The Wayward Son


We are often faced with the task of dealing with a difficult child. When Rabbi Feigelstock was faced with a similar situation, he was taught a new approach. A touching lesson from this week’s parsha.

Foolish Hour

One month ago, one of the leaders of the Montreal Chabad community passed away. His name was Rabbi Herschel Feigelstock, and he was ninety-eight years old. For many decades, he was the administrator and the principal of the Chabad school and Yeshivah. 

As always, when someone lives to such a ripe old age, everybody wants to know, “What was his secret to longevity?” For Jews, the question isn’t which vitamins he took or which exercise routine he followed. Rather, we want know what special Mitzvah he kept. What unique merit did he have that helped him reach such an advanced age.

Allow me to share several stories about him. 

As principal, he would bring groups of students to visit the Rebbe at 770, and during their visit the Rebbe would receive them for a private audience. In his first year as principal, he brought one such group of fifty students. When they entered the Rebbe’s room, he presented the Rebbe with a list of their names and a one-dollar donation from each of them, in keeping with the Chassidic custom to donate to charity when asking for the Rebbe’s blessing. 

At the end of the audience, when all the children had left the room and he was alone with the Rebbe, the Rebbe reprimanded him. “Why did you take money from the students?” the Rebbe said. “Now they might assume that a blessing is something you must pay for! A young child must not think that a Rebbe is about money!”

At one point in his career, he felt that he was at an all-time-low. The school was going through numerous difficulties, and he reached a point where he felt he could no longer bear the responsibility. He boarded a train to New York to ask the Rebbe to allow him to resign. 

When he arrived at 770, the secretary refused to grant him an audience. “There is a long line of people who made appointments months in advance; there is no way you are going to get in tonight.” Rabbi Feigelstock argued that he had just traveled twelve hours for the sole purpose of speaking to the Rebbe, but the secretary was unmoved.

Not willing to give up, he wrote a short note explaining that he had traveled to New York for the sole purpose of discussing a vital issue with the Rebbe. He sent his note into the Rebbe’s office, and soon afterwards he was informed that a slot was found for him at one in the morning. 

At the appointed time, he entered the Rebbe’s room and shared his tale of woe; the situation at the Yeshivah had become unbearable, and he wanted to leave the institution. “Please discharge me of my obligations to the Yeshiva,” he asked the Rebbe.

The Rebbe had a question. “Who will replace you?”

Rabbi Feigelstock didn’t have an answer. He just shrugged his shoulders. 

The Rebbe smiled broadly. “My father-in-law the Previous Rebbe used to say,” the Rebbe said, “that this is the ‘foolish hour,’ but such a foolishness I never imagined. Had I known that you came for this reason, I wouldn’t have approved your audience. Go home, keep your position, and it will be with success.”

He served as principal for forty years.

Did You Shed a Tear

This week, a zoom memorial was held in his memory. One of the teachers in his school shared a story that Rabbi Feigelstock loved to tell over; he said that Rabbi Feigelstock would become emotional every time he repeated it.

It was in the beginning of the fifties when he was still a teacher. There was one very problematic teenager in the school; he was disrespectful to the teachers and disruptive to his peers, and the faculty concluded that he needed to be expelled. 

They convened a faculty meeting where they were going to make the official decision to expel him. As they sat around the table, each teacher presented his perspective, explaining why he thought the student should be removed from the Yeshiva. 

The head of the Yeshiva at the time, Rabbi Yerachmiel Binyaminson, sat at the head of the table. He was a venerable Chossid who had been a well-known rabbi in Russia. In addition to his Torah scholarship, he was known for his kind heart and attentive ear. Everyone loved him. 

After all the teachers gave their opinion, they waited to hear his response. His would be the final decision. 

Rabbi Binyaminson turned to the teachers sitting around the table and asked, “Has anyone here recited a chapter of Psalms for the student? Have any of you shed a tear for him?”

Silence reigned. 

“If so,” Rabbi Binyaminson concluded, “the boy will remain in Yeshivah.”

That student, established a wonderful Chassidic family, and is even a great-grandfather today. 

Joseph’s Three Attempts

This brings us to Parshat Vayechi. 

Joseph is informed that his father is ill, and he makes a trip to visit him with his two sons, Menashe and Ephraim, so that Jacob could bless them before his demise. And indeed, during the visit, Jacob turns to Joseph and says, “Bring them to me so that I may bless them.”

Jacob hugs and kisses them, and then Joseph positions them for the blessing. Menashe, the first born, is placed to Jacob’s right, and Ephraim is placed at his left. 

Strangely, Jacob crossed his arms; he puts his right hand on Ephraim and his left on Menashe. Noticing this oddity, Joseph tried to lift his father’s arms and switch them to the ‘correct’ position.

However, Jacob didn’t cooperate, so Joseph turned to his father and said, “Father, this is the firstborn; put your right hand on his head.” Jacob then told Joseph that there was a reason he chose to do so and proceeded to give them the blessing. 

In three separate attempts, Joseph tried to ensure that Menashe would be the first for the blessing, and nonetheless, he was unsuccessful.

Why, indeed, was Jacob so insistent on blessing Ephraim with his right hand?

The Wayward Son

The Midrash explains that Jacob’s blessing was connected to the future deeds of the tribe of Ephraim.

After King Solomon died, the kingdom of Israel split into two: The kingdom of Judah in the south and the kingdom of Israel in the north. The kingdom of Judah, led by the son of King Solomon, consisted of only two tribes: Judah and Benjamin. The other ten tribes, led by the rich and successful tribe of Ephraim, created the Kingdom of Israel, where they were ruled by Jeroboam. 

From Torah’s perspective, the kingdom of Israel were the ‘troublemakers’ of the Jewish people. They were rich and powerful and economically successful, but their spirituality suffered terribly. Jeroboam closed the roads to Jerusalem to ensure that nobody visits the Temple in the Kingdom of Judah. Instead, he built two ‘Temples’ in his territory where he set up golden calves and encouraged the populace to worship them. For over three hundred years, the kingdom of Israel—under Ephraim’s leadership—worshiped idols. Then, when they were conquered and exiled from the land, they were lost to the Jewish people, becoming known as the famous “Ten lost tribes of Israel.”

Some time later, the Temple was destroyed and people of the kingdom of Judah were exiled as well. But they didn’t get lost. We, the Jewish people, trace ourselves directly to those communities. Why were they more successful in preserving their identities than the people of the ten tribes? The answer is quite apparent. The ten tribes had lost their heritage way back when they still lived in the Land of Israel. Once they were forced into a new location, it was an easy step towards complete assimilation.

Ropes of Love

Many generations after Jacob’s blessing to Ephraim, we find the prophet Jeremiah going out to search for the remnants of the lost Ten Tribes who remained in the Land of Israel, encouraging them to return to G-d. The wayward son of the Jewish people, Ephraim, had caused endless division, strife and loss to the Jewish people. But Jeremiah says the following words:

“הבן יקיר לי אפרים אם ילד שעשועים כי מדי דברי בו זכור אזכרנו עוד על כן המו מעי לו רחם ארחמנו נאום ה׳” (לא, יט)

“My dear son, Ephraim, the child who so delighted me. When I mention him, it awakens my memories of him. My heart yearns for him; I will surely receive him back in love—declares G-d.”

This is one of the most famous Jewish lines. It is part of the prayers on Rosh Hashanah and is included in the second-day Rosh Hashanah Haftorah as well. Why is it so important? Because it declares G-d’s eternal love for Ephraim. True, Ephraim was a troublemaker, rabble-rouser and source of mischief, but he was still G-d’s child. He will love him unconditionally like a parent loves a child. 

This was Jacob’s message in his blessing. Putting his right hand on Ephraim, he made a declaration: This troublemaker, the kid nobody can handle—love him unconditionally. 

As G-d said through the prophet Hosea, “I have pampered Ephraim, taking them in My arms…I draw them to Me with ropes of love.” And when we love a child unconditionally, G-d will, in return, love us unconditionally as well.

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