Torah for the Times

Friday, December 7 - 23 Kislev, 5773

Torah Reading: Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1 - 40:23)
Candle Lighting Time: 4:10 PM

Shabbat ends: 5:14 PM


Joseph was sold by his brothers and became a slave in the house of Poitphar, whose wife tried repeatedly, in vain, to seduce him. Finally, when no one was around, she grabbed hold of his garment and put enormous pressure on him to submit. The Torah states “and he refused”, left his garment with her and fled.

What is unique about the words “and he refused” is that the Hebrew word Va’ye’ma’ein, has the rare musical note (trop) connected with this word, which tells us how to chant that word when we read the Torah publicly. The note is a shalshelet which appears only four times in the entire Torah.

We already had the occasion to discuss this note as it made its second appearance in an earlier parsha concerning the prayer of Eliezer, Abraham’s servant’s, who asked G‑d to help him find a suitable match for his master’s son, Isaac.

What we may ask is the significance of this note that underlies Joseph’s refusal to commit adultery with his master’s wife? And considering the infrequent appearance of this note in the entire Torah it follows that it must be here to convey a deep message. And as all matters of Torah, it must also contain an enduring lesson for us in our own lives.

To understand the significance of this note here it is necessary to first again describe the note. The shalshelet note resembles and sounds like its translation, a chain of three. When one chants the Torah, this note sounds like a protracted chain of three notes, each taking the one who chants it to a higher level.

Some explain that Joseph’s refusal to surrender to her demands was not without struggle. Joseph, at one point, was about to give in, when, as the Midrash tells us, his father’s image appeared before him and he desisted. To underscore the hesitation and struggle, we read the word “and he refused” with a protracted note.

But, this explanation, does not take into account the fact that the note is made up of three parts and that the word itself means “chain.” In other words, Joseph’s struggle had very much to do with the idea of a chain that comprises three parts. Another feature of the shalshelet note is that it takes the one who chants it higher and higher. How does that relate to Joseph’s struggle and its application to modern times?

As was discussed in an earlier message, when Eliezer prayed for finding the proper match for Isaac, he was thinking of the chain of generations that would emerge from this historic union that would forever change the world. When Eliezer prayed to G‑d to find a suitable match for Isaac he saw an entire chain of generations that would bring light and inspiration to the entire world that will lead inexorably to the final Redemption through Moshiach.

We can take that message a step further. Joseph was about to make a decision as to whether he was prepared to break away from that chain. While Isaac’s marriage to Rebecca was clearly a determining factor in the emergence of the Jewish people, Joseph’s situation was apparently not. Joseph was only one of the twelve sons of Jacob. If Joseph failed to link up with his father, the other eleven brothers could take his place.

Joseph could have thought, “I was abandoned by my brothers. Even my father has not attempted to locate me. Obviously the slanderous remarks they have told my father that I have strayed from his teachings must have resonated with him and he has written me off. I am no longer his spiritual heir. Why should I care now?”

Joseph concluded otherwise. He knew that his decision now would have cosmic effects. His struggle was not just about him.

There are many of us who do not understand the importance of our role in the broader scheme of things. We are but a small cog in a giant machine. If we are lost to the Jewish people, who would notice, who would care and what difference would it make?

The shalshelet note attached to Joseph’s refusal to submit imparts to us a profound message. We must view ourselves, when we are confronted with major decisions in life, as indispensible to the future of the Jewish people. And we must further view our connection to our people in terms of three. We are linked to the past, the present and the future. If we make the wrong choices we undermine our connection with our forebears, with our family and nation as they are today as well as with our future.

But all of this is a negative way of looking at this story; suggesting that if Joseph would have submitted he would have negatively affected the chain and severed his ties with his father, with his brothers and with his children.

However, Judaism is not just about the avoidance of causing problems in our lives. There must be a positive message in this shalshelet/Joseph story as well. This is especially true in light of the symbolism attached to Joseph’s name: Joseph implies increasing, adding on, in the spirit of the upcoming Chanukah Holiday, when we “add on” a candle each night of Chanukah. Joseph is all about increasing light not just banishing darkness. What positive, life enhancing message is there in this story?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe was once visited by a young man who was contemplating doing something spiritually destructive that would have severed his ties with his past, present and future. When he said what he was considering, instead of scolding him, the Rebbe’s response to him was: “I am envious of you. I could never reach the heights of holiness that you could achieve by passing the test that you have been given.”

Needless to say, this person was so inspired by those poignant and powerful words that he turned his Jewish life around and did not follow the dictates of his heart, but, instead, heeded the voice of his soul.

When we have a Joseph moment—in any area of life, where we are subjected to pressures that take us away from our past, present and future—we should view it as an incredible opportunity to grow to unimaginable heights. Not only do we not sever the link in the chain, we become the strongest link; we add dignity, holiness and strength to the chain.

This past week we celebrated Yud-Tes-Kislev, the 19th day of the month of Kislev, the anniversary of the liberation of the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Chabad movement from Czarist imprisonment.

In his seminal work, the Tanya, he explains how the greatest spiritual accomplishments come not from the totally righteous individuals who are never tempted to sin, but precisely from the person who has to struggle with their animal soul. The incredible spiritual energy it unleashes when a person overcomes the enticements of our animal nature is unmatched.

This is a day when we reflect on our generation’s unique role to live in a world that arguably has more pitfalls, more tests and challenges than any previous period of history. It should not get us down, on the contrary, it is a sign of the times that we are living on the very cusp of the Messianic Age of Redemption, Because our role is so pivotal we are given the greatest tests—read: opportunities and challenges—to reach for and receive the greatest prize of all—the revealing of our soul’s essence and through that the transformation of the world into a world of goodness and holiness, with the coming of Moshiach.

Moshiach Matters

The Rebbe Rashab, Rabbi Shalom Dovber, said:

"Even the greatest minds must lay aside their intellect and not be ruled by reason and knowledge, for they are susceptible to being misguided by their intellect to the point that their end may be a bitter one.
The essential thing in these times of the "footsteps of Moshiach" is not to follow intellect and reason, but to fulfill Torah and mitzvot wholeheartedly, with simple faith in the G‑d of Israel."