"And Yosef brought an evil report against his brothers to their father." (37:2). Our Sages refer to Yosef as "HaTzadik" (The Righteous). Yosef was on such a high spiritual level that anything less than perfection simply disturbed him. Even his righteous brothers could not escape his scrutiny. Yosef reported his brothers' failures because he felt that his father was the only one capable of correcting their minor "mistakes." Obviously the "epitome of righteousness" was not a simple tattle-tale. Providence organized Yosef's "trip" to the morally corrupt Egypt as a lesson to Yosef that his brothers were very righteous. We see, as did Yosef, from his lesson that even the most well-intentioned constructive criticism can be very dangerous and that we must consider carefully every word we speak.
Upon the same subject of Yosef being the informer against his brothers to their father, Rav Yehonatan Eybeschitz (18th century Germany) noted that it is possible that the brothers wished to test Yosef to see if he was revealing their actions to Yaakov. They would make statements in his presence such as, “that meat that we just cut off the live animal was very tasty.” Yosef believed what he had heard and told their father about what they said so that he could rebuke them. Rav Eybeschitz reaches this conclusion because the verse writes that Yosef reported “their evil words” rather than “their evil deeds.” The fact is that the brothers deceived Yosef in order to test him to see whether he was just a nuisance in bringing false information to their father.
"Will you be a king over us? Shall you rule over us?" These prophetic words were fully fulfilled. Yosef was in all respects a real king over the house of Israel for 71 years, longer than any other ruler in Israel's history. Yosef ruled with more authority than any subsequent ruler, and with even more authority than Moshe or David. Pharaoh gave to Yosef the power that "without you no man may lift up his hand or his foot in all the land of Egypt" (41:44). No one dared to quarrel or even to complain, which was certainly not the case in the period under Moshe's control. In Yosef's time the Israelites "were exceedingly fruitful and they multiplied" (47:27), and the nation came into being during his long period as a virtual king and an absolute ruler over them. This was Hashem's plan that the righteous Yosef should wield absolute power for the longest reign in history, in order to prepare the newly developing nation for the great climax of the Receiving of the Torah at Sinai. Yosef was extremely resourceful and capable in everything, as his career demonstrated.
As we welcome the festival of Chanukah this week, I wish all of you a meaningful and joyous celebration of our celebration of lights. We have a community lighting of the Chanukiya on Thursday at 6:00 PM. I hope you can join in for this Mitzvah. Please let me know any family traditions you may have developed over the years relating to Chanukah observance. Maybe you’ve devised a unique way to share the holiday with friends and family in this unusual year.
After much anxiety, Yaakov meets with his brother Esav, and the results are underwhelming. The two of them actually are amicable to each other! But Yaakov is anxious to end the meeting and get on with his life.
When they separate, the Torah does not describe any hugging and kissing. The parting of ways is lacking in compassion. This is similar to the end of Yaakov’s and Lavan’s relationship. It would seem that this coolness in separation was purposeful on both sides. Yaakov actually rejects Esav’s efforts to be closer. He is happy that the reunion came off successfully without any threat to life, but Yaakov is aware that a future relationship with Esav was impossible. It would create a bond that could only serve as a problem. Yaakov did not want his sons to have a relationship with Uncle Esav for fear that the uncle would influence them in some form. Yaakov was aware that he was the patriarch blessed with 12 sons with the possibility now of entering Israel; and making steps to become the nation with an eternal bond with Hashem needs to be nurtured. This cannot be successful if there is a Lavan or an Esav anywhere in the picture.
At the end of the Parsha, Hashem officially puts his seal of approval and changes Yaakov’s name to Yisrael. God told Yaakov, “your name shall no longer be Yaakov but Yisrael shall be your name” (35:10). The same language existed earlier when Hashem changes the name of Avram to Avraham. The difference is that Avraham is never referred to by his old name while Yaakov is sometimes referred to as Yaakov, and other times referred to as Yisrael. Rabbi Robert Gordis felt that the answer was in the context in which Yaakov’s name is mentioned. If it is a personal or family matter, the Torah would use the name Yaakov. If the event or incident had national or prophetic meaning, then the Torah would use the name Yisrael. However, this answer does not seem to work in every single situation. When the Torah uses Yaakov, we don’t ask the question why. But when the Torah uses the name Yisrael, one should ask the question and this suggested answer does work as a challenge and as a departure point for discussion of the matter. For example, in the beginning of next week’s Parsha it states that Yaakov dwelled in the land of Canaan, and then when it introduces the story of Yosef, Yaakov is referred to as Yisrael. Maybe the point is that when the story of Yosef begins, the reference of Yaakov as Yisrael would indicate the national importance of the personal relationships of the brothers.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום.
Rabbi David Grossman
We have recently read a number of examples where even the righteous and sometimes the not-so-righteous lie. For example, in our Torah Reading for this week, Toldot, Rivka encouraged Jacob to deceive his father. She may have believed that she did so because of the prophecy that Jacob would inherit his father’s estate, but it was a lie nonetheless. There are even moments when Adonai lies—for example, he does not tell Abraham the real reason that his wife Sarah laughed at the prophecy that she will bear a child, namely that her husband was so old. These examples suggest that, for us as Jews, lying is a complicated matter and no absolute rules are appropriate. To condemn lying completely might be clearer in many respects but to do so disregards situations where lying might not only be allowed but perhaps even be necessary. As we think about the lies told by Jews and righteous Gentiles during the Holocaust, we would be highly unlikely to criticize their actions. But we also recognize that it’s not always the case that “the end justifies the means.” As always, we are willing to live with some gray!
Rav Yonah, a Talmudic scholar, listed nine different categories of lies, with people cheating in business and causing other people financial loss being the worst.
There was once a man who was a tailor and he took a partner in the business. One day, a man left a jacket for altering. After the customer left, the tailor checked the garment and found $500.00 in one of the pockets. This created a great moral dilemma. Should he tell his partner??
Another form of lying, per Rav Yonah, is “changing minor details when retelling an episode”; being wrong but less wrong. The lies he cites are all related to self-aggrandizement and/or cheating other people—promising to do something for someone, knowing that one has no intention of doing so, for example. I would guess that many of us have told some of those lies in some of those categories.
On the other side, Talmudic literature provides us with stories where lying seems to be justified, where it is done for “good reasons.” But how do we interpret those stories, given that they can be understood on so many levels? Practical Halachah gives us more specific guidance. For example, we are allowed to say, “I don’t know” (even when we do) if we’re asked about information that is confidential. A wealthy person can lie to avoid ayin hara or arousing jealousy. And a man is permitted to lie to his wife about the time if she will be late for Shabbat! But even there there are limits—he can only do so if she is procrastinating, not if she is rushing to get ready because that would only increase the pressure on her.
Though there may not be clear answers, these examples as well as the examples from the Torah lead us to think about our own actions and our own willingness (or unwillingness) to tell a direct lie or to deceive others indirectly. Thinking twice about such actions can never be a bad idea! Truth is weighed against doing chesed, with chesed held up as a more desirable concept.
As Jews, we try to emulate God. A clue to God’s qualities is the recitation of his midot, his attributes, words taken directly from Torah. The listing includes, “gracious, compassionate, patient, abounding in kindness, assuring love for a thousand generations.” Nowhere here do we see the concept of truth. It can be concluded, then, that being kind takes precedence over the monolithic telling of the truth.
We know that the Torah is famously sparse when it comes to details – often we jump in a narrative and can’t help but wonder what happened in between. Or we read a very concise version of what could be a much longer story. But in today’s parsha, CHAYAY Sarah, Eliezer, right-hand man of Avraham, gives us a very detailed description of how he came to the home of Laban to find a wife for Isaac. How important is that description? We have to assume that it’s very important, since it’s so long and drawn out. But what’s really remarkable is that Eliezer tells the story TWICE. And he tells it in almost exactly the same way each time. But for the spelling of ONE WORD.
In the first iteration of the story, Eliezer repeats what he has said to Avraham: “Perhaps (OOLAI) the woman will not follow me?” He’s wondering what he should do if that is the case. The Hebrew word in this sentence is spelled with a Vav, rendering it unable to be read as anything other than oolai, that is, maybe, perhaps. But when he recounts the dialogue with Lavan later, the Hebrew word is spelled without a Vav, rendering it possible to be pronounced aylye, to me.
So—of course—we have to have a midrash here. The rabbis tell us that the two different word forms for perhaps or maybe make clear that Eliezer is ambivalent about going to find a wife for Isaac. Why would that be? He’s the faithful servant of Abraham, and has never declined to do as he instructs. The reason, according to tradition, is that Eliezer himself had a daughter. He was hoping that Avraham would give his approval for Isaac to marry the daughter to Eliezer. So, the second telling is the CLUE—if the word could be read as TO ME, perhaps Eliezer is hinting to Avraham that Isaac could just as easily be a member of HIS family. But Rashi tells us that Eliezer was a descendant of Canaan who had been cursed by Noach, so one who is accursed cannot marry one who is blessed.
So, there is no possibility that Avraham would accept Eliezer’s daughter for Isaac. And that teaches us that ONE WORD can make a WORLD OF DIFFERENCE.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום.
Rabbi David Grossman
In the very beginning of the Parsha of Vayayraw, God appears to Avraham, and our Sages indicate that the purpose of Hashem’s visit was to visit the sick, Bikur Cholim. Abraham had just undergone a circumcision and God was there to comfort him in his pain. Our great sage Maimonides understood that Bikur Cholim is actually part of two different Mitzvot. He writes that there is a mitzvah to emulate Hashem’s attributes. This concept is derived in the Talmud and recorded by Maimonides in his book delineating all of the Mitzvot. He writes later in this same book that there is a mitzvah for every Jew to love every other Jew and to wish for his or her brother or sister everything that he or she would want for themselves. He further writes that all of the mitzvot of Gemilut Chasadim, acts of loving-kindness (including visiting the sick) are included in the mitzvah of loving one’s fellow person. He, the Rambam, apparently understands that the mitzvah of Bikur Cholim is part of the mitzvah of loving our brothers and sisters as well as the mitzvah of emulating the ways of Hashem. The mitzvah of loving one’s brother or sister is a mitzvah “Bein Adam La’chaveiro” a commandment between people, to care for the needs of one’s fellow person. The mitzvah of emulating the ways of Hashem is a mitzvah “Bein Adam La’Makom” a commandment between mortals and God, to bring oneself closer to God and God’s ways.
Whichever type of Mitzvah it is, it is acknowledged that comforting those in pain, emotional, physical or spiritual, is a great deed of loving-kindness. In that regard, I’d like to appeal to all of us in the TBS community to let me know if you want to be part of a group that extends kindness to people in our midst who are in need of comfort. Please let me or Rhoda Kanet know if you’d want to make a phone call to someone who would appreciate it, or to perform some act of compassion on their behalf. Also, if you are in need of a call or any type of outreach, please let us know. This is a great Mitzvah and should be purused!
Thanks, David (617) 838-9166
The story of Avraham begins with our Parsha of Lech Lecha, as he is center stage for the birth of the Jewish people. Hashem directs Avraham to leave his homeland and Lech Lecha “go for your own good” (12:1). Rashi tells us that this command form with the added expression “for yourself” indicates that this will be for Avraham’s benefit and for his own good. Many times in life we may find that that which usually tastes good is not always good for you. Here Hashem is saying to Avraham that “your departure from your home and your homeland will be good for you; you will benefit from it; and you will enjoy it.” If this is true, asks the Sefat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Gerer, 1847-1905), what kind of test was this for Avraham? If Avraham fulfilled that which God commanded him to, he would benefit and enjoy it. This does not seem like much of a test to be included in the list of the ten tests to which Hashem subjected Avraham. The Sefat Emet answers that Avraham fulfilled all that God commanded him only because Hashem said so. He never did anything that God said for his own benefit. Consequently, it was Avraham’s attitude and perspective that allowed him to fulfill the test and make it beneficial to him in a spiritual level.
In 12:5 the Torah indicates that Avraham and Sarah had amassed “souls that they made in Charan.” Rashi quotes the Midrash that states that Avraham and Sarah worked with many people and converted them to their newfound teachings of monotheism, yet nowhere does the Torah mention what happened to these converts. Many commentators suggest that after Avraham died, these converts returned to their former lives. Perhaps it was Avraham’s personal charisma and charming personality that attracted these people to begin with. After he died, they could not attach themselves to Yitzchak, since Yitzchak had a different personality entirely. In any event, most all the commentators believe that these converts went home afterwards, not to continue in their newfound beliefs and traditions that Avraham and Sarah taught them.
During the famine in Canaan Avraham takes his family south into Egypt. He was fearful of the attraction that his wife Sarah would generate because, as Avraham states in 12:11 “see now I have known that you are a woman of beautiful appearance.” At this stage Sarah has to be at least 65 years old. Many commentators are perplexed by this statement. Is Avraham not aware that his wife is beautiful until now? We do realize that love masks an objective standard of assessing beauty. The Vilna Gaon explains that the Talmud tells us (Megillah 13) that Esther was pale and had a greenish tinge of coloring in her face, but because of her tremendous character of chesed she projected a certain beauty to people who saw her; she just appeared beautiful because of her character. So, it is possible that the husband sees his wife as beautiful, but in actuality his perception is blinded by his own love for her, or perhaps by her character traits. Once Avraham reached this stage of his life and the age that they both reached, he realized that Sarah’s beauty was objective and visible, and not a product of her kind character which she possessed as well. The question and the Vilna Gaon’s comments are quite telling and real today in our assessment of a person’s beautiful looks.
The phrase “damning with faint praise” comes from a poem by Alexander Pope. Here’s the relevant passage:
Willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike,
Just hint a fault, and hesitate dislike.
So when we “damn someone with faint praise,” we want to wound that person but we are afraid to do so explicitly. To damn with faint praise is to point out that something or someone is mediocre or worse by praising in ways that make the weaknesses clear. Imagine that we are asked for a recommendation for someone who has worked for us. We might say, “well, he was very punctual.” That makes clear that punctuality is the person’s best quality; it also makes clear that perhaps you don’t want to hire that person.
How does this relate to this week’s parsha, Noach?
Here’s what we are told:
This is the line of Noah. –Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God. Noah begot three sons. . .
Is the Torah damning Noah with faint praise? In other words, what’s being said here? Are we being told that Noah was truly righteous? In other words, are we being told here that, in any age, he would have been a righteous person? Or, is the message that Noah was righteous only relative to others in his age? And we know that those others were terrible sinners because God sent the flood to destroy them.
It might seem that the statement that “Noah walked with God” means that Noach, like Abraham and other forefathers, was TRULY righteous, not relatively righteous. But Rashi considers another possibility: perhaps Noach needed God to keep him on a path of righteousness, whereas Abraham found that path himself and maintained it without God having to tag along.
Like Rashi, scholars have for centuries strived to find fault with Noach. Some say that he was selfish—that he worked hard only to save his own family. Others, in a similar vein, say that he should have—like Abraham after him—negotiated with God to save the lives of others. One scholar argued that Noach was great at a specific, concrete task—namely, building the ark—but not at simply being a man of faith.
Rashi describes Noah as a man of " small faith" who had doubts whether the flood would actually happen. In fact, according to the great commentator's understanding, he didn't enter the Ark until the rains actually started and the floodwaters pushed him in. That explains why many people look down on Noah, especially when they compare him to other Biblical superheroes, people of the stature of Abraham or Moses. So is he a hero, truly blameless, or does he only appear to be good because of how terrible everyone else was?
These questions are, of course, unresolvable. And I can’t help but wonder if we are guilty of loshan hara if we seek to find fault with Noach rather than seeing the beauty of what he did and what he accomplished. Remember too that God promised after the flood that he would never again seek to destroy the world through water. Perhaps Noach’s conduct had something to do with God’s resolution. And perhaps, if Noach could be a tzadek in the worst of times, it’s possible that he would be even more righteous in the best of times.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman describes Noach as a “real live hero” but also as a “regular guy.” No matter what, he gets the job done, no small matter in a world shattered by evil and flood.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום.
Rabbi David Grossman
“Hashem gave Cain a sign.” According to one view of the Midrash, Hashem gave Cain a dog to accompany him. What was the significance of giving Cain specifically a dog? The Chafetz Chaim explained that the Midrash says that Abel was stronger than Cain and in the original altercation Abel was in the position to kill his brother. Cain pleaded with him to have mercy and spare his life. After he was released, Cain attacked Abel when he was unprepared and was thus able to kill him. According to this, Cain came to kill his brother because of his lack of Hakarat HaTov, an ability to show gratitude to someone who had performed a kindness to him. It was for this reason that Hashem gave him a dog to accompany him, since a dog is known for its Hakarat HaTov and total devotion to its master who feeds it. Our Sages say (Horayot 13a): The dog recognizes its master. Its appreciation is so great that it will sacrifice its own life to protect its master. By giving him a dog as a companion, Hashem afforded him the constant reminder of the importance of demonstrating Hakarat HaTov, and hoped in this manner he would correct this most serious deficiency in his character.
If the character trait so prized in this narrative is thankfulness, we should try, with the Torah’s help, to recognize the good things and the good people in our lives and be grateful for them. There is also a Divine element to this recognition. By being grateful, we acknowledge a power beyond our own hands and personalities, a force to thank for the good that comes our way. We could attribute good fortune to serendipity, but to give thanks to God for the gifts that are ours is to adopt a central tenet of Judaism. We are called Jews after our ancestor Judah, whose name in Hebrew means “Thank You”, so to have thanks on our lips and in our hearts is to be Jew in the greatest sense.
A Good Shabbas! Please attend or Zoom into our service this Friday evening at 7:00 PM.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום.
Rabbi David Grossman
This week’s Parsha, Ki Tavo, is full of both blessings and curses. The curses are vivid and frightening, and one rabbi referred to them as 55 consecutive verses of nightmarish misery and torture. Many of those curses have to do with our being dispersed as a people, our being unmoored, either physically or psychologically. We are cursed with confusion and bewilderment, which Rashi translates literally as a “clogging of the heart.” We are told that “you will grope at midday, as the blind man gropes in the dark.” Ki Tavo tells us that the strong and high walls and fortresses of our cities will all collapse, and I can’t help but think that this is meant in a metaphorical as well as a literal sense because we no longer have any real bearings. Ki Tavo even threatens us with insanity: “You will go insane”—the Hebrew word used here is MESHUGAH—and that “you will be in fear in your life.” You will have a trembling heart, dashed hopes, and you will not be calm. To me, one of the worst curses is that “you will not be able to believe that this is your life.” Rambam says that the worst is that no one will even want to buy you as slaves.
There is a lot of tradition related to this Parsha. One is that the curses are read very quietly and very quickly—the obvious message here is that no one wants to spend much time on these terrible threats. There’s a story that the son of a rabbi had to laen Ki Tavo one Shabbat when his father was ill. The son later had to be hospitalized for shock and high blood pressure. The people asked him, “You hear this Parsha every year. Why would it affect you now?” And he answered, “When my father reads it, I can’t hear the curses.” Another tradition is that a number of rabbis take the curses and try to argue that they have all come true for the Jewish people. Some rabbis even single out the Holocaust and claim that Ki Tavo predicts it.
This portion is also known as the tochechah, or rebuke. It is always read in close proximity to Rosh Hashanah and is intended to alert us to the realities of life so that we can do some soul-searching and introspection in order to improve our behavior before the coming Days of Judgment.
It’s incredible that Ki Tavo represents almost the very last words that Moshe will share with the Jewish people. And there are only 14 lines of blessings, in contrast with the 55. But, no matter what we think about why these curses are so lengthy and so harsh, we cannot ignore the fact that we are still here today and our enemies have not destroyed us and scattered our ashes to the winds. We can still experience the joys we associate with Judaism, however challenging it may be to be a good Jew.
As Moshe tells the Israelites, only today—after forty years in the desert have they attained a heart to know, eyes to see, and ears to hear.
And may it be so for all of us.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום.
Rabbi David Grossman
The first three Aliyot of Parshat Ki Tetzei may seem disconnected rom one another. The first deals with how to treat captives in war, especially women. The second addresses inheritance-what does a man do if he has one wife he hates and another he loves? How should we treat the children of those two unions? And the third Aliyah speaks about how to handle a disobedient child- here we know that the punishment is pretty severe.
So, we have the beautiful captive taken in war. The idea that we should treat our children fairly, and not favor one over the other, even if we prefer one mother over the other. And the risks of disobedient children.
But we can make an argument that these three ideas are deeply connected. If we marry a captive woman because she is so beautiful, that beauty will fade over time. And when that happens-because the love was conditional- we begin to hate her. And we then see the children of that marriage as hated as well. If we have a second wife that we truly love, we may favor HER children. And the unloved children- knowing that they are unloved (because children always know these things) rebel. Think about the jealousy and rivalry that Jacob’s preference for Joseph had on his remaining children. When there is such resentment and envy, disobedience follows. Sometimes with disastrous consequences.
So the connection among these three sections is quite powerful. What might have seemed disconnected at first glance is actually profoundly connected.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום.
Rabbi David Grossman