Parshas Vayeitzei: Mama Bilhah and the Spark of Yosef
It came to pass when Rachel had born Yoseph, that Yaakov said to Lavan, "Send me away, and I will go to my place and to my land." (Bereishis 30:25)
Rashi - WHEN RACHEL HAD BORN YOSEPH — after the birth of him who was to become Esau’s adversary (Bereishis Rabbah 73:7) — as it is said (Ovadiah 1:18) “And the house of Jacob shall be a fire, and the house of Joseph a flame and the house of Esau for stubble“. Fire (Yaakov) that has no flame (Yosef) has no effect at a distance. Therefore, when Yoseph was born Yaacov put his trust in the Holy One, blessed be He, and wished to return home.
Upon the birth of Yosef, Yaakov decides it is time to return home to Canaan. Rashi explains
that Yosef is the adversary of Eisav and Yaakov can now feel confident that he will return to Canaan without fear of harm. The passuk in Ovadiah compares Eisav to straw, Yaakov to fire and Yosef to the spark. On a simple level this means that if I have a fire in one corner and straw in another, the straw is not in danger until the fire shoots out sparks. Now that Yosef, the spark, is born, Eisav can be defeated.
Several questions come to mind.
1) What is the inner meaning of comparing Eisav to straw, Yaakov to fire and Yosef to a spark?
2) Rashi describes Yosef as the adversary to Eisav.
- Do we ever find Yosef battling Eisav?
- Upon returning to Canaan Yaakov confronts Eisav but Yosef doesn't seem to play any particular role in this story?
- When Yaakov meets Eisav he says "Im Lavan garti" and Chazal explain that Yaakov is saying I lived with Lavan and I kept the taryag mitzvos. It is the shemira of the Mitzvos that protects Yaakov. Does he need Yosef in order to say that he was loyal to Hashem's word while in the house of Lavan?
3) Rashi says that a fire without a spark has no effect from a distance. Where do we see Yaakov fighting Eisav from afar? When Yaakov finally does meet with Eisav the confrontation is direct.
Mama Bilhah - Loyalty Personified
"And Joseph dreamed a dream and told his brothers, and they continued to hate him... 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." And he told [it] to his father and to his brothers, and his father rebuked him and said to him, "What is this dream that you have dreamed? Will we come I, your mother, and your brothers to prostrate ourselves to you to the ground?" (Bereishis 37:10)
Rashi - SHALL WE INDEED COME — “Is not your mother long since dead?” He did not, however, understand that the statement really alluded to Bilhah who had brought him up as though she were his own mother (Bereishis Rabbah 84:11). Our Rabbis inferred from here that there is no dream but has some absurd incidents (Berachos 55). Yaakov’s intention in pointing out the absurdity of Yoseph’s mother, who was dead, bowing down to him was to make his sons forget the whole matter so that they should not envy him, and on this account he said to him, “Shall we indeed come etc.” — meaning, just as it (the fulfillment of the dream) is impossible in the case of your mother so the remainder of the dream is absurd.
Yosef dreams that the sun, the moon and the stars will bow down to him. Yaakov understands that this is a reference to Yaakov, Rachel and the eleven Shevatim prostrating themselves before Yosef. Rashi explains that the dream has a fundamental absurdity in that Rachel has already passed away thus invalidating the dream as an authentic nevua.
But Yaakov made one miscalculation. The Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 84:14) tells us that Yosef's dream was referring not to his biological mother Rachel but to the woman who actually raised him, Bilhah. Yaakov correctly identified the moon as a reference to Yosef's mother but to Yaakov, Yosef's mother would always be his beloved Rachel. The fact that Yosef's dream identifies his mother as Bilhah tells us something about the relationship between Bilhah and Yosef, but what does it teach us?
Who was Bilhah? The Torah doesn't tell us much about her except to say that she was the maidservant of Rachel who Rachel gave to Yaakov as a wife when she was unable to conceive. Bilhah had two children of her own, Dan and Naphtali. Other than that we don't really know anything about Bilhah. Yosef's dream gives us an insight into the true nature of who Bilhah was. After Rachel's passing she remains loyal to Rachel and raises Yosef as her own.
It is not surprising that Bilhah has the same letters as Lahav (spark) the very middah that embodies Yosef HaTzaddik. When did Yosef become the spark that would one day do battle with Eisav? When he was raised by Bilhah, the woman who role modeled for Yosef what it means to be a lahav.
To be a spark means to remain loyal from afar. The "loyalty" of a fire is that it is constantly reaching up and trying to return to its source. This desire to connect to its origin is what creates the sparks that shoots out of the fire.
Rachel Imeinu has passed on. There is no greater distance than that and yet Bilhah remains loyal to her by raising her children. It is a skill that Yosef needed as a young child and a lesson that would remain with him for the rest of his life.
A Loyal Son
Imagine you are Yosef. You are sentenced to death by your own brothers and in a display of mercy they "only" sell you as a slave. Now you find yourself in Mitzrayim in the house of a powerful man (Potiphar) where you rise to power but are constantly being seduced by his wife. Can you be loyal to Potiphar? Will you be loyal to the values of the father who loved you above all of your brothers? Are you and Egyptian or are you a Jew?
The Gemara (Sotah 36b) tells us the story. The House of Potiphar is empty. Everyone has gone to the Temple of their idol to celebrate with a great feast. Eishes Potiphar sees a great opportunity. When will she ever have the chance to be alone with Yosef again? Claiming sick she decides to stay home and seduce Yosef. And she is almost successful. At the last moment Yosef sees the image of Yaakov on the window, considers that if he continues down this path his brothers will have a place on the Ephod and he will not and he is able to free himself from the temptation.
Yosef is, in a sense, beyond the grave. Whereas Bilhah's loyalty to Rachel is after Rachel's passing, in this case it is Yosef himself that has "passed away." Yaakov believes him to be dead. The brothers don't give him another thought until many years later when they themselves are sent down to Mitzrayim. Yosef is the epitome of "from afar." And in that moment he chooses loyalty. Loyalty to Potiphar. Loyalty to his family. Loyalty to his values. Loyalty to Hashem.
Where did Yosef get the strength to see his father in the window in such a difficult time? What gives him the wherewithal to consider his place among the Shevatim in the midst of such a terrible aveira?
From Bilhah who role modeled for him loyalty "from afar" every day of his life.
Yosef stands in contrast to Eisav. Eisav only appears loyal to his father's values. He asks his father how do I tithe salt? How do I tithe straw? But on the day of Yitzchak's passing he commits murder, worships idolatry and participates in inappropriate sexual relationships. Yosef on the other hand epitomizes loyalty. Although externally it appears that Yosef is disloyal to Potiphar, not exactly a great look for Yosef running naked through the streets of Mitzrayim while the wife of Potiphar screams rape, in reality Yosef epitomizes loyalty. He is willing to lose his position, to sit in jail, rather than to betray Potiphar and the values he was raised with. It is a testament to the way he was raised by the woman he identifies as his mother, Bilhah.
The final confrontation between Yaakov and Eisav is not when Yaakov meets Eisav in Canaan. It doesn't occur until many years later. But first a brief introduction is required.
וַיָּבֹ֜אוּ עַד־גֹּ֣רֶן הָֽאָטָ֗ד אֲשֶׁר֙ בְּעֵ֣בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּ֔ן וַיִּ֨סְפְּדוּ־שָׁ֔ם מִסְפֵּ֛ד גָּד֥וֹל וְכָבֵ֖ד מְאֹ֑ד וַיַּ֧עַשׂ לְאָבִ֛יו אֵ֖בֶל שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִֽים:
And they came to the threshing floor of the thorn bushes, which is on the other side of the Jordan, and there they conducted a very great and impressive eulogy, and he made for his father a mourning of seven days. (Bereishis 50:11)
Yaakov has died. He is on his way to be buried in Mearas HaMachpela. He is accompanied by all of Pharaoh's servants, the elders of Pharaoh's house, all the elders of the land of Egypt, Pharaoh's army, Yosef's entire household, the Shevatim and his father's household. "Only their young children and their flocks and cattle did they leave in the land of Goshen." (Bereishis 50:8)
At this point we would expect the next scene in the Torah to take place at the actual burial of Yaakov in Canaan. Eulogies generally take place by the grave. And yet the Torah draws our attention to a place on the eastern bank of the Jordan River called Goren Haatad. A strange name for a town it means a threshing floor of thorn bushes. This is where the "very great and impressive" eulogy is given. This is where they sit shiva.
- Why does the eulogy take place before they even enter into Canaan?
- What makes the eulogy so "great and impressive?"
- Why does the town have such a strange name? Thorn bushes are not threshed.
The Gemara (Sotah 13a) explains what is really going on behind the scenes. Threshing is the process that loosens the straw from the grain. The reason this place is called Goren Haatad is because a great threshing took place. Yosef, Yaakov's entire family and all of Mitzrayim are on their way to bury Yaakov. Eisav sends the armies of Bnei Yishamel, Bnei Keturah and Bnei Eisav to stop them from bringing Yaakov to Mearas HaMachpela (see Maharsha ibid). This is shaping up to be a battle for the ages. The children of Yaakov and the army of Mitzrayim against the children of Eisav and his armies. But the Gemara tells us something strange happened instead. When the children of Eisav, Yishmael and Keturah draw near they see the Egyptian crown of Yosef hanging on the Aron of Yaakov. One by one, the 35 princes of the opposing army remove their own crowns and hang them on the Aron of Yaakov forming what looks like a threshing floor surrounded by the security of thirty six thorn bushes. This explains then why the name of the place was Goren Haatad, a threshing floor of thorn bushes, but it leaves us with so many more questions.
- Ostensibly the armies of Eisav knew what they were up against when they set out to wage war. What was it about Yosef's crown that made them decide not to go to war?
- Eisav's armies don't just simply lay down their arms but they make a symbolic gesture by hanging their own crowns on the Aron of Yaakov as well. What is the significance of this gesture? The thorn bushes seem to represent some sort of security fortress but this only begs the question, what is it that they're protecting Yaakov from? In truth, Yaakov never really did battle with Eisav. Yaakov prepared for a massive battle with Eisav in Canaan but in the end it is anticlimactic as Yaakov and Eisav hug and the battle never materializes. In the end, they go their separate ways and a peace of sorts seems to have been made. In reality, Eisav was waiting for the right moment to exact his revenge. In Yaakov's lifetime Eisav understood he could not be victorious but after Yaakov dies the time was right to wage the war he had wanted to fight all the years ago. And so, on the eastern banks of the Jordan River, just as the children of Yaakov are about to enter into the Land of Canaan, Eisav sends his armies to wipe out Yaakov and his family. Instead, a threshing occurs.
As said above, threshing loosens the grain from the straw. The passuk in Ovadiah (see Rashi in the beginning of this essay) compares Eisav to straw. In Goren Haatad the straw of Eisav will be threshed while Yaakov is "far away" by the spark of his flame, his son Yosef.
When the armies of Eisav arrive they are immediately drawn to a strange sight. Something bewildering and unexpected. They see the Egyptian crown of Yosef on the coffin of Yaakov. Yosef, the expelled child, has remained loyal to his father. In the depths of Mitzrayim, Yosef stays true to his father value system. Even after Yaakov dies, Yosef is loyal to his father and is fulfilling his promise to bury him in Canaan. The message to the princes of Eisav, Yishmael and Keturah is abundantly clear. Though you may feel cut off, displaced, rejected etc... never stop being loyal to the true values of our family. Our great grandfather Avraham taught us right from wrong and it is up to us to be loyal those ideals. The Keren Orah points out that there are 36 aveiros for which one is given kareis (the punishment of being cut off) and now 36 crowns, ketarim (same letters as kareis) are hung on the Aron of Yaakov. Those who felt cut off have declared their allegiance to Yaakov the true embodiment of Avraham Avinu. It is at this moment that everyone together, the children of Yaakov, Eisav, Yishmael and Ketura, eulogize Yaakov and sits shiva. Indeed, it is a "very great and impressive eulogy."
"From afar" the loyalty (spark) of Yosef, the lesson he imbibed from his surrogate mother Bilhah, has threshed the armies of Eisav away from him (they now serve as a security fortress for Yaakov) leading us to final act in our drama.
The Final Showdown
In the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron (the burial place of the Patriarchs) . . . Esau’s head lies in the bosom of Isaac. (Targum Yonasan, Bereishis 50:13)
The Gemara (Sotah 13a) and the Medrash tell the story of how Eisav's head came to rest in Mearas Hamachpelah. When the children of Yaakov finally arrived in Chevron they found their path barred by their uncle Eisav. Claiming that the final plot in the cave belonged to him after Yaakov buried Leah in his own spot, Eisav refused to allow Yaakov to be buried.
Again, I'll ask you to picture the scene. The coffin of Yaakov is adorned with the crowns of his own army. The army of Yaakov's family as well as the Egyptian army stands at the ready. Eisav, by then an old man, must have still been very powerful to stand up to the armies of the world. Undeterred, the children of Yaakov claim that they have the transaction in writing back in Mitzrayim and quickly dispatch the fleet footed Naphtali to retrieve the document.
Chushim, the deaf son of Dan, could not understand what the hold up was about and disgusted with the delay of his grandfather's funeral he cut off Eisav's head which rolled into Mearas Hamachpela into Yitzhcak's lap where it remains to this day. Thus it came to pass that “Eisav’s head lies in the bosom of Yitzchak.” The Gemara finishes by telling us that with Eisav's head lying in Mearas Hamachpela, Yaakov opened his eyes and smiled.
In the final act of a lifetime of drama there are three main charachters, Eisav, Naphtali and Chushim the son of Dan. In Goren Haatad it is the loyalty of Yosef that threshes (loosens) the straw of Eisav but in the finale it is the biological children of Bilhah that stand up for their father's honor and bring him to burial and ultimate victory.
The legacy of Bilhah is one that remains with us until today. How many of us feel estranged and distant from the Almighty from time to time? We may find ourselves in a situation like Yosef, where no one will know what we have done and we feel betrayed and cut off by the people we love. In those moments, our ability to remain loyal to our values, to continue the mission for which we were created, is the heritage of Mama Bilhah.