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Written by Rabbi Dovid Wachs.

Parshas Vayeshev


Genesis:  37:4 "And his brothers saw that their father loved him (Yosef) from all the brothers and they hated him and were not able to speak with him in peace."


The brothers were jealous of the favoritism that their father Yaakov showed to Yosef.  Yaakov had given Yosef a special woolen coat as a reward for his diligence in Torah learning, an action that the Talmud actually criticizes him for.   Yosef would also bring reports to his father of what he thought were inappropriate behaviors by his brothers.   As a result, the brothers developed a hatred for him and were not able to speak to him in peace.


In his commentary, Rashi points out that this hatred was certainly shameful.  On the other hand, we do see something praiseworthy.  The brothers were not two-faced.  They didn't mask their hatred, put on a fake smile or pretend to like him.  Their outside behavior was congruent with their inner feelings.   Deceit and phoniness have no place in Judaism.   Yes, the brothers should have tried to speak to Yosef to resolve the conflict and should have tried to make peace, but at least they were true to their feelings and acted genuinely.  Perhaps this can teach us to always look for the good in another.  The Torah is pointing out to us  something to praise the brothers for even though their relationship with Yosef was far from healthy.  Looking for the good and praising it no matter what else is happening seems to be a lesson we can take from this verse.   


Rabbi Yonasan Eybishitz has a different way of understanding this verse.  He says that the hatred started and was perpetuated precisely because “they were not able to speak to him in peace.”  Had the brothers and Yosef spoken out the misunderstandings and the issues that were bothering them, the hatred would not have resulted.  He says that this is usually the reason for all arguments and strife; that the parties have not spoken out their concerns and have not listened to the other.   People make assumptions; draw erroneous conclusions, judge situations negatively, which leads to stonewalling and cut off.  The hatred grows deeper as the lack of communication continues


We know this pattern from our own experience - when we harbor a strong dislike of another person and hold onto it, the negative emotion festers and just gets stronger.   We build constructs and schemas in our mind that vilify and demonize the other person. Once we speak about it however to the other person and try to clarify the issues, we often realize that there were a host of misunderstandings that led to our negative thoughts and attributions.


This is why the Torah tells us: “Do not hate your brother in your heart;”   We are not supposed to harbor ill-feeling for our fellow Jews in our hearts.  When the person is ready to speak and listen, it is best to communicate our honest feelings.  If the brothers would have taken this action, their hatred might have dissipated, and the terrible sequence of events that transpired might not have happened. 


I might add that when the communication does take place that it be done “in peace.”  Screaming, sarcasm, and defensiveness are not effective ways to communicate.  It is wise for the parties to be calm and are ready to communicate peacefully before making the attempt.



The First Animal Shelter

Written by Rabbi Dovid Wachs.

Parshas Vayishlach

Chapter 33: Verse 17.  And Yaakov traveled to Succos and built a house for himself and made succos (shelters) for his livestock; He therefore called the name of the place, Succos.”

After parting with his brother, Esav, Yaakov continued on his way to Israel to reunite with his father. The verse tells us that he traveled to an area that he would later call “Succos” because he built barns or shelters for the livestock.  The question is why he would name a city after the barns he constructed for the animals?   What is the significance of these barns that he would name a city after them?   I heard Rabbi Yitzchak Leizerowski, Shlita, once quote the Ohr HaChaim saying that until this time, no one else had ever built stables or barns for animals.   It was because of Yaakov’s compassion on the animals that he built these shelters.  Since this was a novel idea at the time and a note-worthy act, it was appropriate to name the city after these shelters.   At the time, I asked Rabbi Yisroel Meir Vogel, a old friend, why no one had built shelters before for animals.  His opinion was that since there are not many trees in Israel, there is not much wood to construct shelters and to construct them from stone is quite arduous.  In addition, animals are equipped to take care of themselves in the wild and should have no need for shelter. 


Jewish Definition of Love

Written by Rabbi Dovid Wachs.

Parshas Vayetzei

Genesis: 29:20  "And they were in his eyes like a few days in his love for her." 

 Yaakov traveled to the home of his Uncle Lavan to find a wife for himself and to flee from his brother Esav.  After meeting Rochel, Lavan's daughter, he made up with Lavan that he would work for him for seven years to earn Rochel's hand in marriage.  The cited verse says that those seven years were like a few days in his eyes.  How can this be understood? 

We know from experience that when we badly want something, the time that elapses until we get it,  seems like forever.  I distinctly remember as a child getting tickets for our school's outing at Kennywood Amusement Park in Pittsburgh a month before the outing and counting the days, hours and minutes until that blessed day!  It seemed like an eternity until I would go to Kennywood! 

There are a  number of answers given to understand this verse.  Imagine if someone told you you could make a billion dollars if you worked for him for seven years.  Not only would you do it but those seven years would seem like nothing compared to the reward.  Similarly, because Yaakov realized how special Rochel was, the seven years of work were deemed as just a few days compared to what he would be gaining afterwards. 

 Another explanation is given by Rav Eliyahu Lopian, of blessed memory, He explains it with an analogy.  Imagine a man sitting in a restaurant waiting to order his food.  The waiter comes over and asks him what he would like to order.  The fellow says, "I love fish."   The waiter goes into the kitchen to order a plate of cooked fish for the man.  There happened to be another person sitting at the next table who had heard his neighbor order the fish. 

Being a simpleton, he was expecting the waiter to bring a fishbowl with fish swimming around to give this guest the pleasure of looking at them, feeding them, and just enjoying their presence.  How shocked he was when the waiter brought a plateful of fish and saw the fellow stab his fork into the fish and begin cutting it up into small pieces and swallowing them.  "This is how you treat your loved ones?" exclaimed the man.  You can't possibly love them for if you did, how could you treat them so cruelly?"

 Rav Lopian says that in truth this simpleton was correct.  If the fellow truly loved fish, he wouldn't cut them up and eat them.  Really, this person man didn't love fish; he loved himself and therefore wanted to please himself with the delicious taste of fish.  

 Rav Lopian says that most people make a mistake in their definition of love, "Ahava" in hebrew.  They think that "Ahava" is that warm and special feeling that fills your being when you are in the company of that "special person," that feeling of deep desire and longing for the other.

 In truth, he says, "Ahava" the Jewish definition of love, is the feeling which stirs a person to want to give      goodness and kindness to another.  It is not ego-centered but on other-centered.

In fact, the root of the word "Ahava" is "hav" which means "give" in Aramaic.  Rav Dessler writes that true love between people is when each person is focused on how they can give more to the other.  When each person, however, is focused on his or her own pleasure and expects the other to fulfill that pleasure, this is not true love. 

 If Yaakov would have "loved" Rochel in this way, the seven years would have seemed like a lifetime as he would be focusing on his pleasure and his gain.  Instead Yaakov wanted to spend a lifetime of giving to her; he didn't think about what he could get for himself but only how he could give and bestow pleasure to her.  In removing his "self" from the picture, the seven years that Yaakov worked for Rochel seemed only like a few days.


Backward Reasoning

Written by Rabbi Dovid Wachs.

Parshas Toldos

Genesis 25:21 Yitzchak prayed to God opposite his wife, because she was barren."

Our sages are puzzled by the order of the verse.  It would have been more appropriate to tell us first that Rivkah was barren and therefore Yitzchak and Rivkah prayed for a child.  Rabbeinu Bachaye says that it was written this way intentionally.  Since it writes that he prayed first, this was the goal and that her being barren was the catalyst to achieve this goal.

In fact the Midrash Tanchuma asks, "Why were all of the matriarchs ( Sorah, Rivkah, Rochel) barren?  It answers, because the Almighty desired their prayers.  G-d said, "They are beautiful, they are affluent, if I give them children right away, they won't pray."  So because G-d wanted them to pray, he withheld children from them.

Why did God want their prayers so much?  Is G-d lacking something that he needs to be prayed to?  The answer is that it was for the matriarchs, not for G-d.   When a person is forced to pray for something that he or she deeply wants over a long period of time, the person develops a very close relationship with the Almighty.  The person realizes his utter dependence on G-d and this dependence creates a most intimate connection between them which spurs the person to greater spiritual growth. 

Our matriarchs endured long years of emotional anguish.  Sorah, because she herself was barren, gave Hagar as a wife to Avraham so that he might have a child by her. It wasn't until she was 90 that Sorah gave birth to Yitzchak. Rivkah had to wait 10 years to give birth to Yaakov and Esav, and Rochel had to wait while Leah, Zilpah and Bilhah all had children before she did.  The lofty spiritual perfection that our Matriarchs attained, however, could only have come about as a result of their intense praying. 

Another reason that G-d wanted their prayers might be so that when their prayers were finally answered, they would truly appreciate G-d's blessing of a child.  Developing gratitude and a deep recognition of the good that is done for us are basic Jewish values that G-d instilled in His people from the very beginning.

The Talmud, Tractate Chulin, quotes Rav Assi as posing a contradiction.  It says in Genesis 1:12, that on the third day of creation, the land brought forth vegetation and fruit trees....and then in Genesis 2:5, it says that the trees were not yet on the Earth and the vegetation hadn't yet sprouted.  Had they sprouted or hadn't they?

Rav Assi says that there is no contradiction. On the third day of creation, the vegetation and trees did in fact come forth, but they came up only to the surface of the Earth.  When the second verse says that the trees were not yet on the Earth, it is simply saying that although they had grown, they had not sprouted above the soil line.  The question though is why didn't they in fact grow above the ground?  

The answer is because it hadn't yet rained.  And the reason why it hadn't yet rained was because Adam hadn't yet been created. G-d wanted man, Adam, to realize the need for rain and then to pray for it.  This would  gave Adam and his descendants after him, a profound sense of gratefulness and appreciation for rain and for the One who controls it.

Another reference to G-d's wanting the prayers of our ancestors can be found when the Jewish people were fleeing from Egypt, with Pharaoh and his soldiers chasing them.  The verse says in Exodus,14:10, "And Pharaoh made them come close..." It would be more appropriate to say that Pharaoh came close to them, not that he made them come close.

The Medrash explains that Pharaoh made the Jews come close to G-d.    We are told that Pharaoh's pursuit was more effective than 100 fast days and prayers because as the Egyptians were closing in on them, the Jews cried out to G-d in utter dependence for a miracle.  The Medrash says that G-d wanted Pharaoh to chase them precisely to elicit the gut-wrenching prayers that would come out of the lips of every Jew, thus forging a deep bond between G-d and His people at the beginning of our history.

In our own lives there are always ups and downs.  Sometimes the downs seem overwhelming and unfair. But perhaps it is G-d's way of getting us to turn to Him,  to pour out our hearts to him in prayer.  He wants to have a relationship with us; He wants us to pray to Him, to connect deeply with him for our own benefit, and, to that end, as we see in our discussion above, He will sometimes bring challenging times that "force" us to acknowledge our dependence on Him and to reach out to Him with heartfelt prayers.  And perhaps the darker times are also meant to lead us to a greater appreciation and recognition of the good times, may they be many!


Tom and Jerry

Written by Rabbi Dovid Wachs.

Parshas Chayei Sorah

Genesis:  23:11  No, my master, listen to me, I have given you the field, and as for the cave that is in it, I have given it to you."

This verse is part of the Torah's description of Avraham's purchase of a burial site for his wife, Sorah.  He wanted to buy the Maaras HaMachpelah (the cave of Machpelah) in Chevron from Efron the Chittite,who owned the plot of land and cave.

However, as we see in our passage, Efron wanted to give it to Avraham as a gift.  Avraham, though, insisted on purchasing it.  In the end, Efron acquiesced telling Avraham that he'll give him a good deal and only charge him 400 shekels.   Rashi points out that Efron spoke a good game initially, generously offering the land and cave as a gift, but in the end charged Avraham an exorbitant price.  The commentators are puzzled by Efron's sudden turnaround and wonder what caused him to initially give away his land and cave, and then moments later, charge a huge sum?

 The renowned Alter of Kelm explains this with a known story about when the Rambam ( Maimonides) had a debate with some non-Jewish scholars of his day as to whether one can teach animals refined manners and etiquette and actually change their inherent animal nature to be like humans. The Rambam said that it was not possible and the others claimed that it was.  To prove their position, they stated that within a certain period of time they would train a cat to act just like a human.  When the time came, a large group of people gathered to witness the cat's new abilities.  The cat came into the room as a waiter. It arranged some tables and put tablecloths on them.  And then, to the amazement of the onlookers, the cat brought out a tray with wine and cups. It seemed that they had proved the Rambam wrong.

At that moment, though, the Rambam took a container out of his pocket and opened it.  A mouse leaped out, and when the cat saw the mouse it threw the tray down and ran after the mouse, spilling all of the wine and breaking all of the cups. Everyone then realized that the Rambam was right.  Although we might be able to teach an animal specific human-like behaviors, we cannot change its basic animal nature. 

 Here lies an understanding of Efron's behavior.  As long as he didn't see money before his eyes, he could act like a generous, giving person. But Avraham insisted on purchasing the field  ...."I have given the money for the field, take it from me and allow me to bury my dead..." (Genesis: 23:13).  Avraham actually had the money in his hand, extending it towards Efron.  Upon seeing the money and hearing it jingle, Efron's true nature took over; he greedily tried to get as much as he could, much like the cat who reverted to its true animal nature at the sight of the mouse, all appearances of human characteristics cast off.

The Torah is teaching us an important lesson about the duality, struggle and potential within our own nature.  On the outside, we can behave with impeccable manners, refinement, and politeness,  we can even feel generous and kind, but the moment our "lower" nature gets triggered, e.g., we feel offended by someone and our k'vod (honor) is compromised, we can become a different person. Jealousy, lust, anger, and the pursuit of honor are just a few of the many traits that lie within our nature, challenging our attempts to refine and elevate ourselves. Our sages teach that changing our nature and channeling  our energies for the good is our primary task in this world.  The Alter of Kelm writes that the only way for a Jew to be truly successful in this task is through immersing oneself in the Torah and following  its commandments. 

The Talmud tells us that when Moshe ascended the heavenly heights at the time when the Torah was given to the Jewish people, the angels asked the Almighty why He was giving such a lofty and exalted treasure to the Jews, "mere humans",  and not to them, the angels.  G-d told Moshe to answer them and he said to the angels, " Is there jealousy among you?" "Do you have a Yetzer Hara ( a selfish & negative drive)" "Is there hatred, greed, honor-seeking among you?",  upon which the angels conceded to Moshe.

 The Torah was given to us to show us the way to change and channel the lower aspects of our nature, thus elevating our character traits and cultivating our higher spiritual nature. The Torah is not only an incredible wellspring of wisdom to guide us in these struggles, but its spiritual and mystical power has an indelible effect on our very nature. To the extent that we absorb the vast teachings of the Torah and commentaries, we can become congruent...spiritually refined both inside and outside. The Torah isn't just a book of rules, it's the science of human perfection.