Thursday, January 7, 2021







Dedicated l’refuah shelimah for נטע יצחק בן רחל


          A guest once arrived in Kotzk to the court of the Kotzker Rebbe. When he introduced himself to the rebbe, the rebbe asked him why he had come. The man explained that he had come to find G-d. The rebbe replied that it was a shame that he had traveled all the way to Kotzk to find G-d, when G-d is to be found everywhere. When the man then asked the rebbe why he should have come, the rebbe replied, “To find and discover yourself!” 


          Chumash Shemos details the inhumane oppression that the Egyptians imposed upon the nascent Jewish nation. The Gemara[2] relates that Klal Yisroel was forced to build on quicksand. As soon as the buildings began to have some structure, they collapsed, and the purposelessness construction had to begin again.

          Pharaoh seems so foolish. The ancient Egyptians are known for their incredible construction feats. The great pyramids remain one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Why would Pharaoh have the Jewish slaves working for a futile cause? Imagine how much more they could have accomplished from the Jewish labor?

          Even the ruthless Nazis gained tremendously from their prisoners. The German companies of I.G. Farben, Krupp and others made billions of marks worth of profits from the slave laborers. Why didn’t Pharaoh do the same?

          Rav Avrohom Pam explained that whereas the German companies were motivated by greed, Pharaoh was motivated by a desire to break the Jewish spirit which would then undermine the Jewish population explosion. 

          A person must always feel he is accomplishing. We often don’t recognize or give ourselves credit for our growth. If one stares at a tree for three weeks, he may not notice any significant growth. However, if he returns a few months later, he will see that the tree has grown significantly. The Torah[3] compares man to a tree. A person too, may not recognize his own growth or accomplishments. But that doesn’t negate the fact that the subtle growth is occurring.

          Rav Pam related that there was a prisoner in Communist Russia who was sentenced to twenty-five years of hard labor in Siberia. He had to push a large wheel in a circle all day long. It was monotonous and exhausting. When he asked what he was accomplishing, he was told that the wheel was attached to a mill outside his jail cell, which helped ground wheat.  Once he heard that the prisoner would conjure mental images which kept him going throughout the day. He would think of a mother slicing bread for her young children, bread produced from the wheat he helped produce. He would think of an old lonely woman eating a hot bowl of oatmeal produced from the wheat he helped create. Those images kept him going throughout his painful days of servitude.   

          Somehow, he survived the grueling ordeal and after 25 years was finally freed. On the day of liberation, he asked the commanding officer if he could see the mill he had turned for so many years. At first, the officer looked at him quizzically. Then he burst into laughter. He took him to the next room where he showed him that the pole was attached to nothing. At that moment, the former prisoner came to the shocking revelation that for 25 years he had been accomplishing absolutely nothing. The grief was overwhelming, and the man had a heart attack and died.[4]

          Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch notes that the words "צמח- growth" and "שמח- happy" are connected. Inner happiness results from a feeling of growth and accomplishment. It’s important to always be growing and it’s important for a person to recognize his own growth, subtle as it may be.

          A bochur once approached Rav Meir Stern[5] and said that he wanted to learn additional things from what they were learning in yeshiva, because he didn’t feel like he was growing in his learning. Rav Stern told him that he’s like the young boy who complains to his parents that he’s so short and never grows. Meanwhile when his grandparents come for Yom Tov every six months, they can’t get over how much he has grown.

          The wickedness of Pharaoh was that he ensured his hapless slaves didn’t even have the satisfaction of accomplishment. The pain of working so hard for absolutely no reason is overwhelmingly defeating. There is hardly any worse fate than to devote one’s entire being into a worthless endeavor.



          When the Torah describes creation, it repeatedly says, “Hashem saw that it was good”. The only exception was regarding the creation of man. G-d proclaimed “Let us make man… G-d created man in His image”[6]. However, G-d never stated that man was good.

          Unlike the rest of creation, man was not created 'good', in the sense that he was not created as a complete and finished entity. G-d endowed a person with the potential to ‘become good’, but it requires his investment and efforts.

            The Ba’al Shem Tov explained that when G-d proclaimed, “Let us make man”, He was speaking to man himself[7]. G-d provides us with body and soul, but it’s up to us to develop those gifts and to use them wisely.

          Each morning, before reciting Kerias Shema in Shacharis, we recount what happens in the celestial heavens as the angels gather to sing to Hashem: “V'chulom mikablim alayhem ol malchus shamayim zeh mizeh- They all accept upon themselves the yoke of heaven from one another”. What is the ‘yoke of heaven’ which angels are subjected to?

          On the one hand angels do not possess an evil inclination. But on the other hand, that means that they are spiritually stagnant. That stagnancy is the angels’ yoke of heaven. It is unable to fail, but that means it is unable to grow either. This is contrast with a human whose life is one struggle after another. Mesillas Yesharim writes that every component of life and every life situation is another test. Man has no rest from the internal and external struggles that comprise his life. But that also means that man has the ability to transform and transcend, to become G-dly and holy. The angels look at man and see his ability to grow spiritually and they are jealous. Yet, they accept it with love and serve Hashem as they are commanded.[8]

          While they were enslaved in Egypt, the nascent Jewish nation were paralyzed by their servitude and couldn’t even dream of spiritual growth.

          An integral part of the redemption was attaining the ability to grow and develop a national and personal connection with their Creator, the ability to grow and accomplish in all situations.


          “They all accept upon themselves the yoke of heaven”

          “Let us make man”

Rabbi Dani Staum


[1] This essay is based on an essay originally disseminated in 5762. I thank Eli Hirschman who has maintained these “early Stam Torahs” on his website

[2] Sotah 12a

[3] Devorim 20:19

[4] Rabbi Avrohom Pam would relate this story and connect it to what Pharaoh inflicted upon Klal Yisroel. 

[5] Rosh Yeshiva in Passaic

[6] Bereishis 1:26

[7] Rashi understands that G-d was speaking to the angels and that it was an expression of humility.

[8] We also speak of man being מקבל על מלכות שמים – accepting the yoke of heaven. It seems to be a very degrading terminology to use when referring to accepting the will of G-d. Baruch Shea’amar on tefillah explains that the yoke refers to all the impediments that hinder our efforts to accept the will of heaven upon ourselves. Feeling close to G-d is the greatest feeling one can have. The yoke is the challenge and struggle it entails until one achieves that feeling of connection.

Thursday, December 31, 2020







Dedicated l’refuah shelimah for נטע יצחק בן רחל


          A cruise ship on the Pacific Ocean encountered a raging storm and subsequently sank. Three Jews survived by holding onto boards and floating to a deserted island. As their initial joy of surviving faded, the reality of their hopeless situation set in. Two of the Jews began to pray with all their hearts, begging for some sort of miraculous salvation. When they finished, they were shocked to find their friend relaxing calmy next to a tree.  They were shocked, "How can you be so calm in such a situation? Don’t you understand that we may very well be spending the rest of our lives on this forsaken island?" The third man smiled, "Two years ago I gave a million dollars to the Jewish Federation. Last year I gave two million and this year I pledged three million. Don’t worry, they’ll find me!"

    At the end of his life, Yakov Avinu respectively blessed each of his sons, focusing on each of their individual strengths and weaknesses. When he completed his blessings the pasuk states, “All these are the tribes of Yisroel- twelve- and this is what their father spoke to them and he blessed them; each according to his blessing he blessed them.”[2]

          The end of the pasuk– “each according to his blessing he blessed them” - seems grammatically incorrect. Did he bless each individually or collectively?

          A Google Ngram is a way to search for literature that Google has stored electronically. There are copies of virtually every book published since 1800.

          Robert Putnam notes that the word I and the word we appear basically in equal amounts in books published from 1800 until 1964. In 1964 however, the I begins to predominate over the we.

          In his TED talk in November 2017, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks noted: “In every generation people worshipped different things - the sun, the stars, the storm. Some people worship many gods, some one, some none. In the 19th and 20th centuries, people worshipped the nation, the Aryan race, the communist state. 

          “What do we worship? I think future anthropologists will take a look at the books we read on self-help, self-realization, self-esteem. They'll look at the way we talk about morality as being true to oneself, the way we talk about politics as a matter of individual rights, and they'll look at this wonderful new religious ritual we have created. You know the one? Called the “selfie.” And I think they'll conclude that what we worship in our time is the self, the me, the I. 

          “Biologically, we're social animals. We've spent most of our evolutionary history in small groups. We need those face-to-face interactions where we learn the choreography of altruism and where we create those spiritual goods like friendship and trust and loyalty and love that redeem our solitude. When we have too much of the "I" and too little of the "we," we can find ourselves vulnerable, fearful and alone.”

          It is not for nothing that we have been labeled the selfie generation.

          A person is born as a selfish creature. When a baby is born it cries whenever it desires something. At two o’clock in the morning if the baby is hungry, it’ll scream until his weary parents wake up, without any regard for the fact that its parents need to wake up early the next morning. Part of the process of maturity is for a person to grow beyond worrying only about his own selfish needs and wants, and to consider those of others. 

          Ramban explains that the mitzvah to, "Love your friend as you love yourself,”[3] is an exaggeration because it is humanly impossible to physically love someone else more than one loves himself. Still, one is obligated to consider the needs and wants of his friend as he would like done for himself.

          It is fascinating to note that in the English language the possessive is expressed by using the letter, "I". It stands tall and proud and begins the sentence. In Loshon Hakodesh however, it is almost the complete opposite. The possessive is expressed with a small letter "Yud" appearing at the end of the word, (e.g. halachti, yashavti, asisi). It is a subtle emphasis on the value of humility.

   In Parshas Vayigash after Yosef revealed himself to the brothers, he told them to return to Cana’an and bring Yaakov down to Egypt. Yosef sent wagons with the brothers to bring to Yaakov. When the brothers returned and told Yaakov that Yosef was alive and well in Egypt, he did not believe them. It was only when Yaakov saw the wagons that Yosef sent him that he finally believed them.[4]

          Da’as Z’kenim[5] quotes a Medrash that states that the final Torah topic Yaakov and Yosef learned was about the "Eglos haNesi’im," the wagons that the princes of Klal Yisroel donated on the day of the dedication of the Mishkan. Those wagons were used to transport the vessels of the Mishkan.[6] When Yaakov saw the wagons, he understood that Yosef was hinting to the last topic they learned together.

          What was the symbolism of those wagons and what was their message?

          Minchas Oni explains that a person has two distinct roles in this world that seem to directly conflict. On the one hand, one is obligated to have an attitude that ‘the world was created for me’[7] and therefore to develop his own uniqueness and potential. On the other hand, one is obligated to be part of a greater community[8]. One must at the same time be community minded and inwardly focused.

          Regarding the wagons of the princes, the pasuk states “One wagon for every two princes and an ox for each one.”[9]

          Seforno comments that the wagons were, “an indication of the brotherhood existing between them, through which they would be worthy that the Divine Presence would rest between them”. Each prince offered his own personal ox on the altar as his own sacrifice. At the same time, the wagons were purchased and brought in unison to show that ultimately, they all had the same objective in mind. Those wagons symbolized communal unification.

          Yosef sent the wagons to his father to symbolize that he remembered the lesson of the wagons of the princes. Just as there was a sense of unity between the princes though they each retained their own levels of individuality, so too Yosef was still able to feel a love towards his brothers, “the Children of Yaakov”.

          Yaakov’s blessings to his children reinforced to each of his sons that they had a responsibility to utilize their strengths and talents for the benefit of Klal Yisroel. On the one hand, "ish asher k’birchaso," each received his own personal blessing. On the other hand, the goal was "bayrach osam," for them to realize that their personal blessings had to be utilized for the sake of the entire generation.


          Parshas Vayechi marks the end of an era. Yakov Avinu’s children were transitioning from a family into a nation. That transition required the contribution and investment of every one of its members. The same is true for each of us to this day.


          “One wagon for every two princes”

          “Each according to his blessing he blessed them”



Rabbi Dani Staum


[1] This essay is based on an essay originally disseminated in 5762. I thank Eli Hirschman who has maintained these “early Stam Torahs” on his website

[2] Bereishis 49:28

[3] Vayikra 19:13

[4] Bereishis 45:27

[5] Bereishis 46:27

[6] In this he differs from Rashi who learns that the last topic Yosef and Yaakov learned together was about eglah arufah.

[7] Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5

[8] See Avos 2:5

[9] Bamidbar 7:3

Wednesday, December 23, 2020







Dedicated l’refuah shleimah for נטע יצחק בן רחל


          Yeshivas Eitz Chaim, the famed Volozhiner Yeshiva, was founded in 1806 by Rav Chaim of Volozhin, a noted disciple of the Vilna Gaon. It was the mother of all Lithuanian Yeshivos.

          During the mid-1850s a contentious debate broke out in the yeshiva about who should be Rosh Yeshiva. The two candidates were Rav Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin (The Netziv) and Rav Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchik (The Beis HaLevi).

          At the time, they both delivered shiurim in the Yeshiva. They had very distinct styles of learning and different groups of students rallied around each of them. The Netziv was a ‘baki’, who had brilliant encyclopedic knowledge of virtually all sources of Torah learning. The Beis haLevi was more of a ‘charif’, known for his sharp and incisive analysis.

          Four great Lithuanian rabbis were invited to adjudicate, including Rabbi Yitzchak Elchonon Spektor, Rabbi Dovid Tevele Minsker and the Vilna Maggid.

          Before the proceedings began, the Vilna Maggid addressed the assemblage and began: “Today we find ourselves involved in the story of Parshas Vayeshev.” This remark immediately drew everyone’s attention because it was the end of the month of Tishrei, and nowhere near the week of Parshas Vayeshev.

          The Maggid continued: “I am a Maggid and I teach life lessons based on the weekly parsha. During the weeks when Sefer Bereishis is read, it is easy to teach lessons from the parsha by depicting who is the hero and who is the antagonist.

          “In Parshas Bereishis, Adam and Chava are in opposition with the Snake, and Kayin is at odds with Hevel. In Parshas Noach, Noach stands up to his generation. In Lech Lecha, it is Avraham Avinu against Pharaoh. In Vayera, Avraham Avinu contends with Lot and deals with Avmelech. In Chayei Sarah, Avraham deals with Ephron, in Toldos, Yaakov vies with Eisav, and in Vayeitzei, Yaakov lives in the home of Lavan.

          “However, in Parshas Vayeshev, I find myself at a loss because there it is not good against evil. There both sides – Yosef and his brothers – are wholly righteous. It is impossible to take sides regarding who is right and who is wrong.

           “Today we find ourselves in a situation comparable to Parshas Vayeshev for both the Netziv and Bais HaLevi are great tzaddikim. That’s what makes this case so challenging.”[2]


          Rabbi Aharon Kotler was once asked how the story of Yosef should be taught to children. Rabbi Aharon keenly replied, "And how do you teach it to adults?”

          If someone were to ask what the most difficult parshios in the Torah are, one might reply that parshios Tazria and Metzora are the most complex, because they deal with the intricate laws of tzara’as with which we are so unfamiliar. Or one might say that parshas Mishpatim with its vast laws of monetary responsibilities and obligations is the most difficult.

          However, in a sense, the parshios of Vayeshev, Miketz, and Vayigash are the most difficult parshios in the Torah. The commentaries expend great effort to explain what truly occurred between Yosef and the brothers, beneath and beyond the surface of the text.  

          Years after I had left his class, I was speaking to my wonderful second grade Rebbe, Rav Chaim Trenk. He commented that we teach young children the stories of the Torah as we must, to develop a foundation of Torah within them. But then, it takes a lifetime to undo the childish pictures we conjure in our minds of those stories. Tragically, many people retain those childish images, notions, and ideas about the stories in the Torah throughout their lives.

            Picture the following story[3]: Yasir Arafat has a disturbing dream. He summons all his Moslem advisors, but none can offer him a satisfactory interpretation. One of his chief advisors suddenly recalls that, when he was imprisoned by Arafat, he met a forsaken Jew who successfully interpreted his own dream. The Jew had been jailed years earlier for the serious crime of trying to violate the wife of one of Arafat’s chief executives.

          As soon as Arafat hears about the Jew, he has the Jew hoisted out of prison and brought before him. The Jew successfully explains to Arafat the significance of his dream and is promoted to second-in-command to Arafat.

          This wild story is not too different from what transpired to Yosef. When the brothers came down to Egypt, Yosef could not eat with them at the same table because it was repulsive for an Egyptian to eat with a Jew. Clearly, the Jews were regarded as inferior to the Egyptians. Yet, Yosef - a Jew - became viceroy of the greatest superpower of the ancient world. The entire world must have known the story of the Jew who became viceroy of Egypt. It must have been on the front cover of every newspaper and the subject of every blog. Yet, the brothers did not even suspect that this man was Yosef.


          When reading these parshios, there are many questions left unanswered.

          For example, after Yosef revealed himself, what did he say, and what did they say? Did Yosef ever tell them how he became the viceroy? Did the brothers ever tell Yosef why they sold him? In addition, the Torah doesn’t tell us if Ya’akov ever found out the whole story and if he did what his reaction was.

          My rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, notes that, at one point, there was a commodity in the United States called ‘paint by numbers’. A person purchased a canvas and followed directions as he painted. The number one was to be painted blue, so wherever it said one he painted blue. The number two was to be painted red, so wherever it said two he painted red.

          When the amateur was done, he didn’t exactly have a Rembrandt. But he did have a nice picture that he was involved in creating.

          There are countless life lessons to be gleaned from the story of Yosef. Perhaps that’s exactly why the Torah doesn’t tell us all of the details, so that we can fill in the blanks. The Torah is painting by number, as it were, so that we can ‘fill it in’, by extrapolating lessons, through seeing how these stories speak to us in our daily lives.  

          In a sense, the Torah records these parshios to be like the psychological Rorschach test. When someone is given a Rorschach test, he is shown a blot of ink and asked what he sees. It’s just a blot of ink, but everyone sees something different, and what one sees reflects upon himself.

          The Torah presents the story and asks us to answer what we see and how the lessons of these great men apply to us.

          Rabbi Wein added that part of the problem of contemporary chinuch is that we teach children explanations of certain commentaries when they are young, and for the rest of their lives they think it is the only explanation.

          This may be a story that a five-year old can understand, but it’s not a story written for a five-year-old mind. ”זה ספר תולדות אדם – This is the book of the generations of man”[4]; everyone has to see lessons that are applicable to himself.


          After Yosef revealed himself to his brothers, he instructs them to go directly back to Cana’an and, אל תרגזו בדרך – don’t tarry along the way[5].

           תרגזו has a connotation of anger or frustration. In Yiddish, when people say someone is ‘broygez’ it means they are consumed with anger, and often can become nasty.

          Yosef told the brothers not to discuss how they sold him so that they shouldn’t get into the blame game. 

          Menachem Zion[6] offers another explanation: The word derech mean road/way. אל תרגזו בדרך means don’t be angry about the way G-d brought this about. He did it להחיות עם רב  - to bring life to millions of people, and ultimately the family will be reunited. Yosef told them not to be angry that it happened in a way they didn’t like.

          Rabbi Wein notes that much of the Torah world is angry about ‘the way it happened’, particularly regarding the Jewish People’s return to Eretz Yisroel in 1948 and beyond. We thought the Chofetz Chaim was supposed to bring us back, not Ben-Gurion.

          Yosef told them not to be angry about the way things happened. G-d has his reasons and His plans and it’s not up to us to decide whether it should have happened that way or not. Our job is to figure out how to best react and proceed with what G-d has brought about. There were numerous different ways we could have gone down to Egypt, and numerous ways Egypt could have been saved from the famine. But this is how G-d chose to make it happen.

          It’s a vital lesson for life.

          Yosef told them not to fall into that trap. Look at what is, not at how we got here.

          This is another one of the timeless lessons that this parsha teaches us about our outlook and lives. A story that happened so long ago and yet reverberates as if it happened yesterday, and tomorrow!


          “Don’t tarry along/about the way”

          “This is the book of the generations of man”


 Rabbi Dani Staum


[1] This essay was originally disseminated in 5762. I thank Eli Hirschman who has maintained these “early Stam Torahs” on his website

[2] The final decision defied expectations: the Netziv would be the head of the yeshiva. Rabbi Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik accepted the verdict, and soon afterward he left Volozhin to become the rabbi in Slutsk and later in Brisk.

Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik had a son, Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik¸ a child prodigy, who later became one of the great men of Israel. Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik married the granddaughter of the Netziv. Therefore, the families became one, and Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik became the next Rosh Yeshiva in Volozhin together with his grandfather.

[3] At the time this essay was originally written, Yasir Arafat and the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) were of the Jewish People’s most formidable enemies.

[4] Bereishis 5:1

[5] Bereishis 45:24

[6] Rabbi Menachem BenZion Sacks