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By Elan A. (Grade 5)
This week’s parashah is very interesting. Yaakov is getting to be very old and decides that is it is time to bless all of his sons. He also chooses to bless Yosef’s children, Menasheh and Ephraim. Menasheh is older than Ephraim; however, Yaakov crosses his hands and puts his right hand on Ephraim (when one would have expected him to put his right hand on the older son). Yosef, who thought that Yaakov could not see which brother was which, tries to stop him and tells him that Menasheh is older. Yaakov responds that while Menasheh will become a great nation, Ephraim’s nation will be even greater.
A number of questions come to mind based on this story:
First, why did Yaakov cross his hands and not simply switch the positions of Menasheh and Ephraim so that his hands would be correctly placed? The Yalkut Me’am Lo’ez cites the Knesset Hagedolah, which says that if Yaakov had simply switched Ephraim and Menasheh around, it would have embarrassed Menasheh.
Second, why did Yaakov think that Ephraim’s nation would be greater, thereby justifying putting his right hand on Ephraim and not Menasheh? The Yalkut Me’am Lo’ez says that Yaakov saw that Menasheh would be the ancestor of Gidon, a great savior of Israel. However, he saw that Ephraim would be the ancestor of Yehoshua, who led the Jewish people into the land of Israel. Therefore, Yehoshua was even greater than Gideon, and so Yaakov felt that he should put his right hand on Ephraim as a result of his knowledge that this would happen.
The Me’am Lo’ez also cites the Darkai Moshe. The Torah says that “Yisrael stretched out his right hand and placed it on Ephraim’s head, and he was the younger one” (Bereishit 48:14). The Darkai Moshe says he was the younger, smaller one, and also the more humble one. Similarly, Rabbi Yehudah Nachshoni says that Ephraim learned Torah with Yaakov while Menasheh was a businessman. Yaakov preferred learning Torah. In my own view, this was because Yaakov himself was a “tent dweller” while his brother, Esav, was a hunter.
Rabbi Norman Lamm points out that the Yalkut Shimoni says that Yaakov saw that in the future when Israel would be enslaved, the tribe of Ephraim would try to leave first, and many would die. Maybe that is why Yaakov felt like he should give his right hand (i.e., the best berachah) to Ephraim.
My last question is: Why do parents bless their sons and say “May Hashem make you like Ephraim and Menashe?” Rabbi Shraga Simmons explains that they were the first pair of biblical brothers who did not fight. As my classmate Sophia R. wrote in this space last week, Kayin and Hevel, Yitzchak and Yishmael, Yaakov and Eisav, and Yosef and his brothers all fought. Ephraim and Menasheh’s relationship however, was an example of brotherly love.
Rabbi Yisroel Ciner refers to the Eved Hamelech who points out that Ephraim and Menasheh were the only tribe leaders born in Egypt. Most people would have been influenced by their secular surroundings. They, however, never even thought about worshipping idols and remained faithful Jews.
Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen gives a different explanation. Ephraim and Menasheh were not supposed to be part of the twelve tribes as they were Yaakov’s grandsons and not his sons. God, however, decided that they deserved tribal status. Parents bless their sons to be like Ephraim and Menashe because they achieved more than they were supposed to. This commentary makes me a bit uncomfortable. If parents do bless their sons to become overachievers, what happens if you get a bad grade?
I think Rabbi’s Ciner’s explanation is a good source to keep in mind: mind. There are things in the world that are not right according to Torah values. We should try not to be influenced by things in society that might make us not follow the Torah.
By Sophia R. (Grade 5)
This week’s parashah teaches us important lessons about teshuvah (repentance). It contains the story of how Yosef reveals his identity to his brothers and ultimately shows us the meaning of forgiveness and how it can help to unite a family.
The former Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks explains how the different stages of teshuvah are all shown in this parashah. Years before the events related in Vayigash occurred, Yosef’s brothers had sold him into slavery. This was a terrible act by his brothers. In Vayigash, Yosef tests his brothers and guides them through each stage of teshuvah.
First, Yosef accuses his brothers of being spies and puts them in prison for three days. The brothers do not realize that Yosef has an interpreter and can understand everything that they are saying. The brothers discuss with each other that the real reason that they have ended up in jail is because they had sold Yosef to the Yishma’eilim many years earlier. In speaking to each other like this, the brothers were confessing their horrible acts and were showing that they were sorry. This is the first stage of teshuvah.
Next, Yosef imprisons Shimon and tells the brothers that he will be released only if they come back to Egypt with their youngest brother Binyamin. Yosef knows that his father, Yaakov, would not want to part with Binyamin because he had already lost Yosef and would not want to lose Binyamin as well. Yehudah was the son who previously had sold Yosef into slavery. This time, Yehudah had to show Yaakov that he had learned his lesson and would not give up his brother. Yehudah pleads with Yaakov to let Binyamin come with him and tells Yaakov that if anything bad happens to Binyamin, he himself will be held personally responsible. This is the responsibility that he should have shown years earlier for his brother Yosef. Now Yehudah is showing that he has learned his lesson and that he will not do the same bad thing again. The second stage of teshuvah is learning not to repeat your sins.
Finally, Yosef creates a test for his brothers by placing his valuable silver goblet in Binyamin’s sack and accusing him of theft. Yosef also tries to make the other brothers jealous of Binyamim by giving him bigger portions of food. When the alleged theft is revealed, Yosef tells the other brothers that they are free to go but that Binyamin must stay and face a life of slavery. The brothers were faced with the same choice that they had had previously when they sold Yosef into slavery. Should they give in to their jealousy over their younger brother who was being treated more favorably and abandon him to slavery? This time the brothers passed the test. Yehudah, the same brother who sold Yosef into slavery, says that he will sacrifice his own freedom rather than let Binyamin become a slave. Given the opportunity to commit the same sin as before, Yehudah acts the opposite way and shows that he has met the final condition of teshuvah.
Rabbi Sacks also explains that throughout Bereishit there is fighting among brothers and that it is settled in increasingly better ways with this teshuvah being the very best model of all. First, Kayin and Hevel are brothers who settled their fight with murder, which is the worst model. Next, Yitzchak and Yishmael fight but in the end go together to Avraham’s funeral. Then, Yaakov and Esav fight, but then, when they later meet, they make up but still go their separate ways. Finally, in Vayigash, Yosef and his brothers, who had earlier fought, forgive one another, reunite, and, in the end, become close once more and live peacefully together. This is the best way of settling arguments and living happily with our families and is the lesson of teshuvah that we learn throughout Bereishit but that reaches its ending in Vayigash.
Sophia based this devar Torah on Rabbi Sacks’s commentary in his book Covenant and Conversation.
As a special Chanukah gift from Ramaz that will add immensely to your celebrations, please click here to read the latest issue of Illuminations, a compilation of essays and divrei Torah on Chanukah themes written by our Upper School students. This issue was generously sponsored by the Kreinen, Klass, and Modlin families in memory of Norman Kreinen. The project was spearheaded once again by Rabbi Kenny Schiowitz, Chair of the Talmud Department in the Upper School, and was prepared together with a team of student-editors. We congratulate all the contributors for their work on this wonderful publication.
Chag orim sameach!
By Josephine S. (6)
Many exciting events occur in this week’s parashah. It commences with Paroh’s dreams: first, seven lean cows eating seven fat cows, then seven wilted ears of grain eating seven healthy ears of grain. Later, Yosef’s brothers come down to Egypt asking for food. They do not recognize Yosef, but he recognizes them and sends them back to their father in Canaan, imprisoning Shimon until the brothers return with Binyamin. The parashah dramatically concludes with Yoseph declaring that Binyamin must stay as his slave because he stole a goblet.
Yosef has grown up since the previous parashah, where he is referred to with the word “na`ar” (youth, lad, immature) when he tells on his brothers to his father. He often mentions and gives credit to God. He has the ability to see Him and everything He does in everyday life.
When Paroh calls Yosef to interpret his dream, Yosef responds with “Not I; God will give an answer [that will bring] peace to Paroh” (Bereishit 41:16). Later, when explaining the dream to Paroh, instead of saying simply that the dream showed the future, he twice specifically said that God had shown Paroh what would happen. Instead of taking the credit for his skill, which he easily could have done, Yosef knows that his ability comes from God, and says so.
This teaches us two important things. First, we learn that we must always give credit to whom credit is due. If your dad gave you the idea for the essay you wrote, do not take credit for yourself, but tell your teacher it was your dad’s idea, just as Yosef told Paroh that God gave him the ability to interpret dreams.
We can also see that Yosef looked around his life and saw God in everything. Even Paroh acknowledges this, commenting to his servants after Yosef suggests storing food before the famine, “Will we find [anyone] like this, a man in whom there is the spirit of God?” (41:38). We need to be like Yosef, noticing and acknowledging the small and big miracles that God sends day to day.
As we approach Chanukkah, when an astounding miracle occurred, we should look around and notice the small miracles we tend to walk by daily.
If you’re looking for some Chanukah music to play, sing and dance along to in your classrooms as the holiday quickly approaches, there are some great music song-videos out there in honor of the Chag:
“Candlelight” – Maccabeats (perhaps you’ve heard this one before??
“Those Were the Nights” – Yeshiva Boys Choir
“Eight Nights” — StandFour
“Light up the Nights” – Fountainheads
“Shine” – Maccabeats
“Happy Chanukah” – Matisyahu
And thanks to Mr. Andrew Leibowitz for showing me these two awesome ones:
“Burn” – Maccabeats
“Wake Me Up/Mimaamakim” – Pella Singers
If anyone has more music to add, please share!
By Joseph K. (Grade 6)
This week’s parashah starts by saying that Yaakov “Vayeishev,” meaning sat or settled, in the land of his fathers, and then goes on to say “Ve’eilah toldot Yaakov, Yosef hayah ben sheva esrei shana—These are Yaakov’s descendants, Yosef was seventeen years old.” It then reports that Yosef would “naar”—either make fun of or take care of—the children of Bilhah and Zilpah, and would tell bad stories about his brothers to his father (Bereishit 37: 1-2).
Something is wrong here—we know that Yaakov had twelve sons and one daughter, yet the verse claims it will tell us of Yaakov’s descendants and then mentions only one. What is going on?
Rashi was also troubled by this question and gives three answers:
- The verse means this is the story of the descendants of Yaakov, and then starts with Yosef as Yosef’s activities towards his brothers led to their eventual descent to Egypt. In other words, the Torah is not giving us a list of children, but a history of the children of Yaakov, and it starts with the story of Yosef.
- Yaakov’s whole life was Rachel—he worked for Lavan for 14 years just for her. Her oldest son was Yosef, who looked just like her. So, for Yaakov, Yosef was his descendant—the others were his children too, but did not matter in comparison.
This is a sad statement because parents should not have favorites, and explains in part why Yosef’s brothers hated him so much.
- Yosef’s life was most like that of Yaakov: both were hated by their brother(s), both had their brothers try to kill them, and both ended up in another country (one fled, the other was abducted). So, given the similarity, Yosef is treated as the only descendant.
Of these three explanations, I prefer the first and the third, because neither of them has us believe that Yaakov played favorites. All children have strengths and weaknesses, and parents and teachers should look for the nice things in the children they nurture. This is not to say that they should not point out when someone does something wrong, but they should do so fairly and be kind and caring as they help the child improve.
By Abigail H. (Grade 8)
In this week’s parashah, Yaakov had his famous fight with the “angel” of God during which his hip was wounded. The angel said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking” (Bereishit 32:27), to which Yaakov responded that he would not let the angel go unless he first gave him a blessing. Earlier, in Parashat Toldot, another blessing was mentioned, when Yaakov tricked Esav into giving up his status of being the firstborn. Is there a connection between these two events?
The Zohar posits that there is. It states that previously, Yaakov received his blessing through deceit and trickery; yet, here, when his name was changed to Yisrael, he was getting a blessing that was rightfully his, and from God, no less. However, if Yaakov really deserved this blessing, why did he have to fight the angel in order to receive it? Why did God not just come to him and bless him?
I think that fighting the angel and obtaining a blessing has a certain symbolic meaning that simply receiving a blessing would not. For example, if you work really hard towards a goal and then accomplish it, you will likely be much more proud of yourself than if you had accomplished this exact same thing without much effort.
According to many sages, the angel that fought with Yaakov was Esav’s angel. This fight symbolizes the fight between the Jewish nation and other nations who will always wish to destroy us. This is further represented by the fact that this fight happened during the night, which can be interpreted as the long and dark galut (exile) that the Jewish people endure. As long as the mashiach is not here, we will be fighting—even though we have Israel— and we will not be at peace.
Last week we marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. In the long and dark years of the Holocaust, the Jewish nation really “wrestled” with evil. Even today, we struggle with the very idea that something like the Holocaust could have occurred. However, as was shown all those years ago by Yaakov, even if we are greatly injured, we will survive and come out on top in the end.