Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Vayeshev
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicated in the memory of

R. Avraham ben-tziyon ben shabtai

Parashat VaYeshev

"The Twelve Tribes"

In this week's Torah portion we encounter Jacob's offspring, those towering personalities that make up Israel's Twelve Tribes, the pillars upon which the entire House of Israel rests.


Rabbi Zalman Baruch Melamed

1. Perfecting Intentions, Perfecting Actions
2. The Conflict Between Joseph and His Brothers
3. Judah - Sanctifying God Publicly
4. Joseph - Secretive Sanctification

Perfecting Intentions, Perfecting Actions
In this week's Torah portion we encounter Jacob's offspring, those towering personalities that make up Israel's Twelve Tribes, the pillars upon which the entire House of Israel rests. In light of what we know up until now concerning the forefathers - Abraham, Isaac and Jacob - the behavior of Jacob's twelve children in the episode of the selling of Joseph comes as quite a surprise.

Great Torah commentators, though, understood that the dispute between Joseph and his brothers was not a trivial one; the offspring of such a personality as Jacob, having received in their father's home the best of all possible upbringings, were certainly not the sorts to get involved in petty quarrels. And it is precisely because their intentions were for the sake of heaven, and not trivial, that God ultimately protects them from failure - He prevents them from bringing about the undesirable. The selling of their brother, when all is said and done, is a source of goodness for Jacobs family. As Joseph says to his brothers after being placed in charge of the entire land of Egypt, "God has sent me ahead of you to save [your] lives" (Genesis 45:5).

On the other hand, though, the Sages are careful to emphasize that it is not enough to refine one's intentions - one must also make sure that his actions are of a pure and praiseworthy nature. Hence, we are taught that the words the prophet Amos, "For three transgressions of Israel I will turn away his punishment, but for the fourth I will not turn away his punishment; because they sold the righteous for silver...," allude to, among other things, the selling of Joseph, for this act is viewed as the ultimate source of much of the suffering that has befallen the Jewish people during the course of our long history. Our tradition tells us that because of the selling of Joseph the famous "Ten Martyrs" - some of the greatest Torah scholars and leaders our people have ever known - were put to death. The episode of the selling of Joseph teaches us the so important lesson that it is not enough to purify one's intentions; one must also perfect one's deeds.

The Conflict Between Joseph and His Brothers
The conflict between Joseph and his brothers begins with Joseph's bringing to his father a bad report of his siblings. The Sages gave a number of explanations concerning the content of Joseph's report. "Rabbi Meir says: [Joseph reported to his father:] 'Your sons are suspected of having eaten the flesh of a living animal.'"

Rabbi Shalom Nathan Ra'anan, in the name of his father-in-law Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook, sheds interesting light on Rabbi Meir's opinion. According to Rabbi Kook, the essence of the conflict between Joseph and his brothers is as follows: Joseph believed that because the Torah had not yet been given to the Jewish people, the children of Jacob were obligated to behave in accordance with the seven universal pre-Bible commandments, known as the "Commandments of Noah's Sons" (as opposed to those given to Israel's Sons, the Jewish people, at Mount Sinai). One of these commandments teaches that slaughter does not permit the removal of an animal's limb for the purpose of consumption until all life has left the animal. Joseph, seeing his brothers severing the limb from an animal immediately after its slaughter, yet before the its death, concluded that they were guilty of violating this commandment. He therefore brought the derisive report to his father.

Joseph's brothers, though, were of the opinion that even before the giving of the Torah, representing, as they did, the foundation of the Nation of Israel, they must behave like Children of Israel and not like the Children of Noah. According to Jewish law, proper kosher slaughter makes severing a limb from an animal permissible, even before the animal itself dies completely.

The difference in the outlooks of Joseph and his brothers makes for a significant difference in approach when it comes to the actual behavior of these two camps. Joseph, seeing himself as a part of the wider family of nations, a son of Noah, desires to continue acting and influencing within the framework of the nations of the world, and not to create a separate family unit, set off from the rest of the peoples. Judah and his brothers, on the other hand, see the family as a distinct and complete unit, a separate people. Action, they claim, must now be directed towards inner perfection and development of this unique people.

Judah - Sanctifying God Publicly
In our Torah portion and in those to come, we come face to face with two central personalities among the brothers - Judah and Joseph. It is important to understand what makes them, each one of them, so special.

The "Tosefta" records an interesting discussion that took place between the famed Rabbi Akiva and four elders. Rabbi Akiva posed the question, "By what merit did the Tribe of Judah receive the kingship?" The elders believed that perhaps it was due to Judah's honesty in admitting the sin he had committed with Tamar (see Genesis 38:1-30). Rabbi Akiva refuted this suggestion, asking, "Should one become worthy of reward as a result of sin?" The elders continued to suggest possible reasons - perhaps Judah's saving his brother Joseph's life (ibid. 37:26), or his extreme humility in agreeing to be put in detention in place of Benjamin, his younger brother (ibid. 44:18-33). Rabbi Akiva, though, refuted these suggestions as well.

Finally, growing frustrated, the elders asked Rabbi Akiva to reveal to them the solution. He answered that the tribe of Judah received the kingship because it, the entire tribe, sanctified the name of God, for when the Israelites came out of Egypt and arrived at the sea, the tribe of Judah was the first to go forth into the waters, and in so doing they sanctified God's name.

What does all this teach us about Judah's character? And what does it tell us about the qualities necessary for a king?
It would have been easy enough for Judah to have denied Tamar's accusations, yet, despite this, Judah opted to admit his guilt, revealing through his behavior that his own honor was not so important to him. And because his own honor was not so important to him, he is deemed master over his honor - a "king of honor." As a result he becomes fit for honor and kingship.

Many are of the opinion that honor and esteem are what make one influential; therefore, if one wishes to increase his influence, he need work on establishing for himself a position of distinction. Yet the Rabbis take a completely different approach. According to them, "One who flees from honor, honor chases after him." It is he who refuses to seek out esteem, subdues his drive for honor, and demonstrates a distinguished level of self-control, that exercises - by virtue of his own self-control - added influence over those around him.

One's fleeing from honor must, of course, be sincere and undivided. Man cannot, on the one hand, flee from honor, while, on the other, look back to make sure that honor is indeed chasing after him. Nor is it acceptable for one to "slow his pace" in order that honor catch up with him, rather, one's fleeing must be unquestionably genuine.

In the wake of this explanation comes another that is quite similar to the previous: by virtue of the trait of humility Judah receives the kingdom. Another merit that would appear to make Judah worthy of the kingship was his saving his brother from certain death. This is the special role of the king: to save the oppressed from his oppressors. According to Rabbi Akiva, though, because the Tribe of Judah sanctified God's name by endangering itself in order to save the Israelites - because this tribe magnified God's name in the world by saving His jeopardized people, it became worthy of the Kingdom.

Joseph - Secretive Sanctification
In contrast to Judah who openly sanctifies God's name, Joseph is characterized by the quality of hidden righteousness, quietly and covertly sanctifying God's name, as the Sages of the Talmud teach us: "Joseph, for sanctifying God's name in a hidden manner, was rewarded by having a letter from God's name (the Tetragrammaton - YHVH) added to his own." The Hebrew Yoseph later became Y'hoseph , an additional 'Heh,' or 'h' being added - taken, as it were - from God's own name. "Judah," the Talmud continues, "for sanctifying the name of God publicly, merited receiving a name that was made up entirely of the letters of God's name." The Hebrew Yehudah contains, albeit rearranged somewhat, all of the letters of God's name.

Joseph hides his righteousness while in the house of his Egyptian master, and, as a slave, endures extremely difficult trials on a daily basis.
It is important to realize that the temptation which Joseph is forced to bear while in the company of the wife of Potiphor, his Egyptian master, are not of a purely physical nature. The Midrash teaches that, "She (the wife of Potiphor) saw in the stars that she was destined to produce a boy through him (Joseph), yet she was not sure if it would come through her or her daughter."

While the union between Potiphor's wife and the young slave is of a genuine and intrinsic nature, it is destined to find expression only later, with her daughter's marriage to Joseph. Through her daughter, the true connection between Joseph and Potiphor's wife is unveiled. In the mean time, though, Joseph is forced to bear the weight of this trial, quietly, day after day.

The private sanctification of God's name is especially beneficial, for, because it goes relatively unnoticed, it retains its full force and potency. Because the hidden righteous do not fall prey to the scrutiny of antagonistic observers, and remain outside the grip of antagonistic forces, they are able to develop their spiritual faculties undisturbed, and to attain exceptional effectiveness - an effectiveness that would be impossible to arrive at were their righteousness apparent to all.

True, in the course of one's spiritual development, there is room for both of these approaches. At the outset of one's spiritual growth it is more fitting for an individual to keep a low profile, to develop his inner self, without being outwardly revealing. Displaying righteous behavior too openly is liable to attract outside elements that will distract and disturb the inner growth process. Yet, in the wake of this inner hidden development comes the power of growth and sanctification of God's name in public, which will, in the end, bring goodness and blessing to the entire world.


Tosefta - Additions to the Mishna . The Mishna was the first part of the Talmud to be codified, and was set in its present form by Rabbi Judah the Prince around 188 c.e. Rabbi Chiyya and Rabbi Oshia (circa 230 c.e.) are responsible for these additions which are often quoted in the Talmud .

Midrash - A general term, usually indicating the non-legalistic teachings of the Rabbis of the Talmudic era. In the period following the final editing of the Talmud (around 505 c.e.), much of this material was gathered into collections known as Midrashim .

Ten Martyrs - Ten righteous men murdered by the Romans during the Mishnaic period. Their executions did not, though, take place at the same time. They include such personages as Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, and the High Priest Rabbi Yishmael.

Commandments of Noah's Sons - Judaism teaches that the non-Jewish nations of the world - "Noah's Sons" - are obligated to keep seven commandments: 1) Not to worship idols 2) Not to curse God 3) To establish courts of justice 4) Not to murder 5) Not to commit adultery or incest 6) Not to steal 7) Not to eat flesh from a living animal.
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