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In the concluding Parsha of the book of Beresheet, Yaakov and his family are now living in Egypt, and Yaakov is approaching his last days.  Yaakov asks his son Yosef, ruler of Egypt, to visit him, and tells him in no uncertain terms that he cannot be buried in Egypt.  He asks Yosef to bury him in Israel, and in order to strengthen Yosef’s promise, he tells him to swear to it, which Yosef does.  This oath came to good use later when Yaakov died.  As he had predicted, Pharaoh did not want to allow Yosef to leave Egypt for fear that he may not return.  Another reason is that Pharaoh had intended to build an impressive grave for Yaakov.  The Talmud tells us that the blessing that the Torah says Yaakov gave Pharaoh when he first came to Egypt, was that the Nile waters would rise toward Pharaoh when he approached.  This happened two years into the famine that Pharaoh had dreamed of and Yosef had interpreted, that was supposed to last for seven years.  After this blessing the famine ended, shortening it by five years.  The Egyptians considered Yaakov a holy man, and wanted to have his grave enshrined in Egypt.  So when Yosef asked Pharaoh to let him take his father’s body to Canaan, Pharaoh did not want to let him go, until Yosef told him that he had sworn to his father to do this.  Pharaoh urged Yosef to annul the oath, but Yosef actually had leverage. 

 When Yosef had first been taken out of prison and brought before Pharaoh to interpret his dreams, he spoke to Pharaoh in Hebrew, which Pharaoh did not understand.  Pharaoh, who prided himself on knowing more languages than anyone in the country, was humiliated, and made Yosef swear that he would never tell anyone that he knew more languages than him.  Now when Pharaoh was urging Yosef to annul his vow to his father, Yosef threatened to also annul his vow to Pharaoh, and with that Pharaoh acceded to his request and Yaakov was buried in the Cave of Machpela.  We see here a great effort on Yaakov’s part, putting his son, the ruler of Egypt, in a great predicament to challenge Pharaoh, the king of the known world at the time.  Yosef himself, along with all his brothers, went to great sacrifice to carry out his father’s wishes. 

This is a powerful lesson to us of how important it is to be buried as a Jew in a proper Jewish cemetery.  We find this lesson previously, when Sarah died and Avraham insisted on paying full price to purchase an appropriate place for her to be buried in Chevron.  The Talmud (Berachot 8:1) discusses the verse in Psalms (32:6) “For this let every pious person pray to you at a time that you may be found,” and gives a few explanations on what exactly is “the time that you may be found.”  One interpretation is that it is referring burial.  Jewish burial is one of the pillars of Jewish society.   The body itself is holy.  The Zohar describes the various parts of the body as vehicles for the Divine attributes.  The Mitzvah to build a Sanctuary in the desert, and later a Holy Temple in Jerusalem, is written in the Torah as: “They shall make Sanctuary for Me, and I will dwell within them,” (Shemot 25:8) and our sages explain that in addition to the physical building, every one of us is a holy sanctuary for Hashem. 

 There is a Mitzvah to say a blessing before we eat any food.  We don’t say a “bracha” before we enter our house or business.  Even the first time we move into a new house there is no special bracha, but before we put any food or drink into our bodies, we are required to say a blessing.  One explanation given by the Rebbe is that while our physical possessions are ours to do with as we wish, the body is not our own property.  It was given to us for safekeeping by Hashem, and we are required to honor it as a treasure owned by Hashem.  The blessing we say before we eat or drink is a way of asking permission from Hashem before we put anything into our bodies.  We return the treasure by burying it into the ground.  And for a Jew, this sacred treasure must be returned to a sacred space, a properly consecrated Jewish cemetery. 

Today when more and more people are opting out of burial and tragically being cremated, something that is anathema to Jewish life and certainly not in keeping with the sanctity of Hashem’s body, it is especially important to make your wishes known.  One way to do that is through a Halachic Living Will, here. 

Techiyat Hameitim, the resurrection of the dead after Moshiach comes, is one of the foundations of Jewish faith.  The physical body will come back to life in a new world, where physical and spiritual will be united.  Proper Jewish burial also prepares for that time, as is explained in many Jewish writings, beyond the scope of this short note.  May we merit to see this very soon.

Parshat Vayigash/Hei Tevet


What is the big deal about a lawsuit?  Today, the fifth day of the month of Teves, known as Hei Teves, is a day of celebration and thanksgiving.  It is celebrated by Chabad Chassidim, and anyone who understands its meaning, as a momentous day of victory for the Jewish people.  Well, you may scratch your head and ask, what happened here?  There were books stolen out of the Chabad/Lubavitch library by an individual who claimed he had inherited them.  When he refused to return them he was sued, and Chabad won the lawsuit.  The judge’s verdict was announced on Hei Teves and the books were returned.  So we can understand the great celebration that year when it happened, but why continue to mark it as a holiday every year?  To achieve that status, an event must be a historic, life altering event that has lasting meaning that we tap into every year on the anniversary.

A lot has been written about the meaning of this day and you can read about it here.  As usual I want to focus on one point that I think encapsulates the true significance of Hei Teves and why, indeed, it has a lasting message for us.  One of the pillars of Jewish faith is that there is a purpose to everything.  The entire world was created for this purpose, and every person on earth has a personal mission to help fulfill that purpose.  In addition, every object that was created, every tiny detail of the universe, is a part of that purpose, and it is our responsibility to use it in that way.  Implied in this belief is that there is more to the world than meets the eye.  We go about our days seeing what we see and hearing what we hear, but in fact there is an inner core that we don’t see with our physical eyes and don’t hear with our physical ears.  The essence of every thing, the source if its life and very existence, is the Divine spark that we don’t see unless we look with a deeper vision.  This spark is part of the infinite G-d, and He chose to contract His light and clothe it in physical things, in order to create a world of choice.  With the spark hidden, it is up to us to choose to find it, to recognize that what we are looking at is more than a physical object, it is a tool to fulfill Hashem’s mission for the world.

The lack of vision may lead us to think that all books are just books and that all leaders are just leaders.  Let’s take these one at a time.  A book contains the words that are produced by the mind of the writer.  The book itself, the paper and ink, have no real significance other than the contents.  The contents themselves are significant to the extent that they have meaning to the author and the reader, some carrying more weight than others.  With this approach, a Torah book would be just like any other, except that the contents are more holy and meaningful.  However, with a deeper look at the significance of holy books, we can see that this is not the case.  The whole purpose of Torah is to reveal the inner core and purpose of everything, the Divine spark that is its essence.  The Torah itself is the “wisdom and will of Hashem.”  How can that be contained in a book?  (This question alone can fill hundreds of pages.)  Yet it is Hashem’s choice in His omnipotence, to contract His wisdom and will and clothe it in physical words and have it written in books.  So although these books look like any other books, they are in fact physical “containers” for the wisdom and will of Hashem.  Jews have shown reverence to holy books throughout the ages, knowing that in these books is the meaning of the world, of our purpose on earth, and actually the Divine will of Hashem.

There are many leaders in the world, some of them great people.  The greatest leaders have their personal lives and their communal lives.  Then there a few truly unique leaders who have no personal life at all.  Whose leadership is not what they do, but whose entire essence is their leadership of the people.  Moshe was that kind of leader.  After the Torah was given, Hashem told Moshe to tell the people to go back to their tents, “but you stand here with Me…” (Devarim 5:28.)  Every fiber of Moshe’s being was his leadership of the Jewish people, bringing the Torah, teaching it, advocating for the people, and seeing to all their needs. 

Now merge these two concepts.  A library of Jewish books, containing the wisdom and will of Hashem, faithfully and lovingly collected by leaders who had no thought of their own personal gain, but solely for the benefit of the Jewish people.  Along comes an individual who is a physical descendant of one of those leaders, claiming that the books were his grandfather’s personal property and therefore belong to him.  He was not just staking a claim on physical property.  He was denying the entire concept of the holiness of the books, as well as the true quality of a great Jewish leader.  The argument that Chabad made was that the entire library was the property of the Jewish people, and the Rebbe who brought the library here from Eastern Europe was a Moshe-style leader who accumulated this holy collection in his role as a Jewish leader.

So Hei Teves is not about a dispute over books. It is about the very essence of Judaism.  The recognition that our Torah and our once in a generation Moshe-style leaders are unique in their transmission of Hashem’s will to us.  This recognition is crucial for the survival of the Jewish people through the ages.  So I encourage you to celebrate this day by buying holy books and bringing more of the holiness within them into your home and your life.  We have a 25% sale on all books on our shelves in the Chabad Judaica store, or here are two sites that I recommend with deep discounts in celebration of Hei Teves.


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