For the week ending 16 December 2006 / 25 Kislev 5767

Parshat Vayeshev

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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Yaakov settles in the land of Canaan. His favorite son, Yosef, brings him critical reports about his brothers. Yaakov makes Yosef a fine tunic of multi-colored woolen strips. Yosef exacerbates his brothers’ hatred by recounting prophetic dreams of sheaves of wheat bowing to his sheaf, and of the sun, moon and stars bowing to him, signifying that all his family will appoint him king. The brothers indict Yosef and resolve to execute him. When Yosef comes to Shechem, the brothers relent and decide, at Reuven’s instigation, to throw him into a pit instead. Reuven’s intent was to save Yosef. Yehuda persuades the brothers to take Yosef out of the pit and sell him to a caravan of passing Ishmaelites. Reuven returns to find the pit empty and rends his clothes. The brothers soak Yosef’s tunic in goat’s blood and show it to Yaakov, who assumes that Yosef has been devoured by a wild beast. Yaakov is inconsolable. Meanwhile, in Egypt, Yosef has been sold to Potiphar, Pharaoh’s Chamberlain of the Butchers. In the Parsha’s sub-plot, Yehuda’s son Er dies as punishment for preventing his wife Tamar from becoming pregnant. Onan, Yehuda’s second son, then weds Tamar by levirate marriage. He too is punished in similar circumstances. When Yehuda’s wife dies, Tamar resolves to have children through Yehuda, as this union will found the Davidic line culminating in the Mashiach. Meanwhile, Yosef rises to power in the house of his Egyptian master. His extreme beauty attracts the unwanted advances of his master’s wife. Enraged by his rejection, she accuses Yosef of attempting to seduce her, and he is imprisoned. In prison, Yosef successfully predicts the outcome of the dream of Pharaoh’s wine steward, who is reinstated, and the dream of Pharaoh’s baker, who is hanged. In spite of his promise, the wine steward forgets to help Yosef, and Yosef languishes in prison.


The Secret of Life

“…And she said, ‘Please identify whose are this seal, this wrap and this staff!’ ” (38:25)

The great philosopher lay on his deathbed.

Scores of his closest disciples stood in a reverent hush that stretched from the foot of his bed to the door. The silence of the devout and the devoted filled the room. Then, the leading disciple bent forward with great veneration, and whispered in the master’s ear,

“O great master! Before you depart this world, share with us the secret of life!”

With obvious difficulty, the philosopher heaved a few shallow breaths and, barely audibly, the following words parted his lips;

“Life… Life… is…Life is… a river.”

With awe, the master’s cherished utterance was passed from disciple to disciple, “Life is a river… Life is a river… Life is a river…” until it reached the end of the chamber. There, the least initiated of the disciples thought for a few seconds and said, “Life is a river? What does that mean?

The second-least disciple did not know. Nor did the third, so the question was passed back hurriedly toward the bed, “Life is a river. What does that mean? … Life is a river. What does that mean?” until the question was whispered into the ears of the master himself.

With the final threads of life unweaving, the philosopher breathed his last:

“Okay, so it’s not a river.”

Studying philosophy doesn’t teach you the secret of life; the secret of life is to be found in something much closer to home.

Most of the time we slide from one wish fulfillment to another: We’re hungry, so we pop a morsel of food into our mouths without thinking why we are eating; we’re bored, so we make a joke or we flip on the TV or the radio. Much, if not most, of the time, we allow our instincts to drive us with hardly a second thought.

One of the great Torah Sages of the previous generation, Rav Yerucham Levovitz, once wrote, “I have found that I am not in control of my actions; rather I am ruled by a foreign body, namely physical drives… I am therefore taking upon myself to go against my instinctive wants five times a day.”

We may not be on the level of Rav Yerucham, but if even once a day we would think about why we are eating we could discover the secret of life.

Through small, oft-repeated actions that battle our lower instincts, we can make ourselves more spiritual. Even in seemingly insignificant areas of our lives, these small moments of discipline eventually mould our personalities; we start to think about why we are doing things, what we are here for – we become aware of G-d.

In this week’s Torah portion, after being falsely accused of adultery, Tamar is led out to be executed. As she passes Yehuda, the father of her unborn child, she says, “Please identify…” Rashi explains that she was not asking him just to recognize the pledges that identified him as the child’s father, but also to recognize his Creator and not let three innocent lives be lost, hers and that of their unborn twins.

Tamar’s plea was to Yehuda’s moral core: “Let the truth overcome the devastating embarrassment of admitting that you are the father-to-be!”

Real awareness of our Creator comes only through a great test. Can we sacrifice our own vested interests for a higher principle? And being able to pass that test starts with passing a test as small as turning down a third bowl of cholent. This is the true doorway to consciousness of G-d.

And that’s no mere philosophy.
  • Sources: Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, and a story heard from Mordechai Weissman

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