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The Torah's Weekly Portions
Bereshit - Vayeshev 101
Posted December, 2000
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Parashat Vayeshev is in Sefer Bereshit (the Book of Genesis), Perek Lamed-Zayin (Chapter 37) through Perek Mem (Chapter 40).  In this Parashah, we are introduced to Yaakov's son Yosef (Yosef).  Through both the Torah and the mefarshim (commentaries), we have an opportunity to understand a major point with Judaism, especially in how it differs from most other religions. 

Although this week's commentary will only address a small portion of what is to be quoted, it is important to include more in order to demonstrate the entire story. 

1. Yaakov settled in the land of his father's sojournings, in the land of Canaan:

2. These are the chronicles of Yaakov - Yosef, at the age of seventeen, was a shepherd with his brothers by the flock, but he was a youth with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father's wives; and Yosef would bring evil reports about them to their father:

3. Now Yisrael loved Yosef more than all his sons since he was a child of his old age, and he made him a fine woolen tunic:

4. His brothers saw that it was he whom their father loved most of all his brothers so they hated him; and they could not speak to him peaceably:

5. Yosef dreamt a dream which he told to his brothers, and they hated him even more:

6. He said to them, "Hear, if you please, this dream which I dreamt:

7. Behold! -- we were binding sheaves in the middle of the field, when, behold! -- my sheaf arose and remained standing; then behold! -- your sheaves gathered around and bowed down to my sheaf.":

8. 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 talk:

9. He dreamt another dream, and related it to his brothers. And he said, "Look, I dreamt another dream - Behold! the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.":

10. And he related it to his father and to his brothers; his father scolded him, and said to him, "What is this dream that you have dreamt! Are we to come -- I and your mother and your brothers -- to bow down to you to the ground?": 

11. So his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind:

12. Now, his brothers went to pasture their father's flock in Shechem:

13. And Yisrael said to Yosef, "Your brothers are pasturing in Shechem, are they not? Come, I will send you to them." He said to him - "Here I am!":

14. And he said to him, "Go now, look into the welfare of your brothers and the welfare of the flock, and bring me back word." So he sent him from the depth of Hebron, and he arrived at Shechem:

15. A man discovered him, and behold! -- he was blundering in the field; the man asked him, saying, "What do you seek?":

16. And he said, "My brothers do I seek; tell me, please, where they are pasturing.":

17. The man said - "They have journeyed on from here, for I heard them saying, 'Let us go to Dothan.' " So Yosef went after his brothers and found them at Dothan:

18. They saw him from afar; and when he had not yet approached them they conspired against him to kill him:

19. And they said to one another, "Look! That dreamer is coming:

20. So now, come and let us kill him, and throw him into one of the pits; and we will say, 'A wild beast devoured him.' Then we shall see what will become of his dreams.":

21. Reuvain heard, and he rescued him from their hand; he said, "We will not strike him mortally!":

22. And Reuvain said to them - "Shed no blood! Throw him into this pit in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him!" -- intending to rescue him from their hand, to return him to his father:

23. And so it was, when Yosef came to his brothers they stripped Yosef of his tunic, the fine woolen tunic that was on him:

24. Then they took him, and cast him into the pit; the pit was empty, no water was in it:

25. They sat to eat food; they raised their eyes and they saw, behold! -- a caravan of Ishmaelites was coming from Gilead, their camels bearing spices, balsam, and lotus -- on their way to bring them down to Egypt:

26. Yehudah said to his brothers, "What gain will there be if we kill our brother and cover up his blood?:

27. Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites -- but let our hand not be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh." His brothers agreed: 

The focus of the commentary will be on Yosef, the person.  Frequently, in lessons concerning the Torah, the focus on this entire episode is that the Hand of God can be seen in all of this.  If Yosef hadn't made his brothers angry and jealous, they would not have plotted to kill him and sold him to the Ishmaelites.  If he hadn't been sold to the Ishmaelites, he would not have traveled to Egypt.  If Yosef hadn't traveled to Egypt, he would not have become the viceroy and saved Egypt from famine.  And so on and so forth.  What is many times ignored however is Yisrael and Yosef's weaknesses and the lessons to be learned from that.  Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch says, concerning the third pasuk (verse), the following: 

In spite of [his] weaknesses, there was the making of a quite exceptional man in Yosef.  Not Yaakov, "Yisrael" saw in him the most excellent of his sons.  He saw himself living on in him, saw, in him, all the spiritual acquisitions he had made. . . .  That all this was not judicious or wise, that Yaakov should not have listened to his tattle, that altogether to show favoritism to one child had only evil effects in the history of our forefathers, as indeed it has in any home, is stressed bitterly enough in the pernicious results which are shown in this story.  They are weaknesses which occur only too frequently in people's lives, but are none the less weaknesses. 

With that said, let us back up to the second pasuk and the commentary on that and specifically the phrase "Yosef would bring evil reports about them to their father."  Rav Hirsch translates this phrase as "Yosef brought their tittle-tattle nastily to their father."  The thing we should note here is that Yosef engaged in the speaking of loshon hara (the evil tongue - gossip and tale-bearing).  As we will see later, when the Torah brings forth the 613 mitzvot, such behavior is strictly forbidden.  Rav Hirsch notes: 

[This represents] the toddling tottering gait of a little child, in a stronger form, the single disjointed beats of a kettledrum.  Transferred to words, it is a contrast to coherent, intelligent speech.  So that it means tittle-tattle, idle rumors.  Hence also, the mutterings of the lips of one just awakening from sleep.  In a narrower sense it then comes to mean:  speaking scandal.  It is doubtful how this is to be taken.  Either about them, he brought tales of what he saw of them to his father and moreover, not excusing them, but in a nasty way; or that this refers to the immediately preceding sons of Bilhah and Zilpah.  The tittle-tattle about the other brothers he brought back in an unfriendly way to his father. 

From these two points of commentary, we seem to see a gross contradiction.  Yosef was obviously a very spiritual and gifted person whom God had a special relationship with.  Yet, at the same time, he is small in his thinking and mentality to the point that he spoke loshon hara about his brothers, thereby violating the dictates concerning shalom bait (peace in the home) and worse, spoke slander.

What can we learn from these opposing points?  That Judaism is, above all else, humanistic.  Let's consider a few people from Jewish history.  First, we have the Patriarchs - Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov.  Avraham had a number of weaknesses - especially toward Yishmael and his occasional treatment of Sarah.  Yitzchak showed a marked preference for Esav even though he had been instructed that Yaakov was to be the one to carry on the lineage.  Yaakov does the same thing with Yosef.  Yosef does not do this with his sons but rather worse things to his brothers.  Moshe (Moses) told God that he didn't want the job, among other things.  David haMelech (King David) had a few faults that I won't go into as did his son, Shlomo haMelech (King Solomon).  Judaism does not profess a need for perfection.  It never has.  It never will.  It stresses improvement.  It shows a road map with the mitzvot and says, "Do these things and you will improve yourself and in the process of improving yourself become a better human being and a better Jew."  We must be both - to improve as a Jew is not adequate because God commanded us to be a light to the nations.  We can only be that light by example by how we live which means improving as human beings as well.


Translations in Torah Portions of the week are partially taken from the ArtScroll Stone Edition Chumash and from Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch Chumash

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