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Truth or Consequences – Drasha Vayigash

Thank you to community member Milton Simon for editing these Shabbos speeches given at the Pacific Jewish Center from my notes into these essays.

Today we are going to talk about truth. We will also discuss the opposite of truth. What is the opposite of truth? Something is true when it is in accordance with the facts and reality. The opposite of truth is when something is not in accordance with the facts and reality. Let us keep these definitions in mind as we progress.

As we jump back into the Parsha story we head to end of the Parsha. We have just experienced the most dramatic and moving section of all of Torah and perhaps in all of history. Yosef has revealed himself to his brothers. Yosef forgives his brothers. Yosef tells his brothers it was all part of a master plan and it is water under the bridge. The brothers are then invited to join Yosef and his family in Egypt to avoid the famine (and bring the fulfillment of the prophecy that the Jewish people would be slaves in Egypt.)

We can imagine the good spirits the brothers were in as they returned to their father in Israel. When they left him last they were on the verge of tragedy. One brother was in jail, the entire family was threatened and all this was aside from the gnawing guilt the brothers most certainly felt every day of their lives, imagining their lying to their father caused him massive suffering. They saw their father wither away and lose his spark due to their actions and lies. Now the brothers have their chance at redemption. They see that it was all part of a plan! They are forgiven! Yosef wants them to move to Egypt! We can only imagine their elation as they journeyed back to Yaakov their father.

The psukim tell us what happened when the brothers reached Yaakov. This should be another climactic scene. If we could imagine a movie about when the brothers tell Yaakov the news, the music would swell while the camera goes in real close to capture Yaakov’s unbridled joy. As Yaakov would hear the news the room would brighten, years of sadness would melt off Yaakov’s face as he would stand up from his seat and the scene would slowly fade to black. Well let’s see how it really happened. In fact, Yaakov didn’t believe them!!

What? Yaakov did not believe his sons. Did he think they playing a practical joke on him? Couldn’t he see their genuine joy? How are we to understand this?

Let us continue in the Chumash. Amazingly we see that eventually Yaakov believed that Yosef was alive. What convinced him? How did the truth become evident?

R’ Schwab mentions the saying in Avos of R’ Shimon. “The punishment of the liar is that even when he tells the truth no one listens to him” and we see from the brothers of Yosef that when they lied to their father by telling him that Yosef was dead they were not believed when they tried to tell their father that Yosef was alive.

At this point the Shevatim understood that by covering their misdeeds they would NEVER succeed, even with the truth. Therefore they realized their only option is to now tell Yaakov the entire story. They decided to tell their father all about their jealousy and plots to kill Yosef. The eventual sale of Yosef was discussed and they asked for forgiveness from Yaakov. That is what is meant by they told Yaakov ALL about Yosef – es Kol divrei Yosef. The full truth was finally revealed. At that point Yaakov was able to believe his sons and see the truth.

The truth is not only that the words are true. Truth is consistent with all the facts and reality. Truth does not exist in a vacuum – it is part of a greater whole. It must fit in with the song of the universe and be in perfect harmony with all the other parts. Yaakov was on too great a spiritual level to be a piece of the truth. He needed all of it to complete the circle of truth of reality.

The Talmud teaches us that Emes – truth stand on its own. And sheker – the opposite of truth always falls. We can visualize this by looking at the letters that form the word Emes and the letters that form the word Sheker. Emes is Aleph, Mem, Taf. These are the first, last and middle letters of the Aleph Beis. Truth is from start to finish with a solid middle. This is consistent with what we are saying that truth is part of a greater whole of reality and not independent. Perhaps even more interesting is the formation of each letter. The Aleph has two legs to stand on, the mem has a base on its bottom and the taf has a base as well as two legs. If we would stand these letters up they would not fall. Let’s look at Sheker. Shin, kuf and reish. Those letters all have but one leg and when stood up will topple. Further these letters are “out of alphabetical order” and are all right next to each other in the aleph beis. This indicates that sheker can work for a time because it is kept close and private but once the sheker gets out it cannot stand on its own.

Our Torah world is predicated on Emes. The Torah is emes and stands on its own. We don’t need to make excuses for Torah and it stands the test of time.

The lesson of Yaakov in this week’s parsha is that sheker is hard to undo – we can’t just press control z and magically the sheker disappears. Sheker can stand for a little while but eventually it gets toppled. This is why we need to be so careful to always begin with the absolute emes. It can be very difficult to undo sheker as we saw with Yaakov.

What was are witnessing in the world right now as Israel rains attacks upon its enemies is frightening. When the world is so immersed in sheker the truth is very hard to find. But the truth stands on its own and will eventually be seen. We need to do our part as advocates for Israel and prevent lies from spreading. I say this not because I am concerned with international opinion and political clout – rather I say this because when Jews look bad it reflects upon GD and it is very important to me to help prevent further Chillul Hashem. We can do our part as advocates for Israel.

But why are these lies so easy to spread? Shouldn’t the truth be obvious?

The last point I want to make is that while we do 100% back our brothers and sisters in Israel we also recognize there is a flaw in their reality. The official line of the Government of Israel is not that Hashem put the land of Israel in our hands, they say WE DID IT OURSELVES. Is it any wonder the world disbelieves our stories about the war, or anything? The world KNOWS the truth, and disbelieves us when we hold sheker. Amazing!

Is our leadership in the land of Israel taking all of reality into the equation? Do they recognize the role that GD plays in their lives? So long as they do not have the complete truth, with all its realities and all its beauty – the world will not see that the truth is with us. As we saw with Yaakov – only the whole truth is recognized as the truth. The only time a truth is recognizable to all and stands on it own is when the truth is consistent and the truth is in sync with the realities of the universe. When the truth is part of the harmony of the world then everyone will see it. When our leadership in the land of Israel embraces the spiritual component to the land of Israel the tremendous amount of Torah that spouts from the land of Israel, when the message of truth is consistent with all the facts and realities – that GD gave us this land – he should have a say as to how we use it, when that message is clear – the truth will be unequivocal and unchallenged.

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Yosef and the Light of (Economic) Wisdom and Kindness – Drasha Miketz

Thank you to community member Milton Simon for editing these Shabbos speeches given at the Pacific Jewish Center from my notes into these articles.

It is no coincidence that Shabbos Chanukah always coincides with Parshas Miketz. There are many ways to look at this fact and we will attempt to work out one idea today.

The narrative of this week’s Parsha discusses the impending famine that was to sweep the entire middle east. Egypt was the financial capital of the world and this was a very critical time for them as a country. If they would fail the world in this time of need then the entire world would fall with them. Egypt needed to succeed and Yosef had a plan to keep Egypt afloat. He predicted the famine when he interpreted the dream that Pharaoh had but he also, surprisingly provided a solution at the same time.

Yosef’s solution was to tax the country a 1/5th agriculture tax and to store the grain in federal depositories. In addition there was to be no exporting of grain during the years of plenty that were to precede the famine. R’ Hirsch explains that in years of abundance human nature is to eat double, and during years of financial difficulty human nature is to eat half of what one normally intakes. Hence in years of high quantity one would eat four times what one eats in a famine year. So, in Torah terms the 1/5th formula ensured that even in the famine years there would be enough to go around.

Yosef was appointed the chief executive officer for this monumental project. He INSTANTLY ascended the ranks of Egyptian royalty up to the second in command to the Pharaoh. What was so incredible about his idea (or Yosef himself) that  Pharaoh elevated him to this status? How did Yosef spin this simple idea into something worthy of such incredible promotion? What is the secret behind Yosef’s idea?

I think we can all relate to the times that the Egyptian people now feared they were about to go through. The Nile had delivered prosperity to the Egyptians year after year. The economy was flourishing and NOW it was all about to come to a halt. The famine would come and the Egyptian economy w ould suffer and ultimately the world economy would suffer as well. It almost reads like the Wall Street Journal summary of 2008! We live in a time of financial uncertainty. The prosperity America has known for nearly ¾ of a century may be coming to halt. The world economy, which has come to rely on our economy, is in fear of a major collapse. Are there lessons here to be learned?

Let us turn to the Chanukah story. After defeating the Syrian Greeks, the Maccabees return to the Temple victorious. They wish to light the menorah and they cannot find any pure oil. All the oil has been defiled by the Greeks. What are they to do? Miraculously they find a tiny oil jug forlorn in the corner. The jug is so small it only holds enough oil for one day. The Greeks overlooked the jug because it was inconsequential. It was an afterthought. Like when you have a little but of honey left in the honey bear – you don’t sit around waiting for the last drops to come out – you buy a new honey bear! This jug was the end of the oil it was just like the end of that honey bear.
R’ Pam points out that normally in times of prosperity we would throw away that honey bear with the last few drops and normally one would discard the tiny oil jug. But it was not thrown away. The small jug of oil was cherished and was kept even though it had so little inside it. This the Torah way. We value our resources. In good times and not such good times we need to be mindful of what we have and we need to put it to good use. The Jewish people of the time which the Chanukah story took place valued the small jug and in turn it came back to save them in their time of need.

This is the message Yosef imparted to the Egyptians. Value what you have – you never know when your situation will change. Use only what you need and be sure not to squander even the smallest amount of you have left over. But20the broader lesson is to use our resources wisely. Allocation of resources, project planning and emergency preparedness. These are the values Yosef was teaching the Egyptians. These are Jewish ideas that a pagan society could possibly be incapable of discovering on their own. These are ideas which are founded in Torah. Yosef knew that his father Yaakov went back across the Yabok River at great risk to himself to rescue his small containers. We know how to appreciate what we have because we recognize it is all a gift.

I recently read an opinion in the NY Times. The writer had just returned to Kennedy Airport from Asia. And he contrasted the two experiences. It was like taking a time travel capsule from Hong Kong where the airport was decked out with the latest in modernity and comfort. A high speed train with high speed internet and static free cell phone service. He commented that leaving that and coming back to Kennedy was like traveling from the Jetsons to the Flintstones. Back home, at the arrivals area in Kennedy the ceilings were low and not well lit. He went to Penn=2 0Station where the elevators are too narrow for a man plus a suitcase. The train is not high speed,  there isn’t any internet access and dropped cell phone calls are the norm. What happened to America? Where is the infrastructure? And then the news hits that GM needs a bailout. What is going on in our country?

My father mentioned to me a recent quote from R’ Riskin. He said that Americans used to want to “do good”, now Americans just want to “do well”. What I have noticed is most of our capable young people and the creative thinkers in our country have been going into finance. Consequently our industry has suffered. This is not a good allocation of resources! We need a Yosef to remind us how to use our talents, abilities, time and money the right way. Our country needs to go back to building better products, not figuring out ways to leverage money into more money. Until we start creating better products our economy will be unable to recover.

But there is hope – today is Rosh Chodesh. A new month. A time for rebirth. We can start again. We just need to believe it is all possible. Sometimes to develop that belief we need to be reminded of what the ultimate level of proper allocation of resources actually should be.

I want to conclude by returning to our Parsha for a moment. Yosef sent his brothers back home with money in their sacks as well as Yosef’s golden cup. Yosef sends the police to apprehend the framed thieves. The police search the brothers’ bags and find the missing golden cup in Binyamin’s sack. The brothers are caught with their hands in the cookie jar. Yosef demands that Binyamon return to Egypt to face a jail sentence. They are fo rced to return to Egypt or else they will end up returning back to Yaakov without Binyamin.

Yosef organized this scheme to incriminate the brothers so that he could arrest Binyamin. But why was the golden cup necessary? The Rosh is bothered by this – why not just arrest them for stealing the money? The Rosh answers beautifully. Yosef had instituted an incredible policy. Whenever a very destitute family came to buy food he would have his officers return the money. In fact this happened repeatedly. The policy was to return the money if the family needed it desperately. Therefore there was no way he could have the brothers arrested for taking the money – it was a common occurrence for him to return money to those who needed it most!

This is the kind of economy (both of Yosef’s innovations)  that can survive tough times is one that combines allocation of resources and sensitivity to the needy. We must use what we have properly, respect what we are given, appreciate what we are blessed with and most importantly we must exercise sensitivity to others. If we use our talents to produce great products, produce cutting edge infrastructure and modern facilities we will see our country reborn (without forgetting our duties as custodians of God’s earthly resources).

The lessons of Yosef and the little jug of oil are an eternal inspiration for us as we traverse these hard times. Let us take those lessons and do our part in helping our country pull itself back together. And in the same vain when we are trying to build our community let us use our resources properly and maximize our impact on the community.

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A Good Man Never Rests – Drasha Vayeshev

Thank you to community member Milton Simon for editing these Shabbos speeches given at the Pacific Jewish Center from my notes into these articles.

The Torah tells us in this week’s parsha, “Vayeshev Yaakov b’eretz megurei aviv b’eretz Canaan” Yaakov and his entire family returned to the land of his parents – the land of Canaan. Yaakov has successfully survived the life-threatening conflict with Eisav after preserving his integrity after his father-in-law Lavan has tried to cheat and swindle him during his 20 years of labor. Amazingly, Yaakov developed tremendous wealth despite all of Lavan’s best efforts.

One can imagine a very successful retiree going back to his roots to ride off into the sunset. Yaakov raised 13 children, he had 2 wives plus 2 quasi wives to keep happy. Yaakov has worked very hard to be able to now enjoy his last days basking in the glory of his life’s work. If it were us that is what we would do.

In fact Rashi brings the Medrash Rabba which states that when a Tzaddik has earned a lion’s share of riches in the “world to come” and they ALSO desire to live out their wealthy retirement days in peace and quiet before they die, the Satan (he is the prosecuting angel) complains. He says – “Is it not enough that the Tzaddik will live out his eternal life in Olam haba (afterlife) but he also wants to enjoy a tranquil existence in this world?” The Satan’s complaint “forced” G-d to prove Satan’s complaint unfounded, and this is what happened with Yaakov – just as he is ready to relax the entire incident of Yosef’s kidnapping and sale into slavery occurs. Now Yaakov sits for many years in pain and anguish over his lost son.

Rav Schwab asks the obvious question on this Midrash. What power (why should G-d listen to him?) does the Satan have to stop a Tzaddik from living out his days in peace and tranquility? Leave the poor man alone! Especially when the man is a Yaakov Avinu and his plan is learn Torah day and night!

Avraham, Yaakov’s grandfather took it upon himself to spread the goodness of the Creator to the masses. Avraham made it his life’s mission to inform anyone and everyone that the world has a Master and He has an opinion about how we are to live our lives. Everything Avraham did reflected this mission. His “guest service” was a tool to introduce people to the idea of a single living and loving G-d, and he was rather successful in this endeavor.

As the possuk in Lech Lecha says: Avraham built a mizbeyach (alter) and called out to G-d. Onkelos translates this calling out to G-d as prayer. Ramban disagrees. Ramban learns that the words mean what they say. Avraham literally called out the name G-d to the world. When he was in Ur Kasdim, Avraham was unable to influence anyone due to the prevailing idol worship culture and a dictator in Nimrod who killed all non-idol worshipers. But now Avraham was blessed with “V’avarech Avarechecha” he proclaimed G-d’s existence to the masses and his voice was heard. Ramban continues and says that G-d promised Avroham’s son, Yitzchak that He would be with him and Yitzchak also built a mizbeyach and called out to G-d. Yitzchak was keeping the family tradition alive by proclaiming G-d’s glory to all. Ramban says that we don’t find this anywhere for Yaakov.

Yaakov took a subtler route. Yaakov had children. Yaakov produced a large family which he trained in the ways of G-d. By default they transmitted the message of their grandfather Yitzchak and their great grandfather Avraham to the world. And we continue this mission to this very day.

Rav Schwab adds that Yaakov did actually build mizbeyach but his calling out was personal. He named places with names that reflected a recognition of G-d but (what are you trying to say here?) his influence was certainly palpable. Yaakov wanted to influence the world through his family and this is what is meant by Yaakov seeking peace and tranquility at the end of his days.

On this there is a legitimate complaint the Satan could make. Yaakov should be spreading the word to everyone not just his family. He has limited his exposure to the masses and thereby limited the influence that he could have. This was unacceptable. Yaakov had the responsibility to carry on the tradition of his father and grandfather and bring the masses of people closer to G-d. This was the flaw in Yaakov’s plan.

And it is for this that Yaakov suffered at the hand of the sale of Yosef to Egypt. Yosef goes down to Mitzrayim (Egypt) and affects the masses of mankind, and the “old” Yaakov eventually follows and with 70 family members in tow. They as a group are could have carried out a tremendous influence on the masses, but it was Yosef alone who took the lead.

Yaakov would no longer be able to sit back and raise his family in isolation and avoid the outside world. It fell to Yosef (and eventually his brothers) to influence the world around them. The message of the “fathers” was very clear, be a light to the world, do good and spread Torah and the ways of G-d.

When my great-grandfather Reb Elyah Lopian retired from his post in England as a Torah leader where he served as the Rosh Yeshiva in Etz Chaim he wished to emigrate to the land of Israel. He was 76 years old at the time. He was an accomplished Torah scholar. He had been Rosh Yeshiva at a number of yeshivas already. He had a very large family and desired to live out his days in Eretz Yisrael. He wanted to learn from the Torah of the great scholars of Israel and he looked forward to taking a secondary, less public role to focus on personal growth and Torah study. Reb Elyah was very reluctant to take public speaking roles as his goal was to remain out of the public eye while in the land of Israel.

Reb Elyah had an audience with the Chazon Ish who was the Gadol Hador (the leader of the Jewish religious world, d. 1954). The Chazon Ish asked him what he planned on doing in Israel, Reb Elyah explained that his desire was to learn and imbibe of the Torah of the gedolim (great sages) who were living there. He was convinced that at his age it would not be realistic to seek a position such as a mashgiach or spiritual mentor for teenagers. The Chazon Ish responded with a blessing from Tehillim in our Shir Shel Yom for Shabbos. Od yenuvun bseiva dsheinim veraananim yihyu, which means “they shall yield fruit in a ripe old age.

The mishna in Avos explains that seiva refers to the stage of life where man is in his seventies. The Chazon Ish then added, lehagid ki yashar Hashem, “to proclaim the righteousness of G-d” – yes, he said, at your age you are to be a teacher. Reb Elyah heeded the advice of the Chazon Ish and became the mashgiach in Kfar Chassidim for the next 22 years! His hundreds of Talmidim are ever grateful to the Chazon Ish.

The story echoes of our parsha’s story. There is no rest for the Tzaddik. We can always make a difference.

I know that our community has already accomplished great things in outreach. I know of the many religious families that exist today only due to our influence. You can say confidently – “I did my fair share, it is time for me to take it easy.” To that I say no! You are too great to take it easy. There are people in your neighborhood who are waiting to be invited by you, waiting for you to reach out to them. Bring them to our events. Bring them Monday night to the Chanuka party, bring them every Monday night, bring them to shul on Friday night, bring them to shul on Shabbos morning. Bring them over to me. Let me make a connection with them and give them another reason to come back in all senses of the word.

Together we can do it. We have done it in the past and it is time to get back in the game. We have a variety of opportunities for our neighbors to learn more – let’s reach out to them and give them those opportunities. There is so much energy here ready to be unleashed. We have the infrastructure in place what we need now is the raw material. Don’t ride off into the sunset. Bring Torah to your community by bringing them to the Torah and love for Torah and love for our fellow Jews that we offer at the Pacific Jewish Center.

We can make lay claim to the title Pacific Jewish CENTER – the center for Jewish life in Venice. But only if we make it into a “center” by doing the outreach we are capable of doing.

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