Rabbi Rael Blumenthal

By mile nine I knew that the Miami Marathon was not going well for me. It was my fourth marathon, and by all standards it was my most painful and disappointing race to date.

Sure, the weather in Miami was brutal; it was hot, humid as well as windy. That certainly accounted for some of it. But I felt undertrained and overtired. All of those little details compounded together to a feeling of sluggishness that I had never felt in a race.

In the Miami Marathon, there is a point around mile 12 where those running the half marathon turn left, and those running the full marathon turn right. I have never felt such a strong desire to quit half way as I did at that moment. Simply turn left go home. Of course, running a half marathon is nothing to be ashamed of, but that was not my goal for the day.

Somehow, I mustered the courage to turn right, knowing that the pain I was already experiencing would only increase. At that point, I had no idea just how painful things would get. By mile 17, my legs were cramping, my muscles burning, and I wanted nothing more than to escape the torture to which I had willingly subjected myself. This was all before hitting “the wall” around mile 20.

Marathon runners are all familiar with “the wall”; it's the point in the race that you run out of juice – physiologically as well as psychologically. In many ways, the marathon distance is perfectly designed to ensure that almost everyone hits the wall. It's the moment that every fibre of your being is screaming for you to stop. The entire purpose of the marathon is to keep going at that point. Keep on running, and not to quit.

It might sound insane (and perhaps it is), but the main reason that I kept on running was to get another glimpse at the other side of that wall. It provides a rare vantage point into ourselves that is only earned through the immense desire to keep going, and I wasn’t sure I’d have enough strength or courage to run another marathon this year if I didn’t finish this one. Perhaps more importantly, the practice of running, for me, has always been more about learning than speed. And I knew that I was on track to learn a lot about myself if I continued.

Beyond “the wall” there’s a mental place where the pain, cramps and exhaustion don’t matter. It's all still there, but something else takes over. It's a small taste of how the the Navi (זכריה ט:ט) describes Moshiach: As an עָנִי וְרֹכֵב עַל־חֲמוֹר – a poor man riding on a donkey. The Maharal (גבורות ה׳ כ״ט) explains this vision as a person who is in total control of their physical self – רוכב על החמרית – riding above the material. I wanted to feel that feeling if only for a few moments, to learn from that experience. Perhaps I might find something of value to share.

With Hashem's help, there were a lot of things that I found behind the wall this past Sunday. Some of them, I am still processing. Some are far too personal to share. But there is one line of of thinking that reverberated almost ceaselessly, and contending with it provided an education with far reaching implications for life, and Avodas Hashem in general.

The thought began softly and carefully. At first I thought it was my Yetzer Tov, looking out for my well being. But with every passing step, it became clear that this was the voice of my Yetzer Hara. It screamed out “you should quit.” More specifically, it said: “You're unprepared and exhausted. This is no way to run a marathon, you should be ashamed of yourself. This will be a your worst finishing time ever. Get yourself together, and quit already. You can try again when you're better trained.”

The problem with this voice in my head was that it was, of course, entirely factually correct.

But running is not the only time that I have heard this voice. Most likely, you've heard it it too. It's the voice that says that you should quit learning Daf Yomi because you're too far behind. Or forget about coming to minyan because you're running too late, or that, since you've missed minyan half a dozen times this week already, there's no point in coming today at all.

It's the voice that says there's no way you're going get through everything you need to cover for the final, so there's little point trying to study.

It's the voice that says you might as well get an extra dessert, and start the diet tomorrow; or after Shabbos, or maybe after vacation.

It's the defeatism that tells us that it was our poor parenting which produced this mix of challenges in our children. And also, that we are now incapable of doing anything to make it better. It tells us that our marriage is in a rut, and will stay that way because we've messed it all up already.

It's the voice that now demands perfection where only imperfection is available. The voice that says it's not worth attempting at all if it's not going to be your best. It's the voice of self-doubt, worthlessness and destructive criticism.

This voice is the sound that plays in our ears when we hit “the wall” in marathons, and in life. It was also the sound of the very first wall that Klal Yisrael encountered after coming our of Mitzrayim.

The Torah tells us that at the splitting of Yam Suf: וְהַמַּיִם לָהֶם חֹמָה מִימִינָם וּמִשְּׂמֹאלָם – the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.

Chazal (מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל י״ד:כ״ט) note that the word חֹמָה (wall) in the pasuk is spelled without a “vav”, allowing for the word to also be read as חֵמָה – anger:

...והיו מלאכי השרת תמהים לומר בני אדם עובדי עבודה זרה מהלכין ביבשה בתוך הים ומנין שאף הים נתמלא עליהם חמה שנ' והמים להם חומה אל תקרי חומה אלא חמה

The Angels were astounded, saying, “how could Hashem allow these idol worshipers to cross through the sea on dry land?!” The sea was likewise angry, filled with rage.

The Angels demanded an explanation as to why the Jewish idolators should be spared, while the Egyptian idolators should be destroyed. How does Hashem answer these accusations of the inadequacy of Jewish people? How does Hashem get us over the wall?

The Meshech Chochma (שמות י״ד:כ״ט), paraphrasing the Medrash (ילקוט שמעוני) explains that Hashem answers the sea:

On the surface they may appear to carry the same idol worship as their Egyptian tormentors, but in truth, they have already abandoned the ways of Egypt. They slaughtered the Egyptian gods, and gave a Bris Milah to their sons. They have followed Me into the desert. And all of this they did when they were no longer enslaved! (Since the plagues ended their servitude six months before they left Egypt.) All of their failures were a result of the pain of exile and slavery, but the moment they had a little freedom they chose Me.

Hashem is telling us: The secret to getting over the wall is knowing that we've already come so far. We're already out of Mitzrayim, learning Torah, making it to minyan, controlling our tempers and temptations. We have achieved more than we ever thought possible, and we've got a lot to be proud of.

For me, it took a little humility to recall that four years ago I was almost a hundred pounds heavier, and could barely run a mile. With the incredible support of my family and community, and more than my fair share of Siyata D'Shmaya, that's not me any longer. I have more than enough to be grateful for. To quit because “it wasn’t going as planned” smacks of an arrogance that I hope to avoid. 

Of course, none of our success and self confidence absolves us of our responsibility to actually rid ourselves of the Egyptian Avoda Zara in our pockets. We still need to catch up the Daf, work on our relationships with our parents and children, and eat less cake. Much like running faster necessitates getting fitter, and training harder. Everything still needs work. But allowing ourselves the latitude to focus on what we've achieved opens a pathway to see beyond the wall.

With Tu B'shvat around the corner, the Beis Yaakov of Izbihtz would remark that he could taste the difference between a fruit that held on throughout the cold and windy days, and the fruit which gave up and was ready to fall. Nothing can compare to the sweetness of a Jew of that holds on despite their challenges and failures.

That's my Tefillah for myself and for you. That Hashem grants us the sweetness of being able to hold on, and the strength never to let go. That when we face our next walls, we will be able to overcome them, and perhaps when we've conquered them, we'll find a new closeness to Hashem, עומד אחר כתלנו משגיח מן החלנות מציץ מן החרכים – the One Who stands behind our wall, watching from the windows, peering in through the cracks.

In our last Halacha Shiur before Yeshiva break, I announced our vacation “Tefillin Challenge” to my 9th grade Talmudic. The rules are simple: Every day of Yeshiva break (that isn't a Shabbos), you need to take a selfie of yourself wearing Tefillin and post it to our group chat. Doing so for all ten days of the break will earn you a free test grade of 100% for the current quarter.

The purpose of the challenge is obvious. I want to make sure that my students feel a sense camaraderie and accountability in their Shmiras HaMitzvos. One of the guys raised his hand incredulously. “Rebbe, we're all planning on putting on Tefillin already!” I'd like to believe that that's always the case, but being a high school student comes with challenges that are not always easy to overcome.

So we discussed how everyone is susceptible to the trickery of the Yetzer Hara:

“Although you guys were all planning on putting on Tefillin already, there are days when you might wake up late, miss minyan and feel bad about yourself. You might get distracted, rush out for some activity and only get home after sunset. When you see your phone buzzing with your friends putting on Tefillin, that's exactly the kind of encouragement that will beat back the Yetzer Hara of distraction and procrastination.”

That seemed to resonate.

One of the guys started questioning the rules. “Rebbe, how will know that the picture was taken that day?! Maybe we'll take a few on one day and then just use those?” I explained “It's certainly doable. But I might catch you, and that won't be fun. But are you seriously considering going through all that to avoid putting on Tefillin, which you already believe in and agree is important?” He agreed.

Another Talmid wondered “What happens if someone doesn't put on Tefillin and post their picture? Will they get a bad grade?” I told him that their grades would be fine, no points taken off, they would simply miss out on the free 100%.

But our shiur then began to consider that perhaps there's a bigger question to ask: How should we explain ourselves, our lives and our choices if the threat of a bad grade is a greater motivation than Ratzon Hashem?

This question is not only for high school boys putting on Tefillin. It's a question that we all need to ask ourselves in every aspect of our Yiddishkeit. Are we doing Mitzvos because we're trying to avoid punishment, or do we believe in the inherent value of doing what Hashem wants us to do.

Of course, we recognize the concept of “Yiras HaOnesh” – fear of punishment. But that’s the lowest level of motivation. It’s the catch-all, the backstop, the thing that holds us back at the last moment.

Every good parent knows that a threat is the nuclear option. When a parent says “clean your room” or “brush your teeth” the ultimate goal is that the child will care about the value of having a clean room and good dental hygiene. Threats are only relevant when our values are in question, or when we need external motivation to help us prioritize our the values we know to be true.

Changing Our Motivation Paradigm

Though we might not want to admit it, this challenge is sometimes as real for us as it is for our children. It's the part of Mitzrayim that we're still working to free ourselves from.

In fact, freeing ourselves from the “punishment perspective” might well be a central theme of Yetzias Mitzrayim, as the Torah describes:

This Shabbos, Hashem reveals the entire play-book to Moshe; every step of the mission. Moshe and Aharon will engage Pharaoh, asking him to let the Jewish people go. Behind the scenes, Hashem is strengthening Pharaoh's resolve, famously “hardening his heart.” This will enable Pharaoh to withstand the pain the plagues, allowing for Hashem to “increase His signs and wonders in the Land of Egypt.” (See Sefono here.)

Nevertheless, Hashem continues, וְלֹא־יִשְׁמַע אֲלֵכֶם פַּרְעֹה וְנָתַתִּי אֶת־יָדִי בְּמִצְרָיִם Pharaoh will not listen to you, and I will “place My hand on Egypt.”

This final phrase וְנָתַתִּי אֶת־יָדִי בְּמִצְרָיִם is peculiar. What does Hashem mean by “placing His Hand”? He has already described the ten plagues and the disassembling of Egyptian society. What more might this add?

The HaKsav V'HaKabalah (ז:ד) explains that this short phrase encapsulates the entirety of Moshe's mission and the lessons that we need to learn from it.

When Hashem says “וְנָתַתִּי אֶת־יָדִי”, this is not a threat. Quite the opposite. Literally, these words mean that Hashem is “extending His hand” to Pharaoh. (The HaKsav V'HaKabalah characteristically provides multiple sources in Tanach that support this reading of the text.)

To understand the message here, we should review what made Egypt the great superpower of the ancient world: From the perspective of the Egyptian monarchy, might is right, and to the victor are the spoils of war. This philosophy worked well for the ancient Pharaohs, transforming their nation into the longest surviving regional superpower in human history.

Enter Moshe and Aharon explaining Jewish theology to Pharaoh: “There is One God in the Heavens and on Earth. He has chosen the Jewish people to be His, and He requests that you free them from slavery so that they will serve only Him.”

Impressive as this all sounds, Pharaoh has one thought preventing him from entertaining these claims. “If this God is indeed unique, singular and omnipotent as you say, then why on earth are you here asking me to free his people?! If He is infinitely powerful, let Him take these slaves for Himself!”

The rationale behind Pharaoh's unwillingness to accept the reality of Hashem is not that he cannot imagine Hashem's strength; it is because he cannot understand Hashem's kindness, patience and goodness. “If He can take these people, why is he sending you to ask?”

Hashem is teaching us here that the values of Torah stand in contrast to the cruelty of Egypt. Diplomacy, patience, conversation and education is always preferable to threats and violence, even when greater power is readily available. It was this lesson that Hashem wanted to display through his sending of Moshe and Aharon.

The Ksav V'Kabalah concludes by explaining the Pasuk: “The reason that Pharaoh will not listen to you, is precisely because I am extending My Hand to Him.” To the Egyptians, kindness is weakness. The fall of Egypt is that tragically, they will only listen when kindness is replaced with a display of vastly superior power.

The Mitzvos of Yeshiva Break

More than any other, vacation is a time to consider the reason that we do mitzvos. This is true for parents and children at every stage of our growth and development. Away from the homework, tests, attendance sheets and car pool lines, do we value davening, learning and cheesed? Do we find Simcha in our Yiddishkeit when the communal and academic stakes are lowered? Or perhaps we have conditioned ourselves to engage in Torah and mitzvos only because we are afraid not to comply?

If you're not sure which side of this you're on, or if you'd like to upgrade your perspective, try this: Choose a mitzvah that you're planning on doing anyway. Spend a few minutes before thinking about why you're going to do it, what you hope you will achieve and why it's a meaningful way to spend your time. The results might be surprising, delightful or disappointing. Either way, it's a opening to grow.

Hashem should help us these weeks to refocus on what matters; the values that we are trying to live up to, rather than the repercussions if we don't. We should feel his hand reaching out to us in our lives, pulling us out of the last chains of Mitzrayim.

In 1976, the Lubavitcher Rebbe arranged to meet with a group of disabled Israeli war veterans who had been brought to the United States by the Israeli Ministry of Defense; the group included men who had been badly wounded during Israel’s wars (most recently, the 1973 Yom Kippur War) and in army mishaps.

All had suffered severe injuries, some were crippled, and all were maimed. Referring to the fact that such people are designated in Israel as nechei Tzahal, “handicapped of the Israel Defense Forces,” the Rebbe addressed the men as follows: “If a person has been deprived of a limb or a faculty, this itself indicates that God has also given him special powers to overcome the limitations this entails, and to surpass [in other areas] the achievements of ordinary people.

You are not disabled or handicapped, but special and unique as you possess potentials that the rest of us do not. I therefore suggest”—the Rebbe then interspersed with a smile—“ of course it is none of my business, but Jews are famous for voicing opinions on matters that do not concern them—that you should no longer be referred to as ‘disabled veterans’ but as ‘exceptional veterans’ [metzuyanim], which more aptly describes what is unique about you. “Therefore,” the Rebbe concluded, “I would be honored to shake every one of your hands, for the great honor you have given me for visiting me.”

He then walked over and spent time in conversation with each and every veteran, grasping their hands in his.

A Shift in Perspective

The Torah, this week, introduces the story of Galus – exile, and Geula – redemption from Egypt. There will yet be ten plagues, awesome miracles and wondrous displays of Hashem's power and presence. All of this is designed to create a shift in perspective – both in the minds of Paroah and the Egyptians, and in the minds of the Jewish people.

But all of this is yet to take place. For now, Moshe is debating Hashem by the burning bush, and challenging Him that “The Jewish People will not listen to me.”

Hashem responds by providing Moshe with a sign: Throw down your stick. וַיַּשְׁלִכֵהוּ אַרְצָה וַיְהִי לְנָחָשׁ וַיָּנׇס מֹשֶׁה מִפָּנָיו – He cast it on the ground and it became a snake; and Moshe recoiled from it.

Hashem then tells Moshe to grab the snake by its tail. וַיִּשְׁלַח יָדוֹ וַיַּחֲזֶק בּוֹ וַיְהִי לְמַטֶּה בְּכַפּוֹ – Moshe put out his hand and seized it, and it became a rod in his hand.

This trick will be performed with much fanfare next Shabbos, when Moshe and Aharon present themselves to Paroah. Ultimately, Aharon's stick/snake will devour those of Paroah's magicians.

The relationship between snake and stick is not simply a matter of power, illusion or magic.

Throughout the Torah, the snake is representative of the Yetzer Hara, en emblem for evil that drives humanity towards negative thoughts, speech and behaviors. As for the stick? It is miraculous. An instrument, a tool, with which to transform the Egypt, turn water into blood, to split the sea and bring forth water from a rock.

This duality, however, runs far deeper. The Malbim (191 הכרמל ע׳) quotes from the Ari HaKadosh that Moshe's stick was made from the wood of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. In essence, it is mixed – it has the potential for good and evil. In the hands of Moshe and Aharon, it is a stick with which to do miracles, but the moment that they let it go, it turns into a snake.

The question that we, like Paroah, must face, is asking whether the challenges that we encounter, both externally and internally, are really a snake, or really a stick.

This is true of our interactions with our spouses and children. How do we interpret their actions and behavior? Snake or stick? When a child throws a tantrum, does it mean they're a bad kid, or a good kid having a bad day? When spouses act distracted and dismissive, does it mean they don't love each other, or maybe they're just tired? And when a boss or colleague dishes out an unfair comment, is he or she a bad person, or perhaps simply under pressure?

This question lies at the root of every relationship, job, pastime or hobby that we engage in. Do we look at the world, at other people, as fundamentally evil, with the chance of good? Or do we see the world as fundamentally good with failures, fissures and fractures, that we are invited to fix? Are we, on average, positive, optimistic and hopeful, or are we negative, pessimistic and disappointed?

And of course, each one of us needs to ask this question of ourselves: Am I a fundamentally good person? Am I worth it? When I want to do something that I won't be proud of; when there are two conflicting voices in my head, which one is really me. Am I a good person with flaws? Or an imposter trying desperately not to get caught.

Scrolling through our social media feeds; have we become so jaded from seeing stories of tragedy, or does each one still affect us? Do we anticipate that the world will be good? That our future is bright, Chas V'Shalom the opposite?

Who's Holding the Stick?

The Sfas Emes (וארא תרנ”ג ד״ה בענין המטה) explains that the entire Story of Yetzias Mitzraim is the Story of Moshe Rabbeinu grabbing the snake by the tail, and restoring it to a stick. This is why the Makos must begin with this miracle. Understanding that no-one is inherently evil, that the world is not inherently bad, is the most basic construct of Yiddishkeit. And of course, this power is not granted to Moshe and Aharon alone. The Sfas Emes continues:

ובכח איש ישראל לבטל הטבע, ואז נעשה מנחש מטה It is within the power of each and every Jew to nullify the instincts within them, and then from a snake, a stick can be (re)created.

The ultimate question is always: Are we willing to take control of the negative forces in our lives and to see them for what that are: Tools in our hands that can be used or abused. Tools that are given to us with which to become Chayalim Metzuyanim – excellent soldiers, rather than Chayalim Nachim – handicapped soldiers.

Hashem should help us in all of our challenges; both internal and external and grant us the strength to take control. That our snakes should become sticks, and our challenges, opportunities.

In the past week which I spent in Eretz Yisrael, I had the privilege to daven with a lot of different Jews. Every minyan is a cultural melting pot of accents and customs, homage to the generations of exile from which our people is emerging.

At the end of one particular minyan (Anglo-Israeli-Modern-Dati), a man walked in wearing the tell-tale garb of a Chareidi Rav: A long black frock, and a Homburg. His dress was as distinguished as it was out of place.

He approached the Gabbai, who nodded noncommittally, then walked around the minyan as men were wrapping their tefillin, and handed out a photocopied letter. The moment the final kaddish was done, he stood by the bima and declared: “I am a Jew who spends all day learning, from morning to night. I have many financial obligations, and I need your help to meet them. By helping me, you are assisting someone who completes Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi every year! I have letter attesting to my needs and stature....”

I couldn't catch the rest. It was drowned out by the sound of people shuffling out the door. I'm not sure that poor man collected anything significant that morning. Perhaps a few shekels from the people closest to where he was standing who couldn't comfortably escape without feeling guilty.

I overheard some guys snickering and muttering as they left “maybe he wouldn't have so many financial obligations if he got a job...” I must confess, I also had the same thought. “Perhaps I could learn all day, and you support me...”

But as the episode played over in my mind, questions arose....

Let's assume for a moment that the man is indeed telling the truth about his scholarship and commitment (which obviously cannot be taken for granted). Let's also assume that he could make a living in some honest way (which, perhaps might be an unfair assumption as well).

There are multiple questions that arise, some in Halacha and some in Middos and Derech Eretz. Some of these questions have clear answers in the poskim, others less so: – Does a person have the right to choose to spend their time learning and not to work for a living, and thus depend on the generosity of others in order to pay their bills? – Is a member of the minyan obligated in any way to contribute when solicited for support? – Does the value of supporting Talmidei Chachamim override other needy or more local causes?

In the world of Hashkafa and Middos this short episode raises further pivotal questions, touching on the some of the most important issues of Emunah and Bitachon. – How much time working is enough Hishtadlus? How much is a lack of Bitachon? – Where do we draw the line between trusting that Hashem will provide vs. laziness? Is there a problem of enabling by financially supporting someone who is capable of working but chooses not to? – If Hashem decides our Parnasa on Rosh Hashana, what is the purpose of working at all?

Each of these questions is a major sugya, and much ink has been spilled discussing them. (Perhaps we'll do a series in the future?)

Needless to say, the entire experience after minyan that morning left me a little unsettled. There is one question, however, that has gnawed at me since, as I write this on the plane coming back to Boca: What exactly irked me and the rest of the minyan so much? Is my discomfort appropriate? Or is it somehow rooted in a lack of Kavod HaTorah?

The notion that Klal Yisrael would have people dedicated to learning and people dedicated to learning is cemented in this week's Parsha. Yaakov Avinu famously forges the partnership between Yissachar and Zevulun. But long before this relationship would see fruition, there were other sons who exemplified these roles.

Before his descent to Mitzrayim, Yaakov sends Yehuda ahead: וְאֶת־יְהוּדָה שָׁלַח לְפָנָיו. Rashi comments (מ״ו:כח): לְתַקֵּן לוֹ בֵּית תַּלְמוּד שֶׁמִּשָּׁם תֵּצֵא הוֹרָאָה – to establish for him a House of Study from which Teaching would go forth.

The Rambam (הל׳ ע״ז א׳) notes the centrality of Talmud Torah as the mission of Klal Yisrael, and explains:

וְיַעֲקֹב אָבִינוּ לִמֵּד בָּנָיו כֻּלָּם וְהִבְדִּיל לֵוִי וּמִנָּהוּ רֹאשׁ וְהוֹשִׁיבוֹ בִּישִׁיבָה לְלַמֵּד דֶּרֶךְ הַשֵּׁם וְלִשְׁמֹר מִצְוַת אַבְרָהָם. וְצִוָּה אֶת בָּנָיו שֶׁלֹּא יַפְסִיקוּ מִבְּנֵי לֵוִי מְמֻנֶּה אַחַר מְמֻנֶּה כְּדֵי שֶׁלֹּא תִשָּׁכַח הַלִּמּוּד. וְהָיָה הַדָּבָר הוֹלֵךְ וּמִתְגַּבֵּר בִּבְנֵי יַעֲקֹב וּבַנִּלְוִים עֲלֵיהֶם וְנַעֲשֵׂית בָּעוֹלָם אֻמָּה שֶׁהִיא יוֹדַעַת אֶת ה'.

Yaakov taught all of his children. He selected Levi and appointed him as the leader. He established him as Rosh Yeshiva to teach them the way of Hashem and observe the mitzvot of Avraham.

He commanded his sons that the leadership should not depart from the descendants of Levi, so that the teachings would not be forgotten. This concept proceeded and gathered strength among the descendants of Yaakov and those who collected around them, until there would be became a nation within the world which knew Hashem.

It's clear that the purpose of the Jewish people is the study and dissemination of Torah. Yet, simultaneously, there was other son who was ensuring that Bnei Yisrael would survive physically: Yosef HaTzadik – הַמַּשְׁבִּיר לְכׇל־עַם הָאָרֶץ – The provider for all the people of the land.

Which of these is the more noble, lofty and important pursuit? We traditionally see these goals at odds with each other. But Chazal (סנהדרין צ״ב א) see them far closer:

ואם למדו מה שכרו אמר רבא אמר רב ששת זוכה לברכות כיוסף שנאמר (משלי יא, כו) וברכה לראש משביר ואין משביר אלא יוסף שנאמר (בראשית מב, ו) ויוסף הוא [השליט על הארץ הוא] המשביר לכל עם הארץ

If one teaches halakha rather than withholding it, what is his reward? Rava says that Rav Sheshet says: He is privileged to receive blessings like Yosef, as it is stated “But blessing shall be upon the head of one who provides [mashbir]” (Proverbs 11:26). And mashbir is referring to no one other than Yoseph, as it is stated: “And Yosef was the governor of the land, and he was the provider [hamashbir] to all the people of the land” (Genesis 42:6).

The Maharsha questions this Gemara. How is Rav Sheshes learning the reward for teaching Torah to proving food? Are these not opposite pursuits?

He explains:

לפי שהתורה היא מזון הנשמה כמו הלחם לגוף וכמו שזכה יוסף לברכות שכלכל את אחיו ועמי הארץ בלחם כן יזכה הת”ח המכלכל אחרים בלחם התורה ומלמדה להם.

Since Torah is food for the soul, as bread is to the body. And since Yosef received great blessing for sustaining the people of the land and his brothers, so too will a Talmid Chacham be blessed for providing others with the bread of Torah and teaching them.

Clearly, both “Yehuda/Levi” and “Yosef” and crucial to the survival and success of our nation. It is important to note, however, that neither are defined by what they do, but by what they give. And herein lies the solution to our conundrum, as well as an opportunity for honest reflection.

Our communities are irked by a Talmid Chacham requesting assistance to enable his learning without earning a living or providing Torah in return. But I wonder if we hold business people and professionals to the same standard. We are bothered by a full time learner who doesn't contribute his learning. Are we equally bothered by a full time earner who doesn't make time to learn or support Talmud Torah?

A while back I met up with an old friend from Yeshiva who describes himself as an “aspiring philanthropist”. I love the term; it certainly gives meaning to the more common pursuit of amassing wealth. More over, it upends the American Dream of “financial freedom.” He told me that he came to the realization that in the Torah there is no such thing as financial freedom. We don't strive to amass wealth for the purpose of “being able to do whatever we want.” There is only one question: How can I use what Hashem gave me to bring Him into the world a little more?

Reb Tzadok (צה״צ נג) writes that even today each of us can trace our interests, skills and talents to the Shevatim. Each of us can find ourselves in the Brachos that Yaakov gave his children. This means that whatever it is that we are driven to do, can, should and must become a part of the march forward from Mitzrayim to redemption. None of it is a personal venture – we're in it together.

Hashem should help us to take our place in that great journey – each of us in the roles that Hashem has entrusted us to play. And as I leave Eretz HaKodesh, I'm looking forward to being back there, together with all of you soon.

As I write this, it's a chilly Wednesday morning, and I'm sitting on the balcony of my brother's apartment in Raanana, feeling a little jet lagged. Baruch Hashem, my daughter Ayelet and I are here to celebrate my niece's Bas Mitzvah.

Every time that I have been fortunate to visit Eretz Yisrael I'm overwhelmed by the miracle of our rebirth as a nation. On the way here, I sat next to an engineer who specializes in low orbit satellites. He's a fascinating man, with a colorful life story. He's almost eighty years old, and was born in pre-1948 Israel to survivors of the Holocaust. He received his doctorate in London, and today he lives and works in New York.

I ate my kosher meal, his meal was not. Naturally, we spoke about Torah, God and history, as two Jews do. He told me that his father lost too much in the concentration camps to ever go back to observance. “Growing up”, he explained, “my father wasn't angry, just broken.” I asked what the occasion was for his trip to Israel. “My grandson's wedding.” Then he paused. “Today, he's religious.”

It's these little conversations that remind us that even as the last lights of Channukah flicker out, there really is no end to the miracle of the oil. Even when it's reduced to ash and embers, the flame of Klal Yisrael is still burning.

In our generation, we are privileged to see this truth with millennia of Jewish history in our rear view mirror. But this has not always been so clear. I certainly didn't feel clear to Yaakov Avinu as he left Eretz Yisrael and embarked on the journey that would land us in Egyptian slavery.

Truthfully, the Torah tells us, Yaakov was not convinced that Yosef was still alive and certainly doubted that he was the ruler over Egypt. But all of these questions fade when he sees the wagons that Yosef sent:

וַיַּרְא אֶת־הָעֲגָלוֹת אֲשֶׁר־שָׁלַח יוֹסֵף לָשֵׂאת אֹתוֹ וַתְּחִי רוּחַ יַעֲקֹב אֲבִיהֶם

And when he saw the wagons that Yoseph had sent to transport him, the spirit of their father Yaakov was revived.

It's a strange fact that wagons should provide such clarity and comfort when all else appeared so bleak.

Rashi (מה:כז) notes these wagons hinted at the Halachos of Eglah Arufa – the final lessons that Yaakov has taught Yosef before he was sold into slavery. In that way, Yaakov knew that Yosef was indeed alive, and that he was still connected to the values of Torah.

But these wagons carried more than a hint as to Yosef identity. They also served to reassure Yaakov in the moment of his greatest fear. The Daas Zekeinim quotes another opinion of Chazal, explaining that these wagons were a hint to the wagons that would one day transport the Mishkan through the desert when we left Mitzraim.

The Chasam Sofer notes that all of these wagons are ultimately a reference to the “Merkava of Hashem”. Yechezkel famously envisioned Hashem's presence in this world as a Chariot – Hashem's “Merkava”.

The Ramban (הקדמה לספר שמות) explains that the entire purpose of Jewish history is to become a national Merakava for Hashem's presence. Through our thoughts, speech and actions, we, as a people are charged with the responsibility to embody, carry and perpetuate Ratzon Hashem in this world.

Throughout Jewish history we have pulled the cart, indeed, we have been the cart. But it hasn't always easy. There have been generations where being the Merkava of Hashem has been painful and challenging.

This was the profundity of Yosef's message to Yaakov on a national level: Even when we're on the way to Mitzraim, even when things don't seem to be going according to plan, we are still Hashem's Merkava.

But this truth is not limited to our national existence. It is also true of each one of us in our personal lives.

The Navi describes that the Merkava is drawn by Chayos – Transcendent Beasts, and rolls along the ground by way of Ofanim – literally, Angelic Wheels. Of course, there is an infinity of mystical truths in these pesukim, but the Ohev Yisrael (פנחס ג׳) explains a small piece that relates to us and the challenges we face.

He writes that there are a small group of Jews in each generation and throughout our history who are the Chayos. Most others are the Ofanim. The Chayos are tasked with inspiring, directing, pulling Klal Yisrael. The Ofanim keep it moving.

But the nature of a wheel is that it gets dirty as it rolls. It's not always the case that we're cruising through life. The terrain is sometimes uneven, and just as we reach the top of our game, we find ourselves steadily declining. It's disheartening and often exhausting:

והם טרודים בכל עת בעסקי פרנסת ביתם. ולפעמים בא להם מחשבה טובה וכשירה לילך ולשמוע ברכו וקדושה. או ללמוד קצת או להתפלל וליתן צדקה וכדומה.

Those Jews who are the Wheels of Hashem's Chariot are busy with the needs of providing for their homes. Sometimes, they'll have a good and wonderful thought “I'll make it to shul to hear Baruchu or Kedusha.” “Maybe I'll learn a little, or daven. Maybe I could give a little tzedaka etc...”

We roll upwards, and then down. On the upswings we feel incredible, we're motivated and ready to take on the world. But then those feelings fade, and we're back in the mud.

The secret of Hashem's Chariot is that even when we're down, even when we feel defeated and deflated we're still carrying on.

The Shem Mishmuel writes that this message was also conveyed by Yosef's wagons:

כי אין ירידתו והשפלתו נקרא ירידה בהחלט, וחכם הרואה את הנולד רואה בכל ירידה התחלת עלי', וכן להיפוך כששעתו מוצלחת לא ירום לבבו וישקיף ויראה בכל עלי' ירידה... וכאשר ראה יעקב אע”ה זה, הבין שזה הענין בעצמו החזיק ביד יוסף ולא נפל בנופלים, והוא במדריגת חי, ע”כ ותחי רוח יעקב אביהם.

Our fallings are not absolute failures, and wise people can see how every descent is the beginning of his ascent. Likewise, when we are feeling successful, it should not go to our heads, for every ascent might be the beginning of a decline.... This explains Yaakov's reaction when he saw the wagons that Yosef sent. He knew that this was secret strength that sustained Yosef to ensure that he never fell into his failures. Yosef was always truly alive, and so “Yaakov's spirit was revived.”

The ability to keep on rolling is Yosef's legacy to us; inspiring us in all spheres: national, historic, personal and emotional. But perhaps most meaningful is the knowledge that when our wheels are in the dirt, that's simply part of the journey. For any part of a wheel, the essential direction is neither up nor down; it's moving forwards.

When we feel stuck, in life, in relationships, in learning, in our careers and in Avodas Hashem, the primary point to remedy is not the mud we're in, but that we've stopped moving.

Our generation is so blessed to see how far the Merkava has travelled, and our tefillah is that Hashem should help us to keep on rolling, to keep the flames of Channuka burning until all of our wagons have retuned to Yerushalayim.

There was once a great king who build a beautiful palace from which he could rule his kingdom. Surrounding the palace grounds, he build an intricate maze, which could only be traversed with dedication and care. This was, the king could be sure that no enemies would be able to conquer his palace.

However, the existence of the maze also made it challenging for those who loved the king to approach. And so it was, that one day, two of the kings closest friends arrived to meet the great king.

Each of them entered the maze with excitement and trepidation. Moments after they began their journey, the walls of the maze rose far above their heads; they could no longer see the palace at all.

The first friend continued, turning in all directions, hopelessly lost. Minutes became hours and the sun had begun to set. He wondered if he would ever make it out alive, let alone see his friend the king. Tired, cold, lonely and afraid, with no options remaining, he sat on the ground and cried. As the tears ran down his cheeks, he raised his voice and pleaded “Great King, my beloved friend! If you can hear me, please save me! I have no where else to turn; there is no one else but you!”

When the king heard the voice of his friend crying to him, he was overwhelmed with concern, and immediately dispatched his servants to rescue the poor man. As the kings men arrived, they lifted the man to his feet, and carried him out of the maze to kneel before the king. The man dried his eyes, looked at the face of his great friend, and arose to join the feast that evening.

But what of the second friend?

He too became hopelessly lost; wandering the maze as the hours grew late and the shadows darkened the sky above him. But this friend devised a plan: At each turn, he would leave a sign; a leaf or a pebble. If the turn lead him to a dead-end, he retraced his steps, leaving another sign to know not to return to that path. Slowly but surely, turn by turn, he inched his way out of the maze, just in time to see his friend exit along side him. That night, both friends sat beside the great king.

Reb Simcha Bunim of Peshischa noted that both friends succeeded in meeting the king. Both sat at the feast, both achieved their goal. Yet there is a difference between them: Only the second friend, who left the signs behind him, will ever be able to teach his children the way to the king.


Beis Shamai and Beis Hillel debated the correct order of lighting the Channukah Neiros. Beis Shamai held that we kindle eight flames on the first night, seven on the second, until by the final night, only one candle is left. This is based on the paradigm of the Korbanos of Sukkos, which diminish throughout the festival.

Beis Hillel contended that the opposite is true. We begin with one flame, adding another and another until eight lights are lit on the final night of Channukah. Beis Hillel argued that we should also go upwards in matters of Kedusha.

Of course both perspectives are correct and valid – אלו ואלו דברי אלקים חיים, and of course, we follow the opinion of Beis Hillel.

Rav Kook (עין איה שבת כא ב׳) explains the philosophy behind Beis Shamai's position:

When we observe the nature of each generation and their achievements, we cannot deny the merits of each subsequent generation pales in comparison to those who came before. By all standards, the light of Hashem is dwindling in the world. Thus we kindle the Channuka lights, desperately yearning that Hashem should rescue us from the lowliness of our station. And like the moon which is reduced to nothing before it begins to shine again, we plead that Hashem should renew us as well.

Channukah, according to Beis Shamai, is heartfelt Tefillah; raging against the dying of the light. As the darkness descends, Beis Shamai suggests that we cry out to Hashem to save us as He once saved our ancestors, for only then will we be saved.

Beis Hillel disagrees. Of course, each generation is further from the start line, and as time marches on, we may have forgotten the appearance of the palace. We might no longer remember the sound of the Kings voice; there might even be people who deny that there ever was a king, or even that anything exits outside the maze. But if we look carefully, we can see that there have been signs left along the way.

Each generation leaves their mark; and the path becomes clearer every day. The light is not diminishing at all. On the contrary, it grows brighter at each turn. Soon, we will find our way, and we will teach it to the world.

Rav Kook writes (אגרות הראי”ה ח”א, אגרת של”ב):

כלל גדול הוא, שאף על פי שהעולם יורד תמיד בירידה אחר ירידה, מכל מקום אין זה כי אם מצד החיצוניות שלו, דהיינו שהמעשים והמדות נופלים ואינם בערך של דורות הראשונים מצד פרטיות הנשמות. אבל מצד הפנימיות, דהיינו כח-הכלל של כללות קדושת האומה כנסת ישראל, כל דור ודור מוסיף על הדורות הראשונים, מפני שהקדושה מצטרפת, ונמצא שהקדושה של מעוט תורה ומעשים טובים של דורות האחרונים מוסיפה אור לשעבר גם כן

It is a great principle, that even though the world is constantly descending, this descent is purely external. Meaning: The actions and character traits of the individuals of each generation continue fall as time goes on. But internally, that is to say, regarding the collective sprit of the Jewish people throughout the ages, in which every generation builds upon all those that preceded it. The transcendence of the Jewish people thus grows, and even the individual actions of the later generations stands on the shoulders of those who came before.


Anyone looking at our world, the Jewish people and our own lives could not be faulted in feeling a sense of hopelessness from time to time. There is so much pain and failure, so much loss, so much darkness. There are days that each of us wants to (and deserves to) scream “Hashem! Enough already!”

But Beis Hillel teaches us that there is deeper truth – that we are no lost at all. That we are standing on the brink of redemption, both personally and nationally. The lights have not dwindled at all; and if we look closely, we can see clearly that we're doing better than ever... and the best if yet to come.

The Beis Yaakov of Izhbitz (מקץ אות יט) notes that we always read the story of Yosef HaTzadik around Channukah time for this reason. If there was ever a Jew who felt lost, lonely and abandoned, it was Yosef. His life stands as a paradigm for Jewish history. Every failure was a step forward, all his pain would eventually made sense to him. On the outside, his light was flickering out, but inside it was growing stronger with each passing challenge.

Hashem should help us to scream out to Him when we need to. But perhaps this Channukah, Hashem might help us as well, to avoid the wrong turns we've been taught to avoid. To learn to see the signs along the way, to know that He is waiting for us and our families to join Him at the feast in Yerushalayim at the end of History.

It's not a secret that people are having a hard time making and maintaining friendships. Less well known, however, is the dangers of loneliness. Studies have found that it is twice as deadly as obesity, and as deadly as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.

Our communities, thankfully, offer many opportunities for social connection, and our daily Jewish life is primed to enable organic relationships to grow. We are amongst the last groups of people in the western world for whom socializing must take place in person (at least once a week), and our lives revolve around meals shared without technological distractions.

But even with all of this beauty and the connections we enjoy, real friendship is still difficult to achieve and maintain.

This struggle is discussed explicitly by the Rambam in his commentary to Avos, on the Misha:

יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן פְּרַחְיָה אוֹמֵר, עֲשֵׂה לְךָ רַב, וּקְנֵה לְךָ חָבֵר, וֶהֱוֵי דָן אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם לְכַף זְכוּת:

Yehoshua ben Perachiah used to say: appoint for yourself a teacher, and acquire for yourself a friend and judge all men favorably.

The Rambam (אבות א׳ ו׳), question why we are instructed to “acquire” a friend, and explains:

The intention of this is that a person must make every effort to acquire a friend for himself, so that all of his deeds and all of his matters be refined through him, as they said (Taanit 23a), “Either a friend or death.” And if he does not find him, he must make efforts for it with all his heart, and even if he must lead him to his friendship, until he becomes a friend.

Friendship is not simply a nicety that we hope will “happen” to us. It is essential to our personal growth and wellbeing, and as such, it is an obligation for each person to achieve.

But when we consider the exceptional importance of friendship, it seems strange that we rarely focus on the this type of relationship in our study of Chumash. The Avos, Imahos and Moshe Rabbeinu are all traditionally understood as solitary characters, as are so many of our greatest leaders throughout Tanach.

There is, however, one person in Bereishis who clearly has a close friend. We learn of this friendship in moment of greatest weakness and failure.

After Yosef is sold, the Torah pivots to discussing the life of Yehuda: He leaves his family, finds a wife, and suffers the death of his two oldest sons. From fear of losing his youngest son, Sheilah, Yehuda delays the marriage his daughter in law, Tamar indefinitely.

Many years go by, Yehuda's wife dies, and he leaves on a business trip, together with his friend, Chira. It is on this journey, that Tamar conspires to finally ambush her father-in-law, and demand of Yehuda that he allow her to remarry. (See Seforno here for a full understanding of her intentions.)

The meeting does not go as planned, and Yehuda, mistakenly assumes that the woman by the side of the road is offering herself to him. Never once does he realize that she is Tamar.

By the end of that confusing encounter, Tamar is pregnant, and Yehuda has left his staff, signet-ring and garment with this strange woman, promising to return with a goat in payment for the act, and to redeem his personal affects.

It all happens so quickly in the text, and, most likely, that's how it felt to Yehuda and Tamar as well. But please pause for a minute, and consider how Yehuda must've felt about himself in that moment. Imagine the guilt, shame and sense of personal failure. How could a son of Yaakov Avinu fall so low? How could he have given in to such base desires?

Undoubtedly, Yehuda wished that he could just run away and forget what he had done. But how could he? She was still holding on to his personal belongings. How embarrassing might it be if anyone found out?

It was in that moment of vulnerability, weakness and shame that the Torah reveals to us the definition of friendship:

וַיִּשְׁלַח יְהוּדָה אֶת־גְּדִי הָעִזִּים בְּיַד רֵעֵהוּ הָעֲדֻלָּמִי לָקַחַת הָעֵרָבוֹן מִיַּד הָאִשָּׁה Yehuda sent the goat with his friend the Adullamite, to redeem the pledge from the woman...

R' Simcha Bunim of Peshischa explains: A friend is someone whom you can tell your greatest moral failures, and he still remains your friend. Yehuda told everything to Chira, and Torah still calls him “his friend.”

This definition of friendship is codified by the Rambam:

שיהיה לאדם אוהב תבטח נפשו בו לא ישמר ממנו לא במעשה ולא בדבור ויודיעהו כל עניניו הטוב מהם והמגונה מבלתי שירא ממנו שישיגהו בכל זה חסרון...

When a man has a friend to whom he can confide his soul. He will not keep [anything] from him – not in action and not in speech. And he will make him know all of his affairs – the good ones and the disgraceful – without fearing from him that any loss will come to him with all of this...

A number of years ago a fellow found himself seated across the Lubavitcher Rebbe at a private audience.

“Rebbe, what exactly do you do? And why are you admired by so many?”

“I try to be a good friend,” the Rebbe replied.

Incredulous, the man blurted out, “A friend? That's all you do?!”

Unfazed, the Rebbe responded with a question of his own: “How many friends do you have?”

“I have many.”

“Let me define a friend for you, and then tell me how many friends you have.

“A friend is someone in whose presence you can think aloud without worrying about being taken advantage of. A friend is someone who suffers with you when you are in pain and rejoices in your joy. A friend is someone who looks out for you, and always has your best interests in mind. In fact, a true friend is like an extension of yourself.”

The Rebbe then asked with a smile, “Now, how many friends like that do you have?”

In a world where few people can answer the Rebbe's question with confidence, Hashem should help us to find good friends, to keep good friends, and to be good friends to each other.

This week, a former student asked what I thought of his attending a colleague's party on the eve of December 25th. He didn't want to offend, but also didn't feel comfortable accepting the invitation, and wanted to understand the Halchos.

It's an interesting question. A lot has changed in the meaning of these celebrations, to the point that, arguably, it's no longer a religious event at all. Perhaps it is permissible...

But despite the possibility of leniency, I asked this Talmid what they imagined their great-great-grandmother would answer. He has a keen understanding of history, and after thinking for a minute, he responded: “I imagine that she would wait up davening that I came home alive and still Jewish.”

A few moments later, he said “Rebbe, I don't think I'd feel comfortable attending. It's not a place for a proud Jew.”

It might seem strange to us, living in a generation where we have a Jewish State and Jewish Army, but for most of Jewish history, we were practically defenseless. Expressing Jewish national pride was an occupational hazard, and most shied away from it.

Thankfully, we live in a world that no loner burns us on crosses for being Jewish. But I dare say that we still carry the concern that standing up and speaking out will attract unwanted attention.

We have tried to blend and fly under the radar for so long, that being a proud Jew still fits a little awkwardly. (Nothing says “Galus” louder than a polo shirt and Yankee cap on vacation... Or seeking out a little corner in the airport to Daven Mincha out of sight.)

Perhaps you'll argue that this is unavoidable. Afternall, humility is a basic Jewish trait. Of course, this is true, but the humility that Chazal prescribe has a different purpose entirely.

How should we respond to Anti-Semitism or to those who cause us to feel uncomfortable for being observant Jews? Yaakov Avinu provides the blueprint.

The Source of Jewish Pride

Chazal tell us that the encounter in our parsha between Yaakov and Esav is not merely a story from our history.

The Ramban (לב:ד) explains:

ויש בה עוד רמז לדורות כי כל אשר אירע לאבינו עם עשו אחיו יארע לנו תמיד עם בני עשו וראוי לנו לאחז בדרכו של צדיק

In this story is a hint to all future generations; that all that occurred to Yaakov with Esav, will happen to us repeatedly with the children of Esav, and it is worthwhile to hold onto the methods of the Tzadik...

The first thing that is certain is that we, as Bnei Yaakov, Bnei Yisrael, will need to contend with the world of Esav.

We will need to contend with the Anti-Semitism of Esav on Twitter, on Facebook, on TikTok and on SNL. We'll hear about it in the United Nations, and on college campuses. Whether we like it or not, we are surrounded by the world of Esav.

Yaakov Avinu cautions us, when we are confronted with Esav, he will challenge us with the following questions:

כִּי יִפְגָּשְׁךָ עֵשָׂו אָחִי וִשְׁאֵלְךָ לֵאמֹר לְמִי־אַתָּה וְאָנָה תֵלֵךְ וּלְמִי אֵלֶּה לְפָנֶיךָ

'When Esav my brother meets you, and asks you, saying: To whom are you? Where are you going? And whose are these that go before you?

When we encounter Esav he will ask: Who do you belong to? Where do your loyalties lie? Are you committed to a life of Yiddisheit despite the challenges? How easily can you be swayed?

He'll challenge us – Where are you going? What's your end goal? Where do you see yourself in five, twenty or fifty years? What hopes do you have for your children in a hundred or two hundred years? Where are you going?

And what's in front of you? What are your priorities? Who get's to decide what's important to you? Are they based on your values or are they based on your comfort level?

These are the questions that we all inevitably must face. But Yaakov also offers an answer:

וְאָמַרְתָּ לְעַבְדְּךָ לְיַעֲקֹב מִנְחָה הִוא שְׁלוּחָה לַאדֹנִי לְעֵשָׂו Then you should say: This all belongs to your servant Yaakov; it is a gift sent to my lord, to Esav.

The Seforno explains this response:

Give Esav respect. But do not revere him. Don't put him on a pedestal. Certainly, don't, for even a moment, give Esav the impression that you are afraid of him.

Tell him proudly: I belong to Yaakov. I'm a Jew. Tell him where you're going – you are on a mission in the world, a shlichus, and Yaakov Avinu is the one who sent you. Tell him that the history of the Jewish people, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, are standing behind you.

Jewish Pride is rooted in the knowledge that we are part of something huge. Something far greater than ourselves.

Who Is Asking the Question?

It is interesting to note that the questions that Yaakov suggests that Esav will ask us, are remarkably similar to the questions that Akavya ben Mehallalel (אבות ג:א) says we should ask ourselves to ward off the Yetzer Hara.

Whereas Esav will ask us: לְמִי־אַתָּה וְאָנָה תֵלֵךְ וּלְמִי אֵלֶּה לְפָנֶיךָ (Whose are you? Where are you going and what is before you?), Akavya ben Mehallalel instructs:

הִסְתַּכֵּל בִּשְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים וְאִי אַתָּה בָא לִידֵי עֲבֵרָה. דַּע מֵאַיִן בָּאתָ, וּלְאָן אַתָּה הוֹלֵךְ, וְלִפְנֵי מִי אַתָּה עָתִיד לִתֵּן דִּין וְחֶשְׁבּוֹן.

Keep your eye on three things, and you will not come to sin: Know from where you came, and to where you are going, and before Whom you are destined to give an account and a reckoning.

Most peculiarly, Akavya ben Mehallalel gives a totally different answer to Yaakov Avinu. Yaakov tells us to stay strong and proud, Akavya tells us:

From where did you come? From a putrid drop. And to where are you going? To a place of dust, worms, and maggots. And before Whom are you destined to give an account and a reckoning? Before the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.

What happened to our self esteem, our Jewish pride? Our courage to stand up against the Esav's of the world?

The Chiddushei HaRim explains: Both answers are correct. It all depends on who is asking the question and who is posing the challenge. When the Yetzer Hara is challenging us, humility is key. When Esav is confronting us, we dare not back down.

Pride on the Outside, Humility on the Inside

The Talmud (ברכות יז א) relates the various tefillos that Tanaim and Amoraim would say at the end of davening:

ר' אלכסנדרי בתר דמצלי אמר הכי רבון העולמים גלוי וידוע לפניך שרצוננו לעשות רצונך ומי מעכב שאור שבעיסה ושעבוד מלכיות יהי רצון מלפניך שתצילנו מידם ונשוב לעשות חוקי רצונך בלבב שלם.

Master of the Universe, it is revealed and known before You that our will is to perform Your will, and what prevents us? On the one hand, the yeast in the dough, the evil inclination that is within every person; and the subjugation to the kingdoms on the other. May it be Your will that You will deliver us from their hands, of both the evil inclination and the foreign kingdoms, so that we may return to perform the edicts of Your will with a perfect heart.

The Maharsha explains that these two challenges, the yeast in the dough, our etzer Hara, and the external pressures from the nations of world around us confuse our senses of pride.

We are “puffed up” by our desires, and deflated by anti-semitism. Our tefillah is that this should be rearranged.

This dichotomy is the secret to Jewish Pride and Humility. When the Yetzer Hara is asking the question, we are to explain that we are nothing. Life is fleeting and we will all need to to account for our actions. But when Esav is asking, tell him we're princes of the universe.

Princes of the Universe

Rav Chatzkel Abramsky, zt”l, once needed to testify in a case in which the Beis Din of London was sued by a shochet who had been fired.

As the head of the Beis Din, Rav Abramsky had no choice, but to testify in secular court. His attorney asked him to state his name and his position. The attorney then asked, “Is it true that you are the greatest living halachic authority on the European continent?” Rav Abramsky said, “Yes. That is true.”

At that point the judge interjected and said, “Rabbi Abramsky, is that not rather haughty on your part? I thought that your laws and ethics teach you to be humble.” Without any hesitation, Rav Abramsky responded, “That is correct. Our Torah teaches us to be humble. But your honor, I am under oath.”

Reb Simcha Bunam of Peshishcha famously used to say, “Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket. In the one pocket, “For my sake was the world created.” And in the other “I am but dust and ashes.”

Yaakov Avinu teaches is that one pocket is worn on the outside, the other on the inside. Hashem should help us to develop a deep sense of Jewish pride, and a profound sense of humility, that each of us should continue the Shlichus of Yaakov Avinu.

A few weeks ago, when the lottery was tipping over a billion dollars, my students were discussing what they would do if they won such an absurd sum of money. One of them remarked that “if any of our teachers won the lottery we're never gonna see them again.”

They proceeded to dream a little more, of yachts and beaches, holiday homes and supercars. It all sounded fun, but I felt the need to correct my talmidim. I told them that if I won the lottery, they could expect to see me back in shiur the next day. And the day after that. Because teaching Torah is not something that we do until we have enough money to run away from it.

A student then challenged me: “Hold on Rebbe! If someone offered you a billion dollars to take another job, wouldn't you do it!?” I explained: “Another job leaning and teaching Torah? Sure. (A ten-figure job in Chinuch and Rabbanus? I'm happy to consider all such offers 😊.) But if someone offered me a billion dollars to never teach Torah again? I would have to decline.”

I looked around the room at their shocked faces. For some of my students, this was the very first time that they had heard someone articulating a goal that was not the cookie-cutter American Dream of “get rich and do whatever you want.”

To be sure, these are good kids from good homes. They aren't a group of rebels trying to abandon Jewish values. But the idea that one might choose to spend one's life teaching Torah rather than getting rich, is strange to them.

Of course, for most of us, we don't think about this dichotomy in such absolute terms. Our philosophy tries hard to walk the tightrope of “having it all.” But these choices, and their effects, exist for each of us, every day in micro-doses.

Who hasn't been faced with some decision choice of “a little more Torah” or “a little more money”? Meet an extra client or attend a shiur? See another patient or a make it minyan? Do I leave work a little earlier on Friday to prepare for Shabbos? Should we book a more expensive flight or risk erev Shabbos traffic? We all know that we have to make countless of these either/or decisions.

Despite the pervasive contemporary voices to the contrary, it isn't actually possible to have it all. We can certainly try to live in both worlds, but the freedom of the Western world is fundamentally at odds with the concept of Avodas Hashem. By definition, an Eved Hashem is someone who puts the desires of the Ribono Shel Olam above their own.

Even in the realm of clearly important activities, it isn't possible to be a full time parent, build a career and dedicate our life to learning Torah and doing mitzvos, and still take time off to care for our physical and mental health. All of this means that we need to say “yes” to some things, and “no” to others.

Likewise, while I have only love and respect for the young guys trying to remain Shomer Shabbos and play sports professionally, it's not actually possible to do both fully. (For a host of reasons, both halachic and hashkafic.)

But how do we decide? How do we evaluate between priorities when everything is important?

Not to sound too clichéd, I think the answer is to follow our dreams. But definitely not all of them. The question then becomes: Which dreams to follow? As it happens, Yaakov Avinu has a similar question.

Yaakov's Final Dream

The Parsha opens with Yaakov’s dramatic dream at Beis El. There, he envisions a grand ladder that stretches from heaven to earth with Angels of Hashem ascending and descending. Throughout the ages, countless sages and commentators have uncovered and discussed the magnificent ideas gleaned from these pesukim. It would not be an understatement to say that all of the hopes and dreams of our people, past, present and future can be found in this singular dream of Yaakov Avinu. It's a spectacular display of destiny, and our yearning to manifest and achieve it.

But Yaakov has a second dream; in some ways, more perplexing than the first. It's recorded strangely at the end our parsha.

Unlike the first majestic dream, this second one is not told as it occurs. We learn about it second-hand, when, at the conclusion of twenty years in the house of Lavan, Yaakov tells Rachel and Leah that the time has come to return to the Land of Canaan. In the course of their discussion he tells them that whilst tending his flock he had a vision:

וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלַי מַלְאַךְ הָאֱלֹקים בַּחֲלוֹם ...וַיֹּאמֶר שָׂא נָא עֵינֶיךָ וּרְאֵה כׇּל הָעַתֻּדִים הָעֹלִים עַל הַצֹּאן... כִּי רָאִיתִי אֵת כׇּל אֲשֶׁר לָבָן עֹשֶׂה לָּךְ. אָנֹכִי הָקל בֵּית אֵל... עַתָּה קוּם צֵא מִן הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת וְשׁוּב אֶל אֶרֶץ מוֹלַדְתֶּךָ.

And an Angel of God said to me in the dream, ‘…Lift up your eyes and see that all the goats ... ringed, speckled and checkered. I have seen all that Lavan is doing to you. I am the God of Beis El where you anointed an stone and where you made me a vow; now arise, leave this land and return to the land of your birth.’

The meforshim grapple with this vision. It begins with the mating season of the sheep and ends with an instruction to Yaakov to return to Eretz Yisrael.

This dream, by all measures, is the opposite of Yaakov's great dream of the ladder. It's mundane and anticlimactic and at its core, this dream is a rude awakening.

At the beginning of this saga, when Yaakov leaves the home of his parents and embarks on the path to Charan, he dreams of angels ascending and descending a ladder. But after twenty years in Lavan's home, all he dreams of is sheep.

The message of this second dream is simple: “Yaakov, when you stop dreaming of angels and start dreaming of sheep, it’s time to go reconsider your life. It's time pack up and go home.”

The Malach calls to Yaakov and challenges him: I have seen what Lavan is doing to you. Can you see it? Living here with your father-in-law has changed you. Did you notice? When was the last time you looked up at the heavens? When was the last time you dreamed of angels, or thought about the connection between heaven and earth? I know that you're still committed to Torah and Mitzvos. It's beautiful to see how you've flourished in exile. I know that you still care, but it isn't quite the same as it once was. Can you feel the subtle change?

Do you remember that feeling when you left home desperate and penniless? Do you remember the dreams you had back then of returning to build a world of Kedusha and Tahara? You wanted children. Hashem gave you children. You wanted wealth. He gave you that as well. You asked Hashem to ensure that Lavan never got the better of you. Can't you see Hashem orchestrated every moment for your success? But Yaakov, what's all of this for?

Do you remember that night when you slept on a rock, where you vowed to return and fix the world? What happened to your visions of greatness? Perhaps it's time to come home and live your dreams before you lose them.

Old Dreams for a New Generation

Chazal (תנחומא לך לך ס׳ ט׳) tell us that מעשה אבות סימן לבנים – the lives of our Avos sets the stage for our trajectory and destiny. Much like the life of Yaakov Avinu, throughout our own history in exile, we have rarely been able to dream of more than angels and ladders. There was little point in hoping or working for health, wealth and prosperity. Such things were unattainable, and working towards those dreams was impractical, if not impossible.

For centuries, we dreamed and worked only for Yerushalayim Shel Maalah, for Talmud Torah, Mitzvos and Chessed. But something has changed. In the past few decades we can now dream of raising ourselves out of physical weakness and despair. We are finally on the way upwards to material and national redemption. We can dream of financial independence, of success and perhaps even luxury.

Which means that we're now at a cross-roads in our history. For the first time in generations, on a national, communal and personal level we have multiple dreams to navigate. We need to decide which dream to follow.

In the deepest way, the Malach's question is ours to answer: Are we still dreaming of climbing the ladder to Shamayim or are have we traded that great vision for one of producing yet another herd of spotted sheep?

In a world where comfort is now attainable, achievable and even, potentially affordable, we're now faced with the question of what our aspirations should be. With a sense of history and destiny, it's a little easier to reconsider which goals we might work towards fulfilling.

On our way to reprioritizing our dreams, we might take another look at Yaakov's ladder. The Medrash (בראשית רבה סח יב) quotes an empowering approach that the ladder connecting Heaven and Earth was none other than Yaakov himself – ״עולים ויורדים בו – ביעקב״ – the angels were ascending and descending through Yaakov Avinu. This is to say, Yaakov is the connection between Shamayim and Aretz. We as his children are charged with the same mission to draw together the mundane and the meaningful, to fill the world with light.

Hashem should help us to dream of ladders and angels again. To yearn for a day when our feet are planted firmly on the ground, and our heads and hearts reach into the heavens. We don't have too long to wait. After all, the last angel is finally, on its way down. The time is coming for us to ascend.

I sat down with a member of our shul this week, who challenged me: “What are we going to do about these Millennial JFKs?” (Nothing to do with the airport. JFK = Just For Kiddush.)

They continued: It’s a terrible thing! There are people that show up late with their kids, talk in the hallways and barely come into shul?! Don’t they see how destructive this is to the Chinuch of their children? Don’t they understand the value of Tefillah?

While the problem is real and the concern is sincere, I think the premise of the question is incorrect. Of course coming to shul on time is important. Of course everyone should come into shul with respect, daven with kavana, and model the importance of Tefillah for our kids. None of this is disputable, Shulchan Aruch is clear on all of these matters, and we should certainly give thought to educating the importance, the beauty, the value of coming into shul and davening. We need to find ways to inspire people to connect with Hashem.

That being said, some context is appropriate. The majority of Jews in the world, tragically, are not coming to shul at all. For most people, religion, spirituality, discipline and personal responsibility are not so fashionable in our Western world today. The mere fact that Jews are coming to shul and engaging in some kind of practice is a reason for optimism; these guys are bucking the trend; they're swimming upstream.

Taking into account the entirety of the picture, the millennial JFKs are 95% the way there. While most of the world spends their Saturday morning doom-scrolling on social media, these guys are at shul. Of course, that's not everything, that's not the goal, it's certainly not enough, but it's way more than nothing. It's a start; a reason to capitalize on the momentum to provide greater opportunities for engagement and work slowly towards a more profound connection to Hashem and His Torah.

We have a choice of how to view Jews who are practicing imperfect Yiddishkeit (in our opinion). We also have choices on how to perceive ourselves in light of our own shortcomings, failures and hypocrisy. Either it’s a travesty, or it’s a stepping stone.

In the deepest way, these two perspectives are paradigmatic of the difference between Esav and Yaakov.

Are We Also In Danger of Giving Up Our Birthright?

Quite possibly the most impactful exchange in all of Jewish history takes place in our parsha.

Esav returns home, tired and hungry. Chazal tell us that this was the funeral of Avraham, and Yaakov and Esav were teenagers – 15 years old. Esav sees the red lentil soup that Yaakov has prepared and demands הַלְעִיטֵנִי נָא מִן־הָאָדֹם הָאָדֹם הַזֶּה – Give me that red stuff!

Yaakov uses this opportunity to bargain Esav for his birthright, to which Esav replies:

הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ לָמוּת וְלָמָּה־זֶּה לִי בְּכֹרָה I am going to die. Why do I need a birthright?

This exchange would set the stage for the relationship between these brothers for years to come, and for all of history. But Chazal explain that in this story, there is a hidden narrative that seems more than a little peculiar:

The Talmud (בבא בתרא טו ב׳) explains:

אמר רבי יוחנן חמש עבירות עבר אותו רשע באותו היום בא על נערה מאורסה והרג את הנפש וכפר בעיקר וכפר בתחיית המתים ושט את הבכורה

Rabbi Yochanan says: That wicked person transgressed five sins on that day. He slept with an engaged girl, committed murder, denied the existence of God, denied the resurrection of the dead and gave up his birthright.

There are many questions to ask about this Medrash. Not the least of which is that it seems like a very busy day for a child of fifteen. Beyond that, the order of Esav's sins is strange, and requires some understanding.

Rabbi Yochanan tells us that Esav begins with a promiscuity, moves on to murder, then to denial of God. By midmorning that day he has violated the three mitzvos for which a Jew must give up their life rather than transgress. But only once he has denied God does he deny the resurrection of the dead, and only thereafter does he give away his birthright. Why not earlier?

While we don't usually weight up which sins are “better”, it seems clear that giving up one one's birthright is not even comparable to the others. Indeed, while we are obligated to believe in techiyas hameisim, denial is certainly not tantamount to murder?!

It would seem that Rabbi Yochanan providing insight far beyond a superficial menu of sins.

Consider the following possibility: A person does something they are not proud of. They gave into their emotion and base desires, or perhaps they caved to social pressure. They spoke, acted or dressed in a way that doesn't represent their best self. In the moments immediately following that failure, they arrive at fork in road: On the one hand one can conclude that they are now the kind of person that does that kind of thing. Alternatively, one could declare that act as deviation, an aberration, and course-correct to ensure that it never happens again.

From this vantage point, Rabbi Yochanan is telling us the road that Esav took. He began with giving in to his base desires. And in the shame and horror of what he did, he resolved that he was now “damaged goods,” beyond repair. After failing in the world of self control and morality, he allowed his anger and outrage to get the better of him as well, to the point that he was no longer sensitive to other people. That's called murder. Disenfranchised, no longer making any attempt to control himself, and without care for others, his relationship with Hashem fizzled.

If we're honest with ourselves, we've all been there to some extent. We question if the mistakes we've made have rendered us permanently scarred.

It's in these moments that we are invited to remember that as Jews we know that nothing is lost – לְבִלְתִּי יִדַּח מִמֶּנּוּ נִדָּח.

One day, even death will be conquered – that's called Techiyas HaMeisim; one of the core fundamentals of our belief. In the infinite mind of God, the past, present and future of each one of us endures beyond time. Death is simply a change of state, it's not the end of existence. Techiyas HaMeisim means that even when it seems all over, it's never over.

Last shabbos, we read of the death of Avraham:

וַיִּגְוַע וַיָּמָת אַבְרָהָם ... וַיֵּאָסֶף אֶל־עַמָּיו Avraham died in a good old age, an old man... and was gathered to his people.

The Ibn Ezra is bothered with the phrase “gathered to his people.” Avraham was the very first Jew. Which people was he gathered to?

He answers:

כי על כבוד הנפש אומר, כי בהיותו מתעסק עם הגוף, הוא כחלק נפרד. ובהפרד הגוף, יאסף הכבוד אל עמיו

This is referring to the honor of his soul. When Avraham's neshama was engaged with his body, he was an independent entity. The moment he separated from a body, his presence is now gathered to his nation.

We are all living with Avraham. He is gathered to his nation of the future. He becomes Avraham Avinu. He continues to live with us until the final resurrection at the end of time when we realize that Avraham Avinu never really died. As Chazal (תענית ה ב) tell us regarding Yaakov: מה זרעו בחיים אף הוא בחיים – as long as his children live, he too is alive.

Rashi tells us that the lentil soup that Yaakov was making was for the Shiva of Avraham, who had just passed.

Reb Meir Yechiel of Ostrova (מאיר עיני חכמים) explains that Yaakov was trying to communicate a message to Esav. Why is he making lentils? Because they are round. There is no end to a sphere. When you are on one side of it, you cannot see the other. But it is always most certainly there.

But Esav in his despair sees only red. There are no lentils, there is no circle, no continuation.

Esav cannot believe in Techiyas HaMeisim. So far as he is concerned, his failures are too great to shake off. He will bear them forever. For him there is no resurrection. There is no coming back.

To that end, he declares:

הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ לָמוּת וְלָמָּה־זֶּה לִי בְּכֹרָה I am going to die. Why do I need a birthright?

His final failing is giving up his birthright. He feels so alienated, so lost, so disconnected, that nothing is meaningful any longer.

What is the birthright of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov? What is the birthright of every Jew? Eternity, continuity and immortality. It's the ability to see ourselves and each other as part of the unbroken chain from the Avos and Imahos, all the way to Mashiach.

The Bracha to Escape Despair

It is within this context that we can understand the desire of Yitzchak to give Esav a Bracha. He desperately wants Esav to reengage, recommit to himself, his family and Hakadosh Baruch Hu.

Indeed, the Bracha that Yitzchak bestows, assuming he is speaking to Esav, begins:

וַיָּרַח אֶת־רֵיחַ בְּגָדָיו וַיְבָרֲכֵהוּ וַיֹּאמֶר רְאֵה רֵיחַ בְּנִי כְּרֵיחַ שָׂדֶה אֲשֶׁר בֵּרֲכוֹ ה׳

And said, “Behold, the smell of my son is as the smell of a field which Hashem has blessed.

Chazal (סנהדרין לז א׳) explain this smell:

ר' זירא אמר מהכא (בראשית כז, כז) וירח את ריח בגדיו אל תיקרי בגדיו אלא בוגדיו

Rabbi Zeira says: “And he smelled the smell of his garments, and blessed him, and said: See, the smell of my son is as the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed”. Do not read “his garments [begadav]”; rather, read: His traitors [bogedav], meaning that even traitors and sinners among the Jewish people have qualities “as the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed.”

The Sfas Emes (תולדות תרל”ב ד”ה גם) explains:

Yaakov Avinu did not need the Brachos of Yitzchak – he was capable of brachas within himself. But there is another kind of bracha – that which permeates even a person who is not worthy of it. This Bracha is a way to find and connect to Godliness even in a world of shmutz, distraction, failure and sin. It's a connection to eternity even when undeserving. This was the bracha that Yitzchak wanted to give Esav – and indeed the bracha that Yaakov took for himself. Rivka knew that in the long history of the Jewish people we wouldn't all be Yaakov's, we would need this Bracha too.

The secret of Teshuva, of personal aspiration and national return are one in the same.

It's easy to judge young parents, millennials, JFK-ers. It's easy to say “they're bad examples, bad Jews, not serious about Torah.” But the deeper truth is that all of us are grasping on to the Brachos of Yitzchak, trying hard not to give in to despair. We've all been there in some way, at some time.

To those who feel that Shul, Tefillah, the Siddur and Chumash are beyond what you're interested in. If you feel like “it's not for me”, please don't give up. Please don't give in. This week, come a little earlier. Stay in for a little more. Hashem should help us to hold on to our birthright for just a little longer – Techiyas HaMeisim is right around the corner.

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