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Parashat VaYeishev: A Powerful Adolescent Commitment to Righteousness by Yaakov Bieler

December 14, 2011 by  
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The institution of reading the Haftara

Traditionally, the Haftora for Parshat VaYeshev is taken from chapters 2 and 3 of the book of Amos.[1] While the historical origin for reading the Haftarot as part of the Shabbat, Yom Tov and fast day services is not certain, the Avudharam speculates that this practice was begun during the persecutions of Antiochus that led to the revolt of the Chashmanaim marked by the festival of Chanuka.[2] As a response to the prohibition against public Tora reading which comprised a portion of the Syrian-Greek attempt to Hellenize the Jewish population, readings from the Prophets paralleling a particular day’s Tora portion were substituted by the Jewish leadership. The practice of reading from the Prophets was then preserved even once the Tora reading itself became once again permitted.[3]

Hypothesizing re the connection between the Tora reading and Haftora for Parashat VaYeishev

Assuming that the Prophetic readings have some connection to the Tora reading which they were designed to replace, it is often challenging to try to deduce what particular parallelism or association inspired the Rabbis to designate a passage from the Nevi’im for this purpose. It would seem that the only link between Amos 2-3, VaYeshev’s Haftora and Parashat VaYeshev itself, is the first verse of the Haftora, 2:6.[4] “Thus said the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel, for four, I will not Overlook the need for punishment: Because they have sold for silver a ‘Tzaddik’ (a righteous individual), and the poor for a pair of shoes.” Although the standard commentaries, e.g., RaShI, Ibn Ezra, RaDaK, etc., on Amos do not mention any connection between this verse and Yosef,[5] Rabbinic sources understand that the “Tzaddik” being referred to is Yaakov’s favorite son, and that his brothers received in exchange for him money with which they purchased shoes. Here, for example, is Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, Chapter 38.

And they (the brothers) sold him to the Yishmaelim for twenty pieces of silver, each of the brothers[6] (6) then receiving two pieces of silver in order to purchase shoes for their feet, as it is stated, (Amos 2:6) “Because they have sold for silver a ‘Tzaddik’…”

This additional detail regarding what was obtained by the brothers when Yosef was sold into servitude that does not appear in the Tora’s account, has nevertheless been inserted into the liturgical prayers on Yom HaKippurim, when during the course of the tragic poem, “Eileh Ezkara” (lit. These I will remember) in which the deaths of the Ten Martyrs are chillingly described, we read the following:

These I will remember, and concerning them I will pour out my soul,

Because the evildoers have wolfed us down as if we were baked delicacies,

For once the reign of the governor began, the Ten who were killed by royal decree, did not have long to live.

When he studied the Tora with one who was sly in his explanations and parables,

And understood and inferred from the written religious laws and principles,

And he began with “Eileh HaMishpatim” (and these are the laws) and thought only of wickedness,

“And one who kidnaps a person and sells him, and he is found guilty, and he will surely die.”

He was arrogant regarding great men, and he commanded that his palace be filled with SHOES.

And he summoned the great scholars, those who understood religious practices along with their reasons by means of their engaging in precise logical deduction,

“Judge this judgment properly! And do not pervert the judgment with lies. But rather bring its true verdict to light in truth. What is the law when someone is found to have kidnapped a fellow Jew, and did wrongly with him and sold him?”[7]

They proclaimed at once, “That kidnapper must die.”[8]

He said, “Where are your brethren who sold their brother? To a caravan of Yishmaelim they dealt him as merchandise. For SHOES they gave him to them. And you must accept upon yourselves Heaven’s Judgment in their stead.”[9]

Amos’ description of Yosef’s moral and spiritual standing

While the assertion that Yosef’s sale involved purchasing shoes is an evocative detail of the story,[10] the more profound contribution of Amos 2:6 to our understanding of Yosef, is attributing to him the status of “Tzaddik”. Indeed, in numerous Rabbinic sources, when referring to this son of Yaakov and Rachel, the term “Yosef HaTzaddik” is invoked.[11] Yosef is the only Biblical figure[12] who is referred to in Rabbinic literature in this manner, paralleling the additions to the names Avraham “Avinu” (our father) and Moshe “Rabbeinu” (our teacher). R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch provides a working definition of a “Tzaddik” when he discusses the first individual whom the Tora describes in this manner, Noach (Beraishit 6:9).

The “Tzaddik” looks at everything objectively, at nothing from the standpoint of his own interest, but everything from the point of view of what is right. It is primarily social justice and hence it is preferably construed with expressions of deeds, e.g., “Peulat Tzaddik” (the act of a Tzaddik); “Aseh Tzedaka” (perform righteousness)…

That Noach was an “Ish Tzaddik” (a righteous man) had its roots in his moral purity and this moral purity had its roots in the “Hithalech” (see 6:9) (causing himself to walk), in allowing himself to be led by God’s Hand. (The reference is to the phrase “Et HaElokim Hithalech Noach” [with God did Noach cause himself to walk].) Whereas of the great men of later times it says that they went through life BEFORE God,[13] as His Messengers; of Noach it says WITH God. That he paid no attention to the jeers and gibes of his contemporaries, and held fast to God and just thereby became “Noach”…

Considering Yosef’s actions while a young man through the lense of “Tzidkut”

Applying such an understanding of the term “Tzaddik” to Yosef in particular, sheds new and positive light on several incidents in which he was involved, and which generally are considered to reflect immature character flaws rather than virtues. If in fact we remember that he is seventeen (37:2) when this series of events begins, the high standards for consistency and the idealistic devotion to what he deems to be holy and just, even to the point of placing himself in considerable peril, are in fact typical adolescent behaviors,[14]

a)  Whereas RaShI on 37:2 suggests that the reason why Yosef associated with the sons of the handmaidens Bilha and Zilpa was because his other siblings would have nothing to do with him as a result of their jealousy, isn’t it also possible that Yosef felt that Dan, Naftali, Gad and Asher were being treated by the others as second-class citizens, and not being able to watch such injustice, he wished to build up their self-esteem by paying attention to them.

b)   As for his bringing negative reports of his brothers’ behavior to their father (Ibid.), rather than assuming that Yosef was simply trying to alienate his father’s affections from the rest of his children, why not understand these actions as Yosef’s attempts to enlist his father’s assistance in correcting his brothers so that they will act appropriately and in a manner consistent with the spirit of the traditions of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov?

c)   Certainly Yosef’s relating the two dreams to his brothers (37:5-7; 9-10) evoked anger and further hostility; but couldn’t his intentions have been to attempt to get his siblings to mend their ways? Perhaps the dreams were representing what was currently the situation, i.e., that Yosef was more spiritual and holy than the others; however, if the brothers would take Yosef’s words to heart, they would realize that they were masters of their own fates, and that the dreams suggesting their future subservience to their brother do not have to come true. It is Yosef’s very “Tzidkut” (righteousness) that compels him to deliver the Divine Message to the brothers, without being concerned about their possible negative response. And as happens down through the ages to God’s Messengers, i.e., His Prophets, rather than taking the message to heart, particularly when it is given in the spirit of rebuke and criticism, those to whom the words are directed opt instead to “kill the messenger” literally or figuratively.

d)   Yosef’s readiness to carry out Yaakov’s directive to seek out his brothers who were away shepherding the family’s herds (37:13 ff.), despite their quite apparent resentment of him and the special treatment that they perceive Yosef receives from their father, is another example of Yosef’s attitude of “let the chips fall where they may”; I have a duty to fulfill—to my father directly, and indirectly to God Who Commands me to obey my father.

e)   Yosef’s greatest moral challenge involves his resisting the repeated enticements of his master’s wife to enter into a sexual liaison with her (39:7 ff.) While the Tora text is typically quite laconic with regard to her obsession with the young slave and the manner in which Mrs. Potiphera attempted to force Yosef to comply with her wishes, Midrashim supply a vivid portrait of what Yosef experienced leading up to his condemnation and imprisonment. Midrash Yelamdeinu[15] contends that the mistress of the house shared her lustful feelings and fantasies with a number of her friends.

One time the Egyptian women gathered together and came to see the attractiveness of Yosef. What did Mrs. Potiphera do? She served each of the women Etrogs and knives with which to cut them. She then called to Yosef and stood him before them. When they looked upon his attractiveness, they cut their hands! She said to them, “Imagine! If you are so powerfully affected by him when you look upon him only once for such a short time, what am I to do when I have to be around him constantly?” Every day she attempted to seduce him, but he was steadfast and resisted his inclinations.

Pesikta D’Rav Kahana, Parsha 3, recounts how she attempted to intimidate Yosef invoking the power of her superior social position, so that he would comply with her immoral wishes.

They say regarding Yosef HaTzaddik when Mrs. Potiphera said to him, “Lie with me” and he refused…

She said to him, “(If you refuse) I will throw you in prison!” He said to her, (Tehillim 146:8) “God frees the prisoners.”

She said to him, “I will take out your eyes!” He said to her, “God Restores sight to the blind.”

She said to him, “I will tie you up and make you bend over!” He said to her, “God Helps the bent to stand erect.”

She said to him, “I will turn you into an apostate!” He said to her, “God Watches over the sojourners.”

Yosef’s repeated refusals are even symbolized by the cantillation of the word representing his turning Mrs. Potiphera down—in 39:8 the note on the first word of the verse is known as a “Shalshelet” (lit. a chain) whose singing causes the word to be exceedingly drawn out by means of three rising and falling undulations, as compared to the notes for any other word comprising the Tora reading.

One can make the case that it truly is Yosef’s “Tzidkut” as R. Hirsch defines this quality, that sees him through this difficult trial, since his final word to Mrs. Potiphera as to why he cannot agree to her overtures is, (39:9), “and I will have sinned against ‘Elokim’—the same Name for HaShem that appears in connection with the description of Noach in 6:9.

f)   An earlier curious aspect of Yosef’s behavior might also be explained in terms of his single-minded commitment to following what he believes to be God’s Will. Elie Wiesel[16] is intrigued by the usually loquacious Yosef’s silence in the face of his brothers’ brutality to him (37:23 ff.)[17]

One imagines their (the brothers’) discussions; one sees them hurling him into the snake pit. They wanted to kill him; they were about to kill him. And Yoseph was silent. Face to face with his brothers, who shout their hate; face to face with the “sons of servants” whom he had befriended and who now have turned against him, like the others. Looking into their murderous eyes, he became mute. At the most critical moment of his life he let them deliberate, decide his fate, without uttering a word.

While Wiesel is correct with respect to no mention being made by the Tora of any response on the part of Yosef to his treatment by the brothers in Chapter 39, this contemporary commentator does not attempt to account for an opposite impression given in 42:21. After having been incarcerated by Yosef for several days as a result of their being accused of espionage against Egypt, the brothers conclude that their current troubles can be directly traced to what happened more than two decades earlier,[18] “We are guilty regarding our brother because we saw the anguish of his soul when he PLEADED with us, and we didn’t LISTEN to him…” RaMBaN on 42:21offers three explanations for why no mention is made of Yosef’s pleadings in Chapter 37.

1—The Tora did not have to mention this because it is obvious that someone who is afraid for his life is going to cry out and beg that his life be spared;

2—by originally mentioning the brothers’ indifference to Yosef’s cries would have cast them in even a worse light than was already apparent and the Tora wished to deemphasize their callousness, at least slightly;[19]

3—this is another instance where the words of Tora are detailed in one place, and sparse in another. In order to avoid undo superfluity, the reader is expected to develop the entire picture by piecing together disparate accounts that appear in different parts of the same book or even in different books, without expecting to be given a complete rendition of a story in any one place.

But following Wiesel’s general approach and perhaps even suggesting that what the brothers recall from so long ago might have been due to their reconstruction of the event, rather than what actually took place, Yosef’s silence was an indication of his being perhaps engaged in “Tzidduk HaDin” (justifying the Divine Decree). When an individual has an intense belief in God and sees the world and all that occurs within it as resulting from God’s Decrees, then s/he is called upon to accept difficulties and crises as appropriate and necessary. Wiesel himself posits[20] that Yosef underwent an “Akeida” (binding) in the sense of the “binding of Yitzchak” (see Beraishit 22), following his father’s commandment to find the other sons, despite recognizing the dangers associated with such a mission. Just as Yitzchak silently submits to the Divine Command to be a sacrifice upon the altar, Yosef acts in a similar vein with respect to his being placed in the pit (37:24). When at first he cannot locate his brothers, although this would have constituted an excellent excuse to return home, he persists and with the aid of a mysterious stranger (see the essay “Who Was that Man and What did He Say?: Anonymous Figures in Sefer Beraishit”—Miketz 5764 http://text.rcarabbis.org/author/jack-bieler/page/5/ ) finally arrives at their encampment. And when his worst fears are realized and his brothers treat him horribly, Yosef resolutely accepts his situation, and waits to see how everything will eventually play out.[21]

Yosef’s actions as one form of the adolescent search for self

In the examples of Dina and Shimon and Levi on the one hand (see the essay “Adolescent Risky Behavior: Biblical and Contemporary Challenges”—VaYishlach 5765),[22] and Yosef on the other, we encounter Biblical paradigms of adolescent behavior. The identity crisis that takes place during the teen years that Eric Erikson has explored so eloquently and insightfully—see for example Identity and the Life Cycle,  Childhood and Society, and Identity: Youth and Crisis—can manifest itself in the exploration and experimentation undertaken by Dina, the violence, short-temperedness and shortsightedness of Shimon and Levi, as well as the single-minded idealism and devotion of Yosef. It is easy to see how these tendencies can lead to both positive and negative outcomes. What sort of adult will emerge from the chrysalis of adolescence will ultimately depend upon the quality and quantity of outside guidance provided, as well as the individual’s own readiness and ability to learn from others and from his/her own experiences.

Tzidkut as an aspiration

Several months ago, while hosting a family for Shabbat, I asked a young boy how he was finding school. He replied, “I am trying to be a Tzaddik, but it is very hard work.” Whether due to his parents, his teachers, or even himself, this child expressed a wonderful aspiration, which I hope he will continue to harbor throughout his school experience and beyond. Hopefully Yosef’s Tzidkut was not exclusively a function of his adolescence, but was a personality trait that he could carry with him throughout his life. Aspiring to be “Tzaddikim” is a worthy endeavor for all of us. And the more adolescents are surrounded by models of “Tzidkut”, the greater the likelihood that they will strive to emulate those examples. Yosef shows the way; do we have what it takes to follow?


[1]Sefer HaEshkol, Hilchot Kriyat HaTora 67b; Sefer Avudharam, Seder HaParshiot VeHaHaftarot.

[2] Encyclopedia Judaica CD-ROM edition, “Haftarah”.

[3] It is interesting to speculate why the practice of reading the Haftarot was continued once this proposed immediate reason for it being originally instituted, i.e., the inability to publicly read the Tora, no longer applied. On the one hand, preserving widely established custom is a powerful value in a traditional religion and society. While it could be argued that the principle of “Tircha D’Tzibbura” (lit. trouble of the congregation, i.e., the Rabbis are enjoined from legislating practices that will cause the congregation to become restless or impatient) would justify elimination of this practice, the fact that reading the Haftora constitutes additional public Tora study probably mitigates the concern of causing consternation to the community. There could also be an intent via the preservation of the custom to read Haftarot to institute something parallel to “Zecher LeChurban” (a commemoration for the destruction of the Temples), in this case a remembrance of the times when Tora reading was banned. In addition to commemorating the destructions in Jerusalem by means of the fasts Shiva Asar B’Tammuz, Tisha B’Av, Tzom Gedalya and Asara BeTevet, as well as the Three Weeks between Shiva Asar B’Tammuz and Tisha B’Av, the mourning during the Sefirat HaOmer period is associated with the suffering inflicted upon the Jewish community during the Crusades. Yom HaShoa, designed to make us reflect annually upon the horrors of the Holocaust contains a similar theme. Consequently it would not be surprising if other tragic aspects of Jewish history are similarly commemorated, albeit in this case it is not so much a single day or period of the year dedicated to the commemoration, but rather a weekly ritual.

[4] The particular connection discussed is the author’s opinion. Since these matters are codified in various books of customs and practices only in terms of what verses are to be recited, rather than why these have been specifically chosen, in addition to researching what others have written with respect to possible connections between the Kriyat HaTora and the Haftora assigned for that Tora reading, a student is free to offer his/her own speculations regarding the nature of the shared idea(s) or language of the Tora and Prophetic passages in question.

[5] When commentators such as these do not even refer to the Midrashic approach in passing, let alone as the main explanation for the verse in question, one gets a sense of just how imaginative the Derash most probably is.

[6] Bi’ur HaRaDaL notes that there is a dispute among commentators as to the extent to which Reuven was aware of what precisely happened to Yosef. If we insist that ten brothers split the 20 Shekalim, then one would have to assume that Reuven was a participant in the plan to sell Yosef. However, from 37:22, 29-30, it could be maintained that Reuven intended to return Yosef to his father, and that the sale took place when he was not present and without his agreement. 42:22 also leads one to think that Reuven thinks that the sin against Yosef did not include selling him, since he does not mention this when he recalls the brothers’ heartlessness towards Yosef. But of course the perspective maintaining that Reuven DID participate in the plot to sell Yosef, could explain the verses in question in the following manner:

27:22—Reuven merely was against killing Yosef, and only wanted eventually to return Yosef to his father, but this could be after a period of servitude. Or it could be that just as Reuven had dissuaded them from killing Yosef, his next presentation to the brothers would have been why they have to return Yosef to Yaakov, Reuven gradually revealing his true opinion on the matter in order to reasonably give the brothers a chance to come around to his point of view.

37:29, 30—37:28 can be interpreted that while the brothers intended to sell Yosef to Yishmaelim, this was pre-empted by the Midianim coming and getting to Yosef first. In that case, Reuven did not have the opportunity to further attempt to dissuade the brothers from giving up on Yosef at all, since he was unclear about when everything was transpiring in the encampment.

42:22—Although the verse emphasizes the brothers’ turning a deaf ear to Yosef’s importuning, whether these pleas were made under the threat of death or slavery is unclear, and perhaps unimportant.

[7] Shemot 21:16.

[8] Devarim 24:7.

[9] The liturgical poet recognized that if Amos was indeed referring to Yosef, then there is an implication in the verse that the Jews will be punished for this incident long after it had been concluded.

[10] Bi’ur HaRaDaL suggests that by purchasing shoes, the brothers were further disparaging Yosef and his dreams, demonstrating that they would tread upon him and that he would have to wallow, at least symbolically, in the dust.

[11] See e.g., Avot D’Rabbi Natan, Chapt. 7, 16; Yoma 35b; Beraishit Rabba 93:7, 11; 95:4; Kohelet Rabba 9:2; Pesikta D’Rav Kahana, Parsha 3; Midrash Tanchuma, Parshat VaYetze #7; Midrash Tehillim, Mizmor 3; Yalkut Shimoni, Parshat MiKetz #148; Shmuel Beit #165.

[12] Shimon “HaTzaddik”, who is quoted, among other places, in Avot 1:2,  is a High Priest from the Second Temple period, an individual who lived well after the last important Biblical figures, i.e., Esther, Mordechai, Ezra, Nechemia, Chagai, Zacharia and Malachi.

[13] See Beraishit 24:40 with respect to Avraham.

[14] Howard Kirschenbaum (100 Ways to Enhance Values and Morality in Schools and Youth Settings, Allyn and Bacon, Boston, 1995, p. 139) writes,

Most of us are…basically good, caring people, but human with instances of blindness. Sometimes we do not see our own inconsistencies, contradictions, and even hypocrisy, when we are not at our best. The problem is that young people have incredibly fine-tuned antennae for contradiction and hypocrisy. And their judgments are merciless. Their pronouncements about what is hypocritical and inconsistent are not always accurate; but they make them anyway, with a good deal of self-righteousness.

[15] Cited in Tora Shleima, ed. R. Menachem Kasher, “VaYeshev”, pp. 1489-90.

[16] Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends, “Joseph, or the Education of a Tzaddik”, Pocket Books, New York, p. 175.

[17] As in so much of his writing, Wiesel alludes by his particular depiction of this Biblical scene to the silence of the Jews in the face of their tormentors during the Holocaust.

[18] Yosef is seventeen when he is sold (37:2); thirty when he is appointed as Egypt’s second-in-command (41:46); and it is eight years later when his interactions with his family begin again (41:47, 53-54; the first visit of the brothers looking for food takes place most probably in the year immediately following the seven years of plenty, during which famine in the entire region had begun in earnest.)

[19] RaShI on 37:25 criticizes them heavily for being able to calmly sit and eat after treating Yosef in the manner that they did.

[20] Messengers, p. 176.

[21] The one time that Yosef, in the view of the Rabbis, seems not to give himself up to God’s Greater Plan, but rather tries to make the process proceed according to his own schedule, is when (40:14) he asks the butler to remember him and thereby hopefully get out of prison more quickly. RaShI interprets the emphasis in 40:23 upon how the butler forgot about Yosef as a punishment since Yosef was supposed to remain in prison for another two years before being released.

[22] http://www.kmsynagogue.org/RabbiSpeeches/5765/VaYishlach1.html

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