Dedicated for a Refuah Shelemah for Menachem Ben Adele by Yaakov Shwekey and Family
Parashat Vayeshev Parashat Vayeshev begins with the passuk, “Yaakov settled in the land of his father’s sojourning in the land of Canaan. These are the chronicles of Yaakov: Yosef at the age of seventeen was a shepherd with his brothers by the flock.” After years of suffering and tribulation—between running from Esav, being a victim of Lavan’s trickery, Shchem capturing his daughter Dinah, having his beloved wife Rachel struggle with bearing children, and then losing her tragically on the road during the birth of Binyamin—Yaakov was looking forward to settling down with his family and building Am Yisrael. He was eager to be able to truly serve Hashem with peace of mind and content. But Hashem had a different plan for Yaakov, because tzaddikim are never intended to have lives of leisure in this world. Yaakov still had much to accomplish in the building of Klal Yisrael. The parasha goes on to say: “V’Yisrael ahav et Yosef mekol banav ki ben zekunim hu lo, ve’asa lo ketonet passim — Now Yisrael loved Yosef more than his other sons since he was a child of his old age, and so he made him a fine woolen tunic.” And thus, the beginning of another one of Yaakov’s distresses, the sale of his cherished son Yosef. The Formation of The Jewish Nation Yaakov then sent Yosef out to look for his brothers to inquire about their welfare. The brothers saw Yosef from a distance and wanted to kill him. Why were the brothers so angry with Yosef that they wanted to kill him? Could this just be a simple case of sibling rivalry? The formation of the Jewish people was characterized at all stages by a thorough filtering process, until only the finest remained to become the future nation of G-d. This filtering process began with Avraham Avinu. Avraham had two sons, Yitzchak and Yishmael. Yitzchak was chosen to be Avraham’s successor, while Yishmael was expelled and founded a nation of his own. This phenomenon recurred with Yitzchak’s two sons, Yaakov and Esav. Yaakov was the son who clung to his father’s ways, whereas Esav broke away and created a separate nation. Yosef recounted his dreams to his brothers. In Yosef’s first dream, he declared: “Behold, your sheaves [of wheat] gathered around and bowed down to my sheaf.” Eleven bundles of wheat represented Yosef’s eleven brothers bowing down to him. In the second dream, the sun, moon and eleven stars all bowed down to Yosef. Since Yaakov, represented by the sun, bowed down to Yosef, this meant that Yosef was to become one of the patriarchs. Seforno comments that the ketonet passim symbolized Yosef’s new position as a leader. It also designated Yosef for service to Hashem. Therefore, according to Malbim, we find the ketonet among the garments worn by the kohen while serving in the Bet Hamikdash. The brothers saw that there would be another division of the children of Yaakov, just as there had been with Avraham and Yitzchak’s children, and they were afraid they wouldn’t merit to be founders of the Jewish nation. The Sale of Yosef The brothers analyzed together whether the division was a divine decree or whether this division was Yaakov’s work motivated by his free choice. The brothers thought that Yosef was informing against them and had caused Yaakov to distance from them, choosing Yosef to continue the Jewish nation. The passuk says, “Yosef brought evil reports about them to their father (37:2).” The brothers reached the conclusion that the division was not a divine decree, rather Yosef’s “manipulation” causing it. Yosef felt the opposing spirit of his brothers, and precisely because of this he told them his dreams. The Ohr HaHayyim writes that Yosef wanted to indicate to them that his dreams were direct signs from heaven, meaning they did reflect a divine decree. But the brothers felt that this was not proof. They claimed that these dreams were the fruit of Yosef’s imagination. This conclusion led them to rule in their Bet Din that Yosef was a rodef—a pursuant with intent to kill. The halacha is that when a person comes to kill, his victim should rise earlier and kill him first. Therefore, according to Seforno, Yosef’s punishment was death. Our Rabbis tell us the children of Yaakov had a mesorah that this phenomenon would stop with them, and that there would no longer be any separation or expulsion. Each brother would be a partner in founding the nation of Hashem. However, they also understood that the nation of Hashem had to be founded by Yaakov’s sons, whose number had to be twelve. But killing Yosef would mean losing the twelfth son. Without him, all their chances of building the Jewish nation would end. The brothers decided that the number twelve could be assigned a different way, for instance, Yaakov plus his eleven sons. The Rabbis continue to explain that the future heads of the tribes now found themselves facing a scenario that contradicted the mesorah they had received about the Jewish nation. Another question arises: while Hashem revealed many secrets to Yaakov, He did not reveal to him the sale of Yosef. Why is this? Midrash Tanchuma explains that the brothers placed a herem—divine punishment upon anyone who would divulge the sale of Yosef. In order to place a herem, ten men are required. Only nine brothers were present, and so the brothers included Hashem, so to speak, as the tenth. Do You Recognize This? Yehuda spoke up and said, “What gain will there be if we kill our brother and cover up his blood?” Yehuda convinced the brothers to sell Yosef to the Ishmaelites as a slave rather than kill him. The brothers returned to their father Yaakov with a fabricated story that Yosef had been killed by a wild animal. As proof they brought their father Yosef’s beautiful robe, which they had dipped in goat’s blood. It was Yehuda’s idea, so he was the one who brought the coat to Yaakov and said the words “Haker na—Do you recognize this?” Later in the parasha, when we read of the story of Yehuda and Tamar, we see the very same words used by Tamar when Yehuda confronts her: “Haker na—Do you recognize this?” Yehuda recognized his signet, wrap, and staff, and admitted his guilt. A direct result of this is that Yehuda was elevated to the status of king over his brothers, and eventually over Am Yisrael. We learn two great lessons from this episode. The first is the reward for one who is able to admit his faults and mistakes, a trait that the vast majority of people find very hard to do. The second is a lesson about how Hashem runs the world. One is judged in the very same manner as he conducts himself, middah k’neged middah. The exact words that Yehuda used when presenting his brother’s coat to his father reappeared when he was confronted by Tamar. Hashem was sending Yehuda a message regarding his offence in dealing with his father. The Holiday of Hanukah We are now approaching the celebration of the great holiday of Hanukah. We’ll be celebrating another great miracle where the Hashmonaim were able to fight off the powerful Greek army and protect the Bet Hamikdash. They didn’t look at their small numbers; rather, they relied on Hashem just as Yosef did. Charlie Harary spoke about how it’s not important to be ready to step up for Hashem. If Yosef was given a test to continue the growth of Am Yisrael and he waited until he was ready to accept the responsibility that Hashem bestowed upon him, he would never have been successful. Charlie Harary says, “A person doesn’t have to be ready; he must be willing. Hineni—I am here, I am willing to try.” If the Hashmonaim waited until they were ready and didn’t just try, they never would have had their incredible victory. There’s a question that’s asked, why don’t we celebrate the amazing military victory the Jews had over the powerful Greek army that greatly outnumbered them, but rather we celebrate the fact that we found one flask of oil that lasted eight days? The answer is that we are a nation whose goal is to bring light into the world and not a nation that prides itself on fighting wars. Our Light Will Never Burn Out We learn in this parasha that both Reuven and Yehuda wanted to find a way to save Yosef. Reuven wanted to throw him in the pit with snakes, and as we mentioned earlier, Yehuda wanted to sell him to the Ishmaelites. The Torah praises Reuven but Yehuda was punished. Reuven’s plan meant that Yosef may not have survived physically, whereas Yehuda’s plan would place him in the immoral Egyptian society where he might survive physically but would surely die spiritually. This brings us to the holiday of Hanukah. The Greeks’ motivation was not to kill the Jews physically as Haman or Hitler wanted, but rather to assimilate them into their culture, which would kill the Jewish people spiritually. They made the oil in the Bet Hamikdash tameh—impure so that it couldn’t be used for the menorah. Oil represents the kedusha—separation of the Jewish people from other nations because it rises in water. Instead of assimilating as the Greeks wanted, B’nei Yisrael rose to the top and overpowered them like oil rises above water! Rabbi YY Jacobson spoke of a very famous photograph that was taken just before the Holocaust in 1932. The picture depicts a tall, beautiful hanukiah standing near a window with nine candles ready to be lit for the eighth night of Hanukah. And directly behind it, the swastika flag hangs across the street at the Nazi headquarters of Kiel, Germany. The family living in the home was getting ready to light the menorah and then Shabbat candles, when the mother, Rebbetzin Rachel Posner, suddenly looked at the view outside and knew she had to capture this monumental moment. On the back of the photo she wrote a small rhyme in German, which translated means, “Hanukah 1932. Judah will die: Thus, says the flag. Judah will live forever: Thus, say the lights.”
Less than a month later, Hitler was sworn in as chancellor of Germany in January 1933. He was so determined to extinguish the flame and the light of the Jewish people. And he came so close, yemach shemo. It was a time of great darkness for Am Yisrael. But they persevered. Their faith in Hashem never ceased. Holocaust survivors tell incredible stories of the unwavering emunah in Hashem that their fellow victims had with them constantly. After years of suffering, “ketz sam la’hoshech.” Hashem ended the darkness, and the lights of B’nei Yisrael prevailed once again. That very hanukkiah from the photo is being lit until today by Rebbetzin Posner’s grandson, Yehudah Mansbuch. Every Hanukah before he lights the candles, he gathers all his children and grandchildren and takes out the photograph to read the note his grandmother scrawled onto the back. “Judah will live forever: Thus, say the lights.” And at Brandenburg gate in Berlin, Germany, the very place Hitler made his rallies and Nazis marched declaring the end to Jews, a 30-foot tall menorah gets lit every Hanukah to remind the Jewish people that our light will never burn out. Do Not Despair When Yosef was sold, “They raised their eyes and saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, their camels carrying spices, balsam and lotus (37:35).” Rashi asks, “Why was it important for the Torah to mention the somewhat insignificant detail of what the Ishmaelites were carrying?” Rashi answers, “It was to teach us the reward of the tzaddikim.” Those caravans usually carry foul smelling cargo, such as naphtha or tar. In order to spare Yosef Hatzaddik from an offensive odor, Hashem arranged that this caravan be the exception. This was a sign to Yosef that even in the most difficult situation, he must not despair. Hashem was still watching over him! A similar theme was shown in last week’s parashat Vayishlach when Yaakov wrestled with the Satan. The passuk says, “Yaakov remained alone (32:25).” The midrash says, “On that day, Hashem will stand alone, just as Yaakov.” The Baal Shem Tov comments that someone who has enemies must believe that it’s not by chance that people are against him. It is predestined from above. Nothing happens without Hashem’s decree. If we can understand this concept, the Baal Shem Tov teaches us that our enemies will disappear. Whenever a person is put to a test, the way to overcome it is to go through it with Hashem, knowing that He is in total control. Hashem puts every person in the exact situation necessary to achieve a level of greatness. Hashem engineered the events in Egypt that led Yosef from a sale to slavery, followed by a twelve-year jail sentence for a crime he did not commit, and finally to the high position of Viceroy of Egypt. This must be looked at as a message from Hashem for us, that whenever we are in a difficult situation, we should look closely and appreciate all the good that Hashem has bestowed upon us. It’s very easy to get lost in self-pity but a Jew should never despair. We must always believe that Hashem has a greater plan for us. Yosef learned this from his father Yaakov and knew that everything that was happening to him was all from Hashem. There is a fundamental lesson for us to learn from this. Many times, we perceive instances as negative, when in reality, that very situation conceals something positive that had great benefit or redemption. As David Hamelech wrote in Tehillim “Odecha ki anitaniy, vetehi li layeshuah—I will give you thanks; for you [Hashem] answered me, and through You is my salvation (118:21).” Another way of interpreting the word “anitani” is affliction. So, we are praising Hashem for our afflictions and the difficulties in life that we go through because that affliction will pave the way for our success and give us the strength to overcome our struggles! May we all learn to focus on all the good that Hashem gifts us with in good times, but also realize His presence in the difficult times that we all experience. We must always remember that a Jew should never despair; Hashem is in control. Very often there’s a silver lining that we don’t see in all the trying times that we face throughout our lives, unless we look for it. May we be willing to contribute to the continuation and spiritual growth of Am Yisrael like Yosef Hatzaddik and the Hashmonaim. May we know that no matter how hard someone may try to eradicate the Jewish people, they will not only not succeed, but our spirituality and our light will always rise above, like oil and water. Happy Hanukah! Shabbat Shalom! Rabbi Amram Sananes as written by Jack Rahmey Discussion Points:
Do we always have the strength to admit our faults and mistakes when we are wrong, like Yehuda?
The reason for the sale of Yosef was not typical sibling rivalry. The brothers saw that there would be another division of the children of Yaakov, just as there had been with Avraham and Yitzchak’s children, and they were afraid they wouldn’t merit to be founders of the Jewish nation.
Hashem engineered the events in Egypt that led Yosef from a sale to slavery, followed by a twelve-year jail sentence for a crime he did not commit, and finally to the high position of Viceroy of Egypt. This must be looked at as a message from Hashem for us, that whenever we are in a difficult situation, we should look closely and appreciate all the good that Hashem has bestowed upon us.
Many times, we perceive instances as negative, when in reality, that very situation concealed something positive that had great benefit or redemption.
Charlie Harary says, “A person doesn’t have to be ready to accept the responsibility for changing the world and helping the Jewish people; he must be willing. Hineni—I am here, I am willing to try.” If the Hashmonaim waited until they were ready and didn’t just try, they never would have had their incredible victory, leading to the miracle of Hanukah.
Yehuda was punished for suggesting selling Yosef as a slave to Egypt, an immoral place that may have corrupted his spirituality. It is similar with the story of Hanukah. The Greeks’ motivation was not to kill the Jews physically, but rather to assimilate them into their culture, which would kill the Jewish people spiritually.
Oil represents the kedusha—separation of the Jewish people from other nations because it rises in water. Instead of assimilating as the Greeks wanted, B’nei Yisrael rose to the top and overpowered them like oil rises above water!
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