Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Thought on the Parasha



Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Vayechi

You Call This a Blessing?

As Yaakov's life draws to a close, he calls his children to his bedside and blesses them. In twenty-six verses of beautiful poetry he addresses each son in turn, tailoring his words to what is most appropriate for that particular son. These poetic utterances are not initially described as blessings but as a form of prophecy: "Gather and I will tell you what will occur to you in the End of Days" (Breishit, 49:1). Nevertheless, their content makes it clear that they are indeed blessings, and the Torah describes them as such at the conclusion of this section: "and this is what their father spoke to them, and he blessed them, each person according to his blessing did he bless them" (Breishit, 49:28).

So each son was blessed. But is this really true? It seems that at least two sons - Shimon and Levi - were not blessed but cursed:  

"Cursed be their wrath, so fierce, and their fury, so cruel! I will scatter them in Jacob and disperse them in Israel" (Breishit, 49:7).

What type of blessing is this? Can it be, somehow, that this curse is actually a blessing?

Yes, it can. When someone points out our faults or even calls us to task for our sins and misdeeds, this can indeed feel like a curse. But if this is done by someone who loves us, if that someone is doing it for us and not for them, then it can truly be a blessing. This is indeed what true parenting is about. Loving our children means caring about their moral development, about what type of people they will grow up to be. If we yell at them because they have made a mess before a big dinner party, we are venting our own anger; we are not - in this yelling - parenting them. But if our response is tailored to their concerns and not ours, and if we call them to task so that they can learn moral and social responsibility, then we have done true parenting, and they will be all the better for it.

The first step is to make sure that this is coming from a place of love and out of concern for the one who has to hear this criticism. Let us remember that Yaakov's initial response to Shimon and Levi's destruction of Shechem was an angry outburst, an outburst which focused not on their moral education or on even the immorality of their acts but on how their actions would endanger him:  "And Yaakov said to Shimon and Levi, 'You have accursed me, to make me odious among those who dwell in the land... and they will gather against me and smite me, and I and my household will be annihilated'" (34:30). Notice the recurrence of the personal pronoun: me, me, I, my. It is all about him, so his yelling falls on deaf ears: "And they said, will our sister be treated like a prostitute?!" (34:31). Now, however, it is the end of his life. It is no longer about him; his life is over. It is about them, what they need to hear so that they can improve, so that they can be better.

But coming from a place of love and caring is not enough. Criticism can be devastating regardless. So what needs to be paired with caring is faith: faith in the other person, in his or her innate goodness, in their ability to divorce themselves from these actions: "Even at the moment of rebuke, he did not curse them, but only their wrath" (Rashi, 49:7, quoting Breishit Rabbah). "You are better than that," is the message. "This isn't you. You can rise above this." When our children misbehave, we know not to say, "Bad boy!" or "Bad girl!" We know, rather, to say, "That was a bad thing that you did." (Whether we always remember this at a moment of anger is a different question.)

A true friend can tell you things you need to hear, things that no one else will tell you, and he can tell you in a way that you can hear it. When the person on the receiving end knows that the words are coming from a place of love, and when she feels that others believe in her, she will be able to believe in herself and hear what is being said.

But it is not just how the message is delivered; it is also how it is heard. And we are not in control of how someone will hear what we have said. Some people have the ability to hear the one negative, slightly critical comment in an effusion of praise and to zero in on that, to find the one thing they can feel bad about and to beat themselves up over it. Indeed, some studies have shown that it takes ten positive comments to counter the effect of one negative one. But a person does himself no service by just focusing on the negative. The result will be feeling bad, feeling guilty, with no productive outcome. And it can lead to reinforcing the negative, to defining oneself by past behavior: "I'm no good. I'm always doing the wrong thing. I'm a bad person." This type of thinking can even serve as an excuse for future misconduct: "What else could be expected of me? This is who I am."

A person who instead believes that he or she was created in God's image, in our ultimate freedom as human beings, a person who believes in bechira chafshit, will know that his or her past behavior need not define who he or she is and can be.

Now, this is not to deny that people are made differently. People have different character traits and different personalities. But biology is not destiny, and character, even if it cannot easily be changed, can surely be redirected. As the Gemara in Niddah (16b) states, it may be determined at the moment of conception - genetically, we would say - whether a person will be smart or stupid, strong or weak, but what is not determined is whether the person will be good or bad. Even destructive character traits can be directed towards a constructive purpose. A person with bloodlust, says Rav Ashi in Shabbat (157a), may turn out to be a murderer, but he may also turn out to be a shochet or a surgeon.

How we hear loving critique, and what we do with it, is in our hands. The same character trait that was the source of a curse can now become the source of a blessing. It is all about what message we choose to hear. So it was with Shimon and Levi. One of them heard only the curse and defined himself by it. And one extrapolated the blessing and lived up to it and its promise.

Shimon heard the curse. His destructive anger never changed, was never redirected, and so the words of Yaakov became a curse. The tribe of Shimon was scattered in Israel, and they had no inheritance of their own when Joshua divided the land.

And Levi heard the blessing. Levi - his descendants, the tribe of Levi - took their anger, their passion, and directed it to the service of God, to defending God's honor, to zealously protecting the Sanctuary. They brought their zeal to the service of God. They were scattered in Israel, but this was so that they could serve the people, teach Torah, and give religious guidance to one and all. And the cities in which they dwelt were cities of refuge, one of which was Shechem itself. These cities provided safety and protection to those who had unintentionally killed someone so that they would not be murdered in the violent bloodlust of others seeking to avenge the death of a brother or sister, protecting them so that the sin of Shechem would not be repeated. Truly, their curse became their blessing, a blessing that they shared with the entire Jewish people.

Did Yaakov bless Shimon and Levi, or did he curse them? His words, delivered with love, with concern for their betterment, with belief in their potential to change and rise above, had the potential to truly be words of blessing. Yaakov did his part; the rest was up to his sons. If his words were heard as a curse, then they would be a curse. But if they were heard as they were delivered, if they were heard as a blessing, then they became a blessing indeed. Let us always have the ability to deliver our words as blessings and to hear the words of others - even the critical words - as blessings as well.

Shabbat Shalom!
                                                                  Reprinted from 2012

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Thought on the Parasha





The Sounds of Silence


Silence is the last word one would think to use to characterize the climax of the story of Yosef and his brothers. Indeed, our parasha opens with Yehudah’s heartfelt and impassioned plea to Yosef to free Binyamin.  These words are so powerful in conveying Yehudah’s unflinching loyalty to Binyamin and the anguish of his father, Yaakov, that Yosef can no longer contain himself, his emotions burst forth, and he reveals himself to his brothers. And if Yehudah’s words can stir powerful, positive emotions, Yosef’s words have the power to calm turbulent, potentially destructive ones: “Now, do not be anguished, and do not reproach yourselves that you have sold me here, for it is to be a source of life that God has sent me ahead of you” (Breishit, 45:4).



Even as the story reaches its dénouement there is much talking: talking of how to report back to Yaakov about what has happened, talking about how the land of Egypt is open to Yaakov and his family and how they should arrange their emigration from Canaan, talking to Yaakov about what has happened, Yaakov’s exclamation of wonderment at the news of Yosef, God’s talking to Yaakov before he leaves Canaan, Yosef’s talking to his brothers to prepare them for their meeting with Pharaoh, Pharaoh’s talking to the brothers, Pharaoh’s talking to Yaakov, and finally Yaakov’s blessing of Pharaoh. There is indeed much talking in this parasha. But in the midst of all this talking and the beehive of activity that surrounds it, there is a profound, poignant moment of silence:



And Yisrael said to Yosef, “I can now die, after that I have seen your face, that you are still alive.”



And Yosef said to his brothers and to his father’s household, “I will go up and report to Pharaoh, and I will tell him, ‘My brothers and my father’s household from the Land of Canaan have come to me’” (46:30–31).



What just happened here? Yaakov and Yosef meet after a twenty-two-year separation, Yaakov having believed Yosef to be dead but perhaps not so sure, perhaps suspecting that the brothers had something to do with the whole thing. And Yosef wondering who knows what… Perhaps thinking that his father didn’t care that he was gone, perhaps suspecting that his father was unconcerned with the dangers that had befallen him, or perhaps even believing that his father had conspired by sending him to his brothers when they were shepherding, knowing how much they hated him. But even if these troubling thoughts were not kept at bay, after hearing Yehudah’s passionate speech Yosef certainly knew how bereaved his father now felt and how his absence had taken such a serious toll on Yaakov.



And now, after these long twenty-two years, they finally reconcile, and Yaakov lets forth an exclamation of joy, joy tinged with his past suffering, but joy nevertheless. And then what? Silence. Yosef does not respond. He says not one word to his father. Or rather, not silence, but a lot of irrelevant talking. Talking to the wrong people: to his brothers and his father’s household but not to his father. And talking about the wrong things: “Oh, let's go tell Pharaoh that you are here.” The abrupt transition in these two verses is the conversational equivalent of, “Great to see you, Dad. Oh, look at the time. Gotta go.” A lot of talking and a lot of business that hold a profound silence. No one is talking about what needs to be talked about. Not just, “I missed you so much. I can’t believe we are together again,” but also, “What really happened that day, twenty-two years ago?” “Why did you send me to check on my brothers, knowing how much they hated me?” What is instead being said is: “No, we’ll talk about that later. There is too much to do now, too much other talking that needs to take place.”



Simon and Garfunkel said it best:



People talking without speaking...



And no one dared

Disturb the sound of silence.



“Fools” said I, “You do not know

Silence like a cancer grows.”





The impassioned, heart-wrenching communication at the beginning of the parasha is replaced by a lot of pragmatic, businesslike talking at the end. The unspoken words continue to hover in the background. The silence grows like a cancer, eating away at Yosef and Yaakov from the inside, continuing to fester, preventing them from bringing these difficult issues to the surface so that they can be dealt with and resolved.



And the silence also grows like a wall to divide Yaakov and Yosef. It prevents them from ever truly connecting again on a deep, personal level. Yosef is too busy to talk to his father when he arrives and remains too busy to talk to his father throughout the rest of his life. So much so that when Yaakov finally speaks to Yosef again, it is at the end of Yaakov’s life, on his deathbed, and it is for the very practical purpose of arranging for his own burial. During the exchange we find out that they have communicated so little that Yaakov does not even know his own grandchildren. He knows about them, but he does not recognize them: “And Yisrael saw the sons of Yosef, and he said, ‘Who are these?’ And Yosef said to his father, ‘They are my sons’” (48:8–9). Because Yaakov and Yosef are not able to talk about what needs to be talked about, they wind up talking about very little, or at least very little that really matters.



There is, finally, one moment when the silence is broken. But by then it is too late. For when Yaakov dies, Yosef’s brothers grow fearful about how Yosef will now treat them: “And the brothers of Yosef saw that their father had died, and they said, ‘Perhaps Yosef will now nurse his hatred against us, and return to us all the evil that we have done to him’” (50:15). So what did they do? They invented a conversation that never happened:



And they commanded that Yosef be told, “Your father commanded, before his death, saying: ‘So shall you say to Yosef: Please forgive the iniquity of your brothers, and their trespass, for they have committed evil against you.’ So now, please forgive the sin of the servants of your father’s God.”



And Yosef wept when they spoke to him (50:16–17).



Why did Yosef weep? Perhaps because they thought ill of him or suspected that he could still be harboring resentment and ill will about what had happened oh so many years ago, or perhaps because it pained him to see his brothers so anguished. But I believe he wept for a different reason. He wept because he realized that his father never said – never could have said – such a thing. His father had never and would never break the implicit pact of silence around these matters. He wept because what was said after his father’s death – what had needed to be said for so long – was never said in his father’s life.



He wept for Yaakov, for Yaakov died having never had a chance to talk about what was eating away at him – his suspicions about Yosef’s brothers and what they might have done – and he went to his grave with this cancer inside him. And he wept for himself, for never having been able to bring himself to talk about his own suspicions, his own doubts, to his father. For never having been able to bring up all the messiness so that it could be expelled and a true relationship reestablished.



And he wept for his brothers. For his brothers who could not talk to him about these things before. For his brothers who even now could not talk to him about their case directly, having to send someone to present it in their stead. For his brothers who still could not talk about these things in their own voice, having to attribute them to their father Yaakov.



And perhaps he wept for his own silencing of his brothers. For the fact that he was so quick to forgive them when he first revealed himself to them, that he did not give them a chance to talk about their guilt, about their remorse. Here was a time when he needed to be silent so that others could be heard. To be forgiven before asking for forgiveness is a blessing, but it is also a curse. It silences voices that need to be heard. It prevents true healing from taking place.



We know well the power of speech. We know how words can kill and how words can heal. We also must know the power of silence. Silence can kill – kill a relationship, kill a friendship, kill a marriage. But silence can also heal. A healing silence is one that is there not to cover up, avoid, or distract, but to make space, to listen, to open up, to allow another in, to allow another to speak. That is a silence that can give life. That is a silence that is a blessing to the soul: “There is a time to be silent, and a time to talk” (Kohelet, 3:7). Let us always know which is which so that both our talking and our silence bring with them life and healing to ourselves and to others.

Shabbat Shalom!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A Thought on the Parasha



Yehudah, Yosef, and Religious Zionism
Rabbi Dov Linzer

“What is Chanukah?” asks the gemara (Tractate Shabbat, 21b). The answer it gives is well known: the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days. But this answer, says Maharal (Hidushei Aggadot, ad loc.), makes no sense! First of all, since when do we have holidays to celebrate miracles? Holidays celebrate days of national-religious significance – exodus, revelation, salvation – not miracles for their own sake. Moreover, the al ha’nissim prayer, the single way we mention Chanukah in the liturgy, makes no mention of the miracle of oil, but rather focuses on the victory against the Seleucid-Greeks and the rededication of the Temple. What then, asks Maharal, is the point of the miracle of oil? An examination of our parasha will be helpful in answering this question.

Parashat Miketz presents us with two very different personalities – Yosef and Yehudah. Yosef is known by the Rabbis as Yosef Ha’Tzaddik, Yosef the Righteous. Why a tzaddik? Because he is always thinking and talking about God. When he refuses Potiphar’s wife, he says to her that he cannot sleep with her for it would be sinning before God. More to the point is the verse stating that “his master saw that God was with him, and all that he did, God brought success at his hands” (Breishit, 39:3). Considering that his master certainly did not believe in God, the Rabbis ask, how did he see that God was with Yosef? It is because “the name of God was regularly on his lips.” His master would say, “Yosef, great job!” And Yosef would respond, “Baruch HaShem.” His master would say, “Yosef, good work today,” and Yosef would say, “Baruch HaShem.” “Baruch HaShem. Baruch Hashem,” that was Yosef’s response.

Yosef sees God working through him; he sees God in all things. It is for this reason that Yosef is so captivated by his dreams. Not because they augur his future greatness but because they are a message from God. If God is communicating, how could you not be enraptured? This is also why Yosef tells Pharaoh in this week’s parasha, as he told the wine steward and baker earlier, that the interpretations of the dreams are not from him but from God. When I interpret a dream, he says, it is really just God who is working through me.

There is tremendous religious power in this approach – to be always seeing God in the world and crediting God for one’s good fortune and accomplishments. This approach allows Yosef to console his brothers and tell them, “Behold you did not send me here, but God” (45:8). But seeing God controlling everything is not always a good thing. It was good to console the brothers, but was Yosef correct in what he said, are the brothers really blameless? However much Yosef’s descent into Egypt was part of the divine plan, this does not exonerate the brothers.  God must be given credit, but one cannot relinquish one’s own, or another’s, responsibility as a result. 

Yehudah is the opposite of Yosef. Yehudah never talks about God. Yehudah is all about personal responsibility. He had the courage to stand up and say, “I did it,” and admit that it was he who slept with Tamar. It is he who is able to convince his father to let Binyamin go down to Egypt because he is ready to put himself on the line: “I will be surety for him; of my hand shall you require him” (43:9). If something goes wrong it doesn’t matter who was at fault or who was to blame, Yehudah takes the responsibility on himself: “If I bring him not unto you, and set him before you, then I will bear the blame to you forever.” Thus, at the fateful moment, it is again Yehudah who steps forward and who is willing to sacrifice himself and his freedom to allow Binyamin to go free. The turning point of the entire story is this moment – when the man who takes personal responsibility confronts the man who sees all his actions as directed by God. And it was Yehudah who was triumphant. It was up to him to act, he acted, and God’s plan was realized. God works through us when we take responsibility for our own actions.

Yosef is indeed a tzaddik, but I wouldn’t want a tzaddik running my business. I would want Yehudah as my CEO. And I would want Yehudah as my political leader. Indeed, it is Yehudah from whom the kingly Davidic line descends. But I am not sure I would want Yehudah as my spiritual leader. A spiritual leader needs to be both a Yehudah and a Yosef: a person who will say, “Baruch Hashem; it is all from God” and at the same time say, “The buck stops here.”

This takes us back to Maharal’s question: Why focus on the oil? Because, says Maharal, if we only spoke about the miracle of the military victory and the dedication of the Temple, we might come to think that it was all our doing. We might fail to see God’s hidden hand. The visible miracle of the oil allowed the people to see the hidden miracle of the war, that the victory was both theirs and God’s.

At the time of the Maccabees there were those who were in the Yosef camp. According to Maccabees I, the Pietists refused to take up arms and fight the Greeks, refusing even to defend themselves on Shabbat. “If God wants to save us,” one can imagine they reasoned, “then let God bring about a miracle.” The Maccabees rejected this. “It is up to us,” they said. “We must do what is necessary, and this is what God wants.” The Maccabees embodied the fusing of Yehudah and Yosef. They were the miracle of the war and the miracle of the oil.

This synthesis is actually part of the al ha’nissim prayer itself. Although only speaking of the military victory, the prayer mentions not the victory of the Hasmoneans, but the victory of God. Ravta et riveinu, danta et dineinu. You, God, fought our battles, came to our defense. This was the war that we fought and the miracle that You, God, brought about.

This message is very much the message of Religious Zionism. There are some religious Jews who reject Zionism. If they are not anti-state, they are at least apathetic to the state. It holds for them no religious meaning. “If God wanted to bring about a new State of Israel,” they say, “then we would have seen visible miracles.” They are the Pietists of old. They are the Yosefs.

Thank God for the secular Zionists, for the Yehudahs of the last generations. It is because of them that we have the miracle that is the State of Israel. And yet they built the state driven by a nationalist vision, not a religious one. For them, the state is no miracle. Their song on Chanukah is Nes Lo Kara Lanu, “A Miracle did not Occur to Us.” We did it. They are Yehudah without Yosef.

In fact, one of the popular Chanukah songs sung by religious Jews everywhere is actually a song of the secular Zionists, Mi yimalel gevurot Yisrael. “Who will speak of the valorous acts of Israel?” says the song. Of course, the Biblical verse is, “Who will speak of the valorous acts of God?” (Tehillim, 106:2). It is the gibor, the song continues, the courageous one, not God, who is the redeemer who arises in each generation. Makabi moshiya u’fodeh, it is a Maccabee – not God – who saved us and redeemed us. It is we who have done it in the past, and it is for us to do it now. Mi Yimalel is the song of Yehudah and Yehudah alone.

It was left for the Religious Zionists to take their share of the responsibility in building the State of Israel, and to bring to their actions a vision that all that was happening was from God. It was for them to bring both Yehudah and Yosef together: “Behold, I will take the stick of Yosef… and will put them with the stick of Yehudah, and make them one stick, and they shall be one in mine hand” (Yechezkel, 37:19).

This Chanukah, I will continue to sing Mi Yimalel because, as religious people, we need to be reminded again and again of our obligation to be a Yehudah. But I will sing with renewed emphasis the al ha’nissim, thanking God for the victory of the war, the victory of the Hasmoneans that was the victory of God, and for the miracles that God has done bayamim ha’hem, in those days, and also so very much bi’zman ha’zeh.

Shabbat Shalom and Chanukah Samayech!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Thought on the Parasha



A Tikkun for Yaakov


Three of Yaakov’s sons play a major role in the stories of Yosef and his brothers: Yosef, Reuven, and Yehudah.  Each one of these presents a type of a tikkun for Yaakov.  It starts with Yosef.


“These are the generations of Yaakov: Yosef.” This is the Midrash’s reading of Breishit, 37:2, a verse that in its simple sense narrates the events that occurred to Yaakov’s children. By putting the period after the word “Yosef,” however, the Midrash suggests a different reading, namely that Yosef is the continuation of Yaakov:


Just as Yaakov was born circumcised, so was Yosef born circumcised…


Just as this one’s brother hated him, so this one’s brothers hated him, just as this one’s brother wanted to kill him, so this one’s brothers wanted to kill him…


This one was stolen from twice [“I would repay it… stolen by day or stolen by night” (31:39)], and this one was stolen from twice [“For I have certainly been stolen, gunov gunavti, from the land of the Hebrews” (40:15)]…


This one was made great by virtue of a dream, and this one was made great by virtue of a dream.

(Breishit Rabbah 84:6)


These parallels are indeed striking, but when we look a little closer, we see that significant differences exist within them.


Let’s start with the first comparison: Both Yaakov and Yosef were born without a foreskin. This, of course, is not in the Biblical verses, but the Midrash understands the verse stating that Yaakov was an ish tam, a perfect man, as indicating that he was physically perfect – born with no foreskin.  It is also worth noting that Yaakov is the only one of the avot that we are not told that he underwent circumcision, perhaps an indicator that he was born without a foreskin.  And Yosef is assumed to have been born likewise.


What does being born circumcised signify? It could indicate someone on a particularly high spiritual level, but should we then infer that Avraham, Yitzchak, Moshe, and all others who required circumcision were on a lower spiritual plane than Yaakov or Yosef? Rather, it is not a question of what level one is at but how one has achieved that level. In one’s religious striving, does one engage evil, opposing forces and eventually gain mastery over them, or does one avoid the engagement altogether? In the Midrashic mindset, to be born circumcised is to live a life (or at least to start a life) sheltered from the forces of evil in a protected bubble of purity.


This was certainly the case for Yosef. He lived in his own pure world, unable to tolerate the bad deeds of his brothers but oblivious to what his reporting was doing to breed their enmity against him. He was enraptured by his dreams, by these messages from God, but deaf to his brothers’ reactions to his free sharing of these visions. He innocently went to visit his brothers when they were with the sheep, with no clue as to the danger he was putting himself in.  This lack of relating to the real world explains how he became a person constantly acted upon – sent to his brothers, stripped, cast in the pit, sold to Egypt, seduced, accused, and cast into prison – a passive person showing almost no initiative of his own. He lived in a world that God controlled, and thus it was meaningless for him to try to direct the events of his life. He certainly had personal fortitude – he had the strength to resist the temptation of Potiphar’s wife – but he lacked the initiative to engage the real world unless forced to do so.


Here is where Yaakov is different. It is true that he was removed from the world in the sense that he preferred to avoid conflict. However, he was not oblivious to what was going on in the world, and he was certainly interested in worldly concerns. He very much wanted Esav’s right of the first born; he wanted the blessing; he wanted to succeed with Lavan’s sheep. But he was not prepared to fight or to argue with Esav or Lavan outright to achieve his goals. Rather, he chose to work around them to get to where he was going.


This isn’t non-engagement; it is non-direct engagement. Sometimes this way leads to deceit. Sometimes it also leads to sacrificing one’s financial interests. Consider the other point of comparison in the Midrash: Yosef is stolen twice, and Yaakov is stolen from twice. Yosef himself was taken and unjustly acted upon, first by his brothers and then by Potiphar. Yaakov, in contrast, was not himself stolen. It was Lavan’s sheep that were stolen, and Yaakov chose to pay Lavan for them regardless of whether the loss was his fault or not. He would rather pay Lavan than fight with him about who was right.


This difference plays out in the other parallels as well. Yosef’s brothers hated him because of the ways he acted as a result of being oblivious to what was going on in the world. Yaakov’s brother hated him because of actions that came from being very aware of the ways of the world, scheming to get what he wanted while keeping his hands clean. Yosef became great due to a dream that he did nothing to realize, that he allowed God to bring about in its due time. Yaakov became great due to a dream, but he acted to ensure its fulfillment by making a deal with God and then reminding God of it when he needed to see it realized.


Yosef’s path is undoubtedly the more pure one. But it is not possible for most of us to remove ourselves from this world. Nor is it necessarily wise. Yosef was blessed that God protected him from his brother’s revenge and from the dungeon of Potiphar. It would be foolish for us to imagine that we could act with such obliviousness to real world consequences with similar impunity. So while Yosef might represent a partial tikkun to Yaakov’s approach, it remains only partial. The true tikkun is to find a way to engage the world in a straightforward and direct manner.


Yaakov himself made this shift when he fought the mysterious man without running away or looking for some less direct way to fight. The man smote him on the curve of his thigh, at the sciatic nerve, exactly in the location of the genitals. The wounding of this area was a symbolic circumcision. In confronting his adversary, Yaakov was transforming from a person born without a foreskin to becoming a mahul – a person who could deal with challenges directly and have the strength to overcome them.


In Yaakov and Yosef, the Torah presents us with two models of a personality that desires to remain tamim – disengaged, or engaged but avoiding conflict. The ideal lies elsewhere. And it is thus that we are presented with two other personalities, two brothers who do step up to the plate when problems arise: Reuven and Yehudah.


Both Reuven and Yehudah acted to save Yosef when the brothers were prepared to kill him. Reuven confronted them directly, convincing them to cast Yosef in the pit. He reasoned that the best he could do was persuade the brothers to let Yosef die indirectly, and then to find some way to retrieve Yosef from the pit. This might have been the perfect plan. It required some lack of honesty, but really, how honest must one be when dealing with potential murders? At least he was willing to address them head on. His problem, however, was lack of follow-through. Reuven is more than ready to rush in to save the day, but he is impetuous: “Turbulent as water, you will not excel” (49:4). He needs to slow down, to plan the next steps, and to see the plan through to the end. This trait continues to be a problem when it comes time to convince Yaakov to send Binyamin down to Egypt, as we will see in the next parasha.


Yehudah is the true tikkun of Yaakov. Yehudah confronts the problem and sees it through to the end, at least to the greatest degree possible. He convinced the brothers not to let Yosef die but to sell him. He can’t control the situation beyond that, but at least he is able to ensure that Yosef’s life is saved. Perhaps he could have achieved more; perhaps more courage was needed. That will emerge in the following story with Tamar, where he is also prepared to step up and do the right thing even if it requires great courage in admitting past wrongs. But even now, his approach is the correct one – confront the problem head on, have a plan, see it through. It is this trait that will ensure that the brothers can return to Egypt with Binyamin, and it is this that, coupled with tremendous courage, will ensure Binyamin’s release.


There are many ways to deal with our challenges. The goal is not to avoid confronting them as part of a misguided attempt to remain pure. True, Yosef is only a partial tikkun of Yaakov. The true model for us must be the one that began with Yaakov’s own struggle with the mysterious man and which was fully realized in the person of Yehudah. It is the model of engagement and of courage. It is the model of a leader.

Shabbat Shalom!