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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland

Parshas Vayshev

And Yaakov settled in the land of his fathers’ sojourning. (37:1) The words "vayeshev," settled, and "megurei," sojourning, contrast with one another. One implies permanence, while the latter alludes to a temporary state. Indeed, this formulation catalyzes Chazal to suggest that after a long exile and numerous struggles, Yaakov finally wished to settle down, to live peacefully. Hashem sent the anguish of Yosef to disturb his efforts. Hashem told him, "Are the righteous not satisfied with what awaits them in Olam Habah that they expect to live at ease in Olam Hazeh?" In other words, the righteous have no right to demand tranquillity in this world.

We must attempt to reconcile ourselves with Chazal’s statement. Yaakov literally went through a life of misery. He did not have a "good day." From the enmity of his brother, Eisav; to the deception of his father-in-law, Lavan; to losing his beloved Rachel; to the tragedy of his daughter, Dinah; to the near loss of his sons Yosef, Shimon, and Binyamin, Yaakov clearly suffered throughout his life. Was he not entitled to a little menuchas ha’nefesh, tranquillity and rest? Avraham had Olam Hazeh; he was wealthy, respected, and admired by all. Yitzchak also achieved prominence and material success. Why did Hashem criticize Yaakov for wanting to enjoy life? Is a positive experience in Olam Hazeh forbidden?

There is ostensibly no prohibition against enjoying the fruits of this world. Commerce is commendable as long as it is performed in accordance with Torah dictate. We are permitted any material benefits that we reap through methods that are above reproach. We are expected to utilize opportunities to enjoy a lifestyle of Torah and avodas Hashem, helping those institutions and individuals who are in need. Indeed, shortly before his death, the Gaon M’Vilna lamented that he was leaving a world where, for just a few coins, one can purchase a pair of tzitzis, for which he would merit Olam Habah. Therefore, what was inappropriate about Yaakov Avinu’s request?

Horav Elchanan Sorotzkin, zl, observes that there is "sufficient" Olam Hazeh for everyone to enjoy. It is not as if we fear that a tzaddik might receive too much of This World. We may foster divergent attitudes, however, towards material possessions in This World. Avraham and Yitzchak were completely satisfied with their lots in Olam Habah. They viewed their portions in Olam Hazeh as nothing more than a medium for attaining eternity--no more, no less. Everything on this world, all the pleasures, benefits, and moments of joy and tranquillity had no value in their own right--only as a vehicle for Olam Habah. All their days they wandered from place to place, spreading the word of G-d. Even when Avraham remained in a place for an extended period of time, such as Chevron and Plishtim, the Torah views it only as a "sojourn." Yitzchak, who lived in Eretz Yisrael the entire time, is also described as a "ger b’aretz," a sojourner in the land. Their Olam Hazeh was intrinsically meaningless to them. Everything was oriented towards Olam Habah.

When Yaakov sought to settle in the land of his fathers’ sojourning, Chazal sense that he was attempting to transform his perspective from the attitude that his ancestors had embraced. He wanted to settle in the land, to benefit from Olam Hazeh, to relax in peaceful solitude--as an end in itself. He valued Olam Hazeh in its own right.

As a result of Yaakov’s attitude towards Olam Hazeh, he was plagued with the anguish of Yosef. He distinguished Yosef from the rest of his sons by giving him a multi-colored garment, reflecting a tendency towards valuing the material. This catalyzed envy and enmity among the brothers. When one views material goods as nothing more than a medium for attaining spiritual rewards, there is no room for jealousy. Yaakov’s act of attributing value to Olam Hazeh caused his later anguish.

Behold, a caravan of Yishmaelim was coming from Gilead, their camels bearing spices, balsam, and lotus...(37:25)

What does the composition of the Yishmaelim’s cargo mean to us? Rashi claims that Hashem intervened on Yosef’s behalf. Yishmaelim usually carry foul-smelling cargo. In order to spare Yosef from being subjected to the harsh odor, Hashem "arranged" that this caravan carry only sweet-smelling spices. This is enigmatic! Imagine being sold as a slave -- with no hope for redemption. Yosef’s life was literally falling apart in front of his eyes. Should he be concerned about the odor of the cargo that was to accompany him?

Horav Mordechai Pogremonsky, zl, compares this to a sick man who has undergone a very serious and dangerous surgery. Everyone stands around his bed as he lies unconscious from the effects of the surgery. Suddenly, he opens his eyes; all assembled break into extreme joy, knowing that phase one of his recovery has been successfully achieved. His open eyes are far from proof that the surgery was successful, but the initial alertness is a hopeful sign that the patient is on the road to recovery.

The same idea may be applied to Yosef. Amidst his terrible predicament, Yosef noted a slight change, a behavior pattern which is atypical. Thus, he was encouraged and hopeful. Everyday the Arab merchants carried foul-smelling cargo. If --specifically today the caravan to which he was sold was carrying sweet-smelling spices, it was a message from Hashem that the future would not be so bad. There was hope. There is no greater assurance than the knowledge that Hashem is with us--all the way. Perhaps if we look a little closer, we might also see the silver lining shining through the clouds.

And Reuven returned to the pit, and behold Yosef was not in the pit! So he rent his garments. (37:29)

The Midrash questions from where did Reuven return? They respond that he was sitting in sackcloth and fasting, remorseful over his impetuous reaction to Yaakov moving his bed into Bilhah’s tent. Although Reuven did nothing more than tamper with his father’s bed, the Torah viewed his action as being a transgression. He now repented for his sin. The Midrash continues that Hashem told Reuven that previously no one had ever sinned and repented. Since he initiated teshuvah, he was to merit that his descendant, Hoshea, would petition Klal Yisrael to perform teshuvah with the clarion call of "Shuvah Yisrael." Two questions confront us upon learning this Midrash. First, why does the Torah allude to Reuven’s teshuvah specifically now during mechiras Yosef, the sale of Yosef? Second, was Reuven truly the one to originate teshuvah? Are we to ignore Adam and Kayin, who repented long before Reuven?

Horav M.D. Soloveitchik, Shlita, cites an interesting answer to these questions. When the brothers sold Yosef, they ostensibly knew that their actions would cause great pain to their father. Yet, they proceeded with their plans. To a certain degree, they had lost respect for their father. They sold his beloved Yosef despite their father’s obvious feelings. Reuven blamed himself for this lack of respect. Had he not slighted his father, perhaps the brothers would have retained their esteem for Yaakov. Inadvertently, Reuven felt he had caused mechiras Yosef. He humiliated his father to the point that the brothers were no longer sensitive to his feelings, thereby leaving them no regrets over the sale of their brother.

A single sin on the part of one individual can catalyze a number of sins for a group. Reuven feared the worst. He feared that his error, the result of a moment of impetuous zeal, caused the sale of Yosef, an error of such grave proportion that we still feel its punitive effect today. Reuven’s teshuvah was unique. He repented not only for his own sin, but also for the sins that were caused by it. His teshuvah is consistent with the parsha of mechiras Yosef, because he earned the onus of guilt over mechiras Yosef.

Reuven’s concept of teshuvah was novel. One repents for the sins of his own commission. One feels remorse for his own actions. When do we find an individual accepting the blame for the consequences of his actions? Where do we find someone repenting for a sin that he did not himself commit, --but inadvertently caused? Do we ever take into account the effect of our sins? How many people permit themselves to relax their levels of observance as the result of an inappropriate action they saw another individual perform? Reuven’s teshuvah was different. Such repentance had never before been reported. He repented not only for his wrongdoing, but also for its repercussions.

There is no one greater in the house than I, and he has denied me nothing but you, since you are his wife; how can I have perpetrated this evil? (39:9)

Sforno interprets the idea of "this evil," to mean the performance of bad in return for good. Yosef’s prime concern was the gratitude he owed his master. He could not respond to the advances of his master's wife because of his hakoras hatov, the appreciation he felt to Potiphar. We may infer from here a lesson regarding the significance of hakoras hatov, and how far one must go to fulfill his obligation to acknowledge gratitude. Yosef was subject to the blandishments of Potiphar’s wife on an almost constant basis. She tried to entice him in every way possible. She would speak to him affectionately; she varied her mode of dress; she threatened him with prison and humiliation; she threatened to blind him; she even resorted to offering him a bribe. He ignored her threats and rejected her offers due to hakoras hatov. He acknowledged the good that Potiphar had done for him. Thus, he adhered to his obligation to be makir tov. He was willing to suffer pain and humiliation, all for hakoras hatov. Why? What did he really owe Potiphar? He had a job. Potiphar needed a manager and Yosef was available. Does Yosef owe Potiphar that much gratitude? One would think that the opposite makes more sense; Potiphar owed Yosef! Indeed, Chazal tell us that originally Potiphar made Yosef work very hard. Only after he noticed that everything Yosef touched became blessed, did Potiphar relent and grant Yosef a prominent position.

Horav A. Henoch Leibovitz, Shlita, remarks that regardless of the motivation of the benefactor, the obligation to recognize and appreciate the good one receives demands reciprocity. Yosef owed Potiphar hakoras hatov even though Potiphar was not worthy of it. Potiphar's worthiness, however, is not an appropriate standard. We always look for reasons to justify our lack of appreciation to others. If we would realize that our attitude towards others defines our own menchlichkeit, human decency, we might be able to train ourselves to have greater respect for others.

And he asked Pharaoh’s courtiers who were with him in the prison...."Why do you appear downcast today?" (40:7)

Four words! Yosef turned to the dejected, deposed courtiers of Pharaoh, noticing their downcast appearance, he asked them, "Why are you so downcast? What is the cause of your depression?" Yosef’s sensitivity catalyzed circumstances that changed his entire life and the history of Klal Yisrael. Our course of history was altered because Yosef asked a simple question. He noticed--he cared--he took action. First and foremost, however, he noticed. This caring for another human being ultimately led to Yosef’s salvation from imprisonment and elevation to the position of viceroy. Thus, his father, Yaakov, was able to come down to Egypt as royalty -- all as the result of a few words.

Horav Ze’ev Weinberger, Shlita, cites Targum Onkelos’ interpretation of the pasuk describing Yosef as foreman in the prison, "And everything that was done there, he would accomplish." (39:22) Everyone -- prisoners and warden alike -- admired Yosef. He succeeded in everything that he undertook. He was, therefore, given dominion over the entire prison. In translating the above pasuk Onkeles says, "And everything that was done was according to his command." This does not seem consistent with the pasuk which implies that Yosef did more than command--he worked! Horav Weinberger says that Yosef’s tendency to work with the other prisoners achieved for him the respect and admiration necessary for his directives to be executed. When the other prisoners saw that Yosef cared for them and that he also worked with them, they were happy to carry out his orders. All of this happened as a result of Yosef's sensitivity to them, his caring.


1. Chazal derive a virtue regarding the Shevatim from the fact that they could not speak peacefully with Yosef. What is this virtue?

2. What three "national" tragedies occurred in Shechem?

3. Who did Yosef meet when he was searching for his brothers?

4. Did the brothers put Yosef’s life in danger when they threw him into an "empty" pit?

5. What was unique about the cargo that the Yishmaelim were transporting?

6. Why did the brothers soak Yosef’s multi-colored coat in the blood of a goat?

7. Was Yitzchak aware that Yosef was sold?

8. Who lost his dominant role among the brothers as a result of the sale of Yosef?


1. They were not hypocrites who talked in a friendly fashion to Yosef while hating him in their hearts.

2. The brothers sold Yosef; Dinah was attacked; Malchus beis David was split.

3. The angel Gavriel.

4. The "empty" pit was not really empty. It was filled with snakes and scorpions.

5. They were carrying a cargo of sweet-smelling spices, which was not their typical cargo.

6. It is very similar to human’s blood.

7. Yes

8. Yehuda


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