Tuesday, December 1, 2015

A Young Prodigy

In the preface to the 8th volume of the Shema Shlomo, Rav Shlomo Amar told an amzing story:

In 1935, Rav Soloveitchik made his one and only visit to the land of Israel. He gave a shiur in a certain place and the listeners were blown away by his erudition. At one point during the shiur he asked for a Rashba so that he could look inside and quote it word for word. There was no Rashba to be found [this was 1935...] and so one young boy offered to recite the exact language of the Rashba that Rav Soloveitchik was looking for. After hearing the quote, Rav S. exclaimed that his quote was completely accurate.

He inquired as to whom this [15 year old!!!] boy was. 

"Ovadiah Yosef" was the response. 

As the expression goes בוצין בוצין מקטפיה ידעיה.

[See more amazing stories ibid., written in rhyme.....]

Better Late Than Never

Rav Lipman Podolsky z"l 

Our Parsha portrays two women: Tamar, and the wife of Potiphar. One would be hard-pressed to find two women who had less in common. Tamar was utterly selfless, wholly dedicated to the values and future development of the Jewish people. The wife of Potiphar, ostensibly, was interested exclusively in her own personal gratification. They seem to stand diametrically opposed.

How surprising it is then to read the following Medrash: "Rabi Elazar says Just as Tamar acted for the sake of heaven, so did the wife of Potiphar. As Rabi Yehoshua ben Levi said: She saw through astrology that she was destined to have a child from Yosef. But she did not know whether it would come through her or through her daughter (Yalkut Shimoni, Vayeshev 144)."

Unbelievable! Potiphar's wife acted l'shem shamayim! But why then is she held in such contempt, while Tamar occupies a position of prominence in Jewish history?

The distinction, albeit subtle, makes all the difference in the world. Whereas Tamar was legally permitted to act the way she did, the wife of Potiphar was a married woman. No amount of good intentions can sanction the heinous crime of adultery. As someone famous once said: "The road to Gehinnom is paved with good intentions."

In every endeavor we will ever pursue, timing is of the essence. "He made everything beautiful in its time (Koheles 3:11)." When the time is right, you can mother a Moshiach. At the wrong time, you can destroy yourself and others as well. For example: Eating challah on Shabbos night fulfills a mitzva; on Pesach night one incurs the punishment of Kares (excision).

Potiphar's wife's mistake was one of impatience. Had she waited, she would eventually have seen that it was her daughter who was destined to marry Yosef (Breishis 41:45). But she couldn't wait.
Impatience is the root of all sin. Had Adam waited only a few hours, he would have been permitted to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. But he couldn't wait (See Breishis Rabba 18:6).

Had the Jews waited only a short while longer for Moshe to return from the mountaintop, they would have comfortably avoided the entire debacle of the golden calf. But they couldn't wait (ibid.).
Had the motorist driven only a little slower, he -- and other innocent bystanders -- would have arrived home safely. But he couldn't wait.

The Yetzer Hara has every interest in rushing our climb up the mountain of spirituality. He knows that by enticing us to climb too quickly, we are sure to lose our footing and end up back right where we started, probably in a lot of pain.

"Remove the Satan from before us and from behind us (Maariv)." The Satan before us is the Yetzer Hara who stands in our way, attempting to prevent us from ever performing mitzvos. The Satan behind us is the Yetzer Hara who prods us to dash impetuously into spiritual growth, without first ensuring that we have steady and stable footholds. Only once we have secured ourselves on one level may we proceed to climb to the next.

One of the most common flaws I observe among young people (including myself) is impatience. Everyone wants to be an overnight success. We live in the Microwave Generation. Who has time to wait? The consequences of such a weltanschauung can be devastating. People are frustrated, disillusioned, and easily succumb to despair.

Recently, a student complained: "I'm here three months already, and I haven't yet changed!" When I inquired what exactly he expected, he naively replied, "I assumed that as soon as I got here, I would become a different person!" Were it only that easy.

Just like Rome, doctors and lawyers, a true servant of Hashem is not built in a day. The Key to Success: Patience and Perseverance -- one step at a time. Eventually, with Divine assistance, we will get there.
As they say, "Better late than never!" 

It's Just A Joke

Rav Lipman Podolsky z"l

One of the characteristics of the American society in which I grew up was the constant craving to play practical jokes. Whether it was a pail of water over the door, a hand-buzzer, or simply a derisive nickname, a good laugh was had by all. By all, that is, except for the victim. Of course, he could not reveal his embarrassment. To do so would earn him the additional label of a poor sport. "Can't you take a joke? It's just a joke! Come on, where's your sense of humor?"
So the victim swallowed his humiliation while his self-esteem slowly eroded. Often, the victim, such a successful butt of practical jokes, is repeatedly targeted. He has no idea how to extricate himself from the incessant antics of his "friends", and so a vicious cycle ensues. Years later, his "friends" have long forgotten him. But he has been left scarred.
What is the Torah's opinion of so-called practical jokes? Are they truly as amusing as they seem?
"The righteous one flourishes like Tamar (Tehillim 92:13)." Indeed, Tamar was truly a paradigm of righteousness. Destined to mother the future Moshiach, Tamar was uniquely suited for her role. Her character shines forth like a rare gem.
But what was so special about her? A cursory reading of her tale leaves us bewildered. So many questions arise concerning her behavior. Although it is beyond the scope of this short article to address these issues in depth, it is our intent to focus on one very important aspect of Tamar's character.
When Yehuda was informed that Tamar had committed adultery, he immediately sentenced her to death. Tamar was dragged to the square for execution. Just before being burned at the stake, she took the three signs she had received from Yehuda and exhibited them before the public. "By the man to whom these belong I am with child... Identify, if you please, whose are this signet, this wrap, and this staff." Yehuda recognized his possessions and confessed. Now is not the time to discuss why it was permissible for Yehuda to have relations with Tamar. Rather, I would concentrate our attention on a different facet.
Note that Tamar did not reveal Yehuda's identity. Had Yehuda not confessed (normal human behavior given Yehuda's important political position and the extent of humiliation involved), Tamar would have been put to death as an adulteress, her reputation forever maligned. Why did she not accuse Yehuda directly? Why did she allow him the option of remaining silent, thus resigning herself to an ignominious death?
Our sages could conclude only the following: "It is preferable for a person to throw himself into a fiery furnace rather than to publicly humiliate his friend. From whom [do we derive this]? From Tamar...(Brachos 43b)" Read those words with the utmost scrutiny. Tamar taught us an unforgettable lesson. Public humiliation is akin to murder. Better to die rather than to murder.
Let us also realize that there are early authorities who take this teaching quite literally (Tosfos Sotah 10b; Shaarei Teshuva 3:139). According to their opinion, this teaching is considered Halacha l'Maaseh, a practical Halacha for our times. And though there are dissenting opinions (Meiri Sotah 10b), it remains a bona fide halachic disagreement which requires a Sh'eilas Chacham to decide (See Minchas Shlomo I:7).
Now how do we feel about "practical jokes"? It's just a joke! Where's your sense of humor? Can't you take a joke? One person's joke is another person's death! In some ways it can lead to a lingering death, a death that repeats itself many times over throughout a lifetime of depression and dysfunction.
Times are precarious. We are on the threshold of something big. Now is the time to unite. To realize that we are all one. One body; one soul. 

Two Years

Rav Podolsky z"l

At the suspenseful conclusion of our parsha, we find Yosef languishing in an Egyptian dungeon despite his innocence. Not only has he been forced to suffer the past ten years rotting in a pit, now he must be incarcerated for an additional two years for relying excessively on the mercies of Pharaoh's butler (It's always the butler!) [see Rashi]. Because he used the word "remember" twice while asking the butler to remember him, Yosef was penalized with an extra two years (Breishis 40:14).

My rebbe, Rav Chaim Pinchus Scheinberg shlit"a, asked: why two years? Why not two days, weeks or months? Is Divine discipline arbitrary, chas v'shalom?

Answered my rebbe, Rav Zeidel Epstein shlit"a (He'aros): A Divinely administered prison sentence is not simply a random punishment to castigate the prisoner for his sin. Rather, it is a means of isolating the prisoner so that he will contemplate why he is there, what he has done wrong, and how he can rectify his actions in future. Were he to remain part of society, he would have great difficulty in focusing his thoughts on past misdeeds. In prison, there is little else to occupy his mind. This provides him with a much-needed opportunity to reflect and to formulate a firm decision to remedy his behavior from now on.

Such a decision must be resolute. A flimsy commitment will wind him right back in the pokey. To devise a genuine decision, twelve months are necessary. This is similar to the halachos of a treifah, an animal that is expected to die within twelve months. If the animal outlives the twelve-month life-expectancy prognosticated by its veterinarian, this is a clear indication that it is not a treifah.

The reason for this is that twelve months incorporate all possible meteorological conditions: spring, summer, autumn and winter. Before twelve months have elapsed, we cannot be sure that this animal will survive under the widest possible range of environmental factors. Only once the animal has successfully weathered an entire year can we be confident that it is healthy and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

Similarly, when a person sits in a prison cell for a year and makes a commitment to improve his ways, this is an indication that his decision is strong and healthy. Thus Yosef needed two years for two slips of the tongue.

Interestingly, we find a similar idea in relation to Chanukah. After the Chanukah miracle, our Sages did not immediately establish the eight days as a holiday. Rather, "the following year they established them and made them holy days of praise and thanksgiving (Al HaNissim)." Why did they wait an entire year? Chazal wanted to make sure that they still felt the influence of the miracle and its everlasting nature after the passage of time. Only then could they be sure that it was fit to become a fixture in the calendar, a day on which to reinvigorate ourselves with the special light revealed at that time.

The question is, do we still feel the influence of the days of Chanukah?

Do We Remember?

Rav Lipman Podolsky z"l

In the Al HaNissim prayer that we recite on Chanuka, Chazal reveal that the sworn goal of the Greeks was to cause the Jews to forget Hashem's Torah. One question: How is it possible to cause someone to forget something? Usually, the more one tries to forget, the more one remembers!

At the end of our Parsha, Yosef asks the butler to remember his kindness, and to beg Pharaoh to release him from prison. But after the butler was restored to his position, he did not help Yosef. "And the butler did not remember Yosef, and he forgot him (Breishis 40:23)." What does this mean? It cannot mean that the memory of Yosef disappeared from the butler's brain completely, for two years later he actually did remember Yosef. So how can the Torah testify that he forgot?

How does one forget? Forgetting does not mean that the information has disappeared completely from the brain. Sometimes, information that was seemingly gone can be re-accessed years later. Hypnotists are famous for arousing ancient memories in aged patients.

Rather, forgetting means that the information is hidden from us, deep within our brains. Shikcha (forgetting) shares the same letters as Chashecha (darkness); we can't see it. To remember is to activate the information, to bring it into the consciousness; to breathe life into it. Forgetting is synonymous with dormancy, inactivity, death.

We cite as evidence the incident of the Gid HaNasheh -- the displaced sinew. The angel of Esav caused Yaakov's sinew to become dislocated, rendering it unusable. It was no longer connected properly to the joint. Nasheh -- dislocated -- means forgetting in Aramaic (See Onkelos to 40:23 -- the above quote). Forgetting is when the pertinent information becomes disconnected from our conscious. It becomes inaccessible, unusable.

"Why was it called Gid HaNasheh? For it was a sinew that caused Yaakov's children to forget the Divine Service (Zohar I:170b)." By dislocating his sinew, the Yetzer HaRa somehow caused Yaakov's children to forget the Torah. Herein lay the seeds of "Lehashkicham Torasecha" -- to cause the Torah to cease being active, to be neglected, to become dormant and to die.

Thus the butler forgot Yosef. Not that the memory of Yosef completely evaporated from his brain, but rather, Hashem hid this information from him -- temporary amnesia -- so that he would not remember. Only after two years did Hashem open his eyes, restoring his memory in full.
This is precisely what the Greeks intended -- Lehashkicham Torasecha. They wished to blind the eyes of the Jews so that they could not see the Torah, so that they could not live the Torah, that their Torah should wither and die from within. The Greeks wanted that their Torah should become a superficial shell, devoid of its holy neshama, devoid of life.

Look around and try to figure out who won the war. We, orthodox Jews, are the legacy of Chanuka. The Maccabees fought and died for our sake. Yet is the heart of Torah pulsating within us? Is the flame of Torah burning within us? Does the Torah occupy our conscious, or has it been relegated to the sub -- or even the un -- conscious? Has the Torah, the inner beauty and meaning and excitement of the Torah become forgotten, dormant? Are we actively Jewish, or are we merely going through the motions, maintaining the inertia of a previous generation?

Chanuka is upon us, and it is our responsibility to remember, to insure that the Greeks will not have been victorious.
Do we remember? 

No Pain ....

Rav Lipman Podolsky z"l

"Vayeshev Yaakov -- And Yaakov settled in the land of his father's sojournings..." Interesting. Yaakov's living in the land is described as 'settling', while Yitzchak is depicted as having 'sojourned'? Furthermore, the very next verse relates: "These are the chronicles of Yaakov, Yosef..." Is there any explanation for this inscrutable juxtaposition?

Rashi explains: After his many tribulations, Yaakov sought to 'settle down' in peace (unlike his father), but the agony of Yosef's sale to Egypt pounced upon him. Said HaKadosh Boruch Hu, "Are Tzaddikim not satisfied with that which is prepared for them in the World to Come, that they desire to live comfortably in This World too?"

These words beg explanation. Why should a tzaddik not have an easy life in this world, and what does the next world have to do with anything?

The answer is: The only way to earn a portion in the next world is to pay for it by struggling through this one. "Corresponding to the pain is the reward (Avos 5:23)." Nobody rides for free. True, the tzaddik seeks serenity solely to afford him the leisure to serve Hashem. Nevertheless, such service is inherently lacking. No pain, no gain. Avoda, by definition, means struggle. "For man is born to toil (Iyov 5:7)."

* * * * *

Chanuka is upon us! Only a few shopping days remain in which to ready ourselves for this annual infusion of Hasmonean Light.

Its name implies rest: Chanu-Kaf-Heh, They rested on the twenty-fifth of Kislev (Mishna Brura 670:1). But what a rest! Their's was a much earned rest, having followed years of struggle and indefagitable self-sacrifice. Without the pain and perseverance of the Chashmonaim and their disciples, there would have been no Chanuka; there would have been no victory.
If we are to relive and not just commemorate, it behooves us to emulate our forebears. No pain, no gain.

This week we received a mail-order catalog, just in time for the holiday/gift-buying season. Among the many items we were 'tempted' to purchase, one in particular struck my attention: a 'lazy-boy' recliner, complete with the caption, 'Perfect for Learning and Relaxing' (for the one-time, low price of only 4,331 shekels! As seen on TV!). Now there's an oxymoron for you! Learning and relaxing are contradictions in terms; the two cannot co-exist. A quantum couch! 

A Jew ascends. "One ascends in holiness...(Shabbos 21b)" Every day a struggle; every day another candle, a bit more light, a bit more kedusha. The result is excellence. 


Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.

Mark Twain