This page presents insights by Rabbi Tuvia Bolton on the weekly Torah portion.
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Parshat Vayechi (5760)
This week we read the final weekly portion ‘VaYechi’ in the first book of the Torah, B'raishet. It speaks mainly of the blessings that Yaakov gave to his sons, shortly before he departed this world.
What exactly are blessings? How do they work? How can a human being give blessings?
To understand this I want to first tell a personal story that I just remembered.
Once I was present at a Chabad Shabbat seminar on Judaism that was held in a nice hotel in Jerusalem. The people attending paid a token fee, and came in order to get acquainted with the ideas of Chassidut Chabad.
After the evening lectures ended, the lecturer announced that before the Shabbat Morning Prayer at 9:00 A.M. there would be a class in Chassidic teachings beginning at 8:00am.
But among the participants were many religious people who weren’t interested in Chassidic ideas. They thought they knew enough and came only because of the attractive price. "Sorry!” They cynically announced “Don’t wait for us. We are praying at 7:00 and don't need to hear any of your Chassidic lectures"
The lecturer did not loose his composure. He calmly retorted. "Can I ask you a question in Torah?" "Of course!" they immediately replied. "Well, really it's a question in the Prayer Book, O.K.?" "CERTAINLY" They answered. "Good," he cleared his throat and began " "What do the words 'Boruch ataw' (lit. Blessed are You) mean?" (A Jew is supposed to make 100 blessings a day and they all begin with the words 'Boruch Ataw').
They tried a few answers that made no sense, like 'G-d is blessed' or 'Thank G-d', and finally they admitted, "Nu, we give up. So now you tell us what it means!" With a sly smile he answered, "You want to know? Come to the Chassidic class tomorrow at eight". And they did.
To understand what he answered here is a story about the Baal Shem Tov story:
Once there was a very rich Chassid (follower) of the Besh't (Baal Shem Tov) who we will call Zalman who owned several large forests and a huge factory for making matches. He and his wife lived in a palatial mansion gave much charity and were very good hearted. But one thing made them miserable; they had no children of their own.
He had traveled the long journey to visit the Besh’t many times but could never bring himself to complain about his problem; after all he had so much to be thankful for. But lately his wife became really impatient, no day went by without her shedding tears and he was beginning to feel it.
So the next time that he went to the Besh't he found himself standing before the holy man begging for a blessing.
The Baal Shem looked at his Chassid very seriously and answered, "I'm sorry, Zalman, I can't help you" He paused a minute and added "Unless you are willing to forfeit all your wealth. You see, in heaven there are three gates of success; Health, Wealth, and Children and it has been decreed that only two are open to you. You have health and wealth. If you want children you will have to forfeit one of the others; my blessing can only draw down what is waiting for you. Go home and ask your wife if she is willing to live a life of poverty"
Without hesitating the Chassid declared; "Yes, yes! I don't have to ask her. My wife told me before I left, that her life is not worthwhile without a child; she said that she is willing to sacrifice everything. Please, please give us the blessing" he begged.
Zalman's six-day journey home seemed like minutes, such good news! But when he arrived his wife stood at the door, wringing her hands in worry with a very solemn look on her face. " Come in and sit down Zalman" she said to him in a broken voice, "We've had some terrible luck while you've been gone, just sit down and listen, I'm sure it's all for the best. A few days in the middle of the winter was a heat wave! Well all those trees your workers cut down, over two million rubles worth of lumber that you had waiting on the icy river, flowed away before we could put our stamp on them or tie them together. It's a huge loss, Zalman, we'll never get those logs back! Then, as though that wasn't enough, the very next day there was a fire in the factory, no one knows how it started, but we lost everything." She was really weeping now as she continued, "I know everything is from G-d Zalman, but we're wiped out. Only the machines are left and who knows if they work. The creditors are already knocking at the door and, I'm afraid we have nothing to pay them with. Zalman, are you all right? Why are you smiling? Zalman, what are you doing"
Zalman was ecstatic! He stood and yelled, “It’s the Baal Shem's blessing!" He began singing and dancing, "We're going …. We're going to have a CHILD!!! A BABY!!!"
"Zalman, really?" His wife joined in, "Really? Oh, thank G-d Boruch HaShem!!!!"
And so it was; just as the Tzadik (holy Jew) said it would. They lost their mansion, their lands and the remains of the factory to pay off the debts, and they began living near the docks in an old wooden shipping crate that Zalman managed to make livable.
Zalman tried to work with no success, so he began to beg and in no time he was literally living from hand to mouth. But to their great joy his wife became pregnant and a year later they were hugging a beautiful child. So it was again the year after that, and after that until ten years later they had ten children. After every few additions Zalman joined on another shipping crate to his 'house'.
[This illustrates what blessings are; bringing down to the physical what is waiting in the spiritual (incidentally that is also what happens when the Cohanim give their blessings). That is why the Besh’t couldn’t bless him with all three gates and why Yaakov had to give his sons specifically the blessings he gave. But there are also surprises as we will see.]
After all this, it happened that the Besh't came to visit the city where Zalman lived. He situated himself in the large Chassidic Shul (Synagogue) and in no time the word spread and the place became packed with people who came from near and far to see him to ask his advice or to receive his blessing. Zalman also quietly entered the Shul and stood in a corner, for him it was sufficient just to look at the face of his holy Rebbe. But suddenly the Besh't called his name and beckoned him to approach.
" Nu Zalman" asked the Holy Man "How is the family?" "Thank G-d! Thank G-d!" he answered, "I and my wife are very happy, we have, Borouch HaShem (Thank G-d) ten beautiful children."
"But I see you have no money. Correct? Well, take my advice. Go to Minsk. There are more people there, more donations and you also can help others there. Here" the Besh’t continued handing Zalman a small pouch of coins, "This will hold your wife and family until you return. May G-d give you success."
The next day Zalman was on his way to Minsk. He arrived on Friday morning and had just enough time to find a place in the Shul guesthouse to put his things away, rush to the Mikva (Jewish bath house) and hurry to the Shul to find himself a seat in the beggars section. Sure enough, after the Shabbat prayers one of the rich members of the community invited him home as his Shabbat guest.
Zalman enjoyed the good hot meal in the plush home, it reminded him of how he once lived many years ago, but he noticed that something was wrong. The sad look on the rich man's face betrayed a broken heart.
He thanked his host for the meal and asked him why he was sad. It seems that this rich man had a 30-year-old daughter that no one wanted to marry. She had had three close calls but each time something happened. The first groom suddenly got inducted into the Russian army, the second got very ill and the third fell into a bad crowd and left the community. Everyone thought she was cursed and no one wanted to even consider her for marriage.
"What are you waiting for" said Zalman to the rich man, "The Jewish people are not orphans, G-d has given us a real Rebbe. The Baal Shem will help you like he helped me, don't worry my friend, salvation is near!"
Early Sunday morning they began the journey and in less than two days they were actually standing before the Besh’t.
"When you arrive home you will have good news." Said the Baal Shem Tov to the rich man, "Just remember at the wedding of your daughter give your poor friend here a nice wage for his matchmaking, Don’t forget! A nice matchmaker’s wage"
Sure enough two days later when they returned to the rich man's home his wife and daughter were waiting at the door to greet him with joyous smiles on their faces.
It seems that the first fiancée, the one that had been drafted, was suddenly and mysterious honorably discharged from the army, and the first thing he asked when he got off the carriage that brought him home was, if the rich man's daughter was still available! The Rabbi of the community then spoke to him for over an hour and declared that the young man was normal, whole and healthy and there remained only to set the date of the wedding.
The wedding was immense! Over five thousand guests attended, hundreds of long tables laden with food and drink were arranged and the band was playing lively music as the huge crowd stood around the 'Chupa' (Marriage canopy) waiting for the bride and groom to arrive and the ceremony to begin. The rich man was circulating around, laughing, shaking hands and receiving Mazal Tovs when suddenly from the crowd the Baal Shem Tov appeared, took him by the arm, and pulled him aside. "Tell me, did you give your poor friend his matchmaking wages?" he asked. "I certainly did," replied the rich man "I gave him two thousand rubles" (about twenty years wages).
"Not enough" said the Besh't.
"All right then I'll give him ten thousand" he answered with a smile "I guess I really do owe it to him".
"Still not enough" said the Besh't. "I don't think you understand what I mean" the Tzadik continued, “Tell me how much are you worth? Everything, with all your assets and investments, give me a rough estimate"
The rich man began sweating profusely, he loosened his collar, wiped his brow thought a minute and, still a bit confused answered, " I suppose about three million rubles"
"Give him half!" Said the Baal Shem.
The rich man was totally shocked! Eyes wide as saucers he staggered a half step back, caught his balance and whispered in disbelief, "Half? Half of all I own?"
"Let me ask you a question" continued the Baal Shem "Were you always rich or did you become rich"
Well," he regained his composure, wiped his brow again and totally ignoring the crowd in the background replied "The truth is that I used to be poor, in fact I used to beg for money. But one morning, it was over ten years ago, I walked down to the river just to be alone, and suddenly I saw a huge unmarked log floating in the water. I got a few strong men gave them a few kopeks an they pulled it from the river, loaded it on a wagon and took it to the lumber yard where I sold it for a good price. The next day there were five logs and the day after twenty and after that a hundred. All this time no one else came to bother or compete with me, it was like a dream. Needless to say I became a rich man in a few weeks. Then I heard about someone selling machinery from a burnt down match factory, so I bought it all for a tenth of the worth and began my own company. Since then things have only been going up."
"Realize, my friend" Said the Baal Shem "That all you have once belonged to your poor guest! Give him half and everyone will be happy. You both will be rich, he has children you have a groom and soon you will both have grandchildren as well!"
Moral: One of the jobs of the Tzadikim is to 'bless', i.e. to draw down into the physical world all the good things that are waiting for us in the spiritual worlds another is to teach us to be partners with G-d, the source of all blessings. .
Now we can understand why Yaakov blessed his children before he left the world; to give them the power to not only withstand the descent into Egypt and the challenges thereafter, but also to bless the world and eventually bring about the ultimate revelation of potential good in the coming of Moshiach..
So just as in the book of Genesis which begins with the sin of Adam and gets darker and worse (the flood and tower of Babel) until Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov began to bring blessing into the world. And just as in the above story, things seemed very dark at first until the Baal Shem took over,
So too each of our personal lives; we can transform adversity and disappointment into blessings and joy by just realizing the potential waiting for us.
Maybe now we can also understand another strange thing. Usually the Torah always tries to end every chapter on a positive tone and here seems to be an exception: our section seemingly ends (not only itself but also the entire book of B'reshet) on a very bad note; the death of Yaakov.
But really there is a very positive thing here.
Rashi comments on sentence 49:33 that "Yaakov did not really die!"(Taanit 5b). In other words although it SEEMED to everyone present that he died, and the Torah even testifies that he was buried, never the less he REALLY WAS AND IS STILL ALIVE!
This teaches us a very important and beautiful lesson; that bad is really NOTHING like what it seems to be; True reality is infinite, pure, and without death. Yaakov never died and never will die; he is still with us PHYSICALLY in the world. Indeed, in the ‘Raising of the Dead’ (one of the 13 basic beliefs of Judaism) we will see that no one REALLY died.
This is the reality that the Moshiach will reveal, the real reality that we only have to, in the language of the Lubavitch Rebbe, "Open our eyes to see."
The Moshiach is bringing with him the blessing that will turn all of the pain and suffering of these thousands of years, into a happy, blessed finale!
May we all be blessed with the words that will be shouted this Shabbat in tens of thousands of Synagogues throughout the world at the completion of this the first book of the Bible "Chazak Chazak V'Nitcchazaike" Be strong, Be strong and we will be strengthened !!!
Just one more good deed, word or even thought can tilt the scales (we just have to ACTUALLY do it!) and bring…
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