannot see. The brothers were myopic concerning their brother, Yosef. It was a blindness that was the result of years of postulates, assumptions, conjectures, misjudgments and rationalizations. They had invested so much time and energy in seeing things their own way that there was no longer any space for any other perspective. It reached the point that the most transparent of disguises would mask even the most obvious. They did not see Yosef because, according to their reasoning, he simply could not possibly be there! Cognitive dissonance did not allow the brothers to acknowledge the reality of their brother's presence.

A similar type of astigmatism happens to some of us when it affects our spirituality, our children, ourselves. We develop a lifestyle that conforms to our way of thinking, our perspective of the priorities in life for us and for our families, and nothing can prove us wrong. It is my way or no way. Even when the obvious is glaring at us such that we see the folly of our ways, the mess we have made of our lives, and what we have imposed upon our children, we still refuse to admit that we have been wrong, that we are irresponsible. We always have some sort of rationalization, some way to squirm out of stepping up to the plate and standing accountable for our error in judgment. As long as this myopia prevails, we will neither accept any advice nor implement any changes.

We can identify two levels of blindness: one who cannot see; and one who does not want to see. Some people have lost their sight through years of exposure to the wrong elements. They are not blameless, but rather, they are victims of their own folly. Those, however, who could see, but refuse to open their eyes for fear of confronting the truth, are far from inculpable. Their refusal to acknowledge the truth only serves to reinforce their own delusions.

There is another form of myopia, perhaps of a more positive nature, but no less myopic. In his sefer, Dudaei Yitzchak, Horav David Yitzchak Nebentzahl, zl, writes that Yosef's brothers sensed that they were in the grip of a chain of tzaros, troubles. Indeed, they themselves conceded, "Indeed we are guilty concerning our brother, in as much as we saw his heartfelt anguish when he pleaded with us, and we paid no heed; that is why this anguish has come upon us" (ibid. 42:21). They were worried. Something was wrong. One tzarah had led to another. Clearly, they must have done something wrong, and it was consequence time. At no time did they contemplate that there might have been something positive about the travails which they were undergoing. Had they known that Yosef had been orchestrating the travail precisely for the purpose of catalyzing their contrition, and bringing about their repentance for selling him as a slave and causing severe anguish to their aged father, they might have responded differently. Only after Yosef saw that they were willing to sacrifice their lives to protect their brother, Binyamin, did he conclude that they had rectified their original sin.

The brothers' perspective on their ordeal was quite different from Yosef's outlook. They sensed negativity, pain and misery. Yosef saw the cleansing powers which were purifying their neshamos, souls, elevating them to their original position. The difference between them was v'lo hikiruhu, "they did not recognize him." They had no idea who was behind their travail. Had they known that it was Yosef, their outlook would have been much more positive.

Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, takes this idea to the next level: our relationship with Hashem. Life is filled with adversity and travail. Regrettably, when we confront these ordeals, we often do not realize that they are coming from our loving Father in Heaven. Therefore, we view these afflictions that are visited on us as tzaros, troubles. If we would, however, equate them with Hashem, our whole attitude would change. After all, does a father act negatively to his child? Surely not! This is all part of the crucible of purification, meant to do just that, cleanse us, so that we will ultimately merit to bask in the glory of His Presence.

A believing Jew understands that whatever comes his way is from Hashem and has a positive function to it. While it may externally appear to be of an adverse nature, he knows deep down within his heart that a loving father does not hurt. His potch, slap, is therapeutic and for a purpose. When a Jew trusts in Hashem, he merits to see how everything ultimately turns into "good."

The following two vignettes present two different perspectives, but reinforce the same lesson: There is a Master Plan. We are part of it. If patience and trust prevail, we will see how the story ends - on a positive note. The Strauss brothers, Nathan and Isadore, were two of America's most prominent merchants and philanthropists. They supported primarily cultural and charitable deeds, the religious community never really benefitted from their contributions. The poverty in Eretz Yisrael was reaching epidemic proportions. Hunger had become a way of life, as people were literally starving to death. The heads of the old yishuv in Yerushalayim decided to approach the brothers when they next visited the Holy Land. It was 1912 when they returned, and a delegation of Yerushalayim's most prominent rabbinic leaders presented their case for a soup kitchen to feed the many starving Jews in the city. Nathan Strauss was sensitive to their pleas, while Isadore felt other areas in the Holy Land deserved greater subsidy. Nathan wrote out a check from his personal funds to cover the cost of establishing the kitchen.

When the edifice was completed and running, the heads of the community invited the Strauss family to join in its dedication. Isadore joined his brother for the festivities. Nathan was visibly moved with the effect the kitchen had on the people. Jews from all walks of life, subject to abject poverty, lined up to eat what was probably their only nourishing meal of the day. Regrettably, Isadore felt that seeing one poor man was seeing them all. He was into supporting culture. On their way out of the building, Nathan tripped on the steps, fell and dislocated his shoulder. Isadore had no qualms about reminding his brother that he had fallen on the steps of the building which he had endowed. The doctors were concerned about his shoulder, insisting that Nathan remain in the hospital for a few days. Unfortunately, Isadore could not wait. He told his brother that he had tickets to return to America out of England on the new oceanliner, Titanic. It was a shame that Nathan was laid up and could not join him.

We all know the rest of the story. The Titanic tragically did not complete its maiden voyage. Nathan recovered from his "fortunate" injury and went on to endow many projects in the Holy Land. What appears to us as adversity is often Hashem's way of protecting us. We just have to believe that a loving Father does not hurt His children.

Another interesting story concerns Horav Mordechai Benet, zl, Rav of Nicholsburg, a contemporary of the Chasam Sofer, and one of the leading sages of that era. He rarely left Nicholsburg because it was a large city. He felt that whatever he might need, he could find in Nicholsburg. One time, he had occasion to leave town for an important function in a small community quite some distance from Nicholsburg. While he was there, he suddenly died. Since it was Erev Succos, he was buried in the local cemetery.

When word reached the community of Nicholsburg, the residents were distraught beyond belief. They were doubly troubled, because, in addition to losing their beloved Rav, they could not travel to his grave to petition him to intercede on their behalf before the Heavenly Throne. The heads of the community asked the Chasam Sofer to render a decision permitting the body of the deceased to be disinterred and brought to Nicholsburg. The Chasam Sofer acquiesced. After researching the law, he wrote a response permitting the body to be moved and brought "home." As he was about to place the letter into an envelope, his inkwell spilled, destroying the entire letter. The Chasam Sofer viewed this as a sign from Heaven that he should not send the letter.

The subject seemed closed until three months later, when Rav Mordechai Benet appeared to the Chasam Sofer in a dream. He explained the reason that his sudden death took place in this small community, far from his home. Apparently, Rav Mordechai had originally been engaged to a young lady from that town. He broke the shidduch, terminated the engagement, prior to his wedding, an action which caused the would-be bride great anguish. As penance for his actions, it was decreed from Heaven that he should die in this town and be buried next to the woman, who had already passed away. The decree, however, was only for three months. His body could now be removed and buried in the cemetery of Nicholsburg. The Chasam Sofer rewrote his response, mentioning that it had been prepared three months earlier, but he had been delayed in sending it.

This is a powerful story with an inspiring message. Nothing goes unrequited. There is a reason for everything. It is all part of the Divine Plan. What seems strange to us really has a very good explanation - once we look at it through the prism of Heaven. We just have to have faith.

They said to one another, "Indeed we are guilty." (42:21)

The brothers took the first step towards resolving their predicament and repenting for the sale of Yosef: they accepted responsibility. We often fail to realize that one cannot make amends until he confronts the reality that he "might" have erred. He is not blameless. "It is I who is at fault - not someone else." This applies in our personal lives, as well as in our spiritual relationship with Hashem. We like to blame the community, the Rav, the teacher, the friends, everybody - but ourselves. We act smug, placing the onus of guilt on the "other guy," while we continue the same sinful behavior, deplorable parenting, irresponsible relationships.

After the bloody riots which took place in 1929, during which many Jews were brutally murdered by bloodthirsty Arabs, a group of young, married students gathered together at Horav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld's house to discuss the tragedy. As in most such discussions, the issue of blame came to the fore. "It is because of the ballgames that are held on Shabbos that all this is happening to us!" one declared. He felt confident that he had discovered the reason for Hashem's disapproval of His people. Immediately, the others nodded their agreement with his statement. There is nothing like faulting others.

At that point, Rav Yosef Chaim arose from his chair and exclaimed, "I disagree with your statement that faults others for catalyzing Hashem's negative response. It is easy for you to blame the non-observant camp for what is actually your fault! Did you take into consideration why these people desecrate? Most of them were conscripted into the army during World War I. Clearly, kosher food and Shabbos were not available to them. Thus, through the course of time, their observance weakened, as their bitterness increased. When they were finally released from the army, observance of Torah and mitzvos was one of the furthest things from the minds of these men. They returned home to confront the infamous pogroms of Petlyura, a Ukrainian despot, who, together with his cronies, butchered innocent Jewish women and children. Who knows? Perhaps one of the victims was someone's father who was killed while he was wrapped in his Tallis and Tefillin.

"The attitude of these people is a product of their collective tragedies. I ask you: what do you want from them? Have they not suffered enough? After all they have experienced, do you think that their iniquity is so great that all of the Jewish people should suffer on their account?"

Hearing these searing words, the students did not know how to respond. One of them had the courage - or perhaps the temerity - to ask, "So, with whom does the blame lie? If it is not them, so who else could be responsible for Hashem's wrath?"

Aval asheimim anachnu, "Indeed, we are guilty!" Rav Yosef Chaim's voice thundered in response, paraphrasing the response of Yosef's brothers. "We have never been forced by extenuating circumstances to desecrate Shabbos, eat non-kosher, or violate any other mitzvos. Our parents were not murdered by anti-Semitic mobs in front of our eyes. We have been privileged to live in the Holy Land in peace and tranquility. What more can we ask? How dare we blame others, when we have had it so good? Much more is expected of us. We must be perfectly righteous in our mitzvah performance and religious demeanor. Who knows whether our own imperfection might have brought this curse on the Jewish People!"

This was a typical response from Rav Yosef Chaim. He had little tolerance for those who would render incriminations about the spiritual failings of our people. Some people unfortunately "live" off this type of behavior, always looking to denigrate somebody, so that the guilt will be laid at his doorstep. Rav Yosef Chaim likened this to a son who had disgraced and cursed his father. Anyone who relates what the son did only increases the father's shame. When we focus and dwell on the shortcomings of others, we do not build the glory of Hashem.

Hallelu es Hashem min ha'Shomayim halleluhu ba'meromim
Praise Hashem from the heavens. Praise Him in the heights.

Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, comments that this Psalm is teaching us an unusual lesson: that man is able to harness and activate all of the many forces of Creation for the purpose of praising Hashem. We see man standing on earth and commanding all of the creations Above to praise the Almighty. What is gained by this phenomenon? When men utilize the phenomena of Heaven and earth with all the creations - in all their remarkable detail - for the purpose of praising Hashem, by meditating on them in order to perceive and acknowledge the gadlus Ha'Borei, the greatness of the Creator, it is precisely then that the heavens and earth fulfill their purpose. When a man gains perfection of soul by considering the works of Hashem, he thereby causes Hashem's creations to praise their Creator no less than if they would have opened their mouths in praise. In this aspect, man controls the entire universe. He sets everything in motion. The flipside is obvious. If man ignores his obligation, if he acts complacently, not taking into account the greatness of the vast universe of Hashem's creations, he prevents their praise. Therefore, not only is he not praising Hashem, but he is obviating the praise of Hashem's creation and keeping them from fulfilling their purpose. This is a powerful and demanding indictment against man.

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