Parshat Vayigash תשע”ט
After Yosef revealed himself to his brothers, they hurried home to tell Yaakov that Yosef was still alive and that he was the ruler of Egypt, second in command only to Pharaoh. Yaakov’s response was to immediately go down to Egypt to see Yosef while he still could. This would complete the process of getting the Jewish nation to Egypt for the exile that had been told to Avraham Avinu many years earlier.
Yaakov’s desire to go to Egypt to see Yosef presented a difficult challenge. How would he keep the Jewish people “Jewish” and assure that they do not assimilate into Egyptian culture and disappear?
The first thing that Yaakov did was to send Yehudah to Goshen (in Egypt) to start a Yeshiva for Torah study. The Torah tells us (Genesis 46:28):
כח) וְאֶת יְהוּדָה שָׁלַח לְפָנָיו אֶל יוֹסֵף לְהוֹרֹת לְפָנָיו גֹּשְׁנָה וַיָּבֹאוּ אַרְצָה גֹּשֶׁן
28) He sent Yehuda ahead of him to Joseph to prepare ahead of him in Goshen, and they arrived in the region of Goshen.
What was the nature of this preparation? The Midrash (Midrash Tanchuma Vayegash 11) fills in the details:
יא) ואת יהודה שלח לפניו להתקין לו בית תלמוד שיהא מורה שם הוראה שיהא מלמד את השבטים
He sent Yehuda to establish a place of Torah study to teach the tribes.
The Midrash proves this by showing that Torah study was the central focus of Yaakov our forefather’s household.
Originally, Yaakov did not believe his sons that Yosef was still alive. Only after he saw the wagons that Yosef sent him did Yaakov accept that Yosef was still alive. How did the wagons convince Yaakov?
The continuation of the previous Midrash reveals the secret.
ויפג לבו כי לא האמין להם נזכר יעקב באיזה פרק פירש ממנו ואמר בלבו יודע אני שבפרק עגלה ערופה פירש יוסף ממני ואמר להן יתן לכם סימן באיזה פרק פירש ממני ואני מאמין לכם ואף יוסף נזכר באיזה פרק פירש מאביו מה עשה יוסף נתן להם עגלות כיון שראה יעקב את העגלות מיד ותחי רוח יעקב אביהם
But his heart rejected it, for he could not believe them. Yaakov then recalled the chapter of the Torah they had been learning together when Yosef left him, and he said to himself, “I know that we were involved in the portion of the ‘עגלה ערופה – the axed heifer’ when Yosef left. He said to his sons, ‘If you can tell me what topic we were learning about when we parted ways, I will believe you.’ (They answered עגלה ערופה and then pointed to the wagons) Yosef also remembered and therefore sent Yaakov the עגלות – wagons. (The word wagon in Hebrew, עגלה, has the same letters as heifer, but different vowels).
When Yaakov saw the wagons, he believed the brothers and his spirit was revived.
How did Yaakov expect the brothers to know what the last topic that Yaakov and Yosef had learned together was? They were shearing the sheep in Dotan, and Yosef was on a mission to check on them and report to his father? The Midrash is showing us how Torah study was the primary focus of Yaakov and his children’s lives. Yaakov knew that if it really was his son Yosef, it would be impossible for him to be together with his siblings and not discuss Torah, even in Egypt. Yosef would have had to ask his brothers what his father last taught about the עגלה ערופה. This is how he would know for sure that Yosef was still alive.
There is another indication that Yaakov’s children were themselves always immersed in Torah study.
Upon sending his brothers home to tell his father that he is still alive, Yosef instructed his brothers: (Genesis 45:24)
כד) וַיְשַׁלַּח אֶת אֶחָיו וַיֵּלֵכוּ וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם אַל תִּרְגְּזוּ בַּדָּרֶךְ
24) And he sent off his brothers, and they went, He said to them, “Don’t become agitated on the way.”
What is the meaning of “don’t become agitated on the way?” Rashi quotes the Talmud, which explains it to mean, “Don’t get involved in deep Torah discussions, because you may become so engrossed that you will lose your way. Keep it topical.” Once again, we see that the sons of Yaakov were suspect of becoming deeply engrossed in Torah discussion and needed a warning.
Yehuda was sent to create a בית התלמוד – a house of study, a/k/a – a yeshiva. It is important to note that there needed to be a formal institution for Torah learning. Torah learning needs to occur in a place that is designated as a “house of study.” Why? And what is behind the name “yeshiva” as the description of a place for Torah study?
One question answers the other. The Hebrew word ישיבה literally means in a seated position. Maimonides explains that being in a seated position connotes being at rest in a stable and steadfast position, unlike standing or lying down. The idea is that Torah study, to be successful, requires a person to hunker down and settle in. A “by the way” or cursory approach will not bring a person to mastery in Torah. This is why an institution of Torah study is called a Yeshiva, and why Yehuda went to establish a Yeshiva. The Jewish people have dedicated themselves to the study of Torah since Avraham Avinu.
The Talmud Tractate Yuma 28b says:
דאמר רבי חמא ברבי חנינא: מימיהן של אבותינו לא פרשה ישיבה מהם. היו במצרים ישיבה עמהם, שנאמר: לך ואספת את זקני ישראל. היו במדבר ישיבה עמהם, שנאמר: אספה לי שבעים איש מזקני ישראל. אברהם אבינו זקן ויושב בישיבה היה, שנאמר: ואברהם זקן בא בימים. יצחק אבינו זקן ויושב בישיבה היה, שנאמר: ויהי כי זקן יצחק. יעקב אבינו זקן ויושב בישיבה היה, שנאמר: ועיני ישראל כבדו מזקן
Rabbi Chama the son of Rabbi Chanina said. Starting with the forefathers the Jewish people always had a yeshiva for Torah study which produced זקנים – men wise in Torah. [The word זקן when written in the Torah connotes wise in Torah] When the Jews were in Egypt, they had a yeshiva, as is says (Exodus 3:16) “Go and gather the wise men of the Jewish people.” When they were in the desert, they had a yeshiva as it says (Numbers 11:16) “Gather for me seventy wise men from Israel.” Avraham Avinu was a wise man who sat in a yeshiva as it says (Genesis 24:1) “And Avraham was wise elder well on in years.” Yitzchak was a wise man who sat in a yeshiva as it says (Genesis 27:1) “And when Yitzchak was a wise elder.” Yaakov was a wise man who sat in a yeshiva as it says (Genesis 48:10) “And Yaakov’s eyes were weak as Yaakov was זקן –“ wise in Torah.
Additionally, it says (Genesis 25:27) that Yaakov was איש תם יושב אהלים – a perfect man who dwelt in the tents of Torah. He studied Torah in his father Yitzchak’s house until he was 63 years old, then spent another 14 years in the yeshiva of Shem, the son of Noach, and Eber, Shem’s great grandson, before going to Lavan’s house to find a wife.
When Yosef became the Egyptian viceroy, the Midrash informs us, that he made a law that the government would pay to support the clergy as a reward to the Egyptian clergymen who acquitted him from the charges of Potiphar’s wife. When the slavery began, the tribe of Levi opted to study Torah instead of working for Pharaoh, and this law extended to them as well, so they were able to continue their dedication to the Torah. Therefore, throughout the years in Egypt, the tribe of Levi was exempt from work and was involved in Torah study day and night. It is no wonder that many years later, when Moshe came down from Sinai with the tablets and saw the golden calf, and proclaimed the famous words: מי לה’ אלי” – Whoever is for Hashem, come to me!” that the entire tribe of Levi were the only ones who responded. They were already “for Hashem” in their daily lives via their singular devotion to the study of Torah. This also prepared them to be the servants in the holy temple, and to be the teachers and role models for the Jewish nation.
It was also through the constant and diligent study of the Torah during the 40 years that the Jewish people spent in the wilderness, that we became the “People of the Book.” For the entire 40 years, their daily food fell from heaven, their water was from a well that travelled with them, and their clothes were automatically cleaned and grew with them as needed. They were free to study Torah, and study the Torah they did.
When Rabbi Chama the son of Rabbi Chanina said that the Jewish People always had a yeshiva for Torah study, it goes without saying that the yeshivas were filled with students who completely dedicated themselves to Torah learning. If the yeshivas were empty and did not produce learned Torah scholars, what would Rabbi Chama be boasting about? Throughout the generations starting from Sinai until today, the Jewish nation has always had holy Sages who have chosen to elevate themselves above worldly pursuits and have dedicated every fiber of their being to the study of Torah and have mastered it. Their brilliance and erudition are evidenced in the tens of thousands of Torah volumes that fill the shelves of libraries throughout the world. (This does not take into account the many thousands of manuscripts that were destroyed by our enemies before getting to print.) The substantial number of holy books in print today represents but a small fraction of the actual number of holy works written throughout the ages.
Just as the forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov were the leaders and the foundation of our nation, so, too, the Holy Sages and Torah scholars have always been, and are today, the leaders and foundation of our nation.
What is it about the diligent and selfless study of Torah that equips a scholar to become the visionary and leader of the generation?
The Sages teach us that Hashem and the Torah are one. How is that? The Torah comprises all the wisdom and information that is in Hashem’s mind, so to speak. Hashem, in the most brilliant and ingenious way, has condensed and hidden all of that infinite information into the Torah. The Torah can be learned on many levels. For example, a child in the first grade of Yeshiva Beth Yehudah learns the first words of the Torah, “בראשית ברא אלקים – In the beginning Hashem created …” and it makes perfect sense to him. At the end of his life, the Vilna Gaon did not use any books of Torah commentary. He instead studied directly from an actual sefer Torah- Torah scroll. His understanding of Torah was so advanced that there were no books suitable to his level, his having surpassed all of the current authors. So, as he studied the very same words as the first grader, he was at the same time contemplating explanations miles and miles deep. The wisdom of the Torah is infinite and is hidden in codes within codes, and layer upon layer, like an onion, ad infinitum.
(To give you a current example of how condensed information can be, consider the following : “If you were to take all the printed information in every library in the whole world, and condense it in the way that DNA is condensed, it would all fit on 1/100th of the head of a pin.” Gerald Shroeder – The Hidden Face of G-d.) Or, for an example going in the other direction, a single strand of DNA which measures only 1/2500th of an inch, which is found in every single human cell, if uncoiled, would be 6’ long!
When a person studies the Torah and absorbs the holy, G-dly information within it, he becomes sanctified by the holy information within him. Over time, as he amasses more and more Torah, the Torah ideas and concepts replace his personal ideas and thoughts. Now, through the light of the Holy Torah which he embodies, he is able to see the world and world events through the perspective of the Torah and Hashem.
This concept is beautifully brought out in the following teaching of Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetzki. זצ”ל
There are many arguments in Jewish law between the commentaries, based on different understandings of a segment of the Talmud. To prove his point, Rabbeinu Asher (1250-1327) would quote a source in the Talmud to support his position. “But,” Rabbi Kaminetzki said, “when the Rabbeinu Asher says, ‘It seems to me that this is the law..,’ this carries more weight than a talmudic proof. Because Rabbeinu Asher is the embodiment of the Torah, when he says “it seems to me,” this means that the entire breadth of Torah is speaking to us, not just a single talmudic text.
Being the conduit through which we are able to know the will of Hashem directly, Torah study provides the lifeblood of the Jewish people. Though we no longer have prophets, we can still know Hashem’s will by listening to the holy Sages who steep themselves in Torah day and night and who are privy to it through the Torah, where it resides.
On a deeper level, the connection to Hashem through the Torah is the most intimate relationship possible, since it is a meeting of the minds, so to speak. Just as when two people are on the same wavelength and come up with the same ideas and thoughts, they feel the strongest connection and affinity possible, similarly, a person shares the strongest bond with Hashem through being so deeply connected to Hashem through His Torah.
This is one explanation of why Torah study is an end onto itself, unlike studying any other area of wisdom.
If a person studied medicine to become a doctor, but in the end became a car mechanic, all the time and effort that he put forth to learn medicine was wasted effort, since all that information will do him no good in diagnosing engine trouble for his customers. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge is of no use unless you plan to use it for something.
As far as Torah is concerned, however, knowing Torah –just for the sake of knowing Torah– is the highest form of Torah knowledge תורה לשמה – because your sole purpose for wanting to know it is to know Hashem’s mind and to connect your mind to Hashem’s, so to speak. There is no greater endeavor that a human being can engage in. We need to think about this from Hashem’s perspective, too. Who are we, that Hashem has found us worthy of sharing His holy and lofty thoughts through the Torah with us? Anyone who has this privilege should consider himself the luckiest person in the world.
This is why the single greatest mitzvah of the 613 commandments Torah study. Indeed, our Sages tell us an even more astounding fact. The study of even a single word of Torah is greater than all the other 612 commandments combined. If a person studied Torah ,לשמה for the sake of knowing Torah, in a cave all his life, and never taught a single soul, his Torah would have a profound positive effect on, and would provide tremendous benefit to, the entire world. Since the holiness of his Torah would be so great, being that there was nothing in it for him personally, its holiness would translate into a most positive benefit to the world.
In summary, Torah study creates the deepest bond between a person and Hashem and also provides him with Hashem’s wisdom and the understanding of Hashem’s will. Hence, the Torah Sage is well equipped to guide the Jewish nation in their destiny on this earth. Abandoning the Torah, on the other hand, leads us to ignore our mission and lose our way on our purpose in the world.
This is why the very first thing Yaakov did, before he took his family down to Egypt, was to send Yehuda before him to set up a Yeshiva for Torah learning to serve as the foundation of the Jews in Egypt. The connection to the Torah would keep the Jewish people close to Hashem and on the correct path. This fact is true today as well.