• Nitzotzos

Parshas Vayeishev - Orthodox in the Modern World

וְיִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אָהַ֤ב אֶת־יוֹסֵף֙ מִכָּל־בָּנָ֔יו כִּֽי־בֶן־זְקֻנִ֥ים ה֖וּא ל֑וֹ וְעָ֥שָׂה ל֖וֹ כְּתֹ֥נֶת פַּסִּֽים:

And Israel [Yaakov] loved Yosef more than his other sons because he was the child of his old age and he made for him a kesones passim” (Bereishis 37:3)


וַיִּרְא֣וּ אֶחָ֗יו כִּֽי־אֹת֞וֹ אָהַ֤ב אֲבִיהֶם֙ מִכָּל־אֶחָ֔יו וַיִּשְׂנְא֖וּ אֹת֑וֹ וְלֹ֥א יָֽכְל֖וּ דַּבְּר֥וֹ לְשָׁלֹֽם:

"And his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, so they hated him, and they could not speak with him peacefully." (Bereishis 37:4)


Yosef is described as a בֶן־זְקֻנִ֥ים, a child of Yaakov's old age. The passuk links the fact that Yosef was a בֶן־זְקֻנִ֥ים to the gift of the Kesones Passim that Yaakov gave to Yosef. What is the connection between Yosef being the בֶן־זְקֻנִ֥ים and the Kesones Passim.


On a simple level, Yaakov had a deep affection for Yosef and as a result he gave him a special gift. However, upon introspection, the simple pshat does not hold up. The passuk is clear that Yaakov loved Yosef because he was the בֶן־זְקֻנִ֥ים. What is the significance of being the בֶן־זְקֻנִ֥ים? How does being the בֶן־זְקֻנִ֥ים make Yosef worthy of receiving the Kesones Passim?


Furthermore, what exactly is a Kesones Passim? Many of us grew up hearing these words translated as "a coat of many colors" and indeed this is one possibility that is brought down by the Radak, Ralbag and Sefer HaShorashim. While this is indeed a popular pshat (the early seventeenth-century English King James Bible translated these words as a coat of many colors) we will see that it is far from the only understanding of Kesones Passim.


Rashi quotes The Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 84:8), however, explains that it was called פַּסִים because of Yosef's troubles, namely, that he was sold to Potiphar (פּוֹטִפַר), to the merchants (סוֹחֲרִים), to the Ishmaelites (יִשְׁמְעִאלִים), and to the Midianites (מִדְיָנִים).


If Yaakov loved Yosef why would he give him a gift that symbolizes the troubles that Yosef would endure? This is especially difficult to understand in light of the fact that the very next passuk tells us that Yosef's brothers hated him as a result of the love that Yaakov displayed towards Yosef. Indeed the Gemara in Shabbos (10b) tells us that because of the weight of two sela’im of milas that Yaakov gave to Yosef more than the brothers, the brothers became jealous and it caused our fathers to go down to Mitzrayim. The brothers also received cloaks from Yaakov but the Kesones Pasim had a little bit more weight to it and they were jealous of Yosef. It was this jealousy that caused the brothers to sell Yosef down to Mitzrayim and began our 210 year enslavement. But why were the brothers jealous at all? If Passim is a reference to the troubles that Yosef would endure, why would they want such a tragic garment?


Parenthetically, it is worth asking, what is the significance of the fact that the Kessones Passim weighed a little bit more than the other cloaks. The Rambam (Hilchot Nachalot 6:13) codifies that parents are not to show favoritism and cites the Yosef story. We know that the Avos kept the entire Torah before it was given at Har Sinai. Why did Yaakov see fit to add more weight to Yosef's cloak?


Turning Judaism Outwards


In order to understand the feelings that the Shevatim had towards Yosef we must first explain that Yosef and his brothers had a fundamental disagreement as to how God is meant to be served in this world.


One can tell a lot about a person from the dreams that they have. Our dreams can reflect our inner desires and teach us about our inner longings, our visions and our aspirations.


וְהִנֵּ֠ה אֲנַ֜חְנוּ מְאַלְּמִ֤ים אֲלֻמִּים֙ בְּת֣וֹךְ הַשָּׂדֶ֔ה וְהִנֵּ֛ה קָ֥מָה אֲלֻמָּתִ֖י וְגַם־נִצָּ֑בָה וְהִנֵּ֤ה תְסֻבֶּ֨ינָה֙ אֲלֻמֹּ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם וַתִּשְׁתַּֽחֲוֶ֖יןָ לַֽאֲלֻמָּתִֽי

"Behold, we were binding sheaves in the midst of the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and also stood upright, and behold, your sheaves encircled [it] and prostrated themselves to my sheaf." (Bereishis 37:7)


וַיַּֽחֲלֹ֥ם עוֹד֙ חֲל֣וֹם אַחֵ֔ר וַיְסַפֵּ֥ר אֹת֖וֹ לְאֶחָ֑יו וַיֹּ֗אמֶר הִנֵּ֨ה חָלַ֤מְתִּי חֲלוֹם֙ ע֔וֹד וְהִנֵּ֧ה הַשֶּׁ֣מֶשׁ וְהַיָּרֵ֗חַ וְאַחַ֤ד עָשָׂר֙ כּֽוֹכָבִ֔ים מִשְׁתַּֽחֲוִ֖ים לִֽי

"And he again dreamed another dream, and he related it to his brothers, and he said, "Behold, I have dreamed another dream, and behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were prostrating themselves to me." (Bereishis 37:9)


In his first dream Yosef dreams about agriculture. In those times agriculture meant business. It meant working the land and selling your produce. In Yosef's second dream he dreams about astronomy which represented the science of the times. In other words, Yosef's approach to serving God meant engaging the world. It meant going into business and studying science.


וַיֵּֽלְכ֖וּ אֶחָ֑יו לִרְע֛וֹת אֶת־צֹ֥אן אֲבִיהֶ֖ם בִּשְׁכֶֽם

"And his brothers went to pasture their father's flocks in Shechem." (Bereishis 37:12)


In contrast the Torah tells us that upon hearing the dreams of Yosef the Shevatim went to Shechem to shepherd Yaakov's flock. Yosef dreams of engaging the world. The Shevatim served their father (a reference to Hashem) by turning inwards. Shepherding is a private activity. Alone in the fields with nothing but the sheep, the Shevatim were able to devote their energies to contemplating God.


The Shevatim were indeed jealous of Yaakov's favoritism towards Yosef but they hated Yosef because he represented a threat to their way of serving God. After all, just as Avraham begat Yishmael and Yitzchak begat Eisav, it made sense that Yaakov would also have a child that would stray from the path. There is a danger in going out into the world. It is not an easy task to maintain one's loyalty to the mission of God when one finds themselves living among the nations of the world who have a different value system. Values can be corrupted. Assimilation is a very real possibility. Of course Yosef understood the danger of his approach. And yet at the same time he believed that Jews are meant to engage the world. The Medrash (Parshas Nasso) teaches us that God created the world because He desires to have a dwelling place in the world down below. In order to bring God down into our world, one must go out into the lowest parts of the world and bring Him there. Not to be impacted by the world but to impact the world. Not to embrace but to engage. Yosef felt that to remain safely alone in the fields is to betray the mission of Judaism. You may remain in your pristine state of purity but God's desire for creation remains unfulfilled.


The Mission of the Kesones Passim


וַיִּגְדְּלוּ֙ הַנְּעָרִ֔ים וַיְהִ֣י עֵשָׂ֗ו אִ֛ישׁ יֹדֵ֥עַ צַ֖יִד אִ֣ישׁ שָׂדֶ֑ה וְיַֽעֲקֹב֙ אִ֣ישׁ תָּ֔ם ישֵׁ֖ב אֹֽהָלִֽים:

"And the youths grew up, and Esau was a man who understood hunting, a man of the field, whereas Jacob was an innocent man, dwelling in tents." (Bereishis 25:27)


Yaakov Avinu is described as a dweller of tents whereas Eisav is a man of the field. Initially the plan was for Yaakov to remain in the Beis Medrash while Eisav would go out and reveal God in the world. Both roles are necessary to the fulfillment of God's plan. Klal Yisrael must have a space that is exclusively Kadosh and must engage those spaces where Kedusha can be found even when the Kedusha is less obvious.


Eisav was not able to accomplish his task. Instead of impacting the world, the world impacted him. His behavior reflected the immorality of the world around him as he engaged in murder, rape and thievery. Yitzchak loved Eisav because he hoped Eisav would be able to accomplish the task of bringing Godliness to the world. Rivka saw Eisav for what he truly was. She understood that Yaakov needed to take on Eisav's mission.


וַתִּקַּ֣ח רִ֠בְקָ֠ה אֶת־בִּגְדֵ֨י עֵשָׂ֜ו בְּנָ֤הּ הַגָּדֹל֙ הַֽחֲמֻדֹ֔ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר אִתָּ֖הּ בַּבָּ֑יִת וַתַּלְבֵּ֥שׁ אֶת־יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב בְּנָ֥הּ הַקָּטָֽן:

"And Rebecca took the costly garments of Esau, her elder son, which were with her in the house, and she dressed Jacob, her younger son." (Bereishis 27:15)


Rivka did not need to dress Yaakov as Eisav. Yitzchak was blind. Yaakov was concerned that Yitzchak would feel his smooth skin and know that he was not the hairy Eisav. To ensure that Yaakov was not discovered, Rivka covered him in hides. Why then was it necessary for Rivka to dress Yaakov in Eisav's clothing?


Dressing Yaakov in the clothing of Eisav symbolized Yaakov's transition from being a dweller of tents to a man of the field. From this point on Yaakov would take on the mission of Eisav and bring God out into the world. It is unnatural position for Yaakov but this is the mandate he must fulfill. From this point on in Yaakov's life he will face many difficulties. The tranquil Beis Medrash life is something he longs for but no longer belongs to him.


The Shevatim, as shepherds, represented the mission of Yaakov Avinu as the dweller of tents. Removed from the world they could focus exclusively on Godly pursuits. Yosef represented the Eisav dimension of Yaakov Avinu. With his dreams of agriculture and science, Yosef will attempt to succeed where Eisav failed.


This explains why Rashi at the outset of our Parsha (Bereishis 37:1) sees Yosef as the one who will defeat Eisav.


דבר אחר וישב יעקב 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 (פסוק ב) אלה תולדות יעקב יוסף, דכתיב (עובדיה א יח) והיה בית יעקב אש ובית יוסף להבה ובית עשו לקש, ניצוץ יוצא מיוסף שמכלה ושורף את כולם

Another interpretation of “Jacob dwelt” - The camels of a flax dealer [once] entered [a town], laden with flax. The blacksmith wondered, “Where will all this flax go?” One clever fellow answered him, “One spark will come out of your bellows, which will burn it all.” So did Jacob see all the chieftains [of Esau] mentioned above (36:15-19, 40-43). He wondered and said, “Who can conquer them all?” What is written below? “These are the generations of Jacob: Joseph” (verse 2), only, and it is written: “And the house of Jacob shall be fire, and the house of Joseph a flame, and the house of Esau shall become stubble” (Obadiah 1:18). One spark will emerge from Joseph, which will destroy and consume them all.


Yosef is the spark who will consume the chiefs of Eisav. Not because he was mighty but because he would succeed in Eisav's mission of bringing Godliness to the world.

Yosef was loved by Yaakov because he was a Ben Zekunim (Bereishis 37:3). Rashi provides three interpretations of the words Ben Zekunim. According to Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer it means a child of old age. Onkelos understands it to mean that Yosef was a wise child. Yaakov taught Yosef all that he had learned from Shem and Ever. Finally, the Medrash explains that Yaakov and Yosef shared a similar appearance.


The first interpretation is the most literal explanation which is why Rashi brings this opinion first. The second two opinions are a little more difficult to understand. Why does Yaakov teach Yosef the Torah he learned in Yeshivas Shem V’Ever? What about the Torah he learned from his own father? Of what significance is it that Yosef and Yaakov looked alike?


After Yaakov received the blessings of the firstborn from Yitzchak he had to flee from Eisav who intended to kill him. In going to the house of Lavan, Yaakov would be beginning the next stage of his life. He was transitioning from being a dweller of tents to a man of the field. The Gemara in Megillah (17a) tells us that at the outset of his journey, Yaakov spent fourteen years studying at Yeshivas Shem V’Ever. After spending sixty three years studying under Yitzchak, why was it necessary for Yaakov to spend fourteen more years in Yeshivas Shem V’Ever? What was the Torah that they imparted to him that he did not learn from Yitzchak?


Yitzchak is an Olah Temima. He never leaves Eretz Yisrael. Yaakov as the dweller of tents is a continuation of the role of Yitzchak. Both Yitzchak and Yaakov have never left the confines of the Beis Medrash to encounter the world at large. The Torah that Yaakov learned from Yitzchak was a Torah that was focused inwards. It involved the perfection of the self. This type of Torah was unconcerned In contrast the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever was established before the flood when the world was a deprived place. The Torah of Shem and Ever was focused outwards. They taught their students how to find the sparks of Kedusha in a world that seems to be devoid of Godliness. As Yaakov takes on the role of Eisav it is mission critical for him to spend time with Shem and Ever as a preparation for his encounter with Lavan.


Yosef has the same appearance of Yaakov. This is more than just a superficial description of their countenance but reflects a shared mission. Yosef would continue the “Eisav” aspect of Yaakov’s mission. With this in mind, we can readily understand why Yaakov taught Yosef the Torah he learned from Yeshivas Shem V’Ever. For Yosef to engage the world he would first need to learn a Torah that was focused outwardly.


We can now understand why Yaakov gave Yosef the Kessones Passim.


The Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 97:6) tells us that when Yaakov gave the Kessones Passim to Yosef he assigned him as the firstborn and gave him the special garments that God made for Adam, which had been passed to Noach, Nimrod and Eisav. Yaakov received the Kessones Passim from Rivka when he got the blessing of the firstborn.


The Ramban (Shemot 28:2) explains that the Kesones Passim is a priestly garment. The Medrash Rabbah (Parashat Tzav 10:6 and Shir HaShirim Rabbah 4) link the kesones of Yosef to the kesones of the Kohen, whose role was originally intended for the firstborn. (Reuven became disqualified when he mingled into his father’s private affairs, moving Yaakovs bed from Bilha’s to Leah’s tent). Before the sin of the Golden Calf, the firstborn’s responsibility was to serve as the Kohen to Hashem. Therefore, Receiving the kesones passim symbolized Yosef’s new role to minister as a Kohen connecting heaven and earth.


Eisav was meant to be the Kohen of Klal Yisrael. The Kessones Passim was a fitting garment for him. Going out into the world is a dangerous task. The Kessones Passim was designed as a garment of protection. When Adam and Chava were thrown out of Gan Eden God made for them these garments as a protection (Bereishis 3:21).


Pikrei D’Rebbi Eliezer (chapter 24) explains how powerful the Kessones Passim actually was. “Rabbi Yehuda said: The coats which the Holy One, blessed be He, made for Adam and his wife, were with Noah in the ark, and when they went forth from the ark, Ham, the son of Noah, brought them forth with him, and gave them as an inheritance to Nimrod. When he put them on, all beasts, animals, and birds, when they saw the coats, came and prostrated themselves before him. The sons of men thought that this (was due) to the power of his might; therefore they made him king over themselves, as it is said, “Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the LORD”


When Yaakov received this garment from his mother, he too immediately understood its power. “When he (Yaakov) put them on he also became, by means of them, a mighty hero, as it is said, “And Esau was a cunning hunter” (ibid. 25:27). And when Jacob left the presence of Isaac, his father, he said: Esau, the wicked one is not worthy to wear these coats. What did he do? He dug in the earth and hid them there as it is said, “The rope for him lies hidden in the ground [His snare, on the path]” (Job 18:10). (Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer chapter 24)


In giving the powerful Kessones Passim to Yosef, Yaakov was hoping to protect him from the dangers he would most certainly encounter. (It is not without irony that when Yosef later finds himself alone with Eishes Potiphar the passuk tells us that she grabbed Yosef by his “begadim”.) As we mentioned above, the Kesones Passim is related to the kesones of the Kohen. Interestingly there are twenty two letters in the text of Birchas Kohanim which is related to a twenty two letter name of Hashem. During Birchas Kohanim we do not say this name of Hashem out loud but rather we scan it with our eyes. Instead we recite pesukim that contain the letters of this name in the proper order, and by reading them you'll pronounce them correctly. Part of the twenty two letter Divine name that we do not recite is Passim. The Maor Vishemesh writes that it was known that Yaakov had taught Yosef the name of twenty-two letters, which emanates from Birchas Kohanim. In particular, he taught him the name Passim which provides protection. Thus in giving Yosef the Kesones Passim Yaakov was acknowledging that it was Yosef who was to be the firstborn, the Kohen of Klal Yisrael, who would go out and bring Godliness to the world. It is no wonder that the Shevatim, with their inwardly focused vision of Judaism, were so distraught that Yosef received this gift. Though the word Passim is an acronym that represents all the challenges Yosef would face (Potiphar, Sochrim, Yishmaelim, Midianim), it is also a shemira against those forces of darkness. All of the Shevatim received cloaks from Yaakov but Yosef’s weighed just a little bit more. The extra weight symbolized the additional task that Yosef would face. It was a task that the brothers felt was exceptionally dangerous. After all, no one in history had ever succeeded in going out into the world and remaining in a state of purity.


We can now understand a fascinating Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 84:8) that explains the word Passim as a contraction of the words Pas Yam, splitting of the sea. We know that the Medrash Tanchuma (Vayeishev 9) teaches that the sea split when it saw the coffin of Yosef who was able to withstand the test of Eishes Potiphar. Krias Yam Suf was the final stage in our redemption from Mitzrayim. In the merit of Yosef HaTzaddik and his mission that was expressed by the gift of the Kesones Passim Klal Yisrael was zocheh to Kerias Yam Suf. In fact, the Gematria of Passim is 190. Klal Yisrael was meant to be in Mitzrayim for four hundred years but in the zechus of Yosef and the Kesones Passim we left 190 years early. 190 is also the same Gematria as the word keitz, a reference to the end of golus. So while the Kesones Passim set our golus in motion, it also brought about our geula.


Fittingly, we find a reference to the Kesones Passim in our Pesach Seder. The Rabbeinu Manoach (Rambam Hilchot Chametz U’Matzah 8:2) teaches that the karpas is reminiscent of the Kessones Passim. The Orchos Chaim (Seder Leil Pesach: 25) cites an opinion that karpas is short for Kesones Passim. The Ben Ish Chai (Tzav: 32) points out that the dipping of the karpas is reminiscent of dipping the Kesones Passim in blood.


The World of Shechem


The Gemara in Sanhedrin (102a) says that Shechem is destined to be the place where tragedy occurs to Klal Yisrael. Yosef is sold into slavery in Shechem. Dinah is was captured and raped in Shechem. Yeravam ben Nevat was coronated as King in Shechem.


It thus seems strange that Yaakov, after his battle with the Malach of Eisav would choose to recuperate in Shechem and subsequently purchase a field in Shechem. (33:18,19). The Yalkut Shemoni (Bereishis 133) points out that there are only three places in Eretz Yisrael where our ownership cannot be challenged; Chevron, Yerushalayim and Shechem. Furthermore, Yaakov ultimately gifts Yosef with Shechem in addition to his regular portion in Eretz Yisrael (48:22). Why would Yaakov give Yosef Shechem when it represented such a painful story in Yosef’s life? And if it was such a painful part of Yosef’s life, why is Yosef buried in Shechem?

The space between our shoulders, where one carries their heavy burdens, is called Shechem. The nature of Shechem is not evil. It is a place of struggle. There are sparks of Kedusha in Shechem, but they need to be confronted and clarified. In such a place there are bound to be tragedies but there is also much to be gleaned. In this way, Shechem represents the world at large. In contrast to Yerushalayim and Chevron with their obvious Kedusha, Shechem exists in a state of chaos. There is much tumah but there is also nitzotzos of Kedusha.


Yaakov Avinu fought with the Malach of Eisav when he returned for the Pachim Ketanim. The return for the Pachim Ketanim represented Yaakov Avinu’s quest to find Godliness in all things. It was the mission of Eisav that he was fulfilling. But Yaakov was injured in the Gid Hanasheh during his battle. The Gid Hanasheh is the place where children emanate from. This symbolized that the battle between Yaakov and the Malach of Eisav would be ongoing for generations to come. The children of Yaakov Avinu would also be tasked with using the physical world exclusively for the sake of coming close to Hashem.


After his victory over the Malach of Eisav and his successful encounter with Eisav, Yaakov needed to recuperate. What more appropriate place could there be than Shechem!?! After all, Shechem represents the place where one goes to engage the world and mine the nitzotzos of Kedusha. Having defeated Eisav, Yaakov solidifies his relationship with Shechem and purchases a plot of land. For eternity no one will be able to question a Jew’s obligation to engage the world.


ֽ וַיֵּֽלְכ֖וּ אֶחָ֑יו לִרְע֛וֹת אֶת־צֹ֥אן אֲבִיהֶ֖ם בִּשְׁכֶֽם

And his brothers went to pasture their father's flocks in Shechem.” (Bereishis 37:12)


Rashi points out that above the word אֶת in the Torah there are nekudos (dots). He explains this to mean that the brothers only went to Shechem for themselves. Along the lines of what we have been saying, Rahi can be understood to mean that while the brothers went to Shechem, a place where one engages the world, they remained inwardly focused. Pasturing only for themselves and not focused externally.


Seeing that the Shevatim were not using Shechem in the way it was meant to be used, Yaakov sent Yosef to Shechem. The passuk however is a difficult read.


וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל אֶל־יוֹסֵ֗ף הֲל֤וֹא אַחֶ֨יךָ֙ רֹעִ֣ים בִּשְׁכֶ֔ם לְכָ֖ה וְאֶשְׁלָֽחֲךָ֣ אֲלֵיהֶ֑ם וַיֹּ֥אמֶר ל֖וֹ הִנֵּֽנִי

And Israel said to Joseph, "Are your brothers not pasturing in Shechem? Come, and I will send you to them." And he said to him, "Here I am." (Bereishis 37:13)


Why does the passuk tell us that Yosef responded to him (Yaakov)? No one else was there? The Bat Ayin explains that the name Shechem is an acronym for the words Shem Kavod Malchuso. The brothers related to Shechem only in a transcendent fashion, not engaging the physical reality. Yosef responds to his father by saying lo, which an acronym for the latter half of the passuk, liolam vaed. Kerias Shema bring about the consciousness of oneness in this world. Fittingly, after we say that God is one we say baruch shem kavod malchuso liolam vaed. If God is one he will not only be found in the realm of the spiritual (Shem Kavod Malchuso) but also in the physical (liolam vaed). Yosef is letting Yaakov know that he understands the true essence of Shechem. Shechem in not meant to be transcended but to engaged. Its worldliness must be confronted in order to extract the Kedusha.


This is why the Divine plan led Dinah to have a child with Shechem ben Chamor. Within the kelipah of Shechem ben Chamor (Chamor is related to the word chumriyus, the physical world) was trapped a holy spark of Mashiach ben Yosef. Dinah had to be violated by him in order to extract this spark and give birth to the mother of Mashiach ben Yosef. This is why Shechem ben Chamor is the same Gemtria (666) as HaMelch HaMashiach ben Yosef.


Therefore, Yaakov saw fit to give Shechem to Yosef as an additional portion in Eretz Yisrael. Yosef is the rightful heir to Shechem because only he understood its true nature. Far from a place of pain, it represents Yosef’s mission in this world. There could be no better place than Shechem for Yosef to be buried.


The Dangers of Modernity


וַיִּרְא֥וּ אֹת֖וֹ מֵֽרָחֹ֑ק וּבְטֶ֨רֶם֙ יִקְרַ֣ב אֲלֵיהֶ֔ם וַיִּתְנַכְּל֥וּ אֹת֖וֹ לַֽהֲמִיתֽוֹ

"And they saw him from afar, and when he had not yet drawn near to them, they plotted against him to put him to death." (Bereishis 37:18)


The Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 84:14) explains that Shimon and Levi looked into the future and saw that Yosef’s descendants were destined to entice Klal Yirsrael to worship Baal. The Megaleh Amukos explains that when the brothers saw Yosef coming from afar it does not only mean that they saw Yosef coming in the distance, it also means that they looked into the future descendants of Yosef. Ultimately Yeravam ben Nevat would be a descendant of Yosef and he indeed would bring idolatry to Klal Yisrael.


Why was it Shimon and Levi specifically who looked into the future and saw the danger of Yosef? Dinah and Yosef shared a root soul. In fact when Leah became pregnant for the seventh time she davened that the child should be female (Targum Yonasan Bereishis 30:21). Leah knew that Yaakov was destined to father twelve Shevatim. Yaakov already had ten sons; six from her, two from Bilhah and two from Zilpah, and she said: “Shall my sister Rachel not even be as one of the handmaidens?” Hashem accepted her teffilah and and changed the fetus into a daughter. This is what the passuk means when it says, “Afterwards she bore him a daughter.” Afterwards is a reference to that fact that after Leah davened she gave birth to a daughter.


Like Yosef, Dinah also went out into the world. As a shared root soul with Yosef she too saw the value in engaging the world. Like Yosef she too had her eye on Shechem and went there to extract the Nitzotzos of Kedusha. (Perhaps this explains why it was Dinah who had the capacity to bring Eisav back to Teshuva – see Rashi 32:23) For Dinah the results were horrific as she was violated by Shechem ben Chamor. Shimon and Levi took it upon themselves to take vengeance for their sister and murdered every male in the city including Shechem ben Chamor. In this way they brought Dinah back home.


Yaakov Avinu was displeased with the actions of his sons. He said to them:


וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יַֽעֲקֹ֜ב אֶל־שִׁמְע֣וֹן וְאֶל־לֵוִי֘ עֲכַרְתֶּ֣ם אֹתִי֒ לְהַבְאִישֵׁ֨נִי֙ בְּישֵׁ֣ב הָאָ֔רֶץ בַּכְּנַֽעֲנִ֖י וּבַפְּרִזִּ֑י וַֽאֲנִי֙ מְתֵ֣י מִסְפָּ֔ר וְנֶֽאֶסְפ֤וּ עָלַי֙ וְהִכּ֔וּנִי וְנִשְׁמַדְתִּ֖י אֲנִ֥י וּבֵיתִֽי

“Thereupon, Jacob said to Simeon and to Levi, "You have troubled me, to discredit me among the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanites and among the Perizzites, and I am few in number, and they will gather against me, and I and my household will be destroyed." (Bereishis 34:30)


Undeterred, Shimon and Levi responded:


וַֽיֹּאמְר֑וּ הַֽכְזוֹנָ֕ה יַֽעֲשֶׂ֖ה אֶת־אֲחוֹתֵֽנוּ

And they said, "Shall he make our sister like a harlot?" (Bereishis 34:31)


What exactly is Yaakov’s issue with the actions of Shimon and Levi? Clearly Yaakov had exceptionally strong sons who were capable of wiping out an entire city. In fact, there are many Medrashim that discuss the amazing strength of the Shevatim. Shimon and Levi seem to be in the right when they argue that they could not let their sisters violation go unpunished.

Perhaps we can explain that Yaakov saw his mission as engaging the world. With this act of vengeance, Yaakov would now be seen as an enemy by the other nations. He would no longer be capable of teaching them about the true nature of God’s world. Though Shimon and Levi were certainly correct in rescuing Dinah, they jeopardized Yaakov’s mission in this world. But despite their father’s protestations, Shimon and Levi maintained their position.

With this in mind we can explain why it is Shimon and Levi of all of the Shevatim who recognize the danger that the position of Yosef represents. They saw firsthand what happened when Dinah attempted to go out into the world.


The decision to kill Yosef was not a rash one born out of jealousy. The Shevatim had reached levels of shleimus that we cannot begin to understand. The Shevatim paskened that Yosef needed to be killed now before his dangerous worldview took root and resulted in ancestors such as Yeravam ben Nevat. The psak misa was a preemptive strike designed to defend Klal Yisrael against the corruption of foreign influences.


The Torah tells us that there were two responses to the death sentence of the Shevatim; that of Reuven and that of Yehuda.


וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֣ם | רְאוּבֵן֘ אַל־תִּשְׁפְּכוּ־דָם֒ הַשְׁלִ֣יכוּ אֹת֗וֹ אֶל־הַבּ֤וֹר הַזֶּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בַּמִּדְבָּ֔ר וְיָ֖ד אַל־תִּשְׁלְחוּ־ב֑וֹ לְמַ֗עַן הַצִּ֤יל אֹתוֹ֙ מִיָּדָ֔ם לַֽהֲשִׁיב֖וֹ אֶל־אָבִֽיו:

"And Reuben said to them, "Do not shed blood! Cast him into this pit, which is in the desert, but do not lay a hand upon him," in order to save him from their hand[s], to return him to his father." (Bereishis 37:22)


Rashi explains that Reuven felt that as the firstborn and the eldest son he would be held responsible for the death of Yosef. He argued with the brothers that Yosef should be tossed into the pit and die naturally but his true intention was to rescue Yosef.


In other words, Reuven fundamentally agreed that Yosef's approach to the outside world represented a danger but he did not want to be responsible for Yosef's death. If only he could stall the brothers he would be able to save Yosef later. As we will see, Yehuda takes a fundamentally different approach.


וַיֹּ֥אמֶר יְהוּדָ֖ה אֶל־אֶחָ֑יו מַה־בֶּ֗צַע כִּ֤י נַֽהֲרֹג֙ אֶת־אָחִ֔ינוּ וְכִסִּ֖ינוּ אֶת־דָּמֽוֹ לְכ֞וּ וְנִמְכְּרֶ֣נּוּ לַיִּשְׁמְעֵאלִ֗ים וְיָדֵ֨נוּ֙ אַל־תְּהִי־ב֔וֹ כִּֽי־אָחִ֥ינוּ בְשָׂרֵ֖נוּ ה֑וּא וַיִּשְׁמְע֖וּ אֶחָֽיו:

"And Judah said to his brothers, "What is the gain if we slay our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, but our hand shall not be upon him, for he is our brother, our flesh." And his brothers hearkened." (Bereishis 37:26,27)


Yehuda argues, what gain is there by killing Yosef. Rashi explains that Yehuda is arguing, we do not profit in any way from his murder. If we sell Yosef to the Yishmaelim we at least make a bit of money.


This is an exceptionally strange interpretation of the passuk. Could it be that Yehuda was arguing against the killing of Yosef simply so they could make a couple of dollars? The passuk itself tells us that Yehuda said that Yosef is our brother and our flesh and therefore we should not lay a hand on him! How could this be understood as an opportunity to make a profit?


In truth, Yehuda was making a much more fundamental statement. Killing Yosef does not win the argument that the brothers had with him. Imgaine for a moment that you are in an important debate. Resorting to petty insults may shut down the debate but it certainly does not win the day. Anyone listening in on the debate is not more convinced of your position because you took down the other party. Ultimately the only way to win the argument is to refute their position. This was Yehuda's position. Killing Yosef may stop Yeravam ben Nevat from coming into our world but Yosef's worldview remains intact. In the future others will also come up with Yosef's approach. The danger of this hashkafa will remain beyond the death of Yosef. We cannot simply kill Yosef, we must win the argument. The only way to "profit" is to give Yosef exactly what he is looking for. If Yosef wants to go out into the world then lets sell him to the Yishmaelim. Let us see what becomes of Yosef when he engages a corrupt society. Will he bring them closer to God or will they corrupt Yosef? Only in this way ,reasons Yehuda, will the Shevatim have truly proven their point. And his brothers hearkened indicates that the Shevatim concurred with the approach of Yehuda.


Is There Safety In Isolation?


In the middle of the Yosef narrative the Torah hits pause and tells us the story of Yehuda and Tamar.


וַֽיְהִי֙ בָּעֵ֣ת הַהִ֔וא וַיֵּ֥רֶד יְהוּדָ֖ה מֵאֵ֣ת אֶחָ֑יו וַיֵּ֛ט עַד־אִ֥ישׁ עֲדֻלָּמִ֖י וּשְׁמ֥וֹ חִירָֽה

"Now it came about at that time that Judah was demoted by his brothers, and he turned away until [he came] to an Adullamite man, named Hirah." (Bereishis 38:1)


What does the passuk mean when it says that Yehuda was "demoted" by his brothers? Rashi explains that the brothers were distressed by the mourning of their father who remained inconsolable. They argued that Yehuda, in his position of leadership, could have convinced them to return Yosef to their father. As a result of the resentment of the Shevatim Yehuda turned away from his brothers. This sets the stage for the Yehuda and Tamar narrative.


Yehuda married off his oldest son Er to Tamar but Er sinned and God took his life. Since Tamar had no children, Yehuda instructed his next son Onan to marry Tamar but he too sinned and God took his life.


וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְהוּדָה֩ לְתָמָ֨ר כַּלָּת֜וֹ שְׁבִ֧י אַלְמָנָ֣ה בֵית־אָבִ֗יךְ עַד־יִגְדַּל֙ שֵׁלָ֣ה בְנִ֔י כִּ֣י אָמַ֔ר פֶּן־יָמ֥וּת גַּם־ה֖וּא כְּאֶחָ֑יו וַתֵּ֣לֶךְ תָּמָ֔ר וַתֵּ֖שֶׁב בֵּ֥ית אָבִֽיהָ

"Then Judah said to his daughter in law Tamar, "Remain as a widow in your father's house until my son Shelah grows up," for he said, "Lest he too die, like his brothers." So Tamar went, and she remained in her father's house." (Bereishis 38:11)


Rashi explains that Yehuda dismissed Tamar with a lame excuse because he had on intention of marrying her off to his last son Shelah. Tamar realized that Yehuda had on intention of giving Shelah to her and so she took matters into her own hands. Discovering where Yehuda was headed, Tamar covered her face and dressed as a harlot. Yehuda, not knowing that this was his own daughter in law, lay with her which resulted in a pregnancy. Three months later when Tamar began to show, Yehuda accused her of being a harlot and sentenced her to death. In one of the most powerful moments in all of the Torah, Tamar provides Yehuda with proof that the child that lies within her belongs to Yehuda. Confronted with his own misdoings, Yehuda publicly admits that the child is indeed his and spares Tamar from death.


The question is why is this story placed in the middle of the Yosef narrative? How does it contribute to our understanding of the larger debate that Yosef and the Shevatim were having?


The Loyalty of Yosef


Immediately following the story of Yehuda and Tamar, the Torah tells us the story of Yosef and the wife of Potiphar. The Yishmaelim who bought Yosef now sold him to Potiphar. Yosef quickly rose to power and was appointed over all of Potiphar's house.


וַיְהִ֗י אַחַר֙ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה וַתִּשָּׂ֧א אֵֽשֶׁת־אֲדֹנָ֛יו אֶת־עֵינֶ֖יהָ אֶל־יוֹסֵ֑ף וַתֹּ֖אמֶר שִׁכְבָ֥ה עִמִּֽי: וַיְמָאֵ֓ן | וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ אֶל־אֵ֣שֶׁת אֲדֹנָ֔יו הֵ֣ן אֲדֹנִ֔י לֹֽא־יָדַ֥ע אִתִּ֖י מַה־בַּבָּ֑יִת וְכֹ֥ל אֲשֶׁר־יֶשׁ־ל֖וֹ נָתַ֥ן בְּיָדִֽי: אֵינֶ֨נּוּ גָד֜וֹל בַּבַּ֣יִת הַזֶּה֘ מִמֶּ֒נִּי֒ וְלֹֽא־חָשַׂ֤ךְ מִמֶּ֨נִּי֙ מְא֔וּמָה כִּ֥י אִם־אוֹתָ֖ךְ בַּֽאֲשֶׁ֣ר אַתְּ־אִשְׁתּ֑וֹ וְאֵ֨יךְ אֶֽעֱשֶׂ֜ה הָֽרָעָ֤ה הַגְּדֹלָה֙ הַזֹּ֔את וְחָטָ֖אתִי לֵֽאלֹהִֽים:


"Now it came to pass after these events that his master's wife lifted up her eyes to Joseph, and she said, "Lie with me." But he refused, and he said to his master's wife, "Behold, with me my master knows nothing about anything in the house, and all he has he has given into my hand. In this house, there is no one greater than I, and he has not withheld anything from me except you, insofar as you are his wife. Now how can I commit this great evil, and sin against God?" (Bereishis 39:7-9)


One can only imagine the difficult nature of the position in which Yosef was placed. Having been rejected by his own family he finds himself alone in a foreign land. With God's help he quickly finds himself in a position of power in a new home. Yosef is settled and comfortable. The last thing he would want is to be pursued by his maters own wife. And at the outset Yosef is successfully able to fend her off. But the wife of Potiphar is relentless.


וַיְהִ֕י כְּדַבְּרָ֥הּ אֶל־יוֹסֵ֖ף י֣וֹם | י֑וֹם וְלֹֽא־שָׁמַ֥ע אֵלֶ֛יהָ לִשְׁכַּ֥ב אֶצְלָ֖הּ לִֽהְי֥וֹת עִמָּֽהּ: וַֽיְהִי֙ כְּהַיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֔ה וַיָּבֹ֥א הַבַּ֖יְתָה לַֽעֲשׂ֣וֹת מְלַאכְתּ֑וֹ וְאֵ֨ין אִ֜ישׁ מֵֽאַנְשֵׁ֥י הַבַּ֛יִת שָׁ֖ם בַּבָּֽיִת:


"Now it came about when she spoke to Joseph day in and day out, that he did not obey her, to lie beside her [and] to be with her. And it came about on a certain day, that he came to the house to do his work, and none of the people of the house were there in the house." (Bereishis 39:10,11)


The Gemara in Sotah (36b) explains that on that day there was a religious festival and Yosef was alone in the house. With no one else around, the wife of Potiphar saw this as an excellent opportunity to seduce Yosef. The Gemara cites a machlokes between Rav and Shmuel as to Yosef's intention on that day. One says that Yosef came to the house of Potiphar to do his actual work while the other says that Yosef had intention of giving in and laying with the wife of Potiphar.


וַתִּתְפְּשֵׂ֧הוּ בְּבִגְד֛וֹ לֵאמֹ֖ר שִׁכְבָ֣ה עִמִּ֑י וַיַּֽעֲזֹ֤ב בִּגְדוֹ֙ בְּיָדָ֔הּ וַיָּ֖נָס וַיֵּצֵ֥א הַחֽוּצָה: וַֽיְהִי֙ כִּרְאוֹתָ֔הּ כִּֽי־עָזַ֥ב בִּגְד֖וֹ בְּיָדָ֑הּ וַיָּ֖נָס הַחֽוּצָה:

"So she grabbed him by his garment, saying, "Lie with me!" But he left his garment in her hand and fled and went outside. Now it happened, when she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled outside... " (Bereishis 39:12,13)


The Gemara (ibid.) explains that Yosef saw the image of his father Yaakov in the window. His father said to him, "Yosef, the names of your brothers are destined to be written on the stones of the ephod, and you are to be included among them. Do you desire your name to be erased from among them, and to be called an associate [ro’eh] of promiscuous women? As it is written: “But he who keeps company with harlots wastes his riches” (Proverbs 29:3).


Why does Yaakov specifically mention the loss of Yosef's place on the Ephod? Why not simply argue that this is an immoral activity. Remember, Yaakov took upon himself the role of Eisav. While the Shevatim were connected to the dimension of Yaakov that removes himself from the world and focuses exclusively on serving God inwardly, Yosef represents the rectification of Eisav. Yosef, will successfully turn Judaism outwards and find God in the world outside the Beis Medrash. Initially Yaakov and Eisav were meant to share the Ephod. Eisav would have had six Shevatim and Yaakov would have had six Shevatim. In giving up the bechor Eisav forfeited his place on the Ephod. As Yosef is about to sin with Eishes Potiphar, the image of Yaakov Avinu reminds Yosef of his mission. Giving into the temptation of Eishes Potiphar is not just a moral failure but a failure in his personal mission to rectify the sins of Eisav. Failure, like Eisav, would mean losing his place in the Ephod.


Even in the Lowest Places


With this thesis in mind, we can understand why the very next section of the Yosef story involves Yosef sitting in jail and interpreting the dreams of the Sar HaOphim (chief baker) and the Sar HaMashkim (chief cupbearer).


וַיִּשְׁאַ֞ל אֶת־סְרִיסֵ֣י פַרְעֹ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר אִתּ֧וֹ בְמִשְׁמַ֛ר בֵּ֥ית אֲדֹנָ֖יו לֵאמֹ֑ר מַדּ֛וּעַ פְּנֵיכֶ֥ם רָעִ֖ים הַיּֽוֹם: וַיֹּֽאמְר֣וּ אֵלָ֔יו חֲל֣וֹם חָלַ֔מְנוּ וּפֹתֵ֖ר אֵ֣ין אֹת֑וֹ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֜ם יוֹסֵ֗ף הֲל֤וֹא לֵֽאלֹהִים֙ פִּתְרֹנִ֔ים סַפְּרוּ־נָ֖א לִֽי

"And he asked Pharaoh's chamberlains who were with him in the prison of his master's house, saying, "Why are your faces sad today?" And they said to him, "We have dreamed a dream, and there is no interpreter for it." Joseph said to them, "Don't interpretations belong to God? Tell [them] to me now." (Bereishis 40:7,8)


Yosef has shown that he will be absolutely loyal to God when he passes the test in the house of Potiphar but the argument between Yosef and Yehuda has still not been settled. It is easier to be loyal to God when things are going well. Remember that Yosef was the head of Potiphar's house. It is also easier to be loyal to God when the challenge is obvious. Abstaining from Eishes Potiphar is clearly the Godly action. But could Yosef maintain his loyalty to God while rotting in an Egyptian jail? Could he not merely abstain from a particular action but authentically retain his faith in God and in God alone?


When given the opportunity to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh's, Yosef does not take credit for himself but sees this as an opportunity to bring God even to an Egyptian sitting in jail. To Yosef this was the very mission for which he was born. Godliness can be found even in the lowest of places. God desires to have a dwelling place down below. It doesn't get much lower than an Egyptian jail.


And yet Yosef was not completely successful either.


כִּ֧י אִם־זְכַרְתַּ֣נִי אִתְּךָ֗ כַּֽאֲשֶׁר֙ יִ֣יטַב לָ֔ךְ וְעָשִֽׂיתָ־נָּ֥א עִמָּדִ֖י חָ֑סֶד וְהִזְכַּרְתַּ֨נִי֙ אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֔ה וְהֽוֹצֵאתַ֖נִי מִן־הַבַּ֥יִת הַזֶּֽה

"But remember me when things go well with you, and please do me a favor and mention me to Pharaoh, and you will get me out of this house." (Bereishis 40:14)


Yosef asks the Sar HaMashkim to remember him when is released from jail and to intercede on his behalf.


וְלֹֽא־זָכַ֧ר שַׂר־הַמַּשְׁקִ֛ים אֶת־יוֹסֵ֖ף וַיִּשְׁכָּחֵֽהוּ:

"But the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, and he forgot him." (Bereishis 40:23)


Ultimately the Sar HaMashkim does not remember Yosef when he is released. Rashi explains that Yosef remained in jail for an additional two years because he put his faith in an Egyptian and not exclusively in God. Why such a drastic punishment for merey doing his hishtadlus? One could easily argue that Yosef was grabbing hold of the lifeline that God had sent him!


Because the whole point of Yosef being in jail was to test his faith in God and God alone asking the Sar HaMashkim for assistance was inappropriate. If Yosef is to prove that God can and should be served everywhere he must put his faith absolutely in God. When seen through this lens t is clear why God punished Yosef with two additional years in jail. He did not yet merit to leave. Only when Yosef's faith was complete would he be worthy of moving to the next stage in his development.


And the Winner is....


The contrast between Yehuda and Yosef is fascinating. Both Yehuda and Yosef are estranged from their families. Both are in pain and seek comfort in the arms of another. But whereas Yehuda gave into his taiva, Yosef was ultimately able to abstain. Not only was Yosef able to remain loyal to God while in the luxurious home of Potiphar but even in the squalor and filth of an Egyptian jail. The lesson of the juxtaposition of these stories is clear. Sin can find you even in isolation. We are not blind to the dangers of the outside world but removing yourself from the world is not a solution either. Whereas Yosef was able to abstain from the aveira with Eishes Potiphar in Mitzrayim, Yehuda was unable to abstain within the safety of his homeland.

Yehuda sold Yosef down to Mitzrayim to settle the argument as to where God is meant to be served. Ultimately both positions are true. Yosef was able to descend into Mitzrayim and maintain his loyalty to God. After revealing himself to his brothers he told them to relay the following message to his father:


מַֽהֲרוּ֘ וַֽעֲל֣וּ אֶל־אָבִי֒ וַֽאֲמַרְתֶּ֣ם אֵלָ֗יו כֹּ֤ה אָמַר֙ בִּנְךָ֣ יוֹסֵ֔ף שָׂמַ֧נִי אֱלֹהִ֛ים לְאָד֖וֹן לְכָל־מִצְרָ֑יִם רְדָ֥ה אֵלַ֖י אַל־תַּֽעֲמֹֽד

“Hasten and go up to my father, and say to him, 'So said your son, Joseph: "God has made me a lord over all the Egyptians. Come down to me, do not tarry.” (Bereishis 45:9)


When Yosef says, שָׂמַ֧נִי אֱלֹהִ֛ים לְאָד֖וֹן לְכָל־מִצְרָ֑יִם he does not only mean that Yosef attained a position of power but that he had brought Godliness all the way down into Mitzrayim. In fact, Yaakov did not believe that Yosef was still alive until he saw the agalos, the wagons, a reference to the last sugya that Yaakov and Yosef had learned together before he was sent down to Shechem (see Rashi 45:27). In this way Yaakov understood that Yosef had achieved success in his mission.


At the same time, we do see that Yosef instructed Yehuda to go to Goshen and set up a Yeshiva there (Bereishis 46:28 and Rashi there). Whereas Yosef remained in the Egyptian palace, the Shevatim had their own city where they could live internally, protected from an Egyptian influence.


I would like to suggest that in the end there was no clear winner of the debate. Yosef has made his point. A Jew can go out into the world and remain loyal to his values. There is Godly work to be done in confronting the world around us. But Yosef recognizes that the Shevatim are correct as well. There is much danger in the outside world. To ignore the perils of engaging the world around us is foolish. Klal Yisrael must have both approaches in order to be successful in our mission of bringing Godliness into our world. Especially in today’s modern times we would do well to pay careful attention to the subtle and nuanced message that lives within this Parsha.




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