These divrei Torah were adapted from the hashkafa portion of Rabbi Yissocher Frand’s Commuter Chavrusah Series on the weekly portion: #1272 – V’sain Tal U’Matar: Some Fascinating Shailos. Good Shabbos!
For a variety of reasons, Parshas Vayeshev is a difficult parsha to understand. One of the more difficult parts of the parsha is the story of Yehuda and Tamar. Tamar married two of Yehudah’s sons and they both died. There was a form of yibum (levirate marriage) in those days, and Yehudah was saving his third son for subsequent marriage to Tamar, but was hesitant to allow that marriage to go forth. At any rate Tamar appears at the crossroads as a zonah (prostitute) and Yehudah, without realizing that it was his daughter-in-law, hires her services.
Yehudah has relations with this woman who he thought was a zonah, and she becomes pregnant from him. When Yehudah learns that his daughter-in-law is pregnant, he assumes she had been unfaithful to his third son and ordered her to be put to death. Tamar proves to Yehudah that she was pregnant from him, and he responds, “She is more righteous than I.” (Bereshis 38:26)
The Medrash asks, how is it that Yehudah, patriarch of one of the Twelve Tribes of G-d, could do such a thing? What prompted him to have relations with a zonah that he happens to see at the crossroads? The Medrash answers that the Ribono shel Olam sent Yehudah “Malach ha’me’muneh al ha’tayvah” (an Angel appointed over the attribute of human sexual desire). In effect, Yehudah was almost forced into this unseemly act. He didn’t want to do it, but somehow a spiritual entity “forced him” to do it.
The reason this malach was given such a mission was that it was part of the Divine Plan that the Davidic monarchy, and ultimately the Moshiach himself, would descend from this union.
So this Medrash explains Yehudah’s action. It was not part of Yehudah’s normal behavior to consort with zonahs. Fine. But what about Tamar? What was Tamar thinking? Did she not realize that her father-in-law Yehudah was a tzadik? How in the world did she expect that she could dress up as a zonah and entice him to have relations with her so that he might father a child through her?
I saw an interesting observation in the sefer Avir Yaakov: The observation is that a person needs to do what he needs to do! Somehow, she knew that she needed to bear a child from Yehudah’s family. She saw that Yehudah was not letting her marry Shelah. If the only way for her to conceive from a member of this family was to dress up as a zonah and try to seduce Yehudah into a relationship, that is what she had to try, regardless of how far-fetched an idea this plan was.
This is a basic principle in Avodas Hashem (Divine Service). We cannot always pause to ask ourselves “What are the chances of this happening? What are the statistics? Is this going to succeed or is it not going to succeed?” It does not work like that. “Ours is not to reason why, our is just to do and die” (Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Charge of the Light Brigade”)
If every Rosh Yeshiva who came to America in the 1930’s and 1940’s would have thought “How is this going to happen?” then no yeshiva would have ever been built. Ner Yisroel started with four talmidim (students). You do what you need to do, despite the fact that the odds of success may be slim, and you need to hope for the best. That is what Tamar was thinking.
Were You More Handsome Than Yosef?
There is a very beautiful and powerful Rambam (Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 5:10) that needs explanation. The Rambam writes: If a person sins, not because he is overcome by lust or passion, but he does it simply out of spite for the laws of the Torah, because “he doesn’t care,” he has made a Chillul HaShem (desecrated the Name of G-d). (In other words, besides punishment for whatever aveira (sin) he committed, he will also be punished for the aveira of Chillul HaShem.) The Torah uses this expression of Chillul Hashem in connection with taking a false oath. Similarly, anyone who abstains from an aveira or does a mitzvah, not for any ulterior motive, neither out of fear nor to seek honor, but simply for the sake of being in compliance with the will of the Creator, blessed be He, has made a Kiddush HaShem (sanctified the Name of G-d).
Who does the Rambam marshal as an example of someone who made a Kiddush HaShem by abstaining from aveira, not out of fear or to seek honor, but for the sake of being in compliance with the Divine Will? The Rambam marshals the example of Yosef abstaining from having relations with his master’s wife.
A dramatic passage in the Gemara (Yoma 35) states:
A poor person, a rich person, and a wicked person each came (to Heaven) to be judged. The poor person is asked: Why did you not occupy yourself with Torah? If he answers “I was poor and I was busy earning my living” they ask him “Were you poorer than Hillel (about whom the Gemara relates his great dedication to learning and studying Torah despite his great poverty)?”
The rich person is asked: Why did you not occupy yourself with Torah? If he answers “I was rich and was occupied with my properties” they ask him “Were you richer than Rabbi Elazar ben Charsom (about whom the Gemara relates his great dedication to Torah study despite the great wealth he inherited from his father)?”
The wicked person is asked: Why did you not occupy yourself with Torah. If he answers “I was very handsome and was absorbed in my passions” they ask him “Were you more handsome than Yosef?” (The Gemara proceeds to discuss the great efforts Potiphar’s wife made to try to seduce Yosef, and Yosef’s steadfast refusal to listen to her arguments.)
The Gemara concludes that Hillel serves as the “prosecutor” of the poor, Rabbi Elazar ben Charsom serves as the “prosecutor” of the wealthy, and Yosef serves as the “prosecutor” of the wicked.
This is what the Rambam alludes to when he cites the righteous Yosef as the paradigm of Kiddush Hashem.
There are two problems with this Rambam.
Problem #1: The Gemara (Sotah 36b) says that Yosef was actually about to commit an act of adultery with Potiphar’s wife until the image of his father, Yaakov, appeared to him in the window, convincing him to back off. Now if we were tempted to do an aveira and we suddenly miraculously saw our father’s image in the window, we would also stop. Why then does the Gemara cite Yosef as the paradigm of someone who successfully withstood the temptation of his evil inclination?
It is possible that when the Gemara says that “the image of his father appeared to him in the window” the Gemara is alluding to this not being the first time that the image of Yaakov appeared to Yosef. Yosef lived his life by always asking himself “What would my father do in this situation? What would my father say?” Since Yosef lived his life like that on a daily basis, the mention of “his father’s image appeared to him in the window” is not talking about a supernatural event. There was no miracle here. Yosef always saw his father peering at him through the window. He always asked himself “What would my father do?” If we lived our lives like that, we would also abstain from giving into sinful temptation.
Many times, I told the story of Mr. Harry K. Wolport. The old timers in Baltimore remember him. Harry K. Wolport was a businessman. He was a talmid of Rav Boruch Ber. He learned in Kamenetz and came to the United States of America in the early 1900’s. Every one of his Jewish acquaintances felt that they needed to keep their stores open on Shabbos to survive in business. He was tempted to keep his store open on Shabbos as well. But he said, “I cannot do this to Rav Boruch Ber!” Rav Boruch Ber used to appear to him in the window because Mr.Wolport kept that image in front of him. That is how he was able to withstand the temptation to open his store on Shabbos. When a person lives his life like that on a daily basis, such visages in the window are not supernatural.
Problem #2: Why does the Rambam chose the story of Yosef as the paradigm of stopping to do an aveirah “not out of trembling and not out of fear and not for the sake of honor”? Why Yosef? The Chiddushei HaRim says that if after 120 years, we go to Heaven and they ask us “Why didn’t you stop sinning like Yosef did?” we have a simple answer to that question: “I am not Yosef”. They don’t call me “Yissacher haTzadik” (the righteous one). They call me “Yissacher.” Yosef is given the attribute “HaTzadik“. “What do you want from me? I am not Yosef!”
“Why don’t you make a siyum every year on the entire body of Torah literature like Rav Chaim Kannievsky?” The answer is obvious: “It is because I am NOT Rav Chaim Kanievsky.” Rav Elyashiv used to learn in the Beis Medrash on Erev Pesach. Why don’t you do that?” The answer is “It is because I am NOT Rav Elyashiv!” I am not Rav Elyashiv and I am not Rav Chaim Kanievsky and I am not Yosef haTzadik.
The Chiddushei HaRim answers: Yes, you are Yosef HaTzadik, because that is what Yosef HaTzadik did for Klal Yisrael. He gave us the spiritual strength to withstand temptation. That is why the Rambam marshals the act of abstention of Yosef haTzadik.
Just like Avraham Avinu gave us the spiritual ability to be a martyr for Kiddush HaShem. Rav Chaim of Volozhin explains that all the patriarchs put qualities of self-sacrifice and other spiritual powers into our spiritual DNA. Yosef gave us the ability to say “No.”
That is one answer to this second problem. I was told that the Brisker Rav also gave an answer to this question of why the Rambam uses the example of “like the act of abstaining by the righteous Yosef.”
The Brisker Rav says that when Potiphar’s wife is trying to seduce Yosef, he gives her a list of reasons why it would be inappropriate for him to do that (Bereshis 39:8-9) “Look – my master concerns himself with nothing in the house, and all that he has, he placed in my custody. There is no one greater in this house than I, and he has denied me nothing but you, since you are his wife; how then can I perpetrate this great evil?” Finally, at the end of his list, Yosef adds “And I would be sinning before Elokim.”
The Brisker Rav said Yosef’s final remark is his key argument. Every other argument can be answered with an excuse. “He wasn’t such a good boss; he made me work too hard; he wouldn’t mind anyway; he is fooling around himself…” All these justifications can be offered. A person can rationalize everything. There is only one thing that cannot be rationalized: “And I would be sinning before Elokim.”
The Brisker Rav says this is the meaning of this Rambam. When a person is faced with such temptation, he should remember Yosef haTzadik. Yosef haTzadik overcame his temptation by remembering “And I would be sinning before Elokim.” Any person who keeps that in mind, will not do an aveira.
Transcribed by David Twersky; Jerusalem [email protected]
Edited by Dovid Hoffman; Baltimore, MD [email protected]
This week’s write-up is adapted from the hashkafa portion of Rabbi Yissocher 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
- #1316 – Endangering Oneself To Perform The Mitzvah of Kibbud Av
- #1360 – Showing Favoritism Amongst Your Children
- #1404 – Is Grape Juice As Good As Wine For Kiddush And Other Halachos?
- #1448 – MaOz Tzur and Its Traditional Tune – Not as Kosher as You Might Think
- #1492 – Zerizus vs Hidur: What’s More Important Doing Mitzvos Promptly or Beautifully?
- #1536 – Using Jelled Olive Oil for Chanukah – Not as Simple as You May Think
- (2022) – Why Should You Always Light the Shul Menorah Every Year?
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.