Worth the Effort
וישב יעקב בארץ מגורי אביו בארץ כנען
“And Jacob settled in the land of his father’s sojournings, in the land of Canaan.” (Bereishit 37:1)
After emerging triumphant from his struggles against his wicked father-in-law Laban and his brother Esau, Jacob returned to Canaan to settle in his homeland. In his commentary on our verse, Rashi notes that the Torah uses the expression “settle,” which connotes permanence, instead of the more temporary “sojourn.”
Rashi explains that the Torah deliberately used this phrase to teach that after his lengthy exile, Jacob desired to finally settle down in tranquility. G-d rejected Jacob’s request, arguing that given the tremendous reward waiting for the righteous in the World to Come, it is inappropriate for them to seek comfort in this world as well. As a result, Jacob’s suffering continues as the parsha unfolds with the kidnapping of his beloved Joseph.
It is difficult to understand the error in Jacob’s reasoning. If he sought a bit of peaceful tranquility after the recent emotional roller coaster he had experienced, it could only have been for the purpose of allowing him to focus his time and energy on properly serving G-d. If so, why did G-d reject Jacob’s request, which was rooted in his desire for greater spirituality?
Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik, known as the Brisker Rav (1886-1959), answers that while it seems logical, this question is predicated on a false premise. People assume that the ideal situation is one in which they have no distractions so that they can completely focus on serving G-d with all of their time and energy. In reality, G-d specifically prefers that people serve Him despite all of their difficulties and preoccupations, as this makes their efforts to serve Him that much more valuable and praiseworthy.
The Mishnah in Ethics of our Fathers (2:4) teaches that a person shouldn’t say, “I will study when I have free time,” because he may never find himself with free time. However, in line with our theme, Rabbi Soloveitchik suggested that it can be reinterpreted it as follows: A person shouldn’t say, “I will learn when I have free time,” because perhaps G-d specifically desires the Torah that he studies precisely when he has no free time.
With this understanding of the value of mitzvot performed under sub-par conditions, we can appreciate the following story. One year during the Rosh Hashana prayers, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgenstern, known as the Kotzker Rebbe (1787-1859), announced to his chassidim that he knows exactly what they are all praying for. To their astonishment, he proceeded to explain that they were begging G-d to give them less parnassa (income), which would leave them with fewer business obligations and more time to spend doing mitzvot and acts of kindness for less fortunate.
However, their collective wonder at his apparently prophetic knowledge was quickly dashed, as he continued to inform them of G-d’s response to their entreaties. G-d rejected their requests because He specifically prefers the good deeds that they struggle to perform in spite of all of their distractions and difficulties.
We live in a society which constantly develops new technological gadgets which promise to save us valuable time. Yet the demands we each face in our individual lives – from family, work, and play – seem to only increase with each passing day. At times when we feel that we would gladly make time for G-d if only He would give us a few moments to catch our breaths, we should remind ourselves that it is specifically the efforts we make and the good deeds we perform during these pressured moments that give G-d unparalleled pleasure and pride.
Talking It Out
ויראו אחיו כי אתו אהב אביהם מכל אחיו וישנאו אתו ולא יכלו דברו לשלם
“And his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, so they hated him, and they could not speak with him (l’shalom) peacefully.” (Bereishit 37:4)
In this week’s parsha, we read about the rift between Joseph and his brothers – one that not only led to Joseph being sold into slavery, but also to the eventual enslavement of the Jewish people in Egypt. As the rift gathered steam, the Torah notes us that the brothers couldn’t speak peacefully with Joseph. Rashi comments, “From what is stated to their (the brothers) discredit, we may learn something to their credit, that they did not say one thing with their mouth and think differently in their heart.”
Rashi gives the brothers credit for not pretending to be friendly with Joseph while secretly hating him, but still considers it a discredit for not speaking with Joseph. Rabbi Yonason Eybeschutz (1690-1764, Krakow-Altona) explains why it was wrong for them not to speak to him given the fact that they hated him. It is human nature, he explains, for dislike of another person to grow with the passage of time. Without any intervening positive interactions, “dislike” commonly evolves into full-blown hatred.
This would explain the unfortunate reality of people going to their graves with unresolved family feuds that started out as minor squabbles. Issues that could have been resolved earlier on, somehow became insurmountable mountains. Instead of allowing the issue to fester, the offended person could have said, “You know, I was really hurt by what you said/did/didn’t do. I really wish you wouldn’t have said/done that.” The other party would then have the opportunity to apologize, offer a legitimate explanation, say he wouldn’t do it again, or simply say that he didn’t mean to be offensive. The fight could have ended right there, saving years of bitterness and alienation.
It is possibly for this reason that the Torah prohibition “Do not hate your brother in your heart” is immediately followed with, “You shall surely rebuke your fellow.” (Leviticus 19:17) The Torah seems to imply that if one hates his brother in his heart, he is setting himself up for an eternity of enmity. If you don’t hold the anger in your heart and respectfully rebuke the person, the situation could be resolved without lingering hatred.
This, according to Rabbi Eybeschutz, is the discredit referred to by Rashi regarding Joseph’s brothers. When the Torah testifies that, “and they could not speak with him peacefully,” it is in effect saying that if they would have spoken to him, even openly telling him what bothered them, it could have been l’shalom, for peace, thus dissolving their enmity. Since they were unwilling to engage Joseph in any sort of dialogue, they ended up increasing their hatred towards him, and eventually sold him into slavery.
After arriving from Europe, one of the preeminent leaders of American Jewry, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky (1891-1986), served as a congregational Rabbi in various communities, including a stint in Toronto. While there, the extremely grateful congregation presented him with a beautiful silver Kiddush cup as a gift. Shortly thereafter, a congregant happened to see him bringing the silver cup to a pawn shop! When the membership learned of this, they were understandably distressed. How insulting was it for him to sell the congregation’s gift!
A congregant was designated to approach the Rabbi to express their displeasure. To his pleasant surprise, Rabbi Kamenetsky explained that he was having the cup assessed to find how much tax he owed for it. As the gift was given in recognition of his service, he considered it taxable income. In addition to the impressive testimony this provides regarding Rabbi Kamenentsky’s integrity, it also shows us the importance of talking things out, and how much resentment and hurt can be avoided if we would simply talk “l’shalom,” for the sake of peace.
Joseph the Dreamer
ויחלם יוסף חלום ויגד לאחיו ויוספו עוד שנא אתו
“Joseph dreamt a dream which he told to his brothers, and they hated him even more… He dreamt another dream and related it to his brothers… So his brothers were jealous of him…” (Bereishit 37:5-11)
What caused the rift between Joseph and his brothers?
Jacob’s favoritism toward Joseph surely did not help. Another factor however, added fuel to the fire – Joseph’s dreams. Joseph recounts two distinct dreams to his brothers, and they react in two distinct ways. In the first dream, Joseph states that he and his brothers were bundling sheaves of wheat, and that the brothers’ sheaves bowed down to his. In the second dream, Joseph describes the sun, moon and stars – representing his father, mother and brothers – bowing down to him.
In response to the first dream, the brothers hated Joseph. In response to the second, they displayed the more pernicious emotion of jealousy. It was this jealousy that ultimately led the brothers to sell Joseph into slavery. Why would one dream cause hatred and the other jealousy, and why was their jealousy so powerful that it led them to betray their brother?
Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik explains that Joseph’s two dreams represented two areas by which a person measures his standing in the world. The sheaves of wheat in the first dream represented material wealth. The brothers’ sheaves bowing to Joseph’s indicated that they would be dependent upon him for their physical sustenance. The message of the second dream, however, was that Joseph was spiritually superior to his brothers. The brothers’ different reactions thus becomes clearer.
In Jewish thought, material wealth is not a reflection of a person’s intrinsic value. Spiritual achievements, on the other hand, touch on a person’s core.
The brothers may have hated Joseph for declaring his future financial superiority over them, but they would not have acted on this emotion if Joseph’s hadn’t implied that they were spiritually inferior to him in their role as equal progenitors of the 12 Tribes. This inflamed their jealously to the point where they felt that they had no choice but to get rid of him.
This conflict between Joseph and his brothers teaches a fundamental lesson on the proper way to view ourselves and others in our lives. When we are concerned about our lot in life, our focus should be on matters of the spirit. This is the true measuring stick by which to judge our value as human beings. The following story illustrates the impact this focus can have others:
A young man was hired as an “assistant Rabbi” for a Jewish congregation on the West Coast. The president of the synagogue wanted the new Rabbi to start having Shabbat guests as soon as possible. The problem was that the Rabbi and his wife had moved several thousand miles, and had a number of little children underfoot. Unpacking proved to be much more time-consuming than they had anticipated. By the time Shabbat rolled around, the house was still full of half-opened boxes.
Unmoved by their predicament, the president informed the Rabbi that there was a particular wealthy member of the community who needed a Shabbat meal that week – boxes or no. More than a bit apprehensive about the impression they would make, the couple did their best to entertain this man for Shabbat – boxes, paper plates and all. Several days later, the Rabbi received an urgent call from the synagogue’s president, wanting to know what happened.
Embarrassed, the Rabbi admitted that his house was still a mess, and that he had probably made an awful first impression. However, the opposite was true. The synagogue’s president read a note he had received from the man. “Never before have I been so impressed by someone’s Shabbat table. This young couple’s house was upside down from their move, yet they still opened their home to me on Shabbat without any qualms. In one meal, they taught me more about life’s priorities than 30 years of running my own business.”
At nearly every turn, we are bombarded with the idea that our success is measured by the amount of money we have, the price we paid for our house, the kind of car we drive, the vacations we take, the shoes we wear, and so on, without end.
The smallest acts of kindness however, are often enough to prove that our true worth is measured by the how deeply we relate to the spiritual aspects of life and how eager we are to share those experiences with others. Creating a “kinder, gentler nation” has become a cliché in political discourse, but it is the credo of the Jewish people. Yes, money can do much good, but in every case, it is the human soul behind the money that ultimately determines our status in this world.
Jealousy Almost Leads to Murder
ויראו אותו מרחוק ובטרם יקרב אליהם ויתנכלו אתו להמיתו
“They saw [Joseph] from afar; and when he had not yet approached them, they conspired to kill him” (Bereishit 37:18).
You’re driving down the street, and someone cuts you off. What do you think about the other driver? Either he’s irresponsible… or perhaps he has an emergency and is rushing to the hospital. You peer inside his window and see “that guy” again — the same guy who cut you off last week for no reason. Now what do you think about the driver?
The Torah tells us the famous story of Joseph and his brothers. Out of love, Jacob gave Joseph a special “coat of many colors,” which caused some jealousy among his brothers. When Joseph saw his brothers doing what he thought were inappropriate actions, he would tell their father Jacob about their “misdeeds,” so that he would set them on the right path. Needless to say, this did not sit well with the brothers. When Joseph dreamt about ruling over his brothers, they considered killing him, threw him into a pit, and eventually sold him into slavery.
How could such holy people, sons of Jacob, sink so low as to consider killing their own brother, who was truly righteous?
Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian explains that the brothers were not motivated by spite and revenge. Rather, they decided to kill Joseph out of self-defense, because they feared for their lives. The offenses Joseph had reported to Jacob carried the death penalty. Even though Joseph’s intentions were pure, the brothers assumed that Joseph was attempting to convince their father Jacob to cast them out — or worse. When Joseph had dreams about ruling over them, that clinched it; they had to stop his plot from succeeding!
According to their understanding of the situation at the time, the brothers’ decision had been justified. Later on, when they began to take note of the problems they were facing, they realized that their troubles had something to do with what they had done to Joseph. But instead of concluding that they were wrong for what they did, their only regret was that they didn’t feel compassion when they sentenced him (Sforno 42:21). How could they have been so oblivious?
Rabbi Lopian answers in one word: jealousy. Even though Joseph’s brothers were very righteous, they were jealous over the extra attention he received from Jacob. It was this jealousy that clouded their ability to judge Joseph favorably, causing every one of his actions to be viewed adversely. Therefore, they saw Joseph as scheming to have them removed from the family.
Jealousy can subconsciously permeate our thoughts and actions. Even though the Torah mentions the brothers’ jealously when Joseph received his coat of many colors, it took much introspection on their part to realize how wrong they were — more introspection than they chose to give.
It is always important to view other people — and their actions — in a positive light. If we find that we are having difficulty doing that, perhaps there’s a negative feeling towards that person hiding within us, preventing us from doing so. Uncovering that feeling would go a long way toward freeing us to be more objective in our dealings with others.
ויהי כהיום הזה ויבא הביתה לעשות מלאכתו ואין איש מאנשי הבית שם בבית
“Then there was an opportune day when he entered the house to do his work – no man of the household staff being there in the house.” (Bereishit 39:11)
After being sold by his brothers to a caravan of traveling merchants, Joseph was eventually sold into slavery in Egypt. The wife of his new master Potiphar was impressed by him and tried everything in her power to convince him to sin. She even threatened to imprison and humiliate him, but despite her greatest efforts, the righteous Joseph remained steadfast in his commitment to his morals and refused.
One day, however, his defenses began to crack. Joseph came into the house considering yielding to her threats and tricks. At that crucial moment, his father’s visage appeared to him and warned him about the dire consequences he would face if he did so. This critical reminder from his father about his family’s tradition and values served to protect and save him at the height of his personal trial.
Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein relates a beautiful and powerful story about the potency of the impressions we make on our children in their youth. It once happened in a small town in Europe that one of the Jewish children was kidnapped by the church and sent to study in a monastery. All of the emotional, tear-laden cries and pleas of his parents to various government officials fell on deaf ears. The local priest, who was well-connected, simply denied the accusations.
Finally, after years of petitions – both to G-d and to the government – a compromise was proposed. The parents would be allowed to spend 5 minutes in a room with this boy. If at the end of that time he chose to leave with them of his own volition, then their claims would be accepted, but if not, it would be considered incontrovertible proof that their story had been completely fabricated. As excited as they were at finally having a chance to obtain justice and get their beloved son back, they were also full of trepidation, as they could only imagine the brainwashing to which he had been subjected during his years in the monastery.
They approached their local Rabbi, known for his commentary Nachal Eshkol, for advice. He promised them that he would accompany them to the fateful meeting, would speak to their son on their behalf, and that they had nothing to fear. Comforting and reassuring as he was, they were still full of anxiety over the meeting and wondering whether the Rabbi’s mysterious plan would work.
On the fateful day, the three of them were led into a small room and found their son sitting across a table from them, glaring at them angrily and showing no signs of recognition. Their hearts dropped. He had been programmed to the point of not remembering his own parents! The parents looked with hope and fear to the Rabbi for guidance. The Rabbi kept his calm and began slowly humming the haunting melody of Kol Nidrei. The parents anxiously looked back at their son, who wasn’t flinching and whose expression was as angry as ever. The Rabbi continued, picking up the pace and the volume, but seemingly to no avail as the son remain stone-faced.
The parents, growing desperate, glanced at the clock, as one, two, three precious minutes ticked by. Finally, as they were about to give up all hope, the Rabbi raised his voice further and reached a feverish crescendo. At this point the boy broke down sobbing and ran into his parents’ welcoming arms, as the unforgettable memories of his past, eternally engraved in his subconscious, brought him home!
We all have beautiful and nostalgic recollections of times we spent with our families while growing up. Recognizing the power of these events to remain indelibly etched in the memories of our children, it behooves us to put both the appropriate time and effort into making sure the lessons and priorities we impart to our children are the proper ones, for they will remain with them for life.
Secret Message to King Backfires
אם זכרתני אתך כאשר ייטב לך ועשית נא עמדי חסד והזכרתני אל פרעה והוצאתני מן הבית הזה
“But remember me when things go well with you. Please deal kindly with me, and mention me to Pharaoh, and take me out of this house” (Bereishit 40:14).
Joseph was in an Egyptian jail. There, with G-d’s help, he deciphered the dreams of two prisoners, telling the king’s butler that he would return to his position, while telling the baker that he would be hung (both of which came true). As the butler was about to be reinstated, Joseph asked the butler to remember him to Pharaoh.
Rashi comments that for a man of Joseph’s stature to put so much faith in a human being to get him out of prison was considered a sin (because he should have had more faith in G-d). Therefore Joseph was punished with two additional years in prison.
The Rabbenu Bachaye commentary states that Joseph had two requests: “mention me to Pharaoh” and “take me out of here.” Because of that he was punished with two years. It is said that Rabbi Chaim of Brisk once asked Rabbi Shimon Skopp the following question: “If Joseph made only one request, ‘mention me to Pharaoh,’ how long much longer would he have stayed in prison?” Rabbi Skopp answered he’d have stayed one year. Rabbi Chaim, said, “No, he wouldn’t have stayed in prison any longer, because even a tzaddik (righteous person) who knows that everything comes from G-d needs to show some physical effort to get what he needs, rather than waiting for G-d to make miracles for him.
If Joseph needed to make one request, shouldn’t he have been imprisoned for one year? No! If Joseph made one request, it would’ve been evident that he put his full faith in G-d, but was following the appropriate protocol by putting in some effort and not simply waiting for a miracle. Once he exerted himself more than was necessary, we see that both requests stemmed from an inappropriate desire to get human help. He was thus held accountable for both requests.
Consider how people view their careers. If a person’s most important task in this world is to be a spouse and good parent, why do we abandon our children and spouses by working? The obvious answer is that we need to earn money to help support our families, and to give charity. When a person starts working very long hours, far beyond what’s needed to support his family comfortably and give charity, it would appear that his career interests have little to do with supporting his family. Seen in this light, even the “necessary” time he puts into his work may not be viewed as a “sacrifice” on his part.
The way we deal with our employees, the way we interact with family members… there are countless ways this lesson can be applied. We may believe we’re doing something for one reason, but if we take an action to the extreme, it may be time to rethink our true motivations.
For Discussion Around the Shabbat Table
In spurning the repeated advances of Potiphar’s wife, Joseph explained to her at length (Bereishit 37:8-9) that doing so would be an inappropriate lack of loyalty to his master who had trusted him and treated him kindly. Almost as an afterthought, he added that doing so would also constitute a tremendous sin against G-d. Why did he begin with the secondary reasons instead of focusing on the gravity of the sin involved? (Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrachi)
Q: Rabbi Elazar Rokeach, a medieval Rabbi known for his mystical writings, writes cryptically that the 112 verses in Parshas Vayeishev correspond to the 112 words in Psalms 92 (מזמור שיר ליום השבת). As he clearly wasn’t intending to point out a mathematical coincidence, what could be the deeper connection between the events in our parsha and the theme of that chapter of Psalms?
A: Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon elucidates the common thread between them by explaining that from a rational perspective, the events of the parsha seem completely counter intuitive. The parsha begins with Jacob favoring one of his sons and inciting his brothers’ jealousy, Joseph not recognizing their hatred and recounting to them his dreams in which he rules over them, Jacob sending Joseph to check on his brothers unsupervised, Joseph being thrown into a pit of poisonous animals and emerging unscathed, and a group of traveling merchants passing by at just the right time. None of these incidents makes any logical sense, and the likelihood of them all occurring together is infinitesimal.
However, Rashi explains (Bereishit 37:14) that they were part of a larger plan to fulfill G-d’s prophecy to Abraham that his descendants would be enslaved in a foreign land. The lesson of the parsha’s otherwise inexplicable events is that no matter how much effort a person makes, it will ultimately be futile if G-d’s plan dictates otherwise. This concept is also the theme of Chapter 92 of Tehillim, which states (92:6-9), “How great are Your acts G-d, how deep are Your calculations; the foolish don’t understand…but You will always be elevated, G-d.”
The world G-d created is very deceptive, as a person is expected to exert himself to bring about his goals, yet no matter what he thinks should happen, G-d ultimately runs the world. After all of his hard work, a person must step back and remember that his perspective is quite limited in the grand scheme of things. Only G-d with His master plan can coordinate what has to happen and when – to each person, at each time, in each generation. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
“And it was, when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped Joseph of the fine woolen tunic that was on him. They took him and cast him into the pit…They sat to eat food; raised their eyes and saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, and their camels were bearing spices, balsam, and birthwort, on their way to bring them down to Egypt. Judah said to his brothers, ‘What gain will there be if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come let us sell him to the Ishmaelites but let our hand not be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.’ And his brothers listened…They pulled and brought Joseph up from the pit and sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver; and Joseph was brought to Egypt.” (Bereishit 37:23-28)
Rashi explains why the Torah describes the aromatic contents of the caravan that carried Joseph away: “It is to let us know the reward of the righteous.” Ishmaelite caravans normally carried foul-smelling petroleum and resin products. The righteous Joseph was granted a more pleasant-smelling load for his journey to Egypt.
1) The events described here mark the beginning of Joseph being cast into exile and ripped away from his family for a 22-year period. In the midst of such tribulation, how could the seemingly minor detail of being hauled away in a wagon of fragrant spices cast a positive light on this painful saga?
2) If Joseph recognized the uniqueness of his cargo, we can assume that this would have been a reassuring sign that, despite his troubles, G-d was watching over him. If, under the circumstances, Joseph was unable to appreciate this subtlety, what lesson could this “gift” provide to those reading this account?
Q: While the rest of the brothers were plotting to actually kill Joseph, Reuben saved him by suggesting that they instead throw him into a pit, intending to save him later, yet Rashi tells us (Bereishit 37:24) that the pit was full of poisonous snakes and scorpions. In what way was this considered “saving” Yosef? It would seem more accurate to describe his suggestion as substituting one type of death with another.
A: The Ohr HaChayim HaKadosh explains that while human beings have free choice and the ability to do to someone even something which wasn’t decreed upon him in Heaven, animals have no free choice and are limited to what-ever was decided by Hashem. Reuben knew that Joseph wasn’t the wicked pursuer that the rest of his brothers thought he was, and was therefore confident that death hadn’t been decreed upon him. Nevertheless, he feared that his brothers, with their free choice, would succeed in their plans to kill Joseph, so he “saved” him by having him thrown into a pit where he knew the snakes and scorpions would have no permission to harm him. (See Panim Yafos and Tosefos Rid for alternate answers) (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Jacob mourned for Joseph for 22 years, corresponding, measure for measure, to the 22 years that he had not honored his parents while in the house of Laban, and the initial years of his return to the Land of Canaan (Israel). (See Rashi, Bereishit37:34)
Given that Jacob was following his parents’ expressed wishes in going to Laban to marry and build a family, how could the Torah consider Jacob negligent in fulfilling the commandment of honoring his parents during the years he was away?
Q: After marrying the daughter of Shua, Judah had two sons with her – Er and Onan. She conceived a 3rd time and bore a son and named him Shelah, and Judah was in Chezib at the time of Shelah’s birth (Bereishit 38:5). Why was it necessary for the Torah to relate this seemingly insignificant and trivial information about Judah’s whereabouts during Shelah’s birth?
A: The Daat Z’keinim explains that the custom at that time was that the father chose the name for the first child, the mother for the second, and they continued alternating with each successive child. This practice is hinted to, as the Torah states (Bereishit 38:3) regarding the first child Er, “And he called his name Er,” but regarding the second child Onan (Bereishit 38:4) the language is in the feminine: “And she named him Onan.” Based on this explanation, it is difficult to understand why the Torah, in relating the birth and naming of the third child, uses the expression ותקרא את שמו שלה – “and she called his name Sheilah,” indicating that she deviated from the custom of alternating the selection of names and gave a 2nd consecutive name. To address this peculiarity, the Torah found it necessary to explain that Judah wasn’t present at the time and was therefore unable to give a name, leaving his wife with no choice but to choose the name herself! (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
After Judah’s eldest son Er dies without children, Judah instructs his son Onan to marry Er’s widow, Tamar. (Bereishit 38:8) This was in keeping with what the Torah refers to as a “levirate marriage.” In such a marriage, the brother of a married man who dies without ever having had children has a mitzvah to marry his deceased brother’s widow. (see Devarim 25:5-7) It states that the son born of a levirate marriage “establishes a name” for the deceased uncle and in a sense, becomes his son.
How might the child of a levirate marriage establish the deceased brother’s name, and in what ways would this child be considered his son?
Rashi writes (Bereishit 40:23) that Joseph sinned by asking the cup-bearer to intercede with Pharaoh and secure his release instead of placing his trust in G-d, and was punished with an additional two years of jail time. As a person is expected and required to live within the natural world and make reasonable efforts to achieve his objectives, what was Joseph’s sin in attempting to arrange for his freedom after years of imprisonment? (Beis Ha- Levi by Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Lev Eliyahu by Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian, Darash Moshe by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein)
Jacob favored Joseph over his other sons and roused their jealousy when he gave Joseph a “coat of many colors.” Their jealousy intensified when Joseph told them of his dream in which his brothers’ bundles of wheat bowed down to his own. Matters took another bad turn when Joseph told them of his second dream, in which the sun, moon, and eleven stars all bowed down to him.
- Jacob knew all about sibling rivalries; his own brother Esau had tried to kill him over perceived favoritism from their father Isaac. Why might Jacob risk stirring up jealousy by openly favoring Joseph?
- In the first dream, each of the brothers — including Joseph — had their own bundle of wheat. In the second dream, each of the brothers was represented by a star, while Joseph was not. What significance might there be in the initial similarity between the brothers (with Joseph and his brothers each possessing a bundle) as compared to the second dream, in which Joseph is unique (not represented by a star as his brothers are)?
Q: While in jail, the cup bearer had a dream in which he pressed grapes into Pharaoh’s cup, and the baker had a dream in which he was carrying three baskets on his head and birds were eating food out of them. Joseph told the cup bearer that his dream meant that he would be returned to his original position of serving Pharaoh, while he interpreted the dream of the baker as indicating that he would be killed, both of which came to pass. Where is it alluded to in the content of the dreams that the cup bearer would live while the baker would die?
A: Rav Elchanon Wasserman explains that in the dream, the baker was standing still with baskets on his head from which the birds were eating, but he himself was inanimate, as opposed to the cup-bearer who was actually squeezing grapes into a cup which he then proceeded to place in Pharaoh’s hand. The lack of activity on the part of the baker hinted to his status as one marked for death, whereas the cup bearer’s productivity indicated that he was still full of life. Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl suggests that the dream of the cup bearer indicates his dedication to his master and serving him, as even in his dreams he is thinking about squeezing grapes and serving Pharaoh, whereas the baker’s dream reveals his lack of devotion to his job, as the birds are eating Pharaoh’s food out of the basket on top of his head and he takes no action to try to stop this. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Q: How did Joseph know to interpret the 3 branches and 3 baskets seen in the dreams of the cup bearer and baker to refer to events which would transpire in 3 days, while in the beginning of next week’s Parsha he understands that the 7 stalks and 7 cows in Pharaoh’s dreams correspond to 7 years? Perhaps the dreams of his cell-mates referred to 3 years, and Pharaoh’s to 7 days?
A: The Paneiach Raza answers that Joseph knew that Pharaoh’s birthday was in 3 more days and it was reasonable to assume that this would bring about the fulfillment of the dreams of the cup bearer and baker. Pharaoh’s dreams, on the other hand, referred to agricultural conditions, which aren’t likely to change over a period of 7 weeks or even 7 months, and he therefore concluded that they referred to 7 years. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Jumping Points for Discussion and Further Study
JEW AGAINST JEW
“And Jacob settled in the land of his father’s residence, in the land of Canaan.” Bereishit 37:1
In the land of his father’s residence – This was written to teach that G-d’s word is always fulfilled. Abraham was promised, “I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your dwelling,” and now Jacob settled in that very land. – Chizkuni (Rabbi Chizkiya ben Manoach)
And Jacob settled – When Jacob saw how he was being pursued by the many tribal chiefs who hailed from Esau, he grew very afraid and contemplated running away. The Almighty reassured him that he need not be afraid and should settle comfortably in his land and leave it to Him to protect him. – Midrash
This verse leads into the tragic story of how Joseph’s brother sold him into slavery. Our sages say that Jacob desired to live in peace, but the tragedy of Joseph “pounced upon him” instead. Yet, one may wonder why this tragedy was so much more tragic than the many other trials and tribulations he had already suffered at the hands of Laban, Esau, and others who persecuted him. Why is this portrayed as something that, “pounced upon him,” almost as if there was never anything like it before that happened to him? Shaarei Simchah explains that while the other incidents were certainly painful, there’s nothing more agonizing than when one’s own children rise up against each other. Jacob did not lack for enemies, but none caused such pain as when his own children sought to destroy one another. That was something totally unexpected and stretched him to the limits. This would be a lesson for all times that when one Jew seeks to ruin another; the result is indescribable pain and anguish.
JEWISH HISTORY LESSON
“These are the offspring of Jacob, Joseph was seventeen years old [when] he was a shepherd of the sheep along with his brothers…” Bereishit 37:2
The Offspring Of Jacob, Joseph… – The verse should have mentioned the other brothers as well as Joseph? Why did it list only Joseph? Rav Shmuel bar Nachman explained that the point of this verse was not inform us of Jacob’s children. Rather, it was to alert us to the fact that Jacob and Joseph lived almost identical lives. All of the tragic events of Jacob’s life would be relived by Joseph, his son.” Medrash Rabbah 84:6
A Partial List of Similarities Between Jacob and Joseph:
- Each was born circumcised.
- Each one’s mother was barren prior to giving birth to him.
- Each one’s brother hated him and sought to destroy him.
- Each was a shepherd and each of them became wealthy.
- Each of them married a woman from outside of The Land of Israel.
- Each of them descended to Egypt and contributed to the arrest of the famine.
- Each of them was transported from Egypt and buried in The Land of Israel.
Our sages teach us that the events that transpired in the lives of our earliest ancestors are harbingers of the lives of the Jewish nation. Nowhere is this more evident than in the life of Joseph, whose life perfectly mirrored that of his father. When studying this portion of the Torah, it is easy to reach some unsavory conclusions about the character of Joseph. This however, would be a great mistake as evidenced when one views the events of Joseph’s life from the context of Jacob’s life. Just as Jacob was righteous throughout, Joseph was a righteous and exalted person. To properly appreciate the events of this parsha, one must study the relevant commentaries and plumb the depth of their messages
THE LIMITS OF HUMAN COMPREHENSION
“Now, come let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; and we will say that a wild beast devoured him. Then we will see what will become of his dreams.” Bereishit 37-20
“Rabbi Yitzchak said: This verse says: ‘Expound upon me.’ It is the Divine Spirit that is saying this: They are saying, ‘Let us kill him,’ but, the verse concludes ‘Let us see what will become of his dreams,’ [i.e.], let us see whose words will be fulfilled, yours or Mine?…” – Rashi
The brothers considered Joseph’s behavior a threat to the very existence of the Jewish people and thus they sought to eradicate the threat. As often happens, they encountered the will of G-d and didn’t recognize that all their machinations to remove the threat would actually set into motion the events that would lead to their salvation during a time of severe famine and ultimately launch the Jewish people.
“And they sat down to eat their bread and they raised their eyes, and behold, a caravan of Ishmaelites approached from Gilead and their camels were loaded with spices, balsam, and lotus, bringing them down to Egypt.” Bereishit 37:25
Spice, Balsam – These were various forms of sweet smelling spices. – Rashi
And Their Camels Were Loaded – Why would the Torah tell us what the camels were bearing? This teaches us the great reward of the righteous. Typically, the Ishmaelite caravans carried foul-smelling goods. In honor of Joseph, this caravan carried only spices that exuded pleasant fragrances. – Rashi
Why would Joseph, at the lowest point of his life, even bother to notice what the caravan smelled like? His own brothers had just sold him into slavery and this should have been the last thing on his mind? Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz zt”l explained that this was G-d’s way of letting Joseph know that although his situation looked bleak and all hope appeared lost, the reality was otherwise. All the events were being directed by the One Above, and they would turn out for the best. This small gesture of making sure that the Ishmaelites carried a sweet-smelling spice, a highly unusual occurrence, served to reassure Joseph that he was not alone.
A BLOODLESS COUP
“What is there to gain from killing our brother and covering up his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites and our hands will not touch him.” Bereishit 37:26
What is there to gain by killing our brother – The point of capital punishment is so that others can see and learn not to emulate the wicked ways of the executed. If we must do it in secret and cover up his death, what will we have gained from doing so? – Daas Zekeinim Baalei Tosafos
Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman zt”l, explained how it was that historically we’ve suffered from so many blood libels against our people when there isn’t even a grain of truth to these spurious accusations. This was a result, Rabbi Wasserman explained, of the cover up of the sale of Joseph by tearing his coat and dipping it into blood, giving the false impression that a wild animal had killed him. This deception fooled Jacob into thinking that it was true and caused him great anguish. This blatant falsehood opened the door for our people to undergo similar situations in which we would be falsely accused with blood and made to suffer terribly. When one Jew acts against another, the effects are cosmic and reverberate through generations.
VIEWING TRAGEDIES WITH A WIDE-ANGLE LENS
“And it was at that time and Judah descended from his brothers.” Bereishit 38:1
Rabbi Shmuel Bar Nachman explained the verse ‘For I [G-d] know the thoughts’ [as follows], The brothers were occupied with the sale of Joseph, Joseph and Reuben were occupied with sackcloth and fasting, Jacob was mourning Joseph with sackcloth and fasting, and [a disgraced] Judah was engaged in finding a wife for himself. In the meantime, G-d was busily readying the light of the Messiah… – Midrash Rabbah Bereishis 85:1
While we consider the sale of Joseph a great tragedy and a senseless act of hatred which defied the outer limits of justice and righteousness, backstage, the scene was very different. G-d orchestrated events perfectly so that even before Joseph landed in Egypt, the seeds of the final redemption were already planted. Jewish history teaches us that events must never be viewed from a narrow perspective.
LONG DISTANCE PARENTING
“Then there was an opportune day when he [Joseph] entered the house to do his work, no man of the household staff was present in the house.” Bereishit 39:11
“Rabbi and Shmuel [dispute what this means]: One says…and the other says he intended to have his way with her, but, his father’s image appeared to him, etc., as is stated in the Talmud, Tractate Sotah.” – Rashi
One is obligated to say, ‘When will my deeds match the deeds of my forefathers?’ – Tanna D’vei Eliyahu Perek 25
Joseph was an impressionable youngster at the time of this story, far from his home, and a slave in a land rampant with immoral behavior. Yet, he withstood the entreaties of Potiphar’s wife because his fathers’ example left such an indelible impression upon him. He also realized that as Jacob’s son, he belonged to a great dynasty that he would be forfeiting with his laxness. A successful parent positively influences a child’s decisions long after he/she is no longer in the picture.
To Perform His Work – Joseph intended to sin with Potiphar’s wife but the image of his father appeared in the window and reminded him that in the future his name, along with his brother’s names, would be inscribed on the stones of the Kohen Gadol’s clothing and that if he sinned with this woman, his name would be erased from their midst. This was sufficient to dissuade Joseph from pursuing his imprudent intentions. – Rashi, Tractate Sotah 36b
This incident attests to the extraordinary power a parent has to influence a child’s decisions, even long after the child has departed the home. Joseph was in a situation that was the antithesis of his home environment, yet his father’s compelling example succeeded in empowering him to overcome the greatest of temptations. A successful parent is one who can impart his message in such a way that their child adheres to it even when no longer in his intimidating presence
IMPORTANCE OF IDENTIFYING AS A JEW
“I was kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews, and here I have also done nothing that they should have placed me in this dungeon.” Bereishit 40:15
“Joseph who proudly described himself as a Hebrew earned the privilege of being buried in the Land of Israel. Moses, however, who referred to himself as an Egyptian when introducing himself to the daughters of Jethro, did not merit to enter the land.” – Midrash Rabbah Devarim 2:8
Throughout his tragic ordeal in Egypt, Joseph remained true to his faith and beliefs. One of his means of accomplishing this difficult feat was by refusing to forget his origins and the glorious future they represented. His grandfather Abraham’s reputation has spread far and wide, and Joseph never hesitated to let others know that this was his life’s path and that they could expect him to adhere to a higher standard.
NOT BUTS OR BUTLERS
“And the butler did not recall Joseph and he forgot him.” – Bereishit 40:23
And the butler did not recall Joseph – that day, And he forgot him – He entirely forgot about him afterward. – Rashi
And he forgot him – All day long the butler sought meant to remind himself of Joseph, but an angel repeatedly foiled his plans. He tied knots to help himself remember him, but the angel untied them. The Almighty, “You will forget him, but I will not forget him.” – Yalkut Shimoni, 40:147
Because he placed his faith in the butler to remember him and serve as his advocate before Pharaoh, Joseph was forced to spend another two years in prison before being released. – Rashi
And the butler did not recall Joseph – Rather than condemn the ingrate for forgetting Joseph who had helped him so much, the verse describes his unwillingness to help as an accident. He “forgot” about Joseph, nothing more. If this is how the Torah gives favorable treatment to the wicked, how much more so should the righteous expect to be judged favorably. – Riv”a
Darash Moshe [Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt”l] wonders why it was wrong for Joseph to solicit the butlers’ assistance. Perhaps this was precisely the means the Almighty provided for engineering his release. Why was it seen as a lack of faith on his part? Rabbi Feinstein explains that he should have recognized that this bizarre incident only occurred because the Almighty was actively engaged in having him released. Once that was obvious, Joseph should have understood that his own involvement was no longer necessary. By soliciting the assistance of the butler, it was almost as if Joseph feared that the Almighty could not complete the job without his assistance, and this was judged as a lack of perfect faith for which he was held accountable
Hey, I Never Knew That
In ancient times, Jews would bring the Passover offering from the Temple back to their tents by wrapping it in its skin and putting it over their shoulders like “Ishmaelite merchants” (Rashi, Pesachim 65b). Rabbeinu Manoach explains that this was a reminder of the sin of the sale of Joseph by his brothers to Ishmaelite merchants, so that we remember and try to correct the cause of exile (baseless hatred) before celebrating redemption from that exile. He says that nowadays, since we don’t have sacrifices, we remind ourselves of the brothers dipping the cloak of Joseph in blood before showing it to their father, by dipping the karpas (vegetable) in salt water at the beginning of the Seder. Rashi explains the words “ktonet pasim” as “a fine wool cloak” (Bereishit 37:3), pasim meaning fine wool. He quotes from Esther (1:6) where “karpas” refers to a material hung as decoration at the party of King Achashversosh; so karpas actually means a garment! At the seder we don’t use the word “yerek,” the normal term for vegetable, but rather karpas, an unusual term, one that reminds us of the “fine wool” cloak of Joseph, his sale by his brothers, and the ultimate cause of our exile.
Joseph told his brothers of his dreams of being a monarch and ruling over them, exacerbating tensions and jealousy and precipitating his eventual sale as a slave to Egypt. This was the beginning of his downfall. Later, when Joseph is in prison in Egypt his fellow prisoners, Pharaoh’s butler and baker, both tell him their dreams. By accurately interpreting their dreams, he is eventually remembered by the butler, who informs Pharaoh, leading to Joseph’s meteoric rise to power in Egypt. A great Chassidic thinker once noted that Joseph’s downfall began by telling others his own dreams, and his salvation began by listening to the dreams of others. He deduces from this that we are much better served listening to others and to their aspirations, than by telling other people our own dreams and aspirations. This is possibly what is meant by the Mishnah in Ethics of the Fathers (1:17) where Rabbi Simon says that he has never found anything better for a person than silence
Word of the Week
“Joseph was brought down to Egypt and was bought by Potiphar, minister of Pharaoh, chief of the טבחים — tabachim…” (Bereishit 39:1). Onkelos translates tabachim as executioner, clearly related to the term טבח — tabach — slaughter. Yonatan ben Uziel uses the term ispaklatoria, a term found in the Talmud (Shabbat 108b) meaning executioner or body-guard, and Rashi there translates it as rav tabachim. The Modern Hebrew usage of the word is chef, related to the food preparation aspect of a slaughterer. Since the same term is used later referring to the one in charge of Pharaoh’s prisons (Bereishit 40:3) it is clearly not a reference to a chef, but to an executioner. Rashbam understands the term to refer to the murderers who were under the control of Potiphar, so that he is the “chief (in charge of the) murderers.”
חלום – chalom
“Dreams” appear many times in the Torah portion this week. The word also means “heal” (Radak,Sefer Hashorashim) and may allude to the idea that sometimes dreams help the healing process after a trauma or tragedy. The word also bears a strong phonetic similarity to the word window — חלון —chalon, because a dream is also a window into the subconscious and the soul. A chassidic thinker once pointed out that if we rearrange the letters of חלום we can find either לוחם — lochem — fight, or מוחל —mochel — forgo. He said that when one has a dream, one has the choice to fight for it and make it come true or to forgo it and let it lapse.
Come back next week for more “Dear Rabbi”.
Parsha at a Glance
Jacob gave a special coat to his son Joseph. His other sons hated Joseph because of the special love their father had for him.
Joseph had a dream, which he repeated to his brothers, who then hated him even more. In his dream, their sheaves bowed down to his sheaf. He then related another dream in which the sun, the moon, and eleven stars bowed down to him. Israel was upset about the dream, and the brothers were jealous of Joseph.
The brothers traveled to pasture in Shechem, and Jacob sent Joseph to them. Joseph asked a man in the field where he could find his brothers, and the man directed him to go to Dothan. When they saw Joseph from afar, they schemed to kill him. They planned to throw him into a pit and claim that a wild beast had killed him. Reuben, one of the brothers, instructed that they throw Joseph into the pit and not kill him (secretly planning to rescue him later).
The brothers took off Joseph’s coat and threw him into the pit. Rather than kill him, they decided to sell him to the Ishmaelites who were passing by on their way to Egypt. When Reuben returned to the pit, he discovered that Joseph was gone.
The brothers slaughtered a goat, dipped Joseph’s coat in the goat’s blood, and presented the coat to their father. Recognizing that it was Joseph’s coat, Jacob mourned the loss of his son.
The Medianites sold Joseph to Potiphar, an attendant to Pharoah, in Egypt.
Judah, one of the brothers, married the daughter of Shua. She gave birth to three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. Er married Tamar and died shortly thereafter. In the spirit of of carrying on his brother’s name, Onan married Tamar, but he died as well. Worried about the fate of his third son, Judah instructed Tamar to wait until Shelah grew up before marrying him.
Judah’s wife died. After mourning her, he went to Timnah to shear his sheep. Upon hearing this, Tamar removed her own clothes of mourning and covered herself with a veil. She sat in the crossroads awaiting Judah’s arrival. When he came, he did not recognize her, and thought her to be a harlot (which, according to Maimonides, was permitted in the days before the giving of the Torah). Judah promised Tamar a kid from his flock, but Tamar insisted he give her his signet, wrap, and staff as a pledge until he would send her the kid.
Judah kept his word, sending the kid to the harlot at the crossroads. However, the people of her city claimed that there was no harlot who resided there.
About three months later, Judah heard that his daughter-in-law, Tamar, was pregnant. Judah said she would be punished with the death penalty. She sent word to him that the man with whom she conceived was the owner of the signet, wrap, and staff. Judah immediately confessed. Tamar gave birth to twins: Peretz and Zerah.
The Torah now shifts focus to Joseph, who resided and was successful in Egypt. Potiphar’s wife attempted to seduce him numerous times, but he refused. On one such occasion, he fled from her attempts, leaving his garment. Potiphar’s wife took advantage of the misleading circumstances, claiming that he had in fact tried to seduce her. Potiphar believed her story and put Joseph in prison.
Pharoah’s cup bearer and baker transgressed against their master, so they were placed in prison. That night, they both had dreams. Joseph said that the messages were from G-d, and interpreted their dreams: the cup bearer would be restored to his position, and the baker would be hanged. Joseph asked that once the cup bearer would resume his position, he should convince Pharaoh to release him. The cup bearer and the baker felt that the interpretations were accurate – and they were. However, the cup bearer neglected to mention Joseph’s accurate interpretations to Pharaoh.