These divrei Torah were adapted from the hashkafa portion of Rabbi Yissocher Frand’s Commuter Chavrusah Tapes on the weekly portion: ##1011 – Davening with a Minyan on Chanukah vs Lighting On Time. Good Shabbos!
Parshas Vayeshev: No Good Guys and Bad Guys Here
The Yeshiva in Volozhin was known as the “mother of all Lithuanian Yeshivas.” There was a period in time when there was a question regarding who should head the yeshiva. The two candidates for the position were Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (the Netzi”v) and Rabbi Yosef Dov haLevi Soloveitchik (the Bais HaLevi). This was such a world class issue, that it was taken before a Beis Din of three distinguished Rabbanim.
One of the members of the panel, after hearing both sides of the argument, noted: “It is Parshas Vayeshev this week.” The other members of the panel looked at him incredulously, because in fact it was not Parshas Vayeshev that week!
He explained himself: Throughout the first eight parshios of Sefer Bereishis, whenever I speak about the parsha, I am able to speak about the hero and the villain of the parsha. In Bereishis, it is Adam against the Snake, in Noach, it is Noach against the Generation of the Flood, in Lech Lecha, it is Avraham against Lot. In Vayera, it is Yitzchak against Yishmael. In Chayei Sara, it is Avraham against Ephron. In Toldos, it is Yitzchak against Avimelech. In Vayeitzei, it is Yaakov against Lavan. Finally, in Vayishlach, it is Yaakov against Eisav. In each parsha, we have a hero and a villain, a good person and a bad person.
However, in Parshas Vayeshev — it is Yosef against the brothers. This is not a question of a good person versus a bad person. They are all Tzadikim here. Therefore, I have nothing to say. The question of who should be the Rosh Yeshiva of Volozhin, between the Netziv and the Bais HaLevi, is like the dispute between Yosef and his brothers. They are both qualified. They are both perfectly righteous. This is like the story of Parshas Vayeshev.
The S’Yata D’Shmaya of the Gerrer Rebbe
At the beginning of the parsha, the pasuk describes Yosef with the words “v’hu na’ar” – and he was a youth “…with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives…” [Bereishis 37:2]. Rashi, in the name of the Medrash, interprets the words “v’hu na’ar” to mean that he acted immaturely (ma’aseh na’arus) — he would fix his hair and groom his eyes so that he would look attractive.
The Medrash is bothered by the fact that Yosef was a seventeen-year-old at this time. It is not appropriate to call a seventeen-year-old lad a “na’ar“. “Na’ar” is a young child. Therefore, the Medrash says that by calling him a na’ar, the Torah is teaching us that Yosef acted immaturely for his age.
Everyone asks a question on this Medrash, and the question comes with a story:
Rabbi Yehuda Leib Tsirelson [1859-1941] was a Rav in Kishinev. He was a great man, but he was living in an area that was detached from the major Eastern European Jewish communities of the day — Hungary, Lithuania, and Poland. He was, however, an important person, and had a connection to the nascent Agudas Yisrael organization. The founders of the organization sought his opinion on whether to appoint the Gerrer Rebbe (Rav Avraham Mordechai Alter [1866-1948]) to a position of leadership within Agudas Yisrael.
Being isolated from much of the Jewish world, Rav Tsirelson did not know who the Gerrer Rebbe was. Therefore, he sent a letter to Rav Moshe Nachum Yerushalmski, who lived in the city of Kalitz, and asked him, “Who is this Gerrer Rebbe?”
Rav Yerusahalmski wrote him back and said “This Rebbe is a Tzaddik who has thousands of followers. I know he is a man who has S’yata d’Shmaya [Divine Help].” He then cited proof that the Rebbe had Divine help:
“The way I know this is because the Gerrer Rebbe had an uncle in my town whom he used to come and visit. Protocol was that when a distinguished rabbi visited a town, he would always first pay a courtesy call to the town Rabbi, to give him a Shalom Aleichem. So when the Gerrer Rebbe came to Kalitz to visit his uncle, he would first come to say hello to me, the Rav of the city.”
Rav Moshe Nachum Yerushalmski continued:
One time, the Gerrer Rebbe came to visit his uncle during the week of Parshas Vayeshev. When he stopped in to see me, I asked him the following question: The Medrash interprets that Yosef acted immaturely from the fact that the Torah calls him a na’ar, even though he was already seventeen years old at the time. However, by Akeidas Yitzchak, Avraham refers to Yitzchak as a na’ar with the words, “…and I and the na’ar will go up to here…” [Bereishis 22:5]. At the time, according to Chazal, Yitzchak was already 37 years old! Why does the Medrash not make any comment there about the incongruous use of the term na’ar for someone who was already much older than Yosef is in the beginning of Parshas Vayeshev?
The Gerrer Rebbe told me that it was not a valid question. He said if the Torah calls someone who is not really a child a “na’ar“, then there is something to be learned from that; however when a father calls his son a “na’ar” – regardless of the age of his child — it is perfectly understandable. (In Yiddish: “Ba a Tatte is a kind ala mol a kind!” In English: “With a father, his child always remains a child!”). By the Akeida, it was Avraham talking about his son Yitzchak, so therefore the term na’ar is understandable. We do not derive any lesson from it.
Rav Yerushalmski then demonstrated his contention that the Gerrer Rebbe had S’yata d’Shmaya: I accompanied him downstairs from my apartment, to see him out of the building, and there was an old Jewish woman who recognized the Gerrer Rebbe as he was coming down the steps. She rushed over to him and asked him for a Bracha. The Rebbe gave her a Bracha. This woman — who was 97 years old — after receiving the blessing for herself, asked the Rebbe “Kent ihr gebben a bracha faar mein kleinem aych?” [“Can you give a Bracha for my little one as well?”] There was a man behind her who was in his seventies, and she was calling him “my little one!”
Rav Yerushalmski felt that the fact that the Rebbe expressed this Torah insight, and only moments later it became manifestly clear that his words were true, was a sign of Divine Inspiration and Divine Assistance that were the hallmarks of the Gerrer Rebbe. (It is perhaps not for naught that the Gerrer Rebbe was known as the Imrei Emes (Words of Truth), after the works he authored.)
Rav Yerushalmski assured Rabbi Yehuda Leib Tsirelson – “He is not only a Tzaddik and a great person, he is an individual who has S’yata d’Shmaya, and he can certainly be trusted with a position of leadership in Agudas Yisrael.”
What Happened to the Principle: Shiluchei Mitzvah Einan Nizokin?
After these two rather “light” observations on the parsha, the following thought, based on the commentary of the “Ohr” HaChaim Hakadosh, is “Light” in a different order of magnitude:
The pasuk says, “And Israel said to Yosef, ‘Are your brothers not pasturing in Shechem? Go, and I will send you to them.'” [Bereishis 37:13]. Yaakov Avinu sent Yosef to check on his brothers. We all know what happened from that instruction. The brothers wanted to kill Yosef, they threw him into a pit, they sold him to Egypt, and the rest is history. The Ohr HaChaim asks — how could this happen? There is a principle “Harm does not come to those sent on a mission to do a mitzvah” (shiluchei mitzvah einan nizokin) [Pesachim 8a]. What happened to the rule of shiluchei mitzvah einan nizokin when Yosef carried out his father’s instructions?
The Ohr HaChaim gives two answers to this question. One is a lomdishe teretz [an answer based on subtle Talmudic analysis] and one is a hashkafa teretz [an answer based on Torah philosophy].
The lomdishe teretz is that Yaakov told Yosef, “Behold, your brothers are grazing the sheep in Shechem” – meaning the extent of his shlichus [mission] was to go to Shechem. However, Yosef went to Shechem and found that his brothers were not there. Yosef learned that they were in Dosan — a different city — and he headed there instead. The Ohr HaChaim argues that he was not a “Shliach mitzvah” to go to Dosan — that was not part of his father’s instructions to him — and therefore the guarantee that “Shiluchei mitzvah einan nizokin” did not protect him. Technically speaking, the mission terminated when he did not find his brothers in Shechem. He was a “free agent” when he decided to look for them in Dosan, and could not rely on the protection afforded people engaged in the act of doing a mitzvah.
(The HaMakneh (by Rav Pinchas haLevi Horowitz [1731-1805]) in Maseches Kiddushin asks on this answer of the Ohr HaChaim, and says that this argument is not based on normative halachic ruling. The Halacha is that if a person says to an agent “Give this Get [divorce document] to my wife in Shechem” and he gives it to her in a different city, the Get is invalid (because the agent did not carry out the instructions of the husband). However, if the husband says to the agent, “Give this Get to my wife – “she can be found in Shechem” — then even if the agent finds her in a different city and gives her the divorce document there, it is valid. We say that when the husband specifies, “she can be found in Shechem” — he is merely helping the agent find his wife (mar’eh makom hu lah), rather than insisting that the divorce be carried out in a specific location. Thus, the HaMakneh rejects the first answer of the Ohr HaChaim.)
The Ohr HaChaim gives a second answer to his question, in which he redefines the definition of “harm” [nezek].
“Harm whose ultimate purpose is good, is not considered harm.” Ultimately, what happened to Yosef was not a bad thing. Shiluchei Mitzvah einan nizokin means no bad will befall an agent of mitzvah. This was not bad because this mission led to Yosef’s winding up in Egypt, and ultimately saving the world! Admittedly, he went through some difficulties to get there, but the bottom line was that the result was not only salvation for his family, but also salvation for the entire world. Such “trouble” from which great salvation emerges, is not considered “nezek.”
This idea espouses a very important truth that is not always easy to realize or accept. Many times, people experience tremendous challenges, certain that they are experiencing tragic misfortune, yet the challenges eventually turn out not to be misfortune at all, but rather a true salvation.
I saw a related idea in an interesting sefer called Milchamos Yehudah.
At the end of this week’s parsha, Yosef withstood the temptations of Potifar’s wife. Yosef is a young man who is away from home, and away from his family. There are no other Jews around. He is tempted daily by a beautiful married woman, and he successfully rebuffs her advances. Given those circumstances and his ability to remain righteous, he received the title Yosef haTzadik.
This act had far-reaching implications generations later. Egypt, our Rabbis tell us, was immersed in promiscuity (shitufei zimah). It was a country of very loose morals. Yet, the entire time the Jews resided in Egypt, not a single person was unfaithful to their spouse (except for one woman who unwittingly committed adultery — a case that was a total mistake on her part). How did people dwelling in a completely licentious society remain immune from these immoral temptations? It came about as the result of Yosef HaTzadik withstanding the temptations to which he was exposed.
The implication of what Yosef did was huge. Yosef did not only enable the physical survival of his family, but also their spiritual survival – in that because of him, his family had the capacity to withstand the moral challenges that Egyptian society threw at them. This all resulted from Yosef going down to Egypt. The Almighty obviously knew what was in store for us, and in order to prepare us and protect us from what might happen there, He sent a person like Yosef haTzaddik first, so that his influence could save Klal Yisrael for several generations.
This sefer, Milchamos Yehudah, points out the following observation: Every country has a “national preoccupation”. In Egypt, they were “shitufei zimah” (immersed in promiscuity). In America, he argues, the biggest preoccupation of people is money. Everybody wants to become wealthy. Yet we see that over the last twenty, thirty, forty, and fifty years, a cadre of Bnei Torah and Bnei Yeshiva have developed in America who give up the finer things in life to be able to devote themselves to a lifestyle of Torah study. Likewise, there are women who are able to make that sacrifice and become women of valor in families dedicated to financial sacrifice for the sake of Torah learning. How did it come about that a select subset of the population is able to withstand the entire environment of the country in which they find themselves?
The Milchamos Yehudah said it happened because the people who came to America in the 1930s and 1940s — the Gedolim of the previous generation — were willing to live with mesiras nefesh [great self-sacrifice] and in great poverty — just so that they could establish a foundation of Torah learning in this country.
Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin [1881-1973], z”l, who was really the posek haDor [final halachic authority for his generation], lived in great poverty. He was the one who supported Ezras Torah (an organization which provided financial support to rabbinic students) and he felt that every dollar he took for himself was taking away from Bnei Torah. He lived far below the poverty line. Although he was the posek haDor, he would only allow himself to spend $10 on a Lulav and Esrog. He would take Four Species that were kosher, but not in any way exceptionally beautiful (mehudar). The rest of the money went to charity.
When Rav Aharon Kotler came to America, the self-sacrifice with which he lived — not to take any money that he did not need to take — was legendary. I read recently that he once had to go to Eretz Yisrael for a family Simcha, so the Rebbetzin told the students who went with him, “Buy him a new kappota [frock coat].” The students purchased the kappota, but the Rosh Yeshiva refused to wear it. He totally rejected the idea that the Yeshiva should pay for a kappota for him just so he could wear it at a family simcha. “I cannot take the Yeshiva’s money for that!”
Because there were such people — and the list by no means ends there — who were dedicated to live in poverty for the sake of creating a Torah environment in this country, they implanted this same strength in the generations that followed as well. Just as Yosef was able to pioneer the attribute of preserving sexual morality in the midst of an amoral society for future generations, and preserve spiritual salvation for Klal Yisrael for years to come, the same is true with the spiritual pioneers of every generation.
The reason we are able to survive every exile in every country, despite the tests and temptations that those exiles and those countries throw at us, is that in each generation the Almighty plants Tzadikim in our midst who lead the way, and show the proper path for disciples and spiritual emulators who follow their example.
Transcribed by David Twersky; Jerusalem [email protected]
Technical Assistance by Dovid Hoffman; Baltimore, MD [email protected]
This week’s write-up is adapted from the hashkafa portion of Rabbi Yissochar Frand’s Commuter Chavrusah Series on the weekly Torah portion. A listing of the halachic portions for Parshas Vayeshev is provided below:
- # 034 – Chanukah Licht on Erev Shabbos
- # 076 – Katlanis: The Twice Widowed Woman
- # 125 – Ha’Malbim P’nei Chaveiro: Shaming Another
- # 172 – The Complex Issue of Child Custody
- # 218 – Grape Juice and Yayin Mevushal
- # 262 – Yichud and the Open Door Policy
- # 308 – Secular Studies
- # 352 – “Chamar Medina” — Used for Kiddush?
- # 396 – Artificial Insemination Before Chemotherapy
- # 440 – Third Night of Chanukah but Only Two Candles
- # 484 – The Ubiquitous Donor Plaque
- # 528 – Sending Someone on a Fatal Mission
- # 572 – Determining Paternity
- # 616 – Chanukah – Women Lighting for Husbands
- # 660 – Birthdays – A Jewish Minhag?
- # 704 – Sparing Someones Humiliation
- # 748 – The Menorah – Inside The House or Outside?
- # 792 – Observing Shiva for Grandparents?
- # 836 – Katlanis: A Third Marriage
- # 880 – Lying For The Sake Of The Truth
- # 924 – Bitachon Vs Hishtadlus
- # 967 – Can Older Brother Object to the Younger Brother’s Engagement?
- #1011 – Davening with a Minyan on Chanukah vs Lighting On Time
- #1055 – Can You Kill Someone Who Hashem Doesn’t Want To Die?
- #1098 – Doing A Mitzvah in Face of Sakana
- #1141 – Business Partnerships With Non-Jews
- #1184 – Holding the Kiddush Cup – Exactly How? Always?
- #1228 – Saved Miraculously from a Car Accident? Special Bracha?
- #1272 – V’sain Tal U’Matar: Some Fascinating Shailos
A complete catalogue can be ordered from the Yad Yechiel Institute, PO Box 511, Owings Mills MD 21117-0511. Call (410) 358-0416 or e-mail [email protected] or visit http://www.yadyechiel.org/ for further information.