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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Vayeshev/Chanukah 5773 "You Never Know"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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As a five-year-old child in a Polish village, Laizer Halberstam violated an unwritten rule by befriending a young Polish gentile neighbor. The two of them swapped stamps, coins, and one fateful day, they decided to swap prayers. Their parents would have been mortified had they known, but the two friends kept it a secret. Laizer taught his Polish friend a Jewish prayer and the friend taught Laizer a Christian prayer.

Ten years later, Laizer was fleeing the Nazis, traveling across Europe disguised as a Christian. One day a Nazi officer boarded a train that Laizer was on and demanded to see everyone’s documents. Laizer had forged document, which had helped him get this far, but for some reason this Nazis suspicions were aroused. The Nazi looked at him contemptuously, “Really? You say you are a good Christian? Well then why don’t you recite for me a Christian prayer that every good Christian knows?” Fortuitously, the prayer he was asked to recite was the same prayer Laizer had been taught by his Polish friend ten years earlier. Thanks to his good memory, he was able to recite it flawlessly, to the Nazis satisfaction[2].

The brothers of Yosef ruled that according to Jewish law, Yosef was deserving of death! By relating his dreams, Yosef boldly predicted that he would become the reigning monarch over the family. The tribes viewed the dreams as an affront and open challenge to the future monarchy of Yehuda.

The punishment for challenging the monarchy of a Jewish king is death. Therefore, as a valid judicial court they decided that it was their responsibility to impose the death penalty upon Yosef. The verse relates that Reuven intervened and sought to save Yosef from their clutches. He advised them to cast Yosef into a nearby pit and leave him to his fate. Not realizing that there were venomous snakes and scorpions in the pit Reuven silently hoped to deter the brothers long enough so that he could return to the pit and bring Yosef home after the shevotim had left.

Yalkut Shimoni[3] makes a fascinating observation: The Torah teaches us appropriate conduct that when one performs a mitzvah he should do so with pure motives and a happy heart. Had Reuven realized that G-d would record in the Torah that he had sought to save Yosef, he would have carried Yosef on his shoulders and personally delivered him safely to Yaakov.

The Medrash continues, that if Aharon knew that the Torah would record that he went out to the desert of Egypt while the Jews were still enslaved there, in order to greet his brother Moshe who was returning from Midyan, he would have come to greet Moshe with drums and tremendous fanfare. Finally, if Boaz knew that the Prophet[4] would describe the provisions he provided for Rus, he would have given her delicacies and foods fit for aristocracy. The Medrash concludes that today we do not have a prophet to record our actions, so who does so? Eliyahu Hanavi and Moshiach, and G-d seals it.

What is the meaning of this Medrash? Is it possible to think that Reuven, Aharon, and Boaz were selfishly motivated and driven by fanfare and honor? These were three of the most distinguished personalities in Klal Yisroel whose righteousness is legendary and stands as a model for us. It is foolish to entertain the thought that these great men acted out of selfish motives.

Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky zt’l offers the following insight: When Reuven went to save Yosef he thought he was merely saving his younger brother from harm. He had no way of realizing the far-reaching implications and consequences of his actions. By saving Yosef, Reuven prevented an ordeal that would have had catastrophic consequences. Without Yosef the whole future of Klal Yisroel would be called into question. On the other hand, had Reuven finished the job and brought Yosef safely back to Yaakov immediately, the whole tragedy of Yosef’s descent to Mitzrayim and consequently the descent of Yaakov and all of Klal Yisroel to Mitzrayim, could have been averted.

When Aharon came out to greet Moshe he had no way of realizing that he was giving encouragement to Moshe to fulfill his mission which culminated with the exodus from Egypt en masse. Similarly, Boaz had no way of realizing that his involvement with Rus was laying the foundation for the eventual birth of Moshiach. It was their union that produced Dovid Hamelech and ultimately his descendant, Moshiach.

Had they realized the extent of the significance of what they were engaged in they would have left no stone unturned until they completed their mission in the most glamorous manner possible.

The Medrash concludes with a poignant message for us. Today Eliyahu and Moshiach record our actions. This means that our actions, which we wave off with the back of our hand as insignificant and worthless, may actually be the foundations and the progenitors for the future redemption. If we knew that Moshiach was recording our actions we would do them with greater alacrity, precision, devotion, and enthusiasm.

The Gemara Shabbos[5], in its discussion about the holiday and laws of Chanukah, quotes two statements in the name of Rav Kahana. The first is that one who lights a Menorah more than twenty cubits off the ground has not fulfilled his obligation. The Gemara explains that one normally does not strain his eyes to look above twenty cubits. The purpose of the Chanukah lights is to publicize the miracle and, therefore, if the candles are beyond the range of the common person’s view the mitzvah has not been fulfilled.

The second statement is based on the verse which states that Reuven suggested to his brothers that they cast Yosef into an empty pit that had no water. Rav Kahana deduces from the superfluous words “the pit was empty - it had no water” to mean that although it was devoid of water it was full of scorpions and snakes.

What is the connection between these two seemingly unrelated concepts?[6]

My Rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, explained that there is an additional connection between the story of Yosef and Reuven and Chanukah, based on the aforementioned Medrash. In a certain sense Reuven came up short. He did not realize the greatness of the moment and didn’t take advantage of his opportunity. The heroic epic of Chanukah is the ‘antidote’ for Reuven’s ‘mistake’. Chanukah is a lesson in seizing the moment and rising to the occasion. The Syrian-Greeks were an implacable foe with powerful well-trained armies fighting against a comparatively laughable force of Maccabees.

In the third battle of Emmaus, a Greek force of 40,000 infantry and 7,000 cavalry went out to fight a paltry 7,000 Jews who were poorly equipped and untrained fighters. In the fourth battle at Bais Zur, Antiochus dispatched an army of 60,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry to fight a Jewish force of 10,000. The Jews were outflanked and hopelessly outnumbered. It’s analogous to Yeshiva students closing their volumes of Gemarah and bonding together to battle the Syrian army. Yet, the Chasmonaim prevailed.

When he was a Rabbi in Miami Beach, Rabbi Wein had the distinct privilege of being the chauffeur of the great Ponovezher Rav, Rabbi Shlomo Kahaneman zt’l. Rav Kaheneman would occasionally come to Miami to solicit funds for his renowned Yeshiva.

On one occasion, the Rav related to Rabbi Wein the following story: Once, the Chofetz Chaim was collecting for a particular charity and he arrived at the home of a wealthy individual. The Chofetz Chaim explained to the man the worthiness and importance of his cause, but the wealthy man was unmoved. “I’m sorry, Rebbe. But things are tight right now. Maybe in a few months it will be easier for me to give. But at the moment I cannot help you. ” The Chofetz Chaim was forced to move on.

World War I broke out and the world changed forever. In 1919, soon after the Great War ended, the Chofetz Chaim walked into a shul where many refugees were sleeping on benches. The Chofetz Chaim noticed that wealthy man sitting among the other beggars and he realized that the man had lost his wealth and was now reduced to a pauper. The Chofetz Chaim quickly looked away so as not to embarrass the man. However, the man noticed the Chofetz Chaim and approached him. The man asked the Chofetz Chaim if he recognized him. When the Chofetz Chaim admitted that he did, the man said, “Rebbe, ich hub a taynah oiyf dir (Rebbe, I have a complaint against you).” The Chofetz Chaim looked at him incredulously, “You have a complaint against me?” The man emphatically replied, “Rebbe, when I had the money you should have grabbed it out of my hands! Now I have nothing, not even the mitzvah.”

The Ponovezher Rav looked at Rabbi Wein and concluded with a twinkle in his eye, “Rabbi Wein, there will be times when you will need to rip the money out of their hands!”

G-d sends us unlimited opportunities every day. The question is, what do we do with those opportunities? Reuven, Aharon, and Boaz, great as they were, were somewhat remiss because they did not adequately seize the moment. The Chashmonaim however, stood poised for battle with nothing other than prayer and belief in G-d. They acted upon their inner feelings of religious zeal and did not allow their passion to fizzle and fade.

Noted psychologist Erik Erikson[7] described old age as the time when one must overcome the crisis of ‘integrity versus despair’. Tragically, many adults reach their golden years with deep feelings of regret and despair. “If only I would have” and “Why didn’t I” abound. Healthy senescence entails a feeling of integrity, stemming from an inner feeling of accomplishment for a life lived with meaning and purpose; a life which filled the world with a little more light.

“If only Reuven had known…”

“If only we would know… “

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[1] The following is excerpted from my book “STAM TORAH: Perspectives and Reflections on Chanukah and Purim”. [It was originally Stam Torah for parshas Vayeshev 5766.]

[2] Story related by Rabbi Laizer’s daughter, Yitta Halberstam, in her introduction to “Small Miracles of the Holocaust”

[3] Vayikrah Rabbah, 34:8

[4] Shmuel who recorded Megillas Rus

[5] 23a

[6] [Many commentators explain that the Gemarah is reinforcing its ruling that one may not light a Menorah more than twenty cubits high. It is proving that the naked eye does not focus on sights that are more than a distance of twenty cubits. If Reuven wanted to save Yosef why did he cast him in a pit full of venomous snakes? We must conclude that because the pit must have been more than twenty cubits deep, Reuven was unaware of what was at the bottom.]

[7] Eriskon is most famous for his theory that different stages of life present a person with different ‘crises’ that he must traverse

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