A Portrait of Yaakov - In Praise of Self-Restraint

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion




A Portrait of Yaakov - In Praise of Self-Restraint

Summarized by Danny Orenbuch


Parashat Vayeshev continues the account of the turnaround in Yaakov's personal status and in the status of his family - the fundamental kernel of the Jewish nation. Until Parashat Vayishlach, Sefer Bereishit had recounted inspiring stories of ascent and elevation towards the establishment of Am Yisrael. It is true that in these parshiyot we encountered conflict - between Yitzhak and Yishmael, between Yitzhak and the shepherds - but the avot invariably emerged victorious. Yaakov, too, encountered serious conflict - first with Esav and later with Lavan, with the angel and with the camp of Esav's messengers - but in each case he won. And now, specifically here, when it seems that everything is coming together - things start falling apart, and as Rashi (32:7) comments in the name of the midrash: "Yaakov wished to dwell in peace, but Yosef's problems plagued him. The righteous wish to dwell in peace, but God says: Is that which is set aside for them in the World-to-Come not enough for them, that they also want peace and quiet in this world?!"


Indeed, Yaakov's status is undermined at every step of the way. First in dreams, where he becomes a servant prostrating himself before Yosef, and then in the story that the brothers concoct regarding Yosef's violent demise. And later, when they are forced to seek food for a second time in Egypt, the midrash recounts (Tanchuma 8): "Yehuda said to them, 'Wait for the old man until all the bread in the house is gone.'" This attitude towards Yaakov, calling him "the old man," points to an erosion of his status. All in all, throughout these parshiyot, Yaakov slowly changes from someone who leads into someone who is led. We see no initiative on his part, sometimes even a deafening silence which we find difficult to understand: "But his father kept the matter to himself" (37:11).


Moreover, this descent is a descent of the entire family. If until now the disputes and problems were generated from without, here we are faced with internal, family strife - hatred between brothers, sale into slavery - and Yaakov is unsuccessful in dealing with it. It seems that the entire structure is beginning to crumble and topple...


But it is specifically in Yaakov's descent that we find his greatness. Precisely that deafening silence which we find in these parshiyot is the great message which Yaakov is conveying to us. We have encountered his silence in the past - following the incident of Shimon and Levi. Although Yaakov does convey a reproach ("You have brought trouble on me to make me odious among the inhabitant of the land"), he takes no action. Yaakov knows that sometimes it is necessary to keep quiet and restrain oneself - because any reaction will cause division and even more serious danger. In the case of Reuven, too ("And it came to pass when Yisrael dwelt in that land, Reuven went and lay with Bilha, his father's concubine, and Yisrael heard of it" [35:22]) - Yisrael hears but does not react. The midrash there points out Yaakov's wisdom in that he knew that any reaction on his part would cause Reuven to cross over to Esav's camp, and therefore he chose to restrain himself and keep silent. Another example is that of Yosef's dream, in which he reveals his assumption of "royal status," as it were, to his brothers and his father - another seeming slight of Yaakov's honor. He does scold his son, but does nothing beyond that - "but his father kept the matter to himself." Yaakov is aware of the mistake he has made in his sons' upbringing, as even the Rambam writes: a person must never favor one child over the others.


Yaakov, by favoring Yosef, ultimately caused the brotherly hatred and all its consequences. Yaakov is aware of this, and chooses silence and self-restraint - for fear of making things even worse. Indeed, it is only through this silence and restraint that the unity of the family is ultimately maintained, and Sefer Bereishit closes on a note of unity between the brothers, presenting a sound beginning for the building of Am Yisrael.


In Yaakov's behavior there is a message for each one of us. Very often it is difficult for a person to control himself and keep silent, whether in education or in any other area. But sometimes an unnecessary word is simply harmful. Therefore sometimes it is important, despite the pain involved, to know how to strangle the shout before it escapes, to understand that silence will contribute more, and that specifically through that restraint it is possible to achieve one's true aims.

(Originally delivered on Shabbat Parashat Vayeshev 5753.

Translated by Kaeren Fish.)


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