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Parshas Vayechi - Signs & Simanim                   12 Teves 5782

12/16/2021 12:44:27 PM


Signs here, signs there, signs are everywhere! Traveling the road of life, if we take the time to look, there are signs at every twist and turn. There is clear, physical signs which stands out like posted placards, and there are signs that we say are from heaven. Recently, I took notice of the physical signs while visiting with my children. At the intersection of their street, stuck into the ground on all corners were signs reading yield, no outlet, speed limit, and one that read ‘slow down’, giving the impression that this is a street demanding caution – children are present! Many other signs are communicated without words, using pictures or symbols such as those seen on the road - railroad crossing, no turns, gas station, and so on. In airports you will see signs that have both words and pictures, perhaps the pictures are for those who don’t understand English while the words might be for those who can’t visualize how to interpret the picture.

The Hebrew word for sign is Siman, as in Siman Tov Umazal Tov, Yehey Lanu U’L’Chol Yisroel. The things that we see should be a foretelling of something good that should happen to an individual and to the Jewish people.  Sefer Bereishis is replete with signs from the rainbow from the days of Noach to Avraham asking Hashem, “How will he know that he will inherit the land” and during the period of Yitzchok and Eliezer, indicating the need to look for signs when seeking out a wife for Yaakov. Yaakov uses signs to determine which flock he will receive as compensation working for his father-in-law, Lavan. Dreams themselves serve as signs to the future as we read about Yosef, the butler, the baker, Pharoah and Yaakov. The ultimate signs come in the final Parsha of Sefer Bereishis in Parshas Vayechi.

The Torah in this week’s Parshas Vayechi states in Bereishis 48:1 "ויהי אחרי הדברים האלה ויאמר ליוסף הנה אביך חולה, ויקח את שני בניו עמו את מנשה ואת אפרים" “A short time after this, Yosef was told that his father was sick. [Yosef went to his father, Yaakov] taking his two sons, Menashe and Ephrayim, along with him”. When Yosef heard that his father Yaakov had turned ill, he took Menashe and Efrayim to receive brachos from Yaakov. The Torah emphasizes Yaakov becoming ill – a detail not mentioned regarding any of the other individuals who die in Bereishis.

The Gemara in Bava Metziah 87a says that until Yaakov Avinu there was no sickness.  He asked Hashem for mercy, and he became sick. Rashi explains that he asked that a person should become sick before he dies so he would be given the opportunity to instruct his children.  The source for this explanation is the Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer (chapter 52) who says that from the time of creation until Yaakov’s time, no man would become ill prior to his death; indeed, illness as such did not exist at all, and there was no warning of a person’s imminent demise.  Rather, a man walking on the road or in the marketplace would suddenly sneeze, and his soul would exit via his nostrils. Hence, a sneeze was the precursor of death. Yaakov, however, beseeched Hashem for mercy, praying that his soul not depart suddenly from this world, allowing him to have time to instruct his sons before his passing.  Hashem granted his request, and from then on, people would take ill prior to their death. Therefore, when one sneezes, he is obligated to say לחיים – to life. The Midrash Yelamdainu says that someone else tells the person who sneezed לחיים. Why did the "sneeze" cause death? The RaDa”l, Rav Dovid Luria explains in the Passuk, Bereishis 2:7, that God in creating humanity,” blew into Adam's nostrils the soul of life". Therefore, when a person sneezed, the soul would exit from the same place it had originally entered - hence death. The “sneeze” became the sign of death; the antidote is the saying of Labriyut in Hebrew or Gezuntheit in Yiddish, meaning good health.

An additional sign to note regarding Parshas Vayechi is that it is a Stuma, or a closed Parsha. Almost always there is a break between the end of one parsha to the beginning of the next. Vayechi is an exception to that rule. Chaza”l explain that Yaakov wanted to reveal the “end of days” to his children, but Hashem did not allow him to do so. Instead, (according to some) not only does Yaakov call Yosef and blesses his two children, but all the sons of Yaakov also gather to receive their parting words from their father. Yaakov does not give blessings to his sons; instead, rather prophetically, he tells over their destiny through the essence of who each of them are respectively.

Last week, while in Chicago, a man named Ben Weinschneider saw me learning a little after davening and asked if I mind if he shared some Torah with me. I said of course. He began telling me of a piece in the name of Rav Shamshon Rafael Hirsch. In Bereishis 49:5-7 Yaakov speaks to Shimon and Levi and rebukes them for their aggressive behavior in the story of Shem and Dina. Yaakov says "ארור אפם כי עז ועברתם כי קשתה, אחלקם ביעקב ואפיצם בישראל"  “Cursed be their rage, for it is fierce, and their fury, for it is cruel. I will disperse them in Yaakov and scatter them in Israel”. These words are signs to the Jewish people for all future times. Rav Hirsch asks and then explains why the words disperse them and scatter them, one using the name Yaakov, the other the name Yisrael? The name Yaakov represents the exile aspect of the Jewish people, a time of oppression and persecution. Yisrael, on the other hand, represents the “God won” victorious aspect of the Jewish people. Rav Hirsch says, “The danger to the general wrath of Shimon and Levi’s disposition is only present at a time when the nation is flourishing, when it forms a powerful body of people who could easily be influenced by two compact tribes filled with glowing feelings of strength and power and of the unity and brotherhood of the whole nation. Therefore, in Yisrael: Afitzem/scatter – when in a flourishing state of Israel, they are to be scattered. Levi, in fact, received no land at all when it was divided. Shimon’s province was completely in an enclave, entirely shut in by Yehuda, making it completely dependent upon that powerful tribe. So that at the time when Israel was in a flourishing state, Shimon and Levi’s political influence was completely paralyzed.  But in Galus, in exile, where the pressure of our fate bows everything down and the nation itself is torn asunder, there the danger lies. All feelings of one’s own importance are lost, and there is a sense of vulnerability and oppression. Therefore, the wandering Jew downtrodden and driven all over the world keeps the feelings of the importance of his own person and the sense of belonging to his people. For that the Achalkeim B’Yaakov, the dispersing of Jacob, was of the greatest benefit that the tribes of Shimon and Levi, who were scattered amongst the other tribes. It is interesting to note here, to quote Rav Hirsch, “….that the majority of teachers came from Shimon and Levi. The leaders would be found everywhere, who, with their fiery and proud dispositions would keep alive the energy and the courage, the fire and the noble Jewish pride of the Jewish spirit.” The apparent words Yaakov was giving Shimon and Levi were really hints to their future roles, vitally necessary for Jewish survival during the course of our long exile.

I’d like to add my own little hint regarding the word ‘apam’, meaning ‘rage’, which also contains the word ‘Oph’, meaning ‘nose’. The fury or rage which comes from the nose (as we read about God’s nostrils flaring when He was angry) is used to describe Shimon and Levi. The same nose through which life was blown into is also the nose that blows out fury. These are the same two characteristics of Shimon and Levi: sending rage against the enemy while simultaneously breathing life into the Jews when in exile.

Every one of us has a little of Shimon and Levi in us. We should use our ability to send a message or a sign to stand up against our enemies and send a sign of life, inspiration, and strength to our fellow Jews in times of need.

Ah Gutten Shabbos

Rabbi Avraham Bogopulsky

Wed, January 19 2022 17 Shevat 5782