This week’s sedra begins with a most shocking instance, Yosef reports to Yaakov his brothers seeming misdemeanors. The passuk then tells us that Yaakov Avinu favored Yosef because he was a ben-zekunim, simply translated as a son of his old age. The passuk then continues to tell us that as a result of Yaakov’s favoritism toward Yosef, he wove for him a striped coat.
What is going on here? Yosef says lashon-horah on his brothers and not only does Yaakov not rebuke him for it, but to the contrary, he seems to favor him? Further more the passuk seems to infer that the main reason for this favoritism was the fact that Yosef was the son of his old age; it should reason that Binyamin should have obtained yet even more favoritism, for he was younger? Equally as perturbing is why Yaakov Avinu added salt to injury by weaving Yosef this colored coat, openly manifesting his favoritism towards Yosef causing jealousy amongst the brothers?
Interestingly the Targum doesn’t translate ben-zekunim to be “the son of his old age”, but rather to be the son of wiseness similarly to Chazal explaining the commandment of vehadarta pnei zakain, to honor he who has acquired wisdom. The Baal-Haturim goes so far as to say that זקנים as merely an acronym for Seder Zraim, Kadashim, Nezikin, Yishuos, and Moed, meaning that Yosef had spent extra time with his father in order to learn Talmud.
Yosef was a special son who attained tremendous esteem in the eyes of his father by spending much time learning and studying Torah. Chazal tell us that kinas sofrim, coveting another’s Torah knowledge, is not only permissible but even praiseworthy.
Bearing the aforementioned Targum and Baal-Haturim in mind, it would seem that Yaakov’s extra love and affection for Yosef stemmed primarily from his love and knowledge of Torah. Thus Yaakov Avinu viewed his manifestation of particular affection towards Yosef as being merely an expression of pride in Yosef’s Torah greatness. Yaakov perhaps, even viewed it as an opportunity to encourage the brothers Torah growth by way of their coveting the respect Yosef earned from him (see Chassam-Soffer).
We don’t actually see anywhere that Yaakov paid any heed to Yosef’s slander of the brothers. Yosef was indeed a truly righteous brother who cared for his brothers’ spiritual well being, he merely misinterpreted some of his brothers’ acts (see Shelah).
The brothers knew of Yosef’s false accusations on them which he relayed to their father, they viewed him as a snitch trying to be holier than them in the eyes of Yaakov. They viewed Yaakov’s favoritism as Yosef’s success in doing so.
The brothers’ assessment of the situation was only natural, however to have prevented it would have required penetrating insight. The care one must take to assess and evaluate human compassion knows no end.
Yaakov sends Yosef to check on his brothers who were shepherding in Shechem.
Yosef reaches Shechem and finds to his dismay that his brothers have moved on. The Passuk tells us that a man saw Yosef and asked him what he is looking for. Yosef replies "I am seeking my 'brothers'". The man replies in a rather peculiar way, saying: "they have travelled from here”. It is only subsequently that he continues and tells Yosef where they went. It seems rather superfluous for the man to have said that the brothers moved on. Was it not rather obvious that if they were not in Shechem, they must have moved on? Furthermore, the word he uses to say that they moved on was נסעו מזה"” an unusual identifying object for a place.
Rashi comments that this man was Gavriel Hamalach, and what he was really trying to tell Yosef was: “your brothers have removed themselves from their brotherhood”. According to Rashi, Gavriel also advised Yosef as to the fact that the brothers wished to kill him.
The Sifsei-Chachamim seems to assume that the real give and take between Gavriel and Yosef was that Yosef had conveyed true brotherly concern for his brothers. Malach-Gavriel was trying to enlighten Yosef to the fact that his brothers not only didn't reciprocate this brotherly compassion towards Yosef, but rather that they loathed him so much so that they even wished to kill him.
From Rashi it would seem that Yosef had ample warning of his brother's evil plot. The obvious question is if so, why did Yosef put his life in peril? Why didn't Yosef heed the warning of Gavriel?
There is an idiom in Chazal that one who is in the midst of doing a Mitzva is protected from all bad. However, there is also a Halacha that one may not put his life in peril in order to fulfil a mitzvah. Therefore we must assume that Yosef knew he was obligated to protect himself although he was doing his father’s request. If so we ask again why did he not heed Gavriel's warning?
The Passuk tells us that Yosef said he was searching for his brothers; we can rightfully assume that Yosef really cared for his brothers. Yosef wasn't merely going to check up on his brothers out of duty to his father, but rather because he actually cared for them. Perhaps Yosef, out of sheer compassion and care wished to find out how his brothers were doing. Thus Yosef acting under love for his brothers was blinded as to their evil intentions even after being warned.
Yosef truly cared about his brothers. Because of his true and pure intent Hashem watched over him and prevented his death from occurring in the pit, as well as in the prison of Egypt.
This week’s Sedra opens with the words "וישב יעקב" – and Yaakov dwelled etc. Rashi tells us that Yaakov, after undergoing through all sorts of hardships (running away from Eisav, living with Lavan, meeting up with Eisav, and losing Rachel Imeinu) sought to finally settle down and to live in peace and tranquility (שלוה. = serenity, tranquility). Rashi explains that Hashem however, doesn’t necessarily grant Tzadikim to live in Shalva in this world as they are already assured of a Future Life (Olam Haboh) beyond belief. Rashi thus explains that it was for this reason that the whole story of the sale of Yosef took place – to highlight that seeming paradox.
While the word שלוה, as indicated, broadly connotes peace and tranquility, its more precise meaning is ‘harmony’. This quest for harmony was thus a most befitting one for Yaakov Avinu as this was also what he lacked most. There wasn’t any harmony for Yaakov Avinu with his brother Eisav Harasha, nor was there any harmony for Yaakov with his father-in-law Lavan. Yaakov Avinu had married two sisters and two concubines and they too were always competing, causing a further lack in harmony. These various family feuds and rifts caused Yaakov tremendous anguish. This anguish was something that impeded Yaakov Avinu’s ability to focus on Talmud Torah.
We read in the Kina on Tisha BeAv as well as the Piyut on Yom-Kipur of the עשרה הרוגי מלכות. Chazal have explained (as stated in these passages) that the עשרה הרוגי מלכות were a form of atonement for the sin of the sale of Yosef. Aside from any of the punishments meted out to the Shivtei Kah there is one particular punishment that stands out, that ultimately imposed upon Yehuda. Yehuda had convinced the rest of the brothers not to kill Yosef, but rather to sell him off as a slave. Since they didn’t actually kill Yosef but nevertheless wanted to permanently remove his presence from their family’s midst, the brothers had to convince Yaakov that Yosef had been irretrievably lost. They therefore took Yosef’s striped coat (given to him by his father), dipped it in blood, and showed it to Yaakov as evidence that Yosef had been killed. As the brothers showed their father the ‘evidence’ they asked him: “ הכר נא” – “please identify…” The Torah tells us that after Yaakov identified the coat and understood that Yosef had been trampled, he refused to be consoled, he couldn’t be comforted. The Torah tells us that all his sons and daughters tried all they could to do so, but to no avail.
It was following the events surrounding the sale of Yosef that Yehuda left his brothers. The Torah tells us that he married, had children, and then married off his eldest son. The latter died without having had children. Yehuda then gave the widow in marriage to his second son (Yibum), in essence having the second son assume the first son’s marriage for the purpose of assuring the continuity of the eldest’s lineage. The second son suffered the same fate as his older brother. Yehuda then asked his daughter-in-law, Tamar, to wait for his third son, Shelah, to reach marriageable age so that he in turn could perform Yibum. When Tamar saw that Shelah had matured without Yehuda fulfilling his promise, she took matters into her own hands. She disguised herself and lured Yehuda into being intimate with her. Yehuda, not having the money to pay this unknown woman for her services, left with her as security his staff and stamp-and-seal set. As it turned out, Tamar became pregnant from the encounter, and the news then reached Yehuda that his daughter-in-law had acted immorally and was expecting. Yehuda ordered that she be put to death, whereupon Tamar sent Yehuda the staff, stamp, and seals, and said: הכר נא"“– “please identify to whom these objects belong because it was from the owner of these items that I conceived.” Chazal explain that since Yehuda caused pain to Yaakov through the הכר נא of Yosef, Yehuda ultimately received extremely harsh rebuke in the same words הכר נא – “please identify”.
What was different about Yehuda, why did Yehuda get his own private rebuke for Mechiras Yosef? Didn’t all the brothers take part in Mechiras Yosef?
Yehuda was in a way was the main instigator for lashing out at Yosef. Yosef had shared with his brothers his dreams that etched out very clearly that he (Yosef) would receive the Melucha. The Melucha had been something that was destined for Yehuda. Had Yehuda said “my Kavod isn’t worth my foregoing the Melucha”, or “my Kavod and my Melucha aren’t worth us causing Yaakov Avinu so much anguish,” the brothers in all likelihood would not have acted as they did. We see clearly from the story that Yehuda had enough clout to convince the brothers not to kill Yosef but to sell him.
Family strife and causing anguish to a parent isn’t worth all the Kavod in the world. No matter how right Yehuda or the brothers might have been in their decision to persecute Yosef – there was no excuse for the suffering they caused their father, nor for the strife they provoked within the family.
Yehuda was thus punished separately for his father’s anguish.
Families must always come first, and parents must always come before all.
Among the many episodes in this week's Sedra is the story of Yosef and Potiphar's wife. The Torah tells us that Potiphar's wife incessantly tried to seduce Yosef. The latter just as persistently refused her advances. Despite Yosef’s daily rebuffs, she would not relent. Finally, one day came when everyone was out of the house so that Potiphar’s wife and Yosef happened to find themselves alone with each other. The Torah tells us that Yosef had come to the house to do his מלאכה – his work. The Gemorah discusses whether Melacha in this context means work, or whether it means that Yosef came in with the intention of yielding to the temptation. The story ends with Yosef abandoning his coat in Potiphar’s wife’s hands – the end result of her failed attempt to prevent his escape. as she was trying to prevent him from fleeing her advances. She then spreads the word that Yosef tried to assault her.
Whether or not Yosef came with the intent to give in to temptation, it seems that he definitely ended up coming close to succumbing. How was Yosef Hatzadik actually able to pull himself out at the last moment?
Chazal tell us that as Yosef was about to succumb to temptation (Sota and Medrash) the image of his father appeared to him and told him: “Yosef if you sin you will lose your place as one of the Shivtei Kah” (twelve tribes). Upon seeing and hearing this, Yosef pulled back and stopped himself. While this little anecdote answers our question it leaves us wondering: why is it that we don't see such images before we succumb to sin?
When we examine this incident more closely we see a very interesting aspect. Potiphar's wife had been trying to seduce Yosef for quite some time – as the Torah states ‘Yom-Yom’ (on a daily basis). The Torah tells us that she even tried to entice him simply to engage in conversation and that to that as well he replied in the negative. The Torah informs us that Yosef told her that it wouldn't be ethical for him to cheat with his master's wife. Yosef Hatzadik went further, however, and added that even by socializing with her he would also be sinning to Hashem. By speaking thus, Yosef placed the focus solely on himself: he didn’t say that it would be a sin to Hashem, but rather “I will be sinning to Hashem”.
The Kol Simcha explains that the very manner in which Yosef said that it would be a sin indicated that he didn't want to associate himself with her by implying that they would be sinning together.
Chazal tell us בדרך שאדם רוצה לילך מוליכין אותו – a person is led in the direction in which he wishes to go. Chazal explain that if one wishes to sin, Hashem makes it all that easier to sin, while if one wishes to do what is right and abstain from sin, Hashem helps him to stay on the right path and to be good. Yosef Hatzadik found himself facing an incredibly hard Nisayon, and his initial reaction was to do everything he could to distance himself from it. Despite enormous and persistent efforts to resist, he finally found himself trapped at the Nisayon’s most intense, and without Hashem's Divine intervention he would have given in. However, as Yosef Hatzadik had made it abundantly clear that he truly wished not to sin, Hashem intervened and prevented him from sinning אלמלא הקב"ה עוזרו לא היה יכול לו.
We live in a world in which our evil inclination entices us to give in – not just here and there, but on constant, continuous basis. Ultimately, without Syata Dishmaya it would be impossible not to give in. If, however, if we remind ourselves of what is at stake and make it clear that our allegiance is to doing Retzon Hashem, we will then surely obtain Divine intervention and inspiration.
This week's Haftorah is from Amos. The reason it was chosen to be the Haftorah of Parshas Vayeshev is simple: the Navi transmits Hashem’s declaration that he will not forgive the sin of selling a Tzadik for a pair of shoes. This is understood by the Meforshim as a reference to the sale of Yosef by his brothers, hence as a clear reference to an episode in our Parsha. How do we understand this Nevua? It was wrong for Yosef's brothers to have sold him. Was it so serious of an offense that Hashem should still be unwilling to pardon it?
The story of Mechiras Yosef was tragic, but in the end everything worked out well. It seems ironic that a story we view as in the end being resolved for the good should be davka the one thing Hashem harbors against us. On Yom-Kipur and Tisha B'Av we say Kinos for the Ten Martyrs who, according to Midrash, were supposed to atone for the brothers’ sale of Yosef. What was so grave with the sale of Yosef that this incident is still considered to be one of the biggest stains in our history?
Perhaps we are looking at it from the wrong angle. Mechiras Yosef was a horrible act, yet since in the end it was resolved for the good, it was perhaps not so serious in the larger historical context. In general we tend to allow history to define, and even dictate, right from wrong. And Mechiras Yosef historically turned out decently.
The Haftorah tells us unequivocally that Hashem is hasn't forgotten even though it ended up ok. The navi is essentially telling us that the end will never justify the means – even if wrong deeds end up for the good.