Category Archives: Alumni devar Torah

Does Justice Bring Peace?

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Miriam Gedwiser

Shemot 18:23 contains the third and final appearance of the word שלום in the book of Shemot. (All three pertain to Yitro.)  Yitro advises Mosheh that if God approves of, and Mosheh implements, Yitro’s plan for the division of the judicial workload, “וְיָכָלְתָּ עֲמֹד וְגַם כָּל הָעָם הַזֶּה עַל מְקֹמוֹ יָבֹא בְשָׁלוֹם” (“then you will be able to endure (lit. stand), and also this whole people will go to its place in peace”).  Although most commentators read this prediction of שלום for the people as having to do with the lessening of the administrative burden of seeking justice, the Netziv offers a fascinating reading that gets to the nature and benefits of decentralized, even imperfect, justice. Bear with me while we get there.

The first part of Yitro’s prediction seems pretty straightforward:  Adopting Yitro’s suggestion will ease the burden off of Moshe. Literarily, Ralbag notes that Yitro’s language of “you will be able to endure/stand,” seems to bookend Yitro’s critique in verse 18, נָבֹ֣ל תִּבֹּ֔ל גַּם־אַתָּ֕ה גַּם־הָעָ֥ם הַזֶּ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר עִמָּ֑ךְ (You will surely wear out both yourself and this people that is with you).  Yitro’s new routine can be sustained indefinitely, as opposed to the unendurable status quo. We may also hear an echo of Yitro’s initial question in verse 14, מַדּ֗וּעַ אַתָּ֤ה יוֹשֵׁב֙ לְבַדֶּ֔ךָ, why are you sitting all alone? If he adopts Yitro’s suggestion, Moshe will be able to reduce the burden of “sitting” to judge all day and be able to stand up.

What are we to make of the end of Yitro’s prediction, וְגַם כׇּל הָעָם הַזֶּה עַל מְקֹמוֹ יָבֹא בְשָׁלוֹם?  The commentators are all over the map in identifying the “people/עם” in question, the “place/מקום” to which they are to be brought, and the nature of the “peace/שלום” they will have there.  Ibn Ezra suggests what strikes me as the pshat: By following Yitro’s suggestion Moshe can help the Israelites make it to Eretz Canaan. Others suggest that Yitro means that the עם who gather around Moshe daily (see verse 14) will have their burdens eased as well, because they will not need to travel to the Levite camp for justice once local judges are established (see, e.g., Chizkuni) or because they will not need to wait all day for a hearing (see, e.g.,  Ralbag). What these interpretations share is that the שלום in question is a product of procedural improvements, and does not have to do with the substance of the ruling.

Ibn Ezra and R. David Tzvi Hofman understand the שלום in question to be more substantive:  The backlog of cases coming to Moshe was deterring some people from seeking legal recourse for their disputes at all, leading to those disputes becoming entrenched and the disputants embittered.  This understanding is in keeping with the Talmud, Sanhedrin 7a, which cites our verse to prove that one who leaves court having been stripped even of his cloak (i.e., having suffered a large financial loss) should “sing a song and go on his way.”  A proper legal resolution is itself a cause of celebration, and its finality a source of שלום, even for the side that loses money. (See also Seforno.)

Against all this background enters the Netziv (harchev davar to 18:23).  He connects this verse to a talmudic passage on Sanhedrin 6b (link: Sanhedrin 6b:2).  The Talmud there discusses the merits or demerits of judicial compromise (pesharah).  The slogan on the anti-pesharah side is יקוב הדין את ההר, let the law pierce the mountain – i.e., let the chips fall where they may in terms of winners and losers, the law is both inflexible and overpowering.   This slogan, in turn, is associated with Moshe, who perhaps not coincidentally returned the law from a mountain himself.

Netziv argues that the halachah is that pesharah (judicially enforced compromise) is a mitzvah only before it is clear which side has the winning argument.  In Moshe’s case, according to the Netziv, because Mosheh had such facility with the details of Torah law, he never found himself in that situation; the law was always clear to him, so compromise was never the right solution.

By appointing more judges who knew less than Moshe, Moshe might have worried that he would be delegating his job to people who could not do it as well as he could.  Netziv reads Yitro as affirming this concern while also turning it on its head. Yes, the new judges might not always be sure right away who was right. But this actually opened up the possibility for them to seek pesharah, compromise, which in turn generates שלום, increased satisfaction with and harmony regarding judicial outcomes.

According to the Netziv, Yitro was advising Moshe to delegate to judges whom everyone knew would be less skilled than Moshe at speedy halachic evaluation.  But rather than see this as a loss or dilution, Yitro saw it as an opportunity. These new judges might not be as good at quickly spotting and determining halachic issues, but it was precisely this deficit that would allow them to generate better, more שלום-like outcomes in some cases.

Yitro’s insight was not simply “delegate more,” but that the apparent downside of delegating was not the end of the story.  While delegating could result in judges who were less competent than Moshe in Moshe’s area of comparative advantage (speedy halachic determination), it could also be seen as resulting in differently competent judges, whose own comparative advantage, the ability to generate pesharah, would enrich the people.

Perhaps this is why Yitro himself is the character associated with שלום in this book (See note 1).  Yitro’s outsider’s perspective, his capacity to re-envision and reframe the situation, is what allows rigidly legalistic Moshe to accept a necessary change.  Just as additional judges who see the world differently than Moshe will open new possibilities for the outcomes of Israelite legal cases, so Yitro, a leader who sees Moshe’s situation differently than himself, can open Moshe to new outcomes as well.

Miriam Gedwiser (SBM 2002) teaches Talmud and Tanakh at Ramaz Upper School and Drisha.


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The Relationship between Parshas Bo and Its Haphtorah

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Dr. Ira Bedzow

On a superficial level, the relationship between Parshas Bo and its haphtorah is clear.  In the parsha, God strikes at the heart of Egypt through the killing of Egypt’s firstborn sons, and the Jewish people cease being slaves of Pharoah and become avdei Hashem, servants of God.  Similarly, in the haphtorah, Yirmiyahu prophesies that Egypt will be struck again, and that the Jews should not fear, for God will be with them: “Fear not, my servant (avdi) Yaakov, and do not be dismayed Israel.  For I am He that will save you from afar, and your seed from the land of captivity” (Jer. 46:27). The parsha and haphtorah each emphasize that the Children of Israel are servants of God and not servants of servants (BT Kid. 22b).

Yet, when considering the haphtorah in the context of Sefer Yirmiyahu, a stark contrast emerges. While the parsha depicts the story of Egypt’s fall at the “hands” of G-d when the Jews leave Egypt to become a nation, the haphtorah speaks of Egypt’s fall at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, who had just exiled the Jews and decimated the Kingdom of Judah.

In the haphtorah, Yirmiyahu proclaims, “Proclaim it in Egypt!  Make it heard in Migdol! Make it heard in Noph and Tachpanches!”  The reason Yirmiyahu mentions these specific places is because those were the places to where the Jews fled after the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar.

Moreover, the Jews who fled to those places did so against Yirmiyahu’s warning. After the murder of Gedalia, who was appointed by Nebuchadnezzar to be governor over the remnant in the Kingdom of Judah, the Jews asked Yirmiyahu to beseech God as to what they should do.  Yirmiyahu told them to stay in the land of Israel and not to flee to Egypt. They replied that Yirmiyahu must be lying and speaking with ulterior motives.  They then decided to go to Egypt in spite of Yirmiyahu’s warning. In the parsha, it states, “The Children of Israel went and did as Hashem commanded Moshe and Aharon, so did they do” (Ex. 12:28).  Contrast this to the Sefer Yirmiyahu, where it states, “and they came to the land of Egypt, for they did not listen to the voice of Hashem. (Jer. 43:7)”

Given this context, the final verse of the haphtorah is clear, “You should not fear my servant Yaakov, says Hashem, for I am with you.  When I make a full end of all the nations where I have dispersed you, a full end of you I will not make, but I will chastise you according to justice but will not completely destroy you (alternatively: and I will not leave you innocent)” (46:28).  When they fled to Egypt, they disparaged God’s word and put their trust in the political power of Egypt to save them from Babylonian aggression.  As a result of disobeying God, Yirmiyahu says to them, “Know now for certain that you will die by the sword, by the famine and by the pestilence in the place in which you desire to go to live” (42:22).  In the haphtorah, Yirmiyahu reiterates that those who disobeyed God and went to Egypt will not be destroyed like the other nations of the world who disobey God, but they will certainly be punished for their deeds.  What the Jews should not fear is complete destruction, since they should understand that their chastisement will serve as moral instruction and rectification.

What at first glance is seen as parallel, now seems to be a contrast.  If the sages wanted a simple parallel to the Exodus, a more relevant choice for the haphtorah would have been the section in Sefer Yirmiyahu which includes, “Therefore, behold days are coming, says Hashem, when they shall no longer say, ‘As Hashem lives, Who brought up the children of Israel from the land of Egypt,’ but, ‘As Hashem lives, Who brought up and Who brought the seed of the house of Israel from the northland and from all the lands where I have driven them, and they shall dwell on their land’” (Jer. 23:5-8). The haptorah for Parshas Bo must be teaching us something different than simply the Exodus occurred and Redemption will occur again, G-d willing.

The first verse of the maftir seems to provide the theme that ties the parsha to the haphtorah – “When your child will ask in the future, ‘What is this?’ you shall say to him, ‘With a strong hand Hashem took us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery ’” (Ex. 13:14).  Redemption will not come through political machinations and convenient alliances that make the Children of Israel subservient to others.  Moreover, the expression of religious ideals and values should not serve – or stem from – political aims.  Only when the Children of Israel guard their service of God (Ex. 12:25) will Yirmiyahu’s assurance be fulfilled, “Yaakov will return and be tranquil without anyone disturbing him” (Jer. 46:27).

Ira Bedzow, Ph.D., (SBM 2003) is associate professor of medicine in the School of Medicine and director of the Biomedical Ethics & Humanities Program at New York Medical College (NYMC).

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What’s in a Name?

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Eli Finkelstein

Parshat Vaera opens up with one of the biggest textual conundrums in the entire Torah: 

וָאֵרָא אֶל־אַבְרָהָם אֶל־יִצְחָק וְאֶל־יַעֲקֹב בְּאֵ-ל שַׁ-דָּי 

וּשְׁמִי ה׳ לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם׃

I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as E-l Sh-addai, 

but I did not make Myself known to them by My name ה׳.

Hashem seemingly tells Moshe that the Tetragrammaton, the four letter name of Hashem, wasn’t revealed to the Avot. However, not only did the Torah’s narrator use the Tetragrammaton when Hashem spoke to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, but Hashem reveals that Name to both Avraham and Yaakov in His own voice! In Bereshit 15:7, Hashem tells Avram: 

אֲנִי ה׳ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים

 לָתֶת לְךָ אֶת־הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת לְרִשְׁתָּהּ׃

“I am the LORD who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans 

to assign this land to you as a possession.”

And in Bereshit, 28:13, Hashem tells Yaakov:

אֲנִי ה׳ אֱלֹקי אַבְרָהָם אָבִיךָ וֵאלֹקי יִצְחָק 

הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה שֹׁכֵב עָלֶיהָ לְךָ אֶתְּנֶנָּה וּלְזַרְעֶךָ׃

“I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring.”

How are we to understand this discrepancy? Many commentators take the approach that our pasuk is not meant to be taken literally, but rather means that the attributes of the Tetragrammaton were not truly revealed to the Avot. Rashi comments:

״לֹא הוֹדַעְתִּי״ אֵין כְּתִיב כָּאן, אֶלָּא ״לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי״, 

לֹא נִכַּרְתִּי לָהֶם בְּמִדַת אֲמִתּוּת שֶׁלִּי, 

שֶׁעָלֶיהָ נִקְרָא שְׁמִי ה’ = נֶאֱמָן לְאַמֵּת דְּבָרַי, 

שֶׁהֲרֵי הִבְטַחְתִּים וְלֹא קִיַּמְתִּי:

It is not written here לא הודעתי [My name the Lord]=I did not make known to them, rather לא נודעתי [by My name the Lord] was I not known [unto them] — 

i.e. I was not recognised by them in My attribute of truth, 

for which My name is called ה׳ = certain to substantiate My promiseד, 

for, indeed I made promises to them but did not fulfill them [during their lifetime]. 

For Rashi, the attribute associated with the Tetragrammaton is the fulfillment of Hashem’s promise, which hadn’t happened at the time of the Avot, but was on the precipice in Moshe’s time. 

The Sforno, on the other hand, believes that the Tetragrammaton represents Hashem’s breaking of the laws of nature. Not showing the Avot that name represents Hashem not breaking the laws of nature for them: 

בי”ת ב”א-ל ש-די” נמשכת לתיבת “ושמי”. 

אמר ‘ובשמי ה’ לא נודעתי להם’, 

באותה המראה, 

ולא שניתי בעדם שום טבע מטבעי הבלתי נפסדים. 

ולכן ראוי שאודיע זה לזרעם, שלא קבלו זה מאבותם, 

למען הקים אותם לי לעם, ובכן אגאלם:

The letter ב in the expression בא-ל שדי applies to the word ושמי. 

In effect this means “Via my attribute Hashem I was not known to them,”

in that mode of appearance,  

and I never changed the laws of nature on their behalf. 

Therefore, it is appropriate for me to convey this to their descendants, 

since they did not receive this from their ancestors,  

so as to establish the Children of Israel as My people, and thus I will redeem them

For Rashi and Sforno, the verse means that some aspect of Hashem was hidden from the Avot, which the time was now ripe for Hashem to reveal. Rav Shimshon Refael Hirsch takes this approach one step further: 

מצאנו אמנם את שם הוי״ה בסיפורי האבות 

והוא נישא על שפתותיהם; 

אבל כאן אין הכוונה לידיעה גרידא של השם. 

״דעת שם ה׳⁠ ⁠״ מציינת הכרה עמוקה הרבה יותר, 

שנשיגנה אולי בשלמותה רק בתום כל הנסיון ההיסטורי שלנו, 

וכפי שאומר ישעיהו על גאולה אחרונה זו: 

״לָכֵן יֵדַע עַמִּי שְׁמִי״ (ישעיהו נב, ו). 

לדעת שם ה׳⁠ ⁠ פירושו 

להבין את דרך הנהגת ה׳ ששם זה מורה עליה. 

הבנה זו לא ניתן להשיגה בשלמות אלא 

מתוך הנסיון המשותף של כל הדורות. 

אולם האבות עמדו רק בראשית התקופה!

We have however found the Tetragrammaton in the stories of the Avot, 

and it is even found on their lips; 

but here the intention is not merely to know the Name. 

The phrase “knowing the Name of Hashem” implies a deeper recognition, 

that we may truly attain fully only at the completion of our historical experience, as Isaiah says about this final redemption:

“Therefore, my nation will know My Name.” 

To know the Name of Hashem means: 

to understand the way of Hashem’s management toward which this Name points. 

This understanding can be fully attained 

only through the shared experience of all generations, 

whereas, the Avot stood only at the beginning of the era!

According to Rav Hirsch, the Tetragrammaton represents understanding of Hashem’s actions-in-the-world, something that we cannot comprehend beforehand. The Avot could not truly grasp Hashem’s promise to redeem their descendants; only Moshe and his generation could truly understand what was to happen. And so, even though the Avot were given the Tetragrammaton, how could they comprehend Hashem’s power until the time came to free the Israelites?

This interpretation underlies our relationship to Hashem through this day. When we recite the 13 Middot, we recite the Tetragrammaton twice. Rashi there explains: 

מִדַּת רַחֲמִים הִיא, 

אַחַת קֹדֶם שֶׁיֶּחֱטָא, 

וְאַחַת אַחַר שֶׁיֶּחֱטָא וְיָשׁוּב:

This is the attribute of Divine mercy. 

One alludes to Hashem having mercy before the sinner sins 

and the other after he sins and repent.

The Tetragrammaton represents our ever-changing relationship with Hashem. We connect to Hashem as the One before events occur, and also as the One after they occur. We are clouded in our understanding of the future, but in hindsight, we tend to find the Hand of Hashem acting in our world. Our relationship with God regarding the future and regarding the past, at every single moment, culminates in our knowledge of the Tetragrammaton, the Name we use to grasp onto, and connect to, Hashem. 

Eli Finkelstein (SBM ‘19) is a fourth year rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. 


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The Place Where You Stand Is Holy

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Matthew Nitzanim

And G-d said, “Do not approach; remove your shoes from your feet, for the place upon which you stand is sacred ground.” (Shemot 3:5)

Moshe is not alone in his shoe removal. Yehoshua (5:15) will later be instructed to do the same (albeit, perhaps only one of his shoes), and Chazal (Brachot 62b) derive from Moshe’s behavior that anyone entering the Mikdash should take off his or her shoes as well. What’s more, Islam, Hinduism, and other cultures have similar shoe removal traditions upon entering sacred space. What’s this about?

Chizkuni adopts a fairly straightforward reading – shoes tend to pick up dirt, and it would be disrespectful to track mud into a holy place. Malbim, though, goes a step further. Shoes carry symbolic meaning. They reflect our humanity, our need to protect ourselves, our mobility, our fear that any minute we may need to flee. To remove one’s shoes is to step out of oneself, out of the world that’s full of going and coming, into a place where we attempt to escape our very humanity.

This view of shoe removal is poignantly captured in Pirkei d’Rabi Eliezer (45), in its depiction of Yom Kippur, a day similarly marked by barefootedness. The midrash describes how our behavior on Yom Kippur, including holding ourselves back from food, drink, and footwear, makes us, just for a moment, indistinguishable from the heavenly angels. As we take off our shoes on Yom Kippur, the midrash says, we are taking off our humanity, and stepping off of this Earth and into the heavens.

Yet all this was only meant to set the backdrop for the deeply moving interpretation of R’ Chayim Tirer, better known as the Chernovitzer, in his commentary to the Torah, the Be’er Mayim Chayim. He writes: 

“The angels sought to sing, but the Holy Blessed One said: My children are drowning in the sea, and you wish to sing?” The meaning of this teaching is as follows: it is known that in each and every element of the creation there is the life force of holiness and the light of G-d. Similarly, our Sages taught: Why [was the revelation performed] through a bush? To demonstrate that there is no place devoid of G-d’s presence, not even a bush.

Therefore, when the infuriated Moshe demands of G-d, “Why hasn’t the bush burned,” by which he meant, “Why have You not destroyed the Egyptians,” G-d instructs him to remove his shoes, so as to say: This is why I revealed Myself to you through a bush, to demonstrate that there is no place devoid of My presence. Even the very physical location on Earth upon which you stand is holy space, imbued with the holiness of My presence which resides on the Earth below. In so doing, you will understand why it pains Me to destroy the Egyptians, for “there is no place devoid of My presence.”


For the Chernovitzer, taking off one’s shoes does not amount to a denial of one’s earthliness, but rather to an embrace of one’s earthliness, a reminder of the Earth that is ever below our feet. When we take off our shoes, we are not, as Pirkei d’Rabi Eliezer might have it, stepping off the Earth into heaven, but stepping out of the complacency of our comfort back onto the Earth. The irony is powerful – the sacred space is not some “other” space, differentiated from the rest of the world by rituals of entry; the sacred space is everywhere, and it was there all along, but Moshe had forgotten, just as he had forgotten his sense of compassion towards the Egyptians. Moshe is being reminded, in his first encounter with G-d, to feel the Earth beneath him, to be awoken to the realization that all the Earth, and all who dwell upon it, are imbued with holiness. 

We would be wise to remember the Chernovitzer’s message when Yom Kippur rolls around, or maybe even the next time we pray at home (or regularly in synagogues of some Mizrachi traditions) with our feet touching the ground. Maybe even give it a try this Shabbat, on your own time, in the comfort of your living room. As you take off your shoes, as you notice the discomfort of your rounded homo sapiens feet on the flat wood or tile floor, allow yourself to feel the vulnerability that is inherent to living a human life, a reality you share with all those who walk this planet. Don’t step out of this world, but into it, for no matter where or with whom you walk, “there is no place, nor person, devoid of G-d’s presence.”

Matthew Nitzanim (SBM ’18) is currently living in Jerusalem, where he is studying for Smicha at Yeshivat Machanayim, and for a Master’s in Bioethics at Bar Ilan.

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When Following Your Dream is a Dangerous Proposition

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz

Yosef’s decision to test his brothers, and by extension his father, seems premeditated and well-orchestrated. Several detailed steps are necessary to get his brothers into a situation that forces them to protect and defend Binyamin. When exactly, did Yosef concoct his plan? Was it a reaction to seeing his brothers, or years in the making?

An episode in last week’s Parsha sheds light on this question.

בראשית פרק מב:ח-ט

וַיַּכֵּר יוֹסֵף אֶת אֶחָיו

וְהֵם לֹא הִכִּרֻהוּ

 וַיִּזְכֹּר יוֹסֵף

אֵת הַחֲלֹמוֹת אֲשֶׁר חָלַם לָהֶם

וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם

מְרַגְּלִים אַתֶּם

לִרְאוֹת אֶת עֶרְוַת הָאָרֶץ בָּאתֶם

Now Joseph recognized his brothers,
but they did not recognize him.
And Joseph remembered
the dreams that he had dreamed about them, and he said to them,
“You are spies;
you have come to see the nakedness of the land.”

Yosef suddenly remembers his dreams, and therefore falsely accuses his brothers of being spies. What is the connection between his dreams and his accusation?

Ramban explains that Yosef had been planning for this encounter. He notes that Yosef, even at the height of his power, never reached out to Yaakov. He explains:

רמב”ן בראשית פרשת מקץ פרק מב

וכל שכן

אחרי ששמע חלום פרעה

שנתברר לו

כי יבאו כלם שמה

ויתקיימו כל חלומותיו

Even more so
after he (Yosef) heard Paraoh’s dream
it was clear to him
that all of them would come there
and that all his dreams would be fulfilled.

Once Yosef hears Paraoh’s dream, the wheels immediately start turning in his head. Egypt must store food; therefore, when the famine hits people from around the world will need to make their way to Egypt, including-his brothers.  When his brothers arrive, they will be desperate for food, and willing to bow to him. Yosef doesn’t reach out to his father because if he reveals himself too early, that won’t happen.

Yosef was patiently waiting for his brothers to arrive. Bereishit Rabbah 91:6 reports that Yosef had the food distributors take down the names of every day’s buyers for him so that he could discover exactly when his brothers arrived.

Ramban is saying that Yosef didn’t suddenly remember his dreams and spontaneously accuse them of being spies. Rather, he saw the culmination of eight long years of waiting and planning come to fruition.

Yosef’s ability to patiently wait for his family’s arrival is nothing short of remarkable. For eight years he willingly holds back any contact with his father and brother, knowing that he is causing immense suffering to him and them. For eight years, he tells no one of his plans, working diligently for Paraoh while having a hidden personal agenda. All because his faith in Hashem pushes him to have the fullest confidence that his dreams were divine and all part of Hashem’s plan.

Yosef’s absolute conviction that the dreams of his youth were divine is key to understanding his character. If he is wrong about the divine nature of his dreams, then he is cruelly causing his father, and brothers, intense pain and suffering. Ramban writes:

ולולי כן היה יוסף חוטא חטא גדול

לצער את אביו

ולהעמידו ימים רבים בשכול ואבל

 על שמעון ועליו,

ואף אם היה רצונו לצער את אחיו קצת

 איך לא יחמול על שיבת אביו,

אבל את הכל עשה יפה בעתו

לקיים החלומות

 כי ידע שיתקיימו באמת

Were it not for this (the divine nature of his dreams) Yosef would be committing a great sin
To cause his father pain and leave him in a state of bereavement
For his son Shimon
And even if he wants to cause his brothers some pain
How could he not care about his father’s suffering?
However, everything he did was correct
To fulfill the dreams
Because he knew they were true.

Yosef was convinced his dreams were divine. His interpretation of Paraoh’s dreams, meteoric rise to power and seeing Paraoh’s dreams unfold as he predicted could only have solidified his conviction. The Ramban thinks that he hurts the people he loves most in the world because of his steadfast belief that he is carrying out Hashem’s will.

Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz (SBM ’00) is a teacher and the Halacha/Talmud curriculum coordinator at Yeshiva University High School for Girls.

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Taking Partial Responsibility

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Shaul Epstein

After imprisoning them for three days, Tzofnat Paeneach (Joseph) presents his response to Jacob’s ten sons’ denial they are spies: one brother (Simon) must remain in jail, the rest can go home with food and but can return only if their remaining brother (Benjamin) comes with them.

At this point, the brothers appear to confess to their previous sins (Genesis 42:21):

וַיֹּאמְרוּ אִישׁ אֶל-אָחִיו: 

אֲבָל אֲשֵׁמִים אֲנַחְנוּ עַל אָחִינוּ

אֲשֶׁר רָאִינוּ צָרַת נַפְשׁוֹ בְּהִתְחַנְנוֹ אֵלֵינוּ, 

וְלֹא שָׁמָעְנוּ; 

עַל כֵּן בָּאָה אֵלֵינוּ, הַצָּרָה הַזֹּאת

And they said one to another:

‘We are verily guilty concerning our brother, 

in that we saw the distress of his soul when he besought us, 

and we would not hear; 

therefore is this distress come upon us.

At first glance, it appears that Joseph’s tactics have led the brothers to realize they were wrong to mistreat him. Midrash Hagadol praises the brothers for beginning the process of repentance by admitting their mistake. This admission starts the process that allows Egypt’s viceroy to reveal his true identity, ending this drama.

However, this admission does not actually have the necessary completeness required for teshuvah/repentance.  The brothers confess only to not having pity on Joseph after throwing him in the pit; they express no guilt at having put him there in the first place.  They regret only the secondary consequences of their actions, not the initial deed.

Indeed, the speakers of this confession are described with the same phrase (37:19-20) used to describe those who made the original suggestion to kill Joseph, namely, 

איש אל אחיו

a man to his brother

(Rashi identifies them as Shimon and Levi). The implication is that they have not fundamentally changed.

The Akeidat Yitzchak also points out that if the brothers really felt guilty and saw this situation as punishment for their actions many years previously, why didn’t they make this confession during their three days in jail? He explains that they thought of their previous transgressions only when faced by the parallel situation of having to face their father missing one of their brothers. The sin itself does not bother them, only the consequences of having to explain to their father about what happened.  

The brothers (possibly specifically Shimon and Levi) have begun to recognize their mistakes, but they need to go further in taking responsibility for their actions. 

Reuven seems to make progress in developing his sense of responsibility (42:23). 

וַיַּעַן רְאוּבֵן אֹתָם לֵאמֹר:

הֲלוֹא אָמַרְתִּי אֲלֵיכֶם לֵאמֹר

אַל-תֶּחֶטְאוּ בַיֶּלֶד

וְלֹא שְׁמַעְתֶּם;

וְגַם-דָּמוֹ, הִנֵּה נִדְרָשׁ.

And Reuben answered them, saying:

 ‘Spoke I not unto you, saying: 

Do not sin against the child; 

and you would not hear? 

therefore also, behold, his blood is required.’

The Netziv among others sees this statement as a positive step by Reuven toward helping the brothers recognize their sins. On the other hand, one can read this as Reuven simply saying “I told you so!” and washing his hands of the entire incident! In this reading, instead of working to unite the brothers and face this situation together, Reuven separates himself and does not take any responsibility for what occurred.  

Rav Elchanan Samet points out an apparent inconsistency in Reuven’s rebuke of his brothers. How can Reuven accuse them of not listening to him, when they seem to follow his suggestion to throw Joseph into the pit?  Rav Samet responds that a close reading reveals that Reuven actually made two statements to his brothers at the pit. His first statement is straightforward (37:21)


לֹא נַכֶּנּוּ נָפֶש

He said:

We must not kill him


The next verse (37:22) also starts out with a וַיֹּאמֶר/He said, with no intervening response from the brothers. 

וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם רְאוּבֵן: 

אַל תִּשְׁפְּכוּ דָם

הַשְׁלִיכוּ אֹתוֹ אֶל הַבּוֹר הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר בַּמִּדְבָּר, וְיָד אַל-תִּשְׁלְחוּ בוֹ

 לְמַעַן הַצִּיל אֹתוֹ מִיָּדָם, לַהֲשִׁיבוֹ אֶל-אָבִיו.

And Reuben said unto them: 

‘Shed no blood; 

cast him into this pit that is in the wilderness, but lay no hand upon him’

that he might deliver him out of their hand, to restore him to his father 

Rav Samet argues that throughout Tanach, when the text uses an introduction such as ויאמר to break up statements by the same speaker to the same individual(s), it means that the speaker had to reframe or restate his point owing to a silent response (ignoring the statement or a lack of understanding). In this situation, the brothers ignored his first statement and continued planning Joseph’s murder. Reuven then suggests an alternate solution. They should commit a passive murder by having him remain in the pit without water, but “lay no hand on him”. 

When reproving his brothers while standing in front of the Egyptian viceroy, Reuven ignores his own part in Joseph’s troubles. As the eldest brother, perhaps he could and should have pushed harder for his brothers to refrain from killing Joseph even passively. As Rabbanit Sharon Rimon points out, while the verses state that he had positive intentions with his second statement, Rashi quoting Midrash Rabbah says that Reuven’s thoughts were focused not on Joseph’s pain, but rather on the consequences for himself. He says to himself:

אני בכור וגדול שבכולן 

לא יתלה הסרחון אלא בי

I’m the firstborn and the oldest of them all

He will attach the blame only to me

Like his younger brothers, Reuven has difficulty in taking full responsibility for his actions. The brothers generally fail to independently grasp the gravity of their actions, focusing instead on the secondary consequences for their own reputations and relationships.  

Only Yehudah shows through his actions and words that he has learned his lesson completely. He personally takes responsibility for the welfare of Binyamin, both to Yaakov and to the viceroy of Egypt.  When the brothers are accused of stealing the viceroy’s cup (46:14), he brings them together and leads them in a full confession, admitting that they have committed a sin and expressing willingness to pay the price for it. This allows twelve tribes to reunify into one family.

Shaul Epstein (SBM 2003) currently serves as a Rabbinic Coordinator for Buckeye Kosher in Columbus OH and as the Midwest Representative for KVH Kosher.


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The Cost of a Shoe

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Dina Kritz

The heartbreaking piyyut Eileh Ezkerah, which we recite on Mussaf of Yom Kippur, tells us that a Roman emperor used the sale of Yosef as a halakhic rationale for executing the Ten Martyrs. After filling his palace with shoes, the emperor gathered the Rabbis, discussed the punishment for kidnapping with them, and then asked, “Then what of your ancestors who sold their brother…and gave him away for a pair of shoes?” [translation taken from the Artscroll Yom Kippur Machzor].

Shoes? Where do we find that Yaakov’s sons sold their brother for shoes? According to a number of midrashim, the answer is at the very beginning of this week’s haftarah, taken from Sefer Amos. G-d declares that He cannot forgive the kingdom of Yisrael for a sin they’ve committed: “על מכרם בכסף צדיק ואביון בעבור נעלים,” they have sold the righteous for silver and the destitute for a pair of shoes (2:6). Chazal suggest that the “righteous” who was sold, is in fact Yosef HaTzaddik. The rebuke to המשפחה אשר העליתי מארץ מצרים, the family I have delivered from the land of Egypt (3:1), is directed toward the nuclear family who went down to Egypt.

In her book Waiting for Rain: Reflections at the Turning of the Year, my teacher Dr. Bryna Jocheved Levy suggests that there is a link between the actions of Parshat Vayeshev and crimes committed by later generations of Jews:

The Rabbis highlighted the repercussions of the sale of Joseph in order to educate their constituency regarding the dangers of brotherly discord…Amos’s exhortation was directed toward man’s inhumanity to man in his day…These commentaries established the brothers’ criminal offense as a precedent whose impact was felt throughout the ages (161).

As familiar as I am with the story of Yosef and his brothers, I can’t help feeling somewhat baffled by the brothers’ actions. Only last week, when their sister Dina was kidnapped and raped, the brothers mourned that a member of their family had been violated, and Shimon and Levi went so far as to stage a combined rescue mission and massacre of the city of Shekhem. This week, however, their jealousy leads them to attempt to kill their own brother, and several weeks from now, if we look at Rashi while studying Parshat Vayechi (49:5), we’ll even find a theory that Shimon and Levi were once again the instigators!

Shimon and Levi, along with the rest of their brothers, allowed their fury and jealousy to cloud their feelings toward Yosef and to hurt their overall family. They hurt their brother, lied to their father, and eventually forced Yaakov essentially to choose between Binyamin’s safety and Shimon’s. Their negative feelings and cruel actions hurt the very roots of their family.

Similarly, the idolatry and cruel actions of Amos’s audience would ultimately destroy the very roots of the kingdom of Yisrael. Like Yaakov and his sons, they eventually go into exile, but unlike Yaakov and his sons, they never return as the “family” Amos speaks of.

In fact, as Eileh Ezkerah teaches us, it is possible to sense Yaakov’s sons’ actions throughout Jewish history. When we are faced with the story of mekhirat Yosef, whether in Sefer Bereishit, in references throughout Tanach and Jewish liturgy, or in our own lives, we must choose whether to abandon our brother for a pair of shoes or a striped coat, or whether to see him even through our differences.

Dina Kritz (SBM ’15) teaches 5th grade at Yeshivat He’Atid in Teaneck, NJ.

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