Parashat Vayeshev: "These are the Generations of Ya'akov Yosef"
by Rav Itamar Eldar
Yeshivat Har Etzion
"These are the generations of Ya'akov Yosef"
Our parasha constitutes an important point of reference in the transition from the stories about Ya'akov to the narratives about his sons. The term that marks the transition from father to son in the biblical accounts of the patriarchs is "these are the generations."
When the Torah states, "And these are the generations of Terach" (Bereishit 11:27), it begins to tell of his son, Avraham. When it says, "And these are the generations of Yishma'el the son of Avraham (25:12), it begins to tell of the children of Yishma'el. And when it says, "And these are the generations of Yitzchak the son of Avraham; Avraham begot Yitzchak" (25:19), it begins to tell of Yitzchak's sons Ya'akov and Esav.
Our parasha also opens with the words "These are the generations":
And Ya'akov dwelt in the land in which
his father had sojourned, in the
The transition from Ya'akov to his sons is also marked by the expression, "These are the generations," but in contrast to Terach, whose successor was his son Avraham, and in contrast to Yitzchak, whose successor was his son Ya'akov, Ya'akov was succeeded by twelve sons. We must therefore clarify why "These are the generations of Ya'akov" continues immediately with "Yosef being seventeen years old." The manner in which the verse is formulated, "These are the generations of Ya'akov. Yosef being seventeen years old," allowed the biblical commentators to read the words "These are the generations of Ya'akov Yosef" as a single expression that comes to teach us about Yosef's special connection to Ya'akov.
"AND THE HOUSE OF YA'AKOV SHALL BE A FIRE AND THE HOUSE OF YOSEF A FLAME"
Chazal noted the interesting relationship between Ya'akov and Yosef as reflected in this verse. Rashi brings their words as follows:
Another explanation of "And Ya'akov dwelt." The camels of a flaxdealer once came into a city laden with flax. A blacksmith asked in wonder where all that flax could be stored, and a clever fellow answered him: "A single spark cause by your bellows can burn all of it." So, too, when Ya'akov saw all these chiefs whose names are written above he said wonderingly: "Who can conquer all these?" What is written after the names of these chieftains? "These are the generations of Ya'akov Yosef." For it is written: "And the house of Ya'akov shall be a fire and the house of Yosef a flame" (Ovadya 1:18). One spark issuing from Yosef will burn up all of these descendants of Esav (Rashi Yashan 37:1).
According to Rashi, Ya'akov's spiritual insight allows him to see how Yosef will be able to deal with "the chiefs of Esav." Yosef, so thinks Ya'akov, has the unique ability and the required strength to deal with the great mass of the descendants of Esav.
Chassidic thinkers tried to clarify this unique ability:
In the midrash: "Ya'akov wished to live at ease." A tzadik's
entire objective is to draw holiness into this world and into nature. But
first he must correct himself without connection to this world. This is what
they said: "When the tzadikim sit
at ease." This means that they cleave to their [heavenly] root without
belonging to the place of separation, God forbid. Then they wish to sit at ease
in this world as well, as stated above. Now Ya'akov Avinu, may he rest in peace, was above nature. And it was
not in his power to draw holiness into this world, because he did not belong in
any way to this world. It had to be through Yosef the
tzadik. This is what it says:
"These are the generations of Ya'akov Yosef." For through Yosef
the illumination of the holiness was drawn from Ya'akov
to all the tribes and all the worlds. This is what Rashi
says: "Fire without a flame has no effect at a distance." This means
as stated above. It is the way of fire to join and attach to everything, making
it fire. For this a flame is necessary [I already wrote about this elsewhere].
This is [the meaning of] "their father loved him more than all his
brothers." This means that Ya'akov raised up the good deeds of the tribes to Ya'akov Avinu, may he rest in
peace. For Yosef the tzadik
raises up the good deeds of all the children of
R. Yehuda Arye Leib, author of the Sefat Emet, is referring to a comment of Rashi:
"When Rachel had born Yosef after the birth of him who was to become Esav's adversary, as it is stated: "And the house of Ya'akov shall be a fire and the house of Yosef a flame and the house of Esau for stubble" (Ovadya 1:18). Fire [= Ya'akov] without a flame [= Yosef] has no effect at a distance. Therefore, when Yosef was born, Ya'akov put his trust in the Holy One, blessed be He, and decided to return home (Rashi, Bereishit 30:25).
Ya'akov Avinu regards himself as a fire without a flame; the problem with such a fire is that it has no effect at a distance. In order for a fire to have an effect at a distance, it must appear in the form of a flame. The quality of flame was given to his son, Yosef the tzadik.
A fire without a flame is an abstract concept that requires elucidation.
First, let us try to reach a deeper understanding of the idea of fire. Fire has several principal qualities. It illuminates, its aspires upwards, it spreads, it radiates warmth, and it consumes. Fire is also a common image in the Torah for Divine revelation. On the one hand, fire radiates warmth and illuminates, whereas on the other hand, it consumes: "For the Lord, your God, is a consuming fire" (Devarim 4:24).
Rashi distinguishes between a fire and a flame. All the qualities listed above should therefore be seen as pertaining to a flame, and not to a flameless fire.
The first thing that Rashi tells us is that a fire without a flame has no effect at a distance. The second piece of information that Rashi shares with us is that fire does not spread (in order for the fire to burn the stubble of Esav, the flame of Yosef is needed). What follows from these descriptions is that a fire without flame also does not radiate warmth, and perhaps also according to this its capacity to illuminate is extremely limited. A fire without flame is sort of an "internal fire" directed inwards and not outwards. It constitutes abstract potential void of any realization.
The Sefat Emet sees in all these things the personality of Ya'akov. "Now Ya'akov Avinu, may he rest in peace, was above nature. And it was not in his power to draw holiness into this world, because he did not belong in any way to this world." Ya'akov, according to the Sefat Emet, gives expression to an unreachable and unrealizable ideal. His great light cannot spread in this world, because the level on which Ya'akov lives his life and serves God is a supernatural level.
The Sefat Emet teaches that this position is not a negative one. Just the opposite is true! Every idea starts off severed from this world. "A tzadik's entire objective is to draw holiness into this world and into nature. But first he must correct himself without connection to this world." Ya'akov's loftiness does not represent a position of detachment from and lack of interest in this world. Ya'akov's entire objective was to impact upon this world as well. But Ya'akov knows that he can have no effect on the world without first firmly establishing a level of idea that is detached from this world. Ya'akov is cut off from this world in order to build the lights that will have an effect forever. Ya'akov turns inward; he does not spread out or "make souls." Whatever Ya'akov does is for his house, but this inward-directed activity is neither egoistic nor does it stem from alienation from this world or disregard of it.
R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik condemned the spiritual attitude that is detached and alienated from this world:
The simple person is commanded to pray for the sick in his house, for his wine that had turned sour, for his grain that had been stricken. The hymn draped in aesthetic experience is limited to the private domain of the elite, and is good only in the eyes of mystics who stand out in their anti-socialism. Their existence is esoteric; they are especially delicate. Halakha cannot constrict itself to the domain of the noble and monastic in spirit. Only supplication is capable of taking prayer out into the public domain. (Ish ha-Halakha, Ra'ayonot al ha-Tefila, p. 265)
In contrast, the Sefat Emet argues that there are times when, in order to build strength that can be applied in this world, there must be a stage of severance and separation. But he goes one step further and asserts that the inward moving psychological state the flameless fire fashions a spiritual state that is diametrically opposite the psychological state that impacts and spreads out. From the moment that a person acquires one of these spiritual states for himself, he cannot move over to the other one, and he must find the person, his successor, who will know how to take all that he has built and bring it to the world.
Ya'akov found this quality in Yosef: "For through Yosef the illumination of the holiness was drawn from Ya'akov to all the tribes and all the worlds." The chiefs of Esav, thus according to the Sefat Emet, represent the material world with all its difficulties and struggles. Ya'akov Avinu understood that he cannot confront this world. His light cannot spread in the material world, and his fire cannot catch in its particular and limited circumstances. Ya'akov's head was in the heavens, and he needed Yosef so that his feet could be on the ground. Yosef constitutes the generations of Ya'akov in the sense that he succeeds in generating from the light of Ya'akov something concrete and substantial.
What does Yosef have to be in order to have an effect? What is the flame that allows for spreading, illuminating, and radiating warmth? Yosef's way of life may provide an answer to these questions.
Most of Yosef's
life was spent in galut. Like his
father, Yosef too was forced by his brothers to leave
Yosef is found in the house of Potifar, afterwards in jail, and later in the house of Pharaoh. In all these places, Yosef acquires for himself the status of "member of the household." In the house of Potifar, he is given all possible authorities. In prison, too, the chief jailer puts all the other prisoners under Yosef, and he becomes an attentive ear to all. So also in the house of Pharaoh, Yosef is appointed as viceroy, lacking only the royal crown.
All these expressions of assimilation notwithstanding, Yosef never loses the connection to his source. Whenever he is given the opportunity, the name of God is on his lips: "How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God" (39:9), in connection with the wife of Potifar; "Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell me them, I pray you" (40:8), in jail; and "It is not me; God shall give Pharaoh a favorable answer" (41:16), in the house of Pharaoh. The memories of his father's house which find expression in the names he gives his sons, and the image of his father that stands before his eyes, turn Yosef into someone who successfully descends to the lowest depths and nevertheless remaining connected.
Who in Yosef's situation and spiritual state would not have forsaken his past? Who would not have allowed himself to be seduced by the wife of Potifar? Who would not have forgotten from where he came? Who would not have become totally assimilated in such a situation?
Only Yosef the tzadik, foundation of the world, who was able to descend to the foundation of the world and still remain connected to the world of holiness, was able to endure all this, and all this was understood by Ya'akov Avinu.
This is the quality that enables Yosef to effect others. This is the flame, which may have the aspect of materializing fire in a world of matter and vessels, but also allows it to cleave to matter and vessels. He who is unable to descend to the lowest rung of reality because he is conjoined with holiness, can also not have any effect on it. Ya'akov recognized this weakness in himself, and therefore saw Yosef as his successor and generation.
WHO DWELLS AMONG THEM IN THE MIDST OF THEIR IMPURITY
This idea comes to expression in another interesting point that distinguishes between Yosef and Ya'akov.
Ya'akov is about to die, he takes an oath of his sons
with respect to burial in Eretz
And the time
drew near for Ya'akov to die; and he called his son Yosef, and said to him, If now I have found favor in your
sight, put, I pray you, your hand under my thigh, and deal kindly and truly
with me; bury me not, I pray you in Egypt: but I will lie with my fathers, and
you shall carry me out of Egypt, and bury me in their burying place. And he
said, I will do as you have said. And he said, Swear
to me, and he swore to him. And
Ya'akov takes an oath of Yosef
that he should not bury him in
Yosef takes a similar oath of his brothers:
And Yosef said to his brothers, I die: and God will surely
visit you, and bring you up out of this land to the land of which He swore to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Ya'akov.
And Yosef took an oath of the children of
oaths are similar, but there is one element that distinguishes between them.
While Ya'akov asks of Yosef
that he should not bury him in
throughout the period of exile and slavery, Yosef's
body remained embalmed in
Why is Yosef's request different from that of Ya'akov?
might be argued that there is a technical difference between the two. Yosef, being the viceroy, knew that his brothers would not
be allowed to take his bones to Eretz
Ya'akov's request may be seen as part of the phenomenon
described by the Sefat Emet,
according to which Ya'akov "does not come down
to this world." Ya'akov Avinu
was not prepared for his bones to be defiled by the impurity of the lands
Yosef, on the other hand, is ready to pay the price in
order to remain with his brothers, the children of
There is no doubt
that Yosef's bones dwelling in
tzadik who dwells among
Yosef's readiness to remain in the galut
"These are the generations of Ya'akov Yosef." We may explain by way of allusion that we in this
bitter exile are afflicted, eroded, and pressed by the stress of the effects of
The difference that we saw between Ya'akov and Yosef is essentially the difference, as it were, between the Holy One, blessed be He, and His Shekhina.
There is an aspect of Godliness that cannot dwell
among the impurities of the children of
There is, however, a remedy to this situation and there is consolation in the mercy of God:
So too, had the
Holy One, blessed be He, compared
as the kohen remains with his
menstruating wife and has no concerns, so God causes His Shekhina
to rest on
The Sefat Emet concludes with a similar idea. Yosef brings the good deeds of his brothers to his father. This connection is in two directions. On the one hand, it allows the aspect of Ya'akov to have an effect on this world; on the other hand, it allows drawing the good from this world and raising it on high. This is the quality of Yosef the tzadik, and this is the quality required of every tzadik.
The tzadik has the ability, while dwelling in the midst of his people, to extract the good points found in each and every individual and elevate them. The exalted tzadik, who does not dwell among his people, cannot elevate them, and sometimes, if he dwells among them, he is liable to cause them to fall further down when they sense the abysmal gap separating between him and them.
tzadik who dwells in the midst of the
The Tzadik is the foundation of the world
This idea is also connected to certain kabbalistic ideas that we shall merely touch upon:
It seems to me to explain on the level of allusion and secret lore that all the worlds are included in the ten sefirot, namely, the middot. Even though each of the sefirot is included in the others, like a flame that is connected to a coal, nevertheless, they must come together in simple unity to join them in the Infinite, blessed be He. When the middot became one and they are connected to the Infinite, a profusion of good is drawn from the heavenly worlds to the lower worlds. It is also known from the holy books that the two middot that connect all the sefirot, as mentioned above, are the midda of Tif'eret which is the secret of Ya'akov and the midda of Tzadik which is the secret of Yosed, the tzadik who is the foundation of the world. They connect the middot to the Infinite, blessed be he. Ya'akov who is Tif'eret draws the profusion from the heavenly worlds, and casts them upon the secret of Tzadik, and through the Tzadik, the profusion is divided up to the lower worlds. Without the foundation of Tzadik it is impossible to draw profusion to the lower worlds. This is the secret of the heavenly Tzadik and the worldly Tzadik. And this is [the meaning of] "These are the generations of Ya'akov Yosef," for through Yosef the tzadik, who is the secret of Tzadik, Ya'akov who is Tif'eret can draw the profusion from on high downwards, and from low down upwards, by connecting the sefirot, and by way of the secret of Tzadik, as mentioned above. This is [the meaning of] of "because he was the son of old age," that is heavenly old age. Understand this. And we find in the holy Zohar that when Yosef took leave of his father, and Ya'akov Avinu was unable to draw profusion to the lower worlds, as mentioned above, for he did not have by him the midda of Tzadik, and Binyamin stood at the time in place of him, at the level of the secret of the Tzadik to draw profusion by way of him, as mentioned above. (Ma'or va-Shemesh, Parashat Miketz, s.v., ve-nir'e)
Kalonymous Kalman ha-Levi
Ya'akov Avinu is the sefira of Tif'eret and Yosef is the sefira of Yesod. Let us examine these ideas according to the tree of sefirot:
The further we descend from the uppermost to the lowermost sefira, the closer we come to the world of action.
The three highest sefirot represent the world of thought. The middle six sefirot, in the center of which is the sefira of Tif'eret, add the world of speech to the world of thought.
The last sefira, Malkhut, is the world of action.
How though is it possible to turn thought into speech and action? How can the sefira of Tif'eret which embraces Divine thought and speech turn to the level of action?
Here comes the sefira of Yesod which establishes the connection between Tif'eret and Malkhut between thought and speech, on the one hand, and action, on the other. The sefira of Yesod is the conduit through which thought and speech empty into action.
In the world of Kabbala, the sefira of Yesod is also called the sefira of Zivug, coupling, for it is through the sefira of Yesod that the absolute unity of Tif'eret and Malkhut is established.
Kabbala teaches us that man was created in the image of the sefirot. Chockhma and Bina correspond to the brain, Chesed, Gevura and Tif'eret to the heart, Netzach and Hod to the feet, and Yesod to man's genital organ.
Kabbala teaches us that the genital organ, at which site man enters into a covenant with God, is man's foundation. It is this organ, surprisingly, that is the foundation of the world, for in the simple physical sense, it is the instrument of reproduction. A man with an enormously powerful brain, whose heart beats with full strength, but whose genital organ is dysfunctional cannot beget and give rise to a continuation of all the power contained within him.
Kabbala teaches us that Ya'akov is the sefira of Tif'eret, and Yosef, the tzadik who is the foundation of the world, the sefira of Yesod. Thus, Yosef is Ya'akov's "genital organ: "These are the generations of Ya'akov Yosef."
The metaphor of a sexual organ sharpens what we have already seen above. Precisely the sexual organ, which appears to give expression to the base and bestial side of man, serves as his foundation. The eternal covenant that man makes with God is not in his brain, his heart, or even in his hands. The covenant descends to the lowest possible place that man can go down to, and there it rests.
The fact that the covenant is established in this organ allows man do dwell in the basest place and still feel the Shekhina on his flesh.
Yosef the tzadik teaches us about the foundation of the world, the ability to dwell in the midst of our impurity. This is the flame that must cleave to us, illuminate our lives and the lives of those around us. The patience and the capacity to contain, that permits us to descend into this world and dwell in the midst of its impurity when necessary constitute the foundation of the world, and permit us to make yichudim and connections.
The thread that connects Tif'eret and Malkhut, the eternal and the transitory, the abstract and the concrete, the idea and the reality is Yosef the tzadik whose covenant is sealed on our flesh and teaches us that the lofty and elevated God descends to the lowest depths and rests his Shekhina upon us "who dwells among them in the midst of their impurity."
 Interestingly, the biblical narratives about Yitzchak do not open with the words, "These are the generations of Avraham." This appears to be connected to Yitzchak's special character as Avraham's successor.
 One of the great chassidic masters, distinguished disciple of the Ba'al Shem Tov, known as R. Ya'akov Yosef of Polonnoye, who titled his book, "Toledot Ya'akov Yosef."
 Though we are not dealing with this idea on the physical level, it may be noted that we find the concept of "cold fire" in physics as well.
 R. Soloveitchik criticizes the homo religiosus who is not connected to the material world, and therefore loses his moral attentiveness to the cries of injustice that are sounded there. He stands in contrast to halakhic man whose feet are planted firmly on the ground (Halakhic Man, p. 41).
 A person who is quick to leave his private domain for the public domain in order to perfect the world, before having formed and fashioned his own four cubits, is liable to discover that he is holding instruments without lights. He is very quickly liable to find himself without a source of nurture, and without a spiritual vision that would provide his actions with strength and directions.
 The Midrash
notes the similarity between what happened to Ya'akov
and what happened to Yosef: "R. Shemu'el bar Re'uven said: 'These
are the generations of Ya'akov Yosef.'
The verse should not have said this, but rather: 'These are the generations of Ya'akov Reuven.' Why then 'Yosef'?
Rather, whatever happened to this one happened to that one. Just
as he was born circumcised, so too he was born circumcised. Just as his
mother was barren, so too his mother was barren. Just as his mother gave birth
to two [sons], so too his mother gave birth to two [sons]. Just
as he was a firstborn, so too he was a firstborn. Just as his mother had
a difficult birth process, so too his mother had a difficult birth process.
Just as his brothers hated him, so too his brothers hated him. Just as his brother tried to kill him, so too his brothers tried to
kill him. Just as he was a shepherd, so too he was a
shepherd. He was hated, and he was hated. He was twice kidnapped, and he
was twice kidnapped. He was blessed with wealth, and he was blessed with
wealth. He left the land, and he left the land. He married a woman from outside
the land, and he married a woman from outside the land. He was accompanied by
angels and he was accompanied by angels. He rose to greatness through a dream,
and he rose to greatness through a dream. His father-in-law's house was blessed
on his account, and his father-in-law's house was blessed on his account. He
went down to
 R. Nachman
of Breslov expresses a similar idea at the end of
 Someone who wishes to gain a better understanding of each sefira according to chassidic thought is referred to the lectures I gave last year on this site.
 Malkhut is not one of the organs, but rather the "feminine" sefira into which all the sefirot are meant to empty.
 As opposed to the sign of the tefilin of the head which corresponds to the brain, and that of the tefilin of the arm which corresponds to the heart and to actions.
(Translated by David Strauss)