Parasha Insights

by Rabbi Hackenbroch
 
Vayishlach - The Sinew of the Thigh​

Genesis 32:4-36:43

It is accepted halacha that we don't eat the sinew of the thigh even of a kosher animal. The Talmud derives this law from from the spiritual struggle between Jacob and the mysterious angel who is unable to overcome Jacob and resorts to dislodging his thigh. The Talmud relates a dispute in this regard, Reb yehudah is of the opinion that only the right side of Jacob was dislodged and consequently only the right side would be prohibited for us to eat. Whereas the sages argue and posit the opinion that in fact the angel dislodged both thighs of Jacob and therefore both sides of the animal would be prohibited for us to eat.

 

The medrash states that the mysterious angel was in fact the evil inclination that tried to dislodge Jacobs' faith but quickly realised he was immovable in his beliefs he was spiritually complete and therefore out of desperation dislodged the hollow of his thigh symbolising finding a weakness in the future generations that would descend from him.

 

The Talmud Shabbat records the story of a would be convert who approaches Hillel and asks to be taught the whole torah whilst standing on one foot? What was the essence of this strange request? We know that the torah and mitzvot can be divided in two sections. There are those mitzvot between man and G-d and those between man and man. The idea of being taught the whole torah on one foot symbolised his desire and willingness to learn and accept only the mitzvot and precepts between man and fellow man but not those between man and G-d, for that reason he was rejected because both are essential elements of our heritage. Thus a complete person is one upholds both these key aspects of Judaism.

 

The angel who symbolised the evil inclination attempted in struggling with Yaakov attempted to push him astray from the torah in both the aspects relating between man and G-d and that of between man and man. Yet he confessed to the impregnability of Yaakov on both counts.

 

Rav Yosef Salant suggests that perhaps the dispute between Rav Yehudah and the Sages as to whether both sides of his thigh or only one side of Yaakov was dislodged , centres around what precisely is the issue and area of weakness in spiritual terms that we need to focus in particular our attention on, be it interpersonal relationships, how sensitive and caring and considerate we are to those around us or our commitment and connection between us and G-d, the amount of time and effort we invest. Perhaps we can and should learn from Yaakovs' encounter that each and everyone of us has a daily battle in our faith and commitment but like Yaakov if we are motivated and determined, if we are prepared to persevere and never give up on our personal spiritual struggles then eventually like Yaakov we will see the light of day and succeed.

 
Vayeishev - ...And how can I perpetrate this great evil and sin against G-d? (CHAPTER 39, Verse 9)

Genesis 37:1–40:23

 

Yosef resists the advances of his Master Potifar's wife. He rebuts her stating that it was improper for him, on two counts. Firstly when bearing in mind the debt of gratitude that he owed "Potifar" and secondly it would be a terrible sin against G-d in committing adultery.

 

Rav Gifter raises an interesting question, why, when responding to Potifar's wife's advances, did he not tell her why it was wrong and inappropriate for her rather than him to commit such an act? Rashi quotes a Talmudic statement that even before the Torah was given , non Jews were commanded against immorality?

 

Rav Gifter suggests that Yosef, sensing the severity of the test, felt that he was partially responsible for the situation at hand due to some shortcoming in his own personality.In his mind he believed that had he been living on the high level of sanctity befitting the favoured son of Yaakov, Potifar's wife would never have imagined that she could sway the mind of such a tzaddik, and she would thus not have tried to do so.

 

Yosef's greatness here is highlighted in his open admission that the situation he found himself in was not merely as a victim of circumstance but it was a gradual and subtle lowering of his own guard which resulted in him finding himself in the testing situation presented by Potifar's wife.

 

Yosef's experience with Potifar's wife is relevant today to all of us as individuals and as members of society and how so often we excuse much of our immoral behaviour and personal conduct claiming to ourselves that we are just "victims of circumstance" and have little or no choice. What we should in fact consider and reflect on is our past conduct and we will then realise, in a similar vein to Yosef, that we are only finding the circumstance a challenge due to our failure to enact the appropriate boundaries and fences to protect and pre-empt such a situation ever developing in the first place.

 
Mikeitz

Genesis 41:1-44:17

In Parshat Miketz, Yosef finds himself wrongly imprisoned in Egypt . We witness the Divine hand utilising Pharaoh and his dream as a means to ensure the elevation of Yosef from prisoner to Viceroy of Egypt. What is most striking in the narration is the first encounter between Pharaoh and Yosef. Pharaoh, having heard from the Chief Butler the uncanny ability of Yosef to interpret dreams, now wishes Yosef to interpret his own dream. No less than five times do we see Yosef underscore to the heathen king that all is from Hashem.

 

Yosef answered pharaoh saying "That is beyond me "It is Hashem who will respond with Pharaoh's welfare". (41:16).

 

"The dream of Pharaoh is a single one. What Hashem is about to do he has told to Pharaoh." (41:25)

 

"It is the matter that I have spoken to Pharaoh: what Hashem is about to do He has shown to Pharaoh" (41:28)

 

" As for the repetition of the dream to Pharaoh twice, it is because the matter stands ready before Hashem and Hashem is hastening to accomplish it" (41:32)

 

What is surprising is the fact that this lofty dialogue which expresses Yosef's deep felt appreciation and debt of gratitude to Hashem was not said to a spiritual person but rather it was directed to the very hedonistic ruler Pharaoh. Egypt was a place steeped in idolatry and immorality and Pharaoh had not shown the slightest inclination towards divine matters.

 

If so, one may wonder why Yosef chose to repeatedly make mention of Hashem to Pharaoh. Would it not have sufficed to state once that the dream and its interpretation were divinely ordained? Rav Segal [Manchester Rosh Yeshivah] noted that Yosef's repeated mentioning of Hashem was a conscious act. It was designed not so much for Pharaoh's benefit but rather for his own and the benefit of the Jewish Nation. Yosef informed Pharaoh that his dreams foretold the approach of the years of abundance that would be followed by the years of famine. Yosef advised that the years of abundance be spent constructively, preparing for the future, gathering and storing food to ensure one would have sustenance for the years ahead.

 

This lesson has a strong message to our people across the millennia and resonates to this day. The Ramchal writes that this world is analogous to a corridor to the world to come. Ultimately our aim is to bask in the Divine Presence in the next world. The portal for achieving this mission is by leading our lives fully committed to Judaism's eternal values with torah and mitzvot as our focal point.

 

There is a well known story of the Vilna Gaon who on his death bed was weeping whilst holding his tzitzit. When asked why he responded that despite having led a full and active life and having accumulated many mitzvot and good deeds throughout his life he realised now that it is so easy to perform mitzvot in this world whereas in the world to come one can only be sustained by what one has acquired during one's lifetime and can add to it no more.

 

May we all have the foresight like Yosef to see Hashem as an integral part of our daily lives, focusing our time and efforts for that which will truly count the good deeds and mitzvot which are eternal.

 
Shemot - Striking a Balance

Exodus 1:1 - 6:1

Moshe’s first encounter with the Almighty is one that many of us are familiar with (Shemot Ch.3-4). Moshe is alone in the desert. Noticing the extraordinary phenomenon of a bush burning, yet not being consumed by the fire, he turns aside to examine this remarkable occurrence. As Moshe draws closer, G-d commands him to remove his shoes because it is admat kodesh (hallowed ground).

 

Rabbi Yosef Salant (d. 1981) analyses the significance of Moshe being asked to remove his shoes. He quotes a statement from the siddur of Rabbi Yeshaya Horowitz (known as ‘the Shlah’ d.1630) in connection to the blessing of She’asa li kol tzorki (thanking G-d for fulfilling our needs) that we recite every morning (see green siddur, p .18). The Talmud (Berachot 60b) says that this blessing refers to putting on our shoes.

 

What connects this blessing to shoes? King David observed that there is a hierarchical structure to creation. There are four levels, starting with inanimate objects. The next level up is plant life. A higher level still is the animal kingdom. The climax of creation is humans. Mankind eats and benefits from everything in the world. Therefore, when a person takes the skin of an animal and makes shoes to tread on with his/her feet, it symbolises and demonstrates human dominion over the rest of creation. The blessing of She’asa li kol tzorki recognises the fact we should act in a fashion that highlights our elevation above all other aspects of creation.

 

By contrast, when Moshe was standing in the presence of the Almighty, it was not a time for recognising human dominion over creation. Rather it was a time to subjugate himself in the presence of G-d . It was for this reason Moshe was told to remove his shoes, signalling that he would be willing to completely subjugate himself.

 

Rabbi Salant sees in the wearing and removal of Moshe’s shoes two contrasting facets of mankind. On the one hand, the initial wearing of the shoes represents an awareness that we are expected to transcend our physical selves and constantly be vigilant to ensure we do not lower ourselves to act in an animalistic fashion. On the other hand, the removal of the shoes shows that we must also be mindful to remove any vestige of pride in the service of G-d.

 

Rabbi Eliayhu Eliezer Dessler (d. 1953) develops this approach further, suggesting that the command to Moshe to remove his shoes hints to the notion of removing the covering which can hide our character defects and faults from ourselves. Only then will the ’place you are standing’ be ‘holy ground’ (Shemot 3:5). From there we can begin our spiritual ascent.

 

This idea challenges us to strike a balance between recognising the greatness of humankind that should be manifest in the way we act and at the same time having a sense of humility and modesty, cognisant that we are standing in the presence of the Almighty.

 
Terumah

Exodus 25:1-27:19

Shoham stone and stones for the settings , for the Efod and the Breast plate.(25:7)

 

The verses towards the beginning of the sedra list in exhaustive detail the various materials that were donated and used for the Mishkan. From gold and silver all the way through to the shoham stones and stones for settings for the Efod and the Breastplate.

 

The observation is made by the by the Or Hachaim that the list of materials presented seems to be in descending order of value yet the last two items the shoham and other precious stones seem to be out of position since they were the most precious of items and therefore should have been mentioned at the commencement of the list?

 

The Princes of the Tribes, when solicited to donate to the Tabernacle, responded by saying that everyone else should be asked to donate first and they offered to make up the deficit remaining at the end of the building campaign. However, since the general populace contributed everything that was required for the building the Princes, as a result, gave precious stones that were not part of the main building fund.

 

On the surface this seems a most magnanimous gesture since they made a far greater contribution than the general masses. However the Torah was critical of their laziness in contributing. What was wrong with their approach? The Or Hachaim explains that the princes should have realised that in building the Mishkan, there could be no such thing as a deficit. A deficit implies a lack -something missing. But G-d did not need our money in the first place. He merely presented us with the opportunity to have the merit of participating in this mitzvah. The subtle criticism of the Princes is most inciteful in our approach to our own tabernacles. We all are willing to be called upon to contribute time and resources as a last port of call, but perhaps the lesson we should learn from the Princes is that we should aim to be first in offering rather than last.

 
Vayikra

Leviticus 1:1-5:26

If a person among you brings an offering to G-d (1:2)

 

Rashi notes that the Torah uses the word "Adam" for person rather than the more frequently used word "Ish", and explains its use as meaning that just as Adam did not serve G-d with anything acquired dishonestly, because nothing in the world belonged to anyone else, so must a person who brings an offering make certain that the offering was acquired honestly.

 

There may be an additional significance of the word Adam as designating man. Rabbi Dr Abraham Twersky suggests that the first human was called Adam because his origin was from earth, - adamah. This term connotes man's humble origin, as expressed by the patriarch Abraham , " I am but dust and ashes ". Following the example of the patriarch, a person must always bear in mind that he is a mortal being of little significance in the cosmos.

 

However man has another component the vital spirit that inhabits his body. The word Adam also relates to the word adameh meaning "I shall be similar" implying that man bears a semblance to G-d in emulating His character traits.

 

As praiseworthy as the trait of humility is, it may conceivably result in a person feeling so insignificant that he gives no serious consideration to his actions. Of what consequence can this body be if it originated from dust and will return to dust? This may result in a carefree attitude of abandon. To counter this , a person must remember that he was created in the image of G-d , and that he is, therefore, immeasurably great and has his own particular role to perform during his journey through life. Indeed, every move he makes is tremendously significant. Therefore a closeness to G-d can be achieved only when a person appreciates and implements both aspects of Adam.

 
Korach

Numbers 16:1–18:32

They gathered against moshe and Aaron and said to them" It is too much for you! For the entire assembly - all of them-are holy and Hashem is among them: Why do you exalt yourselves over the congregation of G-d?" (16:3)

 

This week, we encounter the quintessential argument and debate in the Torah. It pits Korach against Moses. Korach leads a rebellion against the authority and majestic leadership of Moses. Our sages use this as the paradigmatic case of an argument that is "not for the sake of Heaven. "What is an example of a machaloket, which is for the sake of heaven?" asks Pirkei Avot. "The machaloket between Hillel and Shammai. And what is the example par excellence of a machaloket which is not for the sake of heaven? This is the argument of Korach and his followers."

 

Note that the formulation of the latter is different than the former. To be consistent, the Mishnah should have stated, the argument that is not for legitimate reasons is the one between Korach and Moses. After all, it was his authority that was called into question, and it was against his leadership that he was rebelling. Why this distinction?

 

Social psychologists list several distinctions between a debate and a dialogue. A debate assumes that you have the right answer, while a dialogue assumes that many people can share in crafting an answer. A debate is about winning; a dialogue is about exploring. A debate is more about defending one's view; a dialogue admits that another's thinking can improve on one's own scope.

 

A dispute for the sake of heaven is one which is borne out of similar intentions to ascertain the truth. when one has pure motives and has a quest for the truth then one is willing to entertain the ideas thoughts and opinions of the "other" - if Hillel was willing to hear Shamai and vice versa -then this would be a legitimate form of dialogue. But when one is not willing to hear the opinion or rationale of the other as in the case Korach and his followers when one is driven and motivated by a personal agenda and self aggrandizement then this in the words of social psychologists far from being a dialogue rather was a crude debate.

 
Pinchas

Numbers 25:10–30:1

This Sedra is very much a sequel to the events at the end of last week’s Sedra where we learn of one of the most sordid incidents in the history of the Jewish people.

 

Zimri a leader of one of the tribes publicly and brazenly had relations with a Midianite woman in the full gaze of the entire Nation.   The act was so outrageous that it stunned the Nation into a state of paralysis.   Pinchas alone stepped forward,   carrying out an act of zealotry, and killing the two perpetrators applying a very unique law that, under such circumstances, one can take the law into one’s own hands.  This act prevented the spread of the resultant divinely imposed plague from spreading saving the Nation.

 

The narration in Pinchas continues at this point “Pinchas the son of Elazar the son of Aharon the High Priest returned my anger... therefore I am granting him the Covenant of Peace.

 

The questions that follow are obvious.   Why for such violence is he rewarded with the Nobel peace prize?   and why does the Torah go to such lengths at this moment to recall his illustrious lineage to Aharon the high Priest, himself renowned for pursuing peace?

 

The reasoning behind this can be found in Rashi who draws our attention to a Medrash which seeks to redress the balance in the perception of Pinchas by the detractors who were sceptical about the use of such brazen tactics i.e. killing the perpetrators publicly.    They cynically traced the behaviour to that of his maternal grandfather Yitro ,  conveniently ignoring his relationship to Aharon.

 

Rav Reuven katz avers, that we observe here that individuals’ perception of their leaders and views very often are influenced and biased subconsciously by their own personal bias and the nurturing of their upbringing.

 

Following the zealotry of Pinchas, however,    most perceived his conduct as an exemplary act of righteousness with the purest of motives.   Yet there were some who chose to undermine and debase his achievement through calling into question his motives. To bolster their aspersions they pointed to his ancestry   i.e. his maternal grandfather who had been an idolator.   The Torah therefore underlines his paternal ancestry to Aharon a man whose life‘s work was pursuer of peace , thereby stressing that the genes that were responsible for this action at this time were those stemming from Aharon.

 

Furthermore we can now appreciate the reward of the Covenant of peace.  As Rav Chaim Soloveitchik observed the root of the word for peace, shalom is shaleim which means perfection. there are occasions when in order to reach a state of peace and perfection rather than remain quiet and passive one is required to  take a stand  and be proactive.   Pinchas showed himself, true to his lineage and like his Grandfather Aharon the pursuer of peace both in intent and deed.

 
Massei

Numbers 33:1–36:13

And Moses wrote their goings out according to their journeys by the commandment of G-d , and these are their journeys according to their goings out.

 

There is much puzzlement over this verse. What is meant by "starting points" and "travels”. Why did the torah first mention goings out before travels and then reverse the order?

 

The Dubno Maggid explains the difficulties with one of his famous parables. A stepson was severely mistreated by his step-mother. One day his father travelled to a distant city and arranged an excellent shidduch (match) for his son. As the marriage day approached, the father and son set out to travel to the bride's city. Every few miles, the son would ask the wagon driver "How far they now were from their starting point, whereas his father woul ask how much farther it was to their destination. Noting the difference in the enquiries they had made to the driver the father told his son, "you only know the suffering you experienced at the hands of your step-mother.

 

This is why you measure how far we have gone from our home town. I on the other hand know the special qualities of your bride and the happiness she will bring you. I measure how many miles remain in our journey to your bride's city."

 

It is the same thing with moshe and Israel. moshe knew what Israel is. He thirsted to see it and to enjoy its splendor. Therefore for him the starting points were only a means to "their travels". his only desire was to see the holy land the rest was peripheral. Yet for these ie the israelites their travels were because of their starting point. In other words the purpose of their travels was to remove themselves far from Egypt to flee the land they had left like his stepmother.

 

It seems there are two approaches to life. There are those who are productive and creative. They have definite goals they strive to attain and thus can be described like moshe as travelling with purpose on their journey through life. Other people go through life not knowing where they are heading. Their entire life is one of running from their past. Sometimes they do not even know what they are fleeing from.

 
Shoftim

Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9

And you shall not move a boundary of your fellow , which the early ones marked out, in your inheritance that you shall inherit, in the Land of Hashem, your G-d , gives you to possess it.

 

Deuteronomy 19:14

In this innocuous verse the torah enshrines a fundamental law of honesty and integrity that has had a profound influence in business ethics and our outlook vis a vis the financial world.

 

The verse taken at face value prohibits one from moving the boundaries of his land thereby usurping illegally the land of his neighbour that does not belong to him. In fact in ancient Israel this verse was applied to prevent members of one tribe stealthily taking the land that belonged to a neighbouring tribe.

 

In rabbinic literature, this torah prohibition is known as hasagat hagvul, trespassing or usurping another's land.

 

Rabbeinu Bachye (1263-1340) views the prohibition of infringing on the property rights of others as an attempt to defy G-d and His divine plan. The Almighty has designated to each and every inhabitant of the world their rightful portions; therefore any attempt to alter that divine plan is to be regarded as a brazen act of defiance of G-d.

 

In the Talmud we find this law has been broadly applied by the rabbis to several spheres of life. In the area of study this verse is taken to prohibit plagiarism and even the citing of another person's ideas or opinions without attribution is seen as a contravention.

 

In the realm of business, this verse and its extrapolation has been the central plank in the Jewish notion of fair trade and competition. Judaism approves of free trade and competition in the market place, unfair and cut throat competition is seen as unacceptable. The implication of this would be that one would not be permitted to establish a business in a neighbourhood that could not sustain the two businesses. Similarly a storekeeper is not permitted to belittle or to knock a competitor's product.

 

Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald observes although when it comes to unfair competition Judaism generally prohibits it, he notes there is one exception to this rule and that is in the realm of education and scholarship since in this area competition in scholarship is seen to encourage a thirst for knowledge and striving for excellence.

 
Ki Teitzei

Deuteronomy 21:10–25:19

This week's Parsha contains the fascinating chapter of the Ben sorer umorer, the rebellious son who steals and consumes a massive amount of meat and wine. The Torah commands us to execute this young lad, with the Mishnah explaining this seemingly harsh punishment by saying that it is better that he should die now whilst he retains a degree of innocence than continuing to lead a life of crime . The Yerushalmi quoted by Rashi in this week's Parsha expounds on this Mishnah and paints a ghastly scenario of the likely fate of this lad. The son will become habituated to a gluttonous life, as a result his parents will become impoverished, inevitably he will turn to a life of crime. Accordingly he will become a bandit on the roads and be prepared to even murder to satisfy his gluttonous lifestyle. As a convicted murderer whose punishment is death, he will certainly forget his Torah learning. Therefore the Torah commands, better to execute him now, before he has had a chance to commit such mayhem, then later when many "innocent" people will have been harmed and he himself has deepened his own guilt.

 

Rav Aharon Kotler makes an insightful observation. He notes that our sages give a very specific order of events that will occur in the young man's life which, if any one of these details were to be missing, would seemingly not warrant such a harsh punishment. If this is true, continued R' Aharon, then a haunting thought emerges. Even if this juvenile delinquent were to commit all of these terrible deeds, i.e. stealing, eating like a glutton, murdering, but yet had not forgotten his Torah, he would not have earned the harsh punishment of execution. How do we explain this shocking observation?

 

The Torah is teaching us that as long as a person remains connected to the Torah, even if he falls to the lowest depths, he nonetheless has the potential to make amends because the Torah emanates a special light which has the power to do this. However when a person detaches himself completely from the Torah, all hope for his spiritual survival is lost and his fall is inevitable. There is a profound lesson for us to glean from here. Jewish education and the learning of Torah wield a profound and lasting impact on us all. Subconsciously it reaches into the very core of our being; those eternal beliefs and principals will stay deep within a person, sustaining him throughout his life, whichever path is chosen. It is incumbent upon us all to take advantage of the dynamic and inspirational educational programmes that we have in our communities for, through them, we will deepen and broaden our connection with our religion, our community and our history, whilst drawing strength from the guidance and power of the Torah.

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