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Parashat Vayeshev

Le’ilui nishmat Moshe ben Regina

by The Cohen and Kassin Families.

Parashat Vayeshev


The Formation of The Jewish Nation

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, Shechem 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. 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, “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 (37:3).” And thus began another one of Yaakov’s distresses, the sale of his cherished son Yosef. 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. The brothers, therefore, thought that there would be another filtering process, this time with the children of Yaakov. They were afraid they would be expelled as Yishmael and Esav were, and that they wouldn’t merit to be founders of the Jewish Nation.

The Sale of Yosef

The brothers analyzed together whether the division was a decree from Hashem or Yaakov’s ruling motivated by his free choice. The brothers thought that Yosef was informing against them and had caused Yaakov to distance himself 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 concluded that the division was not a Divine Decree, but rather Yosef’s “manipulation” causing it.

Yosef felt the opposing spirit of his brothers, and precisely because of this he told them about his dreams. The Ohr Hachaim writes that Yosef wanted to indicate to them that his dreams were direct signs from Heaven. But the brothers felt that this was not proof. They claimed that these dreams were the reflections 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 Sforno, Yosef’s punishment would have been death.

There were many contradictions the tribes tried to work out to rationalize the decision to kill Yosef. Our rabbis tell us the children of Yaakov had a mesorah—a concept that was passed down that this phenomenon of the filtering process would stop before them, and that there would no longer be any separation or expulsion. Although Yosef’s dreams appeared to say otherwise, they originally understood that each brother would be a partner in founding the nation of Hashem.

They also knew that the nation of Hashem had to be founded by Yaakov’s twelve sons. But killing Yosef would mean losing one. 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 cherem—Divine Punishment upon anyone who would divulge the sale of Yosef. To place a cherem, ten men are required. Only nine brothers were present, and so the brothers included Hashem, so to speak, as the tenth. All of these rationalizations were made before concluding to kill Yosef.

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 (37:32)?”

Later in the parasha, when we read about the story of Yehuda and Tamar, we see the very same words used by Tamar when Yehuda confronts her. She asks him, “Haker na—Do you recognize this (38:25)?” 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 can admit his faults and mistakes, a trait that most 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—measure for measure. 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 offense in dealing with his father.

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 it was important for the Torah to mention the somewhat insignificant detail of what the Ishmaelites were carrying? He answers, “It was to teach us the reward of the tzaddikim.” Those caravans usually carry foul-smelling cargo, such as naphtha or tar. To spare Yosef Hatzaddik from an offensive odor, Hashem arranged that this caravan was 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 and giving him a ride fit for a tzaddik!

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.

There’s an amazing story from the book “Small Miracles for the Jewish Heart” that took place in the early 1900s. It became common for Eastern European Jews, tired of pogroms, poverty, and despair, to send their children to the United States, where there were opportunities for a better life. Because it was very expensive, the parents usually sent their children one at a time as the money for passage became available. The children would stay with relatives in America until the rest of the family arrived.

In 1930, Anya Gold, the oldest of eight children, was sent by her parents to the United States. Having saved only enough money for one ticket, her parents told her they would all soon follow, but they never did. It took them years to accumulate enough money, but by that time, the Holocaust had already begun.

Anya was raised by her aunt in Baltimore. Eventually, around the year 1946, a few stray survivors from her hometown in Poland arrived in Baltimore and brought with them the news that she dreaded to hear: Her entire family had been wiped out. It was hard for her to go on. She knew, however, that the best way to commemorate her family’s legacy was to build a family of her own. She wanted to get married, have a lot of children, and name them after her family members.

Shortly afterward, she married her wonderful husband, Saul, and they began to build their lives together. A couple of years went by, and they were still childless. The doctor informed them that there was a problem that would make it impossible for them to ever have children. They began to contemplate adoption, but Anya was hesitant. She had so hoped to have children to continue her family’s legacy.

Finally, they decided to adopt. The Jewish agency they contacted in New York told them that an infant had just been put up for adoption. They became very excited and traveled to New York. When they arrived, their hopes were shot down; the family had reconsidered and taken their baby back.

“We traveled all this way,” they pleaded with the agency official. “Isn’t there something else you can do for us?” The agent said, “Yes, we do have a wonderful little girl named Miriam, who is in desperate need of a home.” Miriam was adorable, but she was already eight years old. Anya and Saul wanted a newborn. Dejectedly, they returned home.

Another year passed with no prospects. They contacted many agencies across the United States, but an infant was very hard to find. Anya’s intense longing for a child consumed her. “Let’s see if we can still adopt that little girl, Miriam,” she told her husband. They called the agency, and the official said the girl was not yet adopted. “Not too many people want a nine-year-old,” she admitted. “But now there is a bit of a complication. Her little brother has been found in Europe and has joined her in our home for war orphans. The siblings are inseparable, and we promised them that they will be adopted together.”

The couple went to New York and saw the children. Miriam had a sweet demeanor, and her six-year-old brother, Moshe, was adorable as well. Anya and Saul brought them home to Baltimore, happy to finally fill their home with children.

Miriam looked around her new home. Suddenly, she pointed to a picture on the piano and asked Anya, “why do you have a picture of my grandma here?” Anya stared at the picture of her late mother. What was the child talking about?

Miriam ran to her suitcase, took out a faded picture, and showed it to Anya. “See?” she cried. “I have that picture, too. That’s my grandma” Then she took out a picture of her mother. Anya was shocked to see that it was Sarah, her sister! Unknowingly, she had adopted her sister’s two children! She did have the merit to continue her own family’s legacy. Anya and Saul had an extremely difficult life, but they saw the Yad Hashem guiding them which brought them much comfort.

As David Hamelech wrote in TehillimOdecha ki anitani, vetehi li lishuah—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 an 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. May we be willing to contribute to the continuation and spiritual growth of Am Yisrael like Yosef Hatzaddik.

Discussion Point:

· Do we always have the strength to admit our faults and mistakes when we are wrong, like Yehuda?

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