We hope you enjoy this selection of short divrei Torah, presented to family and guests at our Shabbos table as a springboard for discussion. Each one is followed by a question. The responses shared at our table are enlightening, entertaining, and always thought-provoking.
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Parshas Vayechi # 1
“Yissachar is a strong-boned donkey, crouching between the borders. He saw that tranquility (menuchah) is good, and that the land is pleasant. And he bent his shoulder to bear the burden, and he became an indentured servant” (Bereishis 49:14-15)
After seventeen years in Egypt, Yaakov Avinu summoned his children and blessed them before he died. These prophetic blessings were geared to the character and future role of each Tribe. Yissachar, the fifth son, would dedicate his life to fulltime Torah study. At first glance, there appears to be a contradiction in the wording of Yissachar’s blessing: “He saw that tranquility (menuchah) is good… and he bent his shoulder to bear the burden, and he became an indentured servant.”
In other words, Yaakov said, having seen the advantages of menuchah – tranquil rest and relaxation – Yissachar then decided to engage in strenuous physical labor, working almost like a slave. In contemporary terms, this would be like saying that he had so enjoyed a vacation away from the pressures and demands of work, that he was determined to work even harder when he returned!
Rav Nisson Alpert, zt”l, a close talmid of Rav Moshe Feinstein and an outstanding talmid chacham, suggested that Yaakov’s understanding of “menuchah” differed greatly from our contemporary perspective. We tend to view tranquility as unpressured, unrushed time off – but this is not real menuchah. True menuchah is menuchas hanefesh, peace of mind. A life of inactivity, with no goals and no achievement, will not provide inner peace. A vacationer on a quiet island, lazily sipping a cool drink as the waves lap the shore, may enjoy being idle for a few days or weeks, perhaps even as long as a month. Eventually, though, he will grow restless and dissatisfied, because he is doing nothing and going nowhere. Yissachar, the quintessential talmid chacham, understood that man only feels truly at peace when he is working hard to attain his goals. We satisfy our souls by making the most of our potential and exerting ourselves to fulfill our aspirations.
Vacation has its role, but it is not life – and it is not menuchah in its truest sense. Life is meant to be lived. This involves an ongoing evaluation of where we are heading, and how we can best reach our destination.
Yissachar saw that “menuchah is good.” He understood that satisfaction and peace of mind result from a sense of accomplishment. He also knew how to attain it: “He bent his shoulder to bear the burden, and he became an indentured servant.” He was determined to make the most of his G-d-given potential, and work his hardest to achieve his share of greatness (Rabbi Yissocher Frand, “The Tranquility of Hard Labor”).
Questions for Discussion:
Yissachar achieved menuchas hanefesh, inner peace and tranquility, by working hard to realize his potential. When have you felt true menuchas hanefesh?
“With [your names,] Israel will bestow blessing, saying, ‘May G-d make you like Efraim and Menashe”’ (Bereishis 48:20).
Before his death, Yaakov bestowed prophetic blessings of great significance on his sons, each a portent of things to come. He also blessed two of his grandchildren – Yosef’s sons, Menashe and Efraim. He placed his hands upon their heads and said, “With [your names,] Israel will bestow blessing, saying, ‘May G-d make you like Efraim and Menashe.”’
This blessing is part of our tradition to this day. Parents bless their children with these words on erev Yom Kippur, and in some families, every Friday night.
Our people’s history is replete with many great spiritual heroes, among them Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon HaKohen. Why, of all these luminaries, do we cite Efraim and Menashe as role models for all time?
Rav Yissocher Frand suggests an interesting answer to this question, heard from R. Chaim Shapiro, z”l. We encourage our children to be like Efraim and Menashe because of their exemplary middos. These two brothers lived in harmony, as evident from their behavior when Yaakov blessed them.
While Menashe was the older of the two (Bereishis 41:51-52), Yaakov very clearly gave Efraim precedence: “And Yisrael extended his right hand and placed it on Efraim’s head, and he was the younger [brother]. And his left hand, he [placed] on Menashe’s head. He crossed his hands, for Menashe was the older [brother]” (ibid.48:14). After Yosef tried to correct his father, pointing out that Menashe was the elder brother, Yaakov told him that he knew exactly what he was doing. He said, “I know, my son, I know. He will also be [the ancestor of] a nation, and he will also grow great, but his brother, who is younger than him, will be greater than him” (ibid. 17-19).
The Torah does not hesitate to reveal the faults of even the very greatest of our people. And yet, there is no indication that Menashe uttered a single word of protest at this open, obvious slight. When Yosef protested, Yaakov made it perfectly clear that he was well aware that he was intentionally putting the younger brother first, despite Menashe’s status as Yosef’s firstborn. Yaakov had his reasons, but it could not have been pleasant for Menashe. Even so, he did not complain, act out, or harbor resentment.
The same is true of Efraim. Yosef attempted to intervene, so that Menashe would receive the more prestigious blessing… which meant taking it away from Efraim. Efraim could easily have said that if Yaakov wanted to give him the better blessing, with his right hand, it was his due and his good fortune; why should Yosef favor Menashe, at Efraim’s expense? Instead, like his brother, Efraim did not protest or interfere.
Both Efraim and Menashe accepted what was happening and what they were given, deferring to their father and grandfather without jealousy or argument.
How often do parents hear their children say, “It’s not fair”? How many tears and tantrums, pouts and protests, are produced when they suspect preferential treatment? Unfortunately, even adults are not immune to sibling rivalry. We bless our children to be like Efraim and Menashe, because they had no complaints and no animosity – not towards one another, and not towards Yaakov and Yosef. Their attitude and relationship are a model and a blessing for any family. (Rabbi Yissocher Frand, “The Uniqueness of Efraim and Menashe”)
Question for discussion:
The harmony and lack of envy between Yosef’s sons make them a model for siblings of all ages, in all generations. How can we help promote peace among siblings in our own home?