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Rabbi Kalmar's Message - Parshat Vayigash 5781

"Cheating the System: Not at West Point and Not For the Jewish People"

A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal or tolerate those who do. That is the honor code of the U.S. Military Academy known as West Point. This week, that code has been put to the test. This Spring West Point went to virtual as did the rest of the country.  As instructors were grading a virtual calculus exam in May, certain irregularities were noticed.  Seventy-three cadets (all but one, first year students) have been accused of cheating on the exam. It's the biggest cheating scandal at West Point since the 1970s.

The Military Academy did not admit or reveal the scandal.  Rather it was exposed by a USA Today article.  59 have admitted, several have resigned from the academy and others have not admitted and will face a full investigation.

The majority have been admitted to a rehabilitation program which will allow them to repent for their cheating and stay in the academy.  

The failure to aggressively and transparently deal with this scandal has some claiming that it will affect the way the military treats being open and honest.  

In this week’s parsha – Yosef brings his father Yaakov in front of Paroh.  And Yaakov says something really shocking.

Pharaoh asks Yaakov ַּמָּ֕ה יְמֵ֖י שְׁנֵ֥י חַיֶּיֽךָ – How old are you?   And what is Yaakov’s response?  יְמֵי֙ שְׁנֵ֣י מְגוּרַ֔י שְׁלשִׁ֥ים וּמְאַ֖ת שָׁנָ֑ה מְעַ֣ט וְרָעִ֗ים הָיוּ֙ יְמֵי֙ שְׁנֵ֣י חַיַּ֔י  - The days of my traveling are one hundred and thirty years. The days and years of my life have been few and miserable.

Is this any way to talk?  To speak to a king?  Who has just invited you to live in his land?  And Yaakov just sounds like a bitter old man.  130 – hardly lived at all!  And Yaakov has just been reunited with his lost son Yosef – all of his children are alive and well – why is he displaying this bitterness about life?  And it’s one thing to mutter bitter things in your own kitchen – but here on the world stage? In front of the king and the press?  This is the message that you share?  It’s well known that one of the most depressing things in life is when you ask someone how they are and they actually tell you.

There has to be something deeper and more meaningful here.  The great and elder Yaakov is meeting with the mighty Pharaoh – there has to be something more to this encounter.

According to Rav Berel Wein, Yaakov was sending a message to Pharaoh.  Yaakov was saying the following to him -   Yes, I might be recognized as a holy man who has done much good in his life.  I might be blessed by God to be the one of the forefathers of his special nation and the father of the 12 tribes – but that does not mean that everything in this world will be easy because of it.  The lives of even the most holy and righteous people can be filled with troubles and turmoil.   

Pharaoh was a king – and kings are used to instant gratification – they are served first, they eat first, they travel first – no waiting in line for the king.  Everything comes immediately and has to be the absolute best.  A king is used to shortcuts – everything comes right away and right plenty and right excellent.  Or the king is disappointed and distraught.    

Yaakov was telling him – that good is done for its own sake.  That the blessings of the future and of eternity are more important than gratifying one’s every need right now.  

Following this statement of Yaakov – he blesses Pharaoh.  Pharaoh realized that the blessing of this old and broken man was more valuable than anything – Yaakov may not own the present or the past – but he owns the future.  He holds up the ideal of the future and that of taking time and effort to accomplish things.    Yaakov spends years in study at the feet of Shem and Ever.  Yaakov spends years earning the right to marry his wives and then years earning his fortune.  He spends years mourning his son Yosef.   He understands the power of time.  And Yaakov understands the power of the future – he understands the value of being the first born and of the blessings of his father Yitzchak. Later he will give the blessings to his grandsons and his sons that will speak to their future and their destiny for all time.   These are the values of Yaakov – integrity, the value of hard work, looking to the future and the value of truth. Whether speaking truth to power literally – as he does here to Pharaoh, or as he shows us when giving genuine and frank blessings to his sons, Yaakov is a man of integrity.

Which brings us back to the cheating scandal at West Point.  Cheating is by its very nature a short cut – a belief that we can just easily cut to the front of the line by passing all of those suckers who are doing the hard work. This has infected the Jewish world as well. We see this in the Israeli word freier – or sucker – where the legitimization of doing anything not to be a sucker is held up as an ideal.  Don’t do it the hard way or the legitimate way – you can cut the line and cheat the system – that is the way to go.  

Unfortunately, in our world, all too many people will only see what the cadets did wrong was, was to get caught.  The honor code of West Point does not speak to them.  The real wrong here is the attempt to cheat the system – to subvert truth and do things the easy and unethical way.  

We too live by a code.  The Torah requires us often to do things the hard way.  The Jewish people are in this for the long haul, for the end game.  Being good and doing things the right way for the right reasons are their own reward.  Hashem requires us to be honest and forthright and straight and good for God’s sake.   The honor code of the Torah demands that we do no less.

Good Shabbos!

Mon, March 8 2021 24 Adar 5781