Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

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

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            Recently, I went to a shiva house after a truly tragic loss.  The father of the departed, whom I'm honored to call friend, made a profound observation.  He recounted two ideas he had heard from Rabbi Adin Steinzaltz, one of modern Judaism's great thinkers.  Rabbi Steinzaltz once told my friend's father that it was important to always be happy.  However, the same great rabbi also explained the famous Yiddish expression 'shver tzu zein a Yid (It's hard to be a Jew).'  He expounded that the difficulty of being Jewish is that as Jews we are always on call.  The Torah and our law never allow for time off or time outs.  This constant spiritual pressure makes life hard.  So, my friend, the mourner, asks how can we reconcile perpetual joy with perpetual pressure?  He then presented a marvelous metaphor.  When building a baseball team (We share an affection for the game.), who are the players that you want on your team?  You want players who relish (especially at Heinz Field) having the bat in their hands when the game is on the line.  Everybody wants teammates who love to step to the plate with the bases loaded and two men out.  That's how we Jews should be.  We should love the stress of constant Torah requirements and live to face life's tribulations.  This is exactly what happens at the beginning of this week's Torah reading.

            We begin our parsha with Yehuda confronting his brother Yosef, who continues to pose as an Egyptian leader.  Yehuda displays tremendous courage by aggressively challenging Yosef's decision to incarcerate Binyamin for the theft of his chalice.  The verse then reports that Yosef could no longer restrain himself.  Yosef is traditionally categorized as the zadik or righteous individual because of his ability to display restraint (Hebrew:  ipuk).  The most famous example of this self-control, of course, is his rejection of his boss' wife.  But the verse (Genesis 43:31) has already recorded that Yosef displayed this Herculean control over himself in the presence of his brothers, even the beloved Binyamin.  However, here we are told that in the face of Yehuda, soon to be dubbed the lion, Yosef is unable to maintain his self-discipline.  At this critical moment Yehuda emerges as the dominant brother.  What does Yehuda have that allows him to claim the scepter, and even impress the normally unflappable Yosef?

            I believe that the answer to that question is found in a comment by the Sfat Emet (R. Yeudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Gur, 1838-1906) at the beginning of this week's Torah reading.  This great Chassidic Rebbe explains that the first word in our parsha, vayigash (and he approached or confronted), is very significant.  The verse says that he approached towards him, without specifying to whom he drew near.  So, the Rebbe goes through all the options.  First of all the Rebbe suggests that he approached God.  In the midst of his confrontation with Yosef, Yehuda moves toward God in supplication for the success of his endeavor.  What gives the Yehuda the right to prevail upon God to take up his case?  Yehuda's name tells the tale.  His name means the one who acknowledges and appreciates all that is done on his behalf.  This ability to show gratitude is critical to a successful spiritual existence.  He is an intimate of God because of this trait.  He has great strength because even in this moment of crisis and (according to the Rebbe) God's concealment (hester panim), he continues to nullify his needs in acknowledgment that all comes from our Creator.  He can sublimate his safety to defend his brother because he always intuits God's presence, power and pathos. 

            Next, he drew near to himself.  He reached deep into his innermost psyche to discover his own motivations.  He wanted to determine whether or not he was sincere and genuine in his defense of Binyamin.  Often we act out of personal motives, while claiming altruistic goals.  He gratefully concluded that his intentions were earnest and heartfelt.  Then he was ready for step three.

            Finally, he was ready to advance upon Yosef.  There's a Midrash that at this moment all of Egypt trembled before the power of Yehuda.  Well, without taking that point of view literally, the very sensitive and perceptive Yosef felt Yehuda's strength, but it wasn't military or political.  It was enormous mystical and moral might.  The ethical energy and spiritual superiority of Yehuda overwhelms the usual self control of Yosef.  He can no longer display ipuk; the fa├žade crumbles for all to see the Yosef hidden within.  With all of his defenses breached, he weeps so demonstratively that all Egypt notices.  I believe that at that moment all witnesses saw the supremacy of Yehuda.

            Generally, that zadik attribute of ipuk (restraint) is our goal.  In most circumstances, we apply the dictum from Pirkei Avot:  Who is the great warrior?  One who conquers his inclination (Ethics of the Fathers, 4:1).   Exhibiting zadik-like self-possession is perfect for business transactions, social interactions and personal behavior.  However, once in a great while an unusual circumstance arises in which holding it all in, isn't appropriate.  It's at that crucial instance that we require the attribute of Yehuda to deal with the situation. 

            Yehuda, in his guise as King David, and Yosef, in his Ephraim incarnation, are the major players in Jewish history.  Yehoshua from Ephraim and Calev from Yehuda are the only survivors of the desert.  When the nation splits into two kingdoms, one is Judea under David's heirs and one is Israel under Ephraim's successors.  And in the future our Sages relate there will be two Messiahs, one from the House of David one from Yosef's heirs, the House of Ephraim.  They continually vie, but we need them both.  Yehuda is the valiant lion (Genesis 49:9), and Yosef is the powerful and steadfast ox (Deuteronomy 33:17).

            I believe that normal life experiences usually demand the self control or ipuk so wonderfully portrayed by the mature Yosef, but everyone encounters situations which require us to be lions.  So, we must learn from both these amazing role models and their outstanding character traits.  However, there is nothing normal about Jewish history, therefore it is Yehuda and his leonine aspect whom we await to bring ultimate salvation.                          


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