Figure it Out

Rav Natanel Lebowitz – 5768

When I used to teach tefilla shiur, the number one difficulty that students encountered in tefilla was that they felt like they were having a one way relationship with Hashem. They argued that it was difficult to continually talk and not have anyone answer. Should Hashem just give them the slightest response, they would be able to daven with more excitement.

We see a strange arrangement of the stories in this week’s parsha. The main storyline is about the shevatim selling Yosef. Right at the height of the story, when Yosef is about to reach Egypt, the Torah sticks in the section about Yehuda’s interaction with Tamar. Why would the Torah put a seemingly irrelevant story right in the middle of the Yosef story?

The Medrash Beraishis Raba quotes Rav Yochanan, who tells us that while it is true that the Yehuda story is out of place, the Torah wished to put together the two times our parsha used the word הכר. The first time is after the brothers strip Yosef of his coat and dip it in blood in order to give Yaakov the impression that Yosef was killed. Yehuda said to his father (Beraishis 37:32) “הכר (Identify) if this is your son’s coat.” The second time appears at the end of the Yehuda-Tamar story where, upon the threat of death, Tamar sends a sign to Yehuda that it is he who is the father of her unborn children. She says to Yehuda (38:25) “הכר (Identify) who is the owner of this stamp and cloak”. The Medrash says that from here we learn that Hashem metes out judgment measure for measure. The same way that Yehuda used the word “Identify” when he was paining his father, he too had to suffer as someone used the phrase “Identify”.

Rav Chaim Shmulevitz is confused by this medrash. How does the Torah’s use of the same word teach us that Hashem judges measure for measure? What is the connection between Yehuda’s sin and his punishment?

Rav Chaim explains that the medrash is teaching us a fundamental principle in Judaism. When Hashem is forced to punish someone in this world, He does not do so as a power play. He does not need to show who’s boss to someone who violated His will. Rather, the purpose of a punishment in this world is to teach a person that he did something wrong and he needs to repent and correct his ways. If Hashem would give random punishments for sins, there would be no way for us to know the reason that we are being punished. However, since the punishment is measure for measure, there is an indication in the punishment itself as to the specific sin that has made the punishment necessary. The second הכר was not itself a punishment but rather the indication to Yehuda that he was being punished for causing his father pain earlier in the parsha. As everything was collapsing around Yehuda, Tamar’s word הכר triggered in his memory a time when he had just used that same word. Interestingly enough, the very signal word that Hashem used to remind Yehuda means “Figure it out”.

Our tefillas are not one way conversations. Hashem has many ways of communicating with us and He is in constant contact. True, He does not use the conventional means of conversation but that does not mean that He is not talking. It is up to us to open up – not just our ears, but our minds and all our senses to figure out what He is trying to say.

Yehi ratzon milifnei Avinu Shebashamayim that in this world where there are so many distractions from recognizing the Master of the World, He should help us  realize how much He loves us, communicates with us, and wants to have a deep relationship with us.





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