Vayechi 5766

June 23, 2009

< 1 min read


Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26 )

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GOOD MORNING!   Everyone loves a story - particularly a true story and especially a story with a surprise and a happy ending. Even better is when there is a message which we can incorporate into our own lives. That is why I am sharing with you a wonderful article, "Meriting a Miracle," written by one of the writers I hold in highest esteem, Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of Am Echad. Here is the article:

In 1943, after more than three years of German control over France, the Great Synagogue of Lyon continued to function. That December 10, the Lyon Milice, the shock troops of the Vichy government, decided to put an end to the Jewish worship.

The shul's rabbi survived the war to tell the tale, which is recorded in a book about Klaus Barbie, the infamous "Butcher of Lyon" (the title, in fact, of the book, by Brendan Murphy - Empire/Harper & Row, 1983). A member of the Milice quietly entered the rear of the sanctuary that Friday night during services. Armed with three hand grenades, he intended to lob them into the crowd of standing worshippers from behind, and to escape before the explosions. After silently opening the door and entering the room unnoticed by anyone but the rabbi (who stood facing the congregation), he pulled the pins.

What he saw, though, so shook him that he remained wide-eyed and motionless for a crucial moment, and then only managed to toss the grenades a few feet before fleeing. Several worshippers were injured by shrapnel but none were killed.

What had so flabbergasted the Nazi was the sudden, unexpected sight of his intended victims' faces, as the congregation, as if on cue, turned as one on its heels to face him.

The would-be mass-murderer had entered the shul precisely at "bo'i b'shalom," the last stanza of the liturgical poem Lecha Dodi, when worshippers traditionally turn toward the door to welcome the Sabbath. The account came to mind of late because it is, at least to me, a striking reminder of something truly fundamental yet easily forgotten. We Jews often survive on miracles.

To be sure, we don't base our belief on them, as do some religions. Maimonides famously wrote that the miracles recounted in the Torah - even the parting of the Red Sea - are demonstrations not of God's existence but rather of His love for His people. We know God exists because of our carefully preserved historical tradition that He communicated with our ancestors at Mt. Sinai, an event that we celebrate on Shevuot.

All the same, though, His love and His miracles underlie our existence.

Our tradition teaches that our foremother Sarah was biologically incapable of conceiving a child; the very beginning of our people thus was miraculous. The perseverance of the Jewish people over the millennia is a miracle, as is our rebirth after countless decimations.

And recent Jewish history has been no less miraculous. When Israel destroyed the assortment of Arab armies arrayed against it in 1967, even hardened military men -- well aware of the Israeli air force and army's skill and determination -- spoke of miracles. And the rescue at Entebbe in 1976 may have entailed special-forces acumen, but sensitive Jews saw on it the clear fingerprints of the miraculous as well. And, in 1981, they recognized no less in the destruction of the Iraqi nuclear plant at Osirak, signs not only of military might but of miracle, of God's love.

None of which is to belittle the tremendous efforts of Israel's military, may its members be safe and protected. But while "this world" efforts must always be made, believing Jews maintain a concomitant consciousness of the fact that success and failure are determined by something considerably more sublime. In the perspective of our religious tradition, that something is our merit as a people - our kindness to one another, our prayers, our study of Torah and our performance of mitzvot. In the end, those are the things, our tradition teaches us, that will make all the difference. In the Torah we read how the Jews, led by Joshua, fought the Amalekites. When Moses held his hands high, the verse continues, the Jews waxed victorious. "Were Moses' hands waging war?" asks the Mishna. The answer, it continues, is that "when the Jews' eyes [inspired by Moses' hands] were lifted heavenward, they were militarily victorious."

In these terribly trying times for Jews, when hatred carefully nurtured for decades has erupted in a plague of vicious murder and old, ugly ghosts have been stirred awake, it behooves us to remember that fact. We all ask ourselves what we can do on behalf of our beleaguered brothers and sisters. There are many things, to be sure.

But at the very top of each of our lists should be things like: prayer, with concentration and heart; charity, with generosity and concern; Jewish observance, with care and determination; Torah-study, with effort and commitment.

Because, unified spiritually by the expression of our common Jewish religious heritage, we are doing something nothing else can do: meriting a miracle.

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Torah Portion of the Week

The parsha, Torah portion, opens with Jacob on his deathbed 17 years after arriving in Egypt. Jacob blesses Joseph's two sons, Manasseh (Menashe) and Ephraim. (To this day it is a tradition to bless our sons every Shabbat evening with the blessing, "May the Almighty make you like Ephraim and Manasseh" - they grew up in the Diaspora amongst foreign influences and still remained devoted to the Torah. The Shabbat evening blessing for girls is "to be like Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah.") He then individually blesses each of his sons. The blessings are prophetic and give reproof, where necessary.

A large retinue from Pharaoh's court accompanies the family to Hebron to bury Jacob in the Ma'arat Hamachpela, the burial cave purchased by Abraham. The Torah portion ends with the death of Joseph and his binding the Israelites to bring his remains with them for burial when they are redeemed from slavery and go to the land of Israel.

Thus ends the book of Genesis!

* * *

Dvar Torah
based on based on Growth Through Torah by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin

When Jacob was on his deathbed, he spoke individually with each of his sons and blessed them. To his son Reuven he said:

"Unstable as water, you shall not have pre-eminence."

The Torah does not usually give metaphors as it does here. What is this metaphor coming to teach us?

Answers Rabbi Yeruchem Levovitz: The Torah's metaphor is showing us the living reality of the trait of impulsivity. Impulsiveness is as water. Just as water flows quickly, so is the behavior of the person who acts impulsively without carefully thinking about what he is about to do. If you do not weigh the consequences of your behavior, you will make many harmful mistakes and will cause much damage. The Torah's metaphor of water serves as a constant reminder of the dangers of being impulsive. Whenever you see water flowing, tell yourself thoughts that will slow down your reactions.

Reb Aryeh Levin (read "A Tzaddik in Our Time," a wonderful collection of stories about his life) once comforted a person who murdered out of impulse and who was very depressed. He told him that our Sages explain that Reuven was punished; he lost his rights as firstborn son because he interfered in his father's personal life after Rachel died. (Reuven moved his father's bed into Leah's tent.) Yet the Talmud states, "Whoever says that Reuven sinned is only making an error" (Talmud, Shabbos 58b). How can that be?

Continues Rabbi Levin, "the answer is that Reuven had a bad trait, a defect in his character: he was 'unstable as water.' He was not bad by nature or personality; he just had the one unfortunate trait, that he was quick-tempered. As the eldest son he should have had certain privileges. He should have been the ancestor of the kings of Israel, not his brother, Yehudah. However, because of the defect in character, he lost all of that. So, this is really what Jacob told him: Reuven my son, it is not that you are a sinner or a criminal; but your problematic character trait has prevented you from fulfilling the tasks and enjoying the privileges that were destined for you." From the time he heard this, the prisoner's mind was calmed.

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