Vayeshev

The Talmud states (Shabbat 23a), “Rav Kahana said Rav Natan bar Minyuma expounded in the name of Rav Tanchum; What does the verse mean ‘The pit was empty, there was no water in it’? If the pit was empty, isn’t it obvious that it doesn’t have water? Rather, the verse teaches us that the pit contained no water, but had snakes and scorpions instead.”1 Yosef’s brothers didn’t want to kill him directly. They had judged him deserving of death for his rebellion against the kingship of Yehuda, yet they were unable to actually shed the blood of their baby brother. Therefore,they threw him into a pit full of venomous snakes and scorpions in order to kill him. Yet miraculously Yosef escaped unharmed; G-d prevented the reptiles from biting him. Why is this miracle not mentioned explicitly in the Torah? Surely something as extraordinary, and important for the future, as an escape from death by the father of two tribes should be stated openly, rather than just alluded to.

To answer this we have to find out the nature of miracles in general. Surely if G-d created the entire universe, then the mere fact that gravity remains constant, or that DNA replicates itself correctly, is as much an act of G-d as the splitting of the Red Sea, or manna falling form heaven. Yet we find that Judaism recognises ‘miraculous’ miracles as important. For example, there is a blessing to make upon seeing the site where a miracle happened for our ancestors. And the Torah states several times “Remember this miracle that occurred”.

G-d doesn’t perform miracles to ‘show off’; He doesn’t do ‘magic tricks’. In fact, praising G-d for performing a special action which goes against the natural order is an insult to Him. It is like describing a multi-billionaire as having at least a couple of pounds. In other words, it is totally demeaning. To say how wonderful G-d is for changing nature occasionally, when He is the one who keeps everything going constantly, is not praising but limiting.

In fact the question is even stronger. Why should we praise G-d for miraculously saving us, when He is the one who put us in the predicament in the first place? In our case, wouldn’t it have been better if G-d had never created poisonous reptiles, rather than having to perform a miracle to save us from them?

The answer to these questions is that a miracle is meant as a wake up call. Sometimes we forget about G-d and about our purpose in life. Though we thank G-d every day for all the things He has given us, most importantly life itself, we can begin to take these things for granted. When that happens we need a reminder; G-d puts us in a position where we can clearly see His hand in our lives. Each of us has had times when we could clearly see G-d intervening for us. Often we can utilise this to strengthen our relationship with the Creator. A miracle is a sign where G-d says to us “Here I am”. This is why the Hebrew word for miracle, ‘ness’, also means ‘flag’. A miracle is a proclamation to the world.

It is to our benefit, not G-d’s, that we remember the miracles that He has done for us; what we learn from them and how they affect our lives. Therefore the miracle of Yosef being saved from the snakes and scorpions is not recorded by the Torah because the brothers didn’t learn from it. Instead of realising that G-d was vindicating Yosef from the crime with which he was charged, they sold him into slavery. Since they were unable to learn from this miracle, it is not appropriate to record it in the Torah.

Perhaps this is the reason that the preceding statement of the Talmud that we quoted above is “Rav Kahana said Rav Natan bar Minyuma expounded in the name of Rav Tanchum; A Chanukah candle that is placed higher than twenty amot (cubits) is invalid”. The purpose of the celebration of Chanukah, and the lighting of the candles, is not only to brighten mid winter. It is to remind us of the miracle that G-d performed in the time of the Maccabees, and the reason He let the Greeks defile the Temple and persecute the Jews before He miraculously saved us. A Chanukiah placed higher than twenty amot is too far removed from us. It is not a reminder that we can learn from, therefore it becomes just another light in the dark.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Yehuda’s behaviour in the incident of Tamar is in stark contrast to Yosef’s reaction to the temptations of Potiphar’s wife. Yehuda becomes enticed by his daughter-in-law, thinking that she is a prostitute; he sleeps with her and she conceives twins. Not knowing that he is the cause of her pregnancy, Yehuda orders that Tamar be put to death. However, at the final moment he acknowledges Tamar’s righteousness and accepts responsibility for his actions. He thus becomes the paradigm of a Ba’al Teshuva, one who repents their former actions. In actuality, his ability to admit when he is wrong is implied in his very name; Yehuda comes from the root “lehodot”, “to admit”.

Yosef, on the other hand, is subjected to many temptations from Potiphar’s wife, yet overcomes them all. The Talmud explains “Every single day, he was approached by Potiphar’s wife, who tried to seduce him, changing her clothes from morning to evening. When she begged him to consent to her, he refused. When she threatened to lock him in prison, he replied “G-d loosens the bound”… She tried to bribe him with a thousand talents of silver, but still he would not come to her...” (Yoma 35b). Yet despite the fact that Yehuda succumbs to temptation, whereas Yosef overcomes it, Yehuda is the one chosen to be the father of kings. His two sons with Tamar, Peretz and Zerach, are the progenitors of kings and prophets.

Not only does Yehuda fail the test of sexual temptation, but it appears that this is also part of the legacy that he passes on to his descendants. The two greatest kings of Israel, David and Solomon, are both from Yehuda, and both fail the test when encountering women who are forbidden to them. Though David sins with Bat-Sheva, and Solomon with Pharaoh’s daughter, they are still held up as the paradigms of what a Jewish king is supposed to be.

The only king who is not from Yehuda is Shaul. He is from the tribe of Binyamin, genetically the closest tribe to Yosef. His downfall is not that he succumbs to temptation, but that he is unable to admit when he has made a mistake. Though his sin is almost trivial, offering a sacrifice a few moments before he has been instructed to, his inability to recognise his mistake causes him to lose the line of kingship.
Yehuda’s son from whom the kings are descended is Peretz, which means literally “breaking forth”. This is a hint to the Talmudic dictum that “HaMelech Poretz Geder”, “The king is permitted to break through boundaries (as he goes out to war)” (Pesachim 110a). Though this refers primarily to the physical walls that the king and his army may break through as they go out to battle, it is also true spiritually.

The Talmud says (Brachot 34b) “The place where Ba’alei Teshuva stand is a place where the completely righteous are unable to stand”. Elsewhere (Yoma 86b) the Talmud states “How great is Teshuva (repentance), that [through it] wilful sins are transformed into merits”. The simple explanation is that the efforts that one used to sin have now been channelled into the service of G-d, therefore the actions performed were the catalyst for a closer relationship with G-d and are therefore counted as Mitzvoth.

Though sinning takes a person further away from G-d, through Teshuva they can reach even greater closeness to Him, and therefore they stand before G-d in a place where someone who has never sinned is unable to stand.

Similarly, the king breaks down fences and boundaries. The family of Yehuda, who though their sin are able to repent and do Teshuva, are able to serve G-d in ways that Yosef, and other completely righteous people, are unable to do. They create new ways of serving G-d, though their actions are wrong. This is why the kings of Israel are all descended from Yehuda; they are able to exist in the real world. Though they are tempted, and often fail the tests which they are confronted with, they are able to admit their mistakes and repent. A king who is always right, and unable to see his own faults however slight they may be, cannot relate to the people whom he is ruling, and is similarly limited in his relationship with G-d.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

“Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flocks in Shechem” (Genesis 37; 12). In view of the brothers’ attack against Shechem (ch. 34) it seems strange that they would chose to return there, particularly as immediately after the incident Ya’akov was terrified of the threat from the surrounding cities (“Ya’akov said to Shimon and Levi, ‘You have disgraced me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanite and among the Perizzite; I am few in number and should they band together and attack me, I will be annihilated - I and my household” v. 30).

It seems that Shechem was a place set aside for trouble and creating schism within the Jewish nation, as Rashi says, it was a place set aside for tragedies. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 102a) tells us, “In Shechem Dina was raped, in Shechem the brothers sold Yosef and in Shechem the kingdom was divided (in the days of Rechavam and Yeravam)”. Thus it seems ironic Ya’akov promises Yosef this place, as stated in the verse, “As for me, I have given you Shechem - (one portion) more than your brothers...” (48; 22).

The town of Shechem is named for Shechem, whose father, Chamor, built the city. Shechem raped Ya’akov’s daughter Dina, then tried to marry her. Reading between the lines of the Chumash we see Shechem as the classic spoilt child. Everything that he has ever wanted has been given to him, even the town in which he lives was built only for his sake. All his life he has received everything that he has asked for, no matter how unreasonable.

This explains how he had the chutzpa to go back to Ya’akov after raping his daughter, and ask to marry her. He has no concern for the feelings of Ya’akov and his family, his only interest is in how much it will cost him in dowry to procure Dina as his wife.
This selfishness and egocentrism became infused in the town of Shechem. The meaning of the word Shechem is ‘portion’, indicating selfishness and schism. Rashi comments that in the Torah scroll there are dots over the word es in verse 12, which teaches us that they went to Shechem not to look after the flocks, but to look after their own interests. If they have gone to Shechem they must be only interested in themselves, rather than the good of their family.

The name Yosef has a dual meaning. When his mother named him she said, “G-d has gathered up (Asaf) my disgrace, so she called his name Yosef, saying, ‘May G-d add on (Yosef) for me another son’” (30; 24). Thus the name means both gathering, and adding. This explains the duality of Yosef’s nature. On the one hand he seems to be ‘adding on’ to the work that his father has done, as an extension of Ya’akov, as our portion states at the beginning, “These are the chronicles of Ya’akov - Yosef...” (37; 2). This is also clear from the verse in Ovadia (1; 18), “The house of Ya’akov will be a fire, and the house of Yosef a flame...”. Yosef has the power to kindle and bring to life the spark of Ya’akov. The Midrash (Bereishis Rabba 84; 6) goes even further: “Ya’akov and Yosef had the same appearance … and similar histories. Both had barren mothers, both were one of two children, both were considered the ‘first born’, both were hated by their brothers, both were victims of attempted fratricide, both left the Land of Israel...”. Not only is Yosef the extension of Ya’akov, but in many respects they lived the same life.

However, it is precisely this part of his nature which led his brothers to try to kill him, as the Talmud (Shabbos 10b) states, “For the sake of two selahs worth of material (paid by Ya’akov for the coat of Yosef) our fathers went down to Egypt”. Ya’akov showed favouritism to Yosef, and saw in him his own future, causing the brothers to became jealous and want to kill Yosef. This is what brought them to the divisiveness of Shechem in the first place.

Yosef also means to gather, and it is he, more than any of the other brothers, who has the ability to unite the entire nation. He orchestrates the eventual reunification of the entire family in the land of Egypt. And in the future the Messiah descended from Yosef will unite the nation and pave the way for the coming of the Davidic Messiah. It is Yosef who has the vision and ability to bring all the other brothers together to a single purpose (“Your sheaves gathered around and bowed down to my sheaf” Genesis 37; 7). This is why Ya’akov gave Shechem to Yosef, for it is he who is able to take the divisiveness of egocentrism and channel it towards the single purpose (Shechem echad) of service of G-d.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Yosef is described in our Torah portion as ‘the dreamer’ (Genesis 37; 19). This is clearly a reference to his two dreams which he described to his father and brothers, in which they symbolically became subservient to him. Thus dreams were the cause of the brothers’ jealousy of Yosef, and the reason for his sale into slavery. Yet it was also because of dreams that Yosef was freed from jail and elevated to become the viceroy of Egypt. The end of our portion describes the dreams of Pharaoh’s butler and the baker. Yosef is able to interpret these dreams correctly. Then the opening of next week’s portion describes Pharaoh’s dream of the impending fat and lean years. Yosef is let out of jail and through his interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream he becomes second in command over all of Egypt. Thus the fulfilment of Yosef’s dream comes about through the dreams of others. It thus seems that the appellation ‘the dreamer’ is an appropriate one.

Being the dreamer gives Yosef a close link with his father, Ya’akov, who is also famous for his dream. When he fled from his brother Esav, Ya’akov had the famous dream about the angels going up and down the ladder, and he saw G-d standing over him. That event changed his life, and as a result of that dream, he began his transformation from Ya’akov, who stole the blessings, to Yisrael, who rightfully earned those blessings. In this light we can interpret the opening of our portion, “These are the descendants of Ya’akov, Yosef...” (ibid. 2). Though he had twelve sons, it was Yosef the dreamer who was the continuation of the dream of Ya’akov.

The Torah explains Ya’akov’s favouritism towards Yosef “because he was the child of his old age (ben zikunim)” (ibid.). This phrase demands interpretation, since it was Binyamin, not Yosef who was Ya’akov’s youngest child. Therefore Rashi explains, based on Onkelos’ commentary, that the phrase ben zikunim can be interpreted as ‘child of wisdom’. This means that Ya’akov passed on to Yosef the Torah that he had learnt from the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever (where he went for 22 years before going to live with Lavan - see Rashi to 28; 9). Obviously growing up in the home of Yitzchak and Avraham, Ya’akov had learnt Torah all his life, but there seems to be something unique about the Torah of Shem and Ever which enables a person to become a dreamer. Before Ya’akov’s dream the Torah tells us “he slept there” upon which Rashi comments that “he slept there, but for the preceding 22 years in the Yeshiva of Ever he had not slept at night”. Similarly with Yosef, two verses after stating that Ya’akov taught him the Torah of Shem and Ever we read of his dream.

However, there is a fundamental difference between the dream of Ya’akov and the dreams of Yosef. Ya’akov dreamt of the world-to-come, where G-d is perceived as ‘standing over him’. The Midrash explains the angels climbing up the ladder in terms of each nation’s ascendance to world domination, then their subsequent downfall.

Yosef’s dreams, and those he interprets, all deal with the physical world, and were fulfilled in the space of a relatively few years. Ya’akov, as the last ‘patriarch’ of the Jewish nation dreamed of the history of the world, and the role of the Jews in it. Yosef dreamt of himself, and the people and nations surrounding him. Ya’akov’s dream occurred in the ‘house of G-d’, the future site of the Temple, and contained no falsehood. Yosef’s dream did not take place in such a grand location, and did contain certain elements that were not entirely true.

The Talmud (Chagiga 5b) states: G-d said, ‘Even though I have hidden My face from the world, through dreams I will communicate’. We could describe Jewish history since the destruction of the Temple as taking place in a dream. Without the Temple and prophecy we lack a direct avenue of communication with G-d. Therefore we live in the ‘night’ of a dreamworld. The first festival which commemorates exile and G-d being hidden is Purim, when the name of the heroine, Ester, means ‘hidden’. G-d’s name does not appear anywhere in the text of the Megillah, and we see throughout the story the hidden hand of G-d. However, the next historical festival, Chanukah is even more dreamlike. Not only does G-d’s name not occur, but there is no direct mention of the festival or laws in any of the books of the Bible. The story itself is hidden and confused in the strands of history.

Yet Chanukah also provides us with the light to survive the darkness of exile. With the light of the Chanukah miracle we are able to at least glimpse the path that will lead is through our dreamlike existence in exile, and show us the way to the ultimate light of the Messianic era. As a nation we must undergo the trials and tribulations of Yosef’s dreams until ultimately we arrive at the revelation of Ya’akov’s dream, when the whole world will perceive G-d standing over, and everyone will exclaim that “this is none other than the house of G-d”.