Vayeishev 5771 – The Spark of Yosef

The Dwelling of Yakov

Theparsha starts with a profile of Ya’akov “dwelling in the land of his fathers’ sojourning”. The Ohr Hachayim Hakadosh explains this verse to mean that in contrast to Esav who “possessed” the land of Seir, Ya’akov refused to view his grasp on the land of Canaan as permanent. He viewed himself as a sojourner like his father and grandfather did. On some level this explanation of Ya’akov’s attitude seems to be inconsistent with another teaching on this verse which Rashi brings. “And Ya’akov dwelled in the land…” Rashi brings “Ya’akov wanted to dwell in tranquility, and immediately he was visited with the frustration from the events surrounding Yosef. Hashem says ‘is it not enough that the righteous ones have their portion in the world to come established for them, do they also want to have tranquility in this world’!  Was Ya’akov looking for tranquility or was he clearly resigned to the fact that this world is not the place to find comfort and permanence? Let us ponder for a moment what Ya’akov’s definition of tranquility would be in the first place.

Rav Yeruchem Levovits asserts with absolute certainty that for someone like Ya’akov who was capable of and desired to sit for 14 years in the house of study of Shem and Ever without a drop of real sleep, tranquility could only be defined as the ability to live in olam hazeh with the unhindered and uninhibited ability to serve Hashem with total dedication. In other words Ya’akov was not looking to retire after a long career of shepherding and live out the rest of his days in leisure playing golf. But again how does this fit with the Ohr Hachayim’s explanation of Ya’akov’s attitude implicit in the way he looked at his dwelling in the land. Clearly there is a more subtle claim on Ya’akov than the fact that he wanted Hashem to bless him with the ability to serve Him and devote himself to divine service without hindrance. It is also untenable to say that Ya’akov wanted to stop growing personally because he felt he had reached a satisfactory level for himself. Even though it is true that in last week’s parsha the Torah testifies about Ya’akov that he was complete in his body, his possessions, and in his soul, again Ya’akov was not looking to retire from Avodas Hashem. We see in man of the mefarshim in last weeks’ parsha that even beyond his development as “Ya’akov” he also took on a second tier of identity called “Yisrael”. The Netziv says in last weeks’ parsha that this refers to a level of transcendence beyond the limitations of nature. Certainly after having worked so hard to reach that pinnacle in avodah Ya’akov / Yisrael was no tlooking to let go of that and regress back into a mundane life?

The only area left to find a possible point of shortcoming is with regards to the continuation of Ya’akov’s legacy by his own children. In this area Ya’akov was certainly exemplary and didn’t need chastising but nevertheless Hashem wanted to make him aware that there was more work to do and not to let up on his full attention. This is why he immediately was visited with the events surrounding Yosef and his brothers. If Ya’akov’s area of shortcoming was within himself than the wakeup call from Hashem would have been associated with that point. It is the very fact that the wake up call came with regards to Yosef and the brothers that pointed out to Ya’akov that he needed to work still more in this area. The Midrash Rabbah on the passuk “and the pit [that the brothers through Yosef into] was empty, it had no water” teaches that the wellspring of Ya’akov’s teachings was empty with regards to the law that one can not kidnap a Jew and sell him to slavery. Here again we see that on some very exacting level, certainly beyond the scope of our appreciation, Hashem found a shortcoming in a detail of the transmission to his sons.

The Favorite Son

The beginning of this weeks’ parshah finds Ya’akov dwelling in the land of Israel raising his sons. The Torah says that “Yisroel loved Yosef more than all of his other sons because he was born to him in his old age and he made him a coat of many colors”. This is an extremely difficult passage to absorb. It is generally accepted that an effective parenting style is not to show favoritism towards any one child. It is also generally accepted that our forefather Ya’akov was certainly on the highest level of perfection in all areas of character and it goes without saying that he would not have been guilty of simple favoritism in a way that would obviously bread jealousy amongst his children. How is it possible then to fathom what the Torah is saying here? The Netziv, amongst others, deals with this problem head on and immediately clarifies that this was not an issue of favoritism at all. Ya’akov saw the unique and special spiritual qualities in each one of his children and certainly knew how to bring that potential out of each one of them. Furthermore there were certainly aspects of greatness amongst the other sons that surpassed that of Yosef. The Torah is teaching a far more subtle point here. The Midrash teaches that the “son of his old age” –or “ben z’kunim” has a homiletic interpretation to mean “a son with a similar appearance as his father”. The Netziv says that of all of the sons of Ya’akov, Yosef was CLEARLY the one who most resembled his father. This striking similarity was apparent from a very young age and as a result always gave Yosef an additional aspect of natural closeness to his father.

As a result of this seemingly more superficial aspect of affinity Ya’akov chose Yosef to care for him in his old age, not favoritism for him due to a deeper love of his spiritual character. It was not this superficial affinity that ignited the jealousy of his brothers but rather the end of the verse “and he made for him a coat of many colors”. Until Ya’akov made this special coat for Yosef the brothers were of the opinion that their father’s affinity to Yosef was merely superficial as described. Once Ya’akov gave Yosef this very special coat they started to have second thoughts. Of course it goes without saying, within this line of thinking, that Ya’akov’s motivation for giving the coat to Yosef was just a symbol of this more superficial love, certainly not something that would lead to jealousy as he calculated it. However, the Talmud in Tractate Shabbos 10b points out that nevertheless it was this gift that caused the rift between the brothers that eventually led to exile in Egypt. “Rav taught that a person should never treat one of his children differently than another for as a result of the two selaim of silk that Yakov gave to Yosef his brothers became jealous and the events led to exile”.

Tosafos points out in the Gemara in Shabbos that the above mentioned teaching is difficult to understand for a different reason, which is that Hashem had already asked Avraham whether he wanted to have his children go through Gehinom or through the exiles and Avraham chose the exiles. If so then the children and families of Ya’akov would have had to end up down there anyway, why is the decent to Mitzrayim seen as Ya’akov’s fault due to favoritism? Tosafos answers that the length and bitterness of the servitude would have been much milder if not for this mistake. Of course this leads us right back to the original question which is after all is said and done how could Ya’akov have made such a grievous mistake in rearing his children and one that had such massive ramifications?

The Shlah Hakadosh takes an entirely different approach to this passage. Ya’akov lived in the house of Lavan for twenty years. Once Yosef was born he immediately decided that the time had come for him to move on. Our sages teach us that Ya’akov had ruach hakodesh that Yosef was the one son of all of his children who could overcome the power of Esav. Ya’akov had wanted to return to the land much sooner but he waited until Yosef was born to make his move. In fact Yosef was really Ya’akov’s first “brain child”. In his first night with his new wife whom he thought was Rachel he conceived of the soul of Yosef, which only came down into this world many years later due to the fact that Lavan had switched Rachel for Leah. The mission or concept of Yosef’s soul was that he would be the carrier of the mission of Ya’akov into the next stage. Ya’akov’s essential contribution to the Jewish people was the Midah of Tiferes. The idea of this midah is the inner balance between giving and restraint. Ya’akov’s life was filled with unusual difficulties and challenges. Through it all he developed pure inner harmony and a true sense of when and how to express himself and also act with restraint in every situation both with regards to his relationship with G-d and within himself.

This inner battle to overcome the evil lurking within us has a corresponding aspect in the external world. Originally the evil in the world was external to man and its purpose was to facilitate a challenge for man, which by overcoming, would bring him inner perfection and perfection to the outer world as well. But as a result of the sin of Adam Harishon it not only remained a challenge manifesting itself in the external world but it even became an internalized challenge. This is the deeper understanding of “eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil” meaning that you integrate the good and evil in the world into your own inner being. Now the challenge to overcome evil is not only a battle in the world it is one that goes on inside as well.

Conversely there are two stages of purifying ourselves from the evil. The legacy of Ya’akov was to purify the evil from within himself which he did to an unfathomable degree. Only about Ya’akov does the Torah say “And Ya’akov came –  complete”. Once Ya’akov managed to achieve that awesome task the next stage of the purification process was necessary, that of purifying the root of evil in the external world. This was the legacy of Yosef. This is why Ya’akov saw in ruach hakodesh when Yosef was born that “The house of Ya’akov is like the glimmering coal, the house of Yosef is like the illuminating flame shooting off that coal, and the house of Esav is like straw (which will fall prey to the flame of Yosef)”. The Talmud in Sotah teaches that just as Ya’akov bore twelve sons to aid in accomplishing his task on the micro level so too Yosef was meant to have twelve sons to aid in the accomplishment of his task on the micro level. Unfortunately due to the challenge posed later in the parsha by the wife of Poitphar, Yosef lost the potential to bear ten of those sons. In the end Yosef only had two sons Ephraim and Menasheh, whom Yakov saw as being on equal par with his own sons. This can only be properly understood in the context of the unique mission of Yosef as a forefather in his own right and an extension of his father’s mission.

According to the Shlah Hakadosh the fact that Yosef was destined for this purpose in the world was a given amongst all in the house of Ya’akov. All of the brothers accepted that as a matter of fact. Besides that, they looked into themselves and saw that they weren’t created for the task of overcoming Esav. The giving of the coat of many colors was really a natural consequence of this unique mission that Yosef was to fulfill. Our sages teach us that originally Adam and Chavah had “cloaks of light” as their garments. This means that their physical component – or cloak, was so pure and unadulterated that their bodies allowed the light of the soul to shine through. After the sin their physicality was tainted and “Hashem made them cloaks of leather and clothed them”. Our sages teach us that these garments were passed down as a reminder of the sin of Adam Harishon from one generation to the next. Nimrod captured them and possessed them and eventually Esav coveted them and wrested them from Nimrod. When Rivkah told Ya’akov to go get the brachah from Yitzchak she gave these garments, from the closet of Esav, to Ya’akov to wear. This is why Yitzchak said “The voice is that of Ya’akov but the [leathery] hands are that of Esav”. And finally Ya’akov is handing them down to the one whom they were truly meant for. The purpose of these garments was to remind man of the original sin and to rectify it. In fact Esav was supposed to play a role in that but since he steered away from it these garments fell into the hands of Ya’akov and Yosef who would utilize them for their true purpose.

As a result it wasn’t the fact that Ya’akov gave Yosef this coat, that was so clearly fitting for him to wear given his life’s mission, that sparked their jealousy. Nor was the tipping point the affinity that Ya’akov had for Yosef who clearly had a very elevated purpose in life. What bothered them and ignited their jealousy was that something very subtle in the way Ya’akov gave the garments to Yosef indicated that Yosef mission was not on par with theirs but rather beyond it. The reason this bothered them was because there was a different tradition that they knew through ruach hakodesh that Yehudah was meant to be the leader and that eventually from his descendants would come the Kings of Israel. They took for granted that their father agreed with this and that in no way meant to disrupt this development. It was therefore Yosef who they victimized as having misunderstood the grooming from Ya’akov and the true standing of his unique role in the overall family and fledgling national dynamic. As the Rishonim express in these passages, the brothers at this point saw Yosef as a rebel against the destiny of kingship set aside for Yehudah and his descendants. As such they judged him as liable to death for rebellion against the king.

Sibling Rivalry

The Rabbeinu Bachayeh points out that in fact the real problems between the brothers may have been seeded by earlier events but the explosion of actual jealousy only came about after Yosef’s dreams of kingship over the rest of his family. In line with the Shlah Hakadosh this was truly the red line that could not be crossed. How are we to understand the position of the other eleven perfectly righteous sons of Yakov? In light of the words of the Shlah Hakadosh and the Rabbeinu Bachayeh things are clearer. The brothers never denied Yosef’s task in and of itself. They also never denied the need for him to possess the coat of many colors. It was clear to them that Yosef had a very unique innate capability to reveal the inner beauty of the externalities of this world. The verse even says “and he [Yosef] was acting like a young lad with the sons of the maidservants”. Chazal teach that the meaning of this verse is that Yosef use to sit and style his hair and spend time being particular about his physical appearance much more than was normal for others that age. This in no way drew him away from Hashem in fact it was for him a form of Divine Service. Had the brothers gotten the sense that Yosef was just being built up by their father to prepare him for his important mission within the klal they would have been appeased and kept silent. When Yosef started having dreams of kingship and telling them over to the family they saw that Yosef was overstepping his boundaries and took a stand.

At this point the brothers began to plot against him. Initially they tried to think of ways to kill him without having to be directly involved in the act but they couldn’t contrive a satisfactory plan. In the end they decided they had no choice but to kill him and contrive a story to tell their father. At that point Reuven got involved. He said that even if this is all true we can’t actually be directly involved in killing him with our own hands because the thought is too repulsive. The Ohr Hachayim says that Reuven knew that short of killing him with their own hands there was no other way that a person like Yosef would be left to die by means of creatures or starvation. In essence his decision as the first born to convince his brothers not to spill blood at any cost was tantamount to deciding to save Yosef and return him to his father even though his feelings for Yosef had not really changed. Reuven’s secret plan was to toss Yosef in a pit and then he planed to come later and take Yosef out and let him go free. Hashem had other plans though as we saw from the currents developed above. Some of the brothers sat down to eat after throwing Yosef in the pit and just then a band of Yishmaelim came by at which point all of the brothers decided that it would be better to sell him to slavery then to allow him to die in the pit. They thus removed him and sold him into slavery, and contrived a story to convince Ya’akov that Yosef had been killed by a wild beast. The Shlah Hakadosh teaches that the brothers had made a cherem type agreement never to reveal their plot to Yakov.

The Pirkei D’rebbe Eliezer says that there were only nine brothers to make the cherem because Reuven refused to be involved (Binyamin was still a baby and Yosef in the subject of the plot). The impact of a cherem only takes effect when there are ten to agree to make it. Therefore they asked Hashem Himself to be the tenth for the cherem which they considered to be for the sake of heaven. The Rabbeinu Bachayeh explains that according to kabbalistic tradition the ten martyrs who were brutally killed in the days of the Roman Empire were in fact reincarnations of the brothers of Yosef. They were brought back down into this world to balance their account with Hashem for having sold their brother into slavery. The Rabbeinu Bachayeh asks that this tradition is problematic because we said above there were only nine brothers involved in the cherem and Hashem made up the tenth. Why were there ten martyrs? He gives two possible answers. One is that Yosef was also considered a sinner because he wasn’t careful enough about the fulfillment of his task in such a way that it didn’t lead to jealousy. The second answer he says is that the tenth martyr was a reincarnation of Reuven but he was punished in the days of the Romans for having rearranged the mattress of his father into his mother’s tent that we learned about in last weeks’ parsha.

The Fall of Yehudah

The Torah really should have continued at this point with the decent of Yosef to Mitzrayim and his initial rise to fame. All of the commentators point out that the insertion here of the story of Yehudah and Tamar is clearly out of place and coming to teach a much deeper point then just the story itself. Furthermore according to the Gemara in Sanhedrin 69b the event of Yehudah and Tamar clearly took place before the story of Yosef and the brothers. Rashi nevertheless explains that because of the fact that Yehudah was the leader of the pack in the selling of Yosef, when they saw the pain their father experienced at the loss of Yosef they blamed Yehudah and this lowered his status in their eyes. This is of course difficult in the chronology. The Midrash Rabbah teaches us a different approach. The end of the story of Yehudah and Tamar heralds the birth of Peretz and Zerach. Chazal point out that from the lineage of Peretz eventually came Yishai the father of David and the Davidic line of kings all the way down to the mashiach. The reason this is taught here is that we should know how Hashem is in control and is overseeing the entire order of events in His world. Even before the Jewish people experienced the first glimpse of exile the ultimate redemption had already been set in motion.

The Decent and Rise of Yosef

The subsequent section of the parsha finds Yosef descending to Mitzrayim. As we know he had a very challenging and bitter experience which nearly cost him his life. Rashi points out that the wife of Potiphar was not just a licentious woman, she was a soothsayer and saw in her meddling that she was going to bear a child from Yosef. What she didn’t realize, due to the inaccuracy of her art, was that in fact it was her daughter who would ultimately marry Yosef and bear children from him. Essentially Yosef found himself in the ultimate challenge. He had to spend most of his days with a woman who was possessed not merely by Yosef’s physical attractiveness but a conviction that her fate as decreed in the heavens was that she would bear children from him. She spared no means to seduce him. In fact Rashi even brings from a Midrash that Chazal parallel the motivation for the sake of heavan of the wife of Potiphar to that of Tamar. As a result of this incessant woman, Yosef was trapped and victimized as an adulterer and thrown in jail where yet again he finds himself rising to a position of leadership. Through it all the Torah clearly wants us to see the juxtaposition of leadership and ultimate kingship of Yehudah and the leadership and subsequent reign of Yosef in Mitzrayim.

Two Kings Can’t Both Wear the Same Crown

Chazal say that two kings can’t wear the same crown. It is not possible to understand that the two kingships that of Yehudah and that of Yosef are meant to offset one another or reduce the impact and import of one another. What then could possibly explain the need for two lines of Kings in Israel? The Derech Hashem writes, like we mentioned above, that as a result of the sin of Adam Harishon the task of humanity is now two-fold. Initially Adam Harishon was created on a very high level of purity. There was a root of evil in the world compacted into the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Adam’s task was to overcome the challenge posed by the serpent, to eat from that tree, and this world would have taken off on an irreversible path of total fulfillment and completion. By eating from the tree Adam not only strengthened and broadened the power of the root of evil in the world he also integrated that root of evil into his inner being thus giving it a branch or an extension within himself. Now, in order to achieve perfection the branch of evil has to first be subdued internally within a man and ultimately its manifestations and institutions in the external world have to be subdued to the will of Hashem as well.

Yitzchak had two sons Ya’akov and Esav. The verse in parshas Toldos says “And Yitzchak loved Esav because he had a cunning way with his mouth”. At first glance this verse is difficult to fathom. It should have said that Yitzchak loved Esav despite the fact that he was cunning with his mouth. From here we see that Yitzchak clearly held that it was Esav (the root of his name is from the word Asah – to make or do) who was endowed with the gifts and talents necessary to achieve the higher ultimate level of subduing the material and external world to the will of Hashem. Esav would have succeeded at this mission had he chosen to channel those gifts towards it. In the end Esav opted out of that responsibility thus leaving the burden of both tasks squarely lying on the shoulders of Ya’akov. Chazal teach us that there was a prophecy that circulated in those days that the two daughters of Lavan were destined to marry the two sons of Yitzchak. The older son was slated to marry the older daughter and the younger son to marry the younger daughter. This meant that Leah was slated to marry Esav and Rachel was slated to marry Ya’akov. Leah was endowed with all of the female qualities necessary to complement and bring out Esav’s true potential. However as uninterested as Esav was in his task, Leah was uninterested in being his soul mate. This is why the verse says “and the eyes of Leah were soft [from tears]”. The Arizal explains that Leah was originally born to be Esav’s soul mate in fixing the external realm. But through her ongoing tearful prayers she was able to refine her own inner self and rise to a totally new level of transcendence and she reached the level of the internal level of challenge. Through this she became fitting to be Ya’akov’s soul mate in rectifying the inner world of man. The truth is that Ya’akov really reached a new level of external refinement when he followed his mother’s will and tricked Yitzchak into giving him the brachos for hatzlacha in the material world. He acted in a more external way. This aspect of external refinement was the aspect that Rachel, in the wake of Leah’s ascent, would now begin to draw out more from Ya’akov.

Most of Ya’akov’s children came from Leah and her maidservant. This was the bulk of his personal avodah in this world. He had seven children with Leah six boys and one girl. In the holy writings it says that the seven children of Leah are representative of the seven levels of the “inner and nidden worlds”. However after many years of growth and refinement on the most inner levels of his soul, of which each of his children with Leah represented one level, he was ready to move to the more external levels of himself and out into the external world to fix it as well. Rachel was able to draw this potential out of Ya’akov and through the birth of Yosef help to transfer the baton of rectifying the bulk of the external world to her son. These two realms the internal realm and the external realm are really different worlds. Yehudah was an extension of his father’s primary avodah of rectifying the inner world and thus he was the” king” of that world. Yosef is an extension and a culmination of the avodah of Ya’akov. His realm is the external world. There he is the king and everyone must turn to and rely on him.

The Sefarim Hakedoshim write that the name Yehudah is from the root “hoda’ah” to admit or give thanks, and Yosef’s name is from the root “l’hosif” to add. The additional aspect of avodas Yosef is referred to as hallel – to praise. Hoda’ah is an internal avodah. Yehudah is the master of hoda’ah. The verse says “And this [that Reuven did tshuvah for his sin of rearranging his father’s mattress] is because of Yehudah”. Yehudah was such a master of hoda’ah that when he admitted his sins and did t’shuva for the maseh with Tamar it not only worked for himself it also brought Reuven back into the fold. Hallel is an external outpouring of the internal recognition and appreciation. Through Hallel love and appreciation of Hashem and the goodness He is providing us pours out into the world and both purifies and elevates it. The Derech Hashem writes that p’sukei d’zimra which is the way we refer to the psalms of praise we say in the morning before davening is from the root “lizmor” to prune. By singing praise outwardly into the world we are pruning the negativity from the world. These outward expressions of praise clarify the true nature of everything we see and sense in the world. By defining everything and connecting everything in the world back to Hashem we are ultimately fixing the external world.

Ultimately on the line of thinking we are presently following the “misunderstanding” everybody had was that it seems rationale that the first stage of the duel avodah is to rectify oneself. Only after one does that can he possibly then move on to the higher and loftier aspiration of purifying the external world as was the original task of Adam. This is of course true if you are living in ideal conditions. The verse even says “for from Zion will the words of Torah go out”. First there is the avodah of Torah which straightens a person and then from that level one can work outward. This is why when the brothers heard Yosef was speaking of being a king before the kingship of Yehudah was even established their zealotry was ignited. However, in truth Hashem’s plan was different. He knew that the Jews were going down in to exile in the land of Egypt which is referred to as the “ervas ha’aretz” – the root of perversion in the world. In order to be able to survive and thrive there for an extended period of time the Jews would need to have a place to live where they could hope to reach the level of inner perfection. In a place which is entirely not conducive to Torah learning, first the kingdom of Yosef must be established. Only then can the Jews reach the inner perfection they are striving for.