Very befittingly, the final parsha of the most family-centric book of Chamishei Chumshei Torah is filled with family themes and episodes.
I. One of the many episodes, is the famous blessing of Ephraim and Menasheh; the same blessing that parents traditionally give to their children on Friday night. It is the only textual narrative in B’reishit describing interaction between grandparent and grandchild.
A blessing of grandchildren (Ephraim and Menasheh) is the paradigm for blessings that children receive on Friday night because the parent is hoping that the child will carry on this tradition (along with many others) to their own children one day. It is a blessing that highlights the importance of being connected to family and to our mesorah.
On the subject of continuing tradition and talmud torah, Rav Baruch Simon quotes the Chofetz Chaim explaining the bracha of Yaakov Avinu to Yissachar, comparing him to a donkey (but in a nice way) (49:14-15):
יִשָּׂשכָר חֲמֹר גָּרֶם רֹבֵץ בֵּין הַמִּשְׁפְּתָיִם
וַיַּרְא מְנֻחָה כִּי טוֹב וְאֶת הָאָרֶץ כִּי נָעֵמָה וַיֵּט שִׁכְמוֹ לִסְבֹּל וַיְהִי לְמַס עֹבֵד
The Chofetz Chaim quotes Avodah Zara 5b in which Tanna D’bei Eliyahu says: “In order to study the words of the Torah one must cultivate in oneself the [habit of] the ox for bearing a yoke and of the donkey for carrying burdens.”
He explains that the ox has the brute strength to plow the fields and make the ground ready to produce fruit. The donkey brings the food from the field into the home. He analogizes this to Torah study; at first one needs to put in a great deal of effort to sit down with a sefer, struggle with it and understand it. After that, one needs to immerse one’s self in it and ingrain it in him or herself, chazzer it and review it many times over, so as not to forget it. The praise of the bnei Yissachar is that they continue learning, immersing and ingraining in their children the words of Torah.
Divrei HaYamim I 12:33 says:
וּמִבְּנֵי יִשָּׂשכָר יוֹדְעֵי בִינָה לַעִתִּים
This could be understood that the bnei Yissachar had understanding of the times – not just how to calculate the moadim, etc. – but also how to transmit Torah through the years, through our history, making Torah a central part of our lives in each generation.
Back to the subject of Yaakov’s bracha to his grandchildren, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin points out in his book, Unlocking the Torah Text, that Ephraim and Menasheh are the first major set of brothers in the Torah whose relationship does not end in conflict and strife. (Despite the great love between Yosef and Binyamin, Binyamin was a member of a larger set of siblings that fought with Yosef). From Kayin and Hevel, to Yitzchak and Yishmael, Yaakov and Eisav, and of course Yosef and his brothers, the Torah records the tragic trend of brotherly division and discord. However, even when Ephraim gets the first bracha, ahead of his older brother Menasheh, there is no evidence of quarrel between these brothers. They are a model of brotherly love and harmony, and it is this ideal state of shalom that we pray for at the outset of Shabbos.
II. Another family-oriented theme is found when Yaakov requests that Yosef bury him in Me’arat HaMachpeilah (MHM), and then mentions Rachel’s final resting place. It is the theme of a mother’s undying love for her children. Yaakov recalls the death and burial of Rachel and explains that she was buried “along the road,” and not in MHM. Rashi quotes the famous p’sukim from Yirmiyahu 31:14-16:
קוֹל בְּרָמָה נִשְׁמָע
רָחֵל מְבַכָּה עַל-בָּנֶיה…
כִּי יֵשׁ שָׂכָר לִפְעֻלָּתֵךְ נְאֻם ה’…
וְשָׁבוּ בָנִים לִגְבוּלָם…
Rashi explains that Rachel was buried there because she would play a pivotal role in the eventual redemption of our people. Hashem had showed Yaakov, prophetically, that the Jewish people would be led in to captivity by Nebuchadnezzar’s army along the route of Rachel’s tomb after the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash. When Rachel’s soul witnesses her descendants being driven into exile, she would go out, so to speak, and would cry and seek mercy for them. Hashem promises that in her merit, He will indeed return her children to their homeland.
The Torah uses the peculiar phrasing of “meitah alai Rachel”
Perhaps two other linked explanations, is that Yaakov is saying that Rachel died in that place, “on” Yaakov, for a specific purpose, but she only died in a limited sense…
A) Purposeful Resting Place: Watchful Mother in Exile: Rachel died and gave up the privilege of being buried with her husband and the other Avos and Imahos, for the sake of Yaakov and his descendants, so that she could be as close as possible to her children in their time of need. She did this FOR Yaakov, as his benevolent, parental counterpart. As a parent and a Patriarch, he would undoubtedly want a great person to be watching over his descendants at the time of their exile, but it was not his tafkid to do for his children; it was uniquely Rachel’s. She died as the quintessential mother who makes physical and spiritual sacrifices, as all mothers do, for the sake of their children.
B) A Limited Death: Deceased Wife, Eternal Mother: “Alai” is being used as a limiting word: At the time Rachel died she was lost to Yaakov, and it was only Yaakov who felt the loss as a husband. But she was not gone forever. Her time as a living, breathing wife to Yaakov had expired, but she would pray for his children, as a meilitz yosher in the olam ha’emet, for all time.
To take this a step further, in Judaism, men generally need to seek Divine connection through overt spiritual experiences and with the aid of sanctified objects. Men are bound by more obligations, need teffilin to help them attain the proper levels of spirituality for tefilah, etc. Women, in contrast, being the cornerstone of the home, are exempt from certain commandments so they can better occupy their time with the spiritual and material well-being of their families. For this reason a child’s status as a Jew is defined by the mother, whereas tribal affiliation within the Jewish community – the child’s specific role within the Jewish people – is determined by the father’s lineage. Our “Jewish nature” relates to the essence of the soul, and women are far more innately in tune with the neshama than men. Our specific roles, in contrast, relate to revealed spiritual experience, which is primarily man’s realm.
Rachel could be buried in such a seemingly mundane place, like the side of the road, and still fulfill her tafkid, without being laid to rest in the hallowed grounds of Me’arat Hamachpeilah. She had the natural ability to uplift any sphere she occupied. She was chosen to sacrifice the comfort of being buried beside her beloved husband because of her deep concern for the welfare of her children; she did this to be as close to us as possible, on Derech Beit Lechem, in our most frightening and difficult times of literal (Babylonian) exile and through our continued exile…praying for the arrival of Mashiach and the promise of v’shavu banim li’gvulam, b’meheira b’yameinu.
[Based on an idea from Rav Pinchas Friedman]
After Yosef reveals his true identity to his brothers, the Torah states (Breishis 45: 14): “He fell upon his brother Binyamin’s neck and wept; and Binyamin wept upon his neck. He then kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and afterwards his brothers spoke with him”.
Rashi explains that Yosef wept over the two Batei HaMikdash that were destined to be built in Binyamin’s territory and would ultimately be destroyed; Binyamin wept over the Mishkan of Shiloh that was destined to be built in Yosef’s (Ephraim’s) territory and would ultimately be destroyed.
These two brothers had not seen each other for 22 years; one would have thought that after such a prolonged separation they would have caught up a bit and reminisced about the good times back in Canaan. Instead, they wept on each other’s necks over the Batei HaMikdash/Mishkan that would be destroyed in their respective lands many years in the future.
The Ksav Sofer explains that Yosef and Binyamin wept because they knew that the hatred that divided the brothers and resulted in the sale of Yosef, would resurface over and over again and ultimately lead to the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash.
Rabbi Yechezkel of Kazmir notes that upon close examination of Rashi’s words, it is clear that neither brother wept over the destruction of the makom kadosh in his own territory, but rather over the makom kadosh located in his brother’s territory.
Yosef wept over the two Batei HaMikdash located in Binyamin’s territory that were destined to be destroyed, while Binyamin wept over the Mishkan in Shiloh located in Yosef’s territory that was destined to be destroyed. They exemplify brothers who love one another, and who share in each other’s pain and sorrow when darkness befalls, and rejoice in their good fortune and happiness when the sun shines again.
Reb Yechezkel connects the emotions shared by Yosef and Binyamin with something else Yosef imparts. Before the brothers leave to go back to Yaakov, Yosef tells his brothers (Breishis 45:24)
וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם אַל תִּרְגְּזוּ בַּדָּרֶךְ
He advises them “not to become agitated on the way”. The pshat explanation, provided by Rashi, is that Yosef tells his brothers not to fight with each other regarding which of the brothers was responsible for the sale of Yosef — this is certainly a good lesson that we should avoid assigning blame and quarreling with our brothers over sins of the past.Offering a more drash approach, Reb Yechezkel says that there are many different ways and methods of serving Hashem. If I see that my fellow Jew is not serving Hashem in the same manner that I do, I should not therefore become annoyed with him. It seems that Yosef wisely instructs and warns his brothers and their descendants (us): אל תרגזו בדרך — do not become agitated on the way; if you wish to correct the serious flaw of sin’at chinam and usher in the geula and Bayit Shlishi, do not get consumed by zealotry. Rather than being bothered by another Jew’s method of serving Hashem, learn to accept him and his Torah lovingly, and continue on your own derech. We all serve the same Creator and every Jew has his/her own unique way of serving Hashem.
Perhaps another lesson to be learned from the way Yosef interacts with his brothers, is how to give criticism. Before Yosef tells his brothers who he really is, he first asks them to come close to him (Breishis 45:4):
וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף אֶל אֶחָיו גְּשׁוּ נָא אֵלַי וַיִּגָּשׁוּ וַיֹּאמֶר אֲנִי יוֹסֵף אֲחִיכֶם אֲשֶׁר מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי מִצְרָיְמָה
As Reb Yechezkel points out, we shouldn’t be consumed by zealotry, but there are times when we need to be told by a Rav/friend/family member that we have done something wrong. If a person does need to be told this, perhaps the most effective way to do so, is to bring that individual in close and explain what wrongs have occurred.
Yosef equips us with the lessons of empathy, true forgiveness, avoidance of overzealousness, and effective methods of giving mussar, so that we may implement them ourselves when interacting with our own brothers and fellow Jews.
The Medrash Tanchuma says that the lit Menorah miraculously cast a glow upon all courtyards in Yerushalayim. The lights of the Menorah publicized the Name of Hashem and our special status as His chosen people. Since the battle waged was one that revolved around freedom of public, religious expression, the Hashmonaim’s ability to defiantly light the Menorah signaled a decisive victory. Therefore, the annual commemoration the Greek’s defeat is appropriately celebrated on the first night of Chanukah with lighting of the Menorah. That first candle proudly displayed in our windows – small as it might seem – commemorates the true significance of the real battle that was won.
A military achievement, while extraordinary, is a page for the history books about our physical survival. The Chag of Chanukah, however, represented by the iconic Menorah, commemorates not the battle of the Hashmonaim, but the root of the battle: Belief in Hashem at all costs, Jewish pride, and re-attaining the knowledge that we have a special connection with the Borei Olam. No doubt, the Maccabees were war heroes, but their miraculous victory wasn’t the ends, it was a means to achieve the rededication of the Beis HaMikdash and the proliferation of Hashem’s great Name. The Maccabees had the fortitude to win the battle, find the small jar of oil and publicly ignite a symbol of Hashem’s omnipotence.
For most of us (hopefully), we aren’t fighting physical battles on a daily basis. Our spiritual struggle is to increase G-dliness/elokus in the world through mitzvos and kiddushei Hashem.
One possible connection (among many) to this week’s parsha is the way Yosef speak about Hashem after he impresses Paraoh with his dream-interpreting skills. Keep in mind that the Pharaohs were thought of as gods themselves.
Over and over, Hashem’s name is celebrated in chapter 41.
With no hesitation, Yosef proclaims to Paraoh that Hashem is pulling all the strings and calling all the shots. Furthermore, Paraoh himself becomes convinced of this fact, telling his servants that Yosef is filled with the “spirit of Hashem” and that Hashem has elucidated Paraoh’s dreams for Yosef interpret: (41:38-39)
Yosef ascribes all of his abilities to Hashem, impresses this upon the world’s most powerful leader, and convinces him of its truth. In doing so, Yosef performs a tremendous kiddush Hashem by increasing the world’s recognition of Hashem, much like the Hashmonaim many years later.
The military victory of Chanukah and the heroism of the Maccabee Kohanim are exciting aspects of this chag, but the story for them and for us doesn’t end there. The freedom they attained was used to counteract the Greek’s agenda, by infusing kedusha back into the Temple and by realigning the perception of ourselves, our practice and our heritage to fit with a mamlechet Kohanim v’goy kadosh.
The Ramban and Ohr HaChaim both note the bravery of Yosef in approaching these two high ranking officers and asking them about their moods. Here is Yosef, a young slave, asking officers from Paraoh’s palace why they were sad. The question itself is somewhat puzzling; after all, they were in prison, which isn’t the most uplifting of places. The question almost seems rhetorical. Yosef, however, attune to their disposition, recognizes that something is particularly awry with these men, which he would discover is the product of their dreams from the previous night.
The Lebavitcher Rebbe (in a sicha given in 1974, summarized from Yiddish to Hebrew by Rav Yaakov Levi Ginsberg) points out, that perhaps even more impressive than Yosef’s courage, is that fact that Yosef even paid the slightest bit of attention to them and their degree of sadness. After all, Yoseph had suffered immense pain already in his life: He lost his mother at a young age, he was sold as a slave by his own brothers, hauled down to Egypt away from his beloved father, and imprisoned for a sin he had not committed. We would expect that such a person would be wallowing in his own pain, too consumed by personal sadness/frustration to be cognizant of another person’s pain.
And yet, Yosef is acutely aware of the pain of his cell-mates. Despite his own hardships, he remains attentive and sensitive to others, and inquires if there is any manner – just the slightest chance – that he can implement his G-d-given gifts to help another human being.
The Lebavitcher Rebbe explains that Yosef HaTzaddik possessed the quality of knowing that every individual’s personal mission, and the greatest happiness one can achieve, is to utilize the skills given to us by Hashem to improve the world and the lives of people around us; to wholeheartedly engage in the unique shlichus for which we were created. Yosef’s focus in life was unwavering, regardless of whether he was in a palace or a jail cell. He remained fixated on furthering his mission in life (which is how he thwarted Mrs. Potiphar’s advances), and ultimately, through Yad Hashem, his question of ‘why are you upset’ leads to his ascension to mishneh la’melech.
In the small confines of an Egyptian dungeon, Yosef notices someone in pain, gathers the courage to inquire, and uses the gifts of sensitivity and interpretive skill to eventually fulfill his Divine mission/shlichus in the most expansive manner possible.
In the third passuk of Vayishlach, Yaakov sends a message to his brother Eisav:
The donkey is a reference to Mashiach ben Dovid; the ultimate Messianic king descended from Dovid HaMelech, who will arrive as “a pauper riding on a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9).
Why do we need two Messianic leaders? And why are they represented specifically by these two animals?
Rav Kook explained the concept of two Messiahs in a eulogy delivered after Theodore Hertzl’s death in 1904. Rav Kook articulates his views on the secular Zionist movement and the tragic rift between the religious and secular sectors of the Jewish people. Hashem created us, he says, with both body and soul. We have forces that maintain and strengthen the body, and forces that protect and develop the soul. Ideally, we should have a vigorous and resilient body together with a strong and healthy soul. The soul is meant to utilize and instruct the body to fulfill Hashem’s will in this world.
And the house of Jacob shall be a fire, and the house of Joseph a flame, and the house of Eisav for stubble, and they shall kindle in them, and devour them, and there shall not be any remaining of the house of Eisav, for the Lord has spoken.
Returning to Yaakov’s choice of ox and donkey, the powerful ox is used to plow the ground, preparing the area to be planted. This corresponds to the mission of Mashiach ben Yoseph — to defend the nation from enemies and clear the path for the revelation of Mashiach ben Dovid. (We also see this in the fact that the Mishkan — a preparation for the Temple — was established in Shiloh, in the territory of Yoseph, while the Temple itself was built in the inheritance of Judah, in Yerushalayim.)
The donkey, on the other hand, is a simple animal, used to carry produce from the field. This corresponds to the mission of Mashiach ben Dovid, who brings the final fruits of redemption.
Through his interactions with Eisav, Yaakov Avinu hints to his progeny what tools will be needed to ultimately defeat Eisav — physical strength through our human efforts, coupled with spiritual devotion and recognizing Hashem’s omnipotence. To quote an idea my shver once shared with me: “Building the Land with our hishtadlus, recognizing that every brick we lay, technological advancement and weapon developed or successfully used, is only through birchas Hashem, which comes from our ameilus b’torah, strict adherence to halacha, and our chumras in achdus and
The first passuk in Vayeitzei, which is the precursor to Yaakov’s famous dream, reads:
וַיֵּצֵא יַעֲקֹב מִבְּאֵר שָׁבַע וַיֵּלֶךְ חָרָנָה
The first passuk in the second perek of the parsha (the day after Yaakov’s dream):
וַיִּשָּׂא יַעֲקֹב רַגְלָיו וַיֵּלֶךְ אַרְצָה בְנֵי קֶדֶם
Why does the Torah include the descriptive phrasing of Yaakov lifting his legs? We know how a person walks – lifting one foot, putting it in front of the other, etc. – why does the Torah need to tell us how Yaakov was walking? It seems superfluous to tell us about the mechanic’s of Yaakov’s legs. The torah should have just said:
וילך יעקב ארצה בני קדם
Rashi 29:1, quotes Breishis Rabbah that explains that when Yaakov received the good news the night before that Hashem would be with him and protect him, he was so happy with the good news, and so: “nasah libo et raglav, v’na’aseh kal” – his heart “carried” his legs. He was no longer worried; he was calmer from hearing Hashem’s promise. To quote Rashi/Breishis Rabbah:
וישא יעקב רגליו: משנתבשר בשורה טובה שהובטח בשמירה, נשא לבו את רגליו ונעשה קל ללכת
We see that the Midrash offers a psychological and technical reason for Yaakov’s flight of foot i.e. the good news Yaakov received. He felt better, so he was able to move faster.
Rav Moshe Taragin suggests that an even broader perspective from Yaakov’s standpoint, which contributed to Yaakov’s enthusiastic travel:
Yaakov’s position as one of the Avos had just been confirmed – the dream and subsequent promise he was given by Hashem was the first time Hashem spoke with Yaakov since receiving/acquiring the bracha from Yitzchak. Following Hashem’s assurance, his journey, destiny and life’s vision became much clearer, and therefore he moved with greater energy and vigor.
In life we all have “projects”. The short-term projects are easier. We invest in them for a finite amount of time, and if we are successful, then that breeds confidence and motivation and encouragement to accomplish more. Investment, success, motivation, more investment, more success, etc. When we see the light at the end of the tunnel, it is much easier to run toward it.
But what about the long-term projects? The macro and grand projects that require more than just a few days or weeks to accomplish? Those endeavors require great discipline, but even more so, they require tremendous vision.
Running to meet our daily schedules, we may lose sight of the longer term and broader picture and can become distracted, dragging our feet, losing interest – we’re not dragging our feet on the project at hand, but we may be slowing down and losing traction on the larger goals.
One could actually say Yaakov actually passes too quickly at the beginning of Vayeitzei – he passes the makom of the Beit Hamikdash and has to return because he “missed” it:
וַיִּיקַץ יַעֲקֹב מִשְּׁנָתוֹ וַיֹּאמֶר אָכֵן יֵשׁ ה’ בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וְאָנֹכִי לֹא יָדָעְתִּי
The story immediately after “vayisah raglav” is the story of Yaakov removing the large stone from the well and meeting his future wife, Rachel. He is certainly excited to see Rachel, which gives him the strength to remove the stone, but in Rachel, he also sees a key element of his life’s path. He is excited to remove the stone, help her, and set in motion the path toward a life together.
Hashem promises Yaakov a legacy, and within hours finds his wife. Yitzchak, by contrast, had to wait around for Eliezer to come back with Rivkah; Yaakov finds his wife immediately once he gets the concrete vision of his future. He is able to walk quickly and remove heavy stones.
Discipline is then needed to endure 7 years of work for Lavan to marry Rachel, and then another 7 years after Lavan tricks him. Unquestionably, Yaakov needed this discipline to work all those years. But without the vision of marrying Rachel whom he felt was his zivug, he may have given up hope. He had a yearning to marry Rachel and fulfill his destiny, and allowed nothing to deter him. Yaakov demonstrated the need for both vision and discipline to be truly successful.
Yaakov’s ability to keep the grand picture squarely in focus, and the discipline to move him along his path, is the reason he had the vigor and the energy to walk swiftly, remove heavy stones, eventually marry his wife, and complete his destiny of being the last of the Avos.
Many seforim discuss the difference between Leah (representing nistar, dor hamidbar, shamayim, spirituality, lofty goals, Mashiach ben David), and Rachel (representing giluey, dor Eretz Yisrael, aretz, living in physical world but conquering the physical, Mashiach ben Yosef, etc.).
Yaakov, realizing the importance of joining both, marries Leah and Rachel. As we see from the quarreling amongst the sons of Yaakov, housing all 12 shvatim under one roof, and loving two wives, was no easy accomplishment. However, Yaakov had the vision to see it through. Yaakov, who dreams of a ladder entrenched in the ground but rising to the heavens, understood the duality required to properly serve Hashem and to successfully reach our own personal goals and destinies.
The Kli Yakar discusses the three wells that Yitzchak excavates, and which the Torah details at length, in this week’s parsha. (Breishis 26:14-33)
The the three wells, says the Kli Yakar, are veiled references to the three Batei Mikdash.
וַיָּרִיבוּ רֹעֵי גְרָר עִם רֹעֵי יִצְחָק לֵאמֹר לָנוּ הַמָּיִם וַיִּקְרָא שֵׁם הַבְּאֵר עֵשֶׂק כִּי הִתְעַשְּׂקוּ עִמּוֹ
And the shepherds of Gerar quarreled with Yitzchak’s shepherds, saying, “The water is ours”; so he named the well Esek, because they had contended with him.
This is the second Beis HaMikdash, which was defined by hatred between everyone – an even worse set of circumstances than the first. The Torah emphasizes that the first conflict over the wells was fought by the shepherds; a metaphor for the leaders, similar to the struggle for leadership by the destruction of the First Temple. The second quarrel “they” just fought; it was baseless hatred. Furthermore, they failed to heed the lesson of the first well (and Temple): וַיָּרִיבוּ גַּם עָלֶיהָ = “they fought about this one too”.
The third excavation, however, had no such strife:
And he moved away from there, and he dug another well, and they did not quarrel over it; so he named it Rechovot, and he said, “For now the Lord has made room for us, and we will be fruitful in the land.”
The third well is defined by peace. The word for peace is שלום, from the root שלם = whole. With peace, there is wholeness, harmony and room for expansion.
Chazal teach us that Eisav’s offspring can only be defeated by Rachel’s offspring (Bava Basra 123b).
By contrast, Yosef takes an entirely different approach following Yaakov’s passing in dealing with his brothers who wronged him. Following Yaakov’s passing, the brothers say (Breishis 50:15):
The brothers were afraid that Yosef would take revenge on them for selling him, and now that Yaakov has passed away, it would be time for reckoning. Yosef, however, forgives them unconditionally, bearing no grudge, understanding it was all Hashem’s plan (50:21):
Also interesting to contrast language when Eisav decides to kill Yaakov, versus when Yosef eases his brothers’ fears.
As offspring of Rachel we have this middah of being able to let go of hatred, correcting the sin’at chinam which destroyed Bayis Sheini, so that we may usher in Bayis Shlishi.
Rashi on the passuk says “ein sicha elah teffilah” = the terminology of sicha/conversing connotes prayer. He bases this on a passuk from Tehillim 102:1: יִשְׁפֹּךְ שִׂיחוֹ
Rav Avroham Schorr shlita poses a question with regards to Rashi’s assertion. In Devarim Rabba on Parshas Va’eschanan, the Midrash lists 10 expressions for teffila, yet sicha is not one of them. What is the concept of sicha and what kind of teffila is it?
Rav Schorr specifically writes about the latter – when we experience hester panim – the “concealment” of Hashem’s presence. The idea of sicha as a way to connect with Hashem, is that even when we cannot pray to Hashem properly, there is a special form of connectivity, more akin to conversation than prayer; a simple recitation of words, in the hopes of re-attaining the closeness we once felt.
Of course we should try to find the most optimal frame of mind to daven Mincha, but if and when we cannot, there is still this teffila l’ani – a simple way of trying to connect with Hashem – that we can employ. Hence, the passuk from Tehillim above, now quoted in full:
Rav Schorr specifically writes (quoting the Ohev Yisrael in Vayeitzei) that the time of galus and the absence of the Beis HaMikdash (i.e. our days), is the time we often have no choice but to employ the sicha form of teffila.
Rav Tzvi Sobolofsky shlita offers a slightly different approach, not focusing on the dark times, but instead on the “in between” times. Chazal (Rosh Hashana 18b), while discussing the status of fast days associated with the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash, divide Jewish history into three categories: (1) During times of peace, these days become times of celebration; (2) when there are decrees of persecution, we are obligated to fast on these days; finally, (3) at times of neither complete peace nor persecution, these fast days are voluntary. Although we have accepted to fast on these days even during times when there is no outright persecution, technically, these three categories govern the status of these days as actual fast days.
It is fairly simple to approach Hashem during the morning, when we have just been restored from our slumber (Gemara Brachos 57b, says that sleep is 1/60 death). It can also be easy to reach out to Hashem at night, in a time of despair, with nowhere else to turn.
The majority of our lives, however, are hopefully spent – at the very least – somewhere in the middle. Hester panim does not only mean a time of tragedy or difficulty; sometimes, we simply don’t feel a strong connection with Hashem.
When we are neither basking in Hashem’s warm, morning sun, nor shivering in search of help in the cold night, what is our relationship with Hashem?
The break that we take in the middle of our busy days to recite teffilas Mincha, allows us to remember that Hashem controls all aspects of our lives – the good, the bad and everything in between.
Vayeira opens with Avraham being visited by three men/angels, bearing wonderful news of Sarah’s impending pregnancy.
As written in the Torah, there are three nekudos on top of the word אֵלָיו ; one on the Alef, the Yud and the Vav.
These three dotted letters together spell Ayo, meaning, “Where is he?” Rashi explains that the angels asked two questions; one to Avraham asking the whereabouts of Sarah, and one to Sarah asking the whereabouts of Avraham. (Rashi quotes Breishis Rabba, which says that these questions teach us the trait of inquiring about one’s hosts. To a man one should ask, “How is your wife?” and to a woman, “How is your husband?”)
The Kli Yakar, however, asked a fairly obvious question – why did the angels have to inquire about Avraham and Sarah’s locations? (A) The angles knew each of Avraham and Sarah’s locations (seeing as how they were messengers of Hashem), and (B) the text even tells us in the immediately preceding passuk, that Avraham was standing over them!
Avraham answers – בָאֹהֶל - allegorically speaking, ‘we are the recipients of this miracle on the merit of the tent.’
On the other side of the same coin, Avraham kept their tent open to guests, travelers, and those wanting to learn more about Hashem. So Sarah, answers, ‘we merited this miracle because of the chessed and the kindness with which Avraham conducts himself in the tent.’
A few lessons highlighted here, is that a couple can be so successful when each spouse recognizes the other’s strengths, attributing the blessings in their lives to the greatness of the other; and, that the home (ohel) and the manner in which it functions, sets the tone for the family living in it.
One final point I would like to make is to stress not only Sarah’s modesty, but also Avraham’s: In the first five verses of Vayeira, there is no reference to Avraham’s name, only being referred to in the anonymous 3rd person:
The text uses Avraham’s name for the first time to tell us that “Avraham hurried to the tent to Sarah…and to the cattle ran Avraham” (18:6-7).
When Avraham comes back to serve his guests and stand by them, the text reverts to the 3rd person:
Avraham just received this new name in Parshas Lech Lecha, as the Av Hamon Goyim – a tremendous honor. Yet the Torah spares us the usage of the name when angels are visiting him, but includes it to talk about Avraham running to the cattle?!
Perhaps an explanation (based in part on an idea from Rav Nison Alpert ztl) is that Avraham did not think the angels were visiting him because he was anyone so special. He was sitting outside in the heat, welcoming any traveler who might be passing by. But when it came time to make a kiddush Hashem and prepare for his guests, as an agent of Hashem, then he did so with the zeal and responsibility as Avraham – Av Hamon Goyim. Avraham could not control who came to the opening of his tent. Whoever came – perhaps he thought – did so because Hashem sent them, having nothing to do with Avraham’s greatness; but what he could control, is how he acted as their humble, and privileged host. If Hashem was calling upon him to serve and enlighten others, then Avraham’s actions had to be taken as the agent of Hashem.
Perhaps we can also say that Avraham’s excitement and haste to serve his guests, is somehow connected to the signs given to Eliezer in the next parsha, upon finding Rivka as a wife for Yitzchak. There is a parallel that seems to exist between the two stories – both involve hurrying to serve foreigners, and the language employed in both is virtually identical:
Rivkah in 24:20:
וַתְּמַהֵר וַתְּעַר כַּדָּהּ אֶל-הַשֹּׁקֶת וַתָּרָץ עוֹד אֶל הַבְּאֵר לִשְׁאֹב וַתִּשְׁאַב לְכָל גְּמַלָּיו
Together, on account of their collective middot, Avraham and Sarah merited a miraculous birth, a tzaddik of a son, and a tzaddeikes of a daughter-in-law.
In a number of places within the stories of these travels, the Rav notes an underlying theme: Staying true to our beliefs, in the face of outside influence and pressure.
A closer look:
Ten verses in the parsha (12:10), Hashem tests Avraham by creating a famine in the land, forcing Avraham to go to Egypt. The Rav notes that Egypt at that time was a very attractive and cultured country. Would Avraham succumb to Egyptian society?
Hashem repeats this test with Yaakov and Yosef as well, both being sent to Egypt (willingly and otherwise), to show that a Jew can live in exile, while still retaining his spiritual identity – whether as a poor shepherd or a high ranking official. These trials were needed as examples to show us – the decedents of these giants – how to live in our eventual exile.
While Avraham thwarted the temptation of any Egyptian influence, some members of his entourage/family were not as strong-willed. His nephew, Lot, departs with Avraham from Egypt (13:1), but nuanced language in the text implies that Lot was not WITH Avraham in same manner he had been previously in the parsha.Earlier in the parsha (12:4), the Torah says:
וַיֵּלֶךְ אַבְרָם כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר אֵלָיו ה’ וַיֵּלֶךְ אִתּוֹ לוֹט
One passuk later, Lot doesn’t even accompany Avraham at all. 13:6
Later in the parsha, the Rav notes something very interesting regarding the two central covenants that form the Jewish people as Hashem’s children and nation. A covenant, he points out, is an agreement binding one or several parties to a set of obligations.
The covenant at Sinai – the acceptance of the yoke of Torah – has obvious obligations and commitments associated with it.
Lot loses his connection to Hashem and Avraham, specifically in a foreign land, lured away by the superficial beauty of Egypt. Avraham is eager to return to Bet El to thank and serve Hashem there. That eagerness to get back to his Land, seems to at least be part of the reason for his success outside the Land. מעשה אבות סימן לֹבנים
Finally, it is Interesting to note in the story of the 4 kings versus the 5 kings, that Avraham, against great odds, takes a small army against a much larger army, and travels long distances to rescue Lot from his captors. (14:14-15). Despite Lot’s recent rejection of Avraham’s teachings, his value as a person and as part Avraham’s newly Jewish family is not diminished. The Rav points out, that, caught in the whirlwind of history, there is no difference between a committed Jew and an assimilated Jew (our enemies certainly make no differentiation); both are affected by conflict, persecution and anti-semetism, and both are equally worthy of concern and saving.