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Torah Attitude: Parashas Vayeishev: The gift of giving


Reuben tried to save Joseph from the brothers’ plot to kill him. Joseph’s dream motivated Reuben to save him. Reuben’s obligation towards Joseph overrode any other considerations. Showing appreciation is not just an obligation, it is a privilege. Giving others an opportunity to pay back a kindness allows them not to feel an ongoing debt of gratitude. In order for goodness to be complete and enjoyed to its fullest, it must come as a reward that has been earned. Allowing someone to reciprocate an act of kindness is often no less than the original gift. The lights of Hanukkah express our gratitude to G’d for all the goodness and kindness He has bestowed upon us.

Kill Joseph

In this week’s portion (Bereishis 37) we read the famous story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph told his brothers of his dreams. In the first dream, they were binding sheaves and their sheaves bowed down to his. In the next dream, the sun, the moon and eleven stars bowed down to him. The brothers understood that Joseph expected that one day they would bow down to him. This and other episodes led the brothers to believe that Joseph was trying to bring down their family for his own glory. The brothers decided to punish Joseph and plotted to kill him. When Reuben heard of this plot, he tried to save Joseph and suggested that they should rather throw Joseph into a pit. His intention was to rescue and return Joseph to their father. However, when Reuben came back to remove Joseph from the pit, the brothers had already sold him to a caravan bound for Egypt.

Reuben’s motive

The Midrash Rabba (84:15) explains why Reuben was more motivated to save Joseph than any of the other brothers. Reuben reflected on Joseph’s dream of the eleven stars bowing down to him. Reuben realized that in this dream he was considered equal with the rest of his brothers. Ever since Reuben made the mistake of improperly interfering with his father’s wife, Bilhah (Be 35:22), he was worried that his lineage would forever be rejected from the other tribes of Israel. In truth, when Jacob blessed his sons before his death, he told Reuben that he had lost his special rights as the first born (Be:49:3-4). If not for this unfortunate mistake, his tribe would have been the kings and priests of Israel. However, the dream of Joseph comforted Reuben since it provided assurance that his descendants would still remain one of the tribes of Israel. This was an enormous relief. That is why Reuben was so motivated to save Joseph from the fate that the other brothers wanted to inflict on him.

Overriding appreciation

Rav Chaim Schmulevitz explains that Reuben understood that his personal feelings of obligation towards Joseph had to override any other considerations. Reuben participated when all the brothers formed a court to judge Joseph. They all came to the conclusion that Joseph had committed such serious offences that the correct judgment was for him to be killed. Nevertheless, Reuben’s feelings of appreciation towards Joseph prevented him from carrying out the judgment.

Showing appreciation is a privilege

As a matter of fact, showing appreciation is not just an obligation, it is really a privilege.

Midrash Rabba (Bamidbar 15:5) relates that when the Jews were given the commandment to kindle the Menorah in the Temple (Bamidbar 8:2), they asked G’d why He told them to light up for Him is the light of the whole world. G’d said to them, “You are right. I do not need your light. But I want to give you an opportunity to light for Me like I have lit for you.” G’d led the Jewish people with a cloud of glory and a pillar of fire. When the Tabernacle was erected, He told them to kindle the lights. “This will elevate your position amongst the nations. They should say, look how the Jewish nation lights for the One who lights up the whole world.”

The seeing and the blind person

Says the Midrash, this can be compared to a seeing person who led a blind person as they traveled along the road together. When they came to the house, the seeing person said to the blind one, “Please go and light a candle for me.” To this the blind person replied, “I do not understand. As long as we were travelling, you supported and guided me. Why do you now ask me to light a candle for you?” To this the seeing person responded, “I want to give you an opportunity to pay me back so that you do not feel an ongoing debt of gratitude”.

Goodness as a reward

This is the way G’d conducts Himself with mankind in general and the Jewish people in particular. As Rav Moishe Chaim Luzatto explains (Daas Tevunos 18), G’d created mankind to bestow goodness upon us. But as he writes in the Path of the Just, the bulk of this goodness is only enjoyed in the world to come. We may ask why did G’d not put us directly in the world to come? Why do we have to go through hardships in this world to wait for the goodness later on? Explains Rabbi Luzatto that in order for the goodness to be complete and enjoyed to its fullest, it must come as a reward that has been earned.

The young orphan

If we imagine a young orphan who, having been left on his own, is found by a kind couple. They take him into their home and provide everything he needs, food, clothing, shelter and otherwise. They put him through school with the best possible education. They shower him with toys and every luxury imaginable. They take him on trips and vacations. Every time the child wants to do something for this kind couple they tell him not to worry. They do not want him to feel obligated in any way. Although well intended, they do not realize that each time they tell him not to feel obligated, the child’s feeling of obligation is intensified. If they gave him an opportunity to pay them back, he would feel much better. By denying his feelings of obligation, the couple is actually hurting the orphan. Allowing someone to reciprocate an act of kindness is often no less than the original gift.

The lights of Hanukkah

The Ramban explains that when the Torah commanded the Jews to kindle the lights of the Menorah in the Temple, there was also a hint of the kindling of the Hanukkah lights after the destruction of the Temple. When we light our Hanukkiah, it is as if we are lighting a candle for G’d in Temple times. The lights of Hanukkah express our gratitude to G’d for all the goodness and kindness He has bestowed upon us throughout our history. By giving us the opportunity to express our gratitude, G’d gives us the greatest gift of all, the gift of giving and showing appreciation. Despite all our hardships and difficulties throughout our long and bitter exile, we are aware that through it all G’d guides us and preserves the Jewish nation to our glorious and bright future, when we again will merit kindling the lights in the Temple as in ancient days.

These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel