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


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