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Torah Sparks

January 10, 2009 – 14 Tevet 5769

Annual: Genesis 47:28-50:26 (Etz Hayim, p. 293; Hertz p. 180)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 49:1-49:26 (Etz Hayim, p. 298; Hertz p. 183)
Haftarah: I Kings 2:1 – 12 (Etz Hayim, p. 313; Hertz p. 191)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

As Jacob’s life draws to a close, he summons his son Joseph and asks Joseph to swear that he will not bury him in Egypt, but will return his body to Canaan to be buried in the cave of Machpelah. Later, Joseph brings his sons to visit his ailing father. Jacob tells Joseph that Ephraim and Manasseh will be considered equal to Jacob’s other sons. Jacob blesses his son and grandsons, and then he gathers all his sons and speaks to each individually about his character and his future, “addressing to each a parting word appropriate to him.” Then Jacob dies. He was 147.

Joseph has his father’s body prepared according to Egyptian custom and then his family, accompanied by Egyptian dignitaries, travels to Canaan to bury Jacob with his parents and grandparents. Joseph’s brothers, fearing what Joseph may do now that their father is dead, tell Joseph it was Jacob’s dying wish that Joseph forgive his brothers. Joseph assures them that he bears no grudge against them, because even though they acted out of spite God turned their actions to good. Joseph dies at 110 after asking his family to swear that they will return his bones to Canaan when God brings the Israelites back to the land He has promised.

1. Anger Management

Simeon and Levi are a pair; their weapons are tools of lawlessness. Let not my person be included in their council, let not my being be counted in their assembly, for when angry they slay men, and when pleased they maim oxen. Cursed be their anger so fierce, and their wrath so relentless. I will divide them in Jacob, scatter them in Israel. (Bereisheit 49:5-7)

  1. Simeon and Levi were zealous and their motives were pure. What they did to Shechem did not stem from a love of battle or war. They would not have risked their lives had it not been for the sake of Heaven. Yet in spite of this Jacob cursed their zealousness, for anger and zealousness are not good qualities, and a person should always refrain from them, even for the sake of Heaven and with good motives. (Mi-ginzeinu Ha-atik, quoting Rabbi Meir of Premishlan, cited in Itturei Torah, Rabbi Aharon Yaakov Greenberg)
  2. Their anger will be lessened through their lowly state and hard life, caused by the fact that they will be divided and scattered. (Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, 1475-1550, Italy)
  3. “They slay men” – that refers to Hamor and the people of Shechem; “they maim oxen” – that they wished to annihilate Joseph (Rashi). What is the connection between these two events? Rather, Jacob said as follows: When I saw their extremism and their zealousness in the episode of Shechem, where they killed the entire town after their sister had been defiled by Shechem the son of Hamor, I did not know if the source of their action was a holy one, in that they were zealous for God, or whether it was no more than simple revenge and murder. The second incident, then, that of the sale of Joseph, taught me that their first action had not been done out of pure motives, but because of their anger and their desire for revenge: because “when angry they slay men.” (Ma’ayanah shel Torah, Rabbi Alexander Zusia Friedman, 1897-1943, Poland)
  4. The Chasam Sofer explains that the dividing and spreading in this verse refers to the previously mentioned anger of the tribes of Shimon and Levi. Shimon and Levi overreacted with violence. But the other tribes did nothing for the benefit of Dinah. This was improper, for they should have taken some action. Therefore Yaakov said, “I’ll take away some of the anger of Shimon and Levi and spread it among the other brothers, for they need more than they have now. Then they will all have this trait in a proper amount.” (Toras Moshe) Every trait is necessary. The only question is how much and in which situations it should be used. Someone without anger or zealousness will fail to take action to protest injustice. On the other hand, excessive anger is extremely harmful. It causes quarrels, hurt feelings, much pain and suffering. What is needed is the proper balance to be used according to the directives of the Torah... To be a complete person every trait must be used. Fortunate is the person who has mastered a proper balance. (Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, “Growth Through Torah,” pp. 133-134)

Sparks for Discussion

How do you understand Jacob’s “blessing” of Simeon and Levi? Is anger ever justified? Under what circumstances? When is anger appropriate? How should appropriate anger be put to use? How can a person learn to control inappropriate anger?

2. Thank You for Your Support

Zebulon shall dwell by the seashore; he shall be a haven for ships and his flank shall rest on Sidon. Issachar is a strong-boned ass, crouching among the sheepfolds. (Bereisheit 49: 13-14)

  1. Zebulon is mentioned before Issachar (even though he is younger) because he occupied himself with commerce while Issachar studied Torah and one cannot study Torah unless his material wants are satisfied... By Zebulon aiding Issachar the merit belongs to both. (Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, 1475-1550, Italy)
  2. As Issachar was born first, he should theoretically have been mentioned before Zebulon, and not as the names appear here. Why, then, was Zebulon mentioned first? Traditionally, we are told that Zebulon and Issachar had a partnership, whereby Issachar learned Torah for both and Zebulon supported both. By mentioning Zebulon first, the Torah teaches us that the one who supports those who learn Torah has a greater reward than the one who learned it. (Toldot Yitzhak [Rabbi Yitzhak Caro, 15-16th century, Spain and Turkey])
  3. May He who blessed our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, bless this entire congregation, together with all holy congregations: them, their sons and daughters, their families, and all that is theirs, along with those who unite to establish synagogues for prayer, and those who enter them to pray, and those who give funds for heat and light, and wine for kiddush and havdalah, bread to the wayfarer and charity to the poor, and all who devotedly involve themselves with the needs of the community and the land of Israel... (Siddur Sim Shalom, p. 415)

Sparks for Discussion

Synagogues, schools and other institutions make it a point to honor significant donors in many ways, including (in many) affixing donor plaques to everything from library shelves to entire buildings. Some people find this distasteful, but it is a rare institution that is able to pay salaries, utility bills, insurance premiums, etc., solely from membership dues or tuitions. In what ways can people who are unable to donate (much) money contribute to the support of Jewish institutions? How might a wise institution honor their non-financial contributions?

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