Thursday, January 9, 2020


“ME OR WE”[1]

             A cruise ship was traveling across the Pacific Ocean when it was suddenly enveloped by a massive storm. Sadly, the boat sank and most of its passengers drowned. Two Jews survived by holding onto boards and floating until they landed up on a deserted island. As the initial joy of surviving faded, the reality of their hopeless situation set in. One of the Jews began to pray with all his heart, reciting every psalm he knew from memory. He was stunned to find his friend relaxing peacefully against a palm tree. He looked at him incredulously, “How can you be so calm? Don’t you understand that we may be spending the rest of our lives on this forsaken island?” The 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!”

          When Yaakov felt that his life was nearing its end, he summoned his twelve sons to bless them. When he completed his blessings the pasuk[2] 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.” The end of the pasuk seems grammatically incorrect. The pasuk begins by addressing each tribe individually, “each according to his blessing,” but it concludes by referring to the collective group, “he blessed them”?
          People are naturally selfish. A baby cries whenever it wants something, without taking into account how tired its parents are, and whether they have to wake up early to head out to work the following morning. Part of maturity entails being able to transcend that natural selfishness. But there are many people that never overcome that selfishness.
          Based on Yaakov’s respective blessings, each of the tribes understood that he had a responsibility to focus on his specific blessing and to develop his potential to the utmost. But ultimately, they had to utilize their individual strengths for the sake of national welfare. On the one hand it was “ish asher k’birchaso,” each received his own personal blessing. But on the other hand, the ultimate goal was “bayrach osam,” for them to realize that the blessings had to be used for the sake of Klal Yisroel.

          In his book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie relates that some years ago, the New York Telephone Company performed a detailed study of phone conversations to find out which word was most frequently used. The study showed that the personal pronoun “I” was by far the most commonly used word, repeated 3,900 times during 500 telephone conversations.
          In English, the possessive is expressed by using the authoritative capital letter, “I”. In Loshon Hakodesh however, it is the complete opposite. The possessive is expressed with a small letter “Yud” appearing at the end of the word[3]. The language of the Torah stresses humility even in the letters it uses.

          In Parshas Vayigash when Yosef finally revealed himself to the brothers, he told them to return to Canaan and bring Yaakov down to Egypt. Yosef sent wagons with the brothers to transport Yaakov. When the brothers returned and told Yaakov Yosef was alive and well in Egypt, he did not believe them.[4] It was only when Yaakov saw the wagons that Yosef sent him that he finally believed them.
          Rashi explains that the last Torah topic Yaakov and Yosef learned together twenty-two years earlier was that of “Eglah arufah- the calf whose neck was broken”[5]. Yosef sent the “Agalos- wagons” to symbolize that last topic.
When Yaakov saw the wagons, he understood the covert message and was convinced that Yosef was still alive, for only he could have known what they had learned privately together.  
          What was the meaning of this hint that Yosef was sending Yaakov? “Agalos” and “Eglah” may sound alike but one means a calf and one means wagon?
          Da’as Z’kenim Miba’alei Hatosfos differs from Rashi and suggests that the final Torah topic Yaakov and Yosef had learned was not that of “Eglah Arufah” but rather about the “Eglos haNesi’im”, the wagons that the princes of Klal Yisroel donated to the Mishkan which were given to the Levites to transport the vessels of the Mishkan.
          When Yaakov saw the wagons, he understood that Yosef was sending him a direct reminder of the last topic they had learned together, i.e. the wagons of the princes. But there was a deeper symbolic message represented by the wagons.
          Minchas Oni explains that a person has two roles to fulfill. On the one hand, he has an individual mission, as the Gemara says that one must think ‘the world was created for me’ in the sense that each person must fulfill his role. On the other hand, a person is obligated to be part of the community, to see himself as part of the public and be part of their efforts[6].
          One is tasked to fulfill both these roles. The struggle is maintaining that delicate balance.  
          When the princes donated the wagons, the pasuk states that it was, “One wagon for every two princes and an ox for each one.”[7]
          Seforno explains that, “This was an indication of the brotherhood existing between them, through which they would be worthy that the Divine Presence would rest between them…”
          Each prince brought his own personal ox on the altar as his own sacrifice. Together with that ox, he partnered with another prince to donate a wagon to the communal cause.
          Yosef was afraid that Yaakov would not believe the brothers when they told him that he was still alive for two reasons. Firstly, Yaakov knew that the brothers had feelings of animosity towards Yosef which had initiated the whole ordeal. Therefore, Yaakov would never believe that this same Yosef who had been on the brothers’ “Most Wanted” list was now inviting all of them to peacefully descend to Egypt and be reunited. Secondly, even if Yosef was truly still alive and well, if he was living in Egypt for so long, there was no way he was still a proper Jew. Therefore, he would surely be embarrassed for his holy father to see him in such a state and would never summon him to come.
          To disprove both of those doubts, Yosef sent the wagons to symbolize the wagons of the princes. Yosef was relaying a message to his father that just as there was unconditional love between the princes though they each retained their own levels of individuality, so too Yosef was still able to feel a love for them as a collective group, “the Children of Yaakov”. Also symbolizing the last topic they learned demonstrated that Yosef had retained his learning and was still a devout Jew.  

          Parshas Vayechi marks the end of an era. Chumash Bereishis closes with a family rapidly developing into a nation. At this point the tribes could no longer only be individuals. At this point, they had to learn how to merge into a group called “Klal Yisroel”.
          In the world of sports, it’s been said that the name that it says on the front of a player’s jersey, is far more important than the name that it says on the back of the jersey.[8] While very player must strive to play his best, his goal cannot be for his own aggrandizement and accomplishment. His ultimate goal must be to contribute and to sacrifice for the sake of the team’s success.[9]
          We are all individuals with tremendous potential and a specific mission. However, we are also part of a “team” called, “the Jewish people”. Throughout our lives we must seek to use our individual talents for the sake of our people and for others. That is the ultimate fulfilment of the blessings of Yaakov Avinu.

          One wagon for every two princes”
          “Each according to his blessing, he blessed them

Rabbi Dani Staum LMSW
Rebbe, Heichal HaTorah, Teaneck, NJ
Principal, Ohr Naftali, New Windsor NY

[1] This essay was from the second year that I sent out Stam Torah in 2001/5761
[2] Bereishis 49:28
[3] e.g. “halachti”, “yashavti”
[4] See Bereishis 45:27
[5] see Devorim 21:1-9
[6] see Avos 2:5
[7] Bamidbar 7:3
[8] On the front it says the team name; on the back it says the individual player’s number and last name.
[9] It is well-known that there have been many sports teams comprised of many stars who did not win a championship. The key to winning is in teamwork and being able to use every individual’s strength to help the team.


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