Failure is not an orphan - Parshat Vayeshev

The infinite respect we have for our holy forefathers leads us to shy away from dealing with their sins and mistakes. But this is not the way of the Torah.

December 3, 2015 21:59
3 minute read.
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man stands on the rooftop during a special priestly blessing for Passover

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man stands on the rooftop during a special priestly blessing for Passover at the Western Wall. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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In this week’s portion we read about a chain of tragic mistakes that were made by great people, founders of the Jewish nation, our forefather Jacob and his sons.

The infinite respect we have for our holy forefathers leads us to shy away from dealing with their sins and mistakes. But this is not the way of the Torah. With real intent, honesty and courage, the Torah tells us also about their mistakes so that we know that they were not superhuman heroes, but people capable of making mistakes. Their greatness lies in that they recognize the error of their ways and try to fix them.

Already at the beginning of the portion, we read about Jacob’s preferential treatment of Joseph, the son of his beloved wife Rachel, whom he treated better than his other sons, the sons of Leah, the woman he married due to trickery. This favoritism was woven into a special item of clothing for Joseph – a coat of colored stripes – which displayed Joseph’s superiority over his brothers. This discrimination leads to the deterioration of the already-charged relationships between Joseph and his siblings.

The sages of the Talmud inferred the following incisive moral from this story: “A man should never single out one son among his other sons, for on account of the two selas’ weight of silk, which Jacob gave Joseph in excess of his other sons, his brothers became jealous of him and the matter resulted in our forefathers’ descent into Egypt.”

(Talmud Bavli, Tractate Shabbat, page 10) When we continue reading the portion, we encounter Joseph, the beloved son, degrading his brothers and speaking badly of them to their father Jacob. In the Midrash, our sages describe in great detail how Joseph tended to make up stories about his brothers and make them look bad in the eyes of their father.

As we continue reading, we reach the worst part of the story: the sale of Joseph into slavery by his brothers.

This act, a reaction to the blatant preferential treatment of Joseph over his brothers and to Joseph’s arrogant behavior, is not even slightly justified anywhere in Jewish sources. On the contrary, the sale of Joseph is considered unequivocally and patently disgraceful.

What are we to learn from these stories? The Egyptian exile is one of the topics most discussed in Jewish philosophy and legend. The best of thinkers pondered the following issues: Why was it decreed that Am Yisrael (the People of Israel) must first suffer exile before becoming a nation? What are we to learn from the fact that our national narrative begins with exile and slavery in a foreign land? One of the great biblical commentators from approximately half a century ago was Don Isaac Abravanel.

(The Abarbanel, commentator, statesman, and economist, served as Portugal’s and Spain’s finance minister before being expelled with all other Jews in 1492, and then serving as finance minister in Naples, Italy.) When he debated the questions dealing with the Egyptian exile, he wrote an amazingly simple answer. There is no point, the Abarbanel claimed, in asking why Am Yisrael was enslaved in Egypt when the background leading to it is clear and known. If Jacob had not favored Joseph; if Joseph had not been arrogant with his brothers; if the brothers had not sold Joseph into slavery in Egypt – the whole sad story of the exile in Egypt would have been prevented.

The Abarbanel’s message in one word is: responsibility.

Often, we search for reasons for different events.

We sometimes even create complicated theories in order to find an explanation for things that occur. But the best thing to do is to search and ask ourselves if we acted as we should have. Are we free of guilt? Have we not misunderstood reality or made a mistaken determination? And then the next step: How can we correct this? What must we improve so that next time the results will be better? The fact that man is a creature with a moral consciousness brings us to live life with a sense of purpose.

We are here to act, initiate, advance and repair.

The deep sense of satisfaction we feel after doing something beneficial and good is proof that this is what we were meant to do. Awareness of responsibility and its accompanying significance is a necessary condition for reaching our greatest purpose in life as thinking and feeling people, as moral human beings.

Shabbat shalom.

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.

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