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Parshat Vayechi: Tenacity, Truth

Based on a Naaleh.com shiur by Mrs. Shira Smiles

On his deathbed Yaakov gathered his sons and blessed them. He blessed Yehuda, “Your brothers will acknowledge you. Your hand will be at your enemy’s neck. Your father’s sons will prostrate themselves to you… From the prey my son, you withdrew. He crouched, rested, like a lion.”

Rav Rice explains that when Yaakov gave his sons the blessings, he focused on their unique character traits. He gave them the gift of self-knowledge so that they could concentrate on developing their innate potential. The Zohar says that when a person leaves this world, Hashem shows him what he could have become during his sojourn in this world. The soul emits a primal cry of anguish for failing to fulfill its task. Every Jew is charged with a unique purpose. Unfortunately many of us fall short. How can we avoid this? From time to time, a person should make a chesbon hanefesh (soul accounting) to get a clear sense of where he’s at. He should find a mentor to lead him on the right track and study the Torah, Hashem’s guidebook for life. On Friday night, there’s an age old custom to bless our sons to be like Efrayim and Menashe. Both Efrayim and Menashe exceeded their potential and were raised to the level of the tribes. We wish our children that they too exceed their potential with the hope that they’ll at least meet it.

Yaakov showed each of his sons their strengths and failings so that they could reach perfection in avodat hashem. This is what Chazal meant, “Chanoch lanaar al pi darko.” (Educate a child according to his ways.) Parents and teachers are meant to give their children the gift of self-knowledge by helping them channel their abilities and improve on their weaknesses.

The Lev Shalom asks, what is the meaning of the verse, “From the prey my son you withdrew?” He explains that Reuven never felt that Yosef was worthy of death, although Yehuda did. However, midway, Yehuda backed down and admitted that his original opinion was incorrect and that Yosef should be sold. This ability to publicly admit one’s mistakes took an enormous amount of inner fortitude and Yaakov praised Yehuda for it. We see Yehuda displaying this strength again with the story of Tamar. Yehuda understood that veering off from truth even slightly is no longer emet. Am Yisrael are called Yehudim because the seal of Hashem is truth. Klal Yisrael are charged with acquiring this middah. It says, “Emet m’eretz tizmach.” (Truth sprouts from the earth.) Why then is truth so difficult to find? The Baal Shem Tov explains that reaching truth requires bending down and most people find this hard. Owning up to one’s mistakes takes tremendous humility. 

The word modeh has a dual meaning, to admit the truth and to thank. Both have the same core notion, the realization that it’s not about ego and perfection. People sometimes have difficulty saying thank you because it implies lacking in themselves and needing others. If you’re always right and you let your pride overpower you, there’s no room for any type of interpersonal relationship to grow and develop. The central quality of a Jew is humility. Yehuda’s humility allowed him to admit the truth. His name spells out the letters of the name of Hashem, with an additional letter daled.  Daled is dal, poverty and self-negation. It’s recognizing how limited we are, expressing gratitude, and opening ourselves up to the beneficence of Hashem.

Rav Rice points out that Yehuda is described as a lion that crouches. The Chiddushei Harim notes that even when Yehuda was down, he maintained his strength and stature and admitted the truth. Rav Bunim M’Peshicsa further explains that after Yehuda instigated the sale of Yosef, he was estranged from his brothers. Yet he didn’t wallow in self-pity. He got married and had children. When they all died he picked himself up and started again. Yehuda is a model for us on how to face challenges with courage. Instead of allowing his setbacks to pull him down, he used them to grow higher. Chazal understand the verse, “Ki nafalti kamti, ki eshev b’choshech Hashem ohr li,” as, “Had I not fallen I never would have gotten up. Had I not sat in darkness, Hashem would not be a light for me.” 

The Gemara tells a story of a man who came to Shammai and asked him to convert him while standing on one foot. Shammai pushed him away with a builder’s rod.  The Mezritcher Maggid explains that the man wanted to become a Jew only if he could be assured that he would remain upright. He didn’t want to experience any of life’s ups and downs. Shammai hinted to him that this is not Hashem’s plan. We are put on this earth to rebuild and repair. The downswings are our greatest opportunity to ascend higher in avodat Hashem. It’s like digging the foundations of a building. First we must go deep down in the earth. Only afterwards can the structure rise in all its beauty. A Jew, even when crouched down, remains strong as a lion. We may be in a state of dalut, but we must never forget that Hashem is holding us, giving us the strength to rise again ever higher.

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