Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Shabbos: Ta’am HaChaim Mikeitz -Chanukah 5770

שבת טעם החיים מקץ-חנוכה תש"ע
Shabbos: Ta’am HaChaim Mikeitz -Chanukah 5770

Being honest with ourselves

ויאמר אלהם יוסף הוא אשר דברתי אלכם לאמר מרגלים אתם But Yosef said to them, “It is just as I have declared to you: ‘You are spies!’ (Bereishis 42:!4)
In this week’s parasha the Torah records how after Yosef ascended to power, his brothers descended to Egypt because of the famine that was prevalent in the Land of Yosef. When the brothers appeared before Yosef, he accused them of being spies, which they vehemently denied. The brothers responded to Joseph that they had arrived in Egypt to buy food and that they were all sons of one man. They further buttressed their claim of innocence by declaring that they were truthful people and they had never been spies. Yosef rejected their defense, reiterating his claim that they were spies.
Understanding the dialogue between Yosef and his brothers
This dialogue between Yosef and his brothers appears puzzling, as Yosef did not appear to be supporting his claim with any evidence. The brother’s response is equally troubling, as the fact that they claimed to have arrived in Egypt with the purpose of buying food did not necessarily negate the possibility that they were spies. Furthermore, the brother’s declaration that they had never been spies was certainly something that they did not substantiate. What was the meaning of Yosef’s accusation and what was the intention behind the brothers’ rejoinder?
Taking a serious approach to the Torah’s narratives
In Europe, the Jewish women had a practice of reading aloud from the prayer book or from a book that simplified the stories contained in the Torah. It is said that one Shabbos, when a woman was reading aloud regarding the incident of the brothers throwing Joseph into the pit, another woman exclaimed, “Good for him, he deserves it. He knew what they did to him last year. Why did he crawl in again?” This was obviously a joke that circulated in those times, but it demonstrated the sincerity of the women and the manner in which they paid close attention to the Torah narrative.
Honesty through and though
When we read the incident of Yosef and his brothers, we tend to gloss over the dialogues as being mere rhetoric and irrelevant to our own lives. Yet, if we contemplate what the brothers did to Yosef, by selling him to Egypt, and how Joseph reacted, we may find a parallel to our own behaviors. We tend view ourselves as honest people, but Yosef’s accusation of his brothers demonstrates true human nature. The brothers claimed that they were truthful people and that they had never been spies. Yosef, however, informed the brothers that this was precisely their error. While it may have been true that they were all sons of one father, they certainly were lacking in honesty with regard to their interpersonal relations. Proof of this was the fact that they had sold their own brother to a foreign land and had caused their father immense distress.
True sons of one father
We have the opportunity on a daily basis to focus on aiding our fellow brethren, if we are more than just “honest with ourselves.” We must also be honest with the people we interact with, and then we can truly claim to be the sons of one father.
The Shabbos connection
In a similar vein, Shabbos allows us the opportunity to be honest in our interpersonal relationships. The Mishnah in Demai states that even an am haaretz, someone normally suspected of not tithing properly, is believed on Shabbos to say that he has tithed. The reason for this is because he has upon him the fear of Shabbos. Thus, on Shabbos one has the ability to rise above deception and dishonesty and be true to himself and his creator.
Shabbos Stories
The Piercing Shaft of Light
by Tziporah Heller
The village of Charnovska mirrored the Bible’s description of the world’s beginning. Light and darkness were entwined so completely that no period could be called “day” in comparison to another called “night.”
Until this point, the externals of life were highly predictable: cycles of births, deaths, marriages, grinding poverty and tragedies were seemingly engraved in cement. And yet the inner life of the villagers was varied and multifaceted; there were scholars and saints and ordinary people who hid their noble spirit under the blanket of a humble tailor and shoemaker -- a destiny bequeathed from their fathers and rarely questioned by the sons. There were also the living dead, for whom life had no purpose other than to move the body day-by-ponderous-day to the grave.
Then there was Shmulik. From his earliest childhood, the darkness that we all try to conceal, or at least rein in, was in full control of his personality. He was the eternal taker, the perpetual villain in the village's prosaic dramas. Nothing is darker than the secret place in the human heart that wants to experience absolute control. The little tyrant is insatiable. Sometimes the shadow is so profoundly impenetrable that even if a shaft of light would pierce its way through, it might be doomed to invisibility and obscurity.
Then, in 1917, everything changed.
Hope and desperation fueled the Russian revolution. The Jews of even the most obscure towns found themselves newly aware of Socialist fires that burned within their hearts. They swept up entire villages that followed blindly, unaware that these flames would cause a conflagration that had never yet been paralleled. In Charnovska, the young men and women walked a path that led to Stalin’s hell. At the time, they thought that they were moving toward the workers’ paradise. Their elders (and a minority of youth) saw where the path led and grasped onto the mountain of faith by their fingernails.
Shmulik was different from both segments of the village population. He fought with the Whites, the near-fascist opposition. His motivations were practical rather than idealistic. The Whites paid him well for betraying his neighbors. Shmulik informed. Fellow Jews were killed on his word.
The wrong side won, at least from Shmulik’s perspective. At a time when millions of lives were destroyed on suspicion of being “anti-revolutionary,” Shmulik survived. He was tough and ruthless, and his survival was bought at the price of his own conscience.
When Shmulik’s father died, something occurred that was unprecedented in his history. There was a ray of light, a certain spiritual longing that he had never let himself feel. More clearly than anything else he had known, he knew he must say the mourner’s Kaddish.
There were three functioning synagogues in the village. They were soon to be doomed by the Reds as a sort of museum of natural history. But for now, they were still part of the living body of the Jewish community, like limbs awaiting amputation.
The unexpected happened. No matter what Shmulik did, he could not convince the villagers to allow him to say Kaddish. The elderly men who came daily were close enough to the Valley of the Shadow of Death. They had already lost all that any human could take.
There was one other minyan in the village. It did not meet in a synagogue. What members of this minyan feared the most was being left for dead. Shmulik approached the rabbi, who like everyone else in Charnovska knew there was blood on Shmulik’s hands. This rabbi said “Yes.”
The next morning, Shmulik found himself walking the stairs that led to the decrepit shack of the makeshift synagogue. After several days, the rabbi asked Shmulik why he didn’t put on Tefillin, since he was attending synagogue in any case.
“I don’t have Tefillin,” Shmulik replied.
“But I do,” said the rabbi. And, the strange sight of the rabbi handing his Tefillin to the village traitor became the whispered gossip engaging the village for days.
Next, Shmulik learned to read Hebrew. (Yes, the dialogue was: “Why not pray?” “I don’t know how to read.” “I’ll show you.”) And so it went.
In the course of time, Shmulik became unrecognizable as the person he had once been. He married, had children, saw to their education at the risk of his life by sending them to the underground Jewish school. Shmulik had a meaningful present and future.
Yet one problem that remained on file. Shmulik had never allowed himself to look inward at the unspeakable blackness of his past. The door had remained closed, keeping all the monsters at bay. The day came when he finally opened the door and was horrified and sickened at what he saw. That day was the most significant one in his life.
The rabbi sat and told Shmulik all he knew, just as everyone in the village knew it all. Shmulik listened silently. When the litany ended, the rabbi said, “You caused death. Now you must bring forth life.”
They spoke late into the night. When their talk was silenced by weariness, a conclusion had already been reached: Shmulik would build a mikveh, a spiritual bath that is the core of Jewish family purity.
In the midst of the spiritual cemetery that was being erected in the Ukraine, Shmulik undertook to demonstrate his belief in the future of the Jewish people. Every night he went out to the barn behind his house and dug. When he struck water, he knew that the hope he had nurtured was being answered. Tiles were acquired on the black market, and a heating system was devised. The man who had betrayed so many was not betrayed.
The final touch was the construction of a wooden platform upon which he shoveled horse manure. The platform covered the top of the mikveh, hiding it from view. None of the “big brothers” who had become a ubiquitous part of the scene ever felt inclined to investigate the muck.
Charnovska exchanged hands and Shmulik found himself in a concentration camp. His family was gone. But Shmulik’s face shone like a righteous tzaddik.
It is not my Shabbos
The Chafetz Chaim (1838-1933) once organized a campaign against a group of merchants in Radin that began to keep their stores open on Shabbos. He spoke to them privately and he spoke publicly about the issue. Finally, the merchants agreed to keep their stores closed on Shabbos. They only had one request from the Chafetz Chaim. “We expected to be open for Shabbos and on that basis greatly increased our inventory of perishable items. If we close for the next two Saturdays we will take a severe loss. Just let us stay open these two weeks to unload our extra merchandise, and then we will stay closed for Shabbos after that.”
The Chafetz Chaim responded, “I am sorry gentlemen, but it is not my Shabbos.” In other words, I am not the owner of the institution of Shabbos that I have the license to grant you compromise on this issue. Shabbos belongs to G-d. There is no way that I am justified in compromising. (reprinted with permission from
The Chafetz Chaim speaks the language of the heart
Here is a remarkable story that was related at the central hisorerus rally for women, organized by Todaah, and held in Binei Brak on the 65th yahrtzeit of the Chafetz Chaim last Elul.
The main speech at the rally was delivered by the av beis din of Binei Brak’s Zichron Meir neighborhood, and Rosh Yeshiva of today’s Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin in Binei Brak, HaRav Shmuel Halevi Wosner, who stressed the importance of strengthening our devotion to the chinuch of our children, and sharpening our awareness of the dangers the posed to our generation by the unfit media which poison the souls of our youngsters, and undermine the walls of our pure education.
In his speech, he spoke about the Chafetz Chaim, whose yahrtzeit coincided with the day of the rally. He related that he was studying in the Chachmei Lublin yeshiva in Europe on the day of the petirah of the Chafetz Chaim. When the bitter news reached them, the Rosh Yeshiva, Reb Meir Shapiro, convened the students and with bitter tears eulogized the gadol hador who had gone to his eternal rest.
In his hesped, Maharam Shapiro related that during the final years of the Chafetz Chaim’s life, a decree was passed against the talmudei Torah and chadorim in Poland. A contingent of Rabbanim was sent to the Chafetz Chaim with the request that he head a delegation to the Polish government, for the purpose of annulling the decree. “We told the Chafetz Chaim: ‘On Yom Kippur, the fledgling priests told the Kohen Gadol: ‘Our master, the Kohen Gadol, stand on the floor and lessen the warmth of your feet.’ Our master, the Kohen Gadol, Maran the Chafetz Chaim, stand at the head of the campaign for the honor of HaShem and His Torah.’
“And the Chafetz Chaim, in his venerable old age, headed the delegation to the Polish government. When he appeared before the members of the government, they rose in his honor. The Chafetz Chaim told the Prime Minister that he couldn’t speak Polish, and asked to speak in Yiddish. To this, the Polish Prime Minster replied: ‘Your honor will speak the language of the heart, and I will understand.’
“With heartfelt words, the Chafetz Chaim began: ‘Your honor, the Prime Minster, during the First World War, the Russians who ruled Poland murdered all the Poles who sought independence. One time, they led a group of captives through the town of Radin. The captives were bound in iron chains, and the Russians beat and disgraced them. When I saw this, I entered the beis medrash, opened the aron kodesh, placed my head between the Torah scrolls and prayed: ‘Ribbono Shel Olam, even though they are non-Jews, they are Your creations. Why do they disgrace them so?. HaKadosh Boruch Hu heard my prayers, and Poland received its independence.’
“‘Honorable Prime Minister,’ the Chafetz Chaim continued. ‘I requested that Poland remain Poland, that Poland remain a state. If you don’t annul the decree, Poland will cease to exist.’
“The Polish Prime Minster, who was deeply moved by the words of the Chafetz Chaim, rose and said: ‘Most honorable rabbi, the decree is canceled.’”
This story was related by my mentor, the Rosh Yeshiva of Chachmei Lublin, in his hesped over the Chafetz Chaim. At the end of the hesped, Maharam Shapiro described the Chafetz Chaim’s immense greatness in Torah, stressing that he was the Rav of all Israel and that he had strengthened his generation and all generations until the coming of the Moshiach in many issues, among them that of shemiras halashon.
On that occasion, Maharam Shapiro noted that in the generation preceding him, it was the Chasam Sofer one who had fortified our faith, and that at the time of the petirah of the Chasam Sofer, in 5700, the verse, “and the sun shone, and the sun set,” as well as the statement of Chazal that, “the sun of the tzaddik doesn’t set until the sun of another tzaddik. begins to shine,” were fulfilled, because it was then that the sun of the Chafetz Chaim began to glow.
At the close of his stirring words, Rav Wosner emphasized the obligation to strengthen our shemiras halashon, saying that one who guards his tongue and his mouth merits longevity, as it is written: “Who is the man who wants life, loves days to see good? Guard your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit.” (
Refoel’s Story
by Sheila Segal
I sat on the faded wooden bench in the park. It was Shabbos afternoon, and this playground was filled with the happy sounds of children at play. We were visiting my husband's elderly grandparents in Haifa, and I had brought the children to the park to allow Bubby and Zaidy a peaceful Shabbos nap. I waved to a grinning Moishy, and dutifully watched as he slid headfirst down the weather-beaten slide. The other children were flying energetically on the huge black tires that served as swings. I sighed heavily to myself. It had been a difficult Shabbos, trying to harness the exuberant spirits of six lively children in unfamiliar surroundings. Bubby and Zaidy had been so thrilled when we finally agreed to come to them for a Shabbos but I hadn't realized how frail they had become. They loved having the children over, but I saw how much of a strain it was on them.
Absorbed in my thoughts, I barely noticed when a middle-aged woman joined me on the bench. Alongside her was a young boy in a wheelchair. “Good Shabbos,” she greeted me with a pleasant smile. “Are you visiting? I don’t think I’ve seen you here before.” Warmed by her friendliness, I introduced myself. “Oh, yes. I know the Kahns. They live on Rechov Regev, don’t they? They’re such a sweet couple.” I nodded, marveling at the closeness of this community. “I’m Rena Levine. I come here almost every nice day. Refoel loves to be out and see other children. This park is one of his favorite spots.” She stroked his thin hand as she spoke. We chatted casually for several minutes, yet my glance kept straying to the delicate boy in the wheelchair. Propped up securely in the chair, his bright brown eyes darted eagerly, drinking in the cheerful romping of the children. Just then, a young boy came up and asked if he could wheel Refoel around. You could see the pleading and excitement in two sets of eyes as they waited for the affirmative nod. It came and the two were off.
For a long moment, Rena gazed thoughtfully at me. “I see that you’re curious about Refoel. If you’ve got some time, I’ll share his story with you.” I agreed, piqued by curiosity and compassion.
“I’ll start from the very beginning, when I first met Refoel.” My eyes opened wide. “First met?” I repeated hesitantly. She nodded briefly, then plunged into her tale. “For a number of years, I was part of a Bikur Cholim organization. Every week I would visit patients in a local hospital. One day I received an urgent phone call. There was a nurses’ strike on, and extra volunteers were needed desperately in the Children’s Ward.
‘’The nurses go off duty at 12 o’clock. Please be there on time to care for the children,’ a crisp voice informed me. I could almost hear the scratch of a pen as she marked off names on her list.
“I arrived several minutes early that day. To my surprise, I discovered that the nurses only went off duty at 4:00. Only afterwards would I realize that this was yet another example of Yad HaShem which I would encounter throughout my relationship with Refoel. A harried nurse requested that I hold a baby who was screaming piteously in the next room. ‘He’s got cerebral palsy and he’s blind,’ I was told matter-of-factly. ‘He’s been abandoned by his natural parents.’ I rocked the little boy gently in my arms, crooning softly to settle him. Feeling how damp his diaper was, I proceeded to change him. If I had arrived after four o’clock, when the nurses had left for the day, he would most certainly have been freshly changed. And I would never have discovered that this tiny Jewish boy had not yet had a bris milah.
“Shocked and upset, I paced the halls, clutching the infant securely in my arms. His big brown eyes followed the lights in the corridor, pausing with grave interest to peer at the pictures in their heavy gilt frames. I stopped in front of a large painting. The baby seemed captivated by the swirls of color, for he gurgled delightedly.
“ ‘This baby can’t be blind,’ I decided. I pounced on the head nurse to share my discovery but she was distracted. ‘Maybe he can see shapes,’ she reluctantly conceded, `but he’s got so many other problems, it hardly makes much difference.’ I bristled angrily at the way this child was being treated. ‘He needs love - a mother’s love.’ I was furious at his mother for simply abandoning him. It wasn’t his fault that he had been born with such severe medical problems.
“I went home that night, determination and despair churning inside me. I would make sure that the four-month-old infant would have a proper bris. Yet where could I find a home for him?
“I found myself becoming obsessed with this baby. Often, after arriving home from visiting him, I would call the Children’s Ward to check on his condition. Was he covered properly? Might he be uncomfortable and fretting? I couldn’t keep him out of my mind. I spent hours on the telephone trying to find a home for him. He couldn’t stay at the hospital indefinitely and the nurses had mentioned a possibility of his being sent soon to an institution, perhaps a Christian one.
“One night, after another fruitless round of phone calls, an incredible thought struck me. Why not keep the baby myself? We would be the perfect family for him! Trembling with emotion, I shared my idea with my husband, who approved wholeheartedly. The following day, I gathered my children around the dining room table and held a family conference about the fate of the infant. My oldest was 17 at the time, the youngest 3. All eight children were perched on our worn chairs, eager to offer an opinion. My husband described the boy’s severe limitations and the difficulties involved in caring for such a child. To my great pride and relief, the children all agreed that we should take him.
“’We’ll help you take care of him, Ima,’ six-year-old Bluma offered. ‘Hurray!’ we’re getting a new baby!’ whooped the twins. Tears coursing down my cheeks, I felt a heavy rock lift from my heart. I knew that we could make a difference to this helpless little boy.
“A fervent blessing from our Rav still ringing in our ears, my husband and I traced our steps to the hospital to claim the baby. While my husband filled out reams of paper and stacks of forms, I paced the halls nervously. After visits to the social worker, doctors, and the head nurse from Pediatrics, the baby was finally released into our custody. His natural parents had refused to sign the necessary papers, so we were only his guardians, not adoptive parents.”
Rena looked at me, having paused in her reminiscences. “That was the easy part,” she said, a faint smile playing on her lips. “Once we brought him home, the hard part began.” I hung avidly on her words, amazed at this courageous woman and her incredible narrative of mesiras nefesh.
“Six weeks after my seeing the baby for the first time, we took him home with us. When he was almost six months, he had a bris milah. We named him Refoel Chaim. The whole neighborhood rejoiced with us. My friends were extremely supportive. Some thought I was crazy, but they still buoyed up my spirits when I struggled. Refoel was miserable when we first brought him home. He cried for hours non-stop. He was very spastic and certainly in some pain. He wasn’t on any medication at that time. Frantic from worry and sheer exhaustion, I would gladly have handed him over to his mother if she had knocked on my door then. Boruch HaShem we survived that ordeal. Refoel is ten years old now and a happy child.” Rena glanced fondly at the youngster who was still being wheeled around the playground, now by a girl, blonde braids swinging impishly. She was chattering rapidly to him, sharing her secrets. The two giggled companionably, secure in their world. Refoel looked at his ‘mother’ to see if she was appreciating how happy he was. As their glances locked, his eyes sparkled. A wide grin revealed his love for this special woman.
“The kids adore him,” Rena commented, her face glowing. She leaned forward and our heads almost touched. “Do you know what my 12-year-old son said yesterday? Someone asked him if he was jealous of all the attention Refoel gets in our home. His answer was simple. ‘What would we have done without Refoel?’”
Rena relaxed; a dreamy look crept into her eyes. “He’s a special neshama. He listens to our davening so carefully. He loves when my husband or one of the boys learn aloud at home. He seems to follow each word they say.”
She paused. “He’s made each of us a better person. My daughter’s teacher called me last week. She sees how Michali is always the first to help children who are left out or defend those teased by the rest of the class. Refoel has given us so much.”
Rena noticed my admiring look and added hastily, “Please don’t get the wrong impression. Some people think I’m such a tzaddekes because I’m taking care of a handicapped child. It’s not like that at all. We consider Refoel our son, even if we haven’t been able to adopt him formally. And for a son, no effort or trouble is too much.”
I sat silently on the bench, mulling over Rena’s last comment. Some child wheeled Refoel back, his cheeks ruddy, his eyes bright. Rena rose and gripped the handles of his wheelchair. “Good Shabbos. It was nice meeting you. Think about all the women you know. I’m sure many of them do acts of chesed that few people are aware of. It’s just that in my situation, it’s more apparent.” She smiled wryly and walked away. In a short while, I was surrounded by a circle of happy faces. “Ima, this is such a fun park. Can we come back again?” Still bemused by my encounter with Rena, I nodded distractedly.
“Who were those people, Ima? Do you know them?” Rachel curiously eyed the retreating form of a woman, navigating a wheelchair in front of her.
“That’s a special lady, with a special son,” I answered quietly, Refoel’s story still echoing softly in my ears.
Shabbos: Ta’am HaChaim Mikeitz-Chanukah 5770
is sponsored in honor of the birth of our son, Simcha Bunim.
Simchos by all of Klal Yisroel, culminating in the arrival of Moshiach Tzidkeinu
I will be giving a class in Navi on Shabbos afternoon at Bais Haknesses HaGra 14561 Lincoln in Oak Park, half an hour before Mincha.
Have a wonderful and delightful Shabbos and a magnificent and illuminating Chanukah
Prepared by Rabbi Binyomin Adler.
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