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Vayechi: A Cast of Brothers

December 15, 2018 – 9:16 pm | 27 views

Joseph and his brothers had a rocky relationship. Over the years there had been some pretty bad times. They resented him and thought he maligned them to their father. For his part, Joseph didn’t help matters when he shared his grandiose dreams that cast him in the role of king …

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Education, Vayigash »

Vayigash: Know It All

December 8, 2018 – 6:45 pm |

What do you do when you know it all? Life is only interesting when there is mystery. When we have questions to answer, theses to research, frontiers to explore, peaks to climb, depths to plumb, curiosities to quench, and knowledge to acquire, life has thrill and excitement. But what do you do if you know it all?

What can quicken your pulse if you can’t be thrilled by the unknown? What can give you goosebumps, if every mystery has been solved? What can give you a reason to wake up if every piece of knowledge is already known? If you know it all, you are left with nothing—nothing to live for.

Joseph’s Wagon
Before being sold as a slave in Egypt, Joseph spent seventeen short years studying Torah with his father, during which time Jacob taught Joseph the entire Torah.[1] There was not a manuscript, he had not studied, a law he had not researched, and a subject he had not perused. He literally knew it all.

He was then sold as a slave and Jacob, who continued to believe in his heart of hearts that Joseph was alive, wondered what would become of all this knowledge. What would Joseph do in Egypt, now that he knew everything? Would he find reason to wake up in the morning? He would have no family, no curiosity, no career, and no goals. Life would be a constant drudgery. Would he survive? Would he thrive? What would he do, how would he spend his days?

Twenty-two years later, Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers and sent them home with wagons to transport his father to Egypt.[2] When Jacob saw the wagons, his gloom lifted, and his spirit returned. Somehow the wagons reassured him and answered his nagging questions.[3] How?

The Hebrew word for wagons, agala, also means a calf. By sending an agala to Jacob, Joseph sent him a coded message: I remember the calf. What is the mystery of the calf? Twenty-years earlier, Jacob’s last lesson to Joseph was about a calf, and this is how it came about.

Jacob had dispatched Joseph to seek out the welfare of his brothers in Shechem. Jacob accompanied Joseph for part of the way, and Joseph kept reassuring Jacob that he could return home. But Jacob taught him about the calf to explain why he insisted on accompanying Joseph.

When a cadaver is found beyond the city limits and no one knows who slay him, said Jacob, the Torah commands the elders of the nearest city to slaughter a young calf to atone for the death of the cadaver. The elders would them proclaim that they had not murdered the person who was found dead. Now, to be clear, no one suspected the elders of murder, but their meaning was that they did not dispatch this traveler after he passed through their city without someone to accompany him.

The idea here is that criminals tend to prey on lone travelers. Thus, when someone leaves the protection of our home, we are required to accompany them and extend them further protection. Thus, with this final lesson, Jacob explained why he was accompanying Joseph.

By sending home the agala, Jacob understood the coded message—I recall the last lesson you taught me. When we parted ways, you knew that you had taught me everything and that my path forward in life would be dangerous. Now that I know it all, there would be little to stimulate and excite me. You traveled with me a part of the way to extend your protection. And I want you to know that your protection stayed with me. I have not strayed from your teachings, and I now send you a wagon to invite you to my home. You may rest assured that my home is conducted precisely as you taught me. I have not lost my way in Egypt. I have grown neither bored nor disillusioned with your teachings.[4]

Review and Ingrain
At this point, we know that Joseph somehow escaped the drudgery that is the daily lot of those who know it all. But we don’t know how Joseph escaped it. What did he do to stimulate himself? The answer that Joseph sent to his father is that he occupied and stimulated himself by constantly reviewing what Jacob had taught him. He still remembered his last lesson because he had reviewed it regularly. When you know it all, your path forward, your next step is to review what you learned.

In the Jewish tradition, when we complete a tractate of Talmud, we declare three times, “we shall return to you.” We do this because we don’t want to forget what we studied. Surely Joseph was in danger of forgetting everything he had studied in his youth. Living in Egypt, where no one knew, let alone supported, Torah Judaism, Joseph could easily have veered from these teachings. Thus his review was crucial. But why should we review everything we learn? We have friends who can remind us if we forget, and we have books that we can consult if we need an immediate answer. Why the emphasis on review?

The answer is that the Torah is not merely a book of information. Torah is a window into G-d’s thoughts. When the Torah presents a case, for example, Ruben wants this, and Simon wants that, we wonder what G-d wants them to do. When we learn the Torah’s verdict, we are invited into G-d’s thought process. The objective in Torah learning is not just to know the answer, but to connect with G-d, whose answer it is.

When you study my ideas, you can walk away from me, but a part of me, namely my ideas, are still in your head. I come along with you wherever you go. When we study Torah, our primary objective is to ingrain G-d’s ideas into our minds. We don’t want to forget these rules, insights, and explanations. They are precious to us. If we forget them, we lose a little bit of G-d that we carried around with us. We, therefore, declare when we finish a tractate that we will return to it and review it again.

We review again and again because we want to hold on to the divine thought that formulated the idea. Joseph reviewed everything his father taught him because He did not want to lose his connection with G-d, especially in Egypt where he was surrounded by G-dless people.

Thought Patterns
Ultimately, it is more than just playing host to a Divine idea. It is about training ourselves to think like G-d. By studying G-d’s thoughts again and again, we slowly learn G-d’s approach to these problems. We learn the underlying principles that drive these laws and they inform our perspective on life. Thus, when questions arise, our instinctual response to them is similar to the Torah’s position. When we check the Torah and discover that our instincts proved similar to the Torah’s approach, we know the Divine ideas have become ingrained in our thought patterns.

When Joseph sent for Jacob to come to Egypt, he was assuring him that everything would be kosher in his home. I have reviewed the entire Torah from beginning to end, down to the very last law that you taught me, again and again. By now, my natural instincts spring from the Torah. Although I live in an immoral land, I have inoculated myself against its influences and have created a kosher and holy home.

We too must review what we learn over and over again. Not only will it protect us against forgetfulness, it will ingrain G-d’s way of thinking into our thought patterns until we come to think a little bit like G-d.[5]

[1] Rashi based on Unkelos, Genesis, 37:3.

[2] Toras Moshe (Chasam Sofer) discusses whether the wagons were meant for Jacob or for the women and children.

[3] Genesis, 45:27.

[4] See Rashi and Kli Yakar, ibid.

[5] This essay is based on Tanya chapter 5.

Chanukah: Light in the Dark

December 2, 2018 – 9:50 pm |

The Chanukah candles usher light into darkness and warmth into cold. They are kindled as the sun sets and they are placed strategically in the window or doorway to catch the attention of passerby. This point is essential to Chanukah candles. After the streets have emptied of foot traffic, one …

Vayeshev: My Brother’s Keeper

November 24, 2018 – 9:43 pm |

Cain famously asked, “am I my brother’s keeper?” History has not taken kindly to Cain and has responded with a resounding yes, you are your brother’s keeper. But Cain had done ill by Abel. What if it is the reverse, suppose your brother does ill by you, are you still …

Vayishlach: O Brother

November 17, 2018 – 9:12 pm |

It had been thirty-four years since Jacob escaped his brother Esau’s wrath. During this time Jacob had spent fourteen years studying Torah and twenty years building his family. He had descended to the immoral pit of his uncle Laban’s home, and emerged unaffected and even stronger for the ordeal. Esau, …

Vayetze: Expand Your Envelope

November 12, 2018 – 9:20 am |

Do you expand your envelope? Are you comfortable discovering new ideas, experimenting with the unfamiliar, venturing into the unknown, pushing your boundaries, and exploring new horizons?
Most are comfortable within our sphere, we like our routines and prefer to remain within them. We walk the same routes, we shop at the …

Toldot: A Defense of Jews

November 3, 2018 – 8:06 pm |

Our Patriarch Isaac had nothing better to do with his day than plant seeds? Surely Isaac could think of many things to do. He could study Torah, he could do good deeds, he could look after his children, after all, twins can be a handful. Why did he work in …

The Massacre in Pittsburgh

October 27, 2018 – 11:50 pm |
Tragedy in Pittsburgh

Massacres Begin with Dehumanization
Last Saturday morning, October 27, 2018, eleven people lost their lives, six people were wounded, a community lost its sense of peace, security and contentment, and a world lost its equilibrium. All because Robert Bowers, a man, armed to the teeth and apparently driven by antisemitic views, …

Vayera: Hospitality

October 27, 2018 – 10:51 pm |

Hospitality has historically been a Jewish virtue. It has its roots in the very beginning of Jewish history. Abraham, the patriarch of the Jewish people was renowned for hospitality. Not only did he invite and provide for wayfarers, he made a point of making them feel welcome. He conveyed a …

Chayei Sarah: The Good Life

October 27, 2018 – 10:34 pm |

Our sages derived from the opening of this week’s Torah reading that Sarah lived a good life. The Torah says, “And the years of Sarah’s life were a hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years. The years of her life.” The last sentence is superfluous. Our sages taught that …