I picked up the phone to make a call. The first name of the person with whom I want to speak started with the letter H. Someone answered and I began "May I talk to Hhhhhh . . . " I could not get the person's name out. Click. The person hung up. I tried a second time, "May I talk to Hhhhh . . ." Click, again, the person hung up. When I made a third attempt, and the same thing happened, the person on the other end of the line said in a very stern fashion, "Stop making prank phone calls or I will call the police." Click (this time with a slam). At that point my frustration tolerance bottomed out and on the fourth and ultimately final try as soon as the person answered, the words came out rapid-fire, "Don't hang up, I stutter!!!"
Such is the feeling Moshe must have felt the first time he stood in front of Pharaoh to request that he allow the Israelites to leave. In last week's parsha, Shemot, Moshe does accept the mission (did he really have a choice??) but the first attempt was a disaster. Not only did Pharaoh refuse Moshe, but Pharaoh took away the straw with which the Israelites used to make bricks. Now the Israelites would need to gather their own straw and make the same quota. In the end, the people reject Moshe for their labor became that much more intense.
As this week's parsha, VaEra opens, HaShem is trying to strengthen Moshe, telling him that He has established a covenant with the Israelite people, and the land of Canaan (Israel) is part of that Covenant. While Moshe again uses the excuse of speech to get out this task, HaShem, doesn't let Moshe out of the responsibility. He assigns Aaron to the role of mouthpiece, as Rashi explains. Moshe will speak the words to Aaron who will convey them to Pharaoh. Rashi also makes another interesting point. The Torah says, "HaShem spoke to Moshe and Aaron and commanded them regarding the Israelites . . . " Rashi says on that phrase that Moshe and Aaron must have patience with the Israelites.
HaShem is letting Moshe and Aaron, particularly Moshe, know that he needs to have patience, not only with the Israelites, but perhaps with himself as well. Yes, that first encounter did not go well. Pharaoh refused the request and he increased the workload upon the Israelites, who also reject Moshe. However, that is only a temporary setback. It is not the end of the story. As time goes on, Moshe will persevere, he will succeed, and despite other setbacks and momentary failures, he will accomplish his goal. Ultimately, we know what eventually comes of Moshe.
Life is full of setbacks. We make mistakes, encounter obstacles, but we should see those moments as catalysts for growth and not let them keep us from our goals. As we mentioned last week, challenges make us better. We learn from the mistakes, but we find the way to succeed. Thirty-five years after that phone call to H, I have learned better ways of getting my message across.
By the way, H wasn't home anyway.
With this week's parsha of Shemot we begin the second book of the Torah. Much has happened since the Book of Bereshit concluded last week. Yosef has died and a new king who does not know Yosef has taken the Egyptian monarchy. This new king places the Israelites into harsh servitude. Fearing an Israelite uprising the king decrees that all male Israelite babies be killed upon birth while the females may live.
In the parsha we are introduced to the person who would ultimately become the leader of the Jewish people and its teacher par excellence, Moshe. The Torah describes his birth to Israelite slaves, his being placed in a basket and set adrift in the Nile only to be discovered by Pharaoh's daughter and raised in Pharaoh's palace.
As is well known, Moshe flees Egypt after it was discovered that he killed an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew slave. Moshe settles in Midian where he marries and becomes a shepherd for his father-in-law, Yitro. While in the desert with his flock Moshe has an encounter that will change his life. He stumbles upon a bush on fire, but not consumed by the flames. Through this burning bush, HaShem reveals Himself to Moshe and assigns him the task of bringing the Israelites out from their Egyptian bondage. Several times Moshe attempts to decline the challenge, each time using the same excuse. He says, "Please my Lord, I have never been a man of words . . . I am heavy of mouth and heavy of speech."
Moshe is trying to use a personal difficulty, his speech problem, as an excuse to not accept this task. In fact, Rashi says that HaShem tried for a full seven days to persuade Moshe, but Moshe was adamant in his refusal. The Italian commentator Rabbi Ovadiyah Sforno says that Moshe argued that he would be unable to speak with the eloquence befitting a king. However, despite Moshe's protestations, HaShem does not allow Moshe to back out. "And now, go." HaShem tells Moshe, " I will be with your mouth and I will teach you what you shall say."
HaShem is letting Moshe know that not only can he not wiggle his way out of the challenge, but that he is not alone. HaShem will be there to support Moshe.
In fact, this mission that HaSHem has assigned to Moshe is in reality a test, so that Moshe will know what he is capable of accomplishing. That HaShem tests people is not foreign to Jewish tradition. The ancient rabbis teach that Avraham was tested ten times, ranging from leaving his birthplace to performing his own Brit Milah to the final test of being willing to offer his own son as a sacrifice. Avraham passed all ten tests.
HaShem is challenging Moshe where he most vunerable. The interesting piece that some of the commentators point out is that HaShem never offers to take away or cure Moshe of his speech issue, for if he had done so it would have been a tremendous disservice to Moshe. The task we all face as human beings, created in the Divine image, is to overcome the challenges, to grow, to become even better than we already are. We do this by facing those challenges, not having them solved for us.
The challenges are really opportunities to tap into that potential with which HaShem has graced each of us. We must not allow the challenges in life to cause us to plunge into an abyss of stagnation. The true measure of character is how one rises to master that challenge when it does arrive. Every time we think we have come to the end of our capacity to meet a challenge, we look up and realize that our capacity may well be limitless. We must have great dreams. Great dreams can beget great accomplishments. As with Moshe, HaShem is with us, not to make things easier, but to give us the strength to meet the challenges. May we each strive to achieve great things we can't even yet imagine.
Thank you for a wonderful, productive week.
Parshat VaYigash begins with a confrontation between Yosef and Yehuda. While the brothers cannot dispute the fact the golden goblet has been found in Binyamin's sack Yehuda stands up to Yosef, whom he knows as the second most powerful man in Egypt...not his brother he sold into slavery over twenty years earlier. Yehuda accuses Egypt's viceroy of unfairly enslaving Binyamin and offers himself in Binyamin's stead. At this point Yosef is so overcome with emotion that he can no longer contain himself. "And Yosef said to his brothers, 'I am Yosef, is my father still alive?" he cries out to his stunned brothers, who are unable to speak.
Upon seeing their reaction, Yosef repeats this declaration a second time, "I am Yosef your brother, whom you sold to Egypt . . . now do not be distressed . . .for having sold me here. . . for it was to be a provider (of food) that HaShem sent me here before you . . . And now it was not you that sent me here , but HaShem." Yosef does not let his brothers off the hook for selling him, but he does assuage their guilt by assuring them that their doing so was not of their volition, but rather part of the Divine plan.
In Parshat Lech Lecha, Avraham is told that he would indeed have offspring who would be as numerous as the stars, and those descendents would be strangers in a land not theirs and "they will be oppressed for four hundred years." Yosef has now realized that there was indeed a purpose to his living in Egypt for so many years. Being sold was the precursory incident which brought the Jewish people to Egypt which would ultimately set in motion the events leading up to their eventual enslavement and exodus from that tyranny, the giving of the Torah at Sinai, the sojourn in the desert athe entrance into the Land of Israel and the rest of Jewish history.
Life is a book whose chapters open up to us as the days, weeks, months and years go by. Very often it is only with the passage of time that enables us to look back and realize that events which took place during those confusing early chapters fall into place and make sense. While we don't know the end of the story, and events seem difficult and challenging at the time, Yosef teaches us that there is a plot to our life story...that there is a Divine author. While we may not know the meaning of the story for many years, for each of us the story is a classic.
Shabbat Shalom to all.
In my previous school, where I taught for nine years prior to coming to GBDS, I had a well-intentioned colleague who insisted on giving everyone, students and faculty alike, a yellow star sticker to wear every year on Yom HaShoah. Every year I bristled at this and kindly refused to wear the star sticker. The teacher always took my refusal as some kind of insult towards those who endured the Holocaust. While I have my faults to be sure, anyone who knows me hopefully knows that I would not do anything to insult the memory of those who suffered, yet for many years I was never sure why I would not wear the yellow star.
The second chapter of the Talmudic tractate Shabbat discusses the type of oils one may use to kindle the Shabbat lights. Within the midst of that discussion, the rabbis begin to review Hanukkah lights. After discussing the number of candles to be lit, the placement of the candles, and the need for "another light" which we know as the shamash, the rabbis ask an interesting question, "What is Hanukkah?" Rashi expands on this question and asks "On which miracle did they (the rabbis) establish it (meaning Hanukkah)?" The rabbis then tell the famous story with which we are all familiar, the story of the Jews defeating the Greeks who defiled the Holy Temple, and finding one small container of pure oil, enough to last one day, but a miracle took place and the oil lasted eight days.
Is the miracle the oil, or something more significant? What was it that Antiochus wanted? He wanted to extinguish Judaism and have Jews assimilate into the Hellenistic society. He saw Judaism as a threat to his culture therefore he outlawed those practices that ensure Jewish survival and continuity. Without Rosh Hodesh Jews would not know when the holidays would begin and therefore could not celebrate them. Shabbat and Torah study are fundamentals of Judaism and without them Jewish tradition would fade. Many Jews obeyed these decrees and did assimilate. These Hellenized Jews began to dress as Greeks, speak Greek, and give their children Greek names. It was Mattitsyahu and his five sons who rallied Jews together and led a military campaign against not only the Greeks themselves, but also the Hellenized Jews. They fought to keep Jewish tradition intact, they fought to learn Torah, to keep Shabbat, they fought to preserve the Judaism they knew and loved.
What is the miracle of Hanukkah? Not the oil, but rather the survival of Jewish tradition. It was easier to give up Jewish tradition and become part of the surrounding culture. The Maccabees were a David against a Goliath in going against the Greeks. The miracle is that there were Jews who refused to assimilate and that there were Jews who fought to maintain a pristine Judaism. The miracle of the oil was an expression of Divine approval for that fight.
Why did I refuse to wear the yellow star sticker? The yellow star was a symbol of Jewish oppression. The yellow star identified the Jews so they could be ridiculed, and worse. I refuse to wear a symbol of oppression. I wear Jewish symbols of pride; my kippah and tzitzit are symbols of Jewish strength and continuity. The Talmud teaches that the Hanukkah candles were to be placed outside by the door, and indeed in Israel many people still maintain this custom, in order to publicize the miracle of Hanukkah. The prevalent custom to place the Hanukkah candles in the window facing the street is to remind us that Jewish tradition is rich, vast and vibrant and we want to proclaim that beauty.
Shabbat Shalom and a Hag Hanukkah Samayach to all.
In this week's parsha, VaYeishev we are introduced to Yosef who will remain the central figure throughout the remaining chapters of the Book of Bereshit. We see a transformation in Yosef from a seemingly spoiled 17 year old who according to Rashi, spends his time fixing his hair and adorning his eyes to look handsome, into the second most powerful man in Egypt, the most powerful nation in the world at that time.
There is a phenomenon that features prominently in this parsha, and again in next week's parsha, Miketz, that of dreams. Yosef has two dreams which he related to his family, causing even more ill feelings than were already held. Yosef is an interpreter of dreams. Much later, in Egypt, he acknowledges HaShem's role in his ability to interpret dreams as he explains those of the chief baker and chief butler who were in the Egyptian prison with him. Yosef will also interpret Pharaoh's dream through which he becomes second only to Pharaoh himself in Egypt.
Dreams certainly have their place in Jewish tradition however it is difficult to have a concise understanding of the significance of dreams. The Talmud, the repository of Rabbinic law and wisdom, is full of seemingly contradictory statements on the nature of dreams. On the one hand, dreams are considered 1/60th of prophecy. In fact, the Talmudic commentator Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer ha-Levi Idlish known as the Maharsha (1555-1631) referred to dreams as the channel for which prophecy is given. On the other hand, others thought dreams to be merely manifestations of whatever people were thinking about during the day. The Talmud relates the Rav Chisda held that bad dreams were better than good dreams. Why? Rashi explains that a bad dream can move a person to do teshuva, repentence. Dreams can be the catalyst for self improvement.
When the brothers referred to Yosef as "The Dreamer" they did so in a pejorative sense. They did not take kindly to his dreams. We have other dreamers in our history as well, but these were dreamers in the sense of having a vision for the Jewish people. Two such dreamers were Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine, about whom I have written before, and Dr. Theodor Herzl, the founder of the modern Zionist Movement. Both believed that things could be better for the Jewish people, whether in a messianic religious sense as Rav Kook held, or in a political sense according to Herzl. They each spent their lives working towards the fulfillment of their dreams. Interestingly, like Yosef, there were many who scoffed at Rav Kook and Herzl. However, one only has to look at the State of Israel to know that their dreams have been realized.
We need to be dreamers. We need to have a vision for ourselves to work towards, to help carry us forward. Many of the rabbis considered dreams about objects or events to be symbols for something larger. We see this in Yosef's dreams and in his interpretations of other's dreams. Rav Kook and Herzl were the visionary type of dreamers. They dreamed of what the Jewish people could be. What are our dreams? Who do we want to be? Herzl said it himself: "If you will it, it is not a dream."
Shabbat Shalom to everyone.