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13 Teves 5763 - December 18, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Opinion & Comment
Right That Is Left

by R' Yerachmiel Kram

"He crossed his hands because Menashe was the firstborn" (Bereishis 48:4).

Yosef brings his two sons, Menashe and Efraim, to be blessed by Yisroel, their grandfather. Before Yaakov begins to bless them, Yosef places them in readiness: Menashe, the firstborn, at Yaakov's right hand and Efraim, the younger, to Yaakov's left. Now the three await Yaakov's benediction, but Yaakov is not satisfied with the position of his grandsons. For reasons of his own, he chooses to place his right hand upon Efraim's head and his left, upon the firstborn.

"And Yisroel sent forth his right hand and placed it on the head of Efraim, who was the younger, and his left upon the head of Menashe. He crossed his hands for Menashe was the firstborn." The word `sikeil' is translated by Onkelos as `he did with cunning.' What extra intelligence was required from Yaakov to cross his hands?

Rashi asks this selfsame question and explains that the Torah does not wish to say that crossing his hands, per se, required special intelligence. This verse, rather, comes to negate the opposite. It was as if his hands crossed themselves, automatically, without any obvious reason. Yaakov knew, of course, that Menashe was the firstborn. Nevertheless, he laid his right hand upon Efraim's head. It was not through error, but on purpose, with wisdom and conscious effort.

Why did he cross his hands rather than switch the grandsons' positions?

We are still hard put to understand the language of the verse. If what he did was with intent and purpose, rather than by error, then he crossed his hands in spite of Menashe's being the firstborn, not because of it. And that is what the Torah should have written, "He crossed his hands even though Menashe was the firstborn" and not "because."

Actually, he could have gone about this differently. If he saw fit to place his right hand on Efraim's head, he could have done it simply and directly by asking the grandsons to switch places in order for him to bless them. Why did he choose to do it in such a strange manner?

Yaakov must have had to do it that way. He apparently had legitimate reasons to place his left hand on Menashe's head but did not wish to switch their positions so as not to insult or pain him. Efraim, who warmed his study bench, engrossed in constant study, precedes Menashe, the activist and interpreter. But it is forbidden for this precedence to come at the expense of Menashe's self-respect as a firstborn. This is why Yaakov did not ask them to change positions.

Instead, he found a simpler way of blessing them in the manner he wished without it insulting anyone. He switched the position of his hands from above the bowed heads of his two unwitting grandsons. Their glance was focused downwards as they waited expectantly for the blessing. And so, Yaakov sent his right hand towards Efraim, standing at his left, and his left hand towards Menashe, who stood by his right. "And Yisroel sent his right hand and laid it upon the head of Efraim, who was the younger, and his left upon the head of Menashe."

He could have done otherwise, had he so wished, and asked the boys to exchange places. But he "exchanged [with wisdom] his hands" in the way he blessed them, even though this way it appeared strange and unnatural. It was a meditated act of daas Torah, clear and lucid, a studied decision that he bless them precisely in this manner rather than in any other way.

Why, then, did he choose this particular manner?

"For Menashe was the firstborn." He could not wittingly insult him and ask him to exchange places with his younger brother. The only way to bless them as he wished would be to change the position of his own hands and to bless Menashe with his left hand and Efraim with his right without their being aware of any preference or difference" (Ksav Sofer).

"I know, my son, I know"

Yosef Hatzaddik did not fathom his father's intention. He thought something was amiss. Yosef's thought process demanded an understanding of the entire matter. He clearly saw his father doing something unusual, something that aroused questions, if not doubts.

The Netziv of Volozhin explains that Yosef thought that Yaakov was indicating that he had not prepared the sons in their proper positions -- the elder at Yaakov's right and the junior at his left -- which is why he had crossed his hands. Yosef, of course, knew that he had placed them correctly, in the proper order, and sought to right what he thought was an error on his father's part, so that he would bless them properly.

Yaakov Ovinu had not erred. He knew exactly who was who and purposely, deliberately did what he did. He explains to Yosef, "I know, my son, I know." I know what you know, but I also know what you don't know. I know who is the elder and who is the younger and where they are positioned before me. But I also know what will happen to their progeny in the future.

"I know that Menashe will produce Gid'on who will perform miracles for Israel. But even greater than that will be Efraim. From him will come forth Yehoshua bin Nun who will bequeath the land to the nation, will teach Torah to Israel and whose name will become famous throughout the world when he shall arrest the sun in its orbit in Givon and the moon in the valley of Ayalon.

"I know, my son, I know; he, too, will be a nation; he, too, will become great."

"However, his younger brother will surpass him and his seed shall become a multitude of nations" (48:19).

A great man sees things that are hidden from others.

Sometimes, the others are great, even exceedingly great, but they are not as great as the unique one who is given to view things that are hidden from others.

A Wise Man is Like One Who Sees Afar

We are being taught here a valuable lesson in emunas chachomim, trust in our Sages. We are taught to acknowledge the power of the leaders of our generation to see what is hidden from the sight and understanding of others. Be this prophetic vision, like the prophecy of Yaakov Ovinu, or the foresight vision of daas Torah, the Torah leaders of each generation.

The godol hador is likened to that lookout who is appointed by the people of his city to warn against any approaching danger. When he raises the alarm of any impending threat, he is not considered a doomsayer and is not to be scolded for his pessimism. It is precisely his responsibility to stand on guard, in a high lookout tower, so that he might detect what others below cannot see. The ordinary townspeople are free to go about their usual ways while he is charged to be the sentinel. They are below, he is high above. They are serene; he is on guard, taut and alert to any possible looming danger.

Those on the ground level must bend their ear to the scout who stands above and warns; he must prepare himself accordingly. The common person does not presume to be doing a favor to the lookout when he heeds his warning. He knows that he is protecting himself. He obeys because he realizes that the watchman knows what he doesn't know, is aware of things he is not aware of, and it is purely in his own interest to heed the warning of the watchman. By virtue of his elevated position, the lookout knows more than he; he is informed. It is only natural and wise to listen to him. It is not a matter of deference to his stature but a very practical relation of cause-and-effect; the citizen must obey because the guard is at an advantage; he knows what the man does not know and is warning him for his own good.

One Hundred Myopic People Will Not See What One Sharpshooter Can Discern

The simple person may ask: but what if one thousand and one people think differently from that single seer? Can they all be in error and only that one person be seeing the truth?

He may ask further: Amidst those thousand there are also Torah scholars who delve into the Torah day and night. Can that one great man truly see better and further than all the rest, scholars included?

In order to clarify this point, let us use the parable which HaRav Yechezkel Abramsky zt'l employed:

One hundred people are standing about. One of them can see a distance of ten kilometers. Another can see as far as fifteen kilometers away and so on. The one with the keenest vision is able to discern objects at a distance of twenty-five kilometers. To be sure, if we were to place then all abreast in one line and ask them to identify an object ten kilometers away, they would all see it. If we moved it back five kilometers, not everyone would see it. The further we removed the object, the fewer people would be able to discern it.

At the distance of twenty-five kilometers, only one person will see it. He alone is able to see what all the other hundred and one people fail to see. Even if they were all to erect a human pyramid, one on the back of the other, none of them would be able to view that distant object, which is beyond their field of vision. Their combined efforts will be in vain for at that distance, only the person with the very acute vision will be able to see the object that eludes all the others.

This applies equally to the lookout guard who stands up high in his tower and can see further than all the others. Even if all the townspeople are to gather below and strain their vision, they will be unable to see what he can see from his high vantage point.

He is high and they are below.

He will also be able to see, understand and integrate what he sees with his greater knowledge, that which even a thousand lesser/lower people will be unable to see and understand.

The sage intuits; he predicts what will develop. He does not actually see the future, but he can envision what will come to be. He sees the newborn, the product of the birthing process. The birthing process involves difficult pangs but the end result is happy and rewardingly pleasant.

The wise seer may demand steps that are not always acceptable and logical; he may outline steps that seem to be counterproductive. It is similar to the process of birth which is accompanied with painful pangs. But the wise man is able to project into the future and see the moment after birth, that moment when everyone is all smiles and joyous. To see this eventual light when everything is still all darkness requires a great measure of wisdom.

The Obligation to Attempt to Understand the Wisdom of the Sages

The power of the sage is similar to that of the sentinel. It is very obvious. The wise man is capable of understanding a difficult passage in the Rashba which other scholars have labored in vain to fathom. If one hundred laymen were to sit down before that passage and try to learn it, would they succeed in revealing its intricacies and deeper meanings?

The mind of a sage can delve deeply to profound depths and penetrate the heart of difficult subjects which a hundred simple people would be at a loss to understand.

He is standing at a vantage point.

The Rambam explains this in his "Letter to Yemen:"

"Know that just like the blind man can be saved [from mishap] by following behind the seeing man for he realizes full well that he cannot see himself, and just as the sick person with no knowledge of medicine knows enough to follow the directives of the physician for he is ignorant of what medicines can harm and what can save and benefit him and will do whatever the doctor bids him, so must the masses place their trust in and rely upon the prophets with the true vision. Suffice them to know that the wise men say that this is true while that is false.

"After the prophets, come the sages who delve [and pursue Torah knowledge] by day and by night and who know what is true and what is vanity."

The Mashgiach, HaRav Eliyahu Dessler zt'l, quotes the above passage in his work, Michtav MeEliahu and adds that in addition to availing oneself of the clear sight of Torah scholars, one may also attempt to understand their thought processes whereby we can also align our own thoughts accordingly. "Therefore," he writes, "the sages of our generation whose goal in life it is, as devoted and loyal disciples, to follow in the ways of Chazal, are privy to this measure of straightforward thinking in such great measure that their opinion, even in matters that have no explicit source and even their advice on mundane matters, is clear, lucid and true, just as if they had asked a man of G-d, a prophet. And this we clearly see, thank G-d, even in this very generation."

On Right that it is Left . . .

The Torah expresses the obligation to obey the words of our Sages in the following manner, "You shall not veer from the thing that they tell you, right or left" (Devorim 17:11). Rashi explains: "Even if he tells you that right is left and left is right. All the more so if he tells you that right is right and left is left." Some say that Rashi is quoting here the Sifrei. Why did the Sages utilize the example of right and left and not examples of other opposites, like day and night or north and south?

There is an apparently deep significance in the choice of example. North and south, like day and night, are absolute concepts which have no relation to the person speaking about them. Not so right and left, which are not absolute but relative to the speaker. Reuven and Shimon can converse between them and mention `right' and `left' and not even be referring to the identical `right' and `left,' for Reuven's right is Shimon's left and vice versa.

When the Torah commands us to obey a Torah sage, it does not order us to heed him in the event that he claims that north is south, for this cannot hold true. A Torah sage cannot declare night to be day. And if, nonetheless, a leader issues a directive that appears strange and questionable to the listener, it must be that the latter is not standing in the same position and in the same way that the sage is standing. He does not possess that sage's intellectual tools, his clear vision, his objectivity and his broad scope.

If he thinks that the sage is telling him that left is right, then the fault must lie with the listener. According to his limited information, it appears to him that the right is the left. Were he to stand at the sage's vantage point, he would see that it is, after all, right.

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