For the week ending 1 December 2007 / 21 Kislev 5768

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.


Inclined to Recline

"And Yaakov dwelled…."

My father, olav hashalom, always used to remark, “If you want something done, ask a busy man.”

When we have little or nothing that demands our attention, merely getting out of bed may pose an existential challenge.

We are here in this world to do three things: to serve Hashem; to do the mitzvot and to cope with challenges. In fact, one way or another, everything in life is a challenge. Some challenges, however, are easier to spot than others.

For example, it’s a fairly obvious challenge when you are the father of a family subsisting on food stamps to keep your fingers out of an open bag with several $100 bills smiling at you.

Other challenges are subtler. It always amazes me how beautiful people preen themselves in the mirror — as if they had something to do with their beauty! It’s not enough that G-d has given them life and all its blessings, but on top of that He has blessed them with an extra gift of good looks. Why should they pat themselves on the back because their features are symmetrical? Did they do anything? Their challenge is to see that their beauty is an extra gift from G-d.

An even more subtle challenge is success in business. It’s all too easy to fall prey to the myth of the self-made man. Just as no man in the history of humanity has managed to create himself out of dust, no executive has had anything to do with his success — except for turning up for work in the morning.

Everything is from Heaven. I know some very brilliant people who are washing bottles, and some pretty dim ones who are driving Ferraris. Intelligence and success are but distant relations.

There once was a wise businessman who made a vast fortune. Someone asked him to what he attributed his success. “90% mazal (luck) and 10% seichel (intelligence), and if I’d had less seichel I’d have made a lot more money.”

What other people call “luck” – Jews call “hashgacha”(Divine Providence).

Yaakov is called the “choicest” of the fathers of the Jewish People, and yet he had by far the hardest life. He grew up with a brother who wanted to kill him. Because of this he fled to his uncle who cheated him on a daily basis. On his way back home his daughter was kidnapped and violated, and when he finally arrived home he is told that his favorite son has been torn limb from limb by a wild animal.

After a life of such stress, to seek some repose, some shelter from the storm, would not seem unreasonable — and yet the Torah criticizes Yaakov for his desire for tranquility.


After all, Yaakov wasn’t planning to put his feet up and watch an old movie with a cup of hot chocolate. Yaakov was the embodiment of diligent Torah study. He desired serenity only to attain a more profound depth and clarity in his Torah learning.

Sometimes we can skimp on our learning or become lax in our mitzvah observance because our lives are full of pressure.

Pressure is life’s default position; that’s the way things are supposed to be.

Life is a battlefield, and just as a soldier needs to function under fire, so too a Jew has to perform despite life’s vicissitudes — and sometimes because of them.

Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe used to comment that his most creative moments in Torah thought were when the phone was ringing off the hook, students needed his attention, and he had one foot out the door to the airport.

When we make that extra effort to function under fire, G-d gives up that little extra help that lifts our lives from prose to poetry.

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