Parashat Vayigash: Breaking Out of the 4 Walls, As God Decrees

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13 Dec 2007

Parashat Vayigash 5768

PART ONE: Breaking Out of Our 4 Walls

A year has past since the OU has made my weekly divrei Torah available to their very wide reading public. So this is a suitable time to pause in order to clarify and consolidate the fundamental ideas underlying what I have been trying to convey in the last fifty plus articles.

In addition to the 13 universal, immutable, cardinal doctrines (ani ma’amim) of the Rambam there are variable ones depending on time and place.

The gemara (Brachot 8a) says

מיום שחרב בית המקדש אין לו להקדוש ברוך הוא בעולמו אלא ארבע אמות של הלכה בלבד

The text is saying that as a result of the destruction of the bet hamikdash and the subsequent exile of our people to the far flung corners of the world, a change occurred in the manner in which HaShem relates to the Jewish nation and what His demands are from us.

Due to the destruction, we were no longer able to apply the Torah in its fullest sense, in all realms of life. Before the destruction we were the government. We controlled religious life, the economy, foreign policy, the military, health services , education, welfare, agriculture, manufacture, import export, construction, immigration, police, penal system, and all else which defines a nation. But after the destruction we were motley groups of refugees seeking a place to rest our weary heads at the mercy of any nation who would permit us to stay in their land.

HaShem relegated us to the “four amot” of halacha – the theoretical Torah with very limited practical application. No longer a Bet Hamikdash, no longer the agricultural laws etc., just the four walls of the bet hamidrash, between pogrom and pogrom.

This was the situation for 2000 years, when Jewish life was centered on remaining alive and the Torah was compressed into the laws of personal halachot.

On the fifth day of Iyar 5708 (May 14 according to the calendar of the nations) HaShem restored to us the scepter of responsibility over our lives. The Jews in Eretz Yisrael were again in charge of our religious life, the economy, foreign policy, the military, health services , education, welfare, agriculture, manufacture, import export, construction, immigration, police, penal system, and all else which defines a nation. The strangling limitations of the “four amot of halacha” now dissipated and in its place the people of God were restored to the responsibilities of applying the Torah to all segments of human endeavor.

The initial step in creating a world under HaShem, which is the ultimate aim of the Torah, begins with establishing a Torah society in Eretz Yisrael, where justice and kiddusha (sanctity) prevail.

This requires a drastic rethinking of our Torah values. If we send all our young people to spend their days in kollelim, then obviously the ship of state will be navigated by people who are far from Torah.

This is the age old conflict of the meraglim (scouts) of Moshe Rabbeinu’s time. They were huge talmidei chachamim, before whom even the Vilna Gaon was silent. But they didn’t understand that it was not their duty to tell HaShem how to run His world. The ideal of the Torah is to create a society based on keddusha, which requires people of keddusha to dirty their hand and build that society from its foundations.

Every young person must go through the yeshiva until he is capable of independent study, but then he must leave to bring his Torah to the manifold areas of life. Those who are gifted and can serve as rabbis and poskim, are to remain in the yeshiva until such time when they will achieve their potential.

Doctors, professors, military men, ambassadors, engineers, airline pilots, road laborers, ditch diggers, members of parliament, all steeped in the love and fear of HaShem – that is the ideal of the Torah. To do an honest day’s work and return home to 5 or 6 hours of Torah study, that is the ideal of a “mamlechet kohanim ve’ goi kadosh” – a kingdom of kohanim and a holy nation – which HaShem told Moshe which the Torah must produce.

This is my “ani ma’amim” (I believe), and it can obviously come about only in the land set aside by the Creator for this purpose – Eretz Yisrael.

The rabbis and their followers in chutz la’aretz, to the degree that they enlarge their presence there by building another shul, another yeshiva, another mikva another bungalow colony another “tish”, distance the ideals of the Torah from their fulfillment.

In this week’s parasha, Yehuda meets his moment of reckoning. He approaches the Viceroy of Egypt in full knowledge of his less than honorable conduct in the past regarding his young brother, Yosef, and the heavenly retribution now being exacted from the brothers. But that is the measure of the greatness of the man – he admits his mistakes and is prepared to make amends or suffer the consequences.

In this week of parashat vayigash, let every religious leader in the galut approach a mirror (as Yehuda approached Yosef) and ask himself, “HaShem has granted me an understanding heart to lead and the intellect to understand and retain Torah. Am I giving to the men and women in my circle the advice which will best guarantee their physical and spiritual welfare? Am I encouraging my people to take part in the greatest act of love which HaShem has shown us in 2000 years, by permitting us to return home? Am I being true to the Torah which I have learned? What will I answer on the great day of judgment?”

PART TWO: Man’s Best Efforts, God’s Decree

It has all the ingredients of a best-selling novel or blockbuster movie: sibling rivalry, jealousy, attempted murder; a thrilling, life-threatening scene in a pit of serpents, an unexpected rescue, degradation in the slave market, a beautiful seductress and her jealous husband; incarceration for life, a surprise release, ascent to international fame and power, and then, sweet revenge.

These are the elements in the story of Yosef and his brothers. A great book, a better movie, a great bedtime story. What is it doing in the Holy Torah?

The question becomes even more enigmatic in view of the first Rashi in the Torah, which defines the purpose of the book of Bereishit.

Rashi quotes Rav Yitzchak of the Midrash, who states that since the Torah is the God-given book of law for Am Yisrael, it should begin with the first mitzva revealed to Moshe – calculating the months, years and leap years, but not with the story of creation. This for another two reasons: 1) There were no human witnesses to corroborate the fact of creation. And if this may sound “strange” to the ear of a religious Jew, please be informed that is the reason given by the chacham in the book of the Kuzari (authored by Rav Yehuda Ha’levi) for basing his belief in Judaism on the mass exodus from Egypt where there were millions of witnesses and not on the act of creation. 2) The story of creation does not contribute in any way to resolving the great scientific mysteries of the ages- the age of the universe; did it all begin with a big bang? Is the universe infinitely expanding, or will the force of gravity eventually overcome the force of expansion, and in another hundred trillion years all matter in the universe will return to its primordial, infinitesimally unimaginable small size of mass?

Rav Yitzchak explains that the Torah begins with the fact that God created the world for one “simple” purpose: to let us know that since God is the Creator and hence the master of all – people, angels and things- He has the right to give Eretz Yisrael to whom He wishes. Since He chose to give the Land to the Jewish nation, no one may oppose this choice. Rav Yitzchak basis his teaching on the pasuk in Tehilim (111:6), “Ko’ach ma’asav he’geed le’amo latet la’hem na’cha’lat goyim” – G-d informed His nation (the Jews) the power of His actions (creation) in order to give to them (the Jews) a homeland within the nations.

And Rav Yitzchak explains: in the event the nations of the world will point an accusing finger at us for “stealing” the Holy Land, we should reply that God created the world, and, for a time, gave Eretz Yisrael to the Canaanites, but retrieved it from them and gave it to us. It should be noted that the above pasuk from Tehilim reads, “Ko’ach ma’asav he’geed le’amo” – God informed His nation (the Jews) the power of His actions”. The pasuk does not say that God informed the nations. The reason is that God knows that we cannot convince the irrational anti-Jewish nations of our special status as G-d’s chosen people. Indeed, once a gentile said, “I don’t believe that Jesus ever lived, but I believe the Jews killed him”. God’s intention is that when the nations condemn us for our chutzpa in remaining alive and even returning home, we should not be deterred in our determination to reclaim every centimeter of Biblical Eretz Yisrael. (Let this serve as a warning to the Leftists and defeatists among us, that if “the kitchen is too hot”, there is a big world out there where they can find tranquility).

Now, as stated above, the story of Yosef and his brothers seemingly has no place in a book dedicated to assuring that Eretz Yisrael belongs to the Jewish nation!

I would suggest that the opposite is true – the story of Yosef was included in the book of Beraysheet to give credence to the first Rashi in the Torah – that God’s gift of Eretz Yisrael to us is eternal and indisputable.

Yosef had two visions that he would one day rule the Jewish people. We are informed in parshat Va’yay’shev that his brothers were jealous to the point of intense hatred, but “aviv sha’mar et ha’davar” – his father, Yaakov, (as brought in Rashi) knew it was a true decree from God, and waited for it to become reality.

Ya’akov knew from personal experience something his sons were not aware of, because they did not experience it in their own lives. It was a lesson Ya’akov learned from his mother, Rivka, when she convinced him to circumvent his brother, Eisav, in order to receive their father’s blessing. The question is: How did Rivka enter into such a moral dilemma by going against her husband’s expressed wishes, in addition to the fact that the chances for her plan to succeed were dim?

I would say, that when Rivka was suffering unexplainable pains in her pregnancy, she went “to ask of God”. She was informed that she will give birth to twins, who will be the progenitors of great rival nations, and the older (Aysev) will serve the younger (Yaakov). Rivka knew that since this is a decree from God, no force in the world would be able to deter its realization. The moral basis for Rivka’s act and her absolute confidence that it will succeed were founded on the revelation that this is God’s decree.

Ramban, in his commentary on Bereishit 37:15, puts it very succinctly: “Ha’ge’zayra emet ve’ha’charee’tzoot sheker” – G-d’s decree is true (absolute), and human efforts to thwart it (the decree) are false (can never succeed). When Ya’akov heard Yosef’s dreams, and as Rashi states, “he waited for their realization”, Ya’akov was acting in accordance with the lesson he had learned from his mother, that God’s decree could not be averted by the actions of man. (This explains why Yaakov was in such deep mourning when he was informed that Yosef was dead. While many people who, unfortunately, lose a child, eventually return to “normal” life, it was not just the loss of a beloved son that affected Yaakov. It was the theological dilemma: how is it possible that God’s decree that Yosef will reign over his brothers would no longer be realized?)

The end of the story confirms the lesson of Rivka and the principle stated by Ramban – that God’s decree will be realized, and no manner of human effort can negate it. Eventually, Yaakov lives to see Yosef as master over his brothers, and the brothers learn that despite their “best” efforts to rid themselves of the threat imposed by Yosef’s presence in the family, God’s decree will be done!

God commands Moshe to record the story of Yosef and his brothers as a completion of what was stated by Rav Yitzchak in the first Rashi of the Torah; that is, since the Holy Land of Eretz Yisrael, with Yerushalayim as the “gateway to heaven”, is decreed by God as belonging to the Jewish nation, no power on earth or in heaven can negate this decree. Even when the facts on the ground create a situation whereby the small number of Jews in Eretz Yisrael today are politically isolated, militarily outnumbered, in economic distress, surrounded by Islamic insanity, threatened by world- wide anti-Jewishness, and abandoned by millions of our brothers who prefer to stay away and leave the few of us to fulfill G-d’s decree, that decree will be realized.

When the Bet Hamikdash will adorn the “top of the mountain” (the words of Yishayahu), and Eretz Yisrael will extend to the banks of the Euphrates and the Nile, and the Land will be filled with Torah study (as in the days of King Chizkiyahu, Sanhedrin 94b) and the spirit of God will embrace every Jew here, then Rivka, Yaakov, the brothers and Ramban will carry on their shoulders the few who believed that “the decree is true, and human efforts to thwart it are false”.

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.