April 18, 2024
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Words: The Endless Possibilities

Dani’s rebbe began Chumash class with a question: Why does the pasuk say that the new king over Egypt didn’t know Yosef? Shouldn’t he know about Yosef even if Yosef wasn’t alive? Each student was given a small piece of paper on which to write their answers. Dani took a moment to think and wrote: “It means he didn’t know Yosef personally, even though he knew about Yosef.” Dani then folded up his paper and handed it to his rebbe, who was walking around collecting the responses.

Rabbi Ellison stood by the whiteboard and made three columns. The first column was titled “New King,” the second was titled “Didn’t Know,” and the third was titled “Goofballs.” As Rabbi Ellison read through the answers, he wrote each student’s name in one of the three columns. Once he had read through all the answers quietly (with a few chuckles to himself), he asked the class, “Can anyone guess why people’s names are in different columns?” Levi’s hand immediately shot up, and his rebbe called on him. “The students in the first column will take turns being the kings of the class, the second column is for kids who don’t know anything, and the third column is for the class clowns!” (Levi’s name was obviously in the Goofballs column.) Rabbi Ellison smiled. “Very clever, Levi…but wrong. Anyone else?”

After a few brave attempts at answering the question, Rabbi Ellison decided to explain it himself. He explained that some students answered the question by changing what the phrase “New King” meant (so their names went in the first column), some students changed what “Didn’t Know” meant (Dani’s name was in this column) and some gave silly answers (the Goofballs, of course). The class then opened their chumashim and learned a comment from Rashi. Rashi quotes opinions from two great rabbis, Rav and Shmuel. Rav’s opinion is that it actually was a new king, so it must mean he didn’t know Yosef personally. Shmuel’s opinion is that he wasn’t really a new king, just a king who acted differently, as if he never knew Yosef. (Rashi doesn’t mention any silly answers.) Rabbi Ellison explained that some in class thought the way Rav did, and others thought the way Shmuel did.

After his rebbe finished this explanation, Dani’s hand shot into the air. “Yes, Dani,” asked Rabbi Ellison, with a smile that seemed to say “I know what you are about to ask.” Dani then asked the question that was on his mind. “Which one is correct? Was it a new Pharaoh or the old one up to new tricks?” Rabbi Ellison shrugged his shoulders. “We don’t know. Either could be possible.” This answer did not satisfy Dani, nor did it satisfy many other students. At least five of Dani’s classmates asked the same question in different words, as if phrasing it differently would change the answer. However, nothing changed. Rabbi Ellison then pushed further to explain that even when it comes to halacha, not every question has one correct answer. From the number of days of Yom Tov to keep when visiting Israel to whether one can use a microwave for meat and dairy, Jews around the world have different practices, and none are wrong.

This idea made Dani even more confused. “What if some of these people do the wrong thing? Maybe you can’t use a microwave for both and now they are eating non-kosher!” Rabbi Ellison repeated what he said earlier. “There is not always one correct answer to a question. In many situations, Hashem gave us the responsibility to figure out what to do, not the responsibility to figure out the right answer. If two talmidei chachamim disagree, they can both be right. The real question is, what is the benefit of having a Torah like this? Why not just give us the right answer to everything so we don’t need to figure it out? We will discuss this tomorrow. Have a great day, everyone!” With that, Dani and his classmates shuffled out of class and to lunch.

After school, Dani headed straight to a local park to help out at his brother’s little league practice. Today, Dani’s job was to try out a few players to see who would make the best pitcher. After the players warmed up, three of them were sent to Dani to show him their stuff. After the first three players did their pitching, Dani spoke to each one individually. “Benny, I thought you threw some nice pitches, and your speed was good. But with a little practice on your aim, I think you can do much better.” Benny gave a big smile, said “thanks!” and headed back to join the rest of the team. Dani then moved on to Jonah. “Jonah, nice job with those pitches. You have great aim, but you can do much better. Your pitches aren’t fast enough, so head home and try to work on throwing harder.” Jonah’s shoulders slumped and he looked down toward the ground. “Hey, cheer up,” said Dani. “It’s a good thing, okay? You’re almost there.” Jonah gave what seemed like a fake smile and walked slowly back to the infield.

Finally, Dani spoke with Ami. “Ami! Half of those pitches were completely perfect! You just need to figure out how to use the same throwing motion each time. If you can do that, you will do much better!” Ami threw his glove to the ground. “I knew it! I stink! I can’t pitch! I’m just going to head home!” Dani didn’t know exactly what to say. Fortunately, Ami calmed down on his own and kept practicing as if nothing had happened. Either way, Dani was really bothered. He basically said the same thing to each pitcher, but each reacted differently. Benny took “you can do much better” as a compliment, Jonah took it as a disappointment, and Ami took it to mean he failed. How could three people react so differently to the same comment?

As Dani was walking back to talk to the other coaches, he saw a few of the players joking around. They were throwing their gloves in the air to see how many times they could spin around before the mitts hit the ground. “Hey hey hey! Stop being goofballs!” called out one of the coaches. Immediately, Dani was reminded of class that day, and he realized a connection between what Rabbi Ellison said and what just happened. Although you might say the same words three times, and mean the same thing each time, not everybody will interpret your words in the same way. “You can do much better” doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone, and neither do the words of the Torah. Therefore, in order for the Torah to mean something to everyone, different explanations have to be possible.

Why was the Torah given in the wilderness, the Midbar? The word “midbar” has the same letters as “medaber,” which means “speaking.” Just as the wilderness is open, untouched, and full of potential, the same is true of our words. Even after words leave our mouths or after they are placed on a page, they still can mean many different things. To present the Torah to us, Hashem first gave the Aseret Hadibrot, from the same shoresh, d-b-r. The wilderness and words are full of unlimited possibility, and so much more so is Hashem’s Torah. On Shavuot, let us think about the unending ways we can make the Torah meaningful to ourselves and to each and every Jew.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!


Yair Daar is the middle school dean of students at Yeshivat He’Atid. He can be reached at [email protected].

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