Yosef

  • Rabbanit Sharon Rimon
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


This parasha series is dedicated
Le-zekher Nishmat HaRabanit Chana bat HaRav Yehuda Zelig zt"l.

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This parasha series is dedicated
in honor of Rabbi Menachem Leibtag and Rabbi Elchanan Samet.

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PARASHAT VAYESHEV

 

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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.

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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.

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Yosef

By Rabbanit Sharon Rimon

 

 

Yaakov dwelled in the land of his father’s sojournings, in the land of Canaan.

These are the generations of Yaakov: Yosef was seventeen years old… (Bereishit 37:1-2)

 

The story of “the generations of Yaakov” begins with “Yosef,” and the story of Yosef that begins here ends up occupying three parashot. Yosef is a figure of central importance, and his the Torah recounts his story at length and in detail, like the stories of the forefathers. The great difference between them, however, is that the Avot were individuals: each of the three forefathers is chosen, while the siblings are rejected. Yosef, in contrast, is not the sole successor and conveyor of his heritage. He is one of twelve brothers, all of whom together constitute, continue and develop into the House of Yaakov. Nevertheless, the Torah chooses to focus specifically and pointedly on the story of Yosef.

 

Why does Yosef occupy such a central place in the “generations of Yaakov”? Is it because he is the son of Rachel and because of his father’s great love for him? Or is it perhaps his own characteristics that award him special status among the brothers? What are his primary characteristics? Is his status positive or negative? What are his dreams? What do they mean? And are they ultimately realized?

 

In this shiur we shall attempt to answer these questions.

 

Yosef’s distinction is manifest from the outset, even before he is born. He is not the eldest, but there is special anticipation that precedes his birth. Rachel is Yaakov’s most beloved wife; he meant to marry her from the beginning. Hence, Rachel’s status in Yaakov’s household is clear. There is no doubt that she is the matriarch who is worthy of building the household together with Yaakov. As the Midrash teaches:

 

“But Rachel was barren (akara)” – Rabbi Yitzchak taught: (The language hints that) Rachel was the essence (ikaro) of the household, as it is written, “But Rachel was akara” – this hints that she was ikara (the main one). (Bereishit Rabba 71,2)

 

Meanwhile, however, she is childless.[1]

 

Leah, in contrast, is married to Yaakov because of a trick perpetrated by Lavan. It seems that Yaakov’s marriage to Leah was actually a reflection of God’s will, and therefore God brought about the situation by means of which they would be married. On the revealed level, however, Leah’s status as a matriarch worthy of building Yaakov’s household with him is not clear.

 

How can Leah’s status in Yaakov’s household be clarified? Only through bearing his children.

 

And God saw that Leah was less liked, and He opened her womb; but Rachel was childless. (29:31)

 

Leah is less liked (the Torah uses the word “senu’a,” which in modern usage actually means “hated,” but in any event the word denotes a lack of affection); her status in Yaakov’s household is unclear. God gives her children, and it thereby becomes clear that she is a “matriarch” – i.e., that her marriage to Yaakov is important, meaningful, and desirable.

 

This idea is beautifully expressed in the following Midrash:

 

Rabbi Chanin taught in the name of Rabbi Shmuel, son of Rabbi Yitzchak: When Yaakov saw the acts through which Leah had deceived her sister, he thought about divorcing her. But when the Holy One, blessed be He, granted her children, he said: Shall I then divorce the mother of these (children)?... (Bereishit Rabba 71,2)

 

This Midrash can certainly be understood on the simple, human level: Yaakov feels that he cannot divorce the wife who has borne his children. However, it seems to be saying more. Since God has opened her womb and she has borne Yaakov children, Yaakov understands that his marriage to Leah is willed by God, and that Leah is worthy of being a “matriarch” and of helping to build the household. Therefore he concludes that he should not divorce her.

 

Leah’s efforts to find her place and to belong within Yaakov’s household find expression in the names that she gives to her sons. She bears one after another, and chooses names that bespeak her hope of winning Yaakov’s recognition.[2]

 

In the background, while Leah gives birth to her children, there is the story of Rachel’s barrenness.

 

And God saw that Leah was less liked, and He opened her womb – but Rachel was barren.

 

Leah bears children; Rachel is childless. Leah bears children, while Rachel hopes and prays for a child. Yaakov already has several children, but his home is still pervaded with hope for the birth of “the” child – Rachel’s child. When this son is finally born, the household is surely engulfed in a wave of joy and excitement; there is surely a feeling that now, finally, the special son has arrived, and he will surely be the main successor of the family.

 

What name is given to this special son?

 

She conceived and bore a son, and she said: God has gathered up my reproach.

And she called his name Yosef, saying: “May God add (yosef) for me another son. (30:23-24)

 

This name comes as a surprise. The special son is not named in honor of his own inherent distinction, but rather as an allusion to another son.[3] However, this name would truly seem to reflect Yosef’s true essence – the power of “making more,” of increasing life and fertility, as expressed initially in the opening of Rachel’s womb, and the very fact of his birth, and later in the birth of another son, Binyamin.

 

Where is this essence manifest later on? Going back to our parasha, Vayeshev, and the story of Yosef, we find that at first Yosef is described as enjoying a special status in Yaakov’s house. This is also expressed in his dreams, which are interpreted (by the brothers and by Yosef himself) as indicating Yosef’s desire to rule over and lead Yaakov’s household.

 

It is this special status that leads to great tension between Yosef and his brothers, eventually causing them to bring him down to the most humiliating level of being sold as a slave.

 

Yosef arrives in Egypt in utter degradation. His fall from such a lofty position to the level of a slave is unquestionably a most humiliating experience, especially in light of the fact that he is brought down by his own brothers. Despite this, we hear not a word of Yosef’s difficulties. On the contrary, within an exceedingly short time, Yosef enjoys great success:

 

And God was with Yosef, and he was a successful man, and he was in the house of his Egyptian master.

And his master saw that God was with him, and that whatever he did – God made him succeed.

And Yosef found favor in his eyes and he served him, and he made him overseer of his house, and put all that he had in his hands.

And it was that from the time he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, that God blessed the house of the Egyptian because of Yosef, and God’s blessing was upon all that he had, in the house and in the field.

And he left everything that he had in the hand of Yosef, and he knew nothing of (what he had) except the bread that he ate. And Yosef was of beautiful stature and good looking. (39:2-6)

Yosef is very successful. By virtue of his special power of vitality, he manages not to be bound to and be weighed down by his servitude. Rather, he transcends it and becomes a “successful man.”

 

In what area is he successful? He is successful in managing the household of Potifar. Yosef is not a spiritual figure; he is a very practical person. However, the verses emphasize that his success is not the result of his intelligence or ability, but rather because God is with him. God showers blessing on Potifar’s house on Yosef’s account: “God blessed the house of the Egyptian because of Yosef.” The expression “God blessed” means further abundance. Here we see that Yosef’s power of “making more” applies not only in the realm of fertility, but also to God’s abundance in the more general, material sense.

 

After Yosef attains this highly responsible position in Potifar’s house, he is cast from there into the prison, following the episode involving Potifar’s wife.[4]

 

But here again, there is no hint of any sense of humiliation; instead, there is an immediate ascent:

 

And God was with Yosef and showed him mercy and gave him favor in the sight of the officer of the prison.

And the officer of the prison placed in Yosef’s hand all the prisoners who were in the prison, and whatever they did there was his responsibility.

The officer of the prison watched nothing of what was under his hand, because God was with him and whatever he did, God made it prosper. (39:21-23)

 

Once again the text describes Yosef’s amazing success. He manages to rise up from the lowest possible situation and to attain a respected status. And here again, his success lies in managing material affairs, but the blessing for this success comes from God.

 

In the wake of his interpretation of the dreams of the butler and the baker, Yosef ends up interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, too. He explains the dream, interpreting what the king saw – but he does not stop there. He goes on to add some advice:

 

And now let Pharaoh seek out a man who is insightful and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt.

Let Pharaoh do this, and appoint officers over the land, and take a fifth part of the land of Egypt during the seven years of plenty,

and let them gather all the food of these good years that are coming, and accumulate corn under Pharaoh’s hand, for food in the cities, and keep it.

And the food shall be for a surety for the land against the seven years of famine that will be in the land of Egypt, so that the land will not perish from the famine. (41:33-36)

 

Yosef suggests to Pharaoh how he should prepare himself for the future that has been revealed to him in his dreams. The dream informs him of the future; that which he chooses to do with the information is up to him.

 

Yosef’s advice is sound, wise, and very practical. (He does not suggest, for example, that the Egyptians pray, etc.; rather, he proposes practical ideas for dealing with the situation.)

 

His ideas find favor with Pharaoh:

 

The thing was good in the eyes of Pharaoh and in the eyes of all of his servants.

And Pharaoh said to his servants: Can we find a man such as this, in whom there is the spirit of God? (37-38)

 

Pharaoh feels that Yosef’s advice is the best possible course of action, but he also senses that Yosef’s abilities are not human; that they come to him from God.

 

Once again: Yosef has outstanding organizational and managerial ability, and he is able to bring down blessing – all with God’s help.

 

Pharaoh then decides to appoint Yosef as second-to-the-king:

 

Pharaoh said to Yosef: Now that God has shown you all of this, there is none as insightful and wise as you are.

You shall be over my household, and by your word shall all of my people act; only in the throne shall I be greater than you.

And Pharaoh said to Yosef: See, I have placed you over all of the land of Egypt.

And Pharaoh removed his ring from his hand and put it on Yosef’s hand, and he had him dressed in garments of fine linen, and he placed a golden chain around his neck.

And he had him ride in the second chariot which he had, and they called out before him, “Avrekh” (bow the knee); and he appointed him over all of the land of Egypt.

And Pharaoh said to Yosef: I am Pharaoh; but without you no man shall lift his hand or his foot, throughout the land of Egypt.” (39-44)

 

From the lowliest positions – first as a slave, and then as a prisoner – Yosef reaches the position of second-to-the-king.

 

With his wisdom and ability Yosef organizes the stockpiling of food during the years of plenty, and its distribution during the years of famine. The Torah describes the complete dependence of everyone upon him:

 

And from all countries people came to Egypt to buy corn from Yosef, for the famine was severe throughout the earth. (41:57)

 

Hence, Yosef’s name testifies to his essence: addition, blessing, continued life, and abundance. He succeeds in overcoming difficult situations and proceeds from them to new heights. This represents a special power of vitality.

 

Yosef is able to bring about blessing and abundance in a wondrous way. Throughout his life story it is clear that the abundance comes from God, as Rachel recognizes when she gives him his name: “May God add….”

 

Yosef’s special power also finds expression in Yaakov’s blessing to him:

 

By the God of your father, Who will help you, and by the Almighty, Who will bless you, with blessings of the heavens above and of the deep that crouches beneath, blessings of the breasts and of the womb. (49:25)

 

Likewise, in Moshe’s blessing to the tribes of Yosef:

 

And to Yosef he said: Blessed of God is his land, for the precious things of the heavens, for the dew, and for the deep that crouches beneath.

And for the precious produce of the sun, and for the precious sprouts of the moon.

And for the essence of the ancient mountains, and for the precious things of the primordial hills.

And for the precious things of the land and its fullness, and for the favor of those that dwell in the bush; let the blessing come upon the head of Yosef and upon the top of the head of him who was set apart from his brothers. (Devarim 33:13-16)

 

In addition to this blessing, Yosef receives the birthright, as stated explicitly in I Divrei Ha-yamim:

 

And the sons of Reuven, the firstborn of Israel (for he was the firstborn, but he desecrated his father’s bed, and his birthright was given to Yosef, son of Yisrael, but not such that the birthright was his by genealogy.

For Yehuda prevailed over his brothers and the ruler came from him, but the birthright went to Yosef.) (5:1-2)

 

The birthright is taken from Reuven, for reasons that we will discuss in future shiurim, and transferred to Yosef. Yosef’s birthright is expressed in the fact that he receives a double portion of the land:[5]

 

And now, your two sons who were born to you in the land of Egypt, before I came to you, to Egypt – they are mine; Ephraim and Menasheh will be mine like Reuven and Shimon. (Bereishit 48:5)

 

Yosef assumes responsibility for feeding Yaakov’s household, and for managing the family’s affairs (both financial and organizational). Accordingly, he receives two portions. Yosef thereby “becomes” the firstborn, as it were.

 

However, he is not destined to be the leader of Am Yisrael. Leadership is given to Yehuda, as we see from the verses cited above from Divrei Ha-yamim, as well as from the blessings of Yaakov and Moshe.[6]

 

It appears that the recognition of Yosef’s essence was not clear and obvious to everyone from the start. In the early part of his life, Yosef occupied an elevated position in Yaakov’s household. The most extreme expression of this is to be found in the story of his dreams:

 

He said to them: Hear, then, this dream that I dreamed.

Behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and behold, my sheaf rose up and stood upright, and behold, your sheaves stood round about, and bowed down to my sheaf…

And he dreamed yet another dream, and he told it to his brothers, and he said: Behold, I dreamed another dream, and behold – the sun and the moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me. (37:6-9)

 

Yosef experiences two dreams, in which he sees objects symbolizing members of his family, bowing down to him.

 

How are these dreams interpreted? Their meaning seems obvious:

 

His brothers said to him: Will you then indeed reign over us; will you have dominion over us?...

… And his father rebuked him and said to him, What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I then, and your mother, and your brothers, come and bow down to you to the earth? (8-10)

 

The brothers, and Yaakov, interpret Yosef’s dreams as manifestations of his aspirations for greatness, of his desire to rule, to control, to lead. Apparently, Yosef also thought this way. He thinks that he is worthy of being the leader of the House of Yaakov.

 

However, the brothers do not accept Yosef’s “dream.”[7] They do not regard him as being worthy of leadership. Why not?

 

On the simplest level, they feel this way because the relations between them are not peaceful, as evidenced by the first verses of the parasha.[8] However, far beyond these human feelings of jealousy and competition, it is possible that the brothers felt that a fateful mistake was about to happen. Yaakov loves Yosef very much; Yosef is the son of Yaakov’s favorite wife, and he dreams of greatness. But the brothers are familiar with his essence, and they cannot accept the idea that he will end up ruling over them. To their view, he is simply not suited to the role.

 

The brothers feel that Yosef’s strong status in Yaakov’s household is leading in a problematic direction. He cannot become the leader of Yaakov’s house.

 

Indeed, when the brothers sell Yosef, they justify their act on the basis of his dreams:

 

They said to one another: Behold, that dreamer comes.

Now, let us kill him and cast him into one of the pits, and we shall say: A wild animal devoured him; and we shall see what will become of his dreams. (19-20)

 

Yosef’s “big dreams” are the main point of contention between himself and his brothers – far more than the jealousy caused by Yaakov’s special love for him.

 

The brothers’ hatred of Yosef and their sale of him bring together two levels. The first is the simple, human level, where the preferential treatment shown to Yosef causes the brothers to feel intense jealousy and hatred towards him – to the point where they are ready to kill him.

 

The second level is more theoretical: in truth, Yosef is not meant to be the leader of Yaakov’s household, but he may end up receiving the leadership role because of Yaakov’s great love for him and because of his considerable power. In order to prevent this scenario from being realized, Yosef is removed from the scene, through the sale. (It is possible that the brothers themselves felt that Yosef was objectively not worthy of being the leader, and therefore they sold him, but it is equally possible that they were completely unaware of this level, and that it was God Who brought matters about in such a way as to ensure that Yosef would not take the leadership of which he was not worthy.)

 

Among the sons of Yaakov there are different strengths; all of these together are meant to comprise the nation.[9] But in order for them to be able to build together, there must be a thorough and deep clarification of the particular strength of each one of them, and the role that is suited to each.

 

Yosef is removed from Yaakov’s household, and the severance between him and his brothers allows for growth in positive directions. Among the brothers who have remained at home there is a clarification as to who is worthy of leadership, and it becomes clear that it is Yehuda who should be leader. 

 

Yosef’s special power likewise has the opportunity to be clarified – specifically through the circumstances of his being ousted from his elevated position and distanced from the family. It is specifically there, from afar, that his true personal essence can shine through.

 

Indeed, when he finally meets his brothers again, he says:

 

And now – do not be downhearted and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, for it was to give life that God sent me before you.

For there has been famine in the land for two years, and for another five years there will be no plowing or harvesting.

And God sent me before you to establish for you a remnant in the land, and to save your lives by a great salvation.

And now, it is not you who have sent me here, but God… (45:5-8)

 

After all of the challenges and changes that Yosef has faced, he understands his role within the family. It turns out that he has powers of adding life and invoking blessing; he is capable of being the “distributor of corn to all the people of the land,” and in this sense the brothers bow down to him and are dependent upon him. As the verse teaches:

 

And Yosef was the ruler over the land; it was he who sold to all the people of the land, and Yosef’s brothers came and bowed down before him with their faces to the ground. (42:6)

 

Yosef’s dreams appeared at first like human dreams arising from Yosef’s misguided ambitions, and as the relations between the brothers grew more strained and Yosef was finally sold into slavery, it appeared that they would not be fulfilled. However, his dreams become a reality; his brothers eventually bow down to him. Apparently, his dreams were indeed prophetic visions, in which God revealed the future.

 

But the meaning of the dreams is not explained to Yosef explicitly by God, and Yosef and his brothers attempt to interpret it themselves.[10]

 

Just as Yosef did not understand properly his role and status in Yaakov’s household, so he did not have an accurate understanding of his dreams. He interpreted them as alluding to his future rule over his brothers, that he would lead the family. In truth, though, the dreams were meant to convey a different message: that the family’s existence would be dependent upon him (especially in the economic realm).[11]

 

After many years in Egypt, isolated from his family, Yosef understands the dreams that came to show him his proper place within the family. It is Yosef who facilitates the family’s existence, through his capability of bringing about a showering of God’s blessing.

 

Rav Kook, in his article “Ha-Misped bi-Yerushalayim,”[12] addresses the essence of Yosef and the essence of Yehuda as two central powers within Am Yisrael:

 

“…He planted within Israel two complementary strengths: the strength corresponding to the human body, seeking the welfare of the nation in terms of status and material situation, which is the proper basis […] and, on the other hand, the actual power for spiritual development itself…

From the outset these two general powers were implanted in two tribes that were meant to rule in Israel – Ephraim and Yehuda. And as in the beginning – the acts of the fathers are a sign for the children – Yosef was the one who sold food … and gave life to Yaakov and his sons in terms of material life… while Yehuda is especially characterized by the special power of Israel… The purpose of the choice of royalty of the House of David was so that these two powers would be joined together, such that not only would there be no conflict between them, but they would help one another… Everything would be unified in the single power, through the tree of Yehuda, which also included the power of Yosef… and through the joining of these two powers, both would be elevated…

And just as those powers that increase spirituality serve to pave the way for the attribute of Mashiach ben David (the Messiah, son of David)… so the awakening to seek national, material strength and the other devices of life in general are the preparation of [i.e., associated with] Mashiach ben Yosef….”

 

Rav Kook shows that Yosef’s essence continues to manifest itself during the era of the monarchy, and also in the time to come, in the days of Mashiach, when Mashiach ben Yosef will pave the material road for Mashiach ben David.

 

Each leader, and each “Mashiach,” must know his proper role, and they must work in cooperation in order to build up Am Yisrael in the most optimal way.

 

 

Translated by Kaeren Fish



[1]        In this respect she is like Sara and Rivka, and it is specifically this similarity to the previous matriarchs that strengthens our sense that Rachel is the matriarch, and that she will eventually give brith to a child who will continue Yaakov’s household.

[2]        “She called his name Reuven, for she said: Because God has seen (ra’a) my affliction, for now my husband will love me…”; “And she said: For God has heard (shama) that I am less liked, and he has given me this one, too. And she called his name Shimon…”; “And she said: Now this time my husband will be joined (yilaveh) to me, for I have borne him three sons; therefore she called his name Levi”; “And Leah said:  God has granted me a good gift; now my husband will dwell with me (yizbeleni), for I have borne him six sons; and she called his name Zevulun.”

The emotions underlying the story of the births of Yaakov’s children are powerful ones. Clearly, the children grow up with an awareness of the tension surrounding their births – first and foremost because their names reflect this tension. At some point a child asks his parents, Why did you name me such-and-such?

And how does Leah answer her children when they ask? She tells them, “Because I wanted your birth to bring me closer to your father,” or “Because I hoped that with your birth, I would acquire a status equal to that of Rachel.” A child who grows up with this consciousness, and a name that serves as a constant reminder of it, bears a heavy emotional burden. This is certainly true on the simple, human level, but in this case he is also aware of the significance of the household that is being built. His status in his father’s house is not merely a human, personal concern, but also a matter of profound significance for future generations.

[3]        In fact, the name rather resembles the names given by Leah to her own sons. Leah’s sons’ names reflect her desire for recognition on the part of Yaakov, while the name of Rachel’s son reflects her desire to bear another son, so that she will have another portion in the building of Yaakov’s household. As the Midrash describes it: “When Dina was originally conceived (by Leah), she was meant to be a boy. By virtue of Rachel’s prayer, ‘May God grant me another son,’ she became a girl. Rabbi Chanina ben Pazi taught: The matriarchs were prophetesses, and Rachel was one of the matriarchs. She did not say, ‘May God grant me more sons,’ but rather ‘another son.’ She said: ‘There is one more (son) who is destined to be born; would that he will be born from me.’ Rabbi Chanina taught: The (other) matriarchs gathered together and said: We have enough; let this one (Rachel) bear sons.” (Bereishit Rabba 72)

[4]        It is interesting that Yosef’s challenge is related specifically to the power of fertility, which is his special strength. Apparently, he possesses true power in this area, and therefore it is in this area that he is forced to struggle.

[5]        The firstborn, according to Torah law, receives a double portion of the inheritance, since he assumes responsibility of running the family. For further discussion see the shiur on Parashat Toldot.

[6]        We shall elaborate on this in the shiur on Parashat Miketz.

[7]        The brothers apparently regarded his dreams not as prophetic visions, but rather as arising from his own illusions of grandeur.

[8]        As discussed above (note 3), the tense atmosphere surrounding the birth of each of the sons also accompanies their childhood developmenet in Yaakov’s house.

[9]        In contrast to the story about Yaakov and Esav, where Esav is rejected and Yaakov receives both blessings – the material and the spiritual.

[10]       While Yosef tries to interpret his own dream alone, without help from God, when it comes to the dreams of Pharaoh’s servants, and those of Pharaoh himself, he declares openly that he interprets them with God’s help. In chapter 40: “Do interpretations not belong to God? Tell me, then”; chapter 41: “And Pharaoh said to Yosef: I have dreamed a dream, but there is no-one to interpret it, and I have heard it said that you hear a dream and interpret it. And Yosef answered Pharaoh saying: It is not I, God will restore Pharaoh’s tranquility… that which God is going to do, He has revealed to Pharaoh.” Yosef has learned his lesson. He now knows that interpretation of dreams must be undertaken not with simple human thought, but with the help of God, with a view to understanding the will of God that is manifest through the dream.

[11]       See a detailed discussion in Rabbi Elchanan Samet’s article, “The Meaning of Yosef’s Dreams.”

[12]       Ma’amarei RaAYaH I, pp. 94-99. The article, written after Herzl’s death, presents a detailed exposition of Rav Kook’s thesis that the secular Zionist movement corresponds to Mashiach ben Yosef.