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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


And Reuven heard, and he rescued him from their hand; he said, "We will not strike him mortally." (37:21)

What is the meaning of "Reuven heard"? Was he not present together with his brothers? He did not "hear" from afar; he was there! The Midrash explains that, indeed, Reuven was there; it is just that he viewed the situation from a different vantage point than his brothers did. It was as if he had heard differently than they did. When Reuven heard Yosef relate his dream, he heard something which the other brothers either did not hear, or to which they did not bother listening: Yosef mentioned that there were eleven stars. This indicates that he still included Reuven as one of the Shivtei Kah, twelve tribes, from which Klal Yisrael would be built. Up until now, Reuven had thought that, due to his impetuosity concerning Leah Imeinu's bed, he had crossed the "line" and was no longer included in the group. Apparently, Yosef did not think so.

Chazal understood that Vayishma Reuven, "And Reuven heard", has a much deeper meaning than simply perceiving sound. Reuven did more than hear - he understood; he cogitated; he derived a lesson. True, the brothers thought that Yosef meant to take over the future reign of the brothers - to usurp Reuven's position as b'chor, firstborn, and assume the rulership himself. Reuven understood differently. He understood that Yosef was not seeking monarchy; he saw it as coming to him. In between the lines, however, he also heard that Yosef had included him as one of the brothers. He had retained his position as one of Yaakov Avinu's tribes. Reuven felt a sense of hakoras hatov, gratitude, to Yosef. Thus, he came forward, demanding that Yosef be allowed to live.

Horav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zl, posits that the middah, character trait, of hakoras hatov is mechayev, is what compelled, Reuven's view of Yosef's intentions to be different than the view held by his brothers. This is why Reuven understood that Yosef was harmless; his intentions were not threatening. When one views a situation through the lens of hakoras hatov, what he sees is illuminating.

The Rosh Yeshivah supplements this with another insight. Actually, when we think about it, what did Reuven owe Yosef? It was but a dream which Yosef had experienced. Indeed, this dream primarily concerned Yosef, and it was to his benefit. Incidentally, he mentioned that there had been eleven stars, which represented eleven brothers - granting the fact that Reuven had been included in this sum total. Such a message - although related innocuously without intention to make Reuven feel good - still demands hakoras hatov.

Yehudah recognized; and he said, "She is right: it is from me." (38:26)
But it happened that when I raised my voice and screamed, he left his garment beside me, and ran outside. (39:18)

Tamar could have saved herself and the two fetuses that were growing in her womb - at the expense of Yehudah. She was not prepared, however, to step on someone in order to save herself. Potifar's wife wanted very badly to be married to Yosef. She wanted to contribute to Klal Yisrael. Yosef was not prepared to take the wife of his master. This was not only immoral; it was also prohibited. Chazal teach that both women had noble intentions. They both wanted a role in building Klal Yisrael. Something was apparently lacking in the l'shem Shomayim, acting for the sake of Heaven, in Potifar's wife's act. Wherein is the difference between the way Tamar acted and the way in which Potifar's wife carried out her scheme?

Horav Sholom Schwadron, zl, explains that l'shem Shomayim is insufficient unless it is bolstered by purity of heart and refined character traits. Only when one combines yosher ha'middos, exemplary character traits, with l'shem Shomayim does he have the chance of achieving success. Tamar wanted badly to be a contributor to the future of Klal Yisrael - but she was not going to do this at the expense of another person's humiliation. If it meant embarrassing Yehudah - she wanted no part of it.

Potifar's wife had designs on Yosef, and she too wanted to be the progenitress of Yosef's tribe. She, however, wanted it at any expense - even Yosef's disparagement! When one does not partner l'shem Shomayim with yosher ha'middos, the l'Shem Shomayim loses its meaning.

This idea applies across the board, in contemporary life as well. We often get carried away in our religious fervor, disregarding the feelings of someone upon whom we have stepped on along the way. L'shem Shomayim is important; raising the banner of Heaven is what Judaism is all about. If our work impinges upon the sensitivities of a fellow Jew, we are no longer l'shem Shomayim. Our actions are of no value.

Horav Moshe Deutsch, zl, asked the Chazon Ish, zl, the following question: Chazal teach that one who studies halachos, Jewish Law, every day, will merit Olam Habba, a place in the World to Come. What if these two clash: if a person who is deeply committed to learning Torah embarrasses someone? Will he still receive Olam Habba?

The Chazon Ish replied that the Angels representing both sides - the learning and the embarrassing - stand before the Heavenly Tribunal. Hashem will then decide in accordance with the "defendant's" merits. If his merits outweigh his demerits, he will pass. Otherwise, he is destined to lose what he has worked for his entire life.

Hashem was with Yosef, and he became a successful manů His master saw that Hashem is with him, and all that he would do Hashem would make successful in his hand. (39:2,3)

People go through life searching for success. They are seeking that unique elixir that will provide them with favorable achievement in all of their endeavors. Some are fortunate to find it; while, to others, it remains elusive. What is the key to success? Wherein does one find the passport to achievement? Yosef was successful. How did he do it? Rashi explains the phrase, ki Hashem ito, "Hashem was with him," as Shem Shomayim shagar b'fiv, "The Name of Heaven was fluent in his mouth," to mean that he would regularly refer to Hashem in conversation.

The Midrash Tanchuma elaborates on this pasuk: "Potifar was an immoral pagan priest. How would he 'see' G-d with Yosef? When Yosef would enter to serve Potifar, he would entreat Hashem with the following: 'Master of the world, You are my Benefactor; You are my Patron; grant me (the ability to have) grace, kindness and compassion in Your eyes and in the eyes of all who behold me, and in the eyes of Potifar.' Hearing Yosef muttering silently, Potifar became nervous: 'What is Yosef whispering? Could it be witchcraft, magical incantations?' Yosef immediately explained, 'I am praying to G-d.' Potifar saw that everything Yosef did was successful. How did he see this? Yosef would pour his master a cup of juice. 'I do not want juice; I want wine,' Potifar declared. Suddenly, the liquid became wine. He would pour cooked wine. Potifar declared, 'I want regular, uncooked wine.' The wine immediately changed into non-cooked wine. Whatever Potifar demanded, Yosef brought him. He asked for something, and Yosef was there with it. If Potifar changed his mind, the product took a 'sudden' turn and became what he desired. Thus, Potifar saw that Hashem was with Yosef."

The Midrash Rabbah states that Yosef praised and blessed Hashem for everything that he (Yosef) did. No activity, no endeavor, went unnoticed by Yosef. He perceived Hashem's Presence in everything that he did. He was acutely aware that whatever he achieved, he had achieved only because Hashem willed it.

Yosef's success was not simply due to his awareness of G-d, but because he articulated this awareness. Shem Shomayim shagar b'fiv, Hashem's Name was fluent in his mouth. Yosef kept on praying constantly. He understood that he needed Hashem every step of the way. Only Hashem could help him. Otherwise, he had nothing.

Horav Shimshon Pincus, zl, derives a compelling lesson from Yosef's consistent "mumbling." Melacheish v'nichnas, melacheish v'yotzei, "He whispered as he walked in; he whispered as he went out." Yosef's tefillah, supplication of Hashem, was neither a one-time arrangement, nor was it restricted to three times a day. Prayer was his life. As he breathed - he prayed, every moment, every movement. It was all about prayer. Tefillah is the guiding principle and blueprint for a Jew's daily endeavor. To live with Hashem means to pray to Him. Prayer is our conversation with the Almighty: "For which a great nation that has a G-d Who is close to it, as is Hashem our G-d, whenever we call to Him" (Devarim 4:7). This is the tzurah, image, of a Jew: he lives in constant proximity with Hashem. How? Through prayer.

Rav Pincus explains that this is why Matan Torah, the Giving of the Torah, to Klal Yisrael is compared to a wedding, and the relationship between Hashem and His people are likened to a marriage between man and a wife. A marriage is much more than a reciprocal relationship; it is a completely new form of life, in which two people live together as one. Likewise, Hashem is with us at all times, prepared and waiting to assist in every manner - large and small. Hashem is present to listen. As the well-known story goes, the Baal Shem Tov was orphaned from his father when he was but a child of five years old. As his father's health worsened and he sensed that death was imminent, his father called in his young son and said, "Srulikul (Yisrael), my child, I feel the end very near, but I want you to know that you have a Father up in Heaven. Whenever you feel the need to 'talk' to Him, just do so. He will always listen."

Furthermore, Rav Pincus explains the pasuk, ki Hashem ito, "Hashem is with him," by describing a child who walks into a dark, dreary, lonely place, while he holds onto his father's hand. He is afraid; fear courses through his body, but as long as he holds his father's hand, his fear is allayed. Yosef prayed constantly to Hashem, because he knew that he was in a place that was treacherous. He understood that, without Hashem, he had no chance of success. He prayed. His prayer was his outstretched hand to his father in Heaven. This is how we should all live. Veritably, we have no other way.

We have no dearth of stories which underscore the efficacy of prayer. I recently came across the following story, which I feel presents an even wider dimension to prayers' profuse influence: A family was spending their vacation in Teveriah. One day, the mother and two young daughters decided to go to the beach, where there was an area for separate swimming. The father went instead to pray at the tomb of Rabbi Meir Baal Haneis.

The two girls went into the water right by the shore. Neither one knew how to swim, so they were playing it safe. Suddenly, a large wave came along and swept the older girl into the deep part of the sea. The child flayed her arms in an attempt to stay afloat. She was not successful, and she began to bob her head in and out of the water. The girl was drowning. She screamed for help to her mother, who also did not know how to swim. What does a mother do when her child is drowning before her eyes, and there is nothing she can do to save her?

The mother ran up the road and stood in the middle in an attempt to flag down a car. Perhaps someone could help save her child. A number of cars drove around her with the drivers screaming, "Get out of the way!" No one stopped to ask, "What is wrong?" One car stopped and a middle-aged man, dressed in a business suit, came out of the car and asked, "What happened?"

"My daughter is drowning! Please help! She cannot swim," she pleaded. The man's immediate response was to run to the water, as his wife who was driving the car screamed, "Do not forget that you are recuperating from a heart attack!" The man did not listen. He was too busy running to the water. As he ran, he removed his jacket and shirt. He ran into the water, and, in about one minute, returned with a little girl.

"That is not her!" the mother screamed. "It is my younger daughter who must have gone in to rescue her older sister. She also does not know how to swim." The mother pointed toward a spot a few feet farther down in the sea where her daughter was last seen. The man immediately swam out to the spot, and, in a few moments, returned with the limp body of a young girl.

Meanwhile, a crowd had developed around the mother, all looking on nervously as the man bobbed in and out of the water, searching for the older girl. As he was returning to shore with the girl, one of the onlookers screamed out, "Take her head out of the water!" The rescuer was so overcome with his concern to locate the girl and bringing her to shore that he had forgotten to hold her head out of the water. He immediately flung the girl over his shoulder, and, upon reaching the shore, began CPR. It took time, but he was finally able to feel a pulse. The girl was breathing.

The rescue squad arrived, and, after checking out the girl, the grim-faced medic said that the girl had been under for too long. The mother screamed, "No! We are going to the hospital. I am not giving up on my child! Sadly, the doctor in the emergency room concurred with the medic. Only a miracle would save the girl. The mother declared, "If a miracle is what is going to take to bring my daughter back, we will pray to Hashem for a miracle."

The family gathered together and began to pray fervently into the night. They were not giving up hope. A Jew never despairs from salvation. Nothing is beyond Hashem. The next morning, the doctor came out with incredulity written all over his face and said, "I have never seen anything like this. Your daughter is actually responding to treatment! The numbers are rising. She will make it!" She did. Two days later, the girl walked out of the hospital on her own.

It was clearly a miracle that her brain had not been deprived of oxygen the entire time that she had been submerged. The family wanted to make a seudas hodaah, thanksgiving feast, out of gratitude to Hashem. A feast would not be appropriate without including the rescuer who had saved her life. The problem was - they had no clue as to his identity. They returned to the hospital, where, after some research, they were able to locate his address. He lived on a kibbutz up north, regrettably not an observant kibbutz. The man was not at all acquainted with the religion of his ancestors. Nonetheless, they insisted that he be a part of the festivities.

That night, he shared the limelight with the young girl whom he had saved. He was embarrassed by all of the adulation that was directed towards him. "I did nothing." he insisted. Whatever "nothing" he did, it was much more than what anyone else had done. Then, he began with his story.

"I was raised in a completely assimilated home. I went to all of the right secular schools. In college, I excelled as an Olympic swimmer. I became a successful lawyer. Life was good - until, one evening after a swim, I felt pain in my chest and I keeled over. I had suffered a massive heart attack. I survived, and, with physical therapy and medication, I had been in the process of nursing myself back to health. I had recently decided to return to daily swimming. My wife had discouraged me, claiming that it was too soon after the event to return to such strenuous exercise. I felt "something" within me pushing me to swim. Indeed, had I not been exercising in such a manner these last few weeks, I could never had saved your daughter.

"When I jumped into the water and retrieved a girl, I was ecstatic. I had saved the child from drowning. When I surfaced and was told that there was another one, I became very anxious. I had missed the girl who was actually drowning. I was so disconcerted that when I found the girl, I forgot to take her head out of the water. When I came home from the hospital I broke down in bitter weeping: 'I killed that girl!' My wife attempted to calm me - to no avail. I felt responsible for the girl.

"I returned to the beach where the incident had taken place. I climbed up on a hill overlooking the beach, and I looked up to the sky. I had never in my life prayed before that day. I had never understood the concept of prayer. I knew neither what to do nor to whom I was talking. I began my prayer, 'Hashem, this is the first time that I am speaking. I no longer can go on living in this manner. Please ignore my past and consider it as if I have been praying to You all of my life, and apply my entreaty as a merit for the young girl that I attempted to save. Grant her life! Please!'

"I returned home and immediately called the hospital to inquire if Hashem had listened to my plea. Imagine how I felt when they informed me that your daughter had woken up exactly at the time that I was praying!"

The lesson is quite simple: He was a simple, ignorant Jew who had been assimilated all of his life. He was clueless about Judaism, and he had no idea what it meant to pray. In one instant, however, his life changed - and, instead of giving up hope, he turned to Hashem and prayed, sincerely, without fanfare, a "simple" request: "Hashem, can You provide the girl with a miracle?" We all have such moments in life. We think that we have gone too far, messed up, sinned beyond return. The yetzer hora, evil inclination, wants to convince us that it is too late; we have blown it; we have lost our chance. It is not true. It is never too late. Prayer can turn any situation around.

But he adamantly refusedů Look - with me here, my master concerns himself about nothing in the house. (39:8)

The word va'yimaein, "And he (Yosef), adamantly refused," has above it a shalsheles, which is one of the tamei ha'mikra, cantillation marks, rarely used in the Torah. The few times it is used, it is for the purpose of underscoring something specific. In this case, it notes the degree of refusal manifest by Yosef - adamant. The word shalsheles means chain, which lends itself to an inspirational story that adds commentary to this unique cantillation mark.

Our story takes place during the dread Spanish Inquisition, when Jewish life in Spain and Portugal became meaningless, and Jewish blood flowed like water. Under the influence of the wicked Torquemada, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain became pawns in this church leader's diabolical plan. Rarely has the church reared its ugly head as it did during the Crusades and the Inquisition. The religion that preached love had no problem altering its course to venomous hatred when it concerned the Jewish People. In 1492, the Jews of Spain were expelled from its borders. Those who remained either converted to Catholicism, or were put to death by burning in the Auto def'e. There were those who converted publicly, but covertly adhered to their religion. They served Hashem in cellars, basements, and anywhere else they would not be detected. To be discovered as a hidden Jew, or converso, as they were called, meant certain, painful death.

One of these conversos/Marranos (as the Spaniards referred to them) was a distinguished minister in King Ferdinand's court. In addition, he was a close, personal friend of the king. There was "nothing" the king would not do for him. Outwardly, he acted as any loyal Catholic, but, in the privacy of his own home, he maintained a strong fidelity to all of the mitzvos. The Inquisitors were cruel, but they were not obtuse. They were well aware that a committed Jew does not simply renege his affiliation with a religion that has endured persecution throughout the millennia. The Jews were secretly practicing their religion. The Spaniards began a campaign of ferreting out these secret Jews. Everyone was a suspect - regardless of position or social standing. This was especially true of a Jew who held a position of significance in the royal court. Everyone envied him; to take him down would be the ultimate prize.

The king's trusted friend and advisor was caught red-handed one morning, as the Inquisitors entered his home to find him in the midst of prayer wearing his Tallis and Tefillin. It was an open and shut case; he was going to be put to death in a public burning, so that all could witness the success of the Inquisition. The king intervened, but the minister refused: "I am a Jew, my dear king. I will not turn my back on my religion." No one was able to convince the Jewish minister to change his mind. He was prepared to die - as a Jew.

The execution day came, and the entire city gathered in the public square. One could hear the crackling of flames as they rose higher and higher, ready to devour their human sacrifice. The king stood there in obvious pain. He was sending his good and trusted friend to his death. This could not be. He would make one last effort to convince his friend that what he was doing was insane. (Interesting how they are the murderers, yet we are insane). He walked over to the minister moments before they were going to fling his body into the flames.

"I am granting you one last chance," the king said. "Please do not be foolish. Accept my offer. If you renege Judaism and publicly accept the Catholic faith, I will reinstate you to your former prestige. You will be second only to me - the king."

The Jewish minister looked at the king, and declared, "The shalsheles hadoros, 'chain of generations,' impels me to maintain my fidelity to my heritage. I am an important link in the glorious chain that heralds back to Mount Sinai. What you ask me to do is unthinkable. I will not break that chain!" King Ferdinand turned around and signaled the executioner to commence with the proceedings. The Jewish minister died a martyr's death, but he would not become the broken link in the chain of generations.

When Potifar's wife attempted to seduce Yosef with her blandishments, she presented every reason for him to concede to her wishes. Veritably, Yosef had no other way out of Egypt. He was destined to die as a slave - never to return to his ancestral home. He was alone. No one would know. He had every reason to defer to her, except one: he was not going to be the broken link in the Patriarchal chain that had begun with his great-grandfather, Avraham Avinu. This is why there is a shalsheles above va'yimaein. He refused. Why? He refused to break the shalsheles.

It is this shalsheles ha'yuchsin, pedigreed chain, that secular Judaism has attempted - and with many Jews has succeeded - to break, by tearing asunder their connection to the chain of Jewish lineage. Once a Jew has lost his connection, has broken away from the chain that connects him to the past, that guarantees his place for the future - it is difficult to return. It is hard for a person to climb a mountain without anything onto which he can grasp.

Va'ani Tefillah

Who took you out of the land of Egypt to be a G-d to you.

Rashi explains, "I redeemed you from the land of Egypt on the condition that you accept My decree upon yourselves." In other words, we went from being slaves to a despotic master to being servants/subjects of the Master of the Universe. How does this translate into the word "freedom"? Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, explains that the awareness that everything concerning our lives, our welfare, our future - death, health, happiness, prosperity, failure, success, all - everything - is under the total control of Hashem, makes us free.

Think about it. Is one ever really free? Even he who does not answer to a master worries about what will be. One who places his trust in Hashem knows that His is the only address that matters, and that everything in his life is up to Hashem. He knows that Hashem is all good, and that whatever He does is the best that could be. So, why worry?

Rav Schwab notes that the matzah we eat on Pesach is the same food that we ate as slaves to Pharaoh. Wherein lies the "before and after" differential? Indeed, the food remains the same. It is the venue that has changed. Now we are under the total domination of the Almighty and it is this total domination that we as Jews call freedom. Our destiny is totally in the hands of Hashem, and no human being has any power to alter this. This is the ultimate meaning of our redemption from Egypt.

l'zechar nishmas
Noach ben R' Yehuda Aryeh z"l
niftar 22 Kislev 5726
by his family

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