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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Vayechi 5773 "The Light in the Tunnel"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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Rav Shmelke of Nikolsberg once approached his Rebbe, Rav Dov Ber, the great Maggid of Mezhritch, with the following question: The Mishna[1] states that one must bless G-d for the bad just as he blesses G-d for the good. How does one reach such a level of belief in G-d? The Maggid did not reply but instructed Rav Shmelke to visit his disciple, Rav Zushya, to ask him for an explanation.

Rav Zushya lived in abject poverty. Yet when Rav Shmelke approached Rav Zushya and explained to him that the Maggid had sent him, Rav Zushya was surprised. “I cannot comprehend why the Maggid sent you to me. What do I know about blessing G-d for the ‘bad’, I have all I need in life and don’t know from bad!” Having received his answer, Rav Shmelke turned around and went home.

The family stands around in excitement. Mr. Kleineman, an eighty-six year old Holocaust survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, Auschwitz, and Bergen Blesen, eagerly awaits the entrance of his grandchildren. His only son, Dovid, who was born when Mr. Kleinman was well into his fifties, is hosting a very special occasion. He is making three brissim! After many childless years of marriage, Dovid and his wife were blessed with healthy triplets.

Mr. Kleinman cannot contain his emotions; tears trickle down his pain-ridden cheeks as the babies enter and the Mohel begins the ritual. Then a deadly silence fills the room as everyone leans over to hear the names of the babies. A gasp is heard and Mr. Kleinman practically faints. His new grandsons are named “Auschwitz Yehuda”, “Treblinka Moshe”, and “Shloime Warsaw Ghetto”.

To any rational person, this story sounds absurd. Mr. Kleinman may have been a survivor and surely wanted his children to preserve the memories of his horrific ordeals. However, there is no way he would want his children to be named after the infamous horrors he endured. Who in their right mind would name their child such tragic and painful names?

Actually, there was someone in the Torah who did just that - Binyamin, the son of Yaakov Avinu. The Torah[2] relates that when Yosef first saw his brother Binyamin after so many years he was overwhelmed. “His compassion for his brother had been stirred and he wanted to weep; so he went into the room and wept there.”

Rashi records the conversation that ensued between Yosef and Binyamin that had so moved Yosef: “Yosef asked Binyamin, “Do you have a brother from your mother?” He replied, “I had a brother but I do not know where he is” “Do you have sons?” Binyamin replied, “I have ten sons.” Yosef said to him, “What are their names?” He said to him, “Bela, Becher, etc.” Yosef said to him, “What is the nature of these names?” He said to him, “They are all (allusions) to my brother and the troubles he encountered. ‘Bela’ because he was swallowed up among the nations; ‘Becher’ because he was the firstborn of his mother; ‘Ashbel’ because G-d made him a captive; ‘Gera’ because he sojourned in an inn; ‘Na’aman’ because he was exceedingly pleasant; ‘Echi’ and ‘Rosh’ because he was my brother and he was my chief; ‘Muppim’ because he studied from the mouth of my father; ‘Chupim’ because he was not able to attend my wedding nor was I present at his wedding; ‘Ard’ because he descended among the nations…Immediately (when Yosef heard the names) his compassion was stirred.”

Five of Binyamin’s ten sons were named after tragic occurrences in Yosef’s life. How could Binyamin have given his children such morbid names?

When Yaakov Avinu realized that his days were numbered he summoned his holy sons to receive his final blessing. The Torah records the blessings of Yaakov which helped define the individualization of each tribe. Each tribe would fuse different strengths into the collective whole of Klal Yisroel “E Pluribus Unum - out of many (different tribes) emerged one”, i.e. a united force called Yisroel.

After recording each tribe’s individual blessing the Torah leaves a space to separate each one and to demonstrate the uniqueness of each. After the Torah lists the blessing of Binyamin however, the Torah does not leave a space. In fact, following the blessing of Binyamin there is no space until the end of Chumash Bereishis, a few verses later.

Following Binyamin’s blessing the Torah describes Yaakov Avinu’s passing and the tremendous funeral rite that was accorded to him. Then, the Torah relates that Yosef reassured the brothers that he would protect them and not exact vengeance against them. Finally, the Chumash concludes with the Torah relating about Yosef’s passing and burial. With Yosef’s passing Chumash Bereishis - the genesis and foundation of Klal Yisroel - comes to a close, and sets the stage for the ensuing Egyptian exile.

A space in the Torah always connotes a pause. If the Torah does not leave a space between Binyamin’s blessing and the subsequent events until the end of the parsha it seems that they are inextricably bound. With the death of Yaakov - the venerable spiritual leader of Egypt, and the death of Yosef - the enabling force of Egypt, the exile began to take root. If the Torah connects the blessing of Binyamin with the death of Yaakov and Yosef it must be demonstrating that there is a connection between Binyamin’s blessing and the onset of the exile. It is therefore logical to assume that somehow in the blessing of Binyamin lies the key to the survival of the Jewish people in the Egyptian exile and, consequently, all future exiles.

At first glance, Binyamin’s blessing seems terse and unimpressive. (49:27) “Binyamin is a wolf who will maul; in the morning he will devour spoils and in the evening he will distribute plunder.”

Rashi explains that the morning is a metaphor for the time when Klal Yisroel shines with glory, such as at the time when Saul, a descendant of Binyamin, was crowned the first monarch of Klal Yisroel. The evening is a metaphor for when the sun of the nation’s glory has set, after the destruction of the first Bais Hamikdash at the behest of Nebuchadnezzar. At that time, Mordechai and Esther - also descendants of Binyamin - guided the Jews to victory against Haman, during the Purim saga.

The story of Purim demonstrates the resiliency, unyielding faith, and spiritual strength of Binyamin, as manifested in the heroic efforts of Mordechai and Esther.

Rabbi Mordechai Rogov zt’l[3] explains that this strength is the foundation of our national survival: “And so is the ability and strength of the Jewish nation who possess the great vitality of Binyamin. It has been nearly two thousand years since the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash and we are still wandering in exile, bearing the oppression and brutality of every nation at whose mercy we have fallen. We have so many unanswered questions and contradictions about the ways of G-d yet we only have one response, “G-d is righteous in all his ways.” We may not understand but we still believe.”

This ability to tenaciously cling to our beliefs and ideals is the contribution of Binyamin. It is particularly Binyamin who infuses resiliency and courage into Klal Yisroel. Binyamin has the ability to rouse the troops from the deluge of despair, to counterattack with vim and vigor.

After the vile decrees of Haman were proclaimed the Jews sunk into the worst national depression they had ever known since the inception of their nationhood. Yet, Mordechai and Esther were able to awaken them, bringing about a wave of repentance which was the spiritual conduit that precipitated the downfall of Haman.

We can postulate why Binyamin named his children as he did, but we would be remiss if we do not notice that it is an inherent part of his genetic makeup. In relating the tragic story of Binyamin’s birth[4] the Torah relates that as Rochel felt her soul departing, she named him, ‘Ben Oni- the son of my pain’. Yaakov then revised the name to the more benign, ‘Binyamin’ (“the son of my right”). How could Rochel name her son after her anguish and tragedy?

While it is true that normally it is inappropriate for one to name a child after a tragedy, it seems that this is not the case with Rochel and her descendants. Rochel embodies and personifies resilience. Rochel and her progeny have an innate ability to thrive in the darkest and most bleak situations. Where people plunge into despair, Rochel and her descendants rise to the occasion. The prophet Jeremiah expressed this with his famous prophecy, “A voice on high is heard; Rochel is crying for her children, she refuses to be consoled.” ‘There is hope’, proclaims G-d to Rochel, ‘because of your tears and unyielding strength’.

She names her own son ‘Ben-Oni’ and that son names five of his children after the tragic loss of his older brother. To Rochel the pain and anguish of life do not lead to despair, but rather demand determination to rise to the occasion.

The Gemara[5] notes that the ‘hint’ to Esther in the Torah can be found in the verse[6] “And I will conceal (“haster aster”) my face from you on that day” referring to G-d’s concealment in exile, as it were.

The Gemarah then says that Mordechai too is alluded to in the Torah in the Targum[7] which translates one of the spices used in making the Temple incense as ‘mayra dachya’ (‘mayra’ literally means bitter). At the time of Purium when G-d’s Providence was concealed and the unfolding events appeared bitter, Mordechai and Esther became the hero and heroine. They alone viewed the strange occurrences as a Divine tapestry of events orchestrating the salvation of Klal Yisroel, and were able to infuse confidence into the souls of every Jew.

Binyamin is ready to attack in the dark of night and he will not be intimidated! It is that strength that has guided and preserved Klal Yisroel through two millennia of exile. We refuse to be deterred and we will not allow anyone or any ideology to obscure our quest to be the Torah Nation. Our matriarch Rochel, was the paragon of this ideal.

To Rochel the light is not only at the end of the tunnel. Rochel sees the light while she is still in the tunnel.

“Binyamin is a wolf who will maul”

“Rochel is crying for her children”

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[1] Berachos 9:1

[2] Parshas Vayigash 47:30

[3] Ateres Mordechai

[4] Bereishis 35:18

[5] Chullin 139b

[6] Devorim 31:18

[7] Shemos 30:23

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