Parashat Vayeshev: Toldot Yaakov

  • Rav Yair Kahn


This week’s shiurim are dedicated in memory of Israel Koschitzky zt"l,
whose yahrzeit falls on the 19th of Kislev. 
May the worldwide dissemination of Torah through the VBM be a fitting tribute to a man
whose lifetime achievements exemplified the love of Eretz Yisrael and Torat Yisrael.

Dedicated In memory of my Father Shmuel Binyamin ben Ben Zion HaLevi Lowinger z”l
Dedicated in memory of my father, Hillel ben Yechiel (Herman) Reiter, of Debrecen, Hungary,
whose yahrzeit falls on the 24th day of Kislev.  May his soul be among the Righteous in Gan Eden.

Please daven for a refua sheleima for YHE alumnus
Rav Daniel ben Miriam Chaya Rut


1. I Will Go Down To My Son Yosef to She’ol 

Yaakov manages to survive various external threats - Lavan, Esav and Shekhem. But instead of a serene and tranquil life, his entire family is shaken to its very foundations by a series of dramatic and tragic events. Reuven, the firstborn, lies with Bilha, his father's pilegesh. Yosef is almost killed by his brothers and is instead sold into slavery. Yehuda severs himself from his brothers, bands together with Hira the Adullamite, and marries a Canaanite woman. The state of Yaakov's family seems desperate.

Of course, the danger is not only to Yaakov and his family on the personal level. The tradition of Avraham is meant to be continued by Yaakov and his offspring. At this point, the realization of that tradition seems totally unrealistic. Did Yaakov share this concern? Was it possible that all that had been accomplished since Avraham embarked on his historic journey to Canaan would come to an end? Could all the prophecies and blessings given to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov simply be erased? In this week’s shiur, we will explore this question.

Let us take a closer look at Yaakov's reaction upon receiving the bloodstained “kutonet passim” of Yosef and presuming the tragic death of his beloved son. Yaakov is inconsolable and says, "I will go down to my son Yosef in grievance and mourning to she'ol" (37:35). To what does the word “she'ol” refer? Rashi cites a midrash which states that the she'ol refers to gehinom. Yaakov feared that he was destined for gehinom because, as the midrash explains, Yaakov possessed a Divine tradition that only if none of his children were to die before him could he be sure that he would be spared gehinom. What is the meaning behind this Divine sign? Why should Yaakov be punished because of the failure of his children?

Consider another episode that occurred to Yaakov and his family. After the birth of Binyamin and the tragic death of Rachel, the Torah relates that "Reuven went and lay with Bilha, his father's pilegesh, and Yisrael heard.” After a break in the middle of the verse, which is quite rare, the pasuk continues: “And now the sons of Yaakov are twelve.” The continuation of this pasuk is very strange. After all, the children of Israel numbered twelve immediately after the birth of Binyamin. Why, then, does the Torah only mention this after the puzzling story of Reuven and Bilha?

The Targum Yerushalmi (Pseudo Yonatan) writes:

Yisrael heard and felt terrible and he said, "Maybe one of my children is unfit, just as Yishmael was and Esav was." So ruach ha-kodesh (divine spirit) answered him and said, "Do not worry - all of your children are tzadikim and there is no one unfit among them, and as of the birth of Binyamin there are twelve sons of Yaakov."

When we read the Torah, we already know that all the children of Yaakov will continue the mesora community. That knowledge tends to prevent us from appreciating the drama and significance of certain events. Apparently, Yaakov wasn’t so sure about it. After the Reuven episode, he had to be reassured.  

Similarly, we know that only Yaakov was chosen to continue Avraham’s mesora. Apparently, Yitzchak was not so sure. It seems that Rivka never informed him of the prophecy that she carried two separate nations in her womb. When Yitzchak finally realized that only Yaakov would continue the mesora and that Esav would be rejected, he was terrified: "Va-yecherad Yitzchak charada gedola ad me'od." Rashi quotes the midrash that Yitzchak saw gehinom open up under him. Again we find “gehinom” as punishment for the failure of offspring.

I believe that the phrase “gehinom under him” does not refer to personal punishment. “Gehinom under him” is a reference to the children that will come after him. It means that not all his children will continue the mesora of Avraham. Esav will follow a different path, one that leads to gehinom.

Regarding Yaakov as well, the divine sign did not refer to gehinom in the personal sense. The sign indicated that if all twelve of Yaakov’s sons survived him, they would collectively form Knesset Yisrael and together continue Avraham’s tradition. On the other hand, if one of his children died in his lifetime, it would be a sign that not all the sons would continue the mesora. The process that filtered out Yishamel and Esav would continue for an additional generation. The legacy of Avraham would be realized only through some of Yaakov’s children.

2. The Significance of Twelve

At numerous points throughout Sefer Bereishit, Rashi suggests that it was necessary for Yaakov to have twelve sons. For example, in 29:21, Yaakov tells Lavan that he has fulfilled his part of their agreement and that it is time for Rachel to be given to him as a wife. According to Rashi, Yaakov argues, "I am now eighty-four years old. When will I have the opportunity to have twelve children?" This tradition indicates that Yaakov was aware that he was destined to father twelve children (see also 29:34). Throughout the story of the sons of Yaakov, the future tribes of Israel, twelve remains a critical number. As a result, when Yaakov assumes that Yosef has been killed, he suddenly realizes that he has not completed his mission and that he is destined for gehinom. Perhaps the divine sign means that if one of his children would die, if those twelve do not all survive, then the nation of Israel must wait another generation in order to be born. Therefore, Yaakov says, "I will go down to my son Yosef in grievance and mourning to she'ol."

However, we are still left to ponder why it is so critical that the nation be comprised of twelve tribes. The Ramban, on the verse "And Avraham was old, and well stricken in age, and God had blessed Avraham ba-kol (in all things)" (24:1), cites the midrash which says that he was blessed with the attribute of “kol.” While the Ramban says that this midrash is rooted in a deep mystical understanding, he provides a few hints as to the meaning of this blessing. His basic conclusion is that it is something which is complete and contains within it everything. In fact, the Ramban asserts, this attribute is related to “Knesset Yisrael,” which refers to being something complete and all-inclusive (“she-hi knisat ha-kol”).

Knesset Yisrael must be comprised of every aspect of existence. After all, Am Yisrael is a nation, not a sect. A sect is not necessarily multi-dimensional, as it is usually composed of followers of a charismatic leader who imposes his will forcibly on the entire sect. But a nation, in order to be full of depth and richness, has to be multi-dimensional. It has the richness of various perspectives that allows for diversity of opinions. The idea of Knesset Yisrael is a greater whole, “kelula min ha-kol” (containing all), as the Ramban says, because it is comprised of many perspectives. The Torah retained the independent identity of various tribes even after the exodus from Egypt in order to create a nation of rich and deep harmony, comprised by different elements and various components.

This harmonious co-existence of the different elements of Israel is expressed in a number of contexts. For example, Chazal understand the relationship between Yissakhar and Zevulun, as described in the pasuk in Parashat Ve-Zot Ha-Berakha (Devarim 33:18), as a type of partnership. As Rashi quotes from the midrash: Zevulun and Yissakhar made an agreement. Zevulun would do business and support Yissakhar who would learn Torah. It was a harmonious coexistence, in which there was mutual respect. Each had different strengths, and the two complemented each other to form a greater whole.

A similar relationship pertains between the “machane Shekhina” and “machane Yisrael.” Am Yisrael, a nation like others, cannot remove itself from the mundane context of human existence. However, it is the tribe of Levi, the Kohanim and Levi'im, who give meaning and value to that context. By separating themselves from the necessities of day to day life, supported through terumot, ma'asrot, and living in the Mishkan, they are able to be a force of sanctity and purity that affect all of Knesset Yisrael, giving both legitimacy and meaning to a mundane existence. This does not mean that the tribe of Levi is more important than the rest of the nation. Both are needed in order to realize the vision of a holy nation.

However, retaining the differences and the diversity of the various segments of Klal Yisrael contains inherent danger as well. One danger is the reversal of roles. What happens when the Kohanim try to usurp the role of Yisrael, and attempt to maintain political authority? According to the Ramban, this happened at the time of the Chashmonaim. The Ramban (Parashat Vayechi) notes that the Chashmonaim should have stopped after defeating the Greeks and returned the political authority to Knesset Yisrael. By assuming the role of king, usually reserved for the descendants of Yehuda, they invited the tragic events that followed.

This danger of reversal of roles, or of one segment usurping the role of another, disturbs the harmonious existence of Klal Yisrael. However, there is another danger that can also destroy the fabric of Knesset Yisrael. In Parashat Vayeshev, which presents Am Yisrael at its very infancy, we find an expression of the threat of disunity. Already at the beginning of the parasha, we are told that Yosef would go to his father and speak lashon ha-ra about his brothers. The brothers, on their part, were unable even to speak to Yosef in peace. There was a total breakdown of communication, which led to tragic consequences. Because of that rift, Yosef was almost killed. Yehuda severed his relations with his brothers, and the story of Yehuda and Tamar occurred. The Torah therefore compares (and contrasts) Yehuda, who goes down from his brothers, with Yosef, who is sent down to Egypt.

Yehuda is the leader of the children of Leah, while Yosef is the leader of the children of Rachel. They represent very different ways of serving Hashem. When these two brothers, these two forces, work together, there is endless potential. When they are at odds with each other, it is critically dangerous. In order to prosper as a nation, Klal Yisrael must accept diversity of opinions. But this diversity must be creative and productive, and not disjunctive and diseased.

3. The Duda’im Gave Fragrance

The friction between Yehuda and Yosef can be traced back to Rachel and Leah. In the strange parasha of the duda'im (the plants that Reuven finds and brings to his mother Leah), Rachel says, "Let me have them" - an innocent request. Leah snaps back, "You already stole my husband, now you want the flowers of my child!" How are we to understand this discussion, the argument between the two?

The midrash sharpens the exchange. Accordingly, Leah accuses Rachel: "Is it not enough that you stole my husband, that you seduced him to run after you!" And Rachel answers, "Your husband?! My husband! Thanks to me he became your husband."

There is no discussion, just one sister attacking another. Each one feels that only her position is justified! Leah, because of the conniving of Lavan, was the first to marry Yaakov. Seven days later, Rachel married Yaakov, and Yaakov ignored Leah. Each felt wronged by the other, to the point that Rachel innocently asks for some flowers and the response is shocking.

However, the pasuk continues, "Therefore he shall sleep with you tonight." The Ibn Ezra explains that the duda'im were a plant they believed had fertility powers. In other words, Rachel was asking from Leah not simply a flower, but to give up her singular connection to Yaakov. Yaakov loved Rachel, but Leah was the mother of Yaakov's children. By asking for duda'im, she was asking for the opportunity to give birth herself. Ultimately, Leah agreed, and Rachel agreed. There began a certain harmonious existence. Each was willing to sacrifice a little bit.

They were able to talk to each other and work things out together. The story continues. Leah has a fifth son, and declares: “God gave me my sakhar - my reward - for giving my maidservant to my husband.” She doesn't realize that she became pregnant on that night, but the wordplay obviously refers to the sakhar for the night of the duda'im as well. Leah called her son Yissakhar for giving her maidservant to her husband, but Hashem knew that this was the sakhar -  reward  - for Leah and Rachel coming to terms.

The midrash goes even further:

R. Levi said: What was the greatness of these duda'im, that because of them two shevatim arose - Yissakhar and Zevulun? Yissakhar is engrossed in Torah and Zevulun goes to sea and provides for him.

This is a portrait of a beautiful harmonious coexistence between two different tribes, with diverse characteristics, who cooperated in order to achieve a common goal.

Yosef and his brothers finally manage to come to terms with one another. Yehuda is willing to sacrifice himself for a son of Rachel - for Binyamin. Regarding Yosef, the brotherly love overcomes the hate. Finally, the two sides come together simultaneously. When Yehuda makes a move toward Yosef, Yosef is unable to withhold himself. Brotherly love overcomes all the differences. Once again, unity is created.

As Sefer Bereishit concludes and the twelve brothers form a unit, the filtering process ends as well. During the course of the shiurim, we outlined the process from the dawn of creation. After the flood, Man is separated from the animal kingdom. In Bavel, national units are formed and Avraham is separated as father of the chosen people. Of Avraham’s children, only Yitzchak will continue. From Yitzchak, only Yaakov is chosen. Despite the initial tension, Rachel and Leah cooperate. In spite of the meltdown that occurred between Yaakov’s children, in the end they return to form a unit. At this point, the stage for the establishment of the nation of Israel is set and Sefer Bereishit can end.