Watch: - - in English - - עברית - - на Русском - - на Бухарском - - en Español - - en Français - - in Farsi - - на Джуури - - in Yiddish - -

Latest Articles

  • The Lonely Moment

    by Rabbi YY Jacobson

    Indian Weather Prediction

    It was autumn, and the Indians on the remote reservation asked their new chief if the winter was going to be cold or mild.

    Since he was an Indian Chief in a modern society, he had never been taught the old secrets, and when he looked at the sky, he couldn't tell what the weather was going to be. Nevertheless, to be on the safe side, he replied to his tribe that the winter was indeed going to be cold and that the members of the village should collect wood to be prepared.

    But also being a practical leader, after several days he had an idea. He went to the phone booth, called the National Weather Service and asked, "Is the coming winter going to be cold?"

    "It looks like this winter is going to be quite cold indeed," the meteorologist at the weather service responded. So the Chief went back to his people and told them to collect even more wood in order to be prepared.

    A week later, he called the National Weather Service again. "Is it going to be a very cold winter?"

    "Yes," the man at National Weather Service again replied, "it's definitely going to be a very cold winter." The Chief again went back to his people and ordered them to collect every scrap of wood they could find.

    Two weeks later, he called the National Weather Service again. "Are you absolutely sure that the winter is going to be very cold?"

    "Absolutely," the man replied. "It's going to be one of the coldest winters ever."

    "How can you be so sure?" the Chief asked. The weatherman replied,

    "The Indians are collecting wood like crazy."

    Joseph's Drama

    This week's portion (Vayeishev) tells the dramatic story of Joseph, an extremely handsome young man, attracting the lustful imagination of his master's wife. She desperately tries to engage him in a relationship, yet he steadfastly refuses her.

    Then came the fateful day, "When he entered the house to do his work and none of the household staff was inside. She grabbed him by his cloak and pleaded 'lie with me.' He ran away from her, leaving his cloak in her hand, and he fled outside [1]."

    Humiliated and furious, she used the cloak as evidence that it was he who attempted to violate her. Her husband, Potiphar, had Joseph imprisoned, where he spent the next 12 years of his life until, through an astonishing turn of events, he was appointed Prime Minister of Egypt.

    What’s the Point?

    Why is this episode recorded in detail in the Torah? The Torah is not a book of history and biography in the literal sense. It emits most of the events of its protagonists, beside those that are essential to convey a specific lessons to the reader. Even when it tells a story, it emits any details not relevant to the theme. (Abraham got involved in a war between nine kings. What exactly caused the five kings to rebel against the four and trigger a world-war? The Torah does not tell us. What did Isaac tell Rebecca when he discovered that Jacob took the blessings? What did Jacob tell Leah when he discovered she deceived him? The Torah does not tell us).

    The objective of these portions is to relate how the Jewish family ended up in Egypt. Thus, we read about Joseph's sale as a slave to Egypt, his prison sentence and his encounter there with the king's ministers. This ultimately leads to his release from prison and designation as viceroy of the country in a critical time of famine, which, in turn, causes his father and entire family to relocate to Egypt, resulting in the Egyptian exile, which would then lead to Exodus and Sinai.

    Why did the Torah find it necessary to relate the story of Joseph's struggle with his master's wife? Why is it important for us to know the detailed episode that caused his imprisonment?

    The Face of Jacob

    The Midrash [2] explains the meaning of the phrase that Joseph "entered the house do to his work and none of the household staff was inside." What type of work did Joseph come to do?

    The Midrash says that the "work" Joseph came to do was to yield to the advances of his master's wife. After all of her unceasing pleas, Joseph at last succumbed. However, as the union between them was about to materialize, the visage of his father, Jacob, suddenly appeared to him. This caused Joseph to reject the powerful urge. He left his garment in her hand and he fled outside.

    What was it about Jacob's visage that inspired Joseph to deny the temptation [3]?

    The Lonely Slave

    Let us reflect more closely on the psychological and physical condition of Joseph during that day when his master's wife almost lured him into a relationship.

    Joseph was a 17-year-old slave in a foreign country. He did not even own his body—his master exercised full control over his life, as was the fate of all ancient and modern slaves. Joseph had not a single friend or relative in the world. His mother died when he was nine years old, and his father thought he was dead. His siblings were the ones who sold him into slavery and robbed him of his youth and liberty. One could only imagine the profound sense of loneliness that must have pervaded the heart of this lad.

    This is the context in which we need to understand Joseph's struggle. A person in such isolation is naturally overtaken by extremely powerful temptations, and is also likely to feel that a single action of his makes little difference in the ultimate scheme of things.

    After all, what was at stake if Joseph succumbed to this woman's demands? Nobody was ever likely to find out what had occurred between the two. Joseph would not need to return home in the evening to face a dedicated spouse or a spiritual father, nor would he have to go back to a family or a community of moral standing. This act would not harm his prospects on getting a good sheduch (marriage partner), nor would it get him thrown out of his yeshiva… He would remain alone after the event, just as he was alone before it. So what's the big deal to engage in a snapshot relationship?

    In addition we must take into consideration the power possessed by this Egyptian noblewoman who was inciting Joseph. She was in the position of being able to turn Joseph's life into a paradise or a living hell. In fact, she did the latter, having him incarcerated for in an Egyptian dungeon on the false charges that he attempted to violate her. If it was up to her, he would have remained there for life.

    The Talmud [4] indeed described the techniques the woman used in order to persuade Joseph. "Each and every day," the Talmud says, "the wife of Potiphar would attempt to seduce him with words. Cloth she wore for him in the morning she would not wear for him in the evening. Cloth she wore for him in the evening she would not wear for him in the morning. She said to him, 'Surrender yourself to me.' He answered her 'No.' She threatened him, 'I shall confine you in prison...I shall bend your proud stature...I will blind your eyes,'" but Joseph refused her. She than gave him a huge sum of money, but he did not budge.

    What is more, this story took place before the giving of the Torah, when adultery became forbidden for Jews even at the threat of death. One may argue that in light of the death threats presented to Joseph by his master’s wife, it would have been halachically permissible, perhaps even obligatory, for him to engage in the union [5]!

    What, then, was the secret behind Joseph's moral rectitude? What empowered a lonely and frail slave to reject such an awesome temptation?

    "The visage of his father Jacob"! That is what gave Joseph the extraordinary fortitude to smack his impulse in the face and to emphatically dismiss the noblewoman's lure.

    But why? Jacob was living many miles away, unaware even of the fact that his son was alive. What was the magic that lay in his physiognomy?

    Adam's Moment

    The Talmud presents a tradition that the beauty of Jacob reflected the beauty of Adam, the first human being formed by the Almighty Himself [6]. Therefore, when Joseph saw the visage of Jacob, he was seeing the visage of Adam as well.

    Adam, we know, was instructed by G-d not to eat from the fruit of "the tree of knowledge." His disobeying of this directive altered the course of human and world history forever [7]. Though he did something apparently insignificant, merely eating a single fruit from a single tree, this minuscule act still vibrates through the consciousness of humanity to this very day.

    Why? Because every single human being is part of the knot in which heaven and earth are interlaced. G-d's dream was not to be alone but to have mankind as a partner in the continuous task of healing the world. By whatever we do, we either advance or obstruct the drama of redemption; we either reduce or enhance the power of evil. Something eternal and Divine is at stake in every decision, every word, every deed performed by every single man, woman or child [8].

    When Joseph saw the visage of (Jacob which reflected the visage of) Adam, he reclaimed an inner unshakable dignity; he remembered that he was a candle of G-d lit on the cosmic way. Seeing the visage of Adam reminded Joseph how a single act, performed at a single moment by a single man, changed history forever.

    This is the reason for the Torah's recording of the Joseph drama. During our lonely moments of misery, when we, too, may feel that nobody cares for us and we are alone in a large indifferent universe, we ought never fall prey to the easy outlet of immoral gratification. We must remember that something very real and absolute is at stake at every moment of our existence and in every act we do.

    You may view your individual actions in the privacy of your bedroom as insignificant. Yet in the biblical imagination, these decisions create history, not unlike the Indian chief’s hesitant predictions which defined the truth for the National Weather Service.

    If you only open your eyes, you will see the visage of your father whispering to you through the silent winds of history that you are not an isolated creature in a titanic world whose behavior is inconsequential. At this very moment, G-d needs you and me to bring redemption to His world. [9]


    [1] Genesis 39:11-12.

    [2] Bereishis Rabah 87:7. Tanchumah 8-9. Zohar Vayechi 222a. This is also the opinions of one of the Talmudic sages, in Talmud Soteh 36b, quoted in Rashi to Genesis ibid.
    [3] The Talmud in Soteh ibid. relates that Jacob warned Joseph that if he consorted with her, his name would not appear with those of his brothers on the breastplate of the High Priest. That is what led Joseph to resist her importunities. But from the Midrash and Zohar cited in previous footnote it appears that it was Jacob's visage per se that inspired Joseph to abstain.
    Even from the wording of the Talmud it seems that it was not only Jacob's warning but also the very appearance of his countenance that caused Joseph to reject his master's wife. Here one must wonder what was the power of Jacob's visage?
    [4] Yuma 36a.
    [5] See Benei Yissachar Maamarei Nissan; Pardas Yosef to Parshas Vayeishev; Sichos Kodeash Yud Tes Kislev 5721.
    [6] Bava Metzia 84a; Bava Basra 58a. Cf. Tanya Igeres Hakodesh chapter 7.
    [7] See Genesis 3:16-24. Talmud Eiruvin 100b. Likkutei Torah of the Arizal Parshas Bereishis. The writings of Kabbalah and Chassidism are actually full with this theme of how Adam and Eve's partaking of the forbidden fruit altered human history for eternity.
    [8] See Sanhedrin 37a. Tanya chapter 41. This, too, is a theme that pervades the teachings of Jewish mysticism.
    [9] This essay is based on an address by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, given on the 19th of Kislev, 5721, December 8, 1960. Published in Sichos Kodesh Yud Tes Kislev 5721.

     




    Read more
  • Why Did The Brothers Hate Joseph?

    by Shmuel Katanov

    In the story of Joseph and the brothers, there's one incident that sticks out and makes this whole story look very puzzling. Let's delve into it and try to understand it.

    As you already know, there are was a tension between Joseph and older brothers, one against the many. Some commentators say it was jealousy, some say simply hatred, but let's look at it in more details.

    "And Joseph went after his brothers, and found them in Dotan" says in Midrash Tanchuma, Parashat Vayeshev 13:6 (Gen. 37:17-18). Joseph was coming towards his brothers per his father's request. As he was approaching, the brothers saw him from afar and said to each other, here's the dreamer coming, and they started thinking up plans of how to get rid of him. Some suggested to kill him to solve this problem once and for all. The older brother Reuven suggested to throw him in the pit. He said why kill your own blood, your own brother, when we can accomplish the same by throwing him into the empty pit. In Masechet Shabbat 22A says: "Pit empty from water but full of snakes and scorpions". Everyone liked this idea, only Reuven thought to himself that he will come later to rescue him.

    When Joseph came close to his brothers, they pulled off his fancy coat - the one his father gave him, the extra one - Rashi (Parashat Bereshit 37:24), and threw him into the pit. As they sat down to eat, they saw a caravan passing by, so out came another brilliant idea to sell their small brother to Arab merchants, to be taken to a distant land (Bereshit 37:27). And so they did. As much as Joseph pleaded with them, they were determined on their plan and have not turned from their way, and slowly the caravan left from their eyesight.

    After when the brothers left the scene, Reuven came over to rescue Joseph, but to his astonishment, Joseph was gone. Reuven tore his clothing in grief, but it was too late - Joseph was nowhere to be found. Rashi (Bereshit Rabbah 84:19).

    Where was Reuven? Wasn't he the one who gave an idea to throw Joseph into the pit?! Why didn't he stay to make sure his suggestion was carried out? Why did he leave the scene? In Midrash Tanchuma, Vayeshev 13:9 (Gen. 37:22:) says: "If Reuven had known that the Holy One would write this verse about him (about his suggestion and his intention of coming back for Joseph later), he would have placed Joseph on his shoulders and brought him unto his father."

    One of the answers Rashi gives in (Bereshit Rabbah 84:19), he says that Reuven was doing a teshuvah, for the incident that took place after the death of Rachel. What he did was that he moved the Jacob's bed from one tent to another. But hold on a second, that incident happened 10 years ago. Why was he doing the teshuvah now after 10 years?

    When Rachel Imeynu died, Reuven thought to himself and said that the right place for the bed to be is in his mother's tent, Leah. Without consulting with his father whether he wants this to be done or not, he has moved the bed by himself. What he did was - he has challenged the authority of his father Jacob - by moving the bed and doing it out of his own thinking, calculations and conclusions. As a result, of this, the punishment which Reuven suffered was threefold -- he lost the birthright, the priesthood and the kingship.

    And now 10 years later Reuven looks at Joseph and his brothers, and asked himself – why are the brothers treat Joseph this way? Okay granted, he may have said lashon hora or slander, he may have behaved differently then you, but he is their small brother and may have been too young to make the right decisions, they should have given him the benefit of the doubt. And if Joseph is doing something wrong, let the brothers go and ask their father Jacob to get involved, so he can let the brothers know how they should behave in this situation. Maybe Jacob will admonish Joseph, or maybe he will let them know how to behave towards Joseph so this issue should not escalate into something out of proportions - as they say: "nip it at the bud" under their father's supervision. Which would make things correct and no one would of get hurt and no ill feelings would of been around.

    But something else was happening, the brothers were following in Reuven's footsteps, he is witnessing the consequences of his own action - he sees how his brothers treat Joseph, thinking they can get away with it, which is a direct result of his action. They are making the same mistake he did 10 years before. Reuven subconsciously has taught them to act out of their own conclusions without consulting with their father or some other authority.

    How about us?

    Do we jump to conclusions and act out on our fears and anxieties, without thinking of the consequences the other party may have? Do we feed someone non-kosher food and he ends up liking it, and maybe later gets a job in non-kosher place and marries a non Jew. Have we introduced someone to try something they should of not and they have liked it and their life is not the same anymore.Have we mistreated someone in a synagogue, at work or someone we may have known while wearing a kippah and looking very or somewhat religious, and that person left the religion with a bad feeling toward the religious people, what will happen to all the generations that will come from him after this?

    Think of your actions before you act, and most importantly think of the consequences of your actions.

    Every Yom Kippur when we finish the Shmoneh Esreh of Shacharit and before starting the chazarah, in Sefardi sidurim there's a song, which goes like this: "Hashem Shamati Shim'akha Yareti Hashem." 

    It finishes off the song with these lines: "Hashem, sifrey chaim umetim lefonecha niftachim..." -- translation: "Hashem the Book of Living and the Book of Dead are open before You?" (Habakkuk 3:2)

    I understand why Hashem would open the Book of Living, as it says in the in Masechet Rosh Hashanah 16b: "Rabbi Kruspedai said that Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah before the Holy One, Blessed be He: One of wholly wicked people, and one of wholly righteous people, and one of middling people whose good and bad deeds are equally balanced. Wholly righteous people are immediately written and sealed for life; wholly wicked people are immediately written and sealed for death; and middling people are left with their judgment suspended from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur, their fate remaining undecided. If they merit, through the good deeds and mitzvot that they perform during this period, they are written for life; if they do not so merit, they are written for death."

    Besides writing the new people in the Book of Dead, Hashem judges those people that already passed away long time ago... why? Aren't the dead are gone and everything is forgotten?

    No matter how many years passed from whatever incident you might of had, be it money, slander or something else. If the consequences of your actions, after many years still effect the people involved (see the Book of Chofetz Chaim - a story with a pillow), even generations later – you still get punished no matter where you are and what state you are in - dead or alive. It's just while you alive you still have an ability and a chance to repent and fix whatever the situation you have caused.

    Understanding the magnitude of the situation and the consequences it has caused, Reuven was doing teshuvah 10 years after the incident – feeling his direct involvement on the treatment of Joseph and on all that came out of it.

    Shabbat Shalom,

    Shmuel Katanov

    Read more
  • God and Strangers

    Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

    God appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men were standing over against him; and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent entrance, and bowed down to the earth… (Genesis 18:1–2)         

    Thus Parshat Vayera opens with one of the most famous scenes in the Bible: Abraham’s meeting with the three enigmatic strangers. The text calls them men. We later discover that they were in fact angels, each with a specific mission.

    The chapter at first glance seems simple, almost fable-like. It is, however, complex and ambiguous. It consists of three sections:

    • Verse 1: God appears to Abraham.
    • Verses 2–16: Abraham meets the men/angels.
    • Verses 17–33: The dialogue between God and Abraham about the fate of Sodom.

    The relationship between these sections is far from clear. Do they represent one scene, two or three?

    The most obvious possibility is three. Each of the above sections is a separate event. First, God appears to Abraham, as Rashi explains, “to visit the sick”[1] after Abraham’s circumcision. Then the visitors arrive with the news that Sarah will have a child. Then takes place the great dialogue about justice and the imminent punishment of the people of Sodom.

    Maimonides suggests that there are only two scenes: The visit of the angels, and the dialogue with God. The first verse does not describe an event at all; it is, rather, a chapter heading.[2] It tells us that the events that follow are all part of a prophetic revelation, a divine- human encounter.

    The third possibility is that we have a single continuous scene. God appears to Abraham, but before He can speak, Abraham sees the passers-by and asks God to wait while he serves them food. Only when they have departed – in verse 17 – does he turn to God, and the conversation begins.

    The interpretation of the chapter affects – and hinges upon – the way we translate the word Adonai in Abraham’s appeal: “Please Adonai, if now I have found favour in your sight, do not pass by, I pray you, from your servant” (18:3). Adonai can be a reference to one of the names of God. It can also be read as “my lords” or “sirs.” In the first case, Abraham would be addressing God. In the second, he would be speaking to the passers-by.

    The same linguistic ambiguity appears in the next chapter (19:2), when two of Abraham’s visitors – now described as angels – visit Lot in Sodom:

    And the two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot sat by the city gates. When he saw them, he rose to meet them and bowing low, he said, “I pray you now, adonai, turn aside to your servant’s house and tarry all night and bathe your feet and you shall rise up early and go on your way.” (Gen. 19:1–2)

    As there is no contextual element to suggest that Lot might be speaking to God, it seems clear, in this case, that adonai refers to the visitors.

    The simplest reading then of both texts – the one concerning Abraham, the other, Lot – would be to read the word consistently as “sirs.” Several English translations indeed take this approach. Here, for example, is the New English Bible’s:

    The Lord appeared to Abraham… He looked up, and saw three men standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the opening of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground. “Sirs,” he said, “if I have deserved your favour, do not pass by my humble self without a visit.”

    Jewish tradition, however, does not.

    Normally, differences of interpretation of biblical narrative have no halachic implications. They are matters of legitimate disagreement. This case of Abraham’s addressee is unusual, however, because if we translate Adonai as “God,” it is a holy name, and both the writing of the word by a scribe, and the way we treat a parchment or document containing it, have special stringencies in Jewish law. If, by contrast, we translate it as “my lords” or “sirs,” it has no special sanctity. Jewish law rules that in the scene with Lot, adonai is read as “sirs,” but in the case of Abraham it is read as “God.”

    This is an extraordinary fact, because it suggests that Abraham actually interrupted God as He was about to speak, asking Him to wait while he attended to the visitors. According to tradition, the passage should be read thus:

    The Lord appeared to Abraham…He looked up and saw three men standing over against him. On seeing them, he hurried from his tent door to meet them, and bowed down. [Turning to God] he said: “My God, if I have found favour in Your eyes, do not leave Your servant [i.e. Please wait until I have given hospitality to these men].” [He then turned to the men and said:] “Let me send for some water so that you may bathe your feet and rest under this tree…”[3]

    This daring interpretation became the basis for a principle in Judaism: “Greater is hospitality than receiving the Divine Presence.”[4] Faced with a choice between listening to God, and offering hospitality to what seemed to be human beings, Abraham chose the latter. God acceded to his request, and waited while Abraham brought the visitors food and drink, before engaging him in dialogue about the fate of Sodom. How can this be so? It seems disrespectful at best, heretical at worst, to put the needs of human beings before attending on the presence of God.

    What the passage is telling us, though, is something of immense profundity. The idolaters of Abraham’s time worshipped the sun, the stars, and the forces of nature as gods. They worshipped power and the powerful. Abraham knew, however, that God is not in nature but beyond nature. There is only one thing in the universe on which He has set His image: the human person, every person, powerful and powerless alike.

    The forces of nature are impersonal, which is why those who worship them eventually lose their humanity. As the book of Psalms puts it:

    Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands.

    They have mouths, but cannot speak,

    Eyes, but cannot see;

    They have ears, but cannot hear, nostrils but cannot smell…

    They that make them become like them,

    And so do all who put their trust in them. (Psalms 115:4-8)

    One cannot worship impersonal forces and remain a person; compassionate, humane, generous, forgiving. Precisely because we believe that God is personal, someone to whom we can say “You,” we honour human dignity as sacrosanct.

    Abraham, father of monotheism, knew the paradoxical truth that to live the life of faith is to see the trace of God in the face of the stranger. It is easy to receive the Divine Presence when God appears as God. What is difficult is to sense the Divine Presence when it comes disguised as three anonymous passers-by. That was Abraham’s greatness. He knew that serving God and offering hospitality to strangers were not two things but one.

    In one of the most beautiful comments on this episode, Rabbi Shalom of Belz notes that in verse 2, the visitors are spoken of as standing above Abraham (nitzavim alav), while in verse 8, Abraham is described as standing above them (omed aleihem). At first, the visitors were higher than Abraham because they were angels and he a mere human being. But when he gave them food and drink and shelter, he stood even higher than the angels.[5]

    By choosing the most radical of the three possible interpretations of Genesis 18, the sages allowed us to hear one of the most fundamental principles of the life of faith: We honour God by honouring His image, humankind.

    Shabbat Shalom

    Read more

Latest Articles

  • Stop Judging Me
    Rabbi YY JacobsonChallenging Our Instinct To CondemnJudge FavorablyThis week's Torah portion, Kedoshim, contains a commandment,...
  • Козёл Отпущения
    Шмуэль КатановЯ прочитал эту идею у Рав Элиягу Эссас, и хотел бы с ней с Вами поделиться. В Главе Ахарей Мот 16:5...
  • Как и зачем нужно истребить Амалека?
    Шмуэль КатановВ книге Шемот есть такой пасук - וַיֹּ֨אמֶר היְ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה כְּתֹ֨ב זֹ֤את זִכָּרוֹן֙ בַּסֵּ֔פֶר וְשִׂ֖ים...
  • A Stiff-Necked People
    Rabbi Jonathan SacksIt is a moment of the very highest drama. The Israelites, a mere forty days after the greatest revelation...
  • Тайна Половины Серебряной Монеты
    Шмуэль КатановВ Главе Ки Тиса 30:12 говорится: "Когда будешь делать перепись сынов Израиля и пересчитывать их, то пусть при...

Most Popular

  • The Baseless Hatred Mystery Revealed
    by Shmuel KatanovOur Chachamim z"l tell us that the First Bet Hamikdash was destroyed because of three sins: Avodah...
  • Loving the Stranger
    by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (...and commentaries from the editor) There are commands that leap off the page by their sheer moral...
  • Беспричинная ненависть или что на кону?
    Шмуэль КатановНаши мудрецы рассказывают что Первый Храм был разрушен из за трёх нарушений: поклонению идолам, убийствам и...
  • Why Did The Brothers Hate Joseph?
    by Shmuel KatanovIn the story of Joseph and the brothers, there's one incident that sticks out and makes this whole story look...