For 20 years, Yaakov hid in Lavan’s house from his brother Esav, who had vowed to kill him. Just after Yosef was born, Yaakov told his family, “It’s time to leave and return to my parents’ home.” What was it about Yosef’s birth that prompted Yaakov to leave his hiding place, even though it would mean a confrontation with Esav?
Rabbi Chalbo in the Talmud (Babba Batra 123b) asks and answers this very question:
בעא מיניה ר’ חלבו מר’ שמואל בר נחמני כתיב ויהי כאשר ילדה רחל את יוסף ויאמר יעקב אל לבן שלחני ואלכה אל מקומי ולארצי מאי שנא כי אתיליד יוסף אמר ליה ראה יעקב אבינו שאין זרעו של עשו נמסר אלא ביד זרעו של יוסף שנאמר והיה בית יעקב אש ובית יוסף להבה ובית עשו לקש וגו
Rabbi Chalbo asked Rabbi Shmuel bal Nachmeini, “The verse says, (Genesis 30:25) And it was, when Rachel had given birth to Yosef, Yaakov said to Lavan, “Grant me leave that I may go to my place and to my land.” What happened when Yosef was born that Yaakov requested to leave? Yaakov knew that the descendants of Esav (Amalek), would only be defeated by the descendants of Yosef. The verse in Obadiah (y61:18) says:
(יח) וְהָיָה בֵית יַעֲקֹב אֵשׁ וּבֵית יוֹסֵף לֶהָבָה וּבֵית עֵשָׂו לְקַשׁ וְדָלְקוּ בָהֶם וַאֲכָלוּם וְלֹא יִהְיֶה שָׂרִיד לְבֵית עֵשָׂו כִּי יְדֹוָד דִּבֵּר
18) And the house of Yaakov will be fire and the house of Yosef will be a flame, and the house of Esav for straw. And they will ignite them and devour them. There will be no survivor to the house of Esav, for Hashem has spoken.
The last portion ended with a lengthy list of all the descendants of Esav. After seeing all the powerful members of Esav’s family, Yaakov wondered, “Who can defeat these powerful people?”
Rashi on the first verse of this parsha brings a Midrash with a parable to this effect:
הפשתני הזה נכנסו גמליו טעונים פשתן הפחמי תמה אנה יכנס כל הפשתן הזה היה פיקח אחד משיב לו ניצוץ אחד יוצא ממפוח שלך ששורף את כולו כך יעקב ראה כל האלופים הכתובים למעלה תמה ואמר מי יכול לכבוש את כולן מה כתיב למטה אלה תולדות יעקב יוסף וכתיב והיה בית יעקב אש ובית יוסף להבה ובית עשו לקש ניצוץ יוצא מיוסף שמכלה ושורף את כולם
A flax salesman entered an ironsmith’s store with camels laden with huge bundles of flax, filling the entire store. The smith wondered, “How is all this flax going to fit into my little store?” A wise person told him, “What are you worried about? One spark from your anvil will burn it all up in a second!”
Yosef possessed a special quality that made him the antidote to Esav and his descendants, Amalek. What was it?
Yosef was able to see the hand of Hashem in everything that happened to him. He had such a great degree of trust in Hashem that he realized that Hashem’s guiding hand was deeply involved in every step of his trying journey. By staying close to Hashem at all times through keeping this in mind, Yosef was able to negotiate all the difficulties that confronted him.
Yosef’s brothers had gone to Shechem to pasture Yaakov’s sheep there. Shechem was the city in which Shimon and Levy had killed all the men, because of their sister Dina. Yaakov was concerned for the welfare of his sons; what if the surrounding cities decided to take revenge against them. Yaakov sent Yosef to check up on his brothers and return with a report. When Yosef reached Shechem, his brothers were nowhere in sight. How could he know in which direction they went? Trying to find them would be like finding a needle in a haystack. Yosef would have to return to his father without the information. Just then, the Torah tells us (Genesis 37:15-17):
(טו) וַיִּמְצָאֵהוּ אִישׁ וְהִנֵּה תֹעֶה בַּשָּׂדֶה וַיִּשְׁאָלֵהוּ הָאִישׁ לֵאמֹר מַה תְּבַקֵּשׁ:
(טז) וַיֹּאמֶר אֶת אַחַי אָנֹכִי מְבַקֵּשׁ הַגִּידָה נָּא לִי אֵיפֹה הֵם רֹעִים:
(יז) וַיֹּאמֶר הָאִישׁ נָסְעוּ מִזֶּה כִּי שָׁמַעְתִּי אֹמְרִים נֵלְכָה דֹּתָיְנָה וַיֵּלֶךְ יוֹסֵף אַחַר אֶחָיו וַיִּמְצָאֵם בְּדֹתָן
15) A man discovered him and behold, he was blundering in the field; the man asked him saying, “What do you seek?” 16) And he said, “My brothers do I seek, tell me, please, where are they pasturing?” 17) The man said, “They have journeyed on from here, for I heard them saying, ‘let us go down to Dothan’” So Yosef went after his brothers and found them at Dothan.
Who was this person that found Yosef and directed him into the lion’s mouth, his jealous brothers who hated him for being his father’s favorite son? Rashi, quoting the Midrash Tanchuma, tells us it was the angel Gavriel.
Looking at it from Yosef’s perspective, he had come to Shechem to find his brothers. They were no longer there and, with no other option, he would have to return empty handed to his father, causing him anguish and worry about the welfare of his sons. Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, someone comes over to him and asks him, “Can I help you?” He then proceeds to direct him to his brothers as he had overheard them saying where they were headed. “Wow! What are the chances of that being random? This must be Hashem answering my prayers! Thank You Hashem!!” Thought Yosef. He couldn’t have been more correct. Hashem had actually sent an angel.
Realizing that Hashem has helped him to find his brothers, he proceeded without worry or concern about their jealousy and hatred towards him. If this is where Hashem wants him to go, this is where he will confidently go!
When the brothers saw Yosef approaching from afar, they convened a court and judged him. What were the allegations? He is a “rodef” – a pursuer. A “rodef” is someone who is pursuing an innocent person to kill him. The rodef has forfeited his right to life by choosing to use it to terminate the life of another innocent individual, and it is a mitzvah to kill him before he kills the innocent victim.
The brothers perceived that although Yosef presented no physical threat to them, he was out to accomplish something much worse. He was trying to kill their spiritual future. Yosef reported what he thought were sins that his brothers committed, to his father. It looked like he was trying to turn Yaakov against them so that their father would exclude them from being part of the future Jewish nation. The precedent, notably, had been set. Avraham had two sons, Yitzchak and Yishmael; but only Yitzchak was chosen to carry on Avraham’s legacy. Yitzchak, too, had Yaakov and Esav, yet only Yaakov was chosen to carry on Yitzchak’s legacy. The brothers suspected that Yosef was trying to accomplish the very same thing with them; leave them out of the picture and proceed himself to become the fourth patriarch. Hence, he was trying to kill them spiritually, a far more grievous crime that physically killing them.
They found him guilty as accused and were about to kill him when Reuven piped up and said, “Why kill him ourselves? Let’s just throw him in this pit with snakes and scorpions, and let them do it!” (Reuven had intended to come back later and save him from the pit) The brothers listened to Reuven’s suggestion, and into the pit he went.
Can you imagine the picture? A pit full of snakes and scorpions get a live human being to consume, and instead of attacking him all at once, they recoil and don’t even touch him!
When Yosef was in the pit with the snakes and scorpions, and they did not touch him, he realized that Hashem was with him in the pit protecting him every second. Ironically, this gave him great comfort. He realized that Hashem was with him in this most difficult situation. How long would he be down there? Until he dies of hunger? How would he get out? Of course, he had no answers to any of these questions, and probably many more, but one thing he knew for sure. Hashem was with him, and all will work out as per Hashem’s plan for him.
It doesn’t say how long Yosef was in the pit, but the brothers sat down to eat when they noticed a caravan of Yishmaelim coming towards them. At this point, Yehuda said, “What will we gain from killing our brother, let’s sell him to this caravan of Yishmaelim.” They fetched Yosef from the pit, and sold him to them.
The Torah tells us that the caravan was carrying sweet smelling spices for sale. Rashi wonders why the Torah went out of its way to tell us even what the caravan was transporting? What could be the significance of that? Rashi answers, to teach us that Hashem saw to it that Yosef’s journey to Egypt was a pleasant one. Usually, Yishmaelim carry smelly petroleum and tar products, which would have made Yosef’s trip very repulsive, but Hashem saw to it that this not be the case for Yosef.
Imagine Yosef’s situation in the wagon travelling to who knows where with who know who? “Where am I going? What will my fate be when I get there? What does the future hold for me?” How did Yosef deal with all the uncertainty of his future? When, once again, Yosef saw Hashem’s hand in this difficult phase of his journey, he was able to be calm, knowing he was in Hashem’s guiding hands.
Potifar, one of Pharoah’s officials, purchased Yosef as a servant. The verse says (Genesis 39:3)
(ג) וַיַּרְא אֲדֹנָיו כִּי יְדֹוָד אִתּוֹ וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר הוּא עֹשֶׂה יְדֹוָד מַצְלִיחַ בְּיָדוֹ
3) His master perceived that Hashem was with him, and whatever he did, Hashem made succeed in his hand.
In what way could his master see that Hashem was with him? Rashi explains,
(ג) כי ה’ אתו – שם שמים שגור בפיו (ב”ר)
3) Hashem’s name was always on his lips.
The Midrash (Tanchuma Vayeshev 8) on the verse (39:3) informs us:
וירא אדוניו כי ה’ אתו 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”
8) 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 in the interpretation of his dream: Three days after the dreams, Pharaoh restored the cup bearer to his former position, and the baker was killed. Seeing that the cup bearer will be restored to his former position, Yosef had asked him to tell Pharaoh that he was in prison for no crime. But upon achieving his freedom, he promptly forgot. When Pharaoh had his dreams , it reminded him of Yosef and his ability to correctly interpret dreams.
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 come 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,
טז) וַיַּעַן יוֹסֵף אֶת פַּרְעֹה לֵאמֹר בִּלְעָדָי אֱלֹהִים יַעֲנֶה אֶת שְׁלוֹם פַּרְעֹה
16) 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.
Therefore, when Yosef was born, Yaakov felt he could confront Esav. It is this quality of Yosef that is the antithesis of Esav and his descendant Amalek. Their essence is to deny Hashem’s existence and create doubt wherever possible. In Amalek’s world, everything is coincidence. There is no such thing as Hashem controlling anything.
The Torah reveals this about Amalek in the words (Deuteronomy 25:18) אשר קרך בדרך , that to them everything is coincidence.
Amalek are the ones who, just after the Jewish people left Egypt with all the miracles of the ten plagues and the Jewish people walking through the Reed Sea which split for them, said it was all coincidence and attacked them. All the other nations around were quaking in their boots from Hashem’s great display of power, but not Amalek. To them, the Jewish people just got lucky, and the tide went out just at the right time for them to cross the sea.
In a very strong sense, we currently live in a world that also wants to deny Hashem’s existence. With evolution, which suggests that the world and everything in it came about on its own, on one side, and technology, which gives the illusion that we can control everything with our gadgets and computers, on the other side, who needs Hashem? This is the world of Esav and his descendants, whose goal it is to create doubt as to whether Hashem exists altogether.
As the descendants of Yaakov, our mission is to reveal Hashem in every nook and cranny of the world, and to show that Hashem is in control of all that transpires.
How should we do this? By activating the quality of Yosef, and trying to see Hashem’s hand in all that happens to us. Granted, it may not be as easy for us as it was for Yosef, but if we pay close attention and seek to find Hashem’s presence, we will see Him in every step of our lives. The Chovot Halevavot says that to the degree that a person tries to see Hashem in his life, he will see Hashem in his life.
If a person reaches this level of trust in Hashem, he can stand up to any challenge, no matter how difficult, just as Yosef did.
This is the secret as to how to deal with the difficult challenges that face us today. It seems like we are living in an upside-down world, but we must realize that all is in Hashem’s hand and He has a plan. May we all be here to see how the plan plays out when the Mashiach comes speedily in our day!