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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Yaakov settled in the land of his father's sojournings. (37:1)

Regarding the above pasuk, the Baal HaTurim writes, "This can be compared to one who, upon seeing a band of dogs begin to chase him, intent on attacking him, sits himself down among them; so, too, Yaakov settled among Eisav's descendants." The Gerrer Rebbe, zl, the Imrei Emes, derives from here a significant lesson regarding life and how it should be lived. At times, we are confronted with various trials and tribulations, anxieties and misfortunes. Our first reaction is to run from them and, consequently, allow our mitzvah observance and relationship with the Almighty to wane. This was not Yaakov Avinu's response. He confronted his challenges head-on, not allowing them to affect his spiritual well-being.

Yosef HaTzaddik followed in his father's footsteps. While incarcerated in the miserable Egyptian prison, he did not let depression rule his life. His smile and kind words were a staple for many prisoners. He never forgot Hashem. During his most trying moments he attempted to live his life in an orderly manner, never deviating from his spiritual status-quo.

This is the meaning of the Baal HaTurim's analogy: If a person is confronted by a band of dogs bent on harming him, running away from them will only encourage them to chase after him. The best plan is to remain stationary in order to confront the challenge with determination and fortitude.

Horav Yerucham Levovitz, zl, takes a similar approach towards understanding Yaakov's decision to settle in Eisav's backyard. He uses the following analogy to make his point. Once, an elderly woman was sipping her coffee in the restaurant of a theatre long after the curtain had gone up, signaling the beginning of the first act. The waiter inquired curiously why she had not taken a seat in the theatre. She replied, "I would never go in now. It is much too crowded. I will go in once they all come out. Then I can have as many seats as I want to myself."

This is the folly of life for many of us. We wait for those tranquil moments, those endless summer days: days when the sky is blue and cloudless, the sun is warm and shinning, and everything seems to be perfect. When the rain falls - a temporary situation which we all must endure - we perceive it to be a hardship which we must "weather." We consider it just a painful interlude, assuming that when it is over we will resume with "real" life.

This perspective on life is false. Many fail to realize that life is all about the rain, the storms of thunder and lightning. A part of life is the sickness and anxiety, pain and fear - and our constant striving to overcome these challenges. Only through these tribulations, and our triumph over them, are we able to enhance our spirituality in order to fulfill our purpose on this world. The

sunny days are for gathering our strength and conjuring up our courage to be able to derive the most from life's challenges.

True, Yaakov sought tranquility; he desired serenity. He did not seek it, however, for the purpose of leisure to idle away his time. No, Yaakov sought peace of mind so that he could better devote himself to his spiritual pursuits. Nonetheless, Hashem told him that this is not the way for the righteous. They will receive their rest in the World to Come. This world is for action, for challenge. Those who focus on the intermission will quite often miss the show.

Yaakov settled in the land of his father's sojournings, in the land of Canaan. (37:1)

Rashi explains that Yaakov sought to live in serenity, but the anguish of Yosef sprang upon him. Righteous people want to live in serenity in this world, but Hashem says to them, "Is it not enough that you will enjoy serenity in the World to Come, that you want it in this world as well?" We are confronted with a simple - but penetrating - question: Would Hashem begrudge a tzaddik a life of serenity? In a homily for Parshas Vayeshev given at the beginning of World War II in December, 1939, the Piazcesner Rebbe, zl, cites Rav Baruch m'Medzbusz. He explains the verse in the zemer, Shabbos song, of Kol mekadesh, which we sing on Friday night, Azor la shovsim bashvii bacharish u'vakatzir "Help those who sanctify the Seventh Day by desisting from plow and harvest." The Hebrew word, charish, plow, may also be translated as "silence." The verse would then read, "Help those who sanctify the Seventh Day with silence." They sanctify the Seventh Day because they do not speak.

In the simplest interpretation of this teaching, it might be a reference to the idea that on Shabbos one should sanctify his speech. He should refrain from idle and unnecessary talk, focusing on speaking devarim shebikedushah, holy speech. The Piazcesner interprets the verse quite differently. He feels it could be a reference to those righteous people who achieve such rapture on Shabbos that they are unwilling to describe what they are experiencing with mere words. In this interpretation, the actual experience demands silence, a silence for which one is rewarded. How are we to understand this?

The Rebbe explains that there are two types of silence: a silence of spiritual ecstasy, which eludes verbal description; and a mute silence of crushing defeat and despair. Two words in the Hebrew language refer to silence: charishah, silence; and ilmut, muteness. The word charishah is used primarily to describe a situation or an individual that has the potential for engaging freely in speech, but, nevertheless, does not speak. Ilmut is a term used to describe one who is so broken and crushed that he has nothing to say. He does not feel; he has no head or heart with which to perceive or feel. He is mute. For him, silence is not a choice; he is incapable of speech.

At certain times, however, a Jew realizes that a time of despair is about to occur, when survival means being reduced to petty, small-minded and spiritually diminished behavior. He then takes hold of himself, adjusting to the forthcoming tribulation. He says to himself, "At the present time, I am indeed ileim, mute, but even a mute has the ability to communicate by gesturing in a manner appropriate to his condition. I, too, will speak a little in this way, communicating through my muteness."

At times, the troubles may increase and intensify, to the point that each individual feels that he has reached a condition in which the state of muteness has become still more powerful and encompassing. This may be understood from the dialogue between Yosef and his brothers concerning his dream.

Describing his first dream, Yosef says, "Behold, we were binding sheaves in the field. Then my sheaf stood up erect, and your sheaves surrounded it and bowed down to my sheaf" (37:7). The Hebrew words used for "binding sheaves" is me'almim alumim, which is identical to the Hebrew word for "mute." This is as if Yosef were to say to them, "We were struck dumb/mute in the field."

The word "field" in Yosef's dream is a reference to the Kabbalistic concept of the "holy field" in which all Jews toil. Yosef was saying to his brothers, "We were harvesting the field. When the bitter galus, exile, reached the point of mealmim alumim, total muteness, we became bereft of the ability to communicate - even in our Torah and avodah, worship of Hashem. Then suddenly, almosai, my muteness, stood up erect. At first, I attempted to accept my muteness, to bend to the crushing situation, to live with the muteness, to communicate somewhat, to gesture, to do something. When I saw how overpowering the muteness had become, however, I could no longer bear it. I conjured up the courage to cry out to Hashem even louder, to the point that even your sheaves, muteness, surrounded mine and took strength from me."

This is the meaning of the original quote from Rashi: Righteous people seek serenity. They want to adapt, to adjust to the exile and its tribulations. Hashem says to them, "It is not enough that they will have a future that will be good. They must toil to arouse Heavenly mercy in this world, so that Hashem will spare Klal Yisrael -immediately. There is no coming to terms with the troubles that confront us. Muteness is not an alternative.

In a sense, the Piazcesner Rebbe was referring to himself as he rallied others on. He had just sustained overwhelming personal losses, to the point that for two months he had found it impossible to teach and lecture. Now, as the homily seems to imply, he was making a conscious decision to reject spiritual passivity and mute acceptance of suffering. He would forge ahead with Torah study and prayer, encouraging those who had thus far survived with him to do likewise. They would not be mute!

Come let us sell him to the Yishmaelim, but let our hand not be upon him. (37:26)

In his blessing to Yehudah shortly before his death, Yaakov Avinu said, "A lion cub is Yehudah; from prey, my son, you ascended" (Breishis 49:9). Rashi comments that it was Yehudah's advice to sell Yosef that earned him this blessing. We must endeavor to understand this. Slavery is a form of death. Furthermore, being sold to an immoral master, which was what could be expected in those days, meant resigning oneself to the state of slave/victim, to a spiritual demise worse than death. Why, then, is Yehudah lauded for his "superb" advice? Horav Yitzchak Aizik Sher, zl, derives a compelling lesson from here. When a person is faced with an overwhelming situation, he must make an irrevocable decision; Once he executes the decision, he cannot go back. In such an instance, it is far better to remove oneself and "allow" Hashem to do what He wants. The brothers had decided to do away with Yosef. This was a decision from where there was no return. Yosef could not be brought back to life. Yehudah encouraged his brothers to desist and let Hashem's will be done.

This idea applies to each and everyone of us during various instances in our lives, when we are confronted with a situation where the decision is difficult to render and no room for error exists. We should remove ourselves and trust in Hashem. He is never wrong.

She was being taken out, and she sent (word) to her father-in-law, saying, "By the man to whom these belong I am pregnant," and she said, "Recognize, if you please, whose are this signet, this wrap, and this staff." (38:25)

Rashi comments that Tamar did not wish to embarrass Yehudah by saying, "I am pregnant by you." She figured if Yehudah were to decide on his own to confess, then let him admit it. If not, she was prepared to be burned, rather than humiliate him. Chazal derive from here that "it is preferable for a person to throw themselves into a fiery furnace rather than shame their friend in public." Chazal's statement is ambiguous. If they are deriving a halachah, law, it should be an absolute statement to the fact that one must throw himself into a furnace, rather, than saying, "it is preferable to do so."

Horav Leib Chasman, zl, gleans from Chazal's wording that, indeed, it is not a halachah, but only an eitzah tovah, good piece of advice. Chazal are teaching us that one should reflect and sensitize himself to the point that he feels the act of murder inherent in humiliating another person. This may be compared to two hot, burning stoves: one large and one small. Certainly, if he is compelled, he will choose to pass through the smaller stove. Likewise, one should view embarrassing someone as being the larger, much hotter stove. Chazal have taught us the sensitivity we must have towards our friend's feelings. It is worse than a fiery stove! Indeed, it constitutes an act of murder.

Horav Sholom Schwadron, zl, supplements this by retelling an incredible incident that occurred with Horav Yehoshua Leib Diskin, zl. As he advanced in age, Rav Yehoshua Leib had a sugar problem. Thus, he was forced to consume much more sugar than usual. Due to his illness, his attendant would bring him a cup of tea with extra sugar, even during his lecture. It once came to the attention of the students that the rebbetzin was disconcerted. When they asked her for the source of her distress, she explained that she recently noticed that the salt had mistakenly been placed in the sugar container. Apparently, the attendant who was serving Rav Yehoshua Leib his tea was scooping tablespoons of salt into the tea instead of sugar! Imagine, Rav Yehoshua Leib was swallowing salt, which was noxious and life-threatening for him, rather than embarrassing the attendant for making an error.

When Rav Yehoshua Leib was asked why he risked his health by taking the salt, he responded, "It is preferable to throw oneself into a fiery furnace rather than shame someone in public." This is the meaning of sensitivity for another person.

Horav Schwadron observes that it is not sufficient to simply be aware of the gravity of humiliating another person; one must internalize this knowledge into his psyche to the point that he feels it. When Rav Yehoshua Leib drank the salt, he tasted sugar, because to indicate a bitter taste would be to hurt someone's feelings. This could not be allowed.

Thus, if an individual were to observe a person humiliating another person in public, it would be tantamount to witnessing an act of murder. He has just seen his friend being flung into a fiery furnace! How could he calmly sit by and watch?

Horav Yisrael Chaim Kaplan, zl, was once seen sitting in the bais hamedrsh, weeping uncontrollably. A student went over and asked, "Rebbe, is something wrong? Why is the rebbe crying?" Rav Yisrael Chaim did not respond; instead, he continued crying. The student waited a few moments, and once again he asked, "Why is the rebbe crying?" Finally, Rav Yisrael Chaim turned to him and said, "Chazal compare humiliating a fellow Jew to murder. Let me ask you; If you were to witness someone in the bais hamedrash going over to another student and stabbing him with a knife, would you not cry? You would be hysterical, would you not? I have just witnessed a similar act of murder. I noticed how one student embarrassed another student. How can I not cry? I witnessed an act of murder!"

This is how our Torah leaders understood the meaning of sensitivity to another person's feelings.

Questions and Answers

1) Why did the kesones pasim that Yaakov gave Yosef elicit the brothers' anger?

2) What is the significance of the sheaves of grain in Yosef's dream?

3) How were the brothers able to sit down to a meal after selling Yosef?

4) Was Binyamin aware that Yosef had been sold as a slave, rather than being killed by a wild animal?


1) The coat of many colors in itself would not have upset the brothers. It was what the coat represented that bothered them. It reflected his exalted status and position (Sforno).

2) The reason that Yosef became a monarch, which resulted in his brothers' subservience to his position, was that the grain and other agricultural produce were under his control. This is why Pharoah appointed him as viceroy. It was also the reason that his brothers went down to Egypt (Ramban).

3) In their eyes, they had neither done wrong nor committed any sin, which should have deterred them from sitting down and eating a relaxed meal. Only one who has sinned should have a problem eating. The brothers felt no remorse, because they felt that Yosef was a rodef, pursuer, who was out to destroy them. The nirdaf, pursued, is permitted to save himself, even if the only alternative is to slay the pursuer (Sforno).

4) Binyamin was aware that Yosef had not been killed. He, nonetheless, remained silent concerning his whereabouts. He is lauded for his silence, attributing it to his descendancy from Rachel, who also remained silent and did not divulge Lavan's exchanging Leah for Rachel (Midrash).

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