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Parashat Vayeshev

In this week’s Sedra, Vayeishev, we are told of the incident of the selling of Joseph.  This was another in the long list of trials for Jacob.

Poor Jacob.  After all his other ordeals (see previous parsha sheets) all that he wanted to do was live in peace in the land where his father had been merely a stranger.  He felt that he had a right to a serene existence.  However, Divine Providence had a different plan.

G-d tells us “Is it not enough that the righteous are not content with what is reserved for them in the world to come, but they still want peace in this world as well!”  The truly righteous, says Rav, have no rest in this world either in this world or the world to come.  Jacob can’t seem to get his cake and eat it.

The whole story of Jacob’s descendants is reflected in the story of Joseph.  The favourite son of Jacob, in the prime of his youth, was compelled to flee from his birthplace and the home of his parents.  He was abandoned in a foreign land among a debauched people, and they did all they could so that even his name would be forgotten.  But what happened to him?  All the trials and tribulations of his destiny were turned into a springboard for his prodigious ascent.  He became a benefactor who gave food to the people.  And it ultimately came to pass that his brothers, who had sworn to do away with him, came to kneel before him.

This same destiny will come to pass with Jewry.  When the time comes for Mashiach (are you asking for him?) the nations will acknowledge that all the trials and sufferings which have befallen us during our exile were ultimately stages in our ascent.  So, just as with Joseph’s life. in the final analysis the tribulations and torments willed by Providence are seen to be truly beneficial acts.

Although the brothers harboured much resentment against Joseph for his libel, his fine tunic, and the extra love that he received from Jacob, they were pushed into acting against him only by his dreams of ruling over them.  Thus, Jacob scolded Joseph for reporting the dream, whereas he himself had not hesitated to make him the tunic.  Seeing that the dream had a very oppressive effect on his sons, he wished to undo that effect.

However, is still amazing to see that Jacob, who had suffered so much from his own father’s preference for his brother Esau, did not take enough steps to avoid this same situation in relation to his own children.  To explain this preference, the Torah tells us that Joseph was the “son of his old age”, which Rashi interprets as meaning that Joseph was born during Jacob’s early years, or that he had the same facial features as Jacob, or (according to Onkelos) he was an intelligent child and Jacob had passed on to him all the wisdom that he had ever gained from his ancestors Shem and Ever.  But the Zohar gives another reason: Jacob loved Rachel and her son Joseph and he knew that mankind’s final redemption in messianic times would be the work of Rachel’s children; it would come from the tribes of Joseph and Benjamin.

However, if Jacob’s love might seem understandable in human terms, it was nevertheless a mistake to show this love openly in front of his other sons.  Our Rabbis tell us that for two selas worth of fine wool that Jacob gave Joseph beyond what he gave his other sons caused our ancestors to go down to Egypt.  Of course, we know that this exile was decreed in Abraham’s time, but it would not have been so severe were it not for the unjustified hatred which reigned among the brothers.

We learn a very important lesson here - people must always be on the alert that their actions or words should not create jealousy.  The consequences for this among brother and sister can be tragic, and we must be careful to avoid anything which might breed it.  Statements such as “Why don’t you study with the diligence of your brother?” or “Why aren’t you as well-behaved as your sister?” are bound to cause ill feelings.  Some parents might think that their children love and respect one another to such an extent that they are incapable of feeling jealousy towards each other.  However, just because one child does not overtly show envy, does not mean that envy is not present.

With this incident of Joseph, though, we see that Reuben (the firstborn) displays remorse and selflessness.  The brothers plotted to kill Joseph, who would be king over them.  Who should lead the conspiracy if not Reuben, who by birthright deserved the monarchy?  It mattered little to the others whether Reuben or Joseph became king; either way they would have to serve one of the them.  But in fact they stood by Reuben, wanting to secure his rights once the ‘upstart’ was dead.

Yet it was Reuben himself who rescued his rival from the punishment his brothers thought he deserved.  It is instructive to observe the reason Reuben gave for what he did: “I am the firstborn, and only I am to blame for the crime.”  Reuben saw it as his duty to carry out the rescue and thereby transfer all his firstborn rights to Joseph.  Why? Because he, Reuben, was the real firstborn!  He regarded it his duty to do what was right, even if that meant that his double portion and kingship would go to somebody else.

We have much to learn from Reuben.  Anyone who occupies a position entailing both duty and privilege must never shirk his duty, even if he is deprived of those privileges.

Also interesting is the reaction of the brothers to Yehuda (their leader), who left his brothers because of the selling of Joseph.  Yehuda’s brothers removed him from his rank as leader when they saw the grief of their father over the selling of Joseph.  They said to Yehuda, “You said to sell him.  Had you said return him, we would have listened to you.”

Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz notes that at first Joseph’s brothers wanted to kill him and in the end, because of Yehuda’s advice, they only sold him.  Even though Yehuda saved them from committing a more heinous crime, they were angry at him for allowing them to sell Joseph.  This behaviour is typical of someone who regrets his crime after having committed it; he reproaches others for not having prevented him.

The Chofetz Chaim tells the story of a man who was arrested for doing something illegal, and asked the police to take him to his Rabbi before placing him in jail.  Upon confronting his Rabbi, the arrested man censured him, “Why did you let me do those things?  Why didn’t you warn me that eventually I would be caught?”  There always comes a time, said the Chofetz Chaim, when a person who has done wrong has grievances against others for failing to stop him; if not in this world, then in the world to come.

So the brothers threw Joseph into a pit.  Rashi tells us that this pit contained snakes and scorpions.  The Zohar asks a very pertinent question: How could Reuben hope to save Joseph with those creepy crawlies in there?  Reuben himself gives the answer.  He reasoned like this: Joseph is in the hands of Shimon and Levi, whose acts of violence are to be feared above all else.  They had shown their cruelly and greed in connection with the people of Shechem, who they had mercilessly wiped out in reply to the rape of their sister.  They are capable of torturing Joseph without even leaving any trace of his corpse.  It is better even to throw him into a bug-filled pit than to leave him in the hands of his brothers, who detest him.  If he is innocent, G-d will rescue him from the beasts, even if it takes a miracle.  But men, on the other hand, have free will, and Providence only rarely intervenes when they exercise it.

Reuben was counting on Divine mercy, just as King David was when he said to the prophet Gad “Let us fall then into the hand of G-d, for He is full of mercy, but let me not fall into the hand of man.”

The brothers slaughter a goat and doused Joseph’s tunic with it to make it look like he had been eaten by a wild animal.  The Zohar again reveals another insight.  Jacob had received Divine approval for the blessings which his father Isaac had previously given him.  But nevertheless he had tricked his father by putting on goatskins and covering his hands with them.  Here, Jacob suffers the consequences of that act.  He too was tricked by the goatskins sent by his sons.  He also paid for the terror which was inflicted on Isaac, by the terror which seized him regarding the fate of his son Joseph.  And the question which his sons ask him “Do you recognise this as the garment of your son or not?” reflects the question asked in anguish by his own father “Are you really my son Esau or not?”

Rav Elchonon Wasserman zt”l offers a chilling insight into the goats blood on the tunic.  What was the punishment of the brothers deceiving their father with blood?  None other than the countless blood libels which have claimed the lives of millions of Jews throughout the ages. It is a measure for measure punishment - lies perpetrate lies.

Fifteen more things that you probably didn’t know about Abraham

1 He was circumcised by [the angel] Raphael (Yelamdeinu, Batei Midrashos 152).

2 Why did Isaac obey Abraham [and submit to slaughter]?  When a person is known to be a prophet, he is believed (Sanhedrin 89b).

3 [Abraham took the wood for the offering] like one who carries on his own shoulder the stake upon which he is to be executed (Bereishis Rabbah 56:3).

4 [Abraham and Isaac] together built the altar (Tanchuma Vayeira 23).

5 Had Abraham not paused to examine the knife, Isaac would have been slaughtered (Tanchuma 96:13).

6 Ten things were created on the eve of the [first] Sabbath at twilight, one of which was Abraham’s ram (Avos 5:6).

7 Before Abraham, there was no [visible indication of] old age.  Whoever wanted to speak with Abraham would mistakenly speak with Isaac [who resembled him].  Abraham came and prayed for mercy and [visible] old age came into being (Bava Metzia 87a).

8 Even ships that sailed the oceans were saved in the merit of Abraham (Yalkut Shimoni, Lech Lecha 64).

9 There is no generation without [a righteous person] like Abraham (Bereishis Rabbah 56:7).

10 Abraham instituted ‘shacharis’, the morning prayer (Berachos 26b).

11 [The merit of] Abraham does not save Ishmael (Sanhedrin 104a).

12 From the tree that Abraham planted in Beer-sheba, the central beam of the Tabernacle was made (Targum Yonatan, Exodus 26:28).

13 Over six people the Angel of Death had no power: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron and Miriam (Bava Basra 17a).

14 The day the Patriarch Abraham departed this world, all the great men of the nations of the world rose and said “Woe to the world that has lost its leader!  Woe to the ship that has lost its helmsman!” (Bava Basra 91a).

15 Abraham raises up all who are sentenced to Gehinnom (hell) and receives them, except for those who had relations with a gentile woman (Eruvin 19a).