Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            There's a famous Yiddish expression 'man plans, God laughs (Mentsch tracht, Gott lacht.)'  This week's parsha seems a prime example of that proverb.  Everyone seems to have one plan and something else happens.  It starts with Ya'akov, who wants to live in tranquility and immediately the friction between the brothers begins.  Yosef wants to share the good news of his dreams, and becomes public enemy number one.  Ya'akov thinks that he is watching over the matter while the animosities just continue to grow and fester.  Reuvain believes that he is going to bring Yosef home safely, only to find that he has been sold into slavery.  The brothers believe that they've seen the last of Yosef only to make him more powerful than ever, and allow the fulfillment of his grandiose dreams.  Nothing turns out according to the perpetrators design.  It's all so humbling, but I don't think we ever learn the lesson.

            The story in which our Sages develop this idea is the very complex tale of Yehuda and the development of his dysfunctional family, which, of course, spawns Mashiach.  Yehuda's attempts to marry off his sons and grow a dynasty seem disastrous.  His eldest, Er, marries Tamar and then dies mysteriously.  The second son, Onan, refuses to impregnate her, apparently because the offspring would be called after Er.  This is the Torah's first example of yibum or levirate marriage, an attempt to continue a family name and legacy through a brother.  Onan also dies, probably as a punishment.  Yehuda, now seems afraid to marry her to his youngest son, Shelah, lest he also die.  Yehuda's stated plan is to wait for Shelah to grow older and then to mate him to Tamar.  Tamar, who really wants to be part of the Yehuda clan, hatches her own plan.  By disguising herself as a prostitute, she becomes pregnant through an unsuspecting Yehuda.  When Yehuda proceeds to condemn her to death for a complicated form of adultery (she's married to the family.), she reveals the evidence of paternity.  At full term she gives birth to Peretz and Zerach.  Peretz eventually begets King David and the Messianic lineage. 

            Before I continue the thread of our tale, allow me a short digression.  Peretz and Zerach represent another instance of a first born being supplanted by a younger brother.  This type of situation tends to not turn out so well.  Esav and his grandson Amalek become Israel's greatest threat and enemy.  In the case of the spurned Zerach, his offspring is the infamous Achan who after the destruction of Jericho stole from the plunder designated for destruction, which led to the nation's defeat at the battle for Ai.  We proudly discuss the success of the chosen child, but sadly ignore the fate of the rejected.

            But back to our task.  In Midrash Raba (Genesis 85:1) our Sages describe the scene as the events of Yosef's kidnapping unfold.  They postulate that Reuvain put on sackcloth and fasted over the fate of his lost brother, whom he had meant to save.  The brothers were busy negotiating an acceptable price for their brother turned commodity.  However, our Sages believe that God was involved with creating the light from which would emerge the Mashiach.  In other words, our actions down here are significant, but in ways we've never imagined.  The impressment of Yosef into slavery set the stage for the exodus saga.  While the machinations of Yehuda and Tamar were so much more than a family soap opera; they sowed the seeds of our eventual redemption.  It's fascinating that the Midrash (Breishit Raba 51:1) mentions a custom I've never observed.  It suggests that every Shabbat people should read the story of Lot and his daughters.  Here's a story which superficially is horrendous, a tale of incest.  But eventually Ruth and David emerge from this mess.  The message is clear:  some very unsavory circumstance can result in marvelous outcomes.  I think the Midrash wants us to accept the fact that no matter how bad our work week may have been, our Shabbat can still be satisfying and uplifting.  Maybe the bad weeks can produce the best Shabbatot.

            What changes a miserable turn of events into a sparkling new dawn?   What is needed to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear?  A straight forward reading of our Midrash about the fallout from Yosef's sale, seems to teach that things turn out well because God is pulling strings.  We're doing our own thing while God is planting the seeds of salvation.  I'm not enamored of that approach.  Even though I do believe in Hashgachah Pratit or God's direct supervision of certain events, I think that we must look harder for an answer to this paragraph's question.  Because this point of view makes us irrelevant.  If God brings about the happy ending, what are our efforts worth?

            Peretz becomes the progenitor of the Davidic dynasty because he observes and emulates the great courage and responsibility of his father, Yehuda.  Ruth evolves into the grand mother of David and Mashiach by great effort to fulfill the principles of her adopted faith.  To just say that God did it, denigrates their sacrifices and exertions.  Are the blood, sweat and tears of our forebears immaterial to the progress of Jewish destiny?

            I don't think so.  I believe that God's plan has an infinite number of possible pathways.  We have a major influence in which route is taken.  And that influence is based upon a combination of action and intention.  The Talmud (Horiyot 10b) states a sin done for an admirable purpose can be greater than a mitzvah done for nefarious goals.  The great example usually cited for this principle is the deed of Tamar.  In other words the most important ingredient of this chulent called Jewish History is good intentions, sprinkled liberally on our actions.

            Because we know that often things won't turn out the way we expected, is not a good reason for inaction.  We must be active participants in Jewish destiny because it's the right thing to do, not because we know what will happen.  We do what our souls deem right, because it's right.  God will let the chips fall where they should.                


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