THE COLLECTED WRITINGS OF RABBI PINKY SCHMECKELSTEIN
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In this week’s Parsha, Parshas Vayayshev, we read characteristic tales that reflect the great moral fabric of our ancestors. These stories include:
-- Yoisaif Hatzadik has repeated dreams of future domination over his brothers and his parents. His brothers express displeasure at these dreams. And who can blame them? Believe me: If your brother boasted that you would one day bow down to him, you would want to kick him in the Bris Milah too.
-- Yehuda fathers the family line that will result in Malchus Bais David, the Davidic monarchy. Of course, along the way he did have to sleep with his daughter in law, Tamar, who disguised herself as a prostitute on the road in order to seduce him. Maylah, after reading this week’s Parsha, I feel a lot less guilty about buying that French maid’s costume and riding crop from Fredericks of Hollywood for my Bashert, Feyga Breinah.
-- The Shvatim, completely fed up with Yoisaif Hatzadik’s undermining of their positions with their father, decide to kill Yoisaif. At the last moment they cast him into a pit and take his Kesoines Passim, his Coat of Many Colors, cover it with goat’s blood and bring it to their father, to whom they report that their beloved sibling was eaten by a beast. Yankif is inconsolable -- to the point of ceasing day trading for a full six hours!
A gemarrah in Soitah brings down a Beraisah quoting a question from Rabbi Elazar Ben Azariah: “Are we, Klal Yisroel, really descendants of these people? I mean, seriously, is it possible we could be adopted? Please?!” Rabbi Elazar goes on to point out that he never in his life tried to kill any of his brothers or sleep with his son’s wife, though he once did grope his sister-in-law during havdalah.
What follows is a famous machloikess in the gemarrah surrounding Rabbi Elazar’s comments:
Rish Lakish holds that Rabbi Elazar Ben Azariah found the activities of the Avois and the Shvatim quite disturbing, and felt that we should try to emulate the more positive aspects of their lives, such as Yosaif Hatzadik’s nice hair style, the Shvatim’s bargaining skills with Ishmaelite merchants, and Yehuda’s giving of generous tips to even the lowliest of roadside prostitutes.
However, Rav Huna holds farkhert: In reality all of the stories brought down in the Toirah do indeed reflect positive elements of our ancestors’ behavior, if only you understood the Toirah properly, you worthless minuval. He explains:
-- Yoisaif was a gadol amongst his brothers, and had true visions of his future exile and eventual ascent to power in Egypt. And in his dreams, his family members were not bowing down to him – rather, they were all picking up pennies from the floor.
-- The Shvatim were afraid that Yoisaif’s perceived arrogance would be a bad influence on their children, and therefore determined to strengthen their own families by kidnapping their brother. And their persistent lying to their father about Yoisaif’s fate was an attempt to Practice the mitzvah of Shiluach Hakan.
-- And Yehuda never, ever, ever, EVER meant in his life to go to a prostitute, chass vesholom. Unfortunately, in his business travels he was exposed to television, and after watching Lady Gaga on MTV he had a tremendous taiyvah. And instead of committing a Dioraisa by himself, if you know what I mean, he chose to do a DeRabannan with Tamar. What a tzadik!
Rav Huna cites proof for his position on the high moral integrity of the Shvatim. He notes that Yoiseph Hatzadik, after he had risen to lead the household of Potiphar, rejected the advances of Mrs. Potiphar. Says Rav Huna: this is because Yoiseph knew Kol HaToirah Kooloh and didn’t want to commit an act of Gilui Arayois – adultery.
But Rish Lakish retorts, citing a medrish in Beraishis Rabbah that says that Mrs. Potiphar weighed 400 pounds and had facial hair that made her look like Yassir Arafat. Rish Lakish also cites a different medrish in the Mekhilta that suggests while living in Potiphar’s house, Yoiseph Hatzadik spent ALL of his time on the weekends going shopping with Potiphar’s younger brother, Merlot, and had no interest in Mrs. Potiphar whatsoever. Rish Lakish concludes, “Rav Huna should spend more time tying his tzitzis rather than trying to reinterpret the basic pshat of Beraishis." Shoyn.
The gemarrah never settles this machloikess and the Rishoinim do not really talk about it. However, this machloikess is most famously addressed in the Likutei HaRABAM and in the Igroiss Penthouse.
Rabbi Elazar Ben Azariah’s comments, and Rish Lakish’s understanding of them, raise a broader question about Yiddishkeit. There are many Halachois and Biblical incidents that stand in contrast to our contemporary sensibilities -- and even any against rational logic itself. A few halachic examples include: the halachois of mikvah, where due to Rabbinic invasion of the marital bedroom two weeks out of every month, men have to take matters into their own hands, if you know what I mean; the notion of animal sacrifice: killing an innocent animal for our own self serving purposes; the killing of an animal that has been the forced subject of bestiality; and the laws of Cherem, the complete decimation of the indigenous population during Kibbush Eretz Yisroel, including women and children.
Other examples include: the promotion of Dovid HaMelech and Shlomo HaMelech as role models and as the paradigmatic rulers of Klal Yisroel, even though Dovid was a murderer and Shlomo was an idolater whose despotism towards the northern tribes resulted in the breakup of the united monarchy; and the promotion of Aroin HaKoihain’s descendants as the priestly caste despite Aroin’s guilt in the Maiseh Ha-Eygel. How are we to relate to a faith that is founded upon many values that we do not necessarily share?
I am reminded of a famous Maaseh Shehoya. Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavicher Rebbe, was once walking to shul on Shabbos morning. It was cold that day, and Reb Shneur struggled to keep his hands warm. As he was crossing the street he noticed Malkah Shprintza, the childless woman who lived across the street. “Come over here so I can give you a bracha!” he called over to her. She walked across the street, and he greeted her by rapidly grabbing her behind and cupping a naked buttock in each freezing hand.
“Rebbe!” she screamed, “what are you doing?”
He replied “I am giving you a bracha: The Reboinoisheloilum should make you favored like Ruchel, fertile like Leah and cunning like Rivka.”
“What happened to Sarah Imainu?” Malkah Shprintza asked, suddenly enchanted by the grand Rebbe’s bracha.
Reb Shneur Zalman looked at her and smiled. “Meideleh” he said, “trust me, you don’t want to be like Sarah Imainu. She was crazier than my mother in law during a hot flash on Yoim Kippur!” With that, Reb Schneur rushed into shul just in time to do vodka shots.
So, just as the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, we have to be intelligently selective about how we understand, and apply, the foundational elements of the Toirah. Should we abandon the faith? No. But that does not mean that we should behave like brainless automatons.
In many ways, we practice Yiddishkeit not because of many of these foundational elements, but despite them. We coexist uncomfortably with these Halachois, stories and role models. We can choose to ignore them, or to embrace them. Just so long as we understand that the main gift of Hakkadoshboruchhu is free will.
However, you minuval, you may choose to reject free will -- in which case you should feel free to partake of every roadside prostitute, just like our ancestor Yehuda. And if you do, just remember to bring cash. Always bear in mind the timeless lesson of Yehuda: if you leave a prostitute your cloak, your staff or other forms of ID as payment, it is likely to come back and bite you in the ass.
Ah Gutten Shabbos, you Minuval.