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The tension was mounting. The brothers couldn’t understand the irrational behavior of this unknown Egyptian viceroy. Binyamin stood accused of theft and faced a lifetime of incarceration and servitude in Egypt. The brothers faced the horrible reality of returning to Yaakov, their father, without his precious, youngest son. Yehuda, acting as the spokesman, approached the Egyptian ruler (Yosef) and said, “For how will I go up to my father if the boy is not with me? Let me not see the misery that will befall my father!” (Genesis 44:34) Rashi explains: “Now if you ask why I (Yehuda) enter the fray more than my other brothers, [I will reply that] they are all [standing] from the outside [without commitment], while I have bound myself with a strong bond to be an outcast in both worlds.” In last week’s Parsha we read that it was Yehuda who guaranteed Binyamin’s safety to his father, Yaakov. And it would be Yehuda who would face the brunt of Yaakov’s heartbreak and wrath in this world and the next, should he return without Binyamin. It was in this moment that Yehuda demonstrated a core principle of leadership – responsibility. The rabbis explain that it was in this very moment that Yehuda earned the future mantle of Jewish monarchy. A leader must possess many important traits and characteristics but to be a truly effective leader one must be willing to take full responsibility for the process and outcome of events. One must be willing to wave the flag of victory and shoulder the burden of defeat.
But there is something else. Embedded in these simple words, “For how will I go up to my father if the boy is not with me?” is another profound and meaningful message. Rav Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye (1710-1784, Toldos Yaakov Yosef) explains: “Koh tzarich kol yehudi l’daber el libo, ‘eych e’eleh achar kach el avi she’bashamayim, vi’yimey ha’neurim eynam iti, kalu b’hevel v’rik, (so shall every Jew say in his heart, ‘how can I ascend (after death) to my Father in Heaven, and the days of youth are not with me for I have squandered them in emptiness and frivolity’).”
Powerful words from a great Chassidic master. After 120 God will ask us how we used our youth. How did we use those years which were filled with promise and potential? How did we use those years of strength and vigor? Let’s be honest – it’s easy to be pious when we’re old, tired and no longer have the desire or stamina to sin. How we used our youth – that will be the question God will ask us. The Rebbe explains that in this very moment Yehuda was lamenting all the lost years. Years that were spent covering for a crime against his own flesh and blood. Years which were taken from Yaakov and could never be returned. He lamented the youthful innocence stolen from Yosef that could never be recovered. Yehuda broke down in front of his brothers and in front of Egypt, how will I face my father in Canaan and how will I face my father in Heaven when I know I have not maximized my youth and I have taken the youthful years of others.
The Rebbe’s words cut right to our soul. How have we used our youth? Have we actualized our unique potentials? Have we utilized our strengths and abilities? Have we maximized our youth? These are scary questions because if it turns out that we did not maximize our youth, what can we do about it now? Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter (1847-1905), known as the Sefas Emes (Pirkei Avos 4:20) explains. “Who is a child? One who has a tomorrow.” The holy Gerrer Rebbe goes on to explain that each day is its own self-contained unit of life. We often look at a day as an incremental unit in the measurement of weeks, months and years. But in truth every day is its own cycle of life. Throughout the day we age and mature. In the morning when we wake up we are like newborn infants, by noon in our early adult years, by late afternoon we reach our mature adult and twilight years, and by nightfall we return our soul to our Maker and the unit of life has come to an end. In other words, youth is a constantly recurring state of being which begins at the start of each day. How we each decide to use our youth of any one day will determine the trajectory of that one unit of life, that one day. And even if for some reason we didn’t maximize the youth of yesterday we can still do so tomorrow. We are given the great gift of youth every morning upon awakening. Our mandate is to make the most of it.
The question of “how have I used my youth?” need not be anxiety provoking; it just needs to be reframed. “How have I used my youth?” is not nearly as important as “how am I going to use my youth in the days, weeks, months and years ahead?”
Life Lessons from the Weekly Parsha – A Women’s Shiur.
Course given at Maalot Baltimore
Weekly class delivered at Women’s Institute of Torah.
What is Chanukah? The Sages taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev, the days of Hanukkah are eight. One may not eulogize on them and one may not fast on them. What is the reason? When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they defiled all the oils that were in the Sanctuary. And when the Hasmonean monarchy overcame them and emerged victorious over them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil that was placed with the seal of the High Priest, undisturbed by the Greeks. And there was sufficient oil there to light the Menorah candelabrum for only one day. A miracle occurred, and they lit the Menorah from it eight days (Tractate Shabbos 21b).
We have heard this story since our youth. The one cruse of oil which miraculously remained lit for eight days. This little miracle gave us the Yom Tov of Chanukah. Yet we know this was not the only miracle. There was a stunning military upset. The small band of soldiers from the Hasmonean family led a revolt against the formidable Syrian-Greek army. They were outnumbered and at a clear disadvantage in every way. Yet, they fought and won. Interestingly this miracle goes relatively unnoticed. It is true, we refer to it in the supplemental paragraph in the Amidah (Al HaNissim, Bimey Matisyahu), but the clear focus of Chanukah is the miracle of the oil. If we put these two miracles, the miracle of the oil and the miracle of the military victory side by side – which one is greater? I think we would all agree that the military victory is overwhelmingly more significant. The miracle of the oil is incredible, but a rag-tag Jewish army defeating the strong and well-trained regional army is truly miraculous. Why the all the emphasis on the oil miracle?
Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook (1865-1935) provides a beautiful explanation. The miracle of the pach shemen, the cruse of oil contains a much deeper message. The Greeks defiled the Temple. They took that which was holy and made it impure. They took our sacred space and profaned it. Each of us is a personal Beis Hamikdash, a Temple. Just as the Temple was a physical structure which housed the presence of God, we have a physical body which houses the presence of God in the form of our soul. Just as our national Beis Hamikdash was desecrated and defiled, sometimes because of the bad decisions we make, negative behaviors in which we engage, we defile our personal Temple. There are times in life when we look in the mirror and can barely see the spark of God inside of us. We see the physical shell, but can’t see the light which was once there. We see the structure, but we can’t see the holiness. When the Maccabim came into the Temple and saw the physical and spiritual debris, they thought all was lost. But then they found the little jug of unsullied oil, the little jug of intact holiness and with it they rekindled the light of the Temple; they reignited the spark of national holiness. On the Yom Tov of Chanukah, we look within ourselves. As we begin to survey our lives, we may find layers of debris. The fallout of poor decisions and lost opportunities. It may look like everything is lost. We are condemned to the darkness. But then something amazing happens. We find the jug of oil. Inside each of us is a little, pure cruse of untainted, unspoiled spiritual holiness. No matter how badly we mess up in life – there is still beautiful holiness inside of each of us. We must have the courage to look for it and once we find it, the strength to ignite it.
This is the deeper message of the oil miracle and the reason it is the centerpiece of the Chanukah experience. Each of us is a Temple in a state of disrepair (the extent of disrepair differs from person to person) and it is on this Yom Tov that we follow in the footsteps of our ancestors. We sift through the life debris and find our jug of pure, holy and luminescent spiritual potential. We bask in the light of our ancestors and may future generations bask in ours.
Life Lessons from the Weekly Parsha – A Women’s Shiur