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Parashat Vayeshev 5780 — 12/21/2019

Parashat Vayeshev 5780 — 12/21/2019

Bereishit 37:1-40:23

And Yisrael said to Yosef, “Your brothers are pasturing in Shechem, are they not? Go, I will send you to them.” (37:13)

Was Ya’akov clueless about Yosef’s fraught relationship with his brothers? Wasn’t it foolhardy of him to send Yosef to them, in a venue where they could do him harm? Actually, Ya’akov was making use of a Rabbinic principle: someone on the way to do a mitzvah (or actually involved in doing a mitzvah) is not subject to harm. Or haChaim explains:

Moreover, I am sending you for a mitzvah purpose, i.e., that you should go on my mission and thus fulfill the mitzvah of honoring your father, and this, too, will protect you, for people sent to perform a mitzvah are not harmed (Pesachim 8b)… Ya’akov] now explains the mitzvah mission that he was to perform. [RAR: The mission was to look into the welfare of his brothers.] He further said, “and bring me back word,” even though Yosef would surely have done so in any case, because he thereby officially tasked [Yosef] with a mission to bring him back an answer. In this way, Yosef would be protected from harm even according to the view (ibid.) that the principle that people sent to perform a mitzvah are not harmed applies only while they are going to perform the mitzvah, but not while they are on their way back, after the mitzvah has been completed.

Of course, we see that in fact Yosef was harmed – in fact he was almost killed! Or haChaim proposes several explanations:

1.  Any event that seems negative, but ultimately leads to great good, is not considered harm. Yosef is sold as a slave, but rises to be viceroy of Egypt, the ancient world’s superpower. Further, Yosef used his position to benefit the Jewish people (i.e. his family) and Egypt as well, not to mention the surrounding world.

2.  Ya’akov told Yosef to find his brothers in Shechem. When they weren’t there, Yosef went looking for them elsewhere, which was not what he had been sent to do. Yosef, of course, interpreted his instructions as being to find his brothers and see to their welfare, and that Ya’akov was only pointing out where they were likely to be found. Apparently Yosef’s interpretation of his mission was too broad. Or haChaim speculates that Ya’akov saw with prophetic vision that Yosef would be safe only as far as Shechem, and therefore limited the scope of his command. Gd, who needed to get Ya’akov and his family to Egypt, made sure that Yosef would misinterpret his father’s words.

3.  Although one is protected from harm while on a mitzvah mission, this does not apply to likely harm. If you try climbing a rickety ladder to do some mitzvah (cleaning your elderly neighbor’s gutters), you’re still likely to fall from that ladder. Nature is just set up that way. We don’t rely on miraculous salvation – who knows if we’re worthy of a miracle?!

Furthermore, and this is perhaps the more salient point, Gd “prefers” to minimize miracles. The world (‘olam) is a cloak that keeps Gd “hidden” (ne’elam) behind the scenes. Our challenge is to recognize Gd in every particle of creation. Miracles actually interfere with this process, so Gd only pulls them out in cases of dire necessity. It’s up to us to take normal precautions as we go about our business, be it mitzvot or anything else.

Apparently Ya’akov misjudged the level of the brothers’ hatred of Yosef and thought that his coming to harm was not very likely. In point of fact, Yosef was saved by a miracle – Torah records that the pit into which the brothers threw him was “empty, there was no water in it.” If the pit was empty, doesn’t that imply there was no water? The Rabbis answer, there was no water, but there were snakes and scorpions, and it was from these that Gd miraculously saved Yosef.

4.  There is another important consideration here, and that is the brothers’ free will. The question is, can a person be harmed by another person, even if that harm was not decreed by Gd to happen? How much free will do we actually have? On the one hand, the Sages tell us that one does not so much as stub one’s toe without its having been decreed from on high (Chullin 7b). On the other hand, human beings certainly have free will, or the Torah would not constantly exhort us to choose to do Gd’s Will. To paraphrase Rambam (Maimonides), all of the rewards and punishments of the Torah would make no sense if people weren’t free to choose their course of action.

Gd does not want automata – they are no fun, they cannot grow, they are predictable. Therefore, He lets our free will go, and adjusts things behind the scenes to create the ultimate outcome He desires. Or haChaim says it this way on the verse Reuven heard and he rescued them from their hand (37:21): “… man possesses free choice and will, and he can kill someone who was not sentenced to death [by Heaven]… This is what it says from their hand – from the hand of a human being who possesses free choice.”

Just as one can argue that Gd had other ways of getting Yosef to Egypt had the brothers not “cooperated” by selling him, so did Gd have other ways of educating Yosef rather than having him be an Egyptian slave for 13 years. In other words, there are many ways by which Gd’s Will can be fulfilled. Our choices may determine the specific path creation takes to its fulfillment, including how comfortable the ride is going to be for us, but at the end of the day, Gd’s goal for us will be reached.

What is a mitzvah mission? It is action in accord with Gd’s Will, action that furthers Gd’s plan for creation, which is the evolution of harmony and happiness. When we are partners with Gd, no harm can ever befall us!

Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Vayeishev

This parshah begins with telling us that “Jacob dwelt in the land of his father’s sojourning, the land of Canaan”. “Canaan” seems to derive from the Hebrew “kana,” to be brought into synchronicity.

It seems that “dwelt” is more stable than “sojurnings” and we can get a sense that the difficulties that Jacob experienced with his uncle Laban and his brother Esau are now over and he is living peacefully in a land where all the parts work together harmoniously.

And yet this peace and harmony are upset when Jacob gives preferential treatment to his son Joseph and more deeply when Joseph angers his brothers by telling them and his father two dreams that seem to indicate he will dominate over them.

Yet Gd’s hand is in this as Joseph tells his brothers when his ability to dream and to interpret dreams have led him to become de facto ruler of Egypt (Mitzraim: restrictions) and his brothers and father have left Canaan, the land of harmony, to obtain food from Egypt, the land of restrictions, after Joseph has arranged for Egypt to store up food during the seven full years that he predicts will be followed by seven years of famine.

One way to look at this is that when our land of harmony is of limited scope, its harmony can be easily broken by misbehavior, and then we find ourselves not living, but sojourning, struggling in a land of restrictions, a superficial world that nonetheless allows us to survive, even though not in the harmony we had previously enjoyed.

And a message that I draw for myself and for the world is that it is very important that we always act open-heartedly to extend the range of harmony we enjoy, and that we do not mind and fully forgive the seeming offenses of others.

Then we extend the range of Canaan, of harmony, to include the realm of Egypt/Mitzraim, restrictions, and harmony prevails, Jacob is Israel “one who prevails over Gd (in Gd’s limited role), and our souls and our world return to awareness of the Oneness that Is Always All There Is.

Today! Let this happen today and let it last unendingly!

Baruch HaShem