Torah for the Times

Friday, December 16, 2011 - 20 Kislev, 5772

Torah Reading: VaYeishev (Genesis 32:4 - 36:43)
Candle Lighting Time: 4:11 PM
Shabbat Ends: 5:16 PM

Have A Seat

How can You Eat at a Time Like This?

This week’s parsha features the division between Joseph and his brothers. Joseph was given preferential treatment by his father Jacob, and Joseph exacerbated the situation by telling his brothers of the dreams he had which apparently portended a time in the future when he would be their master.

The brothers' hatred reached the boiling point when Joseph was sent by Jacob to find out how they were doing, as they were grazing sheep in a different town, but when he appeared before his brothers they conspired to kill him. Reuvein. Joseph’s oldest brother, stalled for time and told his brothers not to kill him but, instead, to throw him into a pit, Reuvein having the intention of later returning and rescuing Joseph. When Reuvein left the scene, the brothers sat down to eat a meal, and it was then that Judah suggested that instead of killing Joseph they sell him to the Ishmaelites who were passing by. This ultimately led to Joseph's ending up in Egypt, which triggered a host of events, discussed in the upcoming parshas, which ended with the entire Jewish nation becoming enslaved in Egypt.

When we read this part of the story several questions come to mind: First, as commentators ask, how is it that they were about to decide Joseph’s fate—a life and death situation—and were able to nonchalantly sit down and eat a meal? Second, why does the Torah have to tell us that they “sat down to eat bread?” Of what import is that piece of information? What does their eating have to do with selling Joseph? Third, why is it important to know specifically that they were sitting when they ate their bread? Fourth, Judah, who proposed selling him, came up with the idea only after he saw a caravan of Ishmaelites passing by. What was it about the fact that they were Ishmaelites that gave Judah the idea to sell his brother? And why didn’t he think of the idea before the caravan passed by?

Most importantly, what lesson are we to derive from this part of the episode. Certainly we can appreciate the lesson as to how we should not give one child preferential treatment and incur the jealousy of the others, as the Talmud teaches us. We also can derive a lesson about how we should not incite others against us by showing off and arousing their jealousy. We can certainly learn lessons such as not to hate your brother and that hatred can even lead to kidnapping and bloodshed. We can also learn from this entire episode how a half-baked solution, Judah’s idea of selling Joseph instead of returning him to his father, is not acceptable when it comes to another person’s life and well-being. But what lesson can we derive from their sitting down to eat bread just when they observed an Ishmaelite caravan pass by that prompted them to sell Joseph?


The fact that the Torah tells us that they sat down to eat bread does not mean toimply, as we might think, that they were so callous as to indulge themselves while Joseph was most likely pleading for his life. On the contrary, as the Chassidic work Igra d’kallah points out, they began to experience self-doubt, and they therefore sat down to reflect on and carefully scrutinize their course of action. Joseph’s brothers, according to our Oral tradition, were all righteous people. They are referred to in the book of Psalms as “G‑d’s tribes.” In Kabbalah we are told that their souls originated in the lofty world of Beriah, which is one rung lower than the world inhabited by the Patriarchs, the world of Atzilut, the world of G‑dly emanation. A person whose soul is from the pristine world of Beriah is endowed with incredible spiritual intellectual powers. But unlike the world of Atzilut souls, the brothers' souls were not endowed with intuitive receptivity to G‑d’s will; they had to apply rigorous logic to reach their decisions.

When they expressed their hostility to Joseph it was based not on mere emotions and feelings of jealousy. In their minds they erroneously concluded that Joseph was a dangerous rebel, a false prophet, and one who possessed presumptuous arrogance. If his power and arrogance were not nipped in the bud, they thought, Joseph could very well become another Yishamel or Esau, only this time there was nobody to check his errant ways as had been achieved in the past. Sarah and Rebecca each were able to control the damage that would have ensued from Yishamel and Esau had Abraham and Isaac not been informed of their treacherous ways. But now, who was going to control Joseph? Jacob’s wives could not prevent him from showering his love on Joseph. Rachel was no longer alive and Leah did not possess the ability to influence Jacob. Joseph’s brothers felt that they had to be the ones to prevent him from destroying all of the pioneering work of the Patriarchs. In their mind, Joseph was the greatest threat to them and to G‑d’s plan for the world that would have to come through the right heirs to the legacy of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

But now, after they threw Joseph in the pit, the brothers were beginning to have doubts about their motives: Perhaps it was an emotional reaction and their egos that motivated them to be so bent on their brother's destruction and not really their righteous indignation and concern for the future of the Jewish people? So Joseph’s brothers sat down to eat bread. This is to be taken both literally and figuratively. Their intention in sitting down to eat bread was to give them an opportunity them to mull over the situation and digest all of the information that was available to them.

On the literal level, when someone does something on an empty stomach it may not be a well thought out plan. It may be a product of a growling stomach that makes it impossible to think clearly. They did not eat a feast while their flesh and blood was in agony because they were, G‑d forbid, callous or banal. They had an obligation to think this matter through, a matter they took seriously and for which they should be commended. On the figurative level, their sitting down to eat bread was another way of saying they were applying all of their intellectual faculties to objectively assess this situation. Eating bread is sometimes employed as a metaphor for study and reflection and “sitting down” implies that they did so with the full involvement of their intellectual faculties; they were totally absorbed in this process.

Divine Providence Misunderstood

And at precisely that time they saw the caravan of Ishmaelites passing by on their way to Egypt. This is where they discontinued their introspection and analysis and relied, instead, on their understanding of Divine Providence. Their dilemma was that if they should let Joseph live it might threaten everything that was near and dear to them. Should they kill him it would cause irreparable emotional and perhaps physical harm to their father. Before they can reach a conclusion, the solution just presented itself in front of their eyes! To them it was G‑d’s signal to “have their cake and eat it too.” They would rid themselves of the pariah without actually taking his life. To Judah it was a message from G‑d as to how they should respond. Moreover the fact that these traveling merchants were Ishmaelites was a further confirmation to them of the righteousness of their cause. To them, their brother Joseph was a repeat of Ishmael, an errant son who was sent away by his father because of his threat to Isaac.

The Twin Lessons

And here are the immediate lessons we can derive from this story: On the one hand, before we decide to do something drastic in distancing another Jew from us, an action that can have far reaching consequences, an act which can either get us more ensconced in exile or get us closer to Redemption, we must sit down and “eat bread”, i.e. thoroughly learn and digest all of what the Torah says about the subject. When we survey the teachings of the Torah, particularly the teachings of the Rebbe on this subject, we see that Ahavat Yisrael, love of our fellow Jew, and that Jewish unity are the catalysts for Redemption and not the other way around. Even if we think that a certain Jew is so disconnected from his Jewish roots that he might be lost, we must be careful not to do anything to distance him further. Sitting down to eat bread is a metaphor for the study of the Torah teachings concerning Moshiach and Redemption. To the extent that Joseph’s brothers did that it is commendable, and we must apply that lesson to our own lives.

Conversely, there is another lesson - we must not follow their example when it comes to arriving at an unwarranted conclusion about Divine Providence. While it is true that everything that happens is by Divine Providence, one cannot interpret the significance of an event in ways that do not concur with G‑d’s revealed will. There was and is no divinely ordained precedent to sell a brother into slavery. If there was even a scintilla of a doubt as to whether Joseph should have been so maligned and punished, his brothers had no right to do it. It mattered not what “signals” they thought they were getting from G‑d. Divine Providence is to be used to reinforce the things that we know are consistent with G‑d’s will. When we witness an event that reminds us of a Mitzvah it should strengthen our resolve to do the Mitzvah, not the other way around.

Signs of Moshiach

All of the events of the past few decades are stark reminders of what we’ve been told by the Rebbe that we are now living on the very threshold of the Redemption. When we see the signs that the Torah (both Written and Oral) have indicated that are signs of Moshiach, including the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the many miracles in Israel, we must take note of these Divine Providential signs in a positive way. They must serve as sources of inspiration to buttress our faith in the imminence of Moshiach’s arrival. In addition, these dramatic signs should arouse us to prepare ourselves for this time by strengthening our commitment to the study of Torah and the observance of Mitzvot.

Perhaps, most importantly, one of the powerful signs that we see today, the “caravans” of modern day “Ishmaelites” traveling in the direction of Egypt, the symbol of slavery and persecution of Israel and the Jewish people, should inspire us to do the opposite of Joseph’s brothers. We should look at all the dramatic current events as signals to strengthen Jewish unity and foster greater love among the modern day brothers of Joseph. Ahavas Yisrael, love of our fellow and of Jewish unity is the way to get us out of exile symbolized by Egypt; it is the surest way to make us receptive to all of G‑d’s blessings, especially the blessing of Redemption.

Moshiach Matters

The verse tells us that “Joseph was Hurad (lowered) into Egypt” (Genesis 39:1). The same word is used in connection with King Moshiach: “V’Yerd (and he will rule) from sea to sea.” This teaches that the inner intent of exile, initiated with Joseph’s descent into Egypt, is to bring about the revelation of Moshiach.” (The Rebbe, Parshas VaYeshev, 1980)
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