Sunday, December 23, 2007

Parashas Vayeshev

Vayelchu echav l’iros es tzon avihem b’Schem. Vayomer Yisrael el Yosef: halo achecha ro’im b’Schem, l’cha v’eshlachacha aleihem, vayomer lo hineni [Bereishis 37:13-14] ... And his [Yosef’s] brothers went to graze the sheep in Shechem. And Yisroel said to Yosef: your brothers have gone to Shechem, go and I will send you to them, and he [Yosef] said, I am ready.

Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky zt”l often stressed that it is a mistake to try to judge the actions of the forefathers - or for that matter all figures in Tanach - using contemporary standards of morality or values. This does not contradict the Ramban’s view [parashas Lech Lecha] that the incidents in Chumash Bereishis are a lesson in ma’aseh avos siman l’banim. On the contrary, all agree that we clearly can and must learn from the way the avos rose to the challenges in their lifetimes and strive to apply these lessons in our own lives. Examining the choices and actions of the forefathers is a fulfillment of this directive and should not be taken as a lack of respect or an attempt to denigrate them.

The challenges of members of a family who fail to get along is a theme that recurs throughout Bereishis. Beginning with Kayin and Hevel, Yitzchak and Yishmael, through Yaakov and Esav, we seem to be almost repeating ourselves. If anything, one would think that Yaakov, who suffered so greatly from the jealousy of a brother, would have been especially aware of the possible repercussions. Yet the Torah tells us that he loved Yosef more than any of his sons and that he provided Yosef with a ketones pasim - a symbol of royalty [37:3]. Why would Yaakov be so blatant in his favoritism.

The Torah then goes on to tell us about the dreams and the reaction of Yosef’s brothers to his insistence on repeating them; intensified hatred! Does Yaakov intervene or comment? Only when he and Rachel are included in the second dream do we find Yaakov speaking and his comment is cryptic. Rashi comments that he pointed out to the brothers that Rachel was no longer alive and thus the dream was obviously not a prophetic vision since it could not be fulfilled. Hence, they should dismiss the entire episode. Yet, despite this, v’Yaakov shamar es hadavar - Yaakov waited for the time when the dream would come true for he knew that it was indeed prophecy [see Rashi].

Obviously, Yaakov is aware of the poisoned relationship in his family. Directly after the episode with the dreams, his ten sons leave home, ostensibly to graze their sheep but more likely to take counsel regarding what they should do about Yosef [see Or haChaim]. The dreams occur in Chevron, yet they travel all the way north to Shechem. Why did they need to go so far and why specifically to Shechem; not the safest place even then for nice Jewish boys?

Yaakov is concerned - most likely because they are in Shechem [see Targum Yonasan]. How did he know that they were there? If they told him that this was their destination and he feared for their safety, why did he not tell them not to go? He sends Yosef of all people to check up on them - didn’t he consider the possibility that Yosef’s sudden appearance might cause them to act irresponsibly?

The Midrash [quoted by Rashi 37:14] comments that the episode of the sale of Yosef is the beginning of the exile to Egypt that G-d revealed in response to Avraham’s question, “How will I know if my children are worthy of the promises You have made to me?” When Yaakov sent Yosef to check on his brothers, he was really beginning the galus, indicating that he felt that the time was now ripe for the process to begin.

Interestingly, Chevron and Shechem will continue to play a role in Jewish history and always represent much more than just two cities on the map of Eretz Yisrael. Chevron is the city most associated with shevet Yehudah; it is the personal nachalah of Kalev and it is here that David becomes king and reigns for seven years. Shechem is the original seat of power of Yeravam, the paradigm of Yehuda’s weakness as a leader of the entire people. Shechem represents divisiveness or am Yisrael’s lack of a shared destiny while Chevron would seem to represent am Yisrael in her nascent stage of common purpose and direction [as opposed to Yerushalayim/Tzion which represents am Yisrael in her mature stage].

When Yaakov came to Chevron after returning from Charan, he knew that the time was almost ripe for the fulfillment of the prophecy of bris bein habesarim - i.e., the period of exile meant to establish that his children were worthy of the promise to Avraham. It was for this reason, perhaps, that he settled in Chevron rather than in Be’er Sheva, for this was an integral part of the creation of the Jewish nation, similar to Dovid’s first years as king.

In Yaakov’s judgement, Yosef is the son most worthy of leadership and he presents him with the ktones pasim - the royal cloak - to indicate that this is his choice. In this sense, he seems to be showing that he loves him more than the other brothers, for he is giving Yosef something extra. At least that is the way they understand the present [contrast this to Yitzchak’s apparent extra measure of love for Esav (25:28) which is based on an objective reason]. The brothers apparently attempt to convince Yaakov that he is overestimating Yosef, pointing out that he is immature and vain [37:2] but Yaakov is unconvinced. For Yosef to succeed, he needs a show of parental support so as to be strengthened to the point whereby he can survive his brothers’ animosity.

When he hears about Yosef’s dreams he immediately understands that the galus is about to begin. The shevatim, seeing that their father does not react, decide to take counsel with each other and withdraw to Shechem, the location that symbolizes unwillingness to accept centralized rule in am Yisrael. [Remember that it is in Shechem that Shimon and Levi acted as individuals without consulting their father or their brothers.] Yaakov prophetically understands that if his sons are not in Chevron, then they must have gone to Shechem and sends Yosef to them. Yes, he knows that they hate him. Yes, he knows that Yosef is in danger. But if Yosef is to lead them in exile, he must prove himself capable. There is no executive fiat possible here. There can only be rule - true rule - if there is consensus and Yosef has no choice but to prove himself worthy.

Chachmah bagoyim ta’amin. Rick Lavoie, who is to my mind one of the wisest people dealing in special education, has a training tape in which he points out that we often consider things unfair if someone gets more than we do. [Interestingly, there is no word for fair in lashon ha-kodesh.] How often do we hear our children accuse us of being unfair when we give something to one and fail to do so for another. How often did we accuse our teachers of playing favorites. Sometimes this criticism is justified and should be avoided. However, there are times when it is not only unjustified, but detrimental. He offers the following scenario. Imagine that you’re seated in a restaurant and someone begins choking. You know how to do the Heimlich procedure but you decide not to do so, because if you do it for one person, then you’ll have to do it for everyone. We have confused giving something extra to one person as a sign of extra love when in fact it is really a sign of extra need. I admit that this is one of the hardest lessons to teach our children but as Yaakov demonstrated, it is a vital part of their education as people.

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