Jan 02 2015

Do the Right Thing

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bless-childrenYaakov blesses all of his sons before he dies. But before this, Yosef takes his sons Ephraim and Menashe to see their grandfather, who gives them a special blessing — first and foremost, by elevating them to have the same status as his own children. Throughout the rest of the Torah, the tribes of Ephraim and Menashe are similar to any of the others. In the desert, the new nation of Israel traveled with the descendants of Levi in the center, with the Mishkan (Tabernacle), while three tribes camped in each of the four directions around them. The tribes of Menashe and Benyamin joined under the flag of Ephraim, to the West. In the Land of Israel, each was allocated a separate region of the country.

This is not all, however. Yaakov gives Ephraim and Menashe a unique distinction — that throughout Jewish history, fathers in the Nation of Israel will bless their sons by saying, “G-d should place you like Ephraim and Menashe.” Our Sages established that parents should bless their daughters to be like the four original mothers of Israel: Sarah, Rivkah (Rebecca), Rachel and Leah. But instead of blessing boys to be like our forefathers Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, instead the paradigms are Ephraim and Menashe.

Even more so, Yaakov excludes any future sons of Yosef from his blessing. On the contrary, he says they will be absorbed into the tribes of their older brothers. Why — what makes Ephraim and Menashe so unique?

Rabbi Shmuel Hominer zt”l explains that unlike the children of Yosef’s brothers, Ephraim and Menashe grew up in Egypt, surrounded by idolatry and impurity. Instead of living in the Land of Israel, with their grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins all dedicated to continuing in the way of their forefather Avraham, the honored guests in their home were government officials, Pharoah’s magicians, those given prestige by the surrounding society.

When Yaakov came down to Egypt, he discovered that Ephraim and Menashe had not been drawn away from the path of their forefathers. They were not influenced by the idolatrous society around them. On the contrary, he recognized that they had clearly learned from their father, Yosef HaTzaddik, the righteous Joseph, to follow the path of Torah.

It is obvious that for them to have achieved this level was not accomplished easily. Their life was no bed of roses. There were many very serious tests of their commitment along the way, and they could certainly have turned out very differently. Nonetheless, they clung to what they learned from their father, and not all those around them.

This is why Yaakov singled out Ephraim and Menashe — so that all of us should similarly be blessed to follow a different path, no matter what society says. What society believes is worthwhile or honorable, and what the Torah says, can be two profoundly different things. And each of us must seek, and be blessed, to follow the Jewish path in all our ways.

Dec 26 2014

All According to Plan

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business-planning-guideIf there is one lesson to be learned from this week’s reading and those of the past few weeks, said Rav Asher Rubenstein zt”l, it is that G-d runs the world, and He has a Plan. We can either follow the plan, or we can fight the plan, but it’s going to happen anyways.

Yosef had dreams, dreams that indicated his brothers would bow to him. Yosef knew they were prophetic. His brothers, though, dismissed them, and when they threw him into a pit and then sold him into slavery, they said “let’s see what comes of his dreams!” [Gen 27:20]

Now read the story. What happens afterwards? What action set the process in motion by which Yosef was elevated to the position of viceroy of Egypt, second only to the King, to whom the brothers would bow? It happened because the brothers sold him into slavery. The very thing that they believed would destroy any prospect of the dreams turning into reality, caused them to turn into reality.

Yosef, for his part, acted to ensure that the dreams would come true. He followed the plan. When ten of the brothers came down to Egypt and bowed to him, he realized that something was missing — because the dreams included his brother Benyamin. All eleven brothers had to bow to him, so he had to do something to ensure that Benyamin came down and joined them.

There was no basis on which to accuse the brothers of “spying;” they came to buy food like anyone else. And certainly it was ridiculous for Yosef to claim that he was unable to recognize that all ten of them were brothers, but the addition of an eleventh man would somehow prove to him that they were indeed all related and were telling him the truth. As soon as he said that, the brothers said to each other something equally nonsensical: that this is all because they were guilty, because they saw their brother in pain and did not listen [42:19-21]. Yosef’s behavior, otherwise, made no sense at all… and even so, it didn’t make sense — until he stood and declared, “I am Yosef!”

Then, of course, it all made sense. And it all went according to Plan.

The Torah describes the plan, and guides us in following it. What can we do to align our lives more with the plan, so that when it all eventually happens, we will know we did our part?

Dec 19 2014

More than 8 Days

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forever-ink2Lighting the Menorah each night after dark, seeing the children’s excitement for this beautiful Mitzvah, and singing Hallel, the festival prayer of gratitude, praise, and hope each morning for 8 days, is a reservoir of inspiration that it would be a shame to waste. I wish I could take these moments and put them in a bottle to pull out later when I need them most.

“On a good day be good, and on a bad day reflect” (Koheles – Ecclesiastes, 7:14). When you have a day filled with goodness, be mindful of the goodness and let it penetrate your being. On that same day, consider the “bad day” in the future when the cycle of this world takes its natural course, and prepare by insuring your inspiration has left an indelible mark on your soul. Pharoah’s nightmare of healthy cows and grain being consumed by emaciated cows and parched grain gave him no rest, until Joseph proposed a plan to secure Egypt’s healthy years of plenty and responsibly face the years of famine.

Chanukah is a festival designed to leave permanent impressions. The miracle of the oil and the victory over Greek culture were gifts from the Al-mighty during the Second Temple, when a significant portion of the Jewish people were still exiled from Israel, and the feeling of the Al-mighty’s Presence (Shechinah) in the Temple had been diminished. The destruction of the Temple would follow, and our exile continues, the Sages tell us, until the coming of the Messiah (Moshiach). Our celebration of this festival helps us to relive these miracles each year, to help carry us through the exile.

Chanukah is also unique in that it takes place during a full week during which we continue to work normally, and are involved in productive activities. The spiritual experience overlaps the mundane. This demonstrates that it is possible for our daily activities to coexist with G-d’s Presence.

Preparing for Chanukah is relatively easy – clean the Menorahs, buy the wicks and candles, dust off the dreidels – but how will we plan for after Chanukah? Perhaps you have some ideas. Please, share them in the comments below. Have a happy, and long-lasting, Chanukah! (based on Sefer HaLekach V’Halibuv, Chanuka)

Good Shabbos and Happy Chanukah,
Rabbi Mordechai Dixler
Program Director, Project Genesis – Torah.org

Dec 12 2014

Certainly Wrong

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greek-soldierI was once driving with my wife, way back in the pre-GPS days when you actually had to remember directions. She was driving, and approached a T in the road with her left-turn signal on. “Wait!” I said. “Not left, definitely not left!”

We arrived at the intersection, and I saw and remembered where we were. “OK, maybe left.” This has been a family joke ever since.

After Yosef’s brothers threw him in a dangerous pit of snakes and scorpions, they sat down comfortably to eat [Gen. 37:24-25, Talmud Shabbos 22a]. The Tiferes Tzion explains that they believed they had judged Yosef correctly for having slandered them to their father, and attempting to elevate himself above them with his dreams. They were so certain of their decision that they were able to sit down to eat with a clean conscience — not realizing that their true motivation was simple jealousy. Even these great and holy individuals, the tribes of Yaakov, were capable of not merely misjudging, but of being quite certain that they had acted correctly.

The holiday of Chanukah is just around the corner. While it is sometimes misunderstood as commemorating a battle for freedom between the Jews and the Greeks, the truth is considerably more nuanced. There was an internal battle between Jews, between those who promoted the Hellenization of Judaism and Jerusalem vs. those who rejected it. Those in the first camp were so certain about what they were doing, that it was they who defiled the Temple in Jerusalem. They believed it would somehow help the Jewish people for them to be more like the dominant Greeks. And of course, in the end it was just about their personal biases, their desire to worship idols and engage in the immoral behavior the Greeks encouraged.

Personal bias is capable of not merely enticing us to do the wrong thing, but to do so with complete confidence that we are acting correctly. We have to look to third parties with sound judgment and a neutral perspective, precisely when we think we are so obviously right that there is no question to ask.

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