Friday, December 19, 2008

Divrei Torah: Parshas vaYeishev

Available as .pdf for download here. I am still not sure how convenient it is to list a .pdf as a seperate link, but a 2 page doc makes for a long post and does not print out as well. I reduced the font and pasted it below for those who do not want the .pdf.

Ya’akov dwelled in the land of his forefathers…. (37:1) Rashi cites the Midrash’s comment on the use of the verb y-sh-v here, “vayeishev Ya’akov” (compare with 47:28, “vayechi Ya’akov”) as indicating that Ya’akov sought to dwell in peace and tranquility having overcome the challenges of Lavan’s house and his re-encounter with Eisav. Yet, Hashem denied him this request: “Is it not enough for the righteous to have tranquility in the world to come – must they also demand it in this world as well?” This seems like a harsh response, but by coincidence just this morning I read a story told in the name of R’ Gedalya Schorr which I think sheds light on the Midrash.

The story is told of the Rizhiner who one year after Yom Kippur revealed that he could tell what anyone davened for on Yom Kippur and exactly how the beis din shel ma’alah received those prayers. No one dared test the Rizhiner, but finally one person who was not chassid came forward and asked. The Rizhiner looked at the person and told him, “You used to be a great masmid in yeshiva and aspired to become a great talmid chacham, but financial constraints forced you into business where you have had a degree of success, yet you still long for the beis medrash. Your davened with great sincerity that Hashem should take care of your parnasa so that you should have the opportunity once again to immerse fully in learning.”

The man was amazed – that was his exact tefilah. “And what was the response on shamayim?” he asked.

The Rizhiner answered that the man’s request had been rejected. “The beis din shel ma’aleh decided”, explained the Rizhiner, “that although there is great nachas in shamayim from your learning, there is even greater nachas from your striving to learn despite the challenges of time and other concerns that stand in your way.”

We request that Hashem remove from us many obstacles and challenges that make our life difficult, but perhaps Hashem himself sends us those challenges so that in struggling to overcome them we grow and create even greater nachas ruach in shamayim than we could otherwise.

Despite the story of the Rizhiner, one cannot but help feel that if things were smoother one could accomplish so much more. “If only… I could do more.” There is no denying the truth to this assertion, but it misses the whole picture. The seemingly small efforts we might be able to make in any area given the constraints of life’s challenges, if done with sincerity and dedication, can produce tremendous results that we may not even be aware of. The Sefas Emes explains that we see this from our parsha. “Reuvain heard and saved him [Yosef] from their hands” (37:21). Reuvain had the most noble intentions when he suggested that Yosef be lowered into a pit. Imagine his shock and surprise when he returned later (37:29) only to find Yosef missing and discover that he had been sold into slavery by the other brothers -- all those plans and great intentions for naught! Yet, that is not how the Torah looks at things. “Vayatzileihu” – Reuvain did save his brother. Had it not been for Reuvain, Yosef might have been killed immediately. Reuvain may not have brought Yosef home as he had planned, but it was because of his intercession that Yosef lived and would rise to become Yosef the great ruler of Egypt and Yosef the tzadik. The Sefas Emes writes that when a person is motivated by sincere intention to do a good deed, even though it may appear that his efforts prove unsuccessful, he should rest assured that something is indeed accomplished, even if that something is not always apparent.

The challenges and burdens which we must overcome not only may seem to make life more difficult, but may seem unfair and unjust. The Sefas Emes writes that the stories of these parshiyos teach us how to accept Hashem’s actions in this world with happiness and love even through suffering and confusion. Yosef felt that he was destined for greatness. Can we imagine what he must have felt as the brothers stripped him of his ksones and tossed him into a pit and later sold him? Can we imagine the sense of embarrassment that Yosef would have been reduced to left without even the shirt on his back? Yet, Yosef accepts this as part of Hashem’s plan – Yosef trusts that this method of bringing about the fulfillment of his dreams will bring greater nachas ruach in shamayim even if in his mind it would be easier and better if things had gone differently. It is precisely this immunity to embarrassment and sense of bitachon that later gave Yosef the strength flee from the wife of Potifar leaving his shirt in her grasp, no matter how embarrassing that situation might have been. Without the former challenge, the latter spiritual success could not have been achieved. The strength of character built from his dealings with his brothers that gave Yosef the strength to survive in Egypt. And if we look at the story as a whole, it is this long circuitous path of the dreams coming to fulfillment that give us the tribes of Menashe and Ephraim and lead Yehudah to his own story that gives rise to the lineage of Moshiach. Had things gone “smoothly”, none of that could have been accomplished.

The first step in dealing with any difficulty is accepting it as Hashem’s will. Yosef is cast into prison, “vaYitneyhu el beis hasohar”, but the pasuk continues and ends, “vaYehi sham b’beis hasohar,” Yosef was there in the prison (39:20). If he was thrown into prison, obviously he was in prison – why the seeming redundancy? If we reflect on our own lives and circumstances the answer becomes clear. A person may at times feel that his job is like a “prison” that he cannot escape from because he needs to support his family and cannot risk leaving. A person can G-d forbid suffer an illness that leaves him/her confined to a bed, a “prison” that prevents escape to carry on a normal life. What child does not at times feel that school is a “prison” that must be suffered through (and what teacher does not at times feel the same way?) And so we sit day-in and day-out and dream of our escape, or engage in all sorts of empty activities designed with the goal of escapism in mind. The Kedushas Levi explains that this is why the pasuk ends “Yosef was in the prison” -- Yosef was not engaged in regret, Yosef did not engage in a repetitious cycle of reconsidering whether he had played his cards right and whether he was to blame for his fate, Yosef was not fantasizing about could-be’s or escapist dreaming. Yosef understood that at this point in life, for whatever reason, it was his fate as decreed by Hashem to be in prison and he must accept it, deal with its challenges, and trust that Hashem will guide him for the future.


  1. Anonymous1:10 PM

    This is excellent! Not la-afafukei your other pieces but this really rings true.

  2. Anonymous1:38 PM

    Very nice; I have a very demanding audience Shabbos morning, and it's good to have extra ammunition.