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Parshas Vayeishev - Vol. 11, Issue 9
Compiled by Oizer Alport
Rashi writes that Yosef told Yaakov about three sins that he "witnessed" his brothers transgressing: humiliating Yaakov's sons from his maid-servants and calling them servants, eating meat from an animal not ritually slaughtered, and engaging in forbidden relationships with women. How can these grave accusations be reconciled with the elevated spiritual status of Yosef's brothers, and if they were indeed innocent, how could Yosef fabricate such egregious claims to falsely slander them to their father?
The Shelah HaKadosh offers a most novel explanation of this perplexing episode. The mystics teach that Avrohom Avinu authored Sefer Yetzirah, one of the most esoteric and cryptic Kabbalistic texts, which describes the way in which Hashem created the world and fashioned man. Avrohom passed on this wisdom to his son Yitzchok, who in turn taught it to Yaakov. Although Yaakov wished to transmit it to all 12 of his sons, there is a rule that mystical secrets may only be taught to those with proper lineage. He therefore taught it to his eight sons from Rochel and Leah, but not to the sons of the maidservants Bilhah and Zilpah.
Leah's children decided to test their newfound knowledge and used it to supernaturally create a cow. Because the cow wasn't born through natural means, it didn't legally require ritual slaughter. Yosef, unaware of the cow's true origins, observed his brothers eating meat directly from a living animal and reported their "sin" to Yaakov.
Unsatisfied with their creation of a cow, the brothers decided to test the limits of their knowledge a bit more, and created a living woman. When Yosef saw them walking around with an unfamiliar woman, he concluded that they were continuing to slide downhill in their sinful ways.
When the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah expressed interest in acquiring this fascinating and powerful knowledge, Leah's children refused to teach them, explaining that their mothers were maidservants and their lineage was impure. Yosef, unaware of the subject matter being discussed, overheard only that Leah's sons were "disgracing" their brothers by reminding them of their blemished pedigree and immediately ran to inform Yaakov of the sibling rivalry that was unfolding.
Although these explanations of the brothers' actions certainly seem more than a bit farfetched, Yosef was nevertheless punished for the slanderous reports he gave Yaakov instead of judging his brothers favorably. While it needn't be assumed that a man spotted carousing with a suspicious woman created her, this episode clearly teaches the extent to which a person is obligated to engage in mental gymnastics to judge his fellow Jews favorably.
When Reuven heard his brothers planning to murder Yosef and throw his body into a pit, he opposed the plan. He argued that they should not shed his blood directly, but should instead throw him alive into a pit. The Torah explains that Reuven's intention was to rescue Yosef and return him to Yaakov.
Unfortunately, before he was able to return to the pit to save Yosef, he was sold to a band of traveling merchants who took him to Egypt and sold him into slavery. If Reuven believed that Yosef should not be killed and his goal was to save him, why didn't he confront his brothers directly? Why did he propose a solution which left his ultimate plan to save Yosef in doubt?
The Ralbag explains that although Reuven disagreed with his brothers, he recognized the strength of their convictions and knew that a proposal to leave Yosef completely unharmed would be soundly rejected by them. He therefore began with a smaller step - throwing Yosef into a pit - which would allow him to push for further "partial salvations" until he ultimately accomplished his true goal. Indeed, Yehuda followed up by suggesting that rather than leave Yosef abandoned without food or water in a hot desert in a pit filled with poisonous animals, they should instead sell him to a passing caravan of merchants. Applying this concept to ourselves, the Ralbag deduces from here that if we see a person who is about to commit a sin, the way to stop him is not to suggest that he refrain completely, which he will reject outright. Rather, we should propose smaller stages which he will find more palatable until the "baby steps" accumulate and the true goal is accomplished.
Rav Yitzchok Elchanon Spector makes a clever observation. In the conversation between Yehuda and Tamar, the Torah relates three times something that Yehuda said to her, which in each case are followed by the words of Tamar's response. In each line of their dialogue, there is a different cantillation on the word Vayomer (and he said) to tell the reader how it should be pronounced (pashta, zakaf gadol, and revi'i). In each case, the cantillation which teaches how to read Yehuda's expression is identical to the one found on the word Vatomer (and she said) that follows and relates Tamar's reply. Rav Spector suggests that this anomaly alludes to the famous rule (Mishlei 27:19) that a person will be spoken to and interacted with in the manner that he speaks to others.
Before having relations with Tamar, Yehuda promised to send her a goat. She insisted that he leave a pledge with her, which she would return upon receipt of the goat. However, the messenger with whom Yehuda sent the goat was unable to locate her. After asking around unsuccessfully, the agent returned to Yehuda, who decided that it would be preferable to allow her to keep the collateral than to risk great embarrassment if his actions became publicized through further inquiries. If Yehuda was so concerned about potential humiliation, why did he initially leave a pledge with her, which would allow her to potentially publicize the episode herself? Why didn't he overpower her on his way out to forcibly seize his collateral in order to protect himself from this risk?
The Rebbe R' Bunim explains that despite his personal vulnerability, Yehuda would never have done something so lacking in yashrus (honesty and propriety) to protect himself. The Rebbe points out that had he done so, Tamar wouldn't have had any way to hint to him that he was the father of the child she had conceived, and Yehuda would have put her to death for suspected adultery. With her death, Tamar would have taken with her two sons, as well as the entire Davidic line that ultimately leads to Moshiach, for which Yehuda would have been held accountable for one simple action of dishonesty. Similarly, the Ramban (39:12) questions why Yosef allowed part of his garment to remain in the hands of Potiphar's wife when he fled her advances. Why didn't he forcibly take it from her so that she wouldn't have any corroborating "evidence" for her claims? The Ramban answers that Yosef refrained from doing so since it would have been disrespectful behavior to take something from his master's wife by force, even though his failure to do so left her with incriminating evidence against him.
Rav Shalom Schwadron points out that it was specifically Yosef's decision to do what he knew was right that led to his imprisonment, which led to his rise to power in Egypt, which enabled him to be reunited with his father and brothers after 22 years. The lesson that we learn from Yehuda and Yosef is that, painful as the immediate consequences may seem, one ultimately never loses out when doing what is right.
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Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):
1) Rashi writes (37:3) that Yaakov loved Yosef more than his other sons because Yosef was born in his old age. According to this, why wasn't Binyomin, who was born later, even more beloved than Yosef? (Chizkuni, Rav Eliyahu Mizrachi, Gur Aryeh, Pirkei Torah)
2) Who sold Yosef to the band of merchants that brought him and sold him into slavery in Egypt? (Rashi, Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, Chizkuni, Rabbeinu Bechaye, Paneiach Raza, Radak Shoftim 8:24)
3) On Chanuka we add a paragraph to our daily prayers in which we thank Hashem for the miracles He performed in the days of Mattisyahu ben Yochanan Kohen Gadol. To whom does the appellation "Kohen Gadol" refer: Mattisyahu or Yochanan? (Peirush Mishnayos L'Rambam, Meiri Introduction to Avos, Shu"t Tashbatz 3:135, Rabbeinu Yerucham, Sefer HaIkkarim, Maharsha Pesachim 57a, Dikdukei Sofrim Megillah 11a, K'Motzei Shalal Rav pg. 147-9)
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