Parashat Vayechi: I Would Rather Not Witness the Redemption

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20 Dec 2007

Parashat Vayechi 5768 and The Tenth of Tevet

(Read last year’s dvar torah too – Parashat Vayechi 5767)

PART ONE: The Tenth of Tevet

The fast day of the tenth of Tevet was designated by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel as the “General Day of Kaddish” for our brothers and sisters who were murdered in the Shoah and whose day of death is not known.

The Torah states (Shemot 22,5):

כי תצא אש ומצאה קצים ונאכל גדיש או הקמה או השדה שלם ישלם המבער את הבערה

If a fire spreads to weeds (in another’s field) and devours bales of wheat or uncut wheat or the field, the negligent perpetrator must make payment

The Holocaust is the greatest calamity to befall the Jewish nation, outranking even the destruction of the two Batei Hamikdash, as explained in Midrash Aycha 4 in its analysis of chap. 79 in Tehillim. The chapter begins with, “Mizmor Le’Asaf” – a song of praise (to Hashem) composed by Asaf (the Levi). The midrash points out that this introductory sentence is totally incompatible with the text, which deals with the projected destruction of the Bet Hamikdash; it should read “Kina Le’Asaf” – a lamentation composed by Asaf, not “Mizmor le’Asaf” – a song of praise composed by Asaf?

And the Midrash explains that the destruction of the Batay Hamikdash is certainly a calamity of the first order. But even within the context of this punishment, Hashem showed His mercy by venting His anger on the wood and stones of the structure rather than destroying the people responsible for the destruction.

From here we see that even when we sin to the degree that Hashem sees fit to severely punish us, He vents His anger on our material possessions not mass annihilation of His Chosen Nation. So the inescapable question is, how did it come about in Hashem’s world that six million Jews, including one and a half million children and millions of G-d fearing, Torah Jews were sent to olam haba through the chimneys of Auschwitz-Birkenau and the other death camps?

Now, if one should make a determination that the Shoah was a punishment for the sins of the Jewish people, he would be hard pressed to explain, that since all Jews are mutual guarantors (kol Yisrael arayveem ze la’ze), why only the Jews of Europe and parts of North Africa suffered such a fate, whereas the Jews of the U.S. and Eretz Yisrael were not only spared but enjoyed good lives?

The matter of the Shoah is and will remain dominant in Jewish thought and behavior until the Mashiach arrives. In all humility, I wish to state my personal understanding of these events, which consoles me in some small way when facing the unspeakable horror of the Shoah.

On the above quoted verse:

כי תצא אש ומצאה קצים ונאכל גדיש או הקמה או השדה שלם ישלם המבער את הבערה

If a fire spreads to weeds (in another’s field) and devours bales of wheat or uncut wheat or the field, the negligent perpetrator must make payment.

The gemara explains that the “weeds” are the evil-doers of the world and the bales of wheat the world’s righteous. When God decrees that the “weeds” be destroyed, the free hand of the angel of death begins with the “wheat” – the righteous who happen to be there among the evil doers at that time.

I reject any allegation that my fellow Jewish brothers and sisters sinned to a degree which justified the horrors of the Shoah. Some “experts” at counting other people’s sins place the blame on assimilation. But never has Jewish history encountered the numbers and rate of assimilation and inter marriage found today among the Jews of the United States, yet they continue to thrive. Other sin counters put the blame on Zionism, while others on the lack of Zionism. Jewish feelings of guilt knows no bounds, as defined by “Jewish “Altsheimers” – where one forgets all except the guilt.

I submit that the Shoah was not a “Jewish thing”. It was a decree made by Hashem, and put into effect with the first world war, that the evil descendants of Eisav should put an end to one another. Russians should kill Germans, and Germans Englishmen, and the English should kill Austrians etc. WW II was simply a continuation of WW I, after an extended cease fire. We were turned into soap because the leash on insanity was released and the Jews were caught up in it BECAUSE WE WERE THERE! And we were there because we did not understand that when Eisav kills Eisav, it is no place for Ya’akov to be.

When the inhibitions of hatred are released then the ever-present hatred of Jews rises to the fore and Eisav seeks to put an end to Yaakov.


PART TWO: I Would Prefer Not To Be Here When Redemption Comes

Rashi, on our parasha (49,a) states, that before his demise, Ya’akov’s sons assembled around his bed to hear prophetic messages regarding the end of days. But when Ya’akov saw what the future held for his descendants, the holy spirit escaped from within him and his mind became blank.

Similarly, the Gemara (Sanhedrin 98,b) relates that three great rabbis, Ula, Raba and Rabbi Yochanan, all declared that they would prefer not to be alive when the Mashiach comes.

What is the dark destiny which was so imperceptible for the great Ya’akov, and in the face of which these great rabbis decided that it is better not to be witness to the advent of the Mashiach?

One could simply reply that the future destiny of mankind is that nations and terror organizations will fling nuclear devices at each other. I am doubtful. For if HaShem will permit such a scenario, there will no longer be air to breath nor water to drink, no Bet Hamikdash nor Yerushalaim, and only the lowly amoeba will remain to tell the story of a world gone mad.

Therefore, I submit the following:

When does an army unit call for enforcements? Answer: When they face certain defeat.

When does your son come to you for help with his math homework? Answer: When he is frustrated in his attempts to do it alone.

When will the Jewish nation be in need of a Mashiach (Messiah)? Answer: When we will have failed in the calling for which we were chosen.

As long as the Mashiach is not here, HaShem still has trust in our potential to fulfill our sacred obligation to sanctify the Holy Name. When the “end of time” will arrive and the Mashiach will announce his presence, we will know that the trust put into us to live a sacred life according to the Torah will have been terminated.

Our father Ya’akov and the three rabbis did not wish to see the moment when HaShem will raise His hands in disgust (as it would be) and send the Mashiach to save the remnant which will remain at that time.

And what will be the great failure which by necessity will bring on the Mashiach?

It is the inability of the rabbinic leadership to sit together and decide what is necessary for the survival and growth of the Jewish nation.

The great majority of talmidei chachamim (Torah scholars) are present today in the holy land. They can be found amongst all the various ideological groups. Religious Zionism includes heads of yeshivot, judges, authors, deciders of halachic matters (poskim), as do the chassidic and Lithuanian groups and the old entrenched families of the “eiidah ha’charaydit.”

But the differences are such as to make it impossible for them to be present in the same room.

Annapolis succeeded in having mortal enemies around the same table, but try to get a charedi rosh yeshiva to sit with a “mizrachi” talmid chacham who knows even more than he, but who happens to also be a colonel in Tzahal and “spilled his guts” defending this land.

We hear in passing conversation, “Let the Mashiach come already.” It is tantamount to admitting failure.

Eulogies are often very stirring and beautiful, but it requires someone to die.

The days of the Mashiach will hold in them greatness for the people of Israel, but they will come only on the wake of admission of failure.

But it is never too late to succeed, if our rabbis can come together despite their differences and show us the way of the Torah.

PART THREE: Yosef Is Not God’s Messenger

At the end of the parsha, we encounter a baffling encounter between Yosef and his brothers, when they prostrate themselves before Yosef, and remind him that their father, Yaakov, warned him not to seek revenge. To this, Yosef answers, “Ha’ta’chat E-lo’kim ano’chi!” – am I God’s messenger (agent) in this matter?!


1- Where do we find in the Torah that Yaakov told Yosef not to enact punishment on his brothers?

2- At the time of their father’s death, the brothers and Yosef had already lived together in harmony for 17 years. Yosef is even quoted in the Torah several times assuring his brothers that what happened was the hand of G-d; so why are the brothers afraid now of Yosef’s revenge?

3- What did Yosef mean when he said that he is not G-d’s messenger in this matter?

I suggest the following:

1- Yaakov did indeed warn Yosef to forgive and forget.

In parshat Vayigash 46:29, when Yaakov meets Yosef after 17 years of separation, we are told that Yosef readied his carriage by himself, and when he saw his father, Yosef collapsed in his father’s arms and cried bitterly.

Rashi comments that the pasuk describes what Yosef was doing, but what about Yaakov? Quoting the Midrash, Rashi informs us that Yaakov was saying “She’ma”. Now, the question is, if it was time to recite Kri’at Sh’ma, Yosef should be reciting it together with Yaakov; if it was not the time, why was Yaakov saying “Sh’ma”?

The Midrash is informing us of Yaakov’s profound thoughts at that time. At that most dramatic moment, Yaakov’s life suddenly passed before him: the good, sweet days in his parents’ home before having to run away; the meeting and marriage to the beautiful, righteous Rachel; the birth of his children. In contrast, there were the bitter days of strife with his brother Eisav; the death of his beloved Rachel; and, worst of all the disappearance of his son Yosef. In Yaakov’s mind, all that transpires in one’s life is either an emanation of midat ha’din (the harsh quality of justice) or midat ha’rachamim (the quality of grace). Yosef’s disappearance was midat ha’din in all its ferocity.

Suddenly, at that moment, when seeing Yosef and his improbable rise to power in a foreign and threatening land by the hand of God, Yaakov realized the error in his world view. The disappearance of Yosef, which, in his mind, was the epitome of midat hardin, was in fact midat ha’rachamim, for it prepared the way to provide sustenance for the Jewish family (nation) at that very difficult time.

At that moment, Yaakov understood that the dichotomy of midat ha’din and midat ha’rachamim was erroneous. In essence, they are one, because the preparation for midat ha’rachamim in this world is a period of suffering. Therefore, Yaakov, at that moment, attempted to relate to Yosef this very crucial lesson- that the experiences, which befell him at the hands of his brothers, were God’s way of providing salvation for the family. Yaakov calls out, loud, so Yosef should hear his words: “Shema Yisrael God E-lo’kay’nu God E’chad” not as reciting Kriat Shema, but referring to himself, for his name is “Yisrael”. “God”, which is midat ha’rachamim, and “E-lokaynu“, which he believed was midat ha’din – “God E’chad” are in fact “e’chad” – one, for both are essentially midat ha’rachamim. Here Yaakov was telling Yosef to forgive and forget. But Yosef was too hurt as a victim to do so. Yosef, the victim, seeks not only compensation, but also justice in the form of punishment for the perpetrators of his suffering.

2- In the 17 years that Yosef lived with his brothers in apparent harmony, the brothers were cognizant of one brutal fact – Yosef never said to them “sa’lach’ti” – I forgive you. So, when Yaakov was no longer present in the family circle, the brothers prepared for the worst.

Their fears were compounded by an event, which is recorded in the Midrash.

Upon their journey to bury Yaakov in Eretz Yisrael, the entourage passed through the Valley of Dotan, north of Shechem. At a certain spot, Yosef gives the order to halt. He then descends from his imperial carriage and walks several meters to the edge of a pit, kneeling down and looking into the deep abyss. This was the pit into which he had been cast by his brothers; that same pit, empty of water but filled with snakes and scorpions.

Yosef knelt there a while and then returned without a word to his carriage to continue the journey to Hevron. This was a mortifying signal for the brothers – Yosef had neither forgotten, nor forgiven.

3- On their return to Egypt, the brothers prostrate themselves before Yosef, and reminded him of his father’s message when reciting “Sh’ma Yisrael”- that their cruelty to Yosef was in fact midat ha’rachamim of God, so they do not deserve to be punished.

Yosef replies that they need not worry for “ha’tachat elokin anochi” – I am not G-d’s messenger in this matter. I will not punish you, but punishment will be enacted when God sees fit.

Indeed, punishment was meted out to the Jewish nation 1500 years later, at the time of the Roman conquest of Eretz Yisrael – in the episode of the ten martyred rabbanim, when the Roman governor, after reading the story of Yosef and his brothers, informs them that since the days of the Brothers, Am Yisrael has not seen ten such great men in one generation. They, the rabbanim, will stand in lieu of the ten brothers, and pay the price for their crime of kidnapping and selling a fellow Jew, in- keeping with the laws of the Torah.

As stated previously, Yosef, as a victim, informs the brothers that he is not the messenger of God to mete out their due punishment, which will come in time. It is for this reason that the episode of the Ten Martyrs is included in the Yom Kippur liturgy- so that on this solemn day, despite the fact that we are victims of other people’s actions, we should forgive and forget, because not to do so might enact heavenly repercussions that we all will regret.

I would like to elaborate on the answer that Yosef told his brothers to assuage their fears – that he (Yosef) is not God’s messenger.

The Torah recognizes the institution of appointing messengers (sh’lichim), or agents, who act in the best interest of the appointer. One may appoint an agent to purchase or sell real estate, to bring a korban to the Bet Hamikdash and even to betroth a wife. One may not appoint an agent with regard to a “mitzva sh’be’gufo” (a mitzva which one must fulfill through his physical being), such as wearing tefilin or eating matza on Pessach. A story is told of a man whose father passed away, and the son appointed a sh’liach to “sit shiv’a” in his stead. The son then inquired- is he obligated to pay a condolence call on his agent?

Not long ago, an incident occurred here, which deserves comment. There is a battalion in Tzahal called the “Chareidi battalion” comprised of sons of chareidi families and other religious young men. They are first class soldiers, with many receiving citations for valor.

Not long ago, a highly respected rabbi from the USA visited the battalion, and among some very appropriate remarks added something to the effect that, “you are our sh’lichim” – our agents in the struggle for Eretz Yisrael.

I know that the rabbi intended no malice, but rabbis have to be doubly careful of what they say. In the agent/appointer relationship, there is a requirement of a degree of similarity. Both must be of age, both must have a standing before the law, etc. However, the similarity between our young soldiers and the Jews in the Galut is, to be blunt, non-existent.

We are not the agents of the Jews in the Galut. Our sons are an entity apart from those who might sympathize with them, but do everything to protect their own children from donning the uniform of today’s Maccabeem. It would be accurate to state that if there was a method of measuring pain, then the suffering of one young soldier in Hadassah hospital is overwhelmingly greater than the totality of all the pain felt by the Jewish people in the Galut for the Jews of Eretz Yisrael in the last 55 years.

As Yosef said, “ha’tachat e-lokim ano’chi” – I am not God’s messenger, our sons can proudly say, “we are God’s messengers in the rebirth of His people in Eretz Yisrael“.

Shabbat Shalom, Nachman Kahana

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.