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

Thursday, December 17, 2020







Dedicated l’refuah shleimah for נטע יצחק בן רחל


“Response-ability” is the ability to choose your response. Highly proactive people do not blame circumstances, conditions, or conditioning for their behavior. Their behavior is a product of their own conscious choice, based on values, rather than a product of those conditions, based on feeling. "

-Stephen Covey


 “The man who complains about the way the ball bounces is likely the one who dropped it.”

-Lou Holtz[2]


          In his book, “Echos of the Maggid”, Rabbi Paysach Krohn relates the story of Mrs. Esther Haas. Esther was a fourteen-year-old girl when she was forced on one of the Nazi’s infamous death marches. Beaten, overworked, and malnourished from the time spent in the Concentration Camp, she felt her strength ebbing away. At one point, she collapsed on the ground out of sheer exhaustion. A moment later a Nazi loomed over her and mercilessly barked, “If you want to work, then get up now. Otherwise, you are dead right here! We have no use for weak people.”

          Esther felt she was about to become just another Nazi martyr. But then, inexplicably, from seemingly out of nowhere, she felt a surge of strength and was able to walk back to the barracks and collapse into the arms of her shocked and teary-eyed comrades.

    After the war, Esther recounted that the Nazis convinced them that every girl in the world was imprisoned in Concentration Camps worldwide. Every night she davened that if Hashem would let her survive, she would raise a family as devout Jews.

          Rabbi Krohn noted to Mrs. Haas that her pledge was similar to the words of King Yeshayahu who, upon witnessing the devastation and desolation of Torah in Eretz Yisroel at the end of the first Temple era, stood up and proclaimed, "Alay l’hakim- It is incumbent upon me to uphold it (i.e. the Torah)". He initiated a wave of unprecedented repentance throughout the country[3].

          Rabbi Krohn told Mrs. Haas that perhaps it was the merit of her constant proclamation of “Alay l’hakim” that saved her.


    When the long and painful saga of Yosef and the tribes was finally over and Yaakov was informed that Yosef was alive and well, Yaakov prepared for his descent to Egypt to be reunited with his long-lost son. Before leaving Yaakov sent ahead Yehuda. “Yehudah he sent before him to Goshen, to instruct ahead of him in Goshen.”[4] Rashi explains that Yehuda was sent ahead to establish a Bais Medrash from which laws would be studied and taught. 

          Shimon’s descendants were destined to become the teachers and Levi’s descendants were the Kohanim and Levi’im who were also leaders and teachers. Yissachar produced the greatest scholars. Would it not have been more appropriate for one of them to establish the Yeshiva? Why was Yehuda specifically chosen to establish the Yeshiva in Goshen?

    The Mishnah[5] teaches that at the age of thirteen, a Jewish male becomes obligated to perform the 613 commandments.

          Rav Mibartenura explains that the source of this law is derived from Shimon and Levi. When they killed out the males from the city of Shechem, the Torah[6] refers to them as men, and they were thirteen years old.

    After Shimon and Levi killed out the city, Yaakov chastised them said to them. “You have discomposed me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanite and among the Perizzite; I am few in number and should they gather and attack me, I will be annihilated – I and my household.”[7] If Yaakov viewed their actions as imprudent, why do we learn this fundamental Torah law from them?

          The answer lies in understanding why a thirteen-year-old boy becomes obligated in mitzvos. The Torah views a thirteen-year-old boy as mature enough to feel a sense of responsibility. The Gemarah[8] relates that one who does something when commanded is greater than one who does so when he’s not commanded. At first glance, this idea seems strange; isn’t it a greater symbol of devotion to do something without having been asked?

          Ritva explains that as soon as one is commanded to do something, there is an immediate desire to not submit to those instructions. By nature, we crave independence and abhor being told what to do. Therefore, one who fulfills what he is instructed shows greater devotion than one who acts on his own accord.

    Rabbi Shmuel Rozovsky explained that the difference between an act performed by one commanded and one not commanded lies in his attitude and mindset. One who is instructed feels a sense of obligation. But one who lacks obligation doesn’t feel that urgency or pressure.

          Until the age of thirteen, the Torah does not view a young man as mature enough to bear a yoke and sense of responsibility. It is only when he turns 13 that he has matured enough to have an appreciation for obligation and responsibility.

The Torah derives this from Shimon and Levi. After Yaakov chastised them, they replied, “Should he treat our sister like a woman of ill repute?”[9] They felt a sense of responsibility to avenge the honor of their sister. Although they acted rashly, they demonstrated a sense of mission and responsibility.

    What separates the men from the boys is a sense of responsibility.

    When Yosef demanded of the brothers that Binyamin be brought before him, Yaakov refused. Even when Reuven offered the lives of his two sons as a guarantee for Binyamin’s safe return, he would not yield. It was only when Yehuda stood up and boldly proclaimed, “I will guarantee him; of my own hand you can demand him. If I do not bring him back to you and stand him before you, then I will have sinned before you for all time.”[10] Yehuda put everything on the line as a guarantee that Binyamin would return home safely. It was only then that Yaakov relented and sent Yosef. That is why when Yosef wanted to imprison Binyamin it was Yehuda who insisted that they would not leave without Binyamin.

    One can possess the sharpest mind and the greatest drive for learning but if he cannot state with conviction, "Alay l’hakim- It is incumbent upon me to establish it," he will never be successful in building a house of Torah study. Therefore, it was specifically Yehuda who was chosen to establish the Yeshiva in Goshen because Yaakov knew that Yehuda could bear its yoke. This is also the reason why the monarchy and the eventual birth of Moshiach comes from Yehuda. A monarch must bear the weight of his entire kingdom and such a job is only fit for one who can assume such an overwhelming task.


          Rav Ephraim Shapiro from Miami Beach explained that the letters of the Hebrew word for taking responsibility for others, achrayus, is spelled alephchesreishyudvuv, and tuf. Within itself the word instruct us in the proper progression we should follow in assuming responsibility for one another: The first letter is an aleph representing the number one, and the notion that before looking to help others, we must first make sure that we have taken responsibility for our own actions and needs. The following letter is ches which together with aleph spells the word ach or "brother". Only after we been successful in taking care of ourselves can we begin to take responsibility for our brothers, families, and relatives. The next letter is reish, which together with the first two letters spells acheir, or “other”. Once our families are secure, we can use that stability as a platform to aid and help others as well. The following letter is yud, which turns the word acheir in to acharai or “behind me” or “follow me”, because one who takes responsibility for others becomes a natural role model and leader within the community.[11] The next letter is vuv which added to the previous letters changes acharai to acharav or “after him”, since a role model who takes responsibility for others will inspire people to follow their example. Finally, the letter tuf, because achrayus begins with aleph, the first letter in the alphabet, and ends with tuf, the last letter in the alphabet. This symbolizes that taking responsibility for others should occupy us constantly, and that it can embolden, enrich, and uplift every aspect of our lives all the way from aleph to tuf!


    During the period of the Greek occupation of Eretz Yisroel, the Jews who agreed to live in the manner and cultural lifestyle of the Greeks, were not persecuted, in fact they lived quite comfortably. It was only the minority who stubbornly refused to forsake the ways of their forefathers and tenaciously clung to the Torah and its teachings who suffered the oppression and torture of the Greeks. In fact, much of the Jews’ persecution came from their own brethren who had Hellenized and joined the Greek way of life. The miracle of Chanukah emerged only because a small group of Jews announced, "Alaynu L’hakim". They embarked on an impossible mission to fight off the far superior powers of the Greeks.

   Chanukah is an opportunity to reflect on and renew our acceptance of the responsibility of G-d and the Torah.


          “I will guarantee him; of my own hand you can demand him.”

          “Alay l’hakim”



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] former NFL player, coach (Notre Dame, NY Jets 1979), and analyst

[3] Melachim II, Chapter 23

[4] Bereishis 46:28

[5] Avos 5:21

[6] Bereishis 34:25

[7] Bereishis 34:30

[8] Kiddushin 31a

[9] Bereishis 34:31

[10] Bereishis 43:9

[11] In most armies, the commanders stand back and command their soldiers: “Forward!” In the IDF (Israel Defense Force) however, the most legendary phrase is “Acharai” or “Follow me.” Israeli commanders lead the way into the battle.