Hamaayan / The Torah Spring
Edited by Shlomo Katz
Volume 24, No. 12
16 Tevet 5770
January 2, 2010
Nach: Yeshayah 21-22
Daf Yomi (Bavli): Bava Batra 134
Daf Yomi (Yerushalmi): Niddah 3
The Midrash Tanchuma on our parashah opens by connecting the verse (47:29), “The days approached for Yisrael [Yaakov] to die,” with the verse (Divrei Ha’yamim I 29:15), “For we are like sojourners before You, and like temporary residents, as were all our forefathers – our days on earth are like a shadow, and there is no hope [to escape death].” Says the midrash: “Our days on earth are like a shadow”-if only our lives were like the shadow of a wall or a tree [which has some permanence]; however, they are not, but rather like the shadow of a flying bird. “There is no hope”- -everyone knows and even acknowledges that he is destined to die. Avraham said (Bereishit 15:2), “I will die childless.” Yitzchak said (27:4), “So that my soul may bless you before I die.” Yaakov also said (47:30), “I will lie down with my fathers.” Therefore, concludes the midrash, the verse says, “The days approached for Yisrael to die.”
R’ Yisrael Moshe Bromberg z”l (Lodz, Poland; early 20th century) writes: To understand this midrash, one must be aware of two statements of the Zohar. First, the Zohar (Bereishit 121b) asks: What is the meaning of, “The days approached for Yisrael to die”? Does a person die over a period of days? Death occurs at one moment. Rather, this means that, shortly before a person dies, all of the days that he lived come together and give an accounting. Fortunate is a person whose days appear together before G-d and the person has no days of which he is ashamed! Also, the Zohar teaches (Bereishit 124b), a person’s days become the garment that he wears in the world to come. If one is worthy, the good deeds of his fathers become part of his garment as well.
With this background, writes R’ Bromberg, we can understand the midrash. The midrash wanted to know: Since a person’s days are fleeting, why did Yaakov wait until his last days to instruct Yosef regarding his burial in Me’arat Ha’machpelah? The answer is that Yaakov did not know until his final days, when he sensed through ruach ha’kodesh that his days had gathered together and had been joined by his father’s and grandfather’s good deeds, that he deserved to “lie down” (i.e., to be buried) with his ancestors. (Netiv Yam)
- “Yosef said to his father, `Not so, Father, for this [Menashe] is the firstborn; place your right hand on his head.’
“But his father refused, saying, `I know, my son, I know; he too will become a people, and he too will become great; yet his younger brother [Ephraim] shall become greater than he, and his offspring’s fame will fill the nations’.” (48:18-19)
What is the meaning of Yaakov’s answer to Yosef? Yaakov seems to be saying that Ephraim deserves the greater blessing because he will be greater than Menashe. But maybe, if Menashe had received the greater blessing, he would have been greater than Ephraim!
R’ Yerucham Levovitz z”l (mashgiach ruchani of the Mir Yeshiva; died 1936) explains: Yaakov could not have blessed his grandchildren any differently. In order for a blessing to be successful, it must fit the nature and the midot / traits of the recipient. We see this expressly later in the parashah, when Yaakov blessed his own children. There we read (49:28), “He blessed each according to his appropriate blessing.”
Why is this so? Because every person has a trait in which he excels and which is his tool for perfecting his other traits. For example, if a person feels drawn to prayer, he should use that drive as a means to improve himself. How so? The Gemara (Berachot 6b) states that a person who has a fixed place for prayer is called “humble.” The reason is that a person who prays with sincerity and devotion will necessarily overcome any feelings of haughtiness that he has, since prayer involves subjugating oneself to Hashem. Similarly, every person can use that trait at which he excels to improve his other characteristics as well. (Da’at Chochmah U’mussar Vol. I, No. 103)
- “Shimon and Levi are brothers . . . in their rage they killed people . . . Accursed is their rage for it is intense, and their wrath for it is harsh.” (49:5-7)
R’ Shlomo Wolbe z”l (1914-2005) writes: These verses imply two different reasons why Shimon and Levi killed the people of Shechem after that city’s prince (also called Shechem) kidnapped and violated Yaakov’s daughter Dinah. “Shimon and Levi are brothers” – they acted out of a sense of brotherhood with Dinah. “In their rage they killed people” — they acted in anger. Notably, their father cursed their anger, but not their feeling of brotherhood.
R’ Wolbe continues: These verses teach how to dissect and understand our own actions, which is a prerequisite to character improvement. At the root of every act is a middah / character trait, a religious philosophy or other excuse that seems to justify the negative action, and a fact that awakens the trait and the philosophy. Shimon and Levi’s act against Shechem was the result of a fact–Dinah had been violated; a philosophy– brothers must stand up for their sister; and a middah–anger. Only when all of these factors combined did an act–killing the people of Shechem– result.
Likewise, when Korach rebelled against Moshe Rabbeinu, his rebellion was the result of a fact–Korach saw through ruach hakodesh that his descendant, the prophet Shmuel, would be equated to Moshe and Aharon (see Tehilim 99:6); a philosophy–all Jews are equal, therefore a leader is not needed; and a middah–jealousy.
Why is this important? Because most people do not commit improper acts without some justification. Thus, the way to understand and then improve one’s own actions is to carefully analyze every justification to ensure that it is not covering up for a bad middah. [This explains why Yaakov cursed his sons’ anger, i.e., because that was the real cause of their act.] (Alei Shur Vol. I, p.161)
- “He will bless you with blessings of heaven from above, blessings of the deep crouching below . . . The blessings of your father surpassed the blessings of my parents . . .” (49:25-26)
R’ Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook z”l (1865-1935; Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Eretz Yisrael) writes: Yaakov blessed Yosef that his good fortune should be a blessing from heaven above, but clothed in the ways of the deep below, i.e., clothed in nature. Yaakov told him: My parents and grandparents experienced miracles, but my blessing to you is greater, for I bless you that nature itself shall serve you. (Olat Reiyah II p.203)
R’ Yehonatan Eyebschutz z”l (Germany; died 1764) writes that it is more amazing when Hashem interacts with the world without performing a spectacular miracle than when He performs a miracle. Given G-d’s greatness, one might have expected that He would not concern himself with “the little things.” However, one of the wonders about G-d is that He lowers Himself tobe involved in a world as small as our own. It follows that Hashem’s powers are revealed more when He acts within nature than when He changes nature. (Ya’arot Devash, Vol. I, No.3)
- “There they eulogized a very great and imposing eulogy.” (50:10)
R’ Gershon Ashkenazi z”l (1618-1693) writes: There are four eulogies implied here: (1) “They eulogized,” (2) “very [much],” (3) “great,” and (4) “imposing.” These parallel the four benefits that a wise man such as Yaakov provides to society, as enumerated in Pirkei Avot (6:1), “From him people enjoy counsel and wisdom, understanding and strength.” [A true eulogy does not involve listing the deceased’s praises, but rather describing how the survivors will feel the loss.] (Tiferet Ha’Gershuni / Chiddushei Ha’Gershuni)
Blessing the Children
There is a widespread custom that a father blesses his children and a teacher blesses his students upon returning home from shul on Friday night. To boys one says, “May Elokim make you like Ephraim and like Menashe.” (This berachah originates from Yaakov Avinu’s blessing to Yosef’s children in our parashah (48:20), “By you shall Yisrael bless saying, `May Elokim make you like Ephraim and like Menashe’.”) To girls one says, “May Elokim make you like Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah.” Thereafter, both sons and daughters are blessed with the three verses of Birkat Kohanim / the Priestly Blessing.
Why are the children blessed at this time?
R’ Chaim ben Betzalel z”l (1515-1588; rabbi of Friedberg, Germany; commonly known as “R’ Chaim brother of the Maharal of Prague”) writes: At this time, the “pipelines” that bring blessings from Heaven are open, and one should never take lightly any blessing, even of an ordinary person. [In other words, since the blessings are flowing, any person can draw them to his family even if he is not a Torah scholar.] Also, because Friday night is the beginning of the week in the sense that all of the blessings of the coming week flow from Shabbat, we bless our children at this time to counteract any anger we may express toward them during the coming week. (Sefer Ha’Chaim III, ch.6)
R’ Yaakov Emden z”l (Germany; died 1776) writes: Since the blessings from Heaven are flowing at this time and young children do not know how to draw these blessings to themselves, we bless them. It is customary to bless older children too.
R’ Emden adds: One should place both of his hands on the child’s head, as Moshe Rabbeinu did when he blessed his student Yehoshua (Bemidbar 27:23). This indicates a more generous blessing than using one hand. Why then did Yaakov Avinu place only one hand on Ephraim’s head and one on Menashe’s head (as described in our parashah)? He had no choice, since the two of them were presented to him simultaneously, R’ Emden explains. Perhaps, he adds, Hashem brought this about because he wanted Yaakov to bless Ephraim and Menashe less generously due to the unworthy men– Yerovam and Gidon–who would descend from them. (Siddur R’ Yaakov Emden)
Some add the following, which is a paraphrase of Yeshayah 11:2, “May there rest upon you a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and strength, a spirit of knowledge and fear of Hashem.” (Otzar Ha’tefilot p.624)
The editors hope these brief ‘snippets’ will engender further study and discussion of Torah topics (‘lehagdil Torah u’leha’adirah’), and your letters are appreciated. Web archives at Torah.org start with 5758 (1997) and may be retrieved from the Hamaayan page.
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