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The Biblical Yosef, the Yosef of 1902, and the Yosef of Today

Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein



Parashat vayeshev



Happy 75th Birthdays to Marty & Jeanie Guberman,

from their children, grandchildren & great grandchildren




This shiur is dedicated in memory of Israel Koschitzky zt"l, whose yahrzeit falls on the 19th of Kislev. 
May the world-wide 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.



Sicha of Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein shlit”a


The Biblical Yosef, the Yosef of 1902, and the Yosef of Today

Adapted by Motti Gutman

Translated by Kaeren Fish



In contrast to Sefer Shemot, which is referred to as the “Chumash of Redemption,” we might name Sefer Bereishit the “Chumash of Exile.” The exiles start from Adam and Eve, who are expelled from Gan Eden, and continue to Kayin, who is expelled from upon the earth, to the annihilation of mankind in the Flood, the dispersion following the Tower of Bavel, the expulsion of Hagar and Yishmael, Yaakov’s flight from home out of fear for his life, and Yosef’s descent to Egypt followed by that of his brothers and father, representing the start of the Egyptian exile and the subjugation which followed. Yaakov’s life was full of wandering and tribulation: after being forced to flee his parents’ home, Lavan schemes against him in every possible way, Esav bears a grudge against him and eventually comes to greet him accompanied by four hundred thugs, an angel wages battle with him along the way – and out of all of this Yaakov emerges strengthened.


“And Yaakov dwelled in the land of his father’s sojourning, in the land of Kena’an” – after the trials of exile, the efforts of making a living, dealing with the threats presented by Lavan and Esav who sought to “uproot everything,” Yaakov seeks peace and quiet; he “desired to dwell in tranquility,” as the midrash tells us. Parashat Vayetze discusses the life of Yaakov and his household in exile; Parashat Vayishlach is devoted to the difficulties of transition and acclimatization on the way back. Upon returning to Eretz Kena’an, in Parashat Vayeshev, “Yaakov sought to dwell in tranquility.” He expected that now he would finally have the time, conditions and environment in which he would be able to bring up his family and mold the future House of Israel.


However, as we know, the strife among his sons came to affect him. Throughout the time that had passed since leaving his father and mother, Yaakov had been forced to deal with many difficulties and to face various types of threats and danger. Despite all of this, he returned home after all his years in exile “whole in body, whole in his belongings, and whole in his Torah.” Only one trouble in his life succeeded in “bringing Yaakov down to Sheol in sorrow,” led to the exile of Bnei Yisrael for hundreds of years, and facilitated the Egyptian slavery to which – had God not brought us out of there – we ourselves, and our children, and our children’s children, would still be subjected: the strife between Yosef and his brothers. We conclude that fraternal hatred is worse than all the troubles of exile, and an intra-family war is more serious a threat than all the threats of an external enemy.


What is the dynamic of the dispute between Yosef and his brothers? How did an argument and some jealousy between them lead to their intent to kill him? Aside from the initial jealousy of the brothers, which is due to Yaakov’s preferential treatment of him, Yosef certainly shares in the blame. He views himself as better than his brothers, and does not hesitate to express this openly. He takes pains to point out his brothers’ shortcomings and makes sure to inform his father of them. Moreover, he does not hide his feeling that he should be the leader of the family, announcing to them that the crown of royalty is destined for his head.


Yosef’s dreams lead to divisiveness and hatred. There is certainly room to debate whether dreams whose content gives preference to one group over another are worthy dreams, or whether they are fundamentally deficient in that they are unable to contain the achievements of the different groups amongst Am Yisrael. However, even if we view the dreams positively, which some commentators certainly do, and regard them as great, exalted dreams presenting a lofty vision with real spiritual power, we still have a serious problem with Yosef’s behavior vis-?-vis his brothers. It is not sufficient to have an impressive dream; one must also know how to convey its content in such a way as to make it acceptable to others. If the way in which he tried to bequeath his dream to his brothers caused fraternal hatred, if the result of “Yosef dreamed a dream and he told it (‘va-yagged’ – Chazal understand this term to mean that he spoke bluntly) to his brothers” was “they hated him even more,” then there must be some fundamental fault with either the content of the dream or the manner of its communication.


A dream whose recounting causes hatred is a failed dream. If the vision is formulated tactlessly, summed up by saying that one group should bow down to another, then the most likely response is that spoken by Yaakov: “Shall I and your mother and your brothers really then come and prostrate ourselves to the ground before you?!” In other words, it’s not possible that this dream is going to be realized – at least, not as Yosef has presented it. In light of Yosef’s haughtiness in describing his dreams, and bearing in mind his lack of sensitivity and failure to learn a lesson in between recounting the first and the second dreams, it is only natural that the brothers respond with hatred, jealousy and schism - leading ultimately to exile.


We cannot ignore the fact that, ultimately, the story of Yosef cannot be described as a hugely successful realization of dreams; rather, it captures the dismal failure of dispute and fraternal war, leading to exile. The result of the dreams, even if their content was full of splendor and holiness, was destructive – for Yosef himself and for the entire family. Yosef’s dreams were eventually realized, but only partially, and upon Egyptian soil, and they ultimately led to subjugation.


Obviously, Yosef doesn’t bear sole responsibility for the exile. Were it not for the brothers’ readiness to murder or sell their brother into Egyptian captivity, his actions would not have brought this about. There is no need to elaborate on the severity of their actions and of the intense hatred and lack of sympathy which found expression in their sale of their brother, as well as what preceded it.


What, then, may we learn from the story of Yosef and his dreams? First, that an internal threat is no less dangerous – and sometimes even more so – than an external one. We must treat every internal threat with the appropriate seriousness and concern. Second, a dream whose message includes prostration, arm-twisting and a sense of superiority and haughtiness is a vision that should be avoided. Third, if the way in which a dream is conveyed to others arouses hatred and jealousy, then it is not a worthy way, and it will likely have disastrous results. All the parties are responsible for the result – the sale of Yosef and the exile of Bnei Yisrael: first and foremost the brothers who sold him, but Yosef’s insensitivity is also party to the catastrophic consequences.


Yosef of 5662 vs. Yosef of Today


Rav Soloveitchik, in a well-known section from his Five Addresses, describes the dispute between Yosef and his brothers as a dispute “for the sake of heaven” where Yosef is concerned for the present as well as the future, and is blessed with impressive, confident foresight.  He sees into the distant future more clearly than do his brothers. Rav Soloveitchik compares Yosef to the Religious Zionist movement at the time of its founding, while the brothers represent the Charedi community. Yosef is presented as a visionary whose dreams are realized:


“When the Mizrachi was founded in 5662 (1902) … [w]e were lonely, as Joseph the dreamer was lonely among his brothers who mocked him… The tragedy, above all, lay in the fact that the controversy between the Joseph of 5662 and his brothers, the Tribes of God, was in truth based on a misunderstanding – just as the ancient controversy between the first Joseph, the son of Jacob, and his brothers was a result of “they saw him from far off” (Bereishit 37:18): a lack of communication… The brothers did not understand him, for they looked upon the future as a continuation of the present… “And his brothers were jealous of him” (ibid. 37:11) – the more he tried to convince them, the more their stubbornness grew – “and they hated him still more because of his dreams and words” (37:8)… In this dispute in the name of Heaven, Divine Providence decided in favor of Joseph… The Joseph of 5662 (the Mizrachi) was as one who “prophesies and does not know what he prophesies.” (Five Addresses, “And Joseph Dreamt a Dream,” 5)


According to Rav Soloveitchik’s interpretation, Yosef’s dream expressed a profound truth which was realized and saved Am Yisrael. The price for the jealousy and excommunication was paid by Yosef, but the eventual result was one of salvation. Rav Soloveitchik’s analysis is worthy, and it presents admirably the great achievement of Religious Zionism in his time.


When we come to examine his interpretation from the perspective of our present reality, we cannot but notice that the most difficult problem in applying the Rav’s analysis to our own time is that Yosef, the son of Yaakov, did not bring Am Yisrael from exile to their own land, but rather the opposite: he led them from Eretz Yisrael into exile. At the same time, his major achievement was to maintain the Jewish people in exile. Therefore, presenting Yosef as a positive model of far-sighted orientation for the Jewish reality at the turn of the 20th century (5662), identifying with his endeavor to save the Jewish people in exile, represents a convincing interpretation.


However, the situation of Religious Zionism in our own times – the Yosef of today – is remarkably similar to that of Yosef in Eretz Yisrael at the time of the dreams, and care must be taken so as not to repeat the mistakes of Yosef ben Yaakov.  (The Religious Zionist movement in our times is not a homogenous group. I regard myself as belonging to this camp, but disagree with some who are active in the political and educational realms who claim to represent Religious Zionism.)  Like Yosef then, the Religious Zionist movement has grand dreams. Like Yosef, the modern Religious Zionist movement views itself as worthy of leadership and dictating its messages. Like Yosef, it too causes the general public to feel threatened by its actions and its visions, and instead of responding by softening its messages, it responds like Yosef by intensifying the conflict and the tension. Like Yosef, it too has to deal with brothers, some of whom hate its messages and unite to cause the movement harm. There is room for concern lest, like the Yosef who sets off for Dotan with a sense of mission, not knowing the price he is about to pay, so today’s Religious Zionism may, out of a sense of mission towards its values and vision, set off on a collision course with the general public, where the price will be painful for all concerned.


The price of Yosef’s approach was exile to Egypt. Unlike the Yosef of 1902, the Yosef of today lives in Eretz Yisrael – the “land of his father’s sojourning” – and he must keep in mind what happened to the whole House of Yaakov in the wake of the biblical Yosef’s conduct. How are we not shocked by the price of brotherly hatred and strife, even if we are convinced that we are right? Will we never internalize the lesson that a vision which threatens the general public is dangerous? May we, out of dedication and holy intentions, act to realize an agenda that increases divisiveness? Even without discussing the content of the vision and without arousing debate on the proper place of Eretz Yisrael and settlement within our religious world-view, how can we support a plan of action whose result is, “They hated him even more”?


As mentioned, the brothers have a considerable part in the tragedy of the House of Yaakov. Today, too, there are many elements within the Israeli public who stoke the flames of dispute. However, the behavior of the brothers in no way exempts Yosef from his responsibility to try to lower the flames and to avoid adding fuel to the fire of conflict and mutual threats.


The challenge facing Yosef of today in Eretz Yisrael – like that facing Yosef in the parasha – is not to win the argument with his brothers, but rather to avoid argument and divisiveness, even at the price of relinquishing certain achievements – even significant ones.


(This sicha was delivered at seuda shelishit on Shabbat Parashat Vayeshev 5770 [2009].)


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