Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Walk Article-Vayeshev



Rabbi David Walk


            Parenting is more art than science.  Measuring success is therefore very hard.  So, it's with great trepidation that I venture to comment on the relationship of Ya'akov and Yosef.  The Patriarchs and Matriarchs had a doubly difficult task in raising their children.  Besides the normal problems in rearing children we all experience, they were tasked by God to produce the heirs to the covenant and were responsible for guarding the new faith.  This was uncharted territory and the surrounding environment was hostile to the mission.  Bringing up God fearing monotheists in ancient, pagan Canaan was not dissimilar from raising Red Sox (2013 World Series Champions) fans in the Bronx.  Daunting, to say the least.  We must temper, therefore, any criticism with these guidelines in mind.  Who are we to pass judgment on the pioneers of our people?  With those caveats in place, let's try to understand Ya'akov's special affection for Yosef.

            The last third of the book of Genesis is often referred to as the stories of Yosef.  Although there is truth to that assertion, I often like to call this section the stories of Yosef and Yehuda, because ultimately Yehuda challenges and supersedes Yosef for leadership of the clan.  But that's in the future.  In our parsha Yosef almost has the stage to himself (except for a side story about Yehuda and Tamar).  And it all begins with a verse which presents many problems in attaining a clear understanding of its intent.  And here's the quote:  These are the generations of Jacob:  Joseph was seventeen years old, being a shepherd, he was with his brothers with the flocks, and he was a lad (Genesis 37:2).   What's going on?  The Hebrew term translated as 'generations' is toldot, and we've had trouble with this word before.  Its root means to give birth.  It can mean either the children one begets or the deeds one produces.  In our verse it would make most sense, I would assume, to refer to all of Ya'akov's children.  In fact the previous chapter did just that with Esav listing all of his progeny.  But here we only have Yosef.  Why?

            Within that context, the first answer is given by Rashi:  When Ya'akov saw all these chiefs of Esav's family whose names are written above he said wonderingly: "Who can conquer all these?" What is written after the names of these chieftains? "These are the generations of Ya'akov – Yosef." For it is written: "And the house of Ya'akov shall be a fire and the house of Yosef a flame" (Ovadya 1:18). One spark issuing from Yosef will burn up all of these descendants of Esav (Rashi Yashan 37:1).  According to this point of view, Yosef is headlined because he would be the antidote to the poison of Esav and his powerful descendants.

            Perhaps the most moving and understandable answer is that Ya'akov saw Yosef as his favored son and heir because of his undying love for Rachel.  Ya'akov never forgot his passion for Rachel.  On his death bed (chapter 48), he reminisces about Rachel's death, when she died to him (verse 7).  Yosef embodies this great devotion.  Ya'akov ignores the family crisis precipitated by his usurping the blessings and birthright from Esav.  Perhaps, he compares his situation to that of Avraham when his grandfather chose the son of primary wife, Sarah, over secondary wife, Hagar, to carry forward the covenant.  The Torah doesn't hesitate to relate Ya'akov's great love for Yosef, and his haberdashery expression of this affection, but it was more than fondness, it was a philosophic decision.  Some Sages (R. Shimon ben Lakish, Breishit Raba, 84:8) criticized this position as bad parenting:  A person should not treat one son differently from another, for due to the ornamented tunic (Technicolor Dream Coat) they hated him.  But that's not our purpose.  We want to understand Ya'akov's motives.

            Maybe we can go back to the original verse, 'these are the toldot of Ya'akov,' and give a different translation.  Back in parshat Noach we had a similar verse, 'these are the toldot of Noach,' and there we can't give the simple translation of children or generations, because the verse goes on to say that Noach was a righteous man.  This impels Rashi to inform us that the main toldot of a zadik are his good deeds rather than his children.  So, let's translate the original verse as:  these are the motivating factors in Ya'akov's life:  Yosef and his behavior and acts.  Ya'akov saw Yosef as the engine which work propel the family and the mission.   

Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hacohen Kook, in his article Ha-Misped bi-Yerushalayim, gives a compelling description of the essence of Yosef and the essence of Yehuda as two central powers within Am Yisrael:  "God 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 of political power and, on the other hand, the power for spiritual development .  From the outset these two powers were implanted in two tribes that were meant to rule in Israel – Ephraim and Yehuda. 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 spiritual 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…And just as those powers that increase spirituality serve to pave the way for the attribute of Mashiach ben David… so the awakening to seek national, material strength and the other devices of life in general are the preparation for the Mashiach ben Yosef…."

            I'm not sure how much of this Ya'akov intuited, but during the youth of his sons he saw a special role for Yosef as provider and leader even before Yosef's dreams of control over the family.  These dreams must have confirmed Ya'akov's expectation.  Ultimately, the greatness of Ya'akov as a father wasn't at this time, but much later.  On his death bed he informs the family that eventual rule would reside with Yehuda and Yosef would have a great but subordinate role.  I have no idea how much this knowledge upset him.  His paternal job was to inform the others and this he did admirably, and poetically, too.