By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Parshas Vayechi, which we lain this Shabbos, marks the final chapter in the saga of Yosef and the other shevatim. Embedded in this gripping narrative about Yosef’s interactions with his brothers are profound lessons that can be applied in every generation.
From the saga’s prelude in Pashas Vayaishev to Yehuda’s confrontation with Yosef in Pashas Vayigash, we find a wealth of insights that can be especially useful in our own times.
Healing Estrangement Between Jews
In Parshas Vayeishev, the posuk [36, 15] recounts that Yaakov sent Yosef to meet up with his brothers who were shepherding their sheep in Sh’chem. The Torah tells us that a man – who Rashi, quoting the Medrash, tells us was the malach Gavriel – found Yosef wandering about in the sodeh and asked him what he was looking for. Yosef responded that he was looking for his brothers. The man told him that they had moved on and directed him to where he could find them.
Perhaps al pi drush we can say that just as Yitzchok went out lasuach basudeh – which Chazal interpret to mean that he was davening Mincha – Yosef was tofeis emunas avosav and was seeking to daven in the sodeh. The malach discerned that Yosef was toeh baderech, was unable to concentrate on his tefillah, and asked him what was disturbing him. Yosef explained that he was estranged from his brothers – es achai anochi mevakeish. The message here is that when there is a separation – pirud – between Jews, we are unable to properly concentrate on our obligations.
The malach directed him to his brothers in the hope that when he would meet up with them, they would be able to patch things up. The Hashgacha Elyona had other plans and Yosef was subsequently sold into slavery.
In our day when a fellow Jew is in trouble, and through no fault of his own isolated from the klal, we must do all we can to help him. We should regard him with the same love we have for a brother and do all we can to help alleviate his plight.
When conflict drives people apart, we have to seek to bring them together. Jews should be united, not divided. Divisiveness drains us of our power. The reality of machlokes should devastate us, cause our hearts to ache, and prompt us to do all we can to bring about reconciliation and shalom.
No Future Without A Past
Other lessons about how we are to conduct ourselves come to the fore in the confrontation between Yehuda and Yosef in last week’s parsha of Vayigash. Yehudah reminds Yosef of the peculiar questions he had posed to the brothers when they first arrived in Mitzrayim: he inquired as to whether they had a father or a brother. What was the purpose of this odd question? Doesn’t every person have a father? And what difference is it to an Egyptian ruler whether these men who had come looking for food have a father or brother?
A Chasidishe Rebbi once explained that Yosef was asking the brothers whether they had family traditions to which they were loyal. Do you have a solid foundation, he wanted to know? Do you have a Father in Heaven whose word you follow and whom you worship, or are you just a clan of roving nomads, intent on harming Mitzrayim?
Perhaps we can add that by asking about their father and brother he was referring to the future. Are you people concerned with the youth? Do you connect them with their past; educate them about their heritage? Or do you permit the winds of the times to impact and indoctrinate them?
Yehuda responded: Yeish lanu av zakein, we have an old father, a glorious past, v’yeled zekunim, and a bright future. Vanomer el adoni, lo yuchal hanaar laazov es aviv, v’ozav es aviv vames. The future cannot sever itself from the past, for we understand that if we would permit that to happen, our future is dead.
In order to inculcate in our children – and ourselves – the strength to withstand the onslaught of secular culture with all its ills, in order to build the spiritual fortitude to fight off the daily temptations and pitfalls, we must embrace the minhagim passed down with such devotion from generation to generation.
In fact, it is Yosef himself who set the most powerful, enduring example of moral purity and self-control in a degenerate society. Egypt was infamous for its culture of licentiousness and moral filth. By maintaining his righteousness in such an environment, Yosef attained a stature almost comparable to that of the Avos. He imbued his descendants and all of Klal Yisroel with the spiritual fortitude to rise above temptation and seductive influences in all their lands of exile.
The harchokos in tznius, the gedorim which have been handed down from parents to children throughout the ages have kept us whole, and have kept at bay the forces of assimilation and religious estrangement. Clinging to the path set down by our parents and grandparents, recognizing their spiritual accomplishments and striving to emulate them will enable us to persevere through the darkness until the coming of Moshiach.
Sterling Credentials of Shimon And Levi
In this week’s parsha of Vayechi, we hear Yaakov Avinu delivering his brachos and parting words to each one of his sons. Shimon and Levi are admonished for the way they dealt with Sh’chem and Chamor. Yaakov then tells them “Achalkeim B’Yaakov, va’afitzeim b’Yisroel.”
Rashi states that Yaakov, in this verse, is referring to the tribe of Shimon, and that from this tribe will come the mechanchim who are melamdei tinokos. The Medrash [found in Otzar Hamidrsohim] states that Yaakov was blessing Levi that his offspring will be the talmidei chachomim in the botei midrashos who will be the morei hora’ah. The Medrash derives this insight from the root of the word afitzeim, which means hora’ah.
The Rambam in Hilchos Avodah Zorah [1, 3] writes that “Yaakov taught all of his sons, but separated Levi from amongst them and appointed him the rosh… He commanded his sons that they should never transfer the task of the transmission of [the Torah] away from the B’nei Levi…”
Although Yaakov was upset with the way Shimon and Levi handled Sh’chem and Chamor, the degree of mesirus nefesh they demonstrated on behalf of their sister proved that Shimon and Levi were the ones worthy of transmitting the traditions to the future generations. In order to be a moreh hora’ah, or a good mechaneich, one has to be prepared to give his life for the truth, and to consistently withstand temptations and external pressures.
There are so many enticements luring us to turn our backs on our values and morals that only individuals possessing the steadfast integrity and moral character of the B’nei Shimon and Levi can be entrusted to enlighten and guide us.
In a time when degeneracy in the surrounding culture is rampant, we must search out such teachers and role models for ourselves and when we find them, support them fully in their holy work educating and leading the community.
Dealing With Adversity
And finally, let us turn to Yosef’s response to his brothers following the passing of Yaakov, for insight in to how to deal with those who have sought to harm us. The brothers were worried that no longer having to fear Yaakov, Yosef would exact his revenge upon them for the way they treated him. Yosef allayed their fears, explaining that despite their bad intentions when they sold him, Hakadosh Boruch Hu designed a positive outcome to the episode. Through being forced down to Egypt as a slave, Yosef was ultimately able to provide for the entire family.
Yosef demonstrated for all future generations the highest level of bitachon, in being able to see the good even in circumstances that appear hopelessly negative. Though we may not understand why we are being subjected to pain, and though our tormentors are motivated by malicious intent, we believe that everything that happens to us is for a higher purpose and a higher cause. It may not be readily apparent, and it may take time for the truth to be revealed, but as believers, we understand that nothing happens at random. Everything is orchestrated by the Borai Olam.
Armed with this kind of faith, we will be able to carry ourselves through all of life’s vicissitudes; the positive ones as well as those in which the good is sometimes hidden. We will be able to withstand tragedy, adversity, humiliation and affliction, and emerge from them stronger and better.
Our faith in Hashem’s benevolence and total mastery over our fate will enable us to use these experiences to become better Jews, and better brothers and sisters to our family, friends and neighbors.
Although Parshas Vayechi ends the narrative of Yosef and his brothers, the profound lessons of these chapters continue to blaze a path for Klal Yisroel through the darkness of galus. Let us bring the geulah closer by internalizing these lessons. Let us be more active in healing estrangement between Jews and in strengthening our moral character. Let us take greater care in safeguarding the transmission of Torah to our children. And most importantly, let us focus on building our faith in Hashem’s unfathomable goodness and omnipotence.