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Bo: Lessons of the Inauguration

The inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris this past week was a historical moment in the history of the United States.  Beyond the important historical markers, the inauguration gives us the time and opportunity to reflect on the significance of America and of our democracy. 

In 2017, right before the inauguration of President Trump, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l  published a video ( in which he called the presidential inauguration “one of the great rituals of modern politics.”   Rabbi Sacks explains that America is a Covenant Society  – a group of people who come together to build a consciously new society and to do so on the basis of quite exquisite ideals.  As such, we need reminders of the ideas and ideals on which our society is built.  The most powerful reminder of this is the Presidential inauguration and inaugural address in which the president articulates those core values and provides a vision of how we will realize them.  As Rabbi Sacks puts it, the President “reminds the people of what actually made America and what will continue to do if it keeps its faith with the covenant itself.”  In this sense, the presidential inauguration is a modern, secular parallel to the Hakhel ceremony described in Devarim 31:10-13:

י) וַיְצַ֥ו מֹשֶׁ֖ה אוֹתָ֣ם לֵאמֹ֑ר מִקֵּ֣ץ ׀ שֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֗ים בְּמֹעֵ֛ד שְׁנַ֥ת הַשְּׁמִטָּ֖ה בְּחַ֥ג הַסֻּכּֽוֹת׃ (יא) בְּב֣וֹא כָל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל לֵרָאוֹת֙ אֶת־פְּנֵי֙ ה’ אֱלֹקֶ֔יךָ בַּמָּק֖וֹם אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִבְחָ֑ר תִּקְרָ֞א אֶת־הַתּוֹרָ֥ה הַזֹּ֛את נֶ֥גֶד כָּל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בְּאָזְנֵיהֶֽם׃ (יב) הַקְהֵ֣ל אֶת־הָעָ֗ם הָֽאֲנָשִׁ֤ים וְהַנָּשִׁים֙ וְהַטַּ֔ף וְגֵרְךָ֖ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בִּשְׁעָרֶ֑יךָ לְמַ֨עַן יִשְׁמְע֜וּ וּלְמַ֣עַן יִלְמְד֗וּ וְיָֽרְאוּ֙ אֶת־ה’ אֱלֹֽקֵיכֶ֔ם וְשָֽׁמְר֣וּ לַעֲשׂ֔וֹת אֶת־כָּל־דִּבְרֵ֖י הַתּוֹרָ֥ה הַזֹּֽאת׃ (יג) וּבְנֵיהֶ֞ם אֲשֶׁ֣ר לֹֽא־יָדְע֗וּ יִשְׁמְעוּ֙ וְלָ֣מְד֔וּ לְיִרְאָ֖ה אֶת־ה’ אֱלֹקֵיכֶ֑ם כָּל־הַיָּמִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר אַתֶּ֤ם חַיִּים֙ עַל־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר אַתֶּ֜ם עֹבְרִ֧ים אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּ֛ן שָׁ֖מָּה לְרִשְׁתָּֽהּ׃ (פ)

(10) And Moses instructed them as follows: Every seventh year, the year set for remission, at the Feast of Booths, (11) when all Israel comes to appear before the LORD your God in the place that He will choose, you shall read this Teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel. (12) Gather the people—men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities—that they may hear and so learn to revere the LORD your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching. (13) Their children, too, who have not had the experience, shall hear and learn to revere the LORD your God as long as they live in the land that you are about to cross the Jordan to possess.

Every seven years, the king would gather the entire nation and read select portions from the Torah.

Hakhel is intended to be an affective mitzvah, meant to make an impression on our hearts.  This explains why we are told that women and children must participate fully, even if they don’t understand what is being said.  Rav S.R. Hisrch writes:

This reading out of the Torah prescribed here is not meant to be a means of the people getting to know the Law, that of course should be nurtured daily in the ordinary life at home…But it is something extraordinary which recurs from seventh year to seventh year for a quite special purpose.   

It is far too easy for ideologically driven individuals, communities and societies to get distracted from their goals and purposes.  Partisan politics, the stresses of life and corrupt individuals can all lead us astray.  As such a regular check in to set us back on course is required.  This is what Hakhel is for the Jewish people and this is what the inauguration is for the United States of America.

A second interesting feature of the inauguration is the strong emphasis on God.  Though we are a country which prides itself on the separation of church and state, there is plenty of religious language and reference to God in the inauguration and in many of our public ceremonies.  In a sermon delivered in October1974 ( , Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm z”l  quoted Shlomo Nakdimon, a writer for the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv.  Commenting on Gerald Ford’s inaugural address (which was delivered August 9, 1974 after Nixon’s resignation), Nakdimon was struck by Ford’s concluding sentences:

“I now  I now solemnly reaffirm my promise… to uphold the Constitution, to do what is right as God gives me to see the right, and to do the very best I can f or America.  God helping me, I will not let you down.”

While America has no qualms evoking God in its political speeches or inscribing the phrase “In God we trust” on it currency, this is most definitely not the case in Israel. “…For us, the Jewish people, who first brought about the enthronement of the Deity, He is almost non-existent. It seems almost as if we are ashamed to indicate that we are linked to Him.
“The United States is not a theocratic country. Nevertheless it seeks opportunities to stress its relationship between man and its Creator.”

Rabbi Lamm concludes, “Quite frankly, the comparison hurts.”  He calls on the Jewish people – in Israel and in America – to invoke God more regularly in our public discourse. 

I’d like to conclude with one final thought – it is not directly connected to the inauguration but I think it is vitally important for the moment in which we find ourselves.  The idea comes from Rabbi Yisrael Meir Druck and I heard it in his name in a shiur given by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of the Boca Raton Synagogue (

Our parsha opens:

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה בֹּ֖א אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה כִּֽי־אֲנִ֞י הִכְבַּ֤דְתִּי אֶת־לִבּוֹ֙ וְאֶת־לֵ֣ב עֲבָדָ֔יו לְמַ֗עַן שִׁתִ֛י אֹתֹתַ֥י אֵ֖לֶּה בְּקִרְבּֽוֹ׃  וּלְמַ֡עַן תְּסַפֵּר֩ בְּאָזְנֵ֨י בִנְךָ֜ וּבֶן־בִּנְךָ֗ אֵ֣ת אֲשֶׁ֤ר הִתְעַלַּ֙לְתִּי֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם וְאֶת־אֹתֹתַ֖י אֲשֶׁר־שַׂ֣מְתִּי בָ֑ם וִֽידַעְתֶּ֖ם כִּי־אֲנִ֥י ה’׃

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, (2) and that you may recount in the hearing of your sons and of your sons’ sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians and how I displayed My signs among them—in order that you may know that I am the LORD.”

Rabbi Druck notes that the final phrase – וידעתם כי אני ה’ in order that YOU may know that I am the Lord — does not make sense.  It should say וידעו כי אני ה’ THEY (i.e., the future generations) may know that I am the Lord.  Moshe’s immediate audience (the “You”) is living through Hashem’s miracles in Egypt.  They already know all about it.  And if they don’t know, it does not make sense to say that they will come to know by telling future generations.  They will be dead at that point?!

Rabbi Druck writes that Hashem is telling Moshe and B’nei Yisrael that it is not enough to just live through the events.  To truly understand and recognize Hashem, they have to talk about it and share the story with others.  Only then will they be able to truly internalize and take ownership of the story.  This is why it is so crucial for us to tell the story of the Exodus every year at Pesach.  Because we need to internalize the story as our own.

I believe that this message rings true in America in 2021.  I do not need to write any more about how we are a divided nation that has lost touch with our core values and ideals. We cannot passively accept the state of affairs as they are.  But just like the Jewish people who lived through the miracles of the Exodus from Egypt, we must assert our voices into the unfolding events and take ownership and responsibility for the story that will be told to future generations.  In this way the beginning of the parsha clearly echoes the lesson of Hakhel and presidential inaugurations with which we began.

Va’era: O The Humanity!

As I was looking through my files on Parshat Va’era, I came across a d’var Torah that I first gave in 2016.  Though the context is very different the message is extremely important and relevant for this year.  As the news is once again dominated by stories of impeachment, political divide and cancel culture, we all must take to heart the lesson that this week’s parsha teaches.

Parshat Va’era details the first seven makot (plagues).  As the drama unfolds, there are three times when Pharaoh calls Moshe and Aaron and begs them to make the plague of the moment stop.  The pain and  suffering are too much for Pharaoh to bear, and he asks Moshe to pray on his behalf in order to make it stop.

he first time this occurs is after מכת צפרדע, the plague of frogs. 

Exodus 8:4: 

וַיִּקְרָ֨א פַרְעֹ֜ה לְמֹשֶׁ֣ה וּֽלְאַהֲרֹ֗ן וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ הַעְתִּ֣ירוּ אֶל־ה’ וְיָסֵר֙ הַֽצְפַרְדְּעִ֔ים מִמֶּ֖נִּי וּמֵֽעַמִּ֑י וַאֲשַׁלְּחָה֙ אֶת־הָעָ֔ם וְיִזְבְּח֖וּ לה’ 

Then Pharaoh called for Moses and Aaron, and said: ‘Entreat the LORD, that He take away the frogs from me, and from my people; and I will let the people go, that they may sacrifice unto the LORD.’ 

Pharaoh makes a similar request during the plague of ערוב (wild beasts).  He is on the brink of agreeing to allow B’nei Yisrael to go to worship Hashem for three days and says to Moshe: 

וַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה אָנֹכִי אֲשַׁלַּח אֶתְכֶם וּזְבַחְתֶּם לַה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם בַּמִּדְבָּר רַק הַרְחֵק לֹא תַרְחִיקוּ לָלֶכֶת הַעְתִּירוּ בַּעֲדִי. 

And Pharaoh said: ‘I will let you go, that ye may sacrifice to the LORD your God in the wilderness; only ye shall not go very far away; entreat for me. (Shemot 8:24) 

Finally, at the end of the parsha during ברד (hail): 

וַיִּשְׁלַ֣ח פַּרְעֹ֗ה וַיִּקְרָא֙ לְמֹשֶׁ֣ה וּֽלְאַהֲרֹ֔ן וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֖ם חָטָ֣אתִי הַפָּ֑עַם ה’ הַצַּדִּ֔יק וַאֲנִ֥י וְעַמִּ֖י הָרְשָׁעִֽים׃ הַעְתִּ֙ירוּ֙ אֶל־יהק וְרַ֕ב מִֽהְיֹ֛ת קֹלֹ֥ת אֱלֹהִ֖ים וּבָרָ֑ד וַאֲשַׁלְּחָ֣ה אֶתְכֶ֔ם וְלֹ֥א תֹסִפ֖וּן לַעֲמֹֽד׃ 

And Pharaoh sent, and called for Moses and Aaron, and said unto them: ‘I have sinned this time; the LORD is righteous, and I and my people are wicked. Entreat the LORD, and let there be enough of these mighty thunderings and hail; and I will let you go, and ye shall stay no longer.’ (Exodus 9:27-28) 

The commentators tell us that Moshe’s prayers on behalf of Pharaoh were sincere, and difficult for Moshe to utter.   

On his prayer during tzfardeah, the Torah records: וַיִּצְעַק מֹשֶׁה אֶל ה’ עַל דְּבַר הַצְפַרְדְּעִים אֲשֶׁר שָׂם לְפַרְעֹה. – he cried unto the Lord concerning the frogs He had wrought on Pharaoh (Shemot 8:8).  The Da’at Mikra contemporary commentary explains that the verb צעק cry out/scream implies that Moshe cried out loudly as if he were crying   in distress and despair. 

ויצעק משמע שמלל בקול גדול כצועק מתוך צרה ומצוקה. 

Concerning the prayer offered during Arov, Rashi writes: 

ויעתר אל ה’ – נתאמץ בתפילה וכן אם בא לומ’ ויעתיר היה יכול לומ’ ומשמע וְיַרְבה תפילה, וכשהו’ אומ’ בלשון ויפעל משמ’ וַיִרְבֵה להתפלל. 

and entreated the Lord: he exerted himself in prayer. Similarly, if [Scripture] meant to say וַיַעְתִּיר, it could have said it, and that would mean that he increased [words] in prayer. Now, however, because it uses the וַיִפְעַל form, it means that he exerted himself to pray [devoutly]. 

Moshe exerted great effort in praying for Pharaoh. 

And finally, at the end of our parsha during barad, Rabbi David Bigman, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Ma’aleh Gilboa in Israel writes in his book on the parsha Yoducha Ra’ayonai: 

משה נכון היה לשאת תפלה בעד האויב המשעבד את עמו.  על אף המציאות הסבוכה מצליח משה להפלל מעומק לבו ולעורר את רחמי הקל על סבלות העם המצרי. 

Moshe was correct to offer prayer on behalf of the enemy who was subjugating [Moshe’s] people.  Despite the complicated reality, Moshe succeeds to pray from the depths of his heart and to arouse God’s compassion over the suffering of the Egyptian nation. 

Why does Moshe go to such lengths to pray for Pharaoh and the Egyptian people?  Surely Moshe’s behavior goes beyond what we would expect. 

To answer this I’d like to return to an episode from Sefer Breishit – the plight of Yishmael and his mother Hagar (I addressed this episode previously at 

It will be recalled that Hagar is kicked out of Avraham and Sarah’s house twice. Once on her own and once with her son Yishmael.  On the second occasion, both mother and child are on the brink of death with no food or water to be found.  Hagar abandons Yishmael, too pained to see her son suffer.  This story of the expulsion of Hagar and Yishmael s the focus of the Torah reading on the first day of Rosh Hashanah.   It immediately precedes the story of Avraham and Yitzchak ascending Har Hamoriyah for Akedat Yitzchak.

In his masterful book Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence Rabbi Jonathan Sacks contrasts these two episodes – the expulsion of Yishmael and the binding of Isaac.  He notes that the plight of Yishmael is a human drama in which it is very easy to identify and empathize with Yishmael.  Despite the fact that Yitzchak is the favored son and chosen successor of Avraham, the Torah does not vilify Yishmael.  It wants us to empathize with him.  Rabbi Sacks writes:

In situations of stress, sympathy for the other side can come to seem like a kind of betrayal.  It is this that the Ishmael story is challenging.  At the first critical juncture for the covenantal family – the birth of its first children – we feel for Sarah and Isaac.  She is the he first Jewish mother, and he the first Jewish child.  But we also feel for Hagar and Ishmael.  We enter their world, see through their eyes, empathize with their emotions.  That is how the narrative is written, to enlist our sympathy.  We weep with them, feeling their outcast state.  As does God.  (117-118) 

One of the Torah’s fundamental lessons is to empathize and identify with the other, even with our enemy. This, I believe, is the reason why Moshe offers such sincere and heartfelt prayers on behalf of Pharaoh and Egypt.

When Pharaoh finally agrees to let the Jews go, Hashem insists that the Jews not leave empty-handed.  They should leave ברכוש גדול – with great wealth.  The simplest explanation is that the Jews are instructed to demand payment for the hundreds of years of servitude.  But not all agree that the רכוש גדול refers to material wealth, or only material wealth. 

Rav Yehuda Amital a”h quotes the Ari z”l who explains that God wanted the Jewish people to take with them the positive aspects of Egyptian culture and to integrate them, to “raise the sparks.” (  Despite the oppression to which the Egyptians subjected us, there were still positive elements of Egyptian culture and society.  On our own, we would not have taken anything from Egypt.  It would have been a terrible nightmare that we wished to put far behind us.  To erase all memories.  Therefore, God pleaded with Moshe to make sure that the people would take the good aspects of Egypt with them. 

Along similar lines, in explaining Hashem’s command to take riches from the Egyptians,  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points to a Halacha recorded in Sefer Devarim:  When a Jewish slave is set free, his master is obligated to provide him with wealth on his departure (Devarim 15:12-15).  Rabbi Sacks explains that this gift is not meant to be compensation for the years spent in slavery.  Rather, the gift is meant to provide closure of this chapter in the slave’s life and allow for the parting to be in good will.  The slave does not leave his master bearing bad feelings or with feelings of humiliation.  Rather, the gifts are symbolic of a new beginning.  This is the same idea behind Hashem’s insistence that B’nei Yisrael take money and riches from the Egyptians.  If we did not take a symbolic parting gift we would bear resentment and ill-will toward the Egyptians for the rest of our national history.  We would be a people stuck in the past.  We must let go of whatever animosity we have in order to realize our national destiny. (

The Torah insists that we build bridges of understanding with those with whom we disagree.  The Torah insists that we empathize and show compassion for others, even with our enemies.  This is a message that is desperately needed in our day.  As our news feed is filled with too many stories of one group of people vilifying another, unable and unwilling to understand their position or engage in meaningful and respectful dialogue.  We can only hope that the echoes of Moshe’s prayers on behalf of Pharaoh and Egypt reverberate today.

Shemot and the Riots at the Capital

As I write this d’var Torah, I am still in shock over the events that took place at the Capital this past Wednesday.  And as I write this d’var Torah I am in shock over how many times I have had to write similar divrei Torah in the aftermath of equally shocking events.  There is no place for violence and lawlessness that transpired at the US Capital – the very symbol of law and democracy that America stands for. 

It was comforting to participate in our shul’s discussion of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ book Morality: Restoring Common Good in Divided Times.  The book was especially relevant as Rabbi Sacks addresses the disintegration of healthy public discourse and the rise of populism and identity politics that were on display in Washington.  I am so grateful to Jonathan Arking who did a fantastic job leading our discussion and who was able to address the events that were unfolding in a thoughtful and meaningful way.

The scene from this week’s parsha which speaks to me this week is Hashem’s revelation to Moshe at the burning bush.  Hashem tells Moshe (Shemot 3:7-10):

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ה’ רָאֹ֥ה רָאִ֛יתִי אֶת־עֳנִ֥י עַמִּ֖י אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּמִצְרָ֑יִם וְאֶת־צַעֲקָתָ֤ם שָׁמַ֙עְתִּי֙ מִפְּנֵ֣י נֹֽגְשָׂ֔יו כִּ֥י יָדַ֖עְתִּי אֶת־מַכְאֹבָֽיו׃ (ח) וָאֵרֵ֞ד לְהַצִּיל֣וֹ ׀ מִיַּ֣ד מִצְרַ֗יִם וּֽלְהַעֲלֹתוֹ֮ מִן־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַהִוא֒ אֶל־אֶ֤רֶץ טוֹבָה֙ וּרְחָבָ֔ה אֶל־אֶ֛רֶץ זָבַ֥ת חָלָ֖ב וּדְבָ֑שׁ אֶל־מְק֤וֹם הַֽכְּנַעֲנִי֙ וְהַ֣חִתִּ֔י וְהָֽאֱמֹרִי֙ וְהַפְּרִזִּ֔י וְהַחִוִּ֖י וְהַיְבוּסִֽי׃ (ט) וְעַתָּ֕ה הִנֵּ֛ה צַעֲקַ֥ת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בָּ֣אָה אֵלָ֑י וְגַם־רָאִ֙יתִי֙ אֶת־הַלַּ֔חַץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר מִצְרַ֖יִם לֹחֲצִ֥ים אֹתָֽם׃ (י) וְעַתָּ֣ה לְכָ֔ה וְאֶֽשְׁלָחֲךָ֖ אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה וְהוֹצֵ֛א אֶת־עַמִּ֥י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מִמִּצְרָֽיִם׃

And the LORD continued, “I have marked well the plight of My people in Egypt and have heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes, I am mindful of their sufferings. (8) I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians and to bring them out of that land to a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey, the region of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. (9) Now the cry of the Israelites has reached Me; moreover, I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them. (10) Come, therefore, I will send you to Pharaoh, and you shall free My people, the Israelites, from Egypt.”

Moshe responds in verse 11:

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶל־הָ֣אֱלֹקִ֔ים מִ֣י אָנֹ֔כִי כִּ֥י אֵלֵ֖ךְ אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה וְכִ֥י אוֹצִ֛יא אֶת־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מִמִּצְרָֽיִם׃

But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?”

Moshe continues to refuse God’s directive that Moshe return to Egypt to redeem the Jewish people.  Rashi (Shemot 4:10) cites the Midrash Rabbah that it took God seven days of “negotiating” to convince Moshe to accept the mission.  Among the arguments that Moshe makes is:

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֣ה אֶל־ה’ בִּ֣י אדושם לֹא֩ אִ֨ישׁ דְּבָרִ֜ים אָנֹ֗כִי גַּ֤ם מִתְּמוֹל֙ גַּ֣ם מִשִּׁלְשֹׁ֔ם גַּ֛ם מֵאָ֥ז דַּבֶּרְךָ אֶל־עַבְדֶּ֑ךָ כִּ֧י כְבַד־פֶּ֛ה וּכְבַ֥ד לָשׁ֖וֹן אָנֹֽכִי׃

But Moses said to the LORD, “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”

I think that this pasuk immediately jumped out at me because this week I feel like Moshe.  There is nothing that I can say that will make a difference.  I lack the voice and the message to make any difference as our nation recovers from Wednesday’s attacks and as we must now come to terms with how divided we are. But like Moshe, silence is not an option.  So I will share some further thoughts and reflections in the hopes that they may be a source of comfort or help others process and think things through.

In our pasuk, Moshe refuses God’s mission because “I have never been a man of words…I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”  Our understanding of Moshe’s excuse is heavily influenced by the Midrashim that say Moshe had a stutter due to the trial he underwent as a child in Pharaoh’s palace and burned his tongue with hot coals.  But not all of the commentators agree that this is the meaning of Moshe’s description of himself.  The Sforono, for example, writes

לא איש דברים אנכי בלתי מורגל במלאכת לשון למודים וסדרה לדבר לפני המלך: (ב) גם מתמול בהיותי גר בארץ נכריה: (ג) גם משלשם בהיותי בבית פרעה: (ד) גם מאז דברך אל עבדך אף על פי שהיתה נפשי הדברית אז באור פני המלך לא קנתה לשון למודים:

am not experienced in knowing how to address people in authority, such as kings. (2) גם מתמול, גם משלשום, neither when I was a stranger in a foreign land, nor when I grew up in Pharaoh’s palace, nor since You have spoken to me and I have responded. 

Moshe was not comfortable or able to speak the proper, formal language with which one typically addresses the king. 

The Rashbam offers a slightly difference explanation:

) כי כבד פה וערל לשון אנכי – איני בקי בלשון מצרים בחיתוך לשון, כי בקטנותי ברחתי משם ועתה אני בן שמונים.

I am not fluent in the Egyptian spoken by the upper classes of the aristocracy. The reason is that I fled Egypt before I had completed my education there and in the meantime I am 80 years of age.

But most relevant for us this week is the understanding of Rabbi Nachman of Horodenka, the grandfather and namesake of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.  Rabbi Nachman explains the true source of Moshe’s inability to speak:

כשחכם הרוצה להשמיע תורה שרוי בין אווילום הבוזים חכמה ומוסר, אף הוא נעשה כבד פה, ואינו יכול לדבר ולהשמיע… פרעה לשון עורף, כשהמוני-עם הם בבחינת עורף, אז אני כבד פה ואין תועלת בדברי תוכחתי

When a sage who wants to teach Torah is found among fools who scorn wisdom and ethics, the sage is made heavy-tongued and he cannot speak or be heard…Pharaoh is the same letters as oref (stiff-necked).  When the masses are stiff-necked, then I am heavy-tongued and there is no benefit to my speaking words of rebuke.

According to this understanding, Moshe KNOWS that if he is sent to speak to a Pharaoh (or anyone else for that matter) who is stiff-necked and set in their ways, then there is no way that Moshe’s words will be heard.  It’s as if he can’t speak at all. 

This is an accurate description of where things stand in our world today.  In the book Morality that was the subject of our book discussion this week, Rabbi Sacks describes the current political climate in his native Britain and in America in a chapter titled “The Death of Civility.”  While he fully concedes that politics, and especially elections have always been “raw, rude and raucous in their rhetoric.”  He continues:

“But something new is happening: the sense that the other side is less than fully human, that its supporters are not part of the same moral community as us, that somehow their sensibilities are alien and threatening, as if they were not the opposition within a political area, but the enemy, full stop” (216). 

He concludes chapter by pointing us to Breishit chapter 4 and the story of Cain and Abel.  As Cain rises to kill his brother, we read:

וַיֹּ֥אמֶר קַ֖יִן אֶל־הֶ֣בֶל אָחִ֑יו וַֽיְהִי֙ בִּהְיוֹתָ֣ם בַּשָּׂדֶ֔ה וַיָּ֥קָם קַ֛יִן אֶל־הֶ֥בֶל אָחִ֖יו וַיַּהַרְגֵֽהוּ׃

Cain said to his brother Abel … and when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him.

Rabbi Sacks notes that the verse cannot be translated accurately because the syntax makes no sense.  We are told that Cain said something, but are not told what he said.  Rabbi Sacks learns from this: “The text’s fractured syntax forces us in the most dramatic way to focus on the fractured relationship between Cain and his brother – and then spells out the consequence: when words fail, violence begins” (224). 

One of the most crucial takeaways from this week’s events is that our words matter.  It is certainly true that words can lead to violence and that those who incite violence bare responsibility.  It is also true that words have the power to unite and to heal.  When our words are heard and when we are able to engage in civil discourse then we can move beyond the current state of affairs.

A favorite teaching of mine comes from the Midrash Yalkut Shimoni in which the Midrash notes that Moshe was accepted by B’nei Yisrael as a legitimate representative of God when he returned to Egypt because he used the term פקד פקדתי I have surely remembered (see Ex. 3:16 and 4:31) which was a keyword of redemption that had been passed down from Yosef just before his death.  In the Midrashic account, Moshe is validated by Search bat Asher who had been entrusted with the secret code of redemption.  Avivah Zornberg explains:

The letter peh is the same as the word for mouth, the site of language; that is, the place where redemption is constructed or suffocated.  One who comes uttering these letters will, in the future, redeem, says Serach.  And in saying so, in recognizing the letters, in decoding the secret signs, she makes redemption real in the world.  The midrash subtly registers her sensibility, by using the two expressions, othot and othiot.  Of the signs, the miracles, the othot, she declares dismissively, ein bahem mamash – “there is nothing solid in them.”  Only letters, othiot, the fluid shapings of language, only they have substance. 

Our language has redemptive power when used correctly and used responsibly.  Let us daven that as a nation we are able to rediscover the capacity for civil discourse and the ability to find common ground with individuals and groups with whom we strongly disagree.  Shabbat Shalom.

Vayechi – May God Make You Like Ephraim and Menashe

This week we read Parshat Vayechi and with it conclude Sefer Breishit.  Vayechi contains the encounter between Ya’akov and Yosef’s sons, Ephraim and Menashe where Ya’akov blesses them.  The most well known detail of this encounter is that while Yosef places the children in front of Ya’akov such that Menashe, the oldest is on Ya’akov’s right side, Ya’akov crosses his hands thereby giving the bracha of the bechor to Ephraim, the younger child.  When Yosef tries to correct this mistake, Ya’akov says that it is no mistake and that he intentionally did this knowing that Ephraim would be greater than Menashe.    The scene is also familiar to us because it serves as the basis for the bracha that we traditionally give to sons on Friday night.  After Ya’akov tells Yosef that he has knowingly placed his right hand on the younger Ephraim, we read (Breishit 48:20):

וַיְבָ֨רֲכֵ֜ם בַּיּ֣וֹם הַהוּא֮ לֵאמוֹר֒ בְּךָ֗ יְבָרֵ֤ךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר יְשִֽׂמְךָ֣ אֱלֹקִ֔ים כְּאֶפְרַ֖יִם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁ֑ה וַיָּ֥שֶׂם אֶת־אֶפְרַ֖יִם לִפְנֵ֥י מְנַשֶּֽׁה׃

So he blessed them that day, saying, “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” Thus he put Ephraim before Manasseh.

Rashi on the spot notes:

הַבָּא לְבָרֵךְ אֶת בָּנָיו יְבָרְכֵם בְּבִרְכָתָם וְיֹאמַר אִישׁ לִבְנוֹ יְשִׂימְךָ אֱלֹקִים כְּאֶפְרַיִם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁה:

When one wishes to bless his sons he will bless them by reciting the formula with which they were blessed — a man will say to his son, “God make thee as Ephraim and as Manasseh.”

There are many explanations given for why Ya’akov says it will be a blessing for the Jewish people to be like Ephraim and Menashe.  I will provide a summary of a few of them below which I think are particularly relevant to us.

Many of the commentators who address this question point us earlier in the perek to verse 5.

עַתָּ֡ה שְׁנֵֽי־בָנֶיךָ֩ הַנּוֹלָדִ֨ים לְךָ֜ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֗יִם עַד־בֹּאִ֥י אֵלֶ֛יךָ מִצְרַ֖יְמָה לִי־הֵ֑ם אֶפְרַ֙יִם֙ וּמְנַשֶּׁ֔ה כִּרְאוּבֵ֥ן וְשִׁמְע֖וֹן יִֽהְיוּ־לִֽי׃

Now, your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, shall be mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine no less than Reuben and Simeon.

One camp points to the fact that Ya’akov emphasizes that Ephraim and Menashe were born (and raised) in Egypt.  As Rav Aharon Lichtenstein writes, “Efraim and Menashe were born and brought up in a foreign country, far away from Yaakov and his family.  Despite this isolation, they grew up firmly rooted in Jewish tradition.”  Ephraim and Menashe gave Ya’akov comfort that his children, grandchildren and subsequent descendant would remain Jewishly committed even when living in hostile environments.  Jewish parents bless their children to remain committed to yidishkeit just as Ephraim and Menashe.

Along similar lines, the Sforno maintains that the key reference point is verse 11:

 וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ אֶל־יוֹסֵ֔ף רְאֹ֥ה פָנֶ֖יךָ לֹ֣א פִלָּ֑לְתִּי וְהִנֵּ֨ה הֶרְאָ֥ה אֹתִ֛י אֱלֹקִ֖ים גַּ֥ם אֶת־זַרְעֶֽךָ׃

And Israel said to Joseph, “I never expected to see you again, and here God has let me see your children as well.”

Ephraim and Menashe thus embody Jewish continuity.  They also express the hope that not only will the family carry on the Jewish tradition but that like Ya’akov the grandfather, we hope to be able to witness our grandchildren living by the Jewish tradition.

Taking this approach one step further, Rabbi Baruch Gigi, one of the Rashei Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion says that Ya’akov was giving preference to the symbolism of Ephraim over that of Menashe.  The name Menashe is explained in Breishit 41:51

וַיִּקְרָ֥א יוֹסֵ֛ף אֶת־שֵׁ֥ם הַבְּכ֖וֹר מְנַשֶּׁ֑ה כִּֽי־נַשַּׁ֤נִי אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־כָּל־עֲמָלִ֔י וְאֵ֖ת כָּל־בֵּ֥ית אָבִֽי׃

Joseph named the first-born Manasseh, meaning, “God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home.”

The name carries negative associations with the the father/grandfather’s home.  It would be wholly inappropriate to prioritize this name in the blessing for subsequent generations of Jewish children.

The name Menashe, on the other hand, means (Breishit 41:52):

וְאֵ֛ת שֵׁ֥ם הַשֵּׁנִ֖י קָרָ֣א אֶפְרָ֑יִם כִּֽי־הִפְרַ֥נִי אֱלֹהִ֖ים בְּאֶ֥רֶץ עָנְיִֽי׃

And the second he named Ephraim, meaning, “God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction.”

Rav Gigi explains, “[Ephraim] expresses Yosef’s progress, the continuation of his journey, just like Yosef’s refusal in the spirit of his father’s tradition.”

A second school of thought points to a different detail from verse 5 of our chapter.  ֶפְרַ֙יִם֙ וּמְנַשֶּׁ֔ה כִּרְאוּבֵ֥ן וְשִׁמְע֖וֹן יִֽהְיוּ־לִֽי׃ – Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine no less than Reuben and Simeon.  Many of the mussar sefarmnote that typically there is a phenomenon of ירידת הדורות – a lessening of the generations by which each general is spiritually inferior to the previous one.  But this was not the case with Ephraim and Menashe – they were on equal footing with Reuven and Shimon.  According to this view, when we bless our children to be like Ephraim and Menashe we are expressing the hope that they will not experience any spiritual decline.  Perhaps included in this is the hope that one day our children will be our equals, able to teach, inspire and counsel us.

A final explanation that I’d like to bring focuses on the repeated mention that Ephraim is the younger of the two brothers.   The Chasidic Master R. Tzvi Elimelech Shapira of Dinov (1783-1841, Galicia), better known as the Bnei Ysaschar writes in his book Agra de-Kalah explains that this detail shows the greatness of  both brothers.  Ephraim, the younger remains modest and humble despite hearing repeatedly that he will be greater than his brother and that he is being given the bechora.  (Parenthetically this might be in contrast to Yosef who brags to his brothers and causes them to hate him when he shares his dreams with them).  At the same time, Menashe shows no jealousy or ill will toward his younger brother.  Ephraim and Menashe thus embody two essential character traits – humility and a lack of jealousy.  We might add to to this that they remain committed to each other and celebrate the other’s successes and accomplishments.  This shows a radical improvement from earlier generations in Sefer Breishit when brothers hated each other ultimately leading to fracture within the family.  It is certainly the hope of every parent for their children that they celebrate each other’s accomplishments and show love for each other no matter what successes or hardships life has in store for them. 

Vayigash – Zman Kriyat Shema (The Time of Shema)

Parshat Vayigash opens with Yosef revealing his true identity to his brothers.  After reconciling with them he arranges for his father and the rest of the family to come to Egypt to ride out the years of famine.  Yaakov and Yosef had been separated for 22 years.  Yaakov, of course thought that Yosef had been killed and the Torah tells us that he was not comforted over the loss of Yosef:

וַיָּקֻמוּ֩ כָל־בָּנָ֨יו וְכָל־בְּנֹתָ֜יו לְנַחֲמ֗וֹ וַיְמָאֵן֙ לְהִתְנַחֵ֔ם וַיֹּ֕אמֶר כִּֽי־אֵרֵ֧ד אֶל־בְּנִ֛י אָבֵ֖ל שְׁאֹ֑לָה וַיֵּ֥בְךְּ אֹת֖וֹ אָבִֽיו׃

All his sons and daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, saying, “No, I will go down mourning to my son in Sheol.” Thus his father bewailed him. (Breishit 37:35)

With this in mind, the Torah’s Yaakov’s reunion with Yosef is troubling.  In Breishit 46:29 we read:

 וַיֶּאְסֹ֤ר יוֹסֵף֙ מֶרְכַּבְתּ֔וֹ וַיַּ֛עַל לִקְרַֽאת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֥ל אָבִ֖יו גֹּ֑שְׁנָה וַיֵּרָ֣א אֵלָ֗יו וַיִּפֹּל֙ עַל־צַוָּארָ֔יו וַיֵּ֥בְךְּ עַל־צַוָּארָ֖יו עֽוֹד׃

(29) Joseph ordered his chariot and went to Goshen to meet his father Israel; he presented himself to him and, embracing him around the neck, he wept on his neck a good while.

Though we would expect both Yaakov and Yosef to be overcome with emotion at this moment, the verse is written in the singular voice and implies that only one of them cried and fell on the neck of the other.  It is not clear from the Torah’s description which of the two cried and fell on the neck of the other. 

The Ramban maintains that Yaakov cried over seeing Yosef for the first time in 22 years.  He offers many proofs from a general human psychological perspective as well as the particulars of our narrative why Yosef is not as emotional as Yaakov at this moment.  But I’d like to focus on Rashi’s understanding of the story.

Unlike Ramban, Rashi holds that it was Yosef who expressed emotion and shed tears during the reunion while Yaakov remained quiet and reserved.  And the reason that Rashi gives is:

אֲבָל יַעֲקֹב לֹא נָפַל עַל צַוְּארֵי יוֹסֵף וְלֹא נְשָׁקוֹ, וְאָמְרוּ רַבּוֹתֵינוּ, שֶׁהָיָה קוֹרֵא אֶת שְׁמַע:

Jacob, however, did not fall upon Joseph’s neck nor did he kiss him. Our Rabbis say: the reason was that he was reciting the Shema (renewing his allegiance to God immediately on settling in a new land).

Yaakov does not express any emotion because he was in the middle of saying Shema when Yosef arrived!

The Netziv poses the question that should be on all of our minds:

וכי לא הי׳ יכול לכוין השעה של ק״ש שלא בעת ראות פני יוסף

Couldn’t Yaakov have recited Shema at a different time?!

Some defend Yaakov’s actions by saying that Yosef came at the earliest possible time to say Shema – so that there was no earlier time that Yaakov could have recited it.  Along similar lines, there are many who not only are not bothered by Yaakov’s lack of emotions, but who praise his seemingly callous behavior by saying that a true tzadik should block out the world and all personal emotions while davening.  In this view Yaakov is the ultimate embodiment of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s Halachic Man.  Paranthetically, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein suggests that the greatness of Yaakov was not that he did not have emotions during the time of saying Shema, but that he was able to overcome his emotions and very human feelings in order to concentrate and say the Shema.  He concludes:  “This, I believe, is a truer understanding of Rashi – portraying emotion as a critical part of the human make-up, and painting the patriarchs and matriarchs as people who were at once very human in their struggles with humanity’s innate frailties, and also very great in their religious and moral development. “ (

The Maharal (Gur Aryeh on Breishit 46:29) steers us away from this understanding by asking a very simple question:  If the Torah truly wishes to teach the value of halachic observance over all else, then why wasn’t Yosef also saying Shema?  He first offers a technical, halachic solution that if one is in the middle of saying Shema they may interrupt to greet someone to whom they are obligated to show fear/awe (yirah).  As a son, Yosef must show yirah to his father and could therefore interrupt his Shema.  But the father Yaakov could not interrupt his Shema to greet Yosef.

But the Maharal continues and says that the nature of Yaakov’s kriyat Shema was fundamentally different than Yosef’s.  He writes that when Yaakov saw Yosef as a king, he immediately recognized that Hashem, the King of Kings, had protected over Yosef the entire time.  Seeing that Yosef was alive and that he had risen to prominence provoked a religious/spiritual reaction in Yaakov which was manifest by his saying Shema and recognizing God’s true sovereignty and providence in the world.  The Shema for Yaakov was not about fulfilling the halachic mandate to say a set of pesukim at a set time but was an expression of gratitude to Hashem Who had protected Yosef for the 22 years that they were separated.

Rav Yehuda Amital builds on this.  In the context of exploring the question that we discussed in this week’s Parsha shiur – did the Avot keep the Torah – he says that they did not necessarily observe every detail of the mitzvot but “they understood and appreciated the underlying messages of the mitzvot” (

The Sefat Emet has a different answer to the Maharal’s question of why Yosef was not saying Shema.  He explains that really Yosef was saying Shema, but that he and Yaakov had different ways of saying it.  Yaakov could not be interrupted with any worldly matters when davening or offering his thanks to Hashem.  But Yosef, having lived in Egypt for all these years was able to integrate his religious expression with his everyday life. 

שבחינתו הוא להתדבק בה’ אף שעושה עניני עוה”ז לא יתפרד כלל.

Yosef’s attribute was to cling to God even while engaged in matters of this world, and he was never separated.

While the Sefat Emet maintains that Yaakov was on a higher spiritual level, above nature, it seems to me that the more constructive model for us is that of Yosef.  We must be able to integrate our religious and spiritual life with the broader world and the events/experiences of our lives.  Indeed, the requirement of Shema does remains constant.  But we must use our moments of set prayer as well as spontaneous/personal prayer to recognize God’s hand in all of our life experiences. 

Miketz – Why Couldn’t the Brothers Recognize Yosef?

One of the many challenges with the ongoing pandemic and the need to wear masks is the difficulty in knowing who is behind the mask.  There have been countless times that I’ve been in a store or walking down the street and have someone say hi to me and I could not be sure who the person is.  Similarly, there have been many instances where I’ve stared at people awkwardly knowing that I know the person behind the mask but not able to place a name with an obstructed face. 

This reminds me of one of the fundamental questions in our Parsha and a rather troubling Rashi’s.  When the brothers first come to Egypt in seek of food to provide relief from the famine, we read (Breishit 42:7-8):

וַיַּ֥רְא יוֹסֵ֛ף אֶת־אֶחָ֖יו וַיַּכִּרֵ֑ם וַיִּתְנַכֵּ֨ר אֲלֵיהֶ֜ם וַיְדַבֵּ֧ר אִתָּ֣ם קָשׁ֗וֹת וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֲלֵהֶם֙ מֵאַ֣יִן בָּאתֶ֔ם וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ כְּנַ֖עַן לִשְׁבָּר־אֹֽכֶל׃ וַיַּכֵּ֥ר יוֹסֵ֖ף אֶת־אֶחָ֑יו וְהֵ֖ם לֹ֥א הִכִּרֻֽהוּ׃

When Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them; but he acted like a stranger toward them and spoke harshly to them. He asked them, “Where do you come from?” And they said, “From the land of Canaan, to procure food.”  For though Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him.

How is possible that the brothers did not recognize Yosef?  The question is even stronger when we consider the Midrashim that explain the brothers were on the lookout for Yosef since they knew he had been sold to Egypt.  How, then, did they not recognize him?!

The question is even stronger given Rashi’s comments:

ויכר יוסף וגו‘. לְפִי שֶׁהִנִּיחָם חֲתוּמֵי זָקָן:  והם לא הכרהו. שֶׁיָּצָא מֵאֶצְלָם בְּלֹא חֲתִימַת זָקָן, וְעַכְשָׁו בָּא בַחֲתִימַת זָקָן  

AND JOSEPH RECOGNISED HIS BRETHREN etc. — because, when he left them they were full-bearded
BUT THEY RECOGNISED HIM NOT — because when he left them he had no beard whereas now he had grown a beard.

The ability to recognize or not recognize each other was based on their facial hair!  To be more generous we might explain that Yosef was not fully grown/mature when he left the brothers whereas the brothers were older than Yosef and already fully grown.

This is a rather weak explanation.  Even if the brothers did not spend their nights watching old episodes of Law and Order or other crime shows with sketch artists, they should have known that Yosef would have matured in the several years since they had sold him.

So how is it possible that the brothers didn’t recognize Yosef?  The Ramban explains

עוד היה מכירם מדעתו שיבאו שם והם לא הכירוהו שלא נתנו לבם שיהיה העבד אשר מכרו לישמעאלים הוא השליט על הארץ

 He recognized them on his knowledge/belief that they would come there.  And the did recognize him – since it did not cross their mind that the servant they had sold to the Ishmaelites would be the ruler of the entire land.

In other words, Yosef was driven to see his dreams come true.  He fully expected the brothers would come to Egypt and would bow to him.  In fact, the Ramban notes that it was for this reason that Yosef did not reveal himself to his brothers when they first came to Egypt to buy food – in his dreams 11 brothers bowed to him; but only 10 came the first time.  Yosef therefore insisted that they return with Binyamin, so that all 11 brothers would bow to him thereby fulfilling his prophecy/dream.  The brothers, however may have been thinking about Yosef but they could only envision Yosef as the lowly boy they had sold so many years back.  Yosef’s role as an Egyptian minister was so far beyond what they thought was possible for him that they ignored all the clues and could not see the facts that were right in front of them.

The brothers’ inability to recognize Yosef is not because he had matured or was now able to grow a beard.  Rather it was because they could not envision Yosef as being anything other than what he was the last time they saw him.  The same, I’m afraid, is often true for us as well.  We have perceptions of the people in our lives and cannot see beyond the role we have pigeon-holed them into.

While we continue to face the challenges of not being able to recognize people behind their masks, we must do everything in our power to avoid the pitfall of the brothers – only being able to envision our family and friends as they are in the moment. 

וַיִּזְכֹּ֣ר יוֹסֵ֔ף אֵ֚ת הַחֲלֹמ֔וֹת אֲשֶׁ֥ר חָלַ֖ם לָהֶ֑ם וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֲלֵהֶם֙ מְרַגְּלִ֣ים אַתֶּ֔ם לִרְא֛וֹת אֶת־עֶרְוַ֥ת הָאָ֖רֶץ בָּאתֶֽם׃

Recalling the dreams that he had dreamed about them, Joseph said to them, “You are spies, you have come to see the land in its nakedness.”

Chanukah- 8 Crazy Nights

Rabbi Yosef Caro poses one of the classical questions that Rabbis throughout the ages have contended with when it comes to Chanukah.  There seems to be a basic mathematical problem in the way we celebrate the holiday.  We’re all familiar with the story – once the Maccabees defeated the Greeks they went to rededicate the Beit haMikdash which had been defiled.  They wanted to light the Menorah, but were only able to find one cruse of pure oil – enough to last for 1 day.  A miracle happened and the small cruse of oil lasted for 8 days, giving them enough time to produce more oil.  But if this is the case, says the Beit Yosef, then the holiday should only be celebrated for 7 days.  The first day that the oil burned was not miraculous – they started with enough oil for 1 day.  It only became a miracle on day 2.

Beit Yosef, Orach Chayim 670:1

ואיכא למידק למה קבעו ח’ ימים דכיון דשמן שבפך היה בו כדי להדליק לילה א’ נמצא שלא נעשה הנס אלא בז’ הלילות

One could ask why they established an eight day celebration at all. After all, since there was enough oil in the sealed jar to light for one night then the miracle actually was for seven nights.

He offers three answers of his own:

1 – Knowing it would take 8 days to procure more oil, the Maccabees divided the oil in the cruse into 8 equal parts, on the assumption that it is better to light the Menorah for a little while each day.  Each day the little bit of oil reserved for that day lasted the full day.  Therefore we really celebrate 8 miracles.

2—On day 1 They filled the Menorah with all the oil in the jug, but the jug remained full.  This continued for all 8 days.  So there was in fact a miracle on day 1.

3 – They put all of the oil in the Menorah on the first day and it burned throughout the day.  The next day they discovered that the Menorah was still full of oil so they lit it again.  This continued all 8 days. 

Over the years many Rabbis have offered other suggestions to the great question of the Beit Yosef.  The Pri Chadash (R. Hezekiah da Silva (1659-1698, Israel and Amsterdam) says that the Beit Yosef is correct – If the holiday of Chanukah was only about the miracle of the oil, then it would have been proper for the holiday to be 7 days.  The first day commemorates the miracle of the military victory.

Others say that the premise of our assumption is wrong.   Our understanding of the story of Chanukah is based on the  Gemara Shabbat 21b:

מַאי חֲנוּכָּה? דְּתָנוּ רַבָּנַן: בְּכ״ה בְּכִסְלֵיו יוֹמֵי דַחֲנוּכָּה תְּמָנְיָא אִינּוּן דְּלָא לְמִסְפַּד בְּהוֹן וּדְלָא לְהִתְעַנּוֹת בְּהוֹן. שֶׁכְּשֶׁנִּכְנְסוּ יְווֹנִים לַהֵיכָל טִמְּאוּ כׇּל הַשְּׁמָנִים שֶׁבַּהֵיכָל. וּכְשֶׁגָּבְרָה מַלְכוּת בֵּית חַשְׁמוֹנַאי וְנִצְּחוּם, בָּדְקוּ וְלֹא מָצְאוּ אֶלָּא פַּךְ אֶחָד שֶׁל שֶׁמֶן שֶׁהָיָה מוּנָּח בְּחוֹתָמוֹ שֶׁל כֹּהֵן גָּדוֹל, וְלֹא הָיָה בּוֹ אֶלָּא לְהַדְלִיק יוֹם אֶחָד. נַעֲשָׂה בּוֹ נֵס וְהִדְלִיקוּ מִמֶּנּוּ שְׁמוֹנָה יָמִים. לְשָׁנָה אַחֶרֶת קְבָעוּם וַעֲשָׂאוּם יָמִים טוֹבִים בְּהַלֵּל וְהוֹדָאָה.

What is Hanukkah, and why are lights kindled on Hanukkah? The Gemara answers: The Sages taught in Megillat Taanit: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev, the days of Hanukkah are eight. One may not eulogize on them and one may not fast on them. What is the reason? When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary they defiled all the oils that were in the Sanctuary by touching them. And when the Hasmonean monarchy overcame them and emerged victorious over them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil that was placed with the seal of the High Priest, undisturbed by the Greeks. And there was sufficient oil there to light the candelabrum for only one day. A miracle occurred and they lit the candelabrum from it eight days. The next year the Sages instituted those days and made them holidays with recitation of hallel and special thanksgiving in prayer and blessings.

However, some point to a different version of the story found in the שאילתות which says:

לא היה בו להדליק אפילו יום אחד

There was not enough oil to light for EVEN one day.

If this is the case, then the Beit Yosef’s entire question falls away. 

I want to share a final suggestion offered by Rabbi Dr. David Hartman, z’”l (

What strikes me as being the miraculous feature of the initial day was the community’s willingness to light the lamp in spite of the fact that its anticipated period of burning was short-lived.
The miracle of the first day was expressed in the community’s willingness to light a small cruse of oil without reasonable assurance that their efforts would be sufficient to complete the rededication of the Temple. Hanukkah celebrates the miracle expressed by those who lit the lamp and not only the miracle of the lamp’s continued burning for eight days.

Rabbi Hartman proceeds to explain that they key to Jewish spiritual survival throughout history is “our people’s strength to live without guarantees of success and to focus on how to begin a  process without knowledge of how it would end.”

Part of what we celebrate on Chanukah is the courage to venture into the unknown.

As Rabbi Tarfon teaches in Pirkei Avot (2:16):

לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה.

It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it

Vayishlach – Be Fruitful and Multiply

(This D’var Torah is based on a shiur from Rabbi Joel Finkelstein of Anshei Sphard Beth El Emeth Congregation in Memphis, TN available at

In this week’s Parsha shiur we learned of the change of names from Yakov to Yisrael that occurs in this week’s parsha.  Interestingly, Ya’akov is informed of this change twice – once from the angel immediately after the wrestling match and little while later once he returns to Eretz Canan from Hashem directly. 

There is a curious detail in the Bracha that Hashem gives Ya’akov  After telling him of the name change (Breishit 35:10) –

וַיֹּֽאמֶר־ל֥וֹ אֱלֹקִ֖ים שִׁמְךָ֣ יַעֲקֹ֑ב לֹֽא־יִקָּרֵא֩ שִׁמְךָ֨ ע֜וֹד יַעֲקֹ֗ב כִּ֤י אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ יִהְיֶ֣ה שְׁמֶ֔ךָ וַיִּקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

God said to him, “You whose name is Jacob, You shall be called Jacob no more, But Israel shall be your name.” Thus He named him Israel

We then read the following (35:11):

וַיֹּאמֶר֩ ל֨וֹ אֱלֹקִ֜ים אֲנִ֨י אֵ֤ל שַׁדַּי֙ פְּרֵ֣ה וּרְבֵ֔ה גּ֛וֹי וּקְהַ֥ל גּוֹיִ֖ם יִהְיֶ֣ה מִמֶּ֑ךָּ וּמְלָכִ֖ים מֵחֲלָצֶ֥יךָ יֵצֵֽאוּ׃

And God said to him, “I am El Shaddai. Be fertile and increase; A nation, yea an assembly of nations, Shall descend from you. Kings shall issue from your loins.

What is the meaning of the bracha given to Ya’akov at this point? There is a machloket in the Talmud over how many children a person must have in order to fulfill the mitzvah of פרו ורבו.  At this point Ya’akov is certainly יוצא לפי כל הדעות – he has met all opinions.  He has 11 sons and one daughter.  Add to this that Rashi adds that Rachel was pregnant with Binyamin at this point.  Ya’akov may have many needs, but presumably children is not one of them.

And even if the Pasuk is meant to be a mitzvah, the Torah has already given the directive on two other occasions. 

Of course there is the instruction given to Adam and Chava in Gan Eden during the story of creation (Breishit 1:28):

וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֹתָם֮ אֱלֹקִים֒ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר לָהֶ֜ם אֱלֹקִ֗ים פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁ֑הָ וּרְד֞וּ בִּדְגַ֤ת הַיָּם֙ וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וּבְכָל־חַיָּ֖ה הָֽרֹמֶ֥שֶׂת עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.”

And after the flood, Hashem tells Noach (9:1):

(א) וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֱלֹקִ֔ים אֶת־נֹ֖חַ וְאֶת־בָּנָ֑יו וַיֹּ֧אמֶר לָהֶ֛ם פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֖וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fertile and increase, and fill the earth.

Interestingly, the Gemara in Yevamot 65b cites our pasuk as the source that only men are obligated in the Mitzvah of פרו ורבו as Hashem addresses Ya’akov in the singular.  And indeed there are those who explain that the first two instances are general directives to humanity but only with the instruction to Ya’akov does the act of procreation become a bonafide  mitzvah.

The contemporary Da’at Mikra commentary explains that Hashem’s instruction to Ya’akov was not a commandment but a bracha that Ya’akov merited not only to father many children but he merited to see grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Another explanation of the significance of Hashem’s telling Ya’akov to procreate at this point in his life comes from the Gemara in Yevamot 62b:

רבי יהושע אומר נשא אדם אשה בילדותו ישא אשה בזקנותו היו לו בנים בילדותו יהיו לו בנים בזקנותו שנא’ (קהלת יא, ו) בבקר זרע את זרעך ולערב אל תנח ידך כי אינך יודע אי זה יכשר הזה או זה ואם שניהם כאחד טובים

Rabbi Yehoshua says: If a man married a woman in his youth, and she passed away, he should marry another woman in his old age. If he had children in his youth, he should have more children in his old age, as it is stated: “In the morning sow your seed, and in the evening do not withhold your hand; for you do not know which shall prosper, whether this or that, or whether they both alike shall be good” (Ecclesiastes 11:6).

The Gemara proceeds to apply the same lesson to one’s students by telling us of Rabbi Akiva who had trained 12,000 pairs of students who all died. Rabbi Akiva persisted and taught a new cadre of five students who were able to uphold Torah.

One message of this Gemara is that we cannot take anything for granted.  Applying this to our Parsha,  Hashem is telling Ya’akov that even though he has a large family, he should not take them for granted.

Another ramification of this Gemara is that it points our attention not only to the biological act of having children but to the character of the children.  As Rabbi Yehoshua asserts, one should have many children since

כי אינך יודע אי זה יכשר הזה או זה ואם שניהם כאחד טובים

for you do not know which will be worthy (kosher) , whether this or that, or whether they both alike shall be good

Rashi elaborates:

אי זה יכשר – איזה זרע יהא הגון וירא שמים ומתקיים:

Which child will be deserving and fear heaven.

In other words, it is not enough to have children.  We must ensure that our children are good, God-fearing people.

Perhaps Hashem tells Ya’akov this message as he returns to Israel because it is precisely at this time that Yakov may let down his guard.  After all, he has survived 22 years in Lavan’s home, he has reconciled with Esav and in his famous wrestling match he confronted his own vices and prevailed.  Hashem is telling him that he must not think that his work is done.  Ya’akov must continue with the same vigilance that allowed him to survive and thrive in Lavan’s home if he wants to realize the bracha and the imperative of פריה ורביה of not just having children, but raising children.

A final explanation of the significance of Hashem’s instruction/bracha to Ya’akov harkens back to the first time we find this directive in the Torah.  Hashem tells Adam and Chava:

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר לָהֶ֜ם אֱלֹקִ֗ים פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁ֑הָ

Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it;

Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that the significance of וכבשוה is that humans have a religious obligation to study, understand and ultimately show dominion over the natural world by developing technology and deepening our understanding of the world.  Perhaps, then, Hashem’s instruction to Yakov is that he must remain productive and engaged with the world.  His responsibility is not simply to populate the world, but having built a family he must continue to be a productive and contributing member of society.

Vayetze – Pillow of Stone(s)

Parshat Vayetze opens with Yakov on the run from his brother Esav.  While fleeing he finds a spot to sleep for the night during which he has his famous dream with the ladder planted on the ground and its top extending to the sky on which angels of God were ascending and descending.

The Talmud (Chulin 91b; quoted by Rashi) picks up on a curious detail.  As Yakov lies down to sleep the Torah records (Breishit 28:11):

וַיִּקַּח֙ מֵאַבְנֵ֣י הַמָּק֔וֹם וַיָּ֖שֶׂם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֑יו וַיִּשְׁכַּ֖ב בַּמָּק֥וֹם הַהֽוּא׃

He took some stones of the place and he lay down in the that place.

When he awakes from his dream we read (28:18):

וַיַּשְׁכֵּ֨ם יַעֲקֹ֜ב בַּבֹּ֗קֶר וַיִּקַּ֤ח אֶת־הָאֶ֙בֶן֙ אֲשֶׁר־שָׂ֣ם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֔יו וַיָּ֥שֶׂם אֹתָ֖הּ מַצֵּבָ֑ה וַיִּצֹ֥ק שֶׁ֖מֶן עַל־רֹאשָֽׁהּ׃

Early in the morning, Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on the top of it.

Rabbi Yitzchak observes that in the first instance Yakov took MANY stones but in the morning he takes only one stone.  This transformation from many stones to one is of great significance.  In Rashi’s summation of the Gemara he writes:

הִתְחִילוּ מְרִיבוֹת זוֹ אֶת זוֹ, זֹאת אוֹמֶרֶת עָלַי יָנִיחַ צַדִּיק אֶת רֹאשׁוֹ וְזֹאת אוֹמֶרֶת עָלַי יָנִיחַ; מִיָּד עֲשָׂאָן הַקָּבָּ”ה אֶבֶן אַחַת, וְזֶהוּ שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר וַיִּקַּח אֶת הָאֶבֶן אֲשֶׁר שָׂם מְרַאֲשֹׁתָיו:

They (the stones) began quarrelling with one another. One said, “Upon me let this righteous man rest his head”, and another said “Upon me let him rest it”. Whereupon the Holy One, blessed be He, straightway made them into one stone! This explains what is written (Genesis 28:18), “And he took the stone that he had put under his head” (Chullin 91b).

What is Rabbi Yitzchak trying to teach us?  What is the meaning of the stones fighting for Yakov to rest his weary head on them and why does Hashem intervene in this debate?

The answer is found in the great mussar book, Mesilat Yesharim, written by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato better known by the acronym Ramchal (1707-1746; Pauda, Italy, Amsterdam and Israel).  In the opening chapter he writes

(יא) ואם תעמיק עוד בענין תראה כי העולם נברא לשימוש האדם. אמנם הנה הוא עומד בשיקול גדול. כי אם האדם נמשך אחר העולם ומתרחק מבוראו, הנה הוא מתקלקל, ומקלקל העולם עמו. ואם הוא שולט בעצמו ונדבק בבוראו ומשתמש מן העולם רק להיות לו לסיוע לעבודת בוראו, הוא מתעלה והעולם עצמו מתעלה עמו. כי הנה עילוי גדול הוא לבריות כולם בהיותם משמשי האדם השלם המקודש בקדושתו יתברך

(11) If you look deeper into the matter, you will see that this world was created for man’s use. But, behold man stands on a great balance. For if he is drawn after the world and distances from his Creator, behold, he corrupts himself and corrupts the world with him. But if he rules over himself and clings to his Creator, and uses the world only as an aid to serve his Creator – then he elevates himself and elevates the world with him. For all creations are greatly elevated when they serve the “Adam HaShalem” (whole/perfect man) who is sanctified with the holiness of the blessed G-d.

He writes similarly in the final chapter:

כללו של דבר ענין הקדושה הוא שיהיה האדם דבק כל כך באלקיו, עד שבשום מעשה אשר יעשה לא יפרד ולא יזוז ממנו יתברך, עד שיותר יתעלו הדברים הגשמיים אשר ישמשו לאחד מתשמישיו במה שהוא משתמש בהם,

The general principle of the matter: Holiness consists of one’s clinging so much to his G-d that for any action he does, he will not separate nor budge from G-d, blessed be He, so that the physical things he uses will attain greater elevation than that which he diminishes in his clinging and level due to his using physical things.

In other words, when a person attains a level of kedushah s/he is able to elevate the physical world around them.  Each stone insisted that Yakov the tzadik rest his head on them so that they would be elevated through Yakov’s clinging to God.

The Maharal of Prague puts the same idea in slightly different terms (Gur Aryeh on Breishit 28:11).  He explains that division and separation between objects is a purely physical phenomenon.  In reality the entire world is one and united.  This unity requires proper spiritual focus and intensity.  The stones squabbled because they wanted to be the expression of the true unity that exists in the world.

This idea, that the spiritual focus and intensity can impact the physical world explains another curious detail in Yakov’s dream.   Recall the description of the angels on the ladder (Breisht 28:12):

וַֽיַּחֲלֹ֗ם וְהִנֵּ֤ה סֻלָּם֙ מֻצָּ֣ב אַ֔רְצָה וְרֹאשׁ֖וֹ מַגִּ֣יעַ הַשָּׁמָ֑יְמָה וְהִנֵּה֙ מַלְאֲכֵ֣י אֱלֹקִ֔ים עֹלִ֥ים וְיֹרְדִ֖ים בּֽוֹ׃

He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it.

The question is posed by Rashi and many commentators who come after him:

עולים וירדים. עוֹלִים תְּחִלָּה וְאַחַר כָּךְ יוֹרְדִים?

It states first ascending and afterwards descending!

Angels live in heaven.  So it does not make sense that they should be first ascending the ladder and then descending.  The logical order would be for them to first descend and then ascend.

Rashi explains that the angels in the dream are Yakov’s guardian angels.  The angels who had been with him in Israel were not permitted to leave the Land.  So with their mission completed they were ascending back to Heaven.  A new set of guardian angels who would protect Yakov in the diaspora were descending to pick up where the previous angels had left off.

But R. Chaim Volozhin in Nefesh ha-Chaim I:19 gives a different understanding.  He writes that man’s primary role is to elevate the world from lower levels of kedusha to higher levels.  Only after there has been an “Awakening from below” (אתערותא דלתתא) does Hashem meet us with an “awakening from above אתערותא דלעילא, in which Divine energy is drawn from higher to lower.

Yakov’s dream thus becomes a blueprint for our spiritual lives.  As Rabbi Shmuel Phillips explains ( Judaism Reclaimed Ch. 13 “Yaakov’s Ladder  and the Ascent to Nationhood” p. 118):

“The clear message emerging from both  the dream and the quarreling stones is that spiritual forces generated by good conduct can control and manipulate objects and events in the physical world.”

Our spiritual lives have the power to influence the world around us – for the good and for the bad.  If this is true when it comes to stones and the world of nature, how much more so when it comes to our human relationships.  The way the we live our lives and has the power to influence those around us.  May we follow the example of Yakov Avinu and be forces for good in the world.

Toldot – The Tent Dweller

Good Shabbos.  This morning I want to share an amazing idea from Rav Yerucham Levovitz (1873 -1936) who was the Mashgiach of the Mir Yeshiva in Belarus before the war.  I am indebted to Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of the Boca Raton Synagogue whose shiur on YUTORAH ( was instrumental in helping me to formulate this idea.  Rav Yerucham’s insight is highly relevant to us today.

Rav Yerucham focuses on one pasuk to help us understand the essential different between Yakov and Esav.  We know that Yitzchak favors Esav while Rivka favors Yaakov.

The basis for this is found in Breishit 25:27 –

(כז) וַֽיִּגְדְּלוּ֙ הַנְּעָרִ֔ים וַיְהִ֣י עֵשָׂ֗ו אִ֛ישׁ יֹדֵ֥עַ צַ֖יִד אִ֣ישׁ שָׂדֶ֑ה וְיַעֲקֹב֙ אִ֣ישׁ תָּ֔ם יֹשֵׁ֖ב אֹהָלִֽים׃ (כח) וַיֶּאֱהַ֥ב יִצְחָ֛ק אֶת־עֵשָׂ֖ו כִּי־צַ֣יִד בְּפִ֑יו וְרִבְקָ֖ה אֹהֶ֥בֶת אֶֽת־יַעֲקֹֽב׃

When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob was a mild man who stayed in camp. (28) Isaac favored Esau because he had a taste for game; but Rebekah favored Jacob.

The Targum Onkelos translates the phrase איש ציד as גְּבַר נַחְשִׁירְכָן  which does mean a hunter but also connotes shrewdness.  Esav was a shrewd man.  The Ibn Ezra observes that is essential to his chosen profession as a hunter:

יודע ציד. לעולם מלא מרמות כי רוב החיות בדרך מרמה יתפשו

[Esau] was always full of deception, for most wild animals are caught by use of deception.

It is not only as a hunter of animals but also in his human interactions.  Rashi comments on the phrase

ידע ציד. לָצוּד וּלְרַמּוֹת אֶת אָבִיו בְּפִיו וְשׁוֹאֲלוֹ אַבָּא, הַאֵיךְ מְעַשְּׂרִין אֶת הַמֶּלַח וְאֶת הַתֶּבֶן? כַּסָּבוּר אָבִיו שֶׁהוּא מְדַקְדֵּק בְּמִצְוֹת (תנחומא):

A CUNNING HUNTER literally, understanding hunting — understanding how to entrap and deceive his father with his mouth. He would ask him, “Father how should salt and straw be tithed”? (Genesis Rabbah 63:10) (although he knew full well that these are not subject to the law of tithe). Consequently his father believed him to be very punctilious in observing the divine ordinances.

Rabbi Levovitz builds on this and explains that Esav’s hunting with words means that he wanted to influence everyone to be just like him.  He was manipulative and imposing and left no room for other points of view.  Esav could not tolerate anyone with a different point of view.  He would not stand for someone cheering for a different team or voting for a different candidate.

Contrast this with Yaakov.  Yaakov is described as איש תם יושב אהלים – a mild man who dwelled in tents.

There are some commentators who say, like Esav, this description indicates Yakov’s profession. The Rashbam, for example explains

יושב אהלים – רועה צאן אביו. כמו שפירשתי: איש יושב אהל ומקנה.

tending his father’s flocks as we explained already in connection with 4,20 יושב אהל ומקנה.

He points to the Torah’s description of Yuval in Breishit 19-20

יט) וַיִּֽקַּֽח־ל֥וֹ לֶ֖מֶךְ שְׁתֵּ֣י נָשִׁ֑ים שֵׁ֤ם הָֽאַחַת֙ עָדָ֔ה וְשֵׁ֥ם הַשֵּׁנִ֖ית צִלָּֽה׃ (כ) וַתֵּ֥לֶד עָדָ֖ה אֶת־יָבָ֑ל ה֣וּא הָיָ֔ה אֲבִ֕י יֹשֵׁ֥ב אֹ֖הֶל וּמִקְנֶֽה׃

Lamech took to himself two wives: the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other was Zillah. (20) Adah bore Jabal; he was the ancestor of those who dwell in tents and amidst herds.

Rashi, quoting the Midrash Rabbah points us in a different direction. 

ה) ישב אהלים. אָהֳלוֹ שֶׁל שֵׁם וְאָהֳלוֹ שֶׁל עֵבֶר:

DWELLING IN TENTS — the tent of Shem and the tent of Eber (Genesis Rabbah 63:10).

The key phrase is key phrase is אהלים, in the plural. 

As the Midrash Tanchuma elaborates (Tanchuma Buber, Vayishlach 9:1):

אין לך אדם שהיה יגע בתורה כאבינו יעקב, כד”א ויעקב איש תם יושב אהלים (בראשית כה כז), אין כתיב כאן יושב אהל, אלא יושב אהלים, יוצא מבית מדרשו של שם, והולך לבית מדרשו של עבר, ומבית מדרשו של עבר, לבית מדרשו של אברהם,

There is no one who would labor at the Torah as our ancestor Jacob < did >. It is just as you say (in Gen. 25:27): BUT JACOB WAS A PERFECT MAN DWELLING IN TENTS. “Dwelling in a tent” is not written here but DWELLING IN TENTS. He would go out from the academy (bet midrash) of Shem and enter the academy of Eber. Then < he would go > from the academy of Eber to the academy of Abraham.

Or, as the  Radak puts it:

ואמר אהלים, לשון רבים, כי היה לומד עם כל חכם שהיה מוצא עם זה ועם זה, כי כל חפצו היה בזה, והיה תם מבלי שום מרמה ועול:

the reason why the Torah wrote this word in the plural mode is because Yaakov studied with any wise man he came across. He was indiscriminating in this regard, being totally devoid of deceit or evil, wanting only to amass knowledge.

With this understanding, we see that Yakov is the opposite of Esav.  Whereas Esav could not tolerate anyone acting or thinking differently than he, Yakov sought out multiple perspectives and opinions.  He exposed himself to different ideas.  Yakov thus embodies the teaching of R. Yannai in the Gemara Avoda Zarah 19a:

כל הלומד תורה מרב אחד אינו רואה סימן ברכה לעולם

anyone who learns Torah from one teacher alone never sees a sign of blessing,

The message for us is clear.  We are still living in the shadows of the recent elections and the extreme partisanship that has overcome the country.  We are in real danger of living like Esav – intolerant of anyone who disagrees with us and unwilling to listen to contrasting views.  We desperately need to follow the path of Yakov who was יושב אהלים – dwelt in many tents and welcomed multiple perspectives and opinions.