The description is puzzling. He, Yosef was a na’ar, a lad, a youth. What could this be telling us? From the first part of the pasuk, we know exactly how old he was. Is the Torah commenting on his somewhat indelicate self-promotion to his brothers, calling it na’arus, as in foolish obliviousness to the consequences? This is hard to accept. At age seventeen, one ought to be able to realize the effect his words would have.2 Chazal3 see na’ar as a behavioral description. Yosef, the pasuk tells us, acted to an extent in a manner typical of an adolescent. He spent more time than is necessary on his appearance, preening and grooming himself. This led, in turn, to an artificial immaturity that caused him to make inappropriate choices in judging his brothers, their actions, and how they would respond to his dreams.
While this may have been the factual truth, why would the Torah make a point of speaking disparagingly of a great tzadik? Elsewhere the Torah takes great pains and lavishes precious extra words to avoid using an overly negative description even of an animal!4 The Torah must have had some compelling reason to have us learn about this weakness of the young Yosef. Some vital lesson must grow out of it.
Here is that lesson. How did it come to pass that Yosef, despite his righteousness, speak lashon hora about his brothers – with catastrophic consequences for himself and his family? The enmity and friction sparked by his behavior set events in motion that led to the captivity of a nation. Why was Yosef the unwilling catalyst?
Our pasuk clues us in on an important principle in human behavior. People rarely are ensnared by the yetzer hora to fall great distances at a single time. It is usually impossible to lure a person from righteousness to great sin in one fell swoop. There have to be transitional stages, to ease the fall. Typically, the yetzer hora will first tempt a person to get his fill of completely permissible items. He will grant himself great latitude in filling his wants and desires, all the while staying completely within the boundaries of the permissible.
Once the person has accustomed himself to taking what he wants, it becomes easier to lure him to the impermissible. The next step in his spiritual deterioration is to offer him things that halachically require checking before consumption, as a precaution. To fill his appetite, the person will now skip the checking. Soon, he will find it easy to partake of food that is more seriously questionable – although at this point he would not eat something that he knew to be definitely non-kosher. That, however, follows not long after that.
How did Yosef fall prey to behavior unbefitting a tzadik? The consequences of forbidden speech are onerous and well known. This did not happen overnight! It was part of a process. That process began with his spending too much time on his appearance, seeking importance and greatness, hoping to improve his position relative to his brothers. A sin leads to another sin. This means that a very small sin can lead to a not so small sin. In Yosef’s case, feeding his taavah for greatness led to his reporting on the misdeeds of his brothers.
We are not suggesting that Yosef was motivated by evil designs upon his brothers. To the contrary, his intentions were good and noble. But they led to terrible consequences, and this would ordinarily not be the fate of a true tzadik. A righteous person would be protected from such things. They happened to Yosef only because he stepped down slightly from a lofty level to concern himself with enhancing his ego.
Half of the problem is solved. We still must account for the fact that no harm would have come to the family had Yaakov not accepted the lashon hora! To this end, the next pasuk rounds out the background to the tragic events of the parshah: “Yisrael loved Yosef more than all his sons, since he as a child of his old age.” He ignored the dictum of Chazal that a person should never favor one son from among the others. Here as well, a tiny departure from absolute propriety created a beachhead for the yetzer hora, which allowed it to pull Yaakov along further, to the point that he accepted the lashon hora against his other sons.
1. Based on Be’er Mayim Chaim Bereishis 37:2
2. See Gur Aryeh
3. Bereishis Rabbah 84:7
4. Pesachim 3A