Bar-Mitzvah sermon for Yoel Epstein

Yoel, I want to give you only one piece of advice. This advice is based on the unique combination of your name and your parasha. Yoel Binyamin, reader of Parashat Korach; which you read so beautifully yesterday.

Who was the Yoel of Tanach? Yoel was an unusual Navi, with a small book, only four chapters long, nestled in the middle of Trei Asar. His full name was Yoel ben Petuel and I believe I’ve found a connection between this full name and your parasha.

There is only one significant midrash about this little-known Navi. I will read it and you might understand why he was a little different.

Yoel the Navi recounts a terrible famine that afflicts the land of Israel. A plague of locust covers the land and destroys all food. Eventually the people repent and are blessed with food again. The Gemara in Taanit, Daf Heh amud Alef tells that midrash about Yoel.

Now remember, it was a time of a horrible famine. People were dying from hunger. They would rather eat the few measly grains they might find than put it in the ground in the hopes of living to see a harvest.

The Gemara says as follows:

That year, Adar passed and no rain had fallen. The first rainfall came on the first of Nissan, and the Navi said to the Israelites, “Go forth and sow.”

They asked: “Should one who has a measure of wheat eat it and live, or sow it and die of hunger?”

He answered: “Go!”

A miracle was made for them. The grain hidden in the walls by mice and in the antholes was revealed to them. They went out and sowed on the second, third and fourth of Nissan. The second rainfall came on the fifth of Nissan, and they brought the Omer on the sixteenth of Nissan. Grain had grown for them in eleven days.

In short, an unusual prophet with a rare and unusual miracle. Yoel was not a prophet that went with the crowd.

Binyamin. Your second name. Binyamin is a much better known personality. He was also somewhat unusual amongst the sons of Yakov. The only one born in Israel. The only one not part of the sale of Yosef. The only one who could bring peace to the family by reuniting the brothers. The one who merited having the Mishkan and the Beit Hamikdash in his territory.

Now what is the connection of Yoel ben Petuel, the Navi, to parshat Korach, our Yoel’s parasha?

The midrash in parashat Korach tells us about one more personality who didn’t go with the crowd: Onn ben Pelet.

Onn is mentioned in the very first pasuk of the parasha as an ally of Korach, Datan and Aviram, but is never mentioned again.

The Gemara in Sanhedrin Kuf Tet amud Bet quotes the famous midrash that Onn, thanks in large measure to his sharp and even courageous wife, separates from the crowd he was in and is thereby spared.

Onn ben Pelet and Yoel ben Petuel share the same exact letters, except for one – a yud. If you add a yud to Onn ben Pelet the survivor in the midbar, you get Yoel ben Petuel the navi and savior in Israel.

Just like in the parasha before, parashat Shelach, Moshe adds a yud to turn Hoshea into Yehoshua, thereby affording Yehoshua protection against the catastrophe of the Meraglim and ultimately preparing him for the leadership of Israel and the conquering of the land. So too, the character of Onn, who in a moment of clarity stepped away from a dangerous crowd and thereby avoided falling to the abyss, is transformed from merely a lucky guy with a smart wife to Yoel, a navi, a man who communes with God and brings His word to others.

Onn of the Midbar is transformed into Yoel of Israel who leads his people back to God, by going against the crowd. Furthermore, I think that Yoel can only come from Onn a man who turned his back on Korach, Datan and Aviram, though he had been previously enmeshed in all their plans.

Yoel ben Petuel comes from the crowd, knows the crowd, turns from the crowd, rejects the crowd and eventually, ironically, leads the crowd back to God and to physical and spiritual salvation.

So Yoel, the advice for you from all of this is, marry a smart woman.

But until then, don’t be afraid to choose your own path – that way lies greatness.

Mazal Tov.

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