Torah for the Times    

Friday, December 31, 2011 - 4 Teves, 5772

Torah Reading: VaYigash (Genesis 44:18 - 47:27)
Candle Lighting Time: 4:18 PM
Shabbat Ends: 5:24 PM  

Bar Mitzvah at 40 


Judah took full responsibility for the welfare of his younger brother Benjamin. Jacob refused to let the brothers return to Egypt to purchase life-sustaining food during the famine that devastated the world at that time. Only after Judah’s solemn commitment and guarantee  to  return Benjamin was Jacob convinced to let Benjamin go.

At the end of last week’s Parshah, Joseph, the Viceroy of Egypt, accused his brother Benjamin of stealing his silver goblet and threatens to have him incarcerated.

Our Parsha of VaYigash poignantly describes Judah’s confrontation with Joseph demanding the release of Benjamin. This led to Joseph revealing his identity to his brothers and the subsequent rapprochement between them.

Judah takes a courageous stand; putting his life in jeopardy in the presence of a powerful ruler, who could very well have killed Judah.

This story, one of the most moving stories in the Torah, informs us of the responsibilities every Jew has for one another. Indeed, the word Jew derives from the name Judah, who was the progenitor of the most prominent tribe in Israel.

A Jew is one who takes a principled stand even in the face of danger. This is particularly so when the well being of another Jew—his brother or sister—is at stake.

When does a Jew assume the full responsibility for others? It is generally taught that this takes place at the age of Bar or Bas Mitzvah. A boy becomes of age at the age of thirteen; a girl at the age of twelve.

Vayigash: And He was a Bar Mitzvah?

Based on the above, it is therefore fascinating to discover that the  idea of Bar Mitzvah is actually alluded to in the very first word, title and theme of this week’s parsha—“Vayigash-And he approached.” This word conveys Judah’s courage, self-sacrifice, leadership and ultimately the reconciliation process between him and Joseph.

Upon close examination we will discover that the word Vayigash is an acronym, for the words: yud, gimmel, shanah, v’yom, which means: “thirteen years and a day”—the age of Bar Mitzvah.

(A point of clarification. The meaning of “a day” is not that he has to be thirteen full years plus another twenty four hours, but rather to imply that the thirteenth year has to be complete. We do not regard a portion of the thirteenth year as sufficient to call a boy a Bar Mitzvah. Even one moment after his 13th birthday however, he is a full fledged bar Mitzvah.)

What is the deeper connection between Vayigash, which, as stated, means “and he approached” and Bar Mitzvah? Judah was then beyond the age of forty. What relevance does his confrontation with Joseph have to do with Bar Mitzvah?

It conveys the message that already at the age of Bar Mitvzah we all become responsible for one another. When we see a Jew (Benjamin) who is held back from returning to his Father in Heaven (represented by Jacob), a Jew (Judah) comes forward to demand his freedom to be a Jew and does not accept no as an answer.

Vayigash is not just confrontation. Ultimately, this confrontation developed into reconciliation, the seeds of which were planted then. The full blossoming of these seeds will occur in the Messianic Age as described vividly in this week’s Haftarah.

A Jew—even as he or she enters into the stage of Bar or Bat7 Mitzvah—has to know that our goal is complete and total unity.   

The Synthesis between Study and Action

On a deeper level, Chassidic Masters taught us that Joseph and Judah, in addition to being real historical figures, allegorically represent the two worlds of action and study. Joseph is study and Judah is action. So when the Torah says that Judah approached Joseph, it teaches us the need for us to fuse action with knowledge.

It is not uncommon for people who are steeped into theoretical knowledge to shun or deemphasize the practical parts of Judaism. Conversely, there are activists who perform the Mitzvos admirable but who fail to see the value of theoretical study of Torah.

The dichotomy between these two spheres is represented by the emotional gulf that existed between Judah and Joseph at the fateful moment the two of them stood face to face.

Vayigash, Chassidic thought teaches us, is when the two worlds of study and action meet. 
Here too there is a connection to the allusion of Vayigash to Bar Mitzvah.

Before the age of Bar Mitzvah a boy (and likewise a girl before the age of Bat Mitzvah) learns about various Mitzvot, but cannot observe them properly. For even if they were to perform them—as they are indeed encouraged to do so as a preparation for adulthood—not being obligated to do them relegates their observance to a lower level on the ladder of Mitzvah perfection.

When it comes to study—the Joseph of Judaism—the pre-Bar Mitzvah child does not lack the fundamental aspect of the Torah study. While he may be lacking in the quantitative aspect of learning—his mind is not as developed as an adult—nevertheless, he is already on the inexorable road to higher levels of Torah study. Indeed, the word Joseph means to increase. All of our lives we increase in our Torah knowledge; at no point can we say we know enough.

However, when it comes to the Judah aspect of Judaism—the observance of the Mitzvot—a minor is in the Minor Leagues, not just quantitatively but also qualitatively. There is an ocean of difference between one who does a Mitzvah out of submission to a Higher will—one translation of the name Judah is submission—and one who does it voluntarily, as does a minor.  

At the time of Bar Mitzvah, a boy’s actions, his “Judah,” approaches and matches his “Joseph,” his learning. His actions “catch up,” so to speak, with his knowledge of Torah. They are now both on par.

Tefillin: Colliding Worlds Brought Together        
This process of Vayigash—where two competing worlds meet—has yet another connection to Bar Mitzvah. Although a Bar Mitzvah assumes responsibility for all of the Mitzvot, there is one Mitzvah that stands out. When a boy becomes a Bar Mitzvah, he begins to put on Tefillin. Tefillin are connected with three parts of the person: the head, arm and heart. If there are three distinct worlds within the human being they are the mind, the emotions associated with the heart and one’s actions that one executes primarily through one’s hands.

These three parts of the human being are rivals in the best case scenario and outright adversaries in the worst case scenario. The mind understands, but the heart refuses to get excited about the idea. Even when one is turned on to doing the right things, they often find that there is a major blockage that does not let them execute the idea into concrete action. It is Joseph and Judah in their most antagonistic pose.

Tefillin—arguably more than any other Mitzvah—is about Vayigash, bringing these worlds together so that they function in complete harmony with one another. The heart beats in accordance with one’s understanding and the emotional energy gets translated into action without any delay. Tefillin coordinates all of our faculties so that they form one unified front in serving G‑d.

The Ultimate Vayigash

The ultimate power of unification of different personalities, ideologies and faculties eludes us as long as we are in exile. Exile is defined not just as a time of persecution and geographical distance from our Homeland. It is a state of alienation from ourselves, our fellow and our G‑d. To be sure we can have all of the above forms of unity, but because we are in exile these expressions of unity will be missing either in their depth, breadth or length.

In terms of depth it means that the unity will be a functional one but deep down there can still be some hidden measure of tension and separation.

In terms of breadth, the degree to which we can be united with others might be limited to those who are more like-minded. We may still find it difficult to connect to those who are worlds apart in terms of their upbringing. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we are in conflict with them; it just means that we do not possess the requisite energy to develop lines of communication with people who are outside of our comfort zone.

In terms of “length” the exile tainted efforts of Vayigash will suffer from our inability to extend our efforts at unity to the next generation.

The ultimate Vayigash therefore is the experience that will come only with the true and complete Redemption. Then the two powers of Judah and Joseph—with all that these two figures allude to—will be completely reunited; and reunited on all levels.

At that time we will celebrate the collective Bar Mitzvah of all the Jewish people.

Practice Makes Perfect   
It is interesting that the word Vayigash is also related to the word Goshnah—to Goshen, which appears in this week’s parsha.

The word Goshnah comprises the four letters on the dreidel of Chanukah and stand for the four words: “Nes gadol haya shom-a great miracle happened there.” The gematria/numerical value of these four letters is 358, the same gematria as Moshiach.

Chanukah, the festival that is associated with the Dreidel and which is always followed by the parsha of Vayigash is related to the word chinuch, which means education.

Translating the juxtaposition of Chanukah with Vayigash and Goshnah into a relevant message for us in these last moments of exile it suggests that in order for us to experience true Redemption and the ultimate manifestation of Vayigash, we must prepare for it now. In the same manner as a child prepares for his Bar Mitzvah we must direct our efforts today and condition ourselves to experience the Vayigash reconciliation dynamic in every aspect of our lives. 

Moshiach Matters 

The prophets comprehended G‑d on such a deep level, they experienced an immense joy from being close to Him. When Moshiach comes, we will all attain that great level of prophecy and experience that great level of spiritual bliss. (Derech Mitzvosecha, Ha’manas Elokus)

Moshiach - It’s a Jewish issue. For more info, visit