Parsha Potpourri: Parshas Vayeishev


 Vayishlacheihu me’Emek Chevron vayavo Sh’chemah (37:14)

The Rokeach, a mystical Rishon, cryptically writes that the 112 verses in Parshas Vayeishev correspond to the 112 words in Chapter 92 of Tehillim (Mizmor Shir L’Yom HaShabbos). As he clearly wasn’t intending to point out a mere mathematical coincidence, what could be the deeper connection between the events of Parshas Vayeishev and the theme of that chapter of Tehillim?

Rav Mattisyahu Salomon elucidates the common thread between them by explaining that from a rational perspective, the events of Parshas Vayeishev seem completely counterintuitive. The parsha begins with Yaakov favoring one of his sons in front of the others and inciting their jealousy, Yosef not recognizing their hatred and recounting to them his dreams in which he rules over them, Yaakov sending Yosef to check on his brothers unsupervised, Yosef being thrown into a pit of poisonous animals and emerging unscathed, and a group of traveling merchants passing by at just the right time.          

Each of these events seems beyond comprehension, and the likelihood of them all occurring together is infinitesimally small, yet that isn’t even the end of the mind-boggling narrative. The parsha continues with an angel forcing Yehuda to have relations with his daughter-in-law Tamar (Bereishis Rabbah 85:8) who was disguised as a harlot, and it ends with the innocent Yosef ending up in prison together with two of Pharaoh’s ministers and correctly interpreting their dreams.

None of these incidents makes any logical sense. However, Rashi explains that they were all part of a much larger plan to fulfill Hashem’s prophecy to Avrohom that his descendants would dwell and be enslaved in a foreign land. The lesson of the otherwise inexplicable events of Parshas Vayeishev is that no matter how hard a person tries, his efforts will ultimately be futile if Hashem’s plan dictates otherwise.

Rav Salomon points out that this concept is also the theme of Chapter 92 of Tehillim, which states emphatically (92:6-9), “How great are Your acts Hashem, how deep are Your calculations; the foolish don’t understand … but You will always be elevated, Hashem.”

The world that Hashem created is deceptive, in that a person is obligated to exert himself to accomplish his goals, yet no matter what he wants or thinks is supposed to happen, Hashem ultimately runs the world. After all of his efforts and hard work, a person must step back and remember that whatever perspective he thinks he has is quite limited in the grand scheme of things, and only Hashem with His master plan can coordinate what has to happen and when.

Vayavo aleihem Yosef ba’boker vayar osam v’hinam zo’afim vayishal es s’risei Paroh asher ito ba’mishmar beis adonav leimor madua p’neichem ra’im hayom (40:6-7)

Rav Shalom Schwadron points out that the entire miraculous unfolding of events in the upcoming Torah portions is entirely predicated on one chance encounter. The accurate interpretation by Yosef of the dreams of the cupbearer and the baker in prison set in motion a chain of events which altered the course of Jewish history. It led to Yosef’s release from jail, his appointment as second-in-command in Egypt, the fulfillment of his dreams about his family bowing down to him, his emotional reunion with his brothers and eventually his father, and the descent of the Jewish people to Egypt where they were ultimately enslaved by Pharaoh and redeemed by Moshe.

However, the pivotal episode of Yosef interpreting their dreams wouldn’t have even occurred were it not for one seemingly trivial exchange. Yosef woke up one morning and noticed that his fellow prisoners appeared aggrieved and upset. He chose to initiate a conversation which would literally change the future of all mankind, asking them quite simply, “What’s wrong?”

The Alter of Slabodka once gave a discourse on the topic of greeting others kindly and showing an interest in their welfare. He noted that if a person stood next to the synagogue door and poured a glass of milk for each person who passed by, everybody would rightfully declare him to be a tremendous ba’al chesed (person who does acts of kindness). However, the Gemora in Kesuvos (111b) teaches that showing another person the white of one’s teeth with a warm smile is an even greater act of kindness than giving him milk.

So often, we pass somebody who looks like he could use a kind word, a warm smile, and a little extra attention, yet the evil inclination discourages us from stopping to waste our valuable time on such inconsequential matters. The next time this happens, which will likely be tomorrow, we should remember the lesson of Yosef that nothing that a person does is ever minor, and one has no idea what cosmic chain of events he could set in motion with just a few “trivial” words.

V’lo zachar sar ha’mashkim es Yosef vayishkacheihu (40:23)

Rashi writes that Yosef sinned by asking the cupbearer to intercede with Pharaoh and secure his release from prison instead of placing his trust in Hashem, and he was punished for doing so with an additional two years of jail time. Numerous commentators struggle to understand what Yosef did wrong. Presumably, a person who is in a perilous situation, and especially one who has already been there for many years, should be allowed, even required, to make whatever reasonable efforts present themselves to secure his release. If so, what was Yosef’s error?

A novel explanation is given by Rav Berel Povarsky, who points out that Yosef himself interpreted the cup-bearer’s dream as indicating that he wouldn’t be released from prison for another three days. If so, during the span of those three days, there was no obligation for Yosef to make any efforts, and there was no purpose in asking the cup-bearer to remember him. During those three days, Yosef should have focused on trusting that Hashem could bring his salvation even sooner than could the cup-bearer. Only if he still found himself in jail at the end of three days would it be proper to make his request of the cup-bearer immediately before his release. The fact that Yosef made his request at this point revealed a lack of trust on his part in Hashem’s ability to save him immediately, and for that he was punished with an additional two years in prison.

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Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):

1)     Yosef dreamed that the sun, the moon, and 11 stars – which represented his father, mother, and 11 brothers – would bow down to him (37:9). Why didn’t Yosef see a twelfth star in his dream, which would correspond to his sister Dina?

2)     The Torah records (38:5) that after Yehuda’s wife gave birth to two sons, Er and Onan, she conceived a third time. She bore a son and named him Sheilah, while Yehuda was in Cheziv at the time of his birth. Why was it necessary for the Torah to relate this seemingly insignificant information about Yehuda’s whereabouts during Sheilah’s birth? (Daas Z’keinim)

3)     After Yosef was sold into slavery in Egypt, the wife of his new master Potiphar tried everything in her power to convince him to sin with her. Despite her greatest efforts, the righteous Yosef refused. Exasperated, she tried a new tactic: she grabbed his garment, “to say” lie with me (39:12). How is this peculiar expression to be understood, and why did she think that this new strategy would be more successful than her previous futile efforts? (Peninim MiShulchan HaGra)

4)     While in jail, Pharaoh’s cupbearer had a dream in which he pressed grapes into Pharaoh’s cup, and the baker had a dream in which he was carrying three baskets on his head and birds were eating food out of them. Yosef told the cupbearer that his dream meant that he would be returned to his original position of serving Pharaoh, while he interpreted the dream of the baker as indicating that he would be killed, both of which came to pass. Where is it alluded to in the content of the dreams that the cupbearer would live while the baker would die? (Imrei Daas, MiTzion Michlal Yofee, Peninim Vol. 5)

  © 2010 by Oizer Alport.