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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


It happened at the end of two years to the day: Pharaoh was dreaming that behold! He was standing over the River. (41:1)

We all know the rest of the story. Seven healthy cows were swallowed up by seven meager cows. Seven healthy ears of grain sprouting on a single stalk were swallowed up by seven ears of parched, thin, weather-beaten grain. These were strange dreams which disturbed the Egyptian king. Clearly, these dreams had to have a profound meaning. Finally, Yosef interpreted the dreams, referring to two sets of seven years - years of plenty swallowed up by years of hunger, a hunger that would be so overwhelming that the years of plenty would be totally forgotten. The Torah does not write fictional stories. Pharaoh's dreams had a purpose. Yosef told Pharaoh what to do to circumvent the disaster that loomed over Egypt. What about us, those who study the Torah, to whom the dreams have Providential meaning? What does the story teach us?

Horav Moshe Mordechai Shulsinger, zl, writes that the episode of the dreams and their interpretation was not meant only for Pharaoh. It is included in the Torah to teach us how to act: to listen, to learn, to take heed. When one is young and healthy, in the prime of his life, vigorous and filled with enthusiasm, he is in the midst of his years of plenty. Arise from bed in the morning, go to shul with energy, daven, learn, take in as much as possible, because one never knows when the years of hunger will begin. Pharaoh knew; we do not.

We traverse this world as if we will never leave. We stake our claim to life and all the good that it offers, never realizing how quickly and irrevocably it can all be taken from us. One can have great wealth stored away in his bank vault; he can have serious investments that total large sums of money, but if he does not have the "years" to spend it, what value is it worth to him? We have time for everything, except that which is really important. When the years of hunger arrive, we had better have stored away the necessary sustenance or we will starve.

There is a classic story which the Steipler Gaon, zl, would relate. We could easily change the dates, places and subject matter, and this would be meaningful to any period of time. The lesson, however, remains unchanged. The Steipler was a student in the Novardoker Yeshivah. He visited home for a Shabbos shortly before the outbreak of World War I. As he prepared to return to the yeshivah, the father of one of his friends asked if he would be so kind as to take back a letter for his son. The Steipler acquiesced with pleasure. The father of the boy said he would bring the letter later that day. The Steipler left with the letter safely in his pocket. Regrettably, he did not make it to the Yeshivah, because World War I had broken out and traveling between countries was suspended. The Steipler was stuck somewhere between his hometown and the yeshivah ,with nowhere to go. True to his word, he kept the sealed letter in his bag for the duration of the war.

Eight years later, the Steipler met the student to whom he was to deliver the letter. The student's father had already passed away, so it was understandable that reading his father's letter at this point was a very emotional experience. The young man opened the envelope, removed the letter, and, with tears streaming down his eyes, read his father's last communication to him: "My dear son, How are you? How are your studies? I hope that you are doing well in the yeshivah. I am writing to ask a favor of you. When you return home from the yeshivah, can you please bring along a few salty herrings? As you know, in our town, they are hard to come by and quite expensive. Thank you. With utmost love, Your Father."

This is what the young man had left from his youth. It was a simple, innocuous letter. No one had any idea that: a war would break out; time would stand still; eight years would go by without any communication; parents would die; life would change; and all that would remain would be - the salty herrings. Hashem has sent us down to this world to amass Torah and mitzvos. Imagine, if we return with not much more than the equivalent of some salty herrings!

How does one motivate himself to save every minute of the years of plenty, not to waste, to make the most of every opportunity. To further illustrate this point, we view another "letter," written by a different father, also to his son in yeshivah. I once quoted this letter, but it is so precious that a repeat performance will only enhance its desired inspiration.

Horav Aizik Sher, zl, was Rosh Yeshivah in Halusk, Poland. This was the beginning of his career as a mechanech, educator, par excellence. He related that this yeshivah consisted of a group of young men who were totally devoted to learning. Nothing else but Torah crossed their minds. The world around them played no role in their lives. It was all about Abaye and Rava, the Shach and Taz. There was a student who, in designated intervals, would receive a short letter from his father. The letter would invariably always end with the same last sentence, "My dear son, In every subject/issue, every question/situation in life that confronts you, think to yourself how would you respond if this was the last day of your life." The letter was signed, "Nosson Tzvi." Yes, this letter was written by the venerable Alter m'Slobadka, Horav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, zl, to his son, Horav Eliezer Yehudah Finkel, founder and Rosh Yeshivah of Mir in Eretz Yisrael. This was the way the future Rosh Yeshivah was raised, to never lose sight of the value of time; to never lose sight of the larger issues. When one thinks about salty herrings, he is left with nothing of value to remember, and nothing of value to bring to the "table" when he suddenly realizes that the years of plenty have gone by and he now confronts the years of hunger. If his thoughts are of a loftier nature, if he realizes that the decision that he is now about to make could quite possibly be his last mortal resolution, he will take great care in expressing his conclusion.

In Chayei HaMussar, Horav Yisrael Yaakov Lubchenski, zl, explains the urgency of Yosef's "suggestion" that Pharaoh immediately appoint a wise and discerning man to oversee the distribution of food during the seven years of plenty. Only a wise man, one who has powerful insight and imagination, a visionary who can see and even sense the images of ravaging hunger overtaking the country - only such a person can be entrusted with preparing the country for the worst. We go through life without thinking, dreaming all of the time, conjuring up images of greatness and success. We think that the dream will last forever, until we wake up and realize that, while we have been dreaming, our dreams have turned into a nightmare.

Now let Pharaoh seek out a discerning and wise man and set him over the land of Egypt. (41:33)

We wonder at Yosef's unsolicited advice. Pharaoh had asked him to interpret his dreams: no more, no less. What prompted Yosef to advise the monarch on how to implement a solution to the dream's formidable message? Horav Eli Munk, zl, feels that Yosef believed in the portent of his dreams; thus, he felt that now - finally - the long-awaited realization of his dreams had finally arrived. This was a unique opportunity for him to seize the moment and offer some unsolicited advice. He might be presenting himself as presumptuous, but it was worth the gamble. While this might be true, it is inconsistent with Yosef's behavior throughout his tenure in prison. During this time, Yosef seems to have taken the passive approach, by allowing things to materialize at G-d's pace.

The Ksav V'Hakabbalah explains that, indeed, "Let Pharaoh seek a discerning and wise man," is an inherent component of the dream's interpretation, without which the dream's solution would remain unfinished business. When we read the account of the dreams, we note that the Torah mentions that Pharaoh woke up twice, once after each dream. Likewise, when Pharaoh related the dream, he repeated the fact that he woke up twice. Why did Pharaoh's waking up twice warrant mention? Obviously, he woke up after the dream.

Apparently, Yosef saw a powerful message in the fact that Pharaoh "woke up." The dream was telling Pharaoh, "You must remain awake! There is no time for sleeping." Thus, Pharaoh was in need of an astute advisor who would be on top of things and not allow for sleeping to occur.

How sadly true this is for so many of us. We receive a Divine message, an idea, an inspiration, but rather than acting upon it immediately, we return to our slumber. So much potential for success has been "slept away," because we did not take the message seriously, or we were just too tired to respond sensibly. Yosef was not just rendering advice, he was interpreting the underlying message of the dream.

You shall be in charge of my palace and by your command shall my people be sustained. (41:40)

After Yosef successfully interpreted Pharaoh's dreams, the king and his ministers all agreed that Yoef was an unusual individual. They offered him the position of viceroy as a token of their appreciation, and also to prove his effectiveness in executing his plan for the survival of the country. The entire episode is mind-boggling. Yosef was a slave who had been imprisoned on a trumped-up charge of impropriety with his master's wife. Regardless of his innocence, he certainly did not have a reputation that bode well for ministerial status - let alone viceroy over the entire country. Furthermore, the Egyptian constitution contained an explicit amendment that a slave could not be elevated to a position of monarchy. Yet, all this was set aside, so that Yosef could ascend the throne of monarchy. How are we to understand this? While dream interpretation may be an impressive item on a resume, does this grant one the right to such a remarkable transformation?

We find later that once the famine started, Pharaoh issued forth a decree that anything Yosef demanded of the populace should be granted. Chazal state that Yosef demanded that all males in Egypt be circumcised. They listened, because otherwise they would have perished from starvation. These enormous powers were granted almost overnight to someone who had previously been a nobody. Pharaoh was no pushover. Indeed, he considered himself to be a deity. Why did he go along with all of this? In fact, it was he who initiated the changes and decrees! Last, how did Pharaoh humble himself before Yosef? He was an arrogant, pompous king whose power spread throughout much of the civilized world at that time. Yet, almost overnight, he gave the keys to his country to a man that had been an imprisoned Jewish slave.

Horav David Chananyah Pinto, Shlita, explains that Yosef was released from prison on Rosh Hashanah. This is the day that we as a nation are mamlich, coronate, the Almighty as G-d and King of the world. It is a day of intense introspection and prayer. Certainly, Yosef was in the midst of celebrating Rosh Hashanah on that day. He was deeply ensconced in prayer to Hashem, his soul soaring in the heights Above. When a person achieves such unique spirituality, his physical countenance also changes. The aura that graced Yosef's face must have been something to behold. His face must have shined like that of a Heavenly Angel. His physical beauty must have been greatly enhanced.

Let us now picture the Yosef who stood before Pharaoh and his advisors on that day. The sanctity that must have emanated from him would have captivated anyone with a modicum of intelligence. Is there anyone who would not have been inspired by Yosef, impressed by him as he stood there bathed in saintly aura, radiating such luminous beauty?

Confronting such a scenario of pure kedushah, holiness, Pharaoh and his advisors became divested of their klipah of ra, outer spiritual shell of evil and defilement. At that point, even the evil Pharaoh recognized and acknowledged the truth. He understood the Providential nature of the moment, that Hashem was conveying a message to him to be interpreted by Yosef. His dreams were not simple products of nocturnal imagination; they reflected a sense of reality, and their message bespoke a state of urgency. Pharaoh understood the power of that moment. This is why, in one simultaneous gesture, Pharaoh and his ministers all agreed to grant Yosef the keys to the country. He was the man that would make it happen. He was connected like no other person who had ever stood before them.

We now understand the impact of standing in the presence of a tzaddik, righteous person, staring upon his countenance, being granted the ability to be inspired by the spiritual illumination of his face. A purifying power emanates from within the tzaddik that cleanses those who gaze upon him. It is as if a spiritual metamorphosis is taking place.

The Rosh Yeshivah writes that he has often observed hard-core kofrim, non-believers, sinners who have "done it all" enter his office, with its surreal atmosphere, walls lined with holy sefarim, books, pictures of tzaddikim on the wall, and, suddenly, begin to cry uncontrollably. What has overcome these people? What has suddenly transformed them from non-believers to emotional children seeking guidance and love? The shame they harbor for having lived a life devoid of Torah and mitzvos is evident as it spills forth from their mouth. The emotion and accompanying humility are palpable. Why? How did this happen? It is all because they are sitting opposite an individual who recognizes the truth - a person who believes in Hashem with all of his heart and soul. This person loves them from the bottom of his heart and seeks to bring them back to reconnect with their Father in Heaven. The man who sits before them is real - and, in their hearts, they know the truth. For years, they have attempted to conceal their true beliefs, but, for a number of reasons, they just could not allow themselves to let go. Now, in the presence of greatness, they submit. Anyone whose eyesight is not failing him can recognize when he is in the presence of a holy person. Regrettably, some of us refuse to open up our eyes and see the truth before us.

And, without you, no man may lift up his hand or foot in all the land of Egypt. (41:44)

Pharaoh handed exemplary powers of monarchy to Yosef. He retained for himself the power associated with the crown, meaning that he, Pharaoh, granted these powers to Yosef. What Yosef achieved was by his grace. Thus, Yosef, and by extension the people, would never forget that the true Egyptian monarch was none other than Pharaoh. Nonetheless, this was an incredible step for Pharaoh. The Egyptians did not hold the Jews in the highest esteem. In fact, they reviled the Jews, as evidenced by the chamberlain's description of Yosef. Yet, Pharaoh was not like that: he recognized greatness; he appreciated wisdom; he respected brilliance and he perceived virtue. He was not going to allow bigotry to stand in the way of acknowledging the man who had the qualities necessary for saving Egypt. Anti-Semitism would not play a role in diminishing Yosef's qualities. Pharaoh knew when he had a winner in his circle - and he was not letting him go. To permit blind hatred to stand in the way of progress is utter foolishness - and Pharaoh was no fool.

Moral hypocrisy dates back to the beginning of time. Was it not Kayin that killed Hevel in Gan Eden? Brother killed brother in the holiest place in the universe. Furthermore, when one delves into the reason Chazal give for their individual choice of sacrifice, we see even greater hypocrisy. Hevel brought m'bechoros tzono, from the finest of his sheep, while Kayin brought mi'pri ha'adamah, from the fruit of the land. Kayin refused to offer an animal, because he felt that it was not right to take a life. He could not hurt a poor sheep, let alone sacrifice it. Yet, he had no problem killing his brother to get him out of the way.

Whether one considers this to be moral hypocrisy or - as a professor of philosophy at an Australian University coined the term - "selective compassion," we seem to have a character flaw through which we decide who and what to love and, inexplicably, we decide whom to hate and hurt. As pointed out by a professor at Princeton University, the archenemy of the Jews, the Amalek of Nazi Germany, was a vegetarian. He could not bear killing animals. He had no problem, however, murdering six million Jews. In 1939, the ASPCA, the Animal Protective League of Germany, sent a letter to their Fuhrer complaining that, by taking away all of the Jews to labor and extermination camps, there would be no one left to take care of all of the dogs and cats which they owned. Imagine! Animals took precedence over people. Last, the author writes about an incident which he personally witnessed in India, a country in which the cow is venerated as a deity. Cows walk around unimpeded by anyone. Yet, when a young child's ball rolled onto the temple grounds and the boy chased after it, the vegetarian priest beat the child to death.

Far be it from me to allow the reader to think that I am so well-read. The above citation is sponsored by a member of the pseudo-Orthodox movement, who has no problem castigating gedolei Yisrael and putting down anyone who devotes his life to Torah learning and dissemination, while lauding the sacrifices of the women who defame the Kosel and who call themselves members of the clergy. Whether one calls it "selective compassion" or "moral hypocrisy," or hides behind a "veil of ignorance," the message is still present. Pharaoh rose above this. It does not necessarily mean that he was a man of integrity. He simply was no fool. He had certain standards to which he adhered.

Horav Yeruchem Levovitz, zl, underscores this idealism, distinguishing contemporary society from earlier generations. Even Pharaoh had certain standards. The Mashgiach comments that it is not unusual for individuals of low repute to manifest conflicting standards, to talk out of both sides of their mouth. He says this in response to an article written by a responsible Jewish author who questioned the standards of famed German author and poet Johann Wolfgang Goethe. The writer questioned the various contrasting remarks made by Goethe concerning the Jewish People. Was he an anti-Semite, as evidenced by many of his statements? Or was he not, as noted from other comments that he made praising Judaism?

The Mashgiach wonders why the writer bothered to discern and explain the nature of this person's mindset. He was not an enigma. Indeed, he was following a pattern common to most people. This is supported by an incident related in the Talmud Shabbos 116A, concerning a judge who had "earned" the reputation that he would not accept bribes from litigants who appeared before him. The Talmud relates how Rabban Gamliel and his sister, Imma Shalom, were able to trick him into revealing the truth about himself. The man was a fraud who would happily pervert justice for the right price. This man was well versed in putting on a show to fool people into believing that he was a saint. Undoubtedly, based upon his reputation, he was adept at concealing the truth about himself. Like so many others of his ilk, he spoke from both sides of his mouth. Therefore, when Pharaoh did the improbable and acted straightforward with integrity and decency, it was truly cause for praise. Interestingly, we see that even the reshaim, wicked people of old, had standards.

This is why this anguish has come upon us. (42:21)

The brothers introspected when they saw a series of misfortunes coming upon them. They realized that these had not been isolated occurrences, but rather, a punishment of sorts. But, for what? These were righteous men who did nothing without first consulting halachah. They felt that they had adjudicated Yosef's sale in accordance with the halachah, stating that a rodef, pursuer, who threatens one's life must be dealt with. Yet, Hashem still found something wrong with their actions. Otherwise, they would not be in this predicament. It must be their lack of compassion in the manner in which they carried out their decision. They regarded their callousness toward their brother - not the actual sale - as the reason for their present sorrowful predicament.

The choice of the word eileinu, translated as "to us," rather than, aleinu, "upon us," is questionable. Troubles come "on" a person, not "to" a person. In the Likutei Moharan, Horav Nachman Breslover, zl, explains that Hashem creates "situations" in thought, speech and action which serve as messages to man. Therefore, a person must look at every occurrence - whether it is something someone said, a thought that entered his mind, or an incident that took place - as messages which are Heavenly opportunities for moving closer to Hashem. There is, however, one prerequisite: one must think cogently in order to discern and understand the hidden meaning of the message. If one does not think, the message will just go over his head.

Yosef abruptly halted his brothers' daily schedule by placing them in jail for three days. The brothers understood that this three-day period was for a purpose. They must have committed a wrong, and this was an opportunity to introspect and determine what it was that they had done wrong. The three days had their desired effect. The brothers came to the realization that they must answer for the sale of Yosef - not for the actual sale - for they could find nothing inappropriate with it. It must be their impassiveness to his cries, their lack of compassion. They understood that they had done something wrong and were, thus, deserving of punishment. The punishment was directed eileinu - to us, as a message to repent and correct our ways. It was not random punishment; No punishment is random. Everything is Heavenly sent with a specific message. Punishment does not come upon us; it comes to us as a wake-up call.

This awareness represents the distinction between one who views the troubles as coming upon him and he who views them as coming to him. Rav Nachman Breslover writes that when one is tested by Hashem, his sheleimus ha'daas, ability to think coherently, is affected. In other words, under stress, one does not think straight. Nonetheless, if one keeps in mind the notion that every test comprises a message from Hashem, that Hashem is speaking to him, intimating to him to open his eyes and delve into his life, see what is wrong - then he will have the ability to triumph over the test. By viewing Hashem's test for what it really is, a therapeutic opportunity, one conjures up the strength to not only survive the challenge, but to actually grow from it.

Va'ani Tefillah

V'hayu l'totafos bein einecha. And let them be totafos/Tefillin between your eyes.

In the Talmud Menachos 34b, Tosfos comments that totafos are explained as head-gear or a crown which identifies it as something to be worn on the head. They are to be worn in the center of the front of the head, "between the eyes." This area is called the fontanelle, the membrane over the hollow between the bones of the skull of a young infant. These bones eventually fuse together a few months after birth. Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, observes that one can feel the pulse of an infant by placing a finger upon the fontanelle. A profound symbolism is to be understood herein. Our "crown" is our bechirah, ability to choose a way of life that is moral, ethical and true to Hashem.

It is interesting to note that, in order to wear the Tefillin properly, one must rely on the interpretation of Chazal. For example, the Torah writes, "bind the Tefillin on the hand." Chazal interpret "hand" as forearm. The Torah instructs us to place the Tefillin Shel Rosh "between the eyes," which is interpreted as on the forehead. This teaches us that, in all areas of life, just as our daily activities and actions are symbolized by the hand, and in all of our intellectual thought, represented by the head, everything must be determined and guided by the Torah, as interpreted by Chazal. Without the Oral Law, the Written Law remains a closed book.

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