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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland

Parshas Vayigash

"And Yehudah approached him and said, 'If you please, my master, may your servant speak a word?'" (44:18)

Rashi views Yehudah's opening statement as blunt and provocative. Yehudah was telling Yosef that if he did not release Binyamin, dire consequences would ensue. If necessary, Yehudah was prepared to wage war against Yosef and his country in order to effect Binyamin's release from captivity. What happened? Yehudah seems to have undergone a remarkable personality change. In his previous encounter with Yosef, Yehudah appeared to be a meek, simple person, imploring Yosef to exercise his good graces towards them. Suddenly, Yehudah had become the mighty statesman, who threatened to wage war and heap disaster upon Egypt if he did not get his way. What catalyzed this transformation?

Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, cites his rebbe, Horav Yosef Leib Bloch, zl, who inferred from Yehudah's actions the remarkable fortitude one is able to find within himself once he assumes responsibility for an endeavor, a function, or even his own actions. When Yehudah told Yosef that he had accepted the responsibility of being the guarantor of Binyamin's welfare, he became a new person.

Accepting responsibility enhances a person's self-esteem. It transforms the meek into the courageous, the weak into the strong, and the unassuming into the assertive. This same transformation takes place when one accepts the yoke of mitzvos. Such an approach may seem difficult as long as one gazes from afar. When one makes up his mind, however, to perform mitzvos or to undertake to do a specific deed, he will instantly notice that he is blessed with a new source of physical and emotional energy.

"And Yosef said to his brothers, 'I am Yosef.' ... and his brothers could not answer him." (45:3)

In the Midrash, Chazal quote Abba Bardela who said, "Woe is to us from the day of judgment. Woe is to us from the day of reproach. Bilaam, the wisest of the gentiles, could not stand before the rebuke of his donkey. Yosef was the youngest of the tribes. Yet, his brothers could not stand before him. How much more so, when Hashem will come and reproach everyone according to what he is, will we not be able to tolerate this rebuke." This Chazal has been the subject of considerable discussion. It has served as the basis for defining the Torah's concept of rebuke. There is one point, however, which must be addressed - the added corroboration from Bilaam's dialogue with his donkey. Why does Abba Bardela cite the donkey's rebuke, and why does it precede the proof from Yosef?

Horav Yitzchak Aizik Sher, zl, derives a fascinating lesson from Chazal. If we were to think about the narrative concerning Bilaam and his donkey, we would be amazed to note what is occurring. Imagine that while we are traveling on the road, we come across an animal that suddenly begins a conversation with us. The animal begins to point out areas of our behavior that could use some improvement. We would be overwhelmed by this confrontation. This is a miracle! It is a wonder of wonders to have an animal address us with words of seichal, common sense, and rebuke us concerning our lax behavior. Yet, we see that Bilaam had this type of confrontation. Not only was he not dumbfounded, but he offered a rejoinder to the donkey and even berated it in the manner that a master would discipline his slave. This all changed the moment the donkey adapted his approach and told Bilaam, "Am I not the donkey that you have ridden on for awhile? Do I deserve such ingratitude from you?" Suddenly, Bilaam's attitude changed and he confessed to his wrongdoing. What happened? Why did he make an about-face and respond like a "mench" to the donkey? The answer is that -- despite his audacity and arrogance -- when he was confronted face to face with the blatant truth, even Bilaam could not deny reality and walk away. He had to respond to the donkey's allegation. No person or power can stand up to the truth and ignore it.

A similar encounter occurred to the brothers of Yosef. They were mighty warriors, devout in their conviction. Above all, they were totally secure in the decision they had rendered concerning their brother, Yosef. Nothing stood in their way. If necessary, they would destroy Egypt if the Egyptians were to refuse to release Binyamin. What happened that made their resolve disintegrate? What shattered their belief in themselves? Two words: "Ani Yosef; I am Yosef." That was all it took to overturn twenty-two years of confidence in the integrity of their decision to destroy Yosef. The instant they were confronted with the truth they knew that their basic belief was erroneous. Is it any wonder that they reacted with such shock , disbelief and fear? This is the added proof from Bilaam. Regardless of how great the opponent, nothing and no one can stand in the way of emes!

"And he fell upon his brother Binyamin's neck and wept; and Binyamin wept upon his neck." (45:14)

Chazal teach us that Yosef and Binyamin wept over the destruction of the Sanctuaries that would be built in their respective territories. Two Batei Mikdash were to be constructed in Binyamin's territory, and the Mishkan Shiloh was to be erected in Yosef's portion. This Midrash has been the source of considerable discussion. One would think that at a time of such heightened joy, the last thing that would enter their minds would be tragedy. Second, why are they crying about the churban of the other? What about their own?

Obviously, we are not talking about common people, whose prime concern is the "here" and "now". We are dealing with spiritual giants who were able to put everything into perspective, the perspective of Torah. Their view of a situation was totally unlike our own. Their outlook was penetrating, their vision encompassing a wide range of events in one single glance. Yet, one would still expect a joyous interaction to be just that - joyous! What provoked such an outpouring of grief?

Horav Yechezkel, zl, M'Kuzmir offers a classic response which communicates a relevant message. The Batei Mikdash were destroyed as a result of sinaas chinam, unwarranted hatred among Jews. When Yosef and Binyamin finally met, they sensed that the cause of the years of tragic separation was the jealousy and discord that had reigned in their home. They saw and experienced firsthand the terrible destruction that sinaas chinam can catalyze. Immediately, they saw the future destruction of the Sanctuaries, which was also a result of discord among Jews.

How were they to correct the terrible rift that existed in Klal Yisrael? How were they to teach their descendants the attitude they would need to develop in order to maintain harmony among them? They cried. They cried on each other's shoulders for each other's tragedy. They ignored their own grief; they were oblivious to their personal misfortune. Their prime concern was for the other. Yosef wept for Binyamin's catastrophe, while Binyamin grieved for Yosef's disaster.

One last note is compelling. The Bais Ha'Mikdash to be erected in Binyamin's portion could not be built until after the Mishkan Shiloh, which was in Yosef's portion, was destroyed. Yet, Binyamin cried for the Mishkan Shiloh! This means that he deemed it appropriate that "my" Bais Ha'Mikdash, the home of the Shechinah to be built in "my" portion, not be built - if it means that my brother's Mishkan must be destroyed. Amazing! This is sensitivity; this is true caring for another's pain. Binyamin was prepared to give up the realization of his hopes and prayers in order to avoid contributing to his brother's pain. This is the essence of love among Jews. It represents the epitome of devotion to another that serves as penance and rectification for the sin of sinaas chinam.

"And he saw the wagons that Yosef had sent to transport him." (45:27)

Chazal teach us that Yosef had a specific motivation in sending "agalos," wagons. The Hebrew word "agalah," wagon, is similar to the word "eglah," calf. Yosef intended to provide a hint to Yaakov, referring to the laws of the eglah arufah (the calf which was killed as a symbol of the innocence of the elders of a city where a murder had been committed), which was the last section of halachah that Yosef had studied with Yaakov. He thereby demonstrated to his father that he had not forgotten his studies. Also, Yosef had taken leave of his father without escort and much had transpired. Was it not Yaakov who had said, "I am to blame for what happened to Yosef. I knew of his brothers' animosity towards him. Yet, I sent him away without protection." In another Midrash, Chazal teach us that Yosef was alluding to the three calves which Avraham saw in his vision, the harbingers of the exile.

What are we to learn from Chazal's words? A great man does not view any occurrence as the result of chance. Nothing just happens. There is a cause and effect; a clear pattern exists between events. One has only to open his eyes to see the whole picture. The Chafetz Chaim comments that it was no coincidence that Yaakov had studied the laws of eglah arufah with Yosef before they had parted ways - without protection. Yosef was able to infer a profound personal lesson from the laws of eglah arufah; he could relate to the lonely wayfarer whose innocent blood had been spilled. Yaakov could sympathize with the elders of the city who were enjoined to bring the calf. He blamed himself for not properly accompanying Yosef, for sending him out alone to such a hostile environment. Yosef foresaw the beginning of the exile as his father came down to Egypt. He sent calves, which are synonymous with the Egyptian exile. Nothing eluded their eyes. They saw wholistic relationships. This is a sign of greatness.

The Chafetz Chaim recounts a story which reinforces this thesis. The author of the Amudei Sheish, Horav Avraham Shmuel, once came to attend a bris milah. Prior to the bris, he asked for a few moments with the child's mother. Although this was unusual, people deferred to the great gaon and delayed the ceremony. A half hour later, the rav emerged from the room leaving a tear-stricken mother and announced that the baby was a mamzer, illegitimate child. Jewish law demands that such an announcement be made publicly at the bris of a mamzer, so that it be known and remembered that this child is not eligible to marry a Jewish girl of unquestionable descent. People were amazed and said that the rav was blessed with Divine inspiration. After all, how else could he have known of this woman's illicit affair?

The rav responded and explained how it was that he was privy to this knowledge. At the time that he was summoned to attend the bris, it "just happened" that he was studying the laws pertaining to mamzeirus, illegitimacy of children. It concerned him that specifically while he was studying this topic, he would be called to officiate at a bris. This feeling gnawed at him and intensified when he entered the house. Something just did not seem right. His suspicions were reinforced upon discreetly inquiring about the mother's behavior. He, therefore, felt compelled to question the young woman directly to avert a further tragedy.

Many stories demonstrate the attention our gedolim gave to every minute occurrence. Nothing was left to chance. Nothing was coincidental. There was no such thing as being in the "right place at the right time." If they were present, it was for a purpose. Hashem sends us subtle messages from which we are either to glean a lesson or to infer a direction in what we are about to do. The ability to see and discern these lessons is a sign of greatness.

This writer once heard an excellent analogy which demonstrates how everything that occurs to us has a purpose. We have only, at times, to wait for the hidden meaning to surface. A story relates that once there was a young man who was in the desert without food or drink. The sun was beating down upon his body, as he trudged through desolate terrain in search of water and a way out of his terrible circumstance. Every step brought him closer to his destination, but as his thirst increased it became increasingly hard to go on. Suddenly, from afar, he saw another person carrying a large knapsack. "Oh! salvation," he screamed as he ran over to this man. "Water! Water! Please give me water," he begged the stranger. "I'm sorry, I have no water," responded the would be savior. "But, I am a necktie salesman, and I will happy to give you a free tie!" Words cannot describe the utter frustration that overcame our distraught traveler to hear these words. "Neckties! What will I do with a necktie; I need water," he responded with whatever strength he had remaining.

He kept on going, trudging, crawling, hoping that someway and somehow he would make it to civilization. Finally, he observed the outskirts of a town. He crawled over on his torn hands and knees to a small restaurant. He dragged his body into the restaurant and with parched lips opened his mouth, pleading, "Water, water." The waiter behind the counter looked at the bedraggled man and said, "Don't you see the sign by the front door. We do not serve anybody in this restaurant unless he is wearing a necktie. I'm sorry I cannot serve you."

The moral is simple. Incidents occur during our lifetime which -- as far as our limited perspective is concerned -- have no meaning. These are the "neckties" that one day we might need. Let us not ignore them.


1. How many years did the famine last in Egypt?

2. Which of Yaakov's grandchildren had the same name?

3. Did any of Yaakov's wives go down with him to Egypt?

4. What mitzvah was Yaakov performing when he met Yosef?

5. Is there an obligation to honor one's grandfather?

6. Which brother did Yosef introduce to Pharaoh?


1. It ended when Yaakov came to Egypt. Hence, it lasted only two years. However, Rabbi Yossi says it began again 17 years later, when Yaakov passed away.

2. Both Reuven and Yehudah had sons by the name of Chetzron.

3. According to Rashi, the moon in Yosef's dream is a reference to Bilhah who raised Yosef as his mother. Thus, it was Bilhah who came down to Egypt. The Ramban contends that by thetime Yaakov went down to Egypt, all of his wives had died.

4. He was reciting Kri'as Shma.

5. Yes. It is a greater obligation, however, to honor one's father.

6. Rashi states that Yosef introduced those brothers whose physical appearance did not indicate physical strength. He feared that Pharaoh might decide to use his brothers as warriors in his army. According to one opinion, he introduced Reuven, Shimon, Levi, Yissachar and Zevullun, while another opinion holds that it was Gad, Naftali, Dan, Asher and Binyamin.

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