Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Parshas Vayeishev

וישב יעקב בארץ מגורי אביו בארץ כנען (37:1)

וישב - ביקש יעקב לישב בשלוה (רש"י)

After emerging triumphant from his struggles against Lavan and Eisav, Yaakov returned to Canaan to settle in his homeland. In his commentary on our verse, Rashi notes that the Torah uses the expression “settle,” which connotes permanence, instead of the more temporary “sojourn.”

Rashi explains that the Torah deliberately used this phrase to teach that after his lengthy exile, Yaakov desired to finally settle down and live in tranquility. Hashem rejected his request, maintaining that in light of the tremendous reward awaiting the righteous in the World to Come, it is inappropriate for them to seek comfort in this world as well. As a result, Yaakov’s suffering continues as the parsha unfolds with the kidnapping of his beloved son Yosef.

It is difficult to understand the error in Yaakov’s reasoning. If he sought a bit of peaceful tranquility after the recent emotional roller coaster he had experienced, it could only have been for the purpose of allowing him to focus his time and energy on properly serving Hashem. If so, why did Hashem reject Yaakov’s request, which was rooted in his desire for greater spirituality?

The Brisker Rav answers that while this question seems logical, it is actually based on a false premise. People assume that the ideal situation is one in which they have no distractions so that they can completely focus on serving Hashem with all of their time and resources. In reality, Hashem specifically prefers that people serve Him despite all of their difficulties and preoccupations, as this makes their efforts to serve Him that much more valuable and praiseworthy.

The Mishnah in Avos (2:4) teaches that a person shouldn’t say, “I will study when I have free time,” because he may never find himself with free time. However, in line with our thesis, the Brisker Rav suggested that it can be reinterpreted it as follows: A person shouldn’t say, “I will learn when I have free time,” because perhaps Hashem desires the Torah that he studies precisely when he has no free time.

With this understanding of the value of mitzvos performed under sub-optimal conditions, we can appreciate the following story. One year on Rosh Hashana, the Kotzker Rebbe announced to his Chassidim that he knows exactly what they are all praying for. To their astonishment, he proceeded to explain that they were begging Hashem to give them less parnassa (income), which would leave them with fewer business obligations and more time to study Torah and do mitzvos.

However, their collective wonder at his apparently prophetic knowledge was quickly dashed, as he continued to inform them of Hashem’s response to their entreaties. Hashem rejected their requests because He prefers the Torah that they struggle to learn in spite all of of their distractions and difficulties.

We live in a society which constantly develops new technological gadgets which promise to save us valuable time. Yet the demands we each face in our individual lives – from family, work, and play – seem to only increase with each passing day. At the times when we feel that we would gladly make time for G-d if only He would give us a few moments to catch our breaths, we should remind ourselves that it is specifically the Torah we study and the mitzvos we perform at these pressured moments that give Hashem unparalleled pleasure and pride.


וימאן להתנחם (37:35)

אין אדם מקבל תנחומין על החי וסבור שמת שעל המת נגזרה גזירה שישתכח מן הלב ולא על החי (רש"י)

Despite repeated and prolonged attempts by his children to comfort him, Yaakov was inconsolable over what he believed to be the loss of his beloved Yosef. Rashi explains that no matter how tragic a loss may be, Hashem created the world in such a way that after one year’s time, the loss is lessened and somewhat forgotten from the heart in order to allow the living to heal and go on. However, this is only the case if a person actually died, but if a person falsely assumes that somebody has died, no such process will occur. As a result, Yaakov was unable to forgot the pain of his loss and be comforted.

Why wasn’t his inability to be comforted itself a proof to Yaakov that Yosef must be alive, as if he were dead as Yaakov feared, Yaakov should eventually have been able to properly mourn the loss and find consolation? The Megaleh Amukos even writes that in their attempts to comfort him, his children used this very proof in arguing that his inability to move on constituted evidence that Yosef must still be alive. Why didn’t Yaakov accept their argument and allow himself to be comforted?

Dayan Yisroel Yaakov Fisher answers with a brilliant insight. At any given point in time that Yaakov would attempt to convince himself that because a year had passed and he still hadn’t been comforted Yosef must still be alive, he could always counter that perhaps Yosef just died the day before, and he wouldn’t be able to know otherwise until 12 months had passed from that time and he still found himself mourning. However, in another year, Yaakov still wouldn’t have any conclusive evidence. Although at that point he would know that Yosef didn’t die on the day before he began counting, he would have a new fear that perhaps he died on the day before that new day (i.e. 11 months and 29 days from the day on which he began counting), a self-sustaining cycle which kept him mourning for 22 years!

Alternatively, the Maharshal answers with a deep insight into human psychology, which can help us understand and empathetically interact with ourselves and others in times of difficulty and suffering. He explains that when a person is suffering, he is never able to realize that the pain he is feeling is largely self-inflicted and not absolutely necessary. People naturally assume that whatever anguish they subject themselves to is actually quite small. Not realizing the true depth of suffering to which he was afflicting himself, Yaakov believed that he had been comforted and forgotten the pain. In turn, this perceived ability to be consoled proved to him that Yosef must have been killed, a process which once again rekindled and extended his suffering as it repeated itself for 22 years.


ותוסף עוד ותלד בן ותקרא את שמו שלה והיה בכזיב בלדתה אותו (38:5)

The Torah tells us that after Yehuda’s wife gave birth to two sons, Er and Onan, she conceived a third time. She bore a son and named him Sheilah, while Yehuda was in Cheziv at the time of his birth. Why was it necessary for the Torah to relate this seemingly insignificant information about Yehuda’s whereabouts during Sheilah’s birth?

The Daas Z’keinim and Maharam MiRotenburg explain that the custom in those days was that the father chose the name for the first child, the mother for the second, and they continued alternating with each successive child. This practice is hinted to by the fact that the Torah states regarding the first child, Er:ויקרא את שמו ער – and he called his name Er, but regarding the second child, Onan, the verb is written in the feminine form: ותקרא את שמו אונן – and she named him Onan.

In light of this explanation, it is difficult to understand why in relating the birth and naming of the third child, the Torah uses the expression ותקרא את שמו שלה – and she called his name Sheilah, indicating that Tamar deviated from the custom of alternating the selection of names and gave a second consecutive name. To address this anomaly, the Torah explains that Yehuda wasn’t present at the time and was unable to give a name, leaving his wife with no choice but to choose the name herself!


בעוד שלשת ימים ישא פרעה את ראשך מעליך ותלה אותך על עץ (40:19)

While in jail, Pharaoh’s cupbearer had a dream in which he pressed grapes into Pharaoh’s cup, and the baker had a dream in which he was carrying three baskets on his head and birds were eating food out of them. Yosef told the cupbearer that his dream meant that he would be returned to his original position of serving Pharaoh, while he interpreted the dream of the baker as indicating that he would be killed, both of which came to pass. Where is it alluded to in the content of the dreams that the cupbearer would live while the baker would die?

Rav Elchonon Wasserman explains that in the baker’s dream, he saw himself standing inanimate with baskets on his head from which the birds were eating, as opposed to the cupbearer who was squeezing grapes into a cup which he proceeded to place in Pharaoh’s hand. The lack of activity on the part of the baker hinted to his status as one marked for death, whereas the cupbearer’s productivity indicated that he was still full of life.

Alternatively, Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl suggests that the dream of the cupbearer indicated his dedication to serving his master, as even in his dreams he was thinking about squeezing grapes and serving Pharaoh. The baker’s dream, on the other hand, revealed his lack of devotion to his job, as the birds were eating Pharaoh’s food out of the basket on his head and he took no action to try to stop them.

Finally, Rav Meir Shapiro answers that birds are naturally scared to approach people. From the fact that the birds in the baker’s dream were eating from the baskets on his head and weren’t afraid of him, it must be that he was already like a dead man in their eyes.


Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):

1) Rashi writes (37:2) that Yosef told Yaakov about three sins he “witnessed” his brothers transgressing, one of which was engaging in forbidden relationships with women. He was punished correspondingly by being tempted to sin by Potiphar’s wife. Although the efforts of Potpiphar’s wife to seduce Yosef represented a very challenging trial for him at the time, he passed the test and received tremendous rewards as a result. Are trials that Hashem gives a person, such as the 10 tests to which Avrohom was subjected, considered punishments, and if not, in what way was this considered a form of punishment to Yosef? (Ayeles HaShachar)

2) Yaakov loved Yosef more than his other sons because Yosef was his בן זקונים (37:3). Rashi explains that Yaakov taught Yosef all of the Torah he learned from Shem and Ever. Why didn’t he also teach Torah to his other sons, and why didn’t the favoritism he showed Yosef engender their jealousy even before Yaakov made him a special garment? (Kli Yakar, Emes L’Yaakov)

3) Although both of Yosef’s dreams seemed identical in depicting his brothers bowing down to him, the first dream caused them to hate him while the second dream aroused their jealousy. Why were their reactions different to the two dreams? (Beis HaLevi, Mikdash Mordechai)

4) Rashi derives (38:25) from Tamar’s willingness to be killed rather than publicly shame Yehuda that a person should give up his life rather than publicly embarrass another person. As Yehuda was attempting to have Tamar killed unjustifiably, why wasn’t he legally considered a רודף – pursuer – whom the Gemora in Sanhedrin (73a) rules may be killed, and certainly embarrassed, to save the life of his innocent intended victim? (Shu”t Binyan Tzion 2:172, Chavatzeles HaSharon)

5) Rashi derives (38:25) from Tamar’s willingness to be killed rather than publicly shame Yehuda that a person should give up his life rather than publicly embarrass another person. Does this mean that in practical terms, embarrassing another person is included in the list of sins for which one must give up his life rather than transgress? (Tosefos Sotah 10b d.h. Noach lo, Sha’arei Teshuvah 3:139-140, Meiri Berachos 43b, Rosh Bava Metzia 4:22, Hagahos Mayim Chaim Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 5:2, Shu”t Binyan Tzion 2:172, Chavatzeles HaSharon)

6) The Yalkut Shimoni (873) on the verse in Hallel, הים ראה וינס (114:3) asks what did the Yam Suf see which caused it to flee, and answers that it fled from the casket containing Yosef as a reward to his descendants for the fact that he fled from the wife of Potiphar (39:12). How could the Medrash give this explanation when the following verses (114:5, 7) ask the same question, מה לך הים כי תנוס – what did the Yam Suf see to make it split – and give an alternate answer, מלפני אדון חולי ארץ מלפני אלוק יעקב – that it split from the presence of Hashem?

7) How did Yosef know to interpret the 3 branches and 3 baskets in the dreams of the cupbearer and baker to refer to events which would transpire in three days (40:12, 18), while in the beginning of next week’s parsha he understands that the seven stalks and seven cows in Pharaoh’s dreams correspond to seven years (41:26)? Perhaps the dreams of his cell-mates referred to three years, and Pharaoh’s to seven days? (Ramban, Ibn Ezra, Paneiach Raza, Moshav Z’keinim)


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