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Secret to Survival

Secret to Survival  

In the final portion of the book of Genesis, the portion of Vayechi, the Torah relates about Jacob blessing his children before his passing.

The opening verse of the episode, however, says nothing about blessing, instead it implies that Jacob called his children together in order to tell them the secret of the end of days. The first verse of chapter 49 states:  

Jacob called for his sons and said, "Gather and I will tell you what will happen to you at the end of days.

Rashi was troubled by this. Why did Jacob call them to tell them about the end of days and then abruptly change the subject and proceed to bless them instead?  Rashi explains that indeed Jacob himself wanted to share the secret, however he felt that it was not G-d’s will:

He (Jacob) attempted to reveal the End, but the Shechinah withdrew from him. So he began to say other things.

Indeed, immediately after Jacob, in verse one, invited his children to hear “what will happen to you at the end of days”, he called them again in verse two, presumably this time for another purpose this time he gathered his children in order to bless them. In verse two Jacob says:

Gather and listen, sons of Jacob, and listen to Israel, your father.

And sure enough the next verses tell of the beautifully poetic, blessings which Jacob blesses his children with. And yet, these were not merely blessings, embedded within the blessings were also prophecies describing events and leaders in the future. From Samson to King Saul, from King David to Mordechai, Jacob was both blessing his children and their descendants and also informing them about the events of the future.

If these verses include prophecies about the future, then perhaps Jacob did tell them about the end of days. If in verse one Jacob wanted to tell them when the end of days would arrive, but he could not do so, perhaps in verse two he tells them not when the end would come but rather about how they would survive as a people until the end of days. 

As Jacob looked as his children, he understood that he had to give them the secret of Jewish survival, he had to tell them the secret ingredient that would allow Jews to survive the long challenging road that lay ahead.

Jacob instructed his sons to “gather” and to “listen”. Each of these words capture a powerful message.

The first message is to “gather”. The twelve sons of Jacob were indeed a diverse group of people, each with a unique personality, unique gifts and a unique mission. Jacob tells them that for them to survive as a people they must “gather”, they must unite. For Israel to survive as a people they would have to look at themselves not only as individuals but also as part of one united entity. As children of the same father. As children of Israel.  

The second ingredient needed to survive until the end of days is to “listen”. To listen is to seek spirituality. The eye sees what is physical, the eye captures only that which is obvious. Hearing, by contrast, represents the ability to close the eyes, not to follow what seems to be the reality, to focus on that which is not obvious to the eye. Jacob told his children that in order to survive as a people they would have to ignore the temptations of the material world, they would have to listen to the cry of their soul. They would have to seek that which cannot be seen.

“Gather” and “listen”. Unite and seek spirituality[1]



[1] Based on the teachings of Rabbi S.R. Hirsh.

Judah's Transformation

Judah's Transformation 

Judah is the hero of the story.

Yes, at first he was the brother who suggested and arranged the sale of Joseph. He was the one who was forced to move away from the family, because the brothers deposed him of his leadership role once they realized the terrible pain Joseph’s absence caused their father.

Yet, somewhere along the way there was a transformation. Judah assumed the role of leader of the brothers, and in the opening scene of this week’s Torah Portion we read what is certainly one of the most dramatic moments portrayed in the Torah, Judah alone, confronted the Egyptian leader.

When was Judah’s turning point? When did he transform from the brother who destroyed the unity of the family to the brother who took responsibility to defend Benjamin at great personal cost?

Let us look back in the story to search for clues to Judah’s transformation.

In last week’s portion we read about how Judah was successful where Reuben, his oldest brother, failed. The brothers tried to persuade their father to allow them to take Benjamin to Egypt, to comply with the demand of the leader of Egypt, who, unbeknownst to them was their own brother Joseph. Jacob refused to allow Benjamin, his youngest child, the son of his late most beloved wife, to go to Egypt, out of fear for his well being. Reuben, the eldest brother, the leader of the group, spoke to his father as follows:

And Reuben spoke to his father, saying, "You may put my two sons to death if I don't bring him (Benjamin) to you. Put him into my hand[s] and I will return him to you."[1]      

Jacob responded:

But he (Jacob) said, "My son shall not go down with you, because his brother is dead, and he alone is left, and if misfortune befalls him on the way you are going, you will bring down my gray head in sorrow to the grave."[2]

Where Reuben failed Judah succeeded. When Jacob again requested that his sons descend to Egypt to purchase food, Judah steps in to talk to their father, Judah says:

If you send our brother with us, we will go down and buy food for you. But if you do not send [him], we will not go down, because the man said to us, 'You shall not see my face if your brother is not with you.'[3]

Judah then continues:

And Judah said to Israel, his father, "Send the lad with me, and we will get up and go, and we will live and not die, both we and you and also our young children. I will guarantee him; from my hand you can demand him. If I do not bring him to you and stand him up before you, I will have sinned against you forever. For had we not tarried, by now we would have already returned twice."[4]

Judah was successful. Jacob agreed to send Benjamin.

Why? What did Judah say or do that was that different from what Reuben said?

Judah understood what leadership meant. He understood that his job as a leader was to empower others, in this case his father, to take responsibility. Judah understood that as long as the brothers were the ones pleading with Jacob to send Benjamin, Jacob would not agree. Judah understood that his job as a leader was to place the decision in Jacob’s hands, pointing out that the ramifications of the decision would be completely on Jacob’s conscience. 

Judah did not try to persuade his father. He did, however, tell his father that the decision whether or not they would go down to Egypt was in their father's hand. He tells his father “had we not tarried, by now we would have already returned twice"[5].

What Judah did was he forced his father to make the decision. Once his father had to decide, Judah was sure that his father would make the right choice.[6]

Where did Judah learn this important truth about leadership? Where did he learn that the key to leading someone to do the right thing is by placing the responsibility in their hands?

The person who was responsible for Judah’s transformation and ultimate leadership role within the Jewish people was Tamar.

Looking back to one portion before the last, we read about Judah’s daughter-in-law, Tamar, who Judah sentences to death for adultery. In fact, Tamar disguised as a harlot, became pregnant from Judah himself, who she was entitled to marry, since someone from Judah’s family had an obligation to marry her due to the law of the Levirate marriage.

Tamar had Judah’s staff and signet as evidence that Judah was in fact the father of her unborn twin children and thus she was not guilty of adultery. She did not proclaim her innocence by shaming Judah. Instead, she forced Judah to make a choice. Tamar forced Judah to choose between making the right moral choice or between allowing Tamar and her unborn children to be killed:

She was taken out, and she sent to her father in law, saying, "From the man to whom these belong I am pregnant," and she said, "Please recognize whose signet ring, cloak, and staff are these?"[7]

Judah then realized that he must choose, and that the choice he would make would lay on his conscience and on his conscience alone, forever. 

Courageously, Judah made the morally correct choice:

Then Judah recognized [them], and he said, "She is right, [it is] from me, because I did not give her to my son Shelah."[8]

Tamar transformed Judah. She taught him how to assume responsibility.

Judah, in turn, internalized her message. When it came time to influence Jacob, Judah empowered Jacob, by highlighting that the responsibility lay in Jacob’s hands.

And when Judah himself saw disaster about to strike, when he saw the Egyptian leader trying to enslave Benjamin, he took Tamar’s message to heart: Don't shy away. Don't wait for one of your brothers to step in. Realize that the solution to this problem will come only when you take action. Realize that G-d is waiting for you to make the right choice.  




[1] Genesis 42:37.

[2] Genesis 42:38.

[3] Genesis 43:4-5.

[4] Genesis 43:8-10.

[5] Genesis 43:8-10.

[6] From a class by Rabbi Ezra Bik.

[7] Genesis 38:25.

[8] Genesis 38:26. 

The Dreams

 The Dreams 

 They dropped the ball.

They had been preparing for this moment for their entire careers. They were the greatest experts in their field, the best dream-interpreters money could buy. Yet, when it mattered most, they dropped the ball.

Shaken by the dreams of seven skinny cows swallowing up seven fat cows, and then seven thin and beaten ears of grain swallowing up seven healthy and full ears of grain, Pharaoh called the interpreters and demanded an interpretation. The verse states: “Pharaoh related to them his dream, but no one interpreted them for Pharaoh.”[1] To be sure, they tried offering interpretations, yet Pharaoh was unsatisfied with their explanations. As Rashi points out:

“They did interpret them, but not for Pharaoh, for their voice did not reach his ears, and he had no satisfaction from their interpretation, for they said, “You will beget seven daughters, and you will bury seven daughters. 

The failure of the official dream interpreters created an opening for Joseph, the Hebrew slave languishing in prison, to step in to offer his interpretation. Joseph offered the most simple and straightforward interpretation possible. Joseph explained that there would be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Joseph suggested that Pharaoh appoint someone to collect and store food during the years of plenty which would sustain the country and the surrounding countries during the years of famine. Pharaoh was impressed with the brilliant explanation. He did not think twice. He appointed Joseph - the Hebrew slave, the foreigner - as the second in command of Egypt.

How could the expert interpreters miss such an obvious interpretation of the dream? How difficult was it to figure out that skinny cows and beaten-thin grain represents famine? Why did they drop the ball?

There was one important, yet often overlooked, detail that  did not allow the interpreters to explain that the cows refer to years. When the Torah tells us about the dream, it tells us that there were seven fat cows grazing, and then seven skinny cows emerged from the Nile and here is the critical detail:

“(And behold, seven other cows were coming up after them from the Nile, of ugly appearance and lean of flesh,) and they stood beside the cows on the Nile bank.”[2]

Pharaoh's interpreters were convinced that there was no way that the skinny cows could represent years of famine that would follow years of plenty, because years of famine do not “stand beside”  years of plenty. In other words, the years of famine follow the years of plenty, the two are not experienced simultaneously. The interpreters therefore suggested that the meaning of the dream was "You will beget seven daughters, and you will bury seven daughters.”  The advantage of their interpretation was that seven daughters could be born, from multiple wives, and simultaneously seven other daughters could die, in which case both the “fat cows” and the “skinny cows” would stand next to each other, representing joy and sorrow standing side by side. 

Joseph’s interpretation was novel in that Joseph explained that the dream Pharaoh dreamed was not just a notification of future events. Joseph explained to Pharaoh that the dreams were a call to action. Joseph helped Pharaoh understand that the dreams were not a description of a problem - seven years of devastating famine following and eliminating the seven years of plenty - but rather, the dreams depicted the solution. Joseph explained that the meaning of the key verse “and they stood beside the cows on the Nile bank” was indeed the key to the solution to the problem. The dreams were telling Pharaoh that the only way to survive the famine was if the years of plenty and the years of famine would be experienced simultaneously. G-d was showing Pharaoh that during the years of plenty the people should experience the years of famine by being cognizant of what was to come and by collecting and storing  food for the upcoming years of famine. And during the years of famine the people would experience the years of plenty, by eating the food that grew during the years of plenty. 

In Joseph interpretation there were no years that were exclusively “good” or exclusively “bad”. The good fat cows and the bad skinny cows stood side by side.

Likewise, it is incumbent upon us to realize that in this world there is a mix of good and evil, a mix of spiritual plenty and spiritual famine. Joseph, the dreamer, the ultimate optimist, taught us that at any given moment we may decide what reality we want to live in. Although we may find ourselves spiritually in a situation of “years of famine”, we must be aware that at any given moment we can access the spiritual “years of plenty”.

Joseph taught us that when faced with a challenging circumstance, we must realize that G-d never sends us seven years of famine alone. Embedded in the reality we face, is the potential to discover the “plenty”. After all, the seven skinny cows always stand beside the seven fat cows.[3]



[1] Genesis 41:8.

[2] Genesis 41:3.

[3] Inspired by the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutey Sichos, Mikets, Vol. 15 sicha 1.  

Destiny or Free Choice?

Destiny or Free Choice?

Does Judaism believe in destiny? Do we believe that G-d is in control of all that transpires in the universe, that every human being is just playing a pre-determined role in a vast Divine plan? Or, do we believe in the freedom of every human being to choose his or her own path, to experience the consequences of their own decisions?

These two possibilities, destiny or free choice, seem to be mutually exclusive.

If we believe that everything is determined by G-d, seemingly, we cannot also accept that the human being can be held accountable, or rewarded, for his or her actions. Yet Judaism teaches us to understand that both Divine destiny and free choice are both true.

No biblical story expresses this truth more powerfully than the story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph dreamed that his brothers would bow to him; the brothers in turn viewed him as a threat and planned to kill him; at the last moment they decided to sell him as a slave. Many years later,, Joseph indeed became the viceroy of Egypt and his brothers indeed bowed to him. Joseph was reunited with his brothers and sustained them during the terrible famine.

How should we view the actions of the brothers?

On the one hand, the brothers were certainly guilty of sin. After all they conspired to kill Joseph and they sold him as a slave. On the other hand, the selling of Joseph was part of the Divine plan so that Joseph would achieve greatness and lead the superpower of the world. Were the brothers succumbing to sin or were they a pawn in the divine plan that would ultimately save their entire family? Was this act a sin or was it an act of redemption?

The Torah responds to the sale of Joseph by issuing two commandments. The first is the commandment to redeem the firstborn son[1], and the second is the commandment to give a half shekel[2], once a year, (every Jew would give a half Shekel each year to the funds that would pay for the communal offerings offered in the temple). The Torah refers to the half shekel as an “atonement for the soul.”

The Talmud explains the connection between these commandments and the sale of Joseph:

Rabbi Berechyah and Rabbi Levi in the name of Rabbi Shimon Ben Lakish say: Because they sold the firstborn of Rachel for twenty pieces of silver let each one redeem his firstborn with twenty pieces of silver[3].

Rabbi Pinchas in the name of Rabbi Levi says: Because they sold the firstborn of Rachel for twenty pieces of silver (twenty Dinars) and each one of the brothers received (a Tibbah, which is) two Dinars, as his share of the proceeds, therefore let each one give for Shekel obligation (a Tibbah, which is the value of) two dinars.[4]

The theme of each of these two commandments is completely different. The commandment to give a half Shekel is about “atonement for the soul”, atonement implies that there is a sin that needs to be atoned for. The commandment of the redeeming of the first born, commemorating the saving of the Jewish first born children at the exodus of Egypt, is a symbol of redemption. Despite the opposing themes, sin and redemption, both these commandments are associated with the sale of Joseph.

The Talmud is teaching us how to view the actions of Joseph’s brothers, as well as how to view the broader question of free choice versus Divine destiny. The Talmud is teaching that we must understand that every scenario has multiple layers of meaning and can therefore be viewed from multiple perspectives. Free choice and divine destiny operate simultaneously, yet each one does not negate the other.

If we look at the sale of Joseph from the perspective of the brothers, we see sin. We look at how much each brother profited from the sale - a half Shekel - and we understand that the Torah's commandment to give an annual gift of a half shekel is a reminder to correct and avoid the terrible mistake of the brothers. If, however, we choose to look at the story from the Divine perspective, we understand that no human action can interfere with the Divine plan. While the brothers used their free choice to choose sin, G-d used the sale of Joseph as the conduit for Joseph’s eventual greatness. If we look at the big picture, if we don’t look at the sum that each brother profited by, but rather we look at the general story, at the “combined profit” from the sale of Joseph, we see a totally different story. We see a story of salvation. We then focus on the totality of the profit earned by the sale, which symbolizes the totality of the story from G-d’s perspective.

We commemorate the story by thinking about the redemption G-d brought about through the sinful act of the brothers.

The lesson we learn from the story of the sale of Joseph is profound. A fellow human being can choose to harm us. We can even use our own free choice to harm ourselves. We can make a choice that will lead to failure, pain and tragedy. Yet, like Joseph, We must understand it all can be a blessing. We must remember that despite human choice, G-d’s plan is always at work, leading us toward redemption and healing. We recognize that where the human chooses evil, G-d plants seeds of redemption.

We must remember that human free choice is no contradiction to Divine destiny.[5]



1 See Redeeming the Firstborn

2 See  Half Shekel.

3 Joseph was sold for twenty Dinars, there are four Dinars in a Sela. The first born is redeemed by the father giving the priest five Sela, the equivalent of the twenty DInars the brothers earned through the sale of Joseph.

4 Jerusalem Talmud, Shekalim, Chapter 2, Halach

5 Based on the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutey SIchos Vayesehv Vol. 20.

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