Wednesday, December 23, 2020

A Nation of Lions

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Vayigash is one of the most dramatic parshiyos in the Torah. The sons of Yaakov had strange experiences when they went to Egypt in search of food during a famine. They followed the path of many people and acted no differently than anyone else. There was a hunger throughout the Middle East, and the only place where there was food was Mitzrayim, so the natural thing to do was to travel there in search of sustenance. Yet, this family was singled out for special attention by the prime minister, who was overseeing the entire famine-fighting effort.

Finally, when the leader threatens to jail Binyomin, the youngest son of Yaakov, Yehudah decides that it is time to tell the man that he has overstepped his authority. The strange ruler had demanded that the brothers bring their youngest brother with them if they were to receive any food a second time.

The ruler alleged that the brothers were Canaanite spies and had waged a fake news campaign against them. He took advantage of their situation and toyed with them, but they had no alternative and had to follow his rules.

It was Yehudah who had convinced their father to allow Binyomin to make the trip, personally accepting responsibility for his safe return. And it was Yehudah who stood up to the man and told him that his gambit had run its course and that now it was time to return to objective decency.

The posuk recounts the conversation. “Vayigash eilov Yehudah.” Yehudah approached Yosef. Apparently speaking deferentially, Yehudah referred to himself as “avdecha,” the ruler’s humble servant, adding, “Bi adoni, please my master, allow me to speak.”

Rashi turns up the tone of the conversation, as he writes that Yehudah spoke to Yosef “kashos.” Cloaked in diplomatic niceties, he made it clear that he would do whatever it took to earn the release of his younger brother.

The dialogue reads like a classic showdown between two powerful men, one a leader in his country, the other a leader in his family. Yehudah faced down Yosef, matching his threats and pleas with wile and negotiation.

The Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 93:2) adds a deeper meaning to the exchange, explaining it by quoting the posuk in Tehillim (48:5) which states, Ki hinei hamelochim noadu ovru yachdov, heima rau kein tomohu nivhalu nechpozu.” The simple translation of the posuk is, “Behold, the kings assembled, they came together, they saw and were astounded.”

The Medrash interprets the posuk as follows: The kings, Yehudah and Yosef, came together and became angry at each other. The other brothers saw, were astounded, and hastily fled the scene.

The Medrash adds that the other brothers said to each other, “Melochim medaynim eilu im eilu, the kings are battling with each other, onu mah ichpas lonu, of what concern is this to us?” Let them fight it out between themselves. It is not for us to become involved in the confrontation.

With these four words, “onu mah ichpas lonu,” the brothers portrayed what differentiated them from Yehudah and what Yehudah did to earn the eternal position of malchus in Klal Yisroel.

About a melech the Rambam writes (Hilchos Melochim 3:6), “Libo hu lev kol khal Yisroel,” his heart encompasses all. He cares about everyone, takes responsibility for them, and does his best to help them.

The others say, “Mah ichpas lonu.” They witness injustice but leave it to others to fight the necessary battle. They may discuss it and bemoan the problem, but when it comes to doing something to rectify the situation, they balk.

The shevotim were all great men, but when they sized up the situation and saw that Yehudah was taking up the battle, they stood to the side.

Yehudah’s middah of “ichpas lo” set him apart. If there was a problem in the family, it was his problem. If something had to be made right, he had to make it right. He didn’t look for others to rise to the occasion. He did. He didn’t make excuses and affix blame on others. He took charge on his own. Ichpas lo. He cared. That is leadership. That is malchus. That is Yehudah. That is what we all need to aim for. To care. To feel the other person’s pain to the degree that that we do what we can to help alleviate suffering. Sometimes, it involves helping someone achieve justice, and sometimes it means working to ensure that people don’t go to bed hungry.

We are blessed with many such people. Think of the Hatzolah men and the work they have done since the onset of the Covid pandemic, not only transporting people to hospitals, but assisting the ill in many ways. Think of the heroic frontline doctors, nurses and volunteers who haven’t stopped working to save lives. Think of all those who have contributed money to help people in need who they don’t even know.

They do it because ichpas lohem. They care. They are good people of responsibility and heart. When there is work to be done and they can do it, they don’t leave it for others.

I wrote once before of the tale that a wise Yerushalmi shared with me. With the gentle humor and wit unique to residents of the Holy City, he told me about a dog that once entered a small shul. The animal noticed that on top of the aron hakodesh, there was an image of two lions hovering over the Luchos.

The dog was incensed. He asked the people in shul why the lion merits such honor. The shul Yidden responded to the dog that the lion is the king of the animals and thus his image is placed in a special place.

The dog wasn’t satisfied. “Why is the lion king? I am king!” he said.

The men in the shul explained to him: “A lion sits patiently. If you throw an old piece of meat or a dried-out bone in its direction, it won’t react. You can’t buy its love by tossing a moldy cut in its direction. The lion decides what it will eat and what is worth lunging for.

“But you, the dog, come bounding over no matter what is being offered. Rotten or decayed, you accept it. If someone throws a stone, you go and chase it. If it is a rock, you run for it. You will chase after a Frisbee as if it were a steak. That’s why you’re never going to be on a paroches.

Gur aryeh Yehudah. Yehudah is compared to a lion, king of the animals. Certainly, this has to do with the readiness of a lion to roar, to spring into action, and to react. Ichpas lo. But there is something else as well. A lion is discriminating. It is selective. It is careful about what it accepts. It doesn’t lunge after everything that is thrown its way. It doesn’t sell itself for cheap honor, for a trick or a stick or an old piece of meat. The lion is disciplined. It is malchusdik, because it can’t be bought. It isn’t corrupted or easily won over.

The lesson shared by the witty Yerushalmi is relevant on so many levels. The desire for honor and a platform from which to preach, and the thirst for power, is so strong that otherwise reasonable people are driven to the point where they are cheapened as they chase after that lust.

The Brisker Rov is quoted as saying that in times past, the overriding question before engaging in an activity was if it is permitted or not. In our day, he said, the consideration is whether the action will bring about a desired result or not. Or, in his words, “They don’t think about whether it is mutar or assur. They think about whether it is kedai or not kedai.”

We can understand that when Chazal foretold that in the period leading up to Moshiach, the pnei hador will be k’pnei hakelev, it refers to the fact that people will act as the kelev and sell themselves cheaply if it appears to them that it pays off, even if only in the short run.  

Our primary motivator must be to act responsibly for the public good and not permit minor inducements to steer us from the path of goodness and truth.

The Gemara in Maseches Nedorim (24a) states, inter alia, that a dog says, “Ana demis’hanina minoch velo mishanis minoi - I benefit from you, but you won’t benefit from me.” A relationship with a dog works one way: the dog takes and the man gives. In contrast, a king says, “Ana demanina loch v’at lo mehanis li.” Everyone benefits from a king.

A melech is a nosein, a beneficent giver. He cares about others. A kelev is a mekabel, a taker, caring only about itself and those who feed it.

Thus, in the time of ikvesa deMeshicha, when many are apathetic, selfish and caught up with themselves and their concerns, they are compared to dogs. They don’t have time or room in their hearts for people other than those from who they receive benefit.

The Chofetz Chaim writes (Ahavas Chesed, 14) that if people would do chesed with each other, the final geulah would come. We can bring about the geulah through helping others and feeling their pain.

We may understand that in the period of ikvesa deMeshicha, pnei hador k’pnei hakelev. There will be a klipah of selfishness in the world that will be mekatreig on us. To remove that klipah and curse from upon us, we should emulate the lion, conducting ourselves with dignity, forthrightness and selflessness. We have to be like Yehudah. We must be ichpas lonu-niks. If we would show that we care, we could create new worlds for ourselves and improve the one in which we live, as the posuk (Tehillim 89) says, “Olam chesed yiboneh.”

Opportunities for ichpas lonu abound. There is no shortage of situations where we can show that we care. We can fight for an ideal, for justice, and against those who seek to usurp what is not theirs.

Whatever we do, we should remember that we are bnei melochim and act in a way befitting royalty. When we see people acting improperly, or people who have been wronged, and when we can make a difference in someone’s life or for a cause, we have to rise like a lion.

If we help someone find a job, or get a child into a school, or find someone a shidduch, or listen to someone’s problems; if we lend someone money, or provide a shoulder for someone to cry on, we are fulfilling our mandate as heirs to a royal heritage.

When we leave our comfort zone, when we are kind and compassionate despite having our own problems to worry about, we are acting like a lion and helping bring Moshiach closer.

When Yehudah addressed Yosef, he noted that the Egyptian ruler had asked of the brothers peculiar questions, such as whether they had a father or another brother. As he was ostensibly attempting to determine whether they were men of character, what difference is it to the Egyptian ruler whether these men who came simply to purchase food had a father or brother?

A rebbe once explained that when Yosef asked whether they had a father, he was referring to something deeper. He was asking the brothers whether they had family traditions to which they were loyal. Do you have a solid foundation? Do you have a Father in Heaven whose word you follow and whom you worship, or are you just a clan of roving nomads, coming here to do this country harm?

Perhaps we can add that by asking whether they had another brother, he was referring to the future. Are you people concerned with the youth? Do you connect them with their past? Do you educate them about their heritage? Or do you permit the winds of the times to impact and indoctrinate them?

Yehuda responded: Yeish lanu av zokein, we have an old father, a glorious past, v’yeled zekunim, and a bright future. Vanomer el adoni, lo yuchal hanaar laazov es aviv, v’ozav es aviv vames. The future cannot sever itself from the past, for we understand that if we would permit that to happen, our future is dead.

In order to inculcate in our children - and ourselves - the strength to withstand all that we are confronted with in our time; in order to build the spiritual fortitude to bring up children to be as strong and resolute as Yaakov, Yehudah, and Yosef; to be as responsible and caring as lions, we must embrace the wisdom and conduct that our parents have taught and passed down from their forebears back to the times of the avos and imahos.

We have a royal heritage; we are heirs to good stuff. We are going through tough times. Let us show that we are tough enough to persevere, tough enough to feel the pain of others, and tough enough to help, comfort and console.

We are a nation of lions, not dogs. Let’s show it.


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