In This Issue:
Rabbi Eliyahu Wolf
Shaul Yaakov Morrison
Rabbi Chaim Jachter
Dreaming is something we all experience (ideally while sleeping at night, but at times during the day - albeit never during class!). Dreams can be vividly animated, yet when we are jarred from our reveries and forced to reenter the atmosphere of reality, the details often become hazy and obscure. The Jewish Nobel laureate, Shai Agnon, eloquently articulated this sentiment upon his acceptance of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966. He remarked (in translation), “As a result of the historic catastrophe in which Titus of Rome destroyed Jerusalem and Israel was exiled from its land, I was born in one of the cities of the Exile. But I always regarded myself as one who was born in Jerusalem. In a dream, in a vision of the night, I saw myself standing with my brother Levites in the Holy Temple, singing with them the songs of David, King of Israel, melodies such as no ear has heard since the day our city was destroyed and its people went into exile. I suspect that the angels in charge of the Shrine of Music, fearful lest I sing in wakefulness what I had sung in dream, made me forget by day what I had sung at night; for if my brethren, the sons of my people, were to hear, they would be unable to bear their grief over the happiness they have lost. To console me for having prevented me from singing with my mouth, they enable me to compose songs in writing.”
Parashat VaYeishev is framed by two sets of dreams, Yosef’s dreams and the butler and baker’s dreams. While it is apparent that dreams play a pivotal role in the lives of Yaakov and Yosef, the importance of these biblical dreams to us is not as obvious. One simple, yet profound, message is the value of vision, the need to dream.
The dreams the Torah records are more than prognostications of the future. The Torah’s dreams open a window to the vision and perspective that shaped the destiny of our people. Revisiting Yaakov Avinu’s first dream at the beginning of Parshat VaYeitzei, we see that after fourteen sleepless years in the study hall of Shem and Aver, Yaakov deliberately sleeps at the holiest place in the world, the site of Yitzchak’s Akeidah and future home of the Beit HaMikdash. What compelled Yaakov to sleep there; the accommodations were far from luxurious? Rav Mayer Twersky shlita explained (“Continuing to Grow While Facing Adult Priorities and Pressures,” Torahweb.org) that Yaakov consciously went to sleep in order to dream about his future. Embarking on a new stage in life and aware that new terrain would test his mettle, Yaakov Avinu seized this opportunity to chart his destiny. Without proper planning and strategy and without his dreams, Yaakov realized that he could easily fall prey to Lavan’s influence. The dream of a terrestrial ladder that reached heavenward portrayed Yaakov’s yearning for spiritual ascent in all of the earthly challenges he would encounter.
Expounding on Rav Twersky’s poignant analysis, the vision and perspective linked to the dreams of our forefathers have particular significance as a preface to the hostile environment of Galut. This idea is evident in Parshas VaYigash (BeReishit 46:2) as Yaakov and family descended to Egypt and Hashem addressed Yaakov, “BaMa’arot HaLailah,” in visions of the night. Rav Meir Simcha HaKohen of Dvinsk explains in his Meshech Chochmah that Yaakov’s dream of Hashem’s protective promise was a prelude to the night of the Egyptian exile. Both of Yaakov’s dreams provide a vision for the future and cast a ray of light to penetrate the impending darkness of exile.
Yosef’s dreams in this week’s Parashah can be understood in the same vein. Yosef’s life in general, and specifically the challenges he faced in Egypt, paralleled Yaakov’s life and the challenges Yaakov endured in Charan (see Rashi 37:2 citing BeReishit Rabbah 84:6). For this reason, Yosef was the primary heir of the unique teachings, the “survival skills,” Yaakov had been taught at the academy of Shem and Aver (see Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky zt”l’s Emet LeYaakov beginning of this week’s Parashah, 37:3 and beginning of Parshat VaYeitzei 28:11). Just as Yaakov’s dreams fortified him and enabled him to rise to the challenges that faced him, Yosef’s dreams were his blueprint of survival in the foreign, hostile and immoral environment of Egypt.
Fast-forwarding over three and a half millennia, for us, a critical message of these patriarchal dreams is the importance of vision and future aspirations as individuals and as members of Am Yisrael. The magnitude of this message is underscored by its link to the nighttime of exile through which we continue to grope. As individuals, we must fortify ourselves by dreaming about our future, formulating spiritual goals to develop as Bnei Torah and create families that will uphold, uplift, and perpetuate the beauty and traditions of Torah. As a community we must dream, yearning for the dawn of our redemption and the complete, peaceful, and harmonious restoration of Eretz Yisrael and our Beit HaMikdash.
The upcoming holiday of Chanukah, a holiday associated with the power of Torah (see HaAmek Davar beginning of Parshat Tetzaveh, Shemot 27:20) and the relics of our Beit HaMikdash (see Ramban beginning of Parshat BeHa’alotecha, BeMidbar 8:2 and Ran, Shabbat comments to 21b) is a perfect time to reawaken our nationalistic dreams and inspire our personal aspirations.
The Torah’s dreams and the festival of lights challenge us to continue dreaming and formulating plans and strategies to be better people and a stronger nation. Together we yearn for the day when all Jews will become dreamers, and all of our dreams will be realized; evoking the rays of our redemption will illuminate the entire world with the knowledge of Hashem and the resplendent repertoire of Am Yisrael.
After Potifar’s wife attempted and failed to seduce Yosef, the Torah describes Yosef’s leaving her presence as “VaYaazov Bigdo BeYada VaYanas VaYeitzei HaChutza,” “Yosef left his garment in her hand, fled, and went outside” (BeReishit 39:12). In the following Pasuk, the Torah recounts Yosef’s flight as seen by Potifar’s wife, “VaYehi KiRota Ki Azav Bigdo BeYada VaYanas HaChutza,” “When she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and fled outside” (39:13). The difference between these two Pesukim is the word “VaYeitzei” “and he went outside.” In order to understand this discrepancy of the missing VaYeitzei, Rav Moshe Feinstein suggests that the word VaYanas (flee) implies an escape from an immediate danger, regardless of whether or not the places he flees to is any safer than his current location. In a similar vein, the Gemara (Kiddushin 40a) tells of several Rabbis who fled from dangerous situations in which they were tempted by sin, despite the fact that their escapes were also dangerous. With the apparently superfluous VaYeitzei in the first Pasuk, the Torah is conveying that not only did Yosef flee, but that he made sure to flee to a safe place. Although Yosef was sure that he could resist the advances of Potifar’s wife, he fled so as not to leave himself in a situation where he would be tempted to sin.
Some individuals believe it is a Mitzvah to place themselves in difficult situations to garner more reward for not doing an Aveira. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, by the story of Adam, the Torah specifically tells us to distance ourselves from such situations. Adam thought he would achieve greater spiritual heights by internalizing the Yeitzer Hara, Evil Inclination, by eating from the Eitz HaDaat, the Tree of Knoweledge. Doing so, however, was contrary to Hashem’s command and so caused his expulsion from Gan Eden. Really the only time it is admirable to resist temptation is if it is otherwise unavoidable, but one should try his best to avoid such difficult situations. On the other hand, if one is sure that he can resist the given temptation he need not endanger his life by fleeing elsewhere.
This reasoning explains the discrepancy between what happened and how Potifar’s wife portrayed it as occurring. The VaYeitzei in the first Pasuk describing Yosef’s flight explains that not only did he flee from a dangerous situation, but he also fled to a safe place. Potifar’s wife, though, wanted to accuse him of adultery. As such, she left out the VaYeitzei, to imply that Yosef fled to avoid capture for the adultery without planning the safety of his escape. It is important for us to learn from Yosef’s predicament to see how important is to avoid sinfully tempting situations lest we be tempted or be accused of doing the very sin you were trying to avoid.
Upon learning that his brothers desired to kill Yosef, Reuven decided to save him. He reasoned that he could throw Yosef into a pit and later return to save him. The Pasuk states, “VeHaBor Reik Ein Bo Mayim,” “The pit was empty without water” (BeReishit 37:24). On this Pasuk, Rashi quotes a Midrash saying that although the pit lacked water, it was teeming with snakes and scorpions. The Gemara (Yevamot 121a) states that if a man is seen alive in a pit with snakes and scorpions and cannot be rescued, his wife is permitted to remarry because he can be assumed as dead, as it is impossible for a person to survive in such a pit. As such, what was Reuven accomplishing by saving Yosef from one death and condemning him to another? Shouldn’t Reuven have allowed the brothers to continue their plot to kill Yosef in a less drawn-out, painful manner? What value exists in attempting to accomplish an action, even if it is also destined to fail?
One possible answer is that Reuven, though almost certain that his efforts were futile, felt a need to try to act to save his brother. Hashem judges people favorably who attempt the impossible, and Reuven was one such person. Many stories are told about people who try to do heroic actions, with little chance of succeeding, yet who succeed anyway because their intentions are pure.
One such story is told about the Nodeh BeYehudah, Rav Yechezkel Landau. For 28 years, he waited to have the privilege to recite Birchat HaChamah, the Sun Blessing, once again. Unfortunately, it was raining all day. Many people stood outside all morning waiting for the sun to break through the clouds, but the rain just came down harder. Finally, everyone except the Nodeh BeYehudah went inside. All of a sudden, the sun broke through the clouds, and he quickly recited Birchat HaChamah. After reciting it, he notified everyone else in the city that they could say the Berachah. Unfortunately, immediately after he recited the Berachah, the clouds blocked the sun and the others were unable to recite the Berachah. Many people were upset as they had waited for weeks to say the Berachah. Responding to their dismay, the Nodeh BeYehudah replied that he had been waiting 28 years to say the Bracha, and Hashem was rewarding him for his wait.
This extreme determination was also shown by Rabbi and Mrs. Holzberg z”l in India. When they left their comfortable homes to go to India, they knew that their lives would be extremely difficult. They were, however, very determined to spread Torah to people all over the world. They showed the same determination to a cause as Reuven did. Just like Reuven wanted to save Yosef, even if it meant having a more active role in killing his brother, the Holtzbergs wanted to spread Torah, no matter what personal sacrifice it would take.
One who puts this amount of effort into something is greatly rewarded. All three cases of extreme effort in a Mitzvah resulted in that Mitzvah being performed. Reuven successfully saved his brother, Rav Landau was able to say Birchat HaChamah, and the Holtzbergs spread Torah to millions of people in the world who have heard about their mission and have pledged to accept a greater commitment to Hashem in their memory. May we have the privilege to take our observance of the Mitzvot as seriously as did these three individuals.
This week’s Parashah tells the story of the sale of Yosef by his brothers. While Yosef was in a pit his brothers threw him into, they sat around and ate, trying to decide what to do with him. Yehudah did not want to kill him, so when the caravan of Yishme’eili traders came, Yehudah told his brothers that it would be a better idea to sell him as a slave. The Pesukim that describe the caravan go into some detail about what the Yishme’eilim were carrying, stating, “VeHineh Orechat Yishme’eilim Baah MiGilad UGemaleihem Nose’im Nechot UTezri VaLot Holechim LeHorid Mitzraymah,” “A caravan of Yishme’eilim came from Gilad with their camels carrying spices, balsam, and birthwort, going to carry it down to Egypt” (BeReishit 37:25). Rashi (s.v. UGemaleihem Nose’im) famously explains why it is necessary for the Pasuk to list the goods that the Yishme’eilim were carrying. Normally, caravans of Yishme’eilim like this one carried kerosene and resin, which have disgusting smells. This particular caravan happened to have pleasant-smelling spices because of Yosef’s righteousness; Hashem wanted to make the journey as pleasant as possible. How does this answer of Rashi make sense? Yosef is being sent to Egypt as a slave; will some sweet-smelling merchandise ameliorate his situation?
The answer is that the spices were a small message from Hashem. Of course they could not fix everything, but Hashem wanted to show Yosef that even when things seem bad, there is always the Hand of Hashem guiding everything in the background. This message can be valued by anyone going through tough times; one should always appreciate the small positive moments of life and allow them to change one’s entire attitude for the better.
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