Parshat Vayeshev 5780

This week’s Torah portion relates the events leading up to Yosef becoming the Viceroy of Egypt.

HaShem told Avraham Avinu in the “ברית בין הבתרים”, The Covenant Between The Parts, that his children would be slaves in a foreign land for 400 years. The kernel of the Jewish nation needed to spend time on foreign soil to become refined and amalgamated into the people that would receive the Torah and be the focal point of the world. The “count” began with Yitzchak’s birth, and it was now 168 years later. The time had come for this decree’s fulfillment. The place selected for this exile was Egypt, and somehow Yaakov and his family needed to relocate there to begin the process.

The Midrash tell us:

מדרש תהלים מזמור קה

“אמר רבי יהודה בר נחמן בשם רבי שמעון בן לקיש: ראוי היה יעקב לירד למצרים בשלשלאות של ברזל ובקולרין, ועשה לו הקב”ה כמה עלילות וכמה מנגנאות ונמכר יוסף למצרים כדי לירד. ויהי רעב על הארץ, וכל כך למה, (שם מו, ו) “ויבא יעקב מצרימה”. אמר ר’ פנחס הכהן בר חמא, משל לפרה אחת שהיו רוצין למשוך אותה למקולין שלה ולא היתה נמשכת. מה עשו, משכו בנה תחלה והיתה רצה אחריו. כך עשה הקב”ה מנגנאות, שעשו אחי יוסף כל אותן הדברים כדי שירדו למצרים גם כן כדי שירד גם יעקב, שנאמר (הושע יא, ד) “בחבלי אדם אמשכם”.

“Rabbi Yehudah son of Nachman said in the name of Reish Lakish: Yaakov should have been taken down to Egypt in iron chains, but HaShem made different intrigues and contrivances so that he would go with dignity. Yosef was sold to Egypt, and then there was a famine in the Land [of Israel]. Rabbi Pinchas HaKohen said: It’s like the cow that would not go to slaughter. They led its son in front of it and it came running. Similarly, HaShem made the contrivance of having Yosef’s brothers do what they did, so that Yaakov would go down to Egypt.”

Viewing the saga of Yosef and his brothers from this Midrashic perspective, that Yosef was merely a pawn to bring Yaakov down to Egypt, provides us with a profound insight into Jewish history. We learn that seemingly independent actions that people take and decisions that they make are all part of HaShem’s master plan. The brothers did what they thought was correct and proper in their situation, which brought forth the fruition of HaShem’s plan. Yosef, the victim, himself expressed this very idea upon revealing himself to his brothers when he told them (Genesis 45:5),

“וְעַתָּה אַל תֵּעָצְבוּ וְאַל יִחַר בְּעֵינֵיכֶם כִּי מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי הֵנָּה כִּי לְמִחְיָה שְׁלָחַנִי אֱלֹהִים לִפְנֵיכֶם”

“And now, do not be upset nor reproach yourselves for having sold me here, for it was to be a provider that HaShem has sent me ahead of you.”

A greater purpose was at play here, and you, my brothers, were simply playing a role, the pawns, so to speak, in the process that would bring forth HaShem’s master plan of providing food for you and our family. Yosef could not yet see the end of the story, but he explained the events invoking this same idea.

Our Sages teach us that Yosef was on such a high spiritual level that he was able to discern HaShem’s guiding hand in everything that happened to him. Seeing HaShem and staying connected to Him was Yosef’s modus operandi and is what sustained him in the godless country Egypt during his twenty-two year exile from his holy father and family.

The lesson began with how Yosef found his brothers. Yaakov had sent him to Shechem to check up on his brothers, who were shepherding the sheep, and bring back a report. They had, however, by then left Shechem and Yosef was at a loss to find them. Then, (37:15):

“וַיִּמְצָאֵהוּ אִישׁ וְהִנֵּה תֹעֶה בַּשָּׂדֶה וַיִּשְׁאָלֵהוּ הָאִישׁ לֵאמֹר מַה תְּבַקֵּשׁ”

“A man discovered him and behold! He was wandering in the field; the man asked him, saying, “What do you seek?’”

Yosef told the man that he was looking for his brothers. When the man told him that he overheard them saying that they were going to Dotan, Yosef went there and found them.

Who was this “man” who happened to be in the right place at the right time and knew the exact information that Yosef needed? Rashi quotes the Midrash, which tells us it was the angel Gavriel. HaShem had planted him there to send Yosef into the lion’s mouth, into the hands of his plotting brothers. Yosef, of course, realized that this had to be HaShem’s will. Even though he didn’t realize that his interlocuter was an angel, he certainly realized that the chances of meeting someone who could help him find his brothers were extremely rare. Hence, this was obviously guided by HaShem, so Yosef put his full trust in HaShem and relied on Him completely.

When the brothers threw Yosef into the pit, the Torah says (37:24).

“וַיִּקָּחֻהוּ וַיַּשְׁלִכוּ אֹתוֹ הַבֹּרָה וְהַבּוֹר רֵק אֵין בּוֹ מָיִם”

“And they took him and cast him into a pit. And the pit was empty, there was no water in it.”

The Talmud inquires after the redundancy. If the pit was empty, why does it say “There was no water in it?” Doesn’t empty mean nothing in it at all? No, the Talmud answers. Empty in this case means empty of water; but there were many other things in it, such as snakes and scorpions.

Can you imagine being thrown into a pit where you are lunch for snakes and scorpions? How terrifying! But Yosef survived without sustaining a single bite. Yosef realized that HaShem was right down there with him in the bottom of the pit keeping the snakes and scorpions at bay.

A man once approached a rabbi and begged him to speak to his drug-addicted son who had tried to kill himself three times. The rabbi asked, “What can I say to your son that will make a difference to him?” The father pleaded with the rabbi to please try anyway, that maybe something will come to him. The rabbi didn’t know what he would say, but, after much pestering, he agreed.

He told the young man, “You know, HaShem loves you!” Enraged by the rabbi’s words, the son retorted, “Look at me! I am a drug addict and live a miserable life. You have the gall to tell me that HaShem loves me? Is this how you treat someone you love!?

The rabbi responded, “I’ll prove it to you. Look! Here you tried to kill yourself three times, and you weren’t successful. Obviously, HaShem has a need for you, or you wouldn’t be here.” The boy couldn’t deny the wisdom of the rabbi’s words and turned his life around.

After fetching Yosef from the pit, his brothers sold him to a caravan of Yishmaelim who were transporting spices, balsam, and ladanum, which threw Yosef into an even deeper turmoil. In the pit, at least, a chance passer-by might rescue him. Indeed, Reuven had actually intended to retrieve him after the other brothers had left. But his having been sold to a caravan of Yishmaelim, who knows where he would end up? As a slave in someone’s house who knows where, what could possibly be the chances of ever reuniting with his father?

But when Yosef smelled the caravan’s spices, he realized that HaShem was with him there, too. Usually, Yishmaelim carry petroleum and smelly tar, yet this transport was hauling sweet-smelling spices! How unusual! “HaShem is sending me a signal that he is here with me as well, and I will be okay.”

Remaining deeply connected to HaShem even in the most difficult times was the source of Yosef’s success in everything that he did. Yosef also merited that through HaShem’s connection to him, others saw and recognized the reality of HaShem.

The Midrash (Tanchuma, Vayeshev 8) on the verse (39:3) informs us:

“וַיַּרְא אֲדֹנָיו כִּי ה’ אִתּוֹ וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר הוּא עֹשֶׂה ה’ מַצְלִיחַ בְּיָדוֹ”

“His master saw that HaShem was with him, and whatever he did HaShem made succeed in his hand,”

“וַיַּרְא אֲדֹנָיו כִּי ה’ אִתּוֹ וגו'”: וכי פוטיפר רשע היה רואה שהקב”ה עמו ומה הוא כי ה’ אתו? אלא שלא היה שמו של הקב”ה זז מפיו! היה נכנס לשמשו והוא היה מלחש ואומר רבון העולם אתה הוא בטחוני אתה הוא פטרוני תנני לחן ולחסד ולרחמים בעיניך ובעיני כל רואי ובעיני פוטיפר אדוני ופוטיפר אומר לו מה אתה מלחש שמא כשפים אתה עושה לי והוא משיבו לא אלא אני מתפלל שאמצא חן בעיניך”

“How could Potifar, an evil man, see HaShem with Yosef? He saw that HaShem’s name never left Yosef’s lips. When Yosef entered to serve him, he would mumble and say, “HaShem, You are all I have to depend on, please let me find favor in the eyes of my master.” Once, Potifar asked him, “What are you saying? Are you mumbling witchcraft on me?” Yosef answered, “I am praying to find favor in your eyes.”

Because Yosef was always connected to HaShem, he credited HaShem for all of his successes. We see this in every one of the Torah’s quotations of Yosef.

As the prison warden, Yosef noticed the concerned and depressed looks on the faces of two of the other prisoners, Pharaoh’s chamberlains, the cup bearer and the baker. When they told him of their disconcerting dreams, Yosef’s response was (40:8):

“וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם יוֹסֵף, “הֲלוֹא לֵאלֹהִים פִּתְרֹנִים! סַפְּרוּ נָא לִי”

And he said to them, “Do not interpretations belong to HaShem? Relate it to me if you please.”

When, later, Pharaoh had two consecutive dreams that none of his wise men or advisors could satisfactorily interpret, the cup bearer remembered that Yosef had perfectly interpreted his and the baker’s dreams. He told Pharaoh that events had transpired exactly as Yosef had predicted: Three days after the dreams, Pharaoh restored the cup bearer to his former position, and the baker was killed. Yosef had asked cup bearer to tell Pharaoh that he was in prison for no crime, but upon achieving his freedom, he promptly forgot. Pharaoh’s dreams reminded him of Yosef.

Two years passed, and Yosef saw no end to his imprisonment. Suddenly, he was fetched from his cell, cleaned up, given a shave and suitable clothing, and was whisked before the king, who needed him to interpret his dreams. The chamberlain had finally came through. Under these circumstances, one would think that Yosef would want to impress the king with his great wisdom and ability, but when the king said to Yosef, “I hear that you know how to interpret dreams,” Yosef responded (45:16) with,

“וַיַּעַן יוֹסֵף אֶת פַּרְעֹה לֵאמֹר בִּלְעָדָי; אֱלֹהִים יַעֲנֶה אֶת שְׁלוֹם פַּרְעֹה”

“And Yosef answered Pharaoh saying, “It has nothing to do with me; HaShem will answer Pharaoh’s need.”

In front of Pharaoh, who had made a deity of himself, Yosef deflected all of the attention from himself to HaShem, using the opportunity to explain that despite his being under Pharaoh’s jurisdiction and control, Yosef believes in HaShem. That takes guts, or piety. Yet for Yosef, who lived with HaShem, there was no other way. This was the reality –HaShem does it all.

This is a very powerful lesson. Yosef maintained his deep connection to HaShem through the darkest of times because he understood that what was happening to him was part of a much greater picture.

The Chofetz Chaim (d. 1933) would give the following parable to illustrate the concept.

One Shabbat morning after services, a visitor approached the Gabbai (the person who decides who gets called to the Torah and in which position) and asked him the following question:

“I noticed that when you call people to the Torah you have no system. You call up men seemingly randomly from different places throughout the Shul. Why don’t you go in order of how they sit so that every man will get called the same number of times throughout the year?”

The Gabbai answered, “Please understand that you are a guest here and so you don’t see the whole picture. Each person whom I called this morning had a specific reason why he needed to get called to the Torah. One had Yahrzeit, the other one had a Simchah, etc. If you would be here for a whole year you would see how, through the course of the year, everyone gets called to the Torah.”

Similarly, we come to this world for roughly 70-80 years and we want to understand how HaShem operates it. Why are missiles falling on Israel? Why is this person suffering? Why did this happen or that? The questions have no end. But we are only seeing a small part of the picture. HaShem’s calculations began at the beginning of time and continue until the end of time. He is placing each piece of the puzzle in its proper place to complete the picture. As with all puzzles, many pieces look weird or have no discernable image on them; but when put into their proper spots in the puzzle, not only do they take on meaning, but they also complete the picture for the other often unidentifiable puzzle pieces.

An adherent of the Berdichever Rebbe was having a very difficult time dealing with tragic events that were happening that made no sense to him. Through his spiritual intuition (רוח הקודש), the Rebbe told his adherent to go to a specific meadow at the edge of town and to hide behind the large tree there and report back to him what he saw.

After waiting behind the tree for a few hours, the fellow heard the hoofs of a horse galloping. He located the source of the noise and soon saw a nobleman riding a horse coming down a path. Suddenly, the nobleman stopped his horse, dismounted and bent over to take a drink from a stream that ran close to the path at that point. After the nobleman left, the fellow noticed a white money sack filled with coins on the ground where the nobleman had bent over to drink. It had apparently fallen out of his cloak as he drank the water.

A short time later, the fellow once again heard the sounds of a galloping horse coming down the path. This rider, a simple man, also noticed the stream close to the bank and stopped his horse in the same spot for a drink. As he dismounted, he discovered the sack of coins sitting on the ground. He looked all around and after seeing that nobody was around to claim it, he took it and left.

A short time later a third horseman came down the same path and stopped for a drink at the same spot. As he was drinking, the sound of hoofs coming from the other direction could be heard. It was the nobleman who had by then discovered that his precious money was missing and realized that he lost it when he took his drink. He was returning to reclaim it when he found the third man taking his drink from the stream. Assuming that this was the first person to visit that same spot and, with the money gone, deciding further that this person must have taken it, the nobleman shouted,

Where is my money?!!!”

“I don’t know what you are talking about? What money?” said the hapless man.

“The sack that was here on the ground when you came. I lost it! What did you do with it? Give it back to me, it is mine!!” exclaimed the nobleman.

“There was no sack here when I came, I don’t know what you are talking about.” said the fellow.

At this point the nobleman accused the man of being a liar and started beating him to coerce him to return the sack of money. When a substantial beating did not bring forth an admission, the nobleman realized that he must be telling the truth and left him alone, leaving without his money.

The adherent watched as the poor beaten man, who had no clue what had just happened to him, pulled himself together, got on his horse, and rode away.

After seeing what he was sure the Rebbe wanted him to see, he went directly to the Rebbe to give his report.

After relating the events as they transpired, the Rebbe asked him, “Nu, so what did you learn?”

“I have no clue what that was about,” responded the adherent.

“Let me explain,” said the Rebbe. “In a previous life, the nobleman was the business partner of the second fellow and had swindled him out of a lot of money. The money had to go back from the thief to the proper owner. That is the reason the nobleman lost the money and the other fellow found it. The nobleman owed it to him.

“But what about the third fellow?” asked the adherent. “Why did he get the beating? He was just an innocent person in the wrong place at the wrong time?”

“He was the crooked judge that decided the case in favor of the nobleman. He deserved the beating he got,” answered the Rebbe. “You see, HaShem is keeping track of all of man’s actions and dealing with them for generations and generations. We cannot know His calculations, what caused what to happen, or what results our actions will trigger. These matters may span many generations, and are beyond the scope of a human being to comprehend. What we do know is that we can trust HaShem, knowing that everything that He does is for our benefit and is perfect.”

Returning to the puzzle metaphor: What picture is displayed on the box of the puzzle that HaShem is completing? What will the completed image look like?

It will, so to speak, be a picture of HaShem. Not that HaShem has an image that we can perceive, but in our mind’s eye we will see that there is no other force or source in the world other than HaShem. We will recognize with complete clarity that only HaShem is real, and that, without Him, nothing else can exist.

This is what we mean when we say (Zechariah 14:9) in our prayers,

“וְהָיָה ה’ לְמֶלֶךְ עַל כָּל הָאָרֶץ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא יִהְיֶה ה’ אֶחָד וּשְׁמוֹ אֶחָד”

“And HaShem will be the king of the whole world, on that day, HaShem and His name will be one”

On that day refers to the day that Mashiach comes. Then, the entire world will recognize HaShem as the only one G-d over the entire creation.

The Chofetz Chaim draws another parallel from the story of Yosef to the time Mashiach will come.

When the brothers came down to Egypt to purchase food during the seven years of famine, they encountered nothing but trouble from the viceroy (Yosef) who accused them of being spies. Yosef recognized them and gave them problems at every turn. The climax came when Binyamin was found with the viceroy’s personal goblet in his saddle bag, the consequences of which were that he would have to be a slave to the viceroy, never to return to his father, something that was unthinkable. With Yosef, the other son of Rachel, assumed dead, Binyamin was all that Yaakov had left from his beloved wife, Rachel. If the brothers returned without him, Yaakov was sure to die of grief.

At this point, the Midrash tells us that Yehudah and the brothers threatened to tear Egypt apart if they don’t get Binyamin back. Seeing his brothers go to bat so valiantly for their brother Binyamin brought tears to Yosef’s eyes, whereupon he broke down and revealed his true identity to his brothers. His revelation comprised only two words – “אֲנִי יוֹסֵף”, “I am Yosef!” With these two words, in one second, the brothers understood the reason behind all of their trials and tribulations. Everything fell into place for them about how Yosef had dealt with them, and all of their questions were answered.

Similarly, when Mashiach comes, and HaShem reveals Himself to the world, saying “I am HaShem!”, we will all understand in retrospect how everything that HaShem did, including the difficult times, was a positive and essential step necessary to bring the Mashiach.

When we are in the process, we cannot see the role each event is playing and how it affects the outcome. But after the Mashiach comes, we will understand it, perfectly. May we merit that great day speedily in our times!!

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