Vayechi: Supremacy and Supplication

Greatness does not have to mean arrogance.

Rabbanit Shira Smiles

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Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein

In recording the events at the end of the life of Yaakov Avinu (Jacob) The Torah notes the blessings Yaakov gives his children and grandchildren beginning with the blessings of Yosef (Joseph) and his two sons. Yaakov seems to be ignoring the previous lessons of family dynamics when he tells Yosef, “And as for me, I have given you Shechem echad (usually translated as one portion more than) your brothers, which I took from the hand of the Emori with my sword and my bow.”

Among the questions raised by this announcement is first how could Yaakov seem to favor Yosef when it was just such favoritism that created the initial rift in the family. Further, the use of the word Shechem is not only a word meaning portion but also the name of a city with many undertones. How are we to understand this? Finally, how was it that Yaakov took possession of this “portion” through the use of the weapons of his sword and his bow?

Rabbi Zeichik in Ohr Chodosh presents two possible responses to the question of Yaakov’s showing favoritism again. First, Yaakov knew that his sons now understood that Yosef deserved an additional portion, and that he would be represented by two tribes in the distribution of the land either because of his Egyptian royalty or because of his elevated spiritual level, and therefore they would not feel jealousy. After all, Yosef, although he was now viceroy to Pharaoh, still remained the righteous Yosef of his youth, a righteousness they had misunderstood. In addition, Yaakov may have been trying to put his sons in a situation where they could demonstrate teshuvah gemurah, full remorse, by not feeling jealous of Yosef in a situation of favoritism similar to the original situation. These two explanations are not mutually exclusive.

However, there are certainly other words that would seem better suited to convey the notion of portion than Shechem. Therefore, we can discuss the city of Shechem in this context since the city of Shechem was indeed given to Yosef and is where he is buried. Our sages try to understand the significance of this city and its relationship to Yosef. The question is significant, since Shimon and Levi slew Shechem with their sword in defense of their sister Dinah’s honor. Yet, Yaakov here claims that he acquired Shechem through his sword and his bow. The Ner Uziel explains, basing his words of Rashi, that indeed Shimon avenged their sister by killing the males of Shechem, but Yaakov’s stated concern that the inhabitants of the land would then attack his family in retaliation actually came to pass, and an unrecorded war took place in which Yaakov took up arms.

However, what kind of gift was Shechem, a city with such negative overtones? Here is where Dina was raped, where Yosef was sold, and where the future Kingdom of Israel would be divided into the Kingdom of Judah and the Kingdom of Israel? This was a city that seemed to exude an aura of hot headedness. Shechem is a place that doesn’t recognize barriers and restraint. Why would Yaakov bequeath specifically this city to his beloved Yosef?

Rabbi Egbi in Chochmat Hamatzpun responds by seeing this challenge as the very reason Shechem was an appropriate inheritance for Yosef. First he posits that the city itself is intrinsically neither good nor bad but enhances the innate character of the individual. If this were indeed a place of unrestrained passion, Yosef was the one who knew how to control himself as he had done with Potifar’s wife, and he could tame the wild nature of the place. (Noted in Mikdash Halevi), important, although this was where Yosef was sold, it was also a place where he felt Hashem’s presence with him as he did in every challenging situation. While the brothers associated Shechem with their wrongdoing in selling Yosef, Yosef associated Shechem with Hashem’s kindness in saving him from a pit filled with snakes and scorpions, and when he passed the spot later in his life, he stopped to thank Hashem for his deliverance. Since this was a place Yosef prayed, it was appropriate that he receive this place as his inheritance, just as Caleb earned the right to Hevron by stopping to pray there on his way to explore Canaan with the spies.

The Shem Mishmuel, reminds us of Shechem in other contexts. Avraham entered the land of Canaan at Shechem, and Yaakov reentered the land after his exile with Lavan at Shechem, and Shechem was where Bnei Yisroel would enter Canaan to begin their conquest of the land. Shechem exuded an energy that instilled pride and ego into an individual, a trait that is necessary to accomplish anything in the world and in one’s life, especially to conquer the land. However, unrestrained egotism is extremely destructive and would doom any project to failure. Yosef had the ability to temper that arrogance, an arrogance that brought about the rape of Dinah and the sale of Yosef, keep it in check, and use it in positive ways. Also, says Rabbi Moshe Scheinerman in Ohel Moshe, we must know that to accomplish anything we must exert personal effort, as Yaakov did, for he acquired Shechem through his use of his sword and his bow.   

Rabbi Shalom Schwadron in Lev Shalom notices that Onkelos, the famous Aramaic translator, translated sword and bow here as prayer and supplication. Why? Because Yaakov refers to these as my sword and my bow, those weapons specifically mine, specifically Yaakov’s, prayer and supplication. While we may think that we fight our battles on earth with our conventional weapons, the battle really takes place in heaven, as our prayers and good deeds fight for us. True, we must put in our own effort in every endeavor, but it is Hashem in heaven who decides its outcome. Others rely on chariots and horses, but we rely on calling Hashem’s Name. Obviously, writes Rabbi Gamliel Rabinowitz in Tiv Hatorah, we must continue our own efforts, but we must daven to Hashem while doing so and pray that He makes us successful, for without tefillah, prayer, we can achieve nothing.

How are a sword and a bow different in their use and effectiveness? The Ohr Doniel, Rabbi Ochion, quoting the Meshech Chichoma observes that while a sword is intrinsically lethal due to its sharp blade, a bow and arrow require much more strength and skill to reach their target and be effective. Similarly, there are two kinds of prayer, standardized prayers that were arranged by the Men of the Great Assembly, and personal prayer from the depths of one’s own heart. Standardized prayer as written in our prayer books and especially in the Shemoneh Esrei is strong and effective because the composers were master craftsmen. In contrast, personal prayer requires concentration and aim, kavanah, to be effective. Yaakov Avinu prayed to Hashem in every way he could and Hashem responded.

The Artscroll Series on Shemoneh Esrei offers an illuminating analogy on standardized prayer. Imagine a technician on earth pressing computer buttons that guide a spaceship. The technician understands nothing of how the buttons make the spaceship travel, yet he knows that by pressing the appropriate buttons the spaceship flies accurately, for engineers and scientists have entered the proper coding into the panel. So too have the Men of the Great Assembly encoded our prayers with a universal language. And the bow, says Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, tells us that the more we tighten our minds and hearts around the words, the further the arrows of our prayers will ascend.

In a logical progression, we now move on to a discussion of the obligation to pray. While the Rambam writes that we are obligated by the Torah to pray every day, the Ramban insists that an actual Torah obligation exists only in a time of trouble. However, the fact remains that our lives are full of stress, and asking for Hashem’s help should be second nature to us. Rabbi Pincus writes in Shiurim B’Tefila that the Brisker Rav, Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik would constantly pepper his speech with cries of “Lishuascha kivisi Hashem – I hope for your salvation Hashem.” Since he was constantly being asked for advice, he felt the stress of giving appropriate guidance, and prayed that Hashem would give him the proper words for each person.

The fact is, continues Rabbi Pincus, that when we feel ourselves in urgent distress, we call out to whoever is nearby, to secure the ladder or throw us a rope. Therefore whoever does not call out to Hashem during his time of need is as if he is removing himself from Hashem’s providence, for we should feel worthy of Hashem’s presence beside us.

Our prayers themselves must have a logical order, as the Great Men of the Assembly understood in formulating the Shemoneh Esrei. Rabbi Frieman notes in Shaarei Derech that the first blessing of request following the blessings of praise is a request for knowledge, wisdom and understanding, for before you can make a request, you must know you are in the presence of the Omnipotent Who can grant your request, and you are subjugating yourself before Him.

Hashem has instilled greatness in each of us. However, that greatness must not grow to arrogance, but must be molded to do Hashem’s will. We must use the unique ammunition of Yaakov, the sword and the bow of prayer and supplication to accomplish our great mission in the life Hashem, in His great benevolence, has granted us.

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