SALT - Friday, 20 Kislev 5778 - December 8, 2017

  • Rav David Silverberg
            The Torah in Parashat Vayeishev tells of Yosef’s fateful trip to check on his brothers, as his father had requested.  The brothers had gone to tend to the family’s herds in Shekhem, but when Yosef arrived in the area, he could not find them.  He encountered a mysterious man who informed him that his brothers had “journeyed from here” (“nas’u mi-zeh”) and went to the nearby town of Dotan (37:17).  Yosef proceeded to Dotan, where he indeed found his brothers who promptly conspired to kill him, ultimately deciding to throw him into a pit and then to sell him as a slave.
            The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 84), commenting on the words “nas’u mi-zeh” used in reference to the brothers’ journey from Shekhem, explains this phrase to mean that the brothers journeyed “from the attributes of the Almighty.”  The mysterious man who met Yosef (and whom Chazal famously identify as an angel) told him that the brothers not only moved in the geographic sense, traveling from Shekhem to Dotan, but also “journeyed” in terms of character, abandoning the qualities which God expects us to live by.
            Where in the words “nas’u mi-zeh” did the Midrash find an allusion to the brothers’ abandonment of “Godly” qualities?
            The Matenot Kehuna commentary suggests that the Midrash here refers to the verse in Shirat Ha-yam – the song of praise sung by Benei Yisrael after the miracle of the sea – in which they proclaimed, “Zeh Keli ve-anveihu” – “This is my God and I shall glorify Him” (Shemot 15:2).  The Midrash associated the word “zeh” in the stranger’s response to Yosef (“nas’u mi-zeh”) with Benei Yisrael’s jubilant declaration, “Zeh Keli ve-anveihu.”
            If, indeed, this is the Midrash’s intent, then we should perhaps probe deeper to understand the precise meaning of this association.  What connection might there be between Yosef’s brothers’ abandonment of “the attributes of the Almighty” and the proclamation of “Zeh Keli ve-anveihu”?
            The Gemara in Masekhet Shabbat (133b) presents two explanations of the verse “Zeh Keli ve-anveihu.”  First, it refers to the obligation of hiddur mitzva – aesthetically enhancing mitzvot by using beautiful mitzva objects.  The word “anveihu” stems from the word noi – beauty, and thus refers to the aesthetic quality that we should endeavor to introduce into our mitzva observance.  Additionally, the Gemara interprets the word “anveihu” to mean “emulate,” such that this verse refers to the obligation to emulate the Almighty’s qualities of kindness and compassion.
            Taken together, these two interpretations of “Zeh Keli ve-anveihu” establish the broader notion that the service of God is supposed to be beautiful and pleasant.  Jewish life is to be characterized by an aura of joy, positivity, goodwill, grace and beauty.  It should be appealing and attractive, not gloomy and unpleasant.  It should evoke feelings of inspiration and happiness, not of negativity and bitterness. 
            This, perhaps, is the point of connection noted by the Midrash between Yosef’s brothers and “Zeh Keli ve-anveihu.”  The root cause of the brothers’ crime against Yosef was not jealousy per se.  It is common for feelings of jealousy and contention to exist in a family setting, and this is true even among families of righteous people.  The root cause of this tragic story was the absence of “Zeh Keli ve-anveihu,” of a commitment to the beauty of Jewish life.  If the brothers were truly committed to this ideal, they would have handled the situation differently.  They were legitimately offended by the preferential treatment Yosef received from his father, they legitimately resented his reporting their alleged wrongdoing, and they were legitimately concerned about his dreams of leadership.  But if we live in the manner indicated by “Zeh Keli ve-anveihu,” in a manner of pleasantness and positivity, then we can handle these kinds of tensions with dignity and grace, without losing our composure and resorting to anger and hostility.  If we strive to emulate “the attributes of the Almighty,” the attributes of compassion and kindness, and to live lives of “hiddur,” of beauty and joy, then we will remain upbeat, composed and poised even as we deal with feelings such an envy, resentment and anxiety.  Chazal here remind us of the beautiful and serene lifestyle that we must strive to follow, a “Godly” quality which must express itself, among other ways, in our reactions to the difficult and tense situations that invariably arise over the course of daily life.