The weekly Torah portion
(Delivered January 7, 2023)
During my travels at the height of the pandemic, I happened upon a prominent rabbi walking by me to (a different) shul. At some point in our conversation, we discussed his shul’s intricate COVID policies, and he added a tagline, “The most important thing is safety!” I looked at him in disbelief and, with my typically brash Israeli חצפה, I suggested that if that were the case, he should consider immediately shutting down his shul … permanently. He should never cross the road, drive to work, light שבת candles, have children, etc. Fortunately, G-d intervened, and our ways soon parted.
What does this have to do with the פרשה? Well, for one, despite it’s title, this week’s פרשה is all about death … a really challenging subject matter for an uplifting shabbat דבר תורה. Indeed, I’ll be honest, I even enlisted the aid of my children, one of whom is studying this year at ישיבת ברכת משה in מעלה אדומים, Israel, and who promptly sent me a video by הרב גד מכטה … but more on that later.
To recap part of our story … יעקב is approaching death (how could he have known?), and he calls for יוסף and demands that יוסף swear (let’s not get into how) to take יעקב’s bones out of Egypt. יעקב then proceeds to bless יוסף’s sons (and only יוסף’s sons - as my eldest noted, some things don’t chage) and then each of his own children … and dies.
I would like to focus on several details in this story:
First, יעקב asks יוסף to do with him חסד ואמת - kindness and truth. רש”י explains that the kindness that we perform for the dead is “true kindness” in that we do not expect any reward. However, I would like to highlight a reciprocal aspect … in that the dead (or dying) are also free from the threat of reward (and punishment), and, hence, they are free to speak their true thoughts.
You see this in the secular legal literature with the notion of a “dying declaration”, or, from the Latin, nemo moriturus praesumitur mentiri - no one, who is about to die, is presumed to be lying. Or, as a good friend learned in law school, the presumption is that “a man will not go to meet his Maker with a lie on his lips.” The dying are believed to derive no personal benefit from lying, and, thus, their statements can be accepted in court (whereas they would otherwise be inadmissible hearsay).
Indeed, we see this with the blessings that יעקב imparts to his own children, which are as enigmatic as they are direct and unapologetic:
ראובן: עָלִיתָ מִשְׁכְּבֵי אָבִיךָ; אָז חִלַּלְתּ
you mounted your father’s bed, then you desecrated it.
This refers to ראובן’s sleeping (?) with בלהה, his father’s concubine.
Shimon and Levi
שמעון ולוי: אָרוּר אַפָּם כִּי עָז
Cursed is their anger for it is powerful
This refers to their destruction of שכם and murder of all its inhabitants.
יהודה: גּוּר אַרְיֵה יְהוּדָה, מִטֶּרֶף בְּנִי עָלִיתָ
A young lion is Yehuda, you have risen above the prey of my child
This is a veiled reference to טרף טרף יוסף… חיה רעה אכלתהו - [Joseph] was preyed upon … a bad animal ate him - the deceit that the brothers played on their father when they returned without יוסף. In the end, יהודה rose above it, but he is yet but a young lion.
And last, but not least:
יוסף: בֵּן פֹּרָת יוֹסֵף, בֵּן פֹּרָת עֲלֵי-עָיִן; בָּנוֹת, צָעֲדָה עֲלֵי-שׁוּר. וַֽיְמָרְרֻ֖הוּ וָרֹ֑בּוּ וַֽיִּשְׂטְמֻ֖הוּ
(as per רש”י) The bearer of beauty, Yosef, the bearer of beauty to the eye. Women hike to view his beauty and they embittered him and fought him and loathed him…
רש”י connects this to the wife of פּוֹטִיפַר, who tried to seduce יוסף … and yet he did not succumb.
We now return to the דבר תורה of הרב גד מכטה that was forwarded to me by my son יוני. The speaker poses the question: how is it that יוסף resisted the charms of פּוֹטִיפַר’s wife, even when she assures him that no one will know (and there are clear implications [and later enactments] of consequences should he resist).
The answer, says the דובר תורה is from פרקי אבות ג:א:
דע, מאין באת, ולאן אתה הולך, ולפני מי אתה עתיד ליתן דין וחשבון.
Know from where you came, and where you are going, and in front of Whom will you be judged.
This is something that יוסף intrinsically understood when he responds:
וְאֵיךְ אֶעֱשֶׂה הָרָעָה הַגְּדֹלָה, הַזֹּאת, וְחָטָאתִי, לֵאלֹקים (בראשית ל׳ט).
How can I do this great evil, and sin against G-d.
At the end of the day, יוסף is a truth-bespoken Kantian, who internalizes that his life is answerable not to his own desires, not to the feelings or threats of powerful people, but to the Holy One Blessed Be He, alone. He doesn’t ask for danger, but he also doesn’t flinch from his path of truth it its face.
And here we return to my original anecdote. We are clearly enjoined by our Torah
ונשמרתם מאד לנפשתיכם (דברים ד:ט)
and you protected your souls intensely.
But to understand this, we need to consider a final parable from the Talmud (ברכות 32b):
תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן: מַעֲשֶׂה בְּחָסִיד אֶחָד שֶׁהָיָה מִתְפַּלֵּל בַּדֶּרֶךְ. בָּא הֶגְמוֹן אֶחָד וְנָתַן לוֹ שָׁלוֹם, וְלֹא הֶחְזִיר לוֹ שָׁלוֹם. הִמְתִּין לוֹ עַד שֶׁסִּייֵּם תְּפִלָּתוֹ. לְאַחַר שֶׁסִּייֵּם תְּפִלָּתוֹ, אָמַר לוֹ: רֵיקָא, וַהֲלֹא כָּתוּב בְּתוֹרַתְכֶם ״רַק הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ וּשְׁמֹר נַפְשְׁךָ״, וּכְתִיב ״וְנִשְׁמַרְתֶּם מְאֹד לְנַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם״. כְּשֶׁנָּתַתִּי לְךָ שָׁלוֹם לָמָּה לֹא הֶחְזַרְתָּ לִי שָׁלוֹם? אִם הָיִיתִי חוֹתֵךְ רֹאשְׁךָ בְּסַיִיף, מִי הָיָה תּוֹבֵעַ אֶת דָּמְךָ מִיָּדִי?!
אָמַר לוֹ: הַמְתֵּן לִי עַד שֶׁאֲפַיֶּיסְךָ בִּדְבָרִים. אָמַר לוֹ: אִילּוּ הָיִיתָ עוֹמֵד לִפְנֵי מֶלֶךְ בָּשָׂר וָדָם, וּבָא חֲבֵרְךָ וְנָתַן לְךָ שָׁלוֹם — הָיִיתָ מַחֲזִיר לוֹ?! אָמַר לוֹ: לָאו. וְאִם הָיִיתָ מַחֲזִיר לוֹ, מָה הָיוּ עוֹשִׂים לְךָ? אָמַר לוֹ: הָיוּ חוֹתְכִים אֶת רֹאשִׁי בְּסַיִיף.
אָמַר לוֹ: וַהֲלֹא דְּבָרִים קַל וָחוֹמֶר, וּמָה אַתָּה שֶׁהָיִיתָ עוֹמֵד לִפְנֵי מֶלֶךְ בָּשָׂר וָדָם, שֶׁהַיּוֹם כָּאן וּמָחָר בַּקֶּבֶר — כָּךְ. אֲנִי שֶׁהָיִיתִי עוֹמֵד לִפְנֵי מֶלֶךְ מַלְכֵי הַמְּלָכִים הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, שֶׁהוּא חַי וְקַיָּים לָעַד וּלְעוֹלְמֵי עוֹלָמִים — עַל אַחַת כַּמָּה וְכַמָּה.
מִיָּד נִתְפַּיֵּיס אוֹתוֹ הֶגְמוֹן, וְנִפְטַר אוֹתוֹ חָסִיד לְבֵיתוֹ לְשָׁלוֹם.
אֲפִילּוּ נָחָשׁ כָּרוּךְ עַל עֲקֵבוֹ, לֹא יַפְסִיק. אָמַר רַב שֵׁשֶׁת: לֹא שָׁנוּ אֶלָּא נָחָשׁ. אֲבָל עַקְרָב — פּוֹסֵק.
Loosely paraphrasing, this is a story about a חסיד , who was praying by the roadside when a Hegemon (an officer, like a Roman magistrate) came by and greeted him. The חסיד didn’t respond, insisting on continuing to pray. When the חסיד was done, the officer castigated him: “Fool” - does not your Torah demand of you to protect yourself carefully? I could have severed your head for not responding to me.
The חסיד responded with a question (how Jewish!) - had you been standing before a king and a friend greeted you, would you have responded to the friend? The officer said “no”. The חסיד continued - and if you had insisted on talking to your friend nevertheless, what would happen? “They would cut off my head.”
Thus, responded the חסיד, was I standing before the King of Kings … and the officer is assuaged.
The narrative then segues into a moral, based on the משנה, that even if a snake were to encircled your ankle, you do not stop your praying (though רב ששת limits this prescription to a snake - for a scorpion, he would have you stop).
We now come full circle to my original discussion. Safety and protecting your body is clearly a biblical obligation … but it is not an end in itself. It is a means to an end - that of serving our Maker in this world and enriching it with our efforts.
We need to live in order to be able to fulfill מצוות,
but we do not fulfill them merely through living.