This page presents insights by Rabbi Tuvia Bolton on the weekly Torah portion.
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Parshat Vayechi (5770)
This week's Torah portion, the last in the book of Bereshis, tells of how Yaakov (Jacob) blessed his sons (from whom would stem the twelve tribes) before he died.
In the course of the blessings he reproves Reuven and strips him of the right to be king (Rashi 49:4) [for not stopping his brothers from hating Yosef and for disarraying the bed of Bilha (Rashi Gen. 35:22)].
Instead he gave the kingship to Yehuda (Judah) (49:9) because he saved Yosef by selling him (27:37) and saved Tamar by admitting his sin (38:26).
But the Lubavitcher Rebbe (Lekuti Sichot #15 pg.439) notes that this seemingly this makes no sense. Why did Yaakov favor Yehuda over Reuven?! Reuven was much greater that Yehuda both in regards to saving Yosef and in repentance!
Reuven wanted to give Yosef total freedom while Yehuda actually sold him into captivity. And Reuven fasted and repented nine years for his sin while Yehuda was forced to repent for a few moments in order to save Tamar.
So why did Yaakov take the kingship from Reuven and give it to Yehuda?
In order to understand this, here is a story, (HaYdion, Kfar Chabad 12.17.09).
Rabbi Avraham Hershberg, until his passing, was the chief Rabbi of Mexico. Before the holocaust he was one of the most successful pupils in Yeshiva (Torah Academy) Chachme Lublin in Poland and just as the war began he miraculously escaped from Europe to the U.S.
In America his talents didn't go unnoticed and soon after he arrived he was offered a job as Rabbi of an orthodox community in Chicago but he said he would only accept if there was a Yeshiva there where he could teach Torah.
But there was no such Yeshiva in Chicago at the time and it didn't look as though there ever would be. So he asked around and was told that the only one who could break the spiritual ice of America was Rebbi Yosef Yitzchak, the sixth Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch.
Rabbi Hershberg traveled to Brooklyn, told the Rebbe his problem and after a short pause the Rebbe declared "There will be a Yeshiva in Chicago!"
The next day ten young Chassidim traveled to Chicago, established a Yeshiva and Rabbi Hershberg had a job and a Yeshiva where he could teach Torah as well.
In 1950 Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak passed away and his son-in-law Rebbe Menachem Mendel, became the seventh Rebbe of Chabad.Rabbi Hershberg's connection to the new Rebbe was no less than to his predecessor. So when he got an offer to be the Chief Rebbe of Mexico he asked for the Rebbe's blessing and afterwards was always consulting the Rebbe for blessings and advice.
Especially when he got an offer to visit hostages in Iran.
In 1979 the secular, pro-American regime of Iran was overthrown by a radical Islam government led by Ayatollah Khomeini. In the chaos that followed, Iranian students took over the American embassy and held the fifty five staff-members as hostages there for almost a year and a half.
How is this connected to Rabbi Hershberg? Well it seems that even before the Islamic Revolution he had been very involved in a massive secret program directed by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to smuggle thousands of Jewish children out of Persia and give them Jewish educations in America and Israel.
So when the Red Cross got permission from the Iranian government to send a group of clergymen to visit the embassy hostages, the Rebbe used his influence to get Rabbi Hershberg included in the group.
Preparations were made and just before they left, Rabbi Hershberg visited the Rebbe to ask for a blessing. He was afraid. Iran wasn't exactly a safe place for foreigners, especially Jewish ones and he and his wife were worried that he might not return!
But the Rebbe calmed him down. He told him there was nothing to worry about and blessed him with success. But he reminded him to be sure to light Chanukah candles.
Being that it was over two months before Chanukah, Rabbi Hershberg was a bit puzzled. But he began to understand when the trip was pushed off for sixty days.
They would arrive a day before Chanukah!
If it hadn't been for the Rebbe's admonition he probably would have lit his Menorah in his hotel room every night. But now, the first thing he did when they arrived was ask permission to light a Chanukah Menora in the besieged embassy. He figured that for sure there was one Jew there.
Amazingly permission was readily granted and even more amazing when they were face to face with the hostages and it didn't seem there was even one Jew there, when he took out his menorah suddenly six of them stepped forward and announced that they were Jewish!
If he hadn't brought in that Menorah many of them might have never revealed their Judaism, perhaps not even to themselves!
These poor Jewshad been hostages for a long time and the tension and uncertainty had definitely taking its toll. They looked tired and miserable. But as soon as the first candle was lit the faint yellow light spread over their faces and for the first time since their captivity, they actually sang and danced!
But that was just the beginning.
The next day Khomeini invited all these clergymen to participate in a massive public prayer with an attendance of almost one million people!
Rabbi Hershberg relates, "We were standing on a platform with Khomeini and other important figures and I looked out at the sea of humanity before us. Then, at one point in the prayers everyone, all one million people, all dropped to their knees and then put their heads to the ground. Everyone bowed down! That is, everyone except for me! I simply never even considered doing it.
"Well, after the prayers two officials approached me and told me that Khomeini wants to talk to me. I thought to myself, that's it! At least I'll die for the sake of Judaism. But then remembered the Rebbe's blessing and became calm. I followed them with the greatest optimism and when I got to Khomeini a few of his servants told me that he demands an explanation as to why I didn't bow down.
"So I calmly approached him and explained in the most positive way that I could muster up that I'm a Jew and I don't understand their prayers. Therefore I am not able to bow down without knowing what they are saying and to whom they are bowing.
"Well, he was really impressed with that answer, I think he liked my simple straightforwardness and when I saw that, I asked him if I could meet with him privately at some time.
"Miracle of miracles… he agreed! The next day we met in his room and, after a short friendly conversation I asked him to please be more kind to the Jews in his kingdom and he promised to consider it.
"It was hard to believe how the Rebbe's blessing turned everything around. I don't know why Khomeini put me on that stage with him but it was a miracle! It comes out that there were either a lot of Jews in that huge crowd or the prayer had been televised but my appearance on that stage made a tremendous impression on all the Jews who saw it, and the next day I heard that thousands of Jews packed the synagogues, many for the first time in their lives!
"Not only that, but Khomeini kept his promise! That next Elul (the last month in the Jewish year) he passed an edict saying that for the entire month Jews were allowed to break the curfew and walk in the streets at 4 a.m. to their Synagogues for 'Slichot' (a series of early morning prayers said before Rosh HaShanna)."
On the plane returning home Rabbi Hershberg began to understand the greatness of the Rebbe. Not only did his blessings come miraculously true above all expectations but even more, the Rebbe demonstrated a love and care for others that was even more miraculous:
When the Rebbe told him to light the Chanukah Menora it put him in a positive state of mind that he could actually illuminate the darkness of Iran. That is what gave him the ability to speak to Khomeini with such certainty.
This answers our questions.
Reuven lost his right to be a king to Yehuda (and also lost his right to the priesthood to the Cohanim) but didn't lose his right as a firstborn.
The difference between being firstborn and being a King (or a Priest) is that the former is a personal quality only for one's self while the latter two are for others. The king lives only to benefit the people and the Priest to teach and bless them.
So too the achievements of Reuven versus those of Yehuda.
True, Reuven wanted to free Yosef, but in fact nothing concrete resulted. Similarly, his nine years of repentance had no real result, in fact they had the opposite; they distracted him from trying to save Yosef earlier.
Not so with Yehuda; his actions bore fruit. He actually saved Yosef from death and later Tamar from the same fate.
Just like the Rebbe and Rabbi Hershberg in our story did; they brought ACTUAL results that ACTUALLY saved others.
And because this quality of actually helping was lacking in Reuven, despite his high spiritual level of being firstborn, therefore he (and his offspring) were disqualified from being kings or priests. And these responsibilities were given to Yehuda (and the Cohanim)
This is a big lesson to us.
We should strive for personal perfection but we must help OTHERS as well. Regardless of how small and weak we think we are, (like Rabbi Hershberg against the entire Khomeini regime), we must always remember that even a small light transforms much darkness. Especially when we have help from the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
By illuminating the world we do our part to save millions of lives spiritually and even physically; our good deeds actually hasten Moshiach who will put an end to all wars, strife and suffering.
It's all up to us to do just ONE more good actual deed and bring…
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