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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Vayigash 5776 "Back Against the Wall"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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In his noted “Shabbat Shalom Weekly” for parshas Terumah 5769, Rabbi Kalman Packouz[1] related the following story:

“I once asked Reb Noah[2] for his favorite joke. He gave a little laugh and then proceeded to tell me, "There was once a man who worked the late shift. When his shift was over, he would take a shortcut home through a graveyard. One dark, moonless night he was following the path when he fell into an open grave. Unbeknownst to him, someone had dug it during the day. For an hour he tried to find a foothold or handhold to get out of the grave. Finally, he gave up, sat in the corner and decided to wait until someone came in the morning.

A short while later another man - taking the same shortcut - plops into the grave. From his seat in the corner, the first man watches as the second man searches for a foothold or handhold to get out. Figuring he'll save the guy some time - and maybe they can get out if they work together - he gets up, walks up behind the second man. He then taps him on the shoulder from behind. Zip! Zap! The second man jumps straight out of the grave!"

“After sitting there for a few moments pondering probably one of the unfunniest jokes I have ever heard, I asked Reb Noah, "Rebbe, what's so funny about that joke?"

“Reb Noah smiled his warm smile, his eyes twinkled, and he replied, "Kalman, don't you understand? We are using so little of our potential. Imagine what we could accomplish if we actually used our potential! Isn't that funny? The Almighty gives us virtually unlimited potential and we don't use it."

In parshas Miketz, the Torah records that the brothers returned to Yaakov in Canaan and related that the Viceroy of Egypt had instructed them that they could no longer seek provisions in Egypt unless their brother Binyamin accompanied them. Yaakov was beside himself and he was insistent that Binyamin not go.

Then, as time went on, their provisions began to dwindle. Reuven boldly announced that he would guarantee the safe return of Binyamin at the cost of the lives of his two oldest sons[3]. Yaakov promptly refused his offer. It was not until Yehuda pledged that if Binyamin did not return with him he would forfeit his portion in this world and the next world that Yaakov finally relented.

Why did Yaakov only agree to send Binyamin when Yehuda pledged everything away? Did Yaakov not trust him beforehand?

At the beginning of parshas Vayigash, the moment of truth arrived. The seemingly volatile Viceroy of Egypt announced that the culprit – Binyamin - in whose sack the royal chalice was found would remain a slave, while the rest of the brothers were free to leave.

The parsha opens with the words, “Then Yehuda approached him.” It is one of the most dramatic confrontations in the Torah. Yehuda approached Yosef to plead Binyamin’s case and emphatically stated that he would not leave without Binyamin at his side. “For your servant took responsibility for the youth from my father saying, ‘if I do not bring him back to you then I will have sinned to my father for all time’.” Yehuda’s arguments pushed Yosef over the edge and Yosef revealed his identity to his brothers.

Many times we are faced with daunting and demanding situations. We struggle mightily and apply ourselves as much as we feel that we are able. But when we feel that we are no longer progressing, somewhere along the line we are forced to concede defeat so that we could invest our efforts elsewhere. When one is heavily invested in something however, he is slower to admit defeat and walk away. Even when he feels that he has exhausted his efforts and done as much as he is able, if he is truly committed, he will somehow figure out a way to try again.

Yaakov undoubtedly trusted his children and believed that they would utilize every means and invest every effort to ensure that Binyamin return home to him safely. But doing their utmost was insufficient. To Yaakov losing Binyamin was tantamount to dying himself. Thus he would not allow Binyamin to go unless he felt that someone would have that same level of commitment for Binyamin’s wellbeing as he himself would.

It was only when Yehuda put ‘everything’ on the line that Yaakov reluctantly agreed. Only then did Yaakov feel confident that Yehuda would spare no effort, in fact risk his own life, to ensure that Binyamin return home safely.

When Yosef insisted that the rest of the brothers return to Canaan in peace, the brothers might very well have reasoned that there was nothing more they could have done. They may have rationalized that the best they could do at that moment was to return to Yaakov to seek his advice before they returned and tried to formulate a plan to rescue Binyamin. But to Yehuda leaving was not an option. He had no recourse but to take up the cause immediately because to him nothing else existed besides the welfare of Binyamin. Such is the power of commitment.

On March 13, 1964, a woman named Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death near her home in the Kew Gardens section of Queens, New York. The reason her case made headlines was because of the apathy of her neighbors. The New York Times article detailing the events was entitled, “Thirty-eight who saw murder, but didn’t call the police”.

“For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched… three separate attacks in Kew Gardens. Twice the chatter and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted him and frightened him off. Each time he returned... Not one person telephoned the police during the assault.”

The case became symbolic of the cold and dehumanizing effect of urban life. It seemed that nobody cared enough to bother to call, and therefore all the neighbors remained indifferent even as a woman was being killed.

The truth about the case however, is somewhat more complicated and intriguing. Two New York City psychologists[4] subsequently conducted a series of studies to try to understand the “bystander problem.” They staged emergencies in different situations to see who would come forward to help. What they found was that the one factor above all else which predicted who/how many people would come forward was how many witnesses were present at the time.

For example, in one experiment a student who was alone in a room staged an epileptic fit. When there was only one person in the room next door listening, that person rushed to the student’s aid 85 percent of the time. But when the subjects thought there were four other people overhearing the seizure they came to the student’s aid only 31 percent of the time.

In another experiment, people who saw smoke seeping out from under a doorway would report it 75 percent of the time when they were on their own, but only 38 percent of the time when they were in a group.

The conclusion was that when people are in a group, responsibility for acting becomes diffused. Everyone assumes that someone else will act, and if no one else does they assume that it must not really be a serious problem.

Thus, in the case of Kitty Genovese it wasn’t that no one called despite the fact that thirty-eight people heard her screams; it’s that no one called because thirty-eight people heard her screams. Had she been attacked on a lonely street and only one person would have seen, the story may have ended differently.

There is an old quip which says that the Israeli army always fights with incredible determination and gusto because they have “General Aleph Bais”. Aleph Bais, the first two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, is an acronym for the words, “Ayn b’rayra - there is no choice!” In other words, the Israelis know against whom they are fighting, and that they are always fighting defensive wars. Surrender is simply not an option; they have no recourse but to fight until the end.

There is simply no comparison between the efforts invested by one who is committed than by one who is uncommitted. One of the shortcomings of our world is that there is a general lack of commitment to ideals and values. Any successful marriage requires a great degree of patience, tolerance, and understanding. But above all there must be a sense of commitment to ensure that those other vital characteristics can be fostered.

Our personal level of Service to G-d is also bound to our level of commitment. Those aspects of Judaism to which we are not committed often fall by the wayside as soon as the invariable obstacles surface. It is only when we are fully committed that we oblige ourselves to traverse all impediments to ensure that we maintain our obligations.

The brothers all realized the severity of what was transpiring but it was only Yehuda who stepped forward to protect Binyamin because he had committed himself to his cause.

We all have far more potential and abilities than we care to believe. But we will never realize our latent greatness unless we are ready to commit ourselves to be all that we can be. If we never step forward, the tragic joke will be on us!

“Then Yehuda approached him”

“For your servant took responsibility for the youth”

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[1] Rabbi Packouz served for 10 years as executive director of Aish HaTorah international operations, and is currently head of the Miami office of Aish HaTorah's worldwide programs.

[2] Rabbi Noah Weinberg zt’l, founder of Aish HaTorah

[3] Chasam Sofer explains that Reuven’s offer was that if he did not bring Binyamin back, not that his oldest two sons would literally die, but that they would forfeit their entitled portion in Eretz Yisroel, the “land of the living”.

[4] Latane and Darley; quoted by Malcom Gladwell in “The Tipping Point”

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