Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Vayigash
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicated in the memory of

R. Avraham ben-tziyon ben shabtai

Parashat VaYigash

Fathers and Sons

"Fathers and Sons" The fact that our nation has managed persevere for so many generations, and with such distinction, is, in itself, testimony to the greatness of the forefathers. The history of our people teaches us that the roots were indeed mighty.


Rabbi Zalman Baruch Melamed

Tevet 5749
1. Approaching the Fathers of the Nation
2. Understanding the Dispute of the Brothers
a. Joseph the Idealist
b. Joseph the "Internationalist"
3. The Centrality of the "Bet HaMidrash"
4. "Shema Yisrael"

Approaching the Fathers of the Nation
This week's Torah portion, "VaYigash ," depicts the peaceful resolution to the episode of the selling of Joseph. Recently, a student approached me with the following question: "How does one go about teaching the story of Joseph and his brothers to youngsters? True, our Torah commentators have given all sorts of interpretations, yet upon sitting down and reading the plain, unadorned text of the Bible, one receives a most appalling impression of the brothers and becomes very apprehensive of their behavior."

The question, of course, extends far beyond the episode of the selling of Joseph. There was once a teacher at one of our religious public schools who asked: "How can we even compare the behavior of, say, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagen, the "Hafetz Haim," a personage of outstanding moral stature, with that of..." - It is forbidden to even repeat his words - "King David." I bring this statement only for the sake of addressing it. In truth it is forbidden to even consider such a comparison. "King David lives on," says the Talmud . King David composed the Book of "Tehillim," Psalms. King David was the greatest Torah authority of his generation. The daily practices of King David are related to us by our Sages: how he constantly poured over the Torah, rose up early in the morning to study Jewish law, and busied himself composing songs of praise to the Creator.

Indeed, one who reads the Scriptures alone, without studying the words of our Sages, runs the risk of understanding things incorrectly.

When dealing with Joseph and his brothers it is important to remember that they were moral giants. The same is true of King David. The Torah did not find it necessary to teach us this obvious point. Later, though, when the Rabbis detected that the passage of time was giving rise to mistaken impressions, they found it necessary to teach us that, "Anybody who thinks that David sinned is mistaken."

The dispute between the brothers was a deep and penetrating one. We are not trying to claim that what took place here was justified, for the Sages themselves inform us that the famous "Ten Martyrs" were put to death as a result of the selling of Joseph. Still, one must possess the fundamental understanding that we are dealing here with the fathers of the nation . The fact that our nation has managed persevere for so many generations, and with such distinction, is, in itself, testimony to the greatness of the forefathers. "There were," in actuality, "only three forefathers," says the Talmud - Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. After these forefathers came Jacob's sons: the fathers of the Twelve Tribes and the heads of the nation in the wake of the forefathers. The entire nation stems from them. Everything that has transpired, right up until today, goes back to these very roots. The remarkable history of our people teaches us that the roots - the forefathers - were mighty indeed.

The twelve brothers grow up together in Jacob's house where they lead a deeply spiritual life. Because of this intensely spiritual environment, because of the great ideals and weighty responsibility bound up in it, tension arises between Joseph and his brothers. Their dispute is the result the great responsibility that they bear - the responsibility to uphold and preserve the spirit of the House of Jacob.

Understanding the Dispute of the Brothers
a. Joseph the Idealist
It is possible to approach the dispute between Joseph and his brothers from a number of different angles. It is possible to see Joseph is an idealist, dreaming dreams of redemption and salvation, as the Sages teach, "Come and see: All that befell Joseph befell Zion as well... It is written concerning Joseph, 'And Joseph had a dream ' (Genesis 37:5), and it is written concerning Zion, 'When God will return the captivity of Zion , we will be like dreamers '" (Psalm 126). Joseph dreamed, for he had great ideals. True, he brings a bad report to his father concerning his brothers, but this is only because he makes such great behavioral demands of them; he feels that they are capable of more. Because of the weighty implications involved he sees no other course than informing his father, Jacob, concerning the behavior of his brothers. The brothers, on the other hand, take a different approach - they are more realistic, more pragmatic.

It is possible to view this conflict in light of our present-day situation - for, are we not, after all, the great grand children of the forefathers? And just as Joseph was despised for being a dreamer who longed for the redemption, so too today hatred is often fostered towards those who yearn for the redemption of Israel. They go misunderstood and are often accused of dragging the nation into imminent danger or self destruction. People believe that these dreamers want the unattainable, and the hatred is at times so great that, "They could not say a peaceful word to him" (Genesis 37:4).

It is told, in the name of the Vilna Gaon , that all those who exert themselves settling the Land of Israel, reestablishing the Holy City of Jerusalem, and advancing the redemption - those who strive to secure Jewish control over the Land of Israel, possess something of "Mashiach ben Yoseph," the Messiah from the line of Joseph. They continue in the spirit of Joseph, and they - like Joseph - go misunderstood. The true validity of their approach goes unrecognized, as it is written, "Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him" (ibid. 42:8),

Joseph possesses a great and deep vision, and others do not succeed in understanding him. If only they were willing to recognize Joseph's leadership, says the Vilna Gaon, redemption would come immediately.

b. Joseph the "Internationalist"
Rabbi A.I. Kook explains the dispute between Joseph and his brothers in a different manner. They disagreed concerning the correct way to spread God's light in the world. Joseph believed that the best way for the Jewish People to make their impact felt in the world was by creating a "new Middle East", through attempting to influence the entire world. By associating freely with everybody, strengthening our ties with the other nations and overlooking differences, we will, Joseph felt, succeed in bringing everybody close to God. This, of course, does not imply the complete denial of all differences; rather, it means overlooking them for the sake of maintaining good relations. It means not behaving like a "nation that dwells alone," elevating itself above others. The approach of Joseph calls on the People of Israel to go out and associate with all the other nations of the world, thus influencing them.

The rest of the tribes - Judah at their head - thought differently. Their approach calls on the Jewish People to build themselves up from the inside - to ascend, sanctify themselves, and set themselves apart. Only after reaching a high level perfection, only then, as a unique people standing aloof, are we able to serve as a light unto the nations. Not through proselytizing or through a downplaying our uniqueness, but through banding together, joining forces and striving to attain inner perfection.

In our generation, as well, there exist different approaches when it comes to education. Lubavitch Hasidism teaches that one who knows "alef, bet" should go out and teach "alef bet." If one knows a little, one teaches a little. The more one learns, the more one teaches - whatever you've got: Give! There is another approach, though, that says that before one goes out to influence others, one must himself be full to the brim with knowledge. The more a person is overflowing himself, the greater his capacity to affect others, for his knowledge is not of a superficial character, but deep-seated and genuine.

Joseph views the Jewish People as possessing enough strength to influence the rest of the world. We have nothing to fear by going out, interacting and developing relations with the rest of humanity. They will be receptive to our message, and we will not come out any worse. The truth of the matter is, though, that this is slightly more complicated than it sounds. Rabbi Kook mentions the passage: "Ephraim amongst the nations assimilates," explaining that the disciples of this approach are not always successful. Sometimes there are failures and crises. It is not uncommon that one goes out with the intention of influencing - and returns influenced. Yet, if a basic inner foundation is firmly established, allowing us to rise up to great and elevated heights, afterwards, it is possible to influence the entire world.

It may appear as if we are simply projecting all sorts of profound ideas upon the dispute between Joseph and his brothers. Yet this is not the case. In the course of our long history we find these tendencies reoccurring in the Jewish People.

The Sages of the Talmud teach us: "Joseph, for sanctifying God's name in a hidden, private 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 openly, 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. The above appears to be in keeping with what we have been saying up till now. Joseph is an introspective type. He possesses inner spiritual might. He is not afraid to go out and gather followers because he possesses unseen inner strengths. Therefore. Judah, on the other hand, sanctifies God's name openly, this is the appearance of the Kingdom of Israel.

Joseph opens up channels - "gets the ball rolling," so to speak; such is the nature of "Mashiach ben Yoseph." "Mashiach ben David," The Messiah of the house of David, comes along and completes the work. There are those who possess the might, the courage and the bravery to initiate, yet they don't possess the qualities needed to finish the job - this is not their strong point. Such is the nature of Joseph. Judah, on the other hand, represents culmination, completion. These, in essence, are the roots of two distinct approaches that afterwards appear and reappear throughout Jewish history. We are called upon, each one of us, to approach the sons of Jacob, the fathers of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, with an appreciation for their true greatness, and in so doing, to learn whatever possible from the significant courses that they followed.

The Centrality of the "Bet HaMidrash"
The Midrash explains, regarding the words of the Torah, "He (Jacob) sent Judah on ahead of him to make preparations... [in the Goshen district of Egypt]" (Genesis 46:20), that the purpose of this mission was to establish a house of gathering so that there be a place for Jacob to teach Torah, and for his offspring to study, upon their arrival in Egypt. Judah, then, was sent on ahead in order to establish a "Bet-Midrash," a study hall. The first thing that must be done is to secure a Bet-Midrash .

Here in the settlement of Bet-El, this rule held true. When we came to settle Bet-El, more than twenty years ago, we lived, initially, in the near-by army base. When we were finally given the land needed in order to build the settlement, even before a city plan was drawn up, we approached an architect with the request that he prepare a blueprint for the building of the Bet-Midrash. His immediate response was, "You can't begin building a thing until you have a city plan. What if your Bet-Midrash turns out to be in the middle of where a road ought to be? First draw up a city plan, then decide where you want to put this study hall of yours." We told him, "It's written in the Shulhan Aruch that the Bet-Midrash has to be situated at the highest point in the city, and so that's where we plan on building it. The roads will have to be planned out according to the position of the Bet-Midrash, and not the Bet-Midrash according to the roads." This we learned from the behavior of Jacob, our father, when he sent Judah on ahead "to make preparations . And that is exactly what we did. We began by building our Bet-Midrash - the first stone structure built in Judeah and Samaria after the Six Day War. The Bet Midrash takes precedence above all else.

"Shema Yisrael"
The Sages teach that when Jacob finally reunites with Joseph he cries out, "Shema Yisrael." He had not seen his son for so many years - finally, they meet again. Joseph hugs his father and kisses him, yet Jacob recites the "Shema." What sort of a response is that? Could Jacob find a no more appropriate time for his daily recitation of the Shema prayer?

The truth of the matter, though, is that the moment of Jacob's reunification with Joseph is a most appropriate time for reading the Shema. That moment of joy and elation is the best of all possible times, for it allows Jacob to elevate all his joy to its true source.

Many years ago I went to visit my grandfather at his home, and I was told that he went to the synagogue to pray. I went to look for him there. I entered the synagogue and my grandfather caught sight of me while in the middle of the recital of the Kaddish prayer. Suddenly I heard his voice rise up above all the others, "Yehe Shmeh Rabbah..." Afterwards, when he met me he told me the reason that he raised his voice so. "I was reminded," he said, "of the story of Jacob and Joseph, how Jacob recited the Shema upon seeing his long lost son. The Hassidic Rabbis say that he desired to elevate his joy to its true heavenly source. Therefore, when I saw you, I shouted for joy, in order to infuse my prayer with the personal joy I was experiencing.

It is incorrect to view the forefathers as detached, emotionless types, completely out of touch with the physical world of reality. Rather, existence itself was, for the forefathers, elevated to an altogether higher plane. The recital of the Shema at the precise moment of Jacob's reunion with Joseph was an indication of the true content of the joyous atmosphere of the reunion.

The Sages, of course, describe these events according to their own viewpoint and understanding. We, through studying their books and wisdom, see things primarily according to their perspective. We learn how the Sages understood the attitude and behavior of Jacob: his giving precedence to the Bet-Midrash, his crying out "Shema." We recognize this to be the approach of the Sages. Their outlook, of course, is the result of their greatness of Torah. Whether it was the "Shema" that Jacob recited or something else - some other type of spiritual elation - is not the point. What interests us is the overall approach, the approach that asks the question: "On what sort of spiritual plane did the forefathers exist?"

We continue this very same spiritual course. This means striving to reach a level on which we exist in a world of Torah that is not detached from day to day life. It means making Torah an essential part of life, part of the spirit of life within, a living and breathing Torah. The wording of the blessing: "For they (the commandments of the Torah) are our life and the length of our days," is not a mere figure of speech that we recite in prayer. These words are the expression of an actual concrete inner reality that resides in the deepest recesses of the Jewish People: The Torah and life are one. May it be God's will that we merit to internalize these lessons, and to walk in the ways of the forefathers.


Talmud - The embodiment of the Oral Torah as taught by the great masters between around 50 b.c.e. and 500 c.e. It constitutes the most important text for the Jew outside of the Torah itself, and serves as the foundation of the sea of Jewish law practice and theology.

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.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook - The first Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Modern Israel, Rabbi Kook was a leading Rabbinical authority and orthodox philosopher. He established Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav in Jerusalem, which was unique in that the classics of Jewish thought were studied there as seriously as the Law. Rabbi Kook was a prolific writer, the impact of whose thought is being felt more and more in modern Israel.

Vilna Gaon - (1720-1797) Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo. The greatest genius of his time. Though he held no official post, the"Gra" , as he is known, was acknowledged as the leader of all non-Hassidic Jewry in Eastern Europe. The Gra's devotion to Torah study was great indeed. His sons said that he did not sleep more than two hours a day, nor more than half an hour at a time. His knowledge baffles the mind.

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 .

Shulhan Aruch - the standard code of Jewish law, compiled by Rabbi Joseph Caro (1488-1575). It took into account almost all of the earlier codes and became the most widely accepted work of its kind. A gloss was later added by Rabbi Moshe Isserles (1525-1572), including all the Ashkenazic customs.

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