Yosef’s treatment at the hand of his brothers, the focus of this week’s
parashah, may be the most incomprehensible story in the Torah. Seemingly,
writes R’ Simcha Zissel Broide z”l (rosh yeshivah of the Chevron Yeshiva in
Yerushalayim; died 2000), it is the cruelest act ever perpetrated on a
single human being. Even the depraved and immoral Egyptians would have
found the sale of Yosef to be unacceptable behavior; thus, we will read two
weeks from now that before Yosef revealed his identity to his brothers, he
ordered all Egyptians out of the room to save his brothers from embarrassment.
Yet, our Sages speak of Yosef’s brothers as holy individuals--“Shivtei Kah”
/ “The Tribes of G-d.” The mere presence of their names on the Kohen
Gadol’s breastplate is said to bring atonement to their descendants. How
can this be understood?
Many explanations have been offered for the Brothers’ behavior. In
particular, we are taught that they felt Yosef was trying to displace them
as Yaakov’s spiritual heir, much as Yitzchak had displaced Yishmael and
Yaakov, Esav. So sure were they that their actions were correct that, when
they needed a minyan to declare a cherem / excommunication on whomever would
reveal their secret, they included Hashem as the tenth “man.” (Only nine
brothers were present, as Reuven had left for a time.)
It is striking, says R’ Broide, that the Torah, which does not hesitate to
criticize tzaddikim like Avraham Avinu and Moshe Rabbeinu for their
missteps, never criticizes the Brothers. Indeed, there is no hint in the
Torah that the Brothers themselves ever decided that they had made a
mistake. They were pained by their father’s suffering and they regretted
ignoring Yosef’s pleas for mercy (see 42:21), but they never retracted their
belief that Yosef was a “rodef” / “pursuer.”
What are we to learn from this? One of the many lessons to take away,
writes R’ Broide, is that the Torah’s perspective on events and that of a
person steeped the Torah (in this case, the Brothers) may differ from our
own superficial understanding of the same event. Obviously, our duty is to
try to understand that perspective. (Sahm Derech p.305)
“His brothers said to him, ‘Would you then reign over us? Would you then
dominate us?’ And they hated him even more--because of his dreams and
because of his words.” (37:8)
R’ Eliyahu David Teomim-Rabinowitz z”l (1843-1905; rabbi of Mir, Ponovezh,
and Yerushalayim; known by his initials as “the Aderet”) asks: How did
Yosef’s dream regarding sheaves of wheat imply that he expected to rule over
his brothers? He explains:
The midrash records that Yosef dreamed that his bundle of wheat was fresh,
while his brothers’ bundles were spoiled. Thus, Yosef’s dream was quite
similar to Pharaoh’s dream in next week’s parashah, which also featured
healthy wheat and sickly wheat.
The Torah records in next week’s parashah that Pharaoh was not satisfied
with the interpretations that his advisors offered for his dreams. The
midrash relates that Pharaoh’s advisors offered him interpretations that
were personal (“You will father seven daughters and they will die”), while
Pharaoh believed that a king’s dreams must relate to affairs of the state.
Similarly, here, Yosef’s brothers reasoned that the only reason Yosef would
dream that he had healthy wheat and everyone else had spoiled wheat was
because he considered himself to be their monarch. (Sefer Parshiyot)
“Reuven heard, and he saved him [Yosef] from their hand; he said, ‘Let us
not strike him mortally . . . Throw him into the pit in the wilderness . .
The Gemara (Shabbat 24a) states that this pit was home to snakes and
scorpions. The halachah is that if a man falls into a pit full of snakes
and scorpions, he is deemed dead and his widow may remarry. Yet, the Torah
refers to Reuven’s act as saving Yosef!
In contrast, Yehuda convinced his brothers to remove Yosef from the pit and
to sell him into slavery. Yet, the Gemara (Sanhedrin 6a) says that whomever
praises Yehuda for this angers Hashem. Why?
R’ Chaim of Volozhin z”l (1749-1821) explained: Reuven caused Yosef to be
lowered into a pit full of snakes and scorpions, but the pit was in Eretz
Yisrael. Yehuda saved Yosef’s physical life, but he caused Yosef to be
taken out of Eretz Yisrael. It is far better, said R’ Chaim, to remain in
Eretz Yisrael surrounded by snakes and scorpions than to live outside of
Eretz Yisrael. (Quoted in the journal Yeshurun Vol. VI, p. 200)
“All his sons and all his daughters arose to comfort him, וימאן / but he
refused to be comforted.” (37:35)
Rashi z”l explains: A person does not accept consolation for one who is
living, but whom he believes to be dead. The reason is that, while G-d has
decreed that one who is dead will eventually be forgotten [at least in a
relative sense], it was not so decreed with regard to the living.
R’ Dov Kook shlita (Teveryah, Israel) adds: Yosef was alive not only
physically, but spiritually, as demonstrated by the fact that he refused to
be seduced by Potiphar’s wife. Notably, the same word (“וימאן / but he
refused”) is used to describe Yaakov’s refusal to be comforted and (in 39:8)
Yosef’s rejection of the advances of Potiphar’s wife. (Zvi Kodesh)
“But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his . . .” (38:9)
Rashi z”l explains: Onan did not want to perform the mitzvah of yibum /
marrying the widow of his deceased brother who had died childless because
the son who would be born would be named after the deceased brother, Er.
R’ Moshe ben Nachman z”l (Ramban; Spain and Eretz Yisrael; 1194-1270)
disagrees. First, he writes, there is no mitzvah to name the child after
the deceased brother. Moreover, most people want to name their children
after deceased relatives! Rather, there is a great secret of the Torah here
regarding man’s birth [see below].
R’ Eliyahu Mizrachi z”l (Turkey; 1450-1526) defends Rashi. Regarding
Ramban’s first question, even though there is no mitzvah to name the child
after the deceased brother, perhaps that was the custom before the Torah was
given. Regarding the second question, even though people like to name
children after deceased relatives, people do not like to be forced to give
their child a certain name. (Sefer Mizrachi)
R’ Yehuda Loewe z”l (Maharal of Prague; died 1609) also defends Rashi. He
writes: Rashi did not mean that the child would actually bear the name of
the deceased brother. Rather, people would also say, “That’s the boy who
was born because Er died and Er’s brother Onan married Er’s widow, Tamar.”
Onan felt that this was demeaning, and therefore he did not want to have
children with Tamar.(Gur Aryeh)
R’ Yitzchak D’min Akko z”l (Eretz Yisrael and Spain; 13th - 14th centuries)
writes: “I asked many wise men what is the secret to which Ramban refers,
and no one could answer me properly until I asked R’ Avner, who told me an
explanation which obviously is correct.” He explains: Onan understood that
the child that would be born from his marriage to Tamar would have the
reincarnated soul of Er. As such, like any person who has a reincarnated
soul, the child would have to suffer to atone for the sins of the person who
had that soul in a prior life. Onan did not want to have a child who would
have to experience such suffering; therefore, he did not want to have
children with Tamar.
If that was Onan’s reasoning, why does the Torah consider him to be wicked?
Because, R’ Yitzchak explains, the possibility of a soul coming back to
achieve atonement is a kindness on Hashem’s part so that a soul will not be
sentenced to eternal oblivion. Rather, if the soul attains atonement by
coming to this world a second time, it eventually can find eternal rest in
Gan Eden. (Meirat Enayim)
R’ Menachem ben Meir Tzioni z”l (Speyer, Germany; 15th century) quotes the
preceding explanation, and adds: With this information, one can understand
why the righteous suffer, the wicked prosper, and people seem to die
prematurely. (Sefer Tzioni)
Letters from Our Sages
The following letter was written by R’ Shlomo Wolbe z”l (1914-2005) one of
the foremost teachers of mussar / character development of the second half
of the 20th century. His best known written work is Alei Shur. This letter
is part of a short collection of letters by R’ Wolbe that was published on
the shloshim of his passing.
The first day of the week of Va’era, 5757 
Much peace and blessing to you (name omitted), my beloved, may your light shine!
I rejoiced greatly in the two letters which you sent me, and I thank you for
them. Only, forgive me that so much time has passed until you are receiving
a response from me. What can I do? I am so busy that there is no time left
even to write the most necessary letters.
In your second letter, from the week of Parashat Vayishlach, you write of
your difficulty praying. Precisely a week ago, I spoke in the yeshiva about
the [first] blessing [of shemoneh esrei]: Avot. I will ask (name omitted)
if he has a tape; maybe he will be able to send it to you. I asked why, in
the first berachah, which consists of praise of Hashem, we do not praise Him
for the Creation, for the Exodus, or for giving us the Torah. Instead, we
speak of the Patriarchs--Elokei Avraham, etc. It appears that the greatest
praise we can say of Him is that He created such great people who became the
“chariot for the Shechinah.” Only from them do we know something about the
Creator. My teacher, the mashgiah [R’ Yerucham Levovitz z”l of Mir (died
1936)] said, “On what word should we focus--on Elokei? We know nothing
about that! Rather, we should focus on “Avraham,” because from him we know
who Hashem is. There is more; R’ Chaim Volozhiner z”l writes that the ten
trials that Avraham passed became second nature to us, such that with a
small amount of effort, we too can achieve Avraham’s level. In this light
we can easily understand our Sages’ statement that a person must say, “When
will my deeds reach the level of the Patriarch’s deeds?” . . .
Nevertheless, you are correct; prayer is hard work!
The editors hope these brief 'snippets' will engender further study
and discussion of Torah topics ('lehagdil Torah u'leha'adirah'), and
your letters are appreciated. Web archives at Torah.org start with 5758 (1997) and
may be retrieved from the Hamaayan page.
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