Peninim On The Torah: Parshas Vayechi


torahBy Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum

G-d who shepherds me from my inception until this day… May the angel who redeems me from all evil┬ábless the lads. (48:15,16)

The Midrash makes an intriguing statement concerning the relationship between those two pesukim. Since geulah, redemption, is juxtaposed upon parnassah, livelihood, we understand that the two are analogous to one another. Just as geulah is a pele, wonder/supernatural act, so, too, is parnassah a pele. At a cursory glance, one would imagine that the act of redemption, liberating a nation from bondage, exile – or from whatever constraints in which the people find themselves – is an act of Heaven. It is not something to which we are accustomed on a regular basis. In the minds of most people, earning a living is totally natural. One labors, puts in time, exerts himself and is paid commensurately. It is that simple – or so we think. Chazal teach us otherwise. Contrary to popular opinion, the “curse” of B’zeias apecha tochal lechem, “By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread” (Bereishis 3:19), with which Hashem cursed man after he sinned, is not the “new” seed which sprouts the fruits of one’s livelihood.

Horav Chaim Yaakov Goldvicht, zl, explains that nothing changed concerning man’s livelihood from before the sin to afterwards. Man is sustained directly from Hashem’s open hand. The difference between before the sin and afterwards is that, prior to the sin, man was worthy of receiving his due directly from Hashem – without the embellishment of nature: No intermediary; no cover-ups; full disclosure; directly from Hashem, the Source of sustenance. Once Man sinned, he was no longer worthy of such revealed, miraculous intervention. His livelihood would now be concealed within a veil of natural occurrence called b’zeias apecha. He would have to put forth effort, toil and sweat, in order to receive his sustenance. It comes from the same source, but its appearance changed. This is the challenge over which man must triumph: to see through the cloud of ambiguity and discern the hand of Hashem Who is sustaining him from his own sweat and toil. His inability to see, unless he really looks with great clarity of vision, is part of the curse.

This is what Chazal mean when they compare redemption to earning a livelihood. They are both derived from the same source. When man opens his eyes and looks, he will notice that Hashem guides his livelihood. We find it difficult to acknowledge, because we think the “sweat of our brow” catalyzes our success. This is the curse of b’zeias apecha tochal lechem.

Rav Goldvicht writes that he learned this lesson as a young boy, from an elderly Yerushalmi storekeeper. The elderly man eked out his paltry livelihood from the meager earnings he garnered from his little stationery store. This was in the “old days” before the time of the mega department store. Every block was filled with small “mama and papa” stores selling their wares. The little stationery store sold pencils, pens, erasers, paper, notebooks, etc. Understandably, its primary market was the schoolchildren who needed supplies. The norm was that one student did not enter alone on a shopping spree. They always brought their friends. Therefore, on any given day, a young boy or girl seeking a simple pen or an eraser would come in accompanied by his or her twenty closest friends, each one working off his daily sugar intake. Clearly, this was not the easiest, most relaxing way to earn a living, especially for a gentleman who was aging.

Rav Goldvicht relates that he came in one day and saw the storekeeper, Reb Shlomo, in action. It was lunchtime at the local cheder, and a young boy needed a blue eraser. Since this was an especially difficult decision to make alone, he brought along his fifteen closest friends. Reb Shlomo climbed up a ladder and rummaged through a number of boxes, finally locating a blue eraser. He climbed down and showed it to the boy, who asked, “Do you have something nicer than this?” Reb Shlomo said nothing, but climbed back up the ladder and searched for something more “acceptable” to the needs of the young connoisseur. He brought down another eraser, which pleased the young man. Haggling over the price followed. An elderly Jew, and a young boy accompanied by fifteen friends, were all in profound dialogue concerning the value of this blue eraser. They finally agreed on a price; the children left, and Reb Shlomo looked at the young Rav Goldvicht and said, “This goes on every day.”

Reb Shlomo continued, “Hashem cursed man, saying B’zeias apecha tochal lechem. I can live with that. Entailed in this curse, however, is the notion that one will earn a living. It will be difficult, but he will earn. Sadly, I have the curse but no earnings to show for it.”

This occurred at the beginning of the week. On Thursday, the situation had not yet changed. He still did not have sufficient money to cover his expenses for Shabbos. Thursday afternoon, as his depression was getting to him, an American tourist entered the store looking for a Parker pen. A Parker pen was not the pen of choice for the average Israeli. It was very expensive. Apparently, this American was accustomed to the finer things in life, and the price did not seem to concern him. In addition, a Parker pen sold at a premium, so the mark-up was substantial. The buyer was so impressed with the quality, that he asked for two pens. His elementary school daughter could use another pen. The sale was made, and Reb Shlomo now had more than enough funds for Shabbos.

Reb Shlomo was still not satisfied. He had another question to ask of the Almighty: “B’zeias apecha is a curse. I just earned a handsome profit without expending any effort. Where is the curse?” He reflected for a moment and realized, “One question answers the other. We think that the sweat of our brow catalyzes our earnings. This is untrue! Labor, toil, and sweat – these are the ‘tax’ Hashem places upon us as payment for the sin of Adam HaRishon. Parnassah, livelihood, is from Heaven. Hashem supports us – not the sweat and toil. We must pay our tax, and, when we have paid sufficiently toward our individual quota of the curse, we receive our due from Hashem. I paid my toll at the beginning of the week through serving the youngsters. Now, I receive my earning without any added effort. I expended enough for the entire week.”

Reb Shlomo was a simple man who had a profound understanding of how parnassah works. We should all merit such perception.

Yehudah – you, your brothers shall acknowledge; your hand will be at your enemies’ nape; your father’s sons shall prostrate themselves to you. A lion cub is Yehudah; from the prey, my son, you elevate yourself. (49:8,9)

Yehudah received an impressive blessing from his father, particularly in one area: complicity in the suspected responsibility for the murder of Yosef. The phrase, miteref beni alissa, “from the prey, my son, you elevate yourself,” is interpreted by Rashi as relating to the “tearing apart” (teref is defined as prey, but literally means tearing apart) of Yosef, a reference to the perceived murder of Yaakov Avinu’s son, Yosef. Yehudah had risen above suspicion. Originally, Yaakov had suspected that Yehudah, the son destined for monarchy, was the mastermind behind Yosef’s disappearance. After all, Yosef had been a threat to the throne.

Yaakov now declared that, on the contrary, Yehudah was instrumental in saving Yosef. It was Yehudah who issued the challenge to his brothers, Mah betza ki naharog achinu, v’kisinu es damo, “What gain will there be if we kill our brother and cover up his blood?” (Bereishis 37:26) On the other hand, Yehudah was punished for beginning a mitzvah, attempting to save Yosef, and not following through. Reuven, however, did not receive such royal treatment from his father. He was blessed, but not to the extent that Yehudah was. Why? Reuven also attempted to save Yosef, something which the Torah explicitly states. Ironically, it was not even his fault that he did not succeed. By the time he returned, Yosef had already vanished. It seems incongruous that Yehudah, who had been part of the original plan to kill Yosef but later changed his mind, received a greater blessing than Reuven, who was from the very beginning opposed to any harm coming to Yosef, but had simply returned too late to save him.

Horav Sholom Schwadron, zl, asserts that their original intentions played the critical role in their individual rewards. From the very outset, Reuven did not countenance eliminating Yosef. He argued against bodily harm. Thus, he did not have to deal with second thoughts; he neither had to alter his position; nor did he have to contend with rationalizations to justify changing his mind, as was the case with Yehudah. Unquestionably, Reuven deserved reward for his good intentions, but he was basically acting in accordance with his sensibilities. Yehudah, however, had to live with the demons that appear when one has the courage to change his position, when he realizes that he has erred. Yehudah realized that they had been wrong concerning Yosef, and he was man enough to concede his error.

It is most difficult to acknowledge that one might have been wrong or that someone else’s view makes more sense. We seek every avenue to validate our opinions, to justify our actions, to rationalize our attitude. It is the intrepid spirit who possesses strong character, who can admit to a mistake in judgment and be flexible enough to alter his course of action. This characterized Yehudah, and explains why he received such a momentous reward.

Rav Sholom substantiates this idea citing the choice of words of Yaakov Avinu, miteref beni alissa, “from the prey, my son, you elevate yourself.” Yehudah actually elevated himself above his brothers. After he had agreed to be a part of their plan to eliminate Yosef, he changed his mind and elevated himself by challenging their decision. He had no qualms about acknowledging that he had erred, because his life was governed by emes, truth. When he realized that what his brothers were doing was not emes, he immediately attempted to convince them to recant their decision. This same fidelity to the truth prompted Yehudah to confess that he was the one who had been with Tamar. He was the father of her unborn children. One cannot hide from the truth. This unique quality was the reason that Hashem selected Yehudah for monarchy. A leader must not only adhere to the truth, he must also live by it, regardless of the consequences.

Yehudah could have easily justified not coming forth and saving Tamar at the expense of his reputation. It was a chillul Hashem, desecration of Hashem’s Name, that such a distinguished leader had a tryst with a woman of ill repute. Who could confirm that Tamar was right? Maybe he was not the father. He knew the truth, however, and a monarch does what is right, or else he should not be a monarch. The Torah world does not live by the same standard as contemporary society, which is marked by crooked politicians and self-serving leaders. If a Jewish leader cannot declare, Tzadkah mimeni, “She is more righteous than I!” he should not lead. He is missing the most important attribute necessary for true leadership: integrity.

In Tehillim 85:12, David Hamelech says, Emes meieretz titzmach, “Truth will sprout from the earth.” The Baal Shem Tov, zl, wonders why truth is available at such a premium. If it is sprouting from the ground, it should be readily accessible to all. Why would it be any different than the herbage that grows in abundance? He explains that it is, indeed, there for anyone to “pick.” It is growing in the ground, but, after all is said and done, it is on the ground. One must bend down to pick it up, and bending down can, at times, involve some embarrassment. Not everyone is willing to sacrifice so much. Lowering oneself, or putting oneself at the mercy of the scorn of others, is too high a price for some to pay to acquire the quality of truth. For some of us, “bending down” requires too great an effort. That, regrettably, is the sad commentary on society. Truth is just not worth it. I have an ego to feed, a reputation to nurture and uphold. Obviously, such people have a bigger problem than they are able to admit.

We do not understand the extent that one must go to speak the truth – to live a life of integrity. Horav Yechezkel Levinstein, zl, the venerable Mashgiach of Mir and Ponevez, was an extraordinary person in many ways. His adherence to the truth was legendary. One vignette, which was seen in these pages awhile back, is one that I feel is worth repeating. It defines his character. In fact, I feel it represents the “gold standard” of the middah, attribute, of emes.

Rav Chatzkel’s (as he was endearingly called) son-in-law passed away at a very young age. The Mashgiach was bereft. His pain was overwhelming over the loss of someone so special, so close, so dear to him. Immediately thereafter, Horav Yitzchak Aizik Scher, zl, also passed away. One of the premier Torah leaders of the generation, his loss was felt throughout the Torah world. Rav Chatzkel was asked to eulogize him. He was a contemporary and a close friend. It was, therefore, surprising when, initially, Rav Chatzkel refused to speak. He explained that since his son-in-law had died recently, he was distraught over his loss. He feared that when he spoke about Rav Aizik Scher, it would invoke his grief for his son-in-law. Thus, when he would cry, the listeners would think he was crying only about Rav Aizik, he would be portraying an untruthful image, since part of that emotion would have been invoked by the loss of his son-in-law. Rav Chatzkel said, “I do not want to be a shakran, liar!” Perhaps we should ask ourselves how distant we are from such an appreciation of emes.

So they instructed that Yosef be told, “Your father gave orders before his death…Thus shall you say to Yosef: O, please, kindly forgive the spiteful deed of your brothers and the sin for which they have done you evil.” (50:16,17)

The brothers dispatched the sons of Bilhah, with whom Yosef had been very friendly, with the message to Yosef that, prior to his death, their father had asked Yosef to forgive his brothers for selling him as a slave. Veritably, this was not true. Yaakov Avinu knew that Yosef was a righteous person who would never seek vengeance. Chazal derive from here that, in order to promote peace and harmony, one may even alter the truth. This is a powerful statement, considering the Torah’s admonition in Shemos 23:7, Midvar sheker tirchak, “Distance yourself from a false word.” Indeed, regarding no other prohibition does the Torah emphasize that one should distance himself from it. If so, why does peace take precedence over the truth?

Furthermore, we find another circumstance in which Hashem Himself omitted something in order to maintain harmony in the home. When the three angels told Avraham Avinu that Sarah Imeinu would bear a child, the Matriarch laughed, saying to herself, “After I have withered shall I again have delicate skin? And my husband is old!” (Bereishis 18:12) Hashem told Avraham that Sarah had difficulty believing she would have a child, but He left out the part about her husband being old. In one case, the brothers were bending the truth, and, in the second instance, Hashem omitted part of a statement. “Truth be told,” however, both of these cases are about “subduing” the truth for the sake of peace.

Is peace truly greater than truth? At the beginning of Sefer Bereishis, the Midrash addresses the creation of humankind and seems to imply the converse. When Hashem was about to create Adam HaRishon, He “conferred” with the ministering angels. The Midrash relates that the angels were divided in their opinion concerning his creation. Basing itself on the pasuk in Tehillim 85:11, “Kindness and Truth encountered each other; Righteousness /Benevolence and Peace collide.” The Midrash offers a fascinating account of the debate which ensued in Heaven.

Kindness said that man should be created, since man would bestow kindness on others. Truth, however, contended that man should not be created, since he would be filled with falsehood. Benevolence countered that he should be created, since by nature, man would be benevolent. Peace was opposed to the creation of man, claiming that man would be contentious. They “voted” two against two. A tiebreaker was needed. Hashem took Truth and flung it down to earth. This act forced a majority in favor of creating man. Seeing this, the angels exclaimed, “Hashem, why do You despise Your seal?” Chosamo shel HaKadosh Baruch Hu emes, “The seal of the Almighty is Truth.” Hashem responded, Emes mei’eretz tismach, “Let truth spring up from the earth.” (Tehillim 85:12)

This fascinating Midrash has provided commentators with a wealth of material upon which to expound. We wonder why Hashem used Truth as the tiebreaker. Why did He not cast Peace down to the earth and keep Truth up in Heaven? Horav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, zl, explained that, by casting Truth down to earth, Hashem was in effect eliminating its reason for opposing the creation of man. Truth was now on earth. Man would no longer be dishonest. Regrettably, his other failing – his contentious nature, his gravitational pull to conflict – remained. On the other hand, had Hashem sent Peace down to earth, man’s problem of strife would have been ameliorated, but his issues concerning integrity would continue. Hashem made a choice and sent Truth down, because it is preferable to have a battle waged in an honest quest for truth than to have peace established upon a foundation of falsehood!

While this resolves the issue of why Truth was cast down to earth, it does not explain why Truth may be subdued in order to promote peace. On the contrary, Peace born of “subdued truth” is problematic. How can such peace be validated, even if it is to promote harmony between husband and wife and to encourage filial relationships between friends and family?

We suggest that the difference is between “living a lie” and “bending the truth.” Once Truth was sent down to earth, it became part of human nature. Man is, by nature, honest. Integrity is a part of his natural essence. Since Peace remained in Heaven, man does not possess a natural proclivity towards it. In other words, Peace does not come naturally to man. Chazal are teaching us that we may “bend the truth” – or go against man’s natural tendency – in order to promote peace. Otherwise, his natural instinct towards conflict will prevail, and he will bury the truth. Therefore, we go against his nature to prevent him from falling into his natural tendency. All this is done to preserve peace and harmony, which are so hard to attain and so easy to lose.

But Yosef said to them, “Fear not, for am I instead of G-d? Although you intended me harm, G-d intended it for good. (50:19,20)

After Yaakov Avinu had died, the brothers were disconcerted lest Yosef now take revenge against them. They sent him a message relating that, prior to his passing, their father, Yaakov Avinu, had asked that Yosef forgive his brothers for their actions against him. Yosef allayed their fears, asking, “Am I instead of G-d?” which Rashi interprets as a rhetorical question: “Could I alone cause harm to all of you?” He then adds that this entire fiasco was part of a Divine Plan to bring him and his family down to Egypt. Targum Onkelos, however, does not view “ha’tachas Elokim anochi” as a declarative statement. Rather, he suggests that Yosef is intimating, “I am under G-d.” I fear Him and am subservient to Him. My yiraas Shomayim, fear of Heaven, does not allow me to take any action against you. Thus, the word tachas is similar to teichas, as in al tira v’al teichas, “Do not fear and do not lose resolve.” (Devarim 1:21) We wonder why Yosef deemed it necessary to preface his words with an emphasis on his yiraas Shomayim, fear of Heaven, and then add that it was all part of Hashem’s Divine Plan. He could have just said that Hashem wanted this to occur, so who was he to contradict the Divine Plan? How does yiraas Shomayim play a role?

Horav Chaim Kamil, zl, explains that only after one has established a foundation of yiraas Shomayim as the beacon which guides his life, can he develop coherent, logical and sound reasoning. Without fear of Heaven there is no logic; nothing makes sense, every rationale can be disputed or denied. Yiraas Shomayim gives the individual the ability to think cogently without being swayed by his emotions. Anyone with a modicum of intelligence can see this phenomenon played out on a regular basis. One whose lodestar for life is yiraas Shomayim will invariably act sagaciously and with prudence – not with partiality and partisanship. He will neither act injudiciously, nor will he countenance inappropriate behavior. Yosef emphasized his fear of Heaven because he knew that, without it, he would be no different than anyone else, and the most logical reasoning would have limited, or no, effect. He saw Hashem’s Divine hand guiding all of the occurrences in his life, because Hashem’s Presence never left his mind.

The Chafetz Chaim, zl, once met the Gerrer Rebbe, zl, the Imrei Emes, and asked him to define yiraas Shomayim. The Imrei Emes, a man of few words, responded with the pasuk in Shemos 9:20, concerning those Egyptians who, upon hearing of the impending plague of barad, hail, immediately took their animals into their barns for protection, “Whoever among the servants of Pharaoh feared the word of Hashem chased his servants and his livestock to the houses.” He added that a lack of yiraas Shomayim was manifested by “and whoever did not take the word of G-d to heart.” The yarei Shomayim never loses sight of the Presence of the Almighty.

As is explained by the Zer Zahav, the Egyptian who feared Hashem did not wait for the hail to descend before he brought his animals in. The moment that Moshe Rabbeinu warned Pharaoh, these Egyptians knew it was a signal to protect themselves immediately. Hashem had “proven” time and again that His power was consummate. This teaches us, infers Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, that the yarei Shomayim is the one who takes great pains to see to it that he is not in a situation which might lead to sin. Someone who really cares about something: makes every effort to be on time; does not rush out when it is over; sees to it that he is on his best behavior; and makes sure that he is properly attired. He fears making a mistake, because acting appropriately means so much to him. This is the feeling which permeates the life of the yarei Shomayim.

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