“And He Was” Parashat Vayeshev 5775

This shiur is serves as a summary of a number of shiurim[1] that I’ve written over the years. It will tie up many of the loose ends, but it does leave one big question unanswered.

In Parashat Vayeshev, Joseph changes his mailing address multiple times. He starts out in Hevron, gets sold into slavery to Potiphar, an Egyptian Minister, and ends up in jail on a trumped up charge of attempted rape. The Torah describes Joseph’s life in his last two homes using very strange verbiage. When he is in Potiphar’s home, we are told [Bereishit 40:2] “Hashem was with Joseph, and he was a successful man, and he was in the house of his Egyptian master.” What does it mean that “he was” in the house of his Egyptian master? What exactly was he? Similarly, when Joseph gets thrown into jail, the Torah says [Bereishit 40:20] “Joseph’s master took him and put him into prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were imprisoned, and he was there in the prison.” Of course Joseph “was there” in prison. That is where his master just threw him!

In order to address these questions, we must look ahead to the first few sentences of the Book of Shemot [Shemot 1:1-5]: “These are the names of the Children of Israel who came to Egypt … and Joseph was in Egypt”. What is the Torah coming to teach us? We already know that Joseph was in Egypt. He was sold to Egypt by his brothers seventeen years before his father arrived there. What is the innovation here?

First, we must be aware that we have implicitly added a word to the verse: “and Joseph, [who] was in Egypt”. Rashi explains that we should implicitly add another word to the verse: “and Joseph, [who was Joseph], in Egypt”. In other words, this verse comes to show Joseph’s great righteousness. Even in Egypt, the world centre of idolatry and perversion, Joseph remained righteous, ever loyal to the Torah. I would like to propose two additional explanations with a similar flavour.

Explanation 1: Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook analyses the source of the animosity between Joseph and his brothers, particularly with Yehuda. Rav Kook explains that Joseph and Yehuda did not share the same world-view regarding the relationship between Am Yisrael and the rest of the world. Joseph believed that Am Yisrael should be a “Light unto the Nations”. In order to accomplish this we must intermingle with the Nations of the World and show them the way of Hashem. In the words of the prophet Hosea [7:8]: “Ephraim will become mixed with the nations”. Yehuda, on the other hand, believed that Am Yisrael must remain a separate entity. Mingling with the nations of the world, our holiness would become diluted and might eventually disappear. Yehuda went so far as to believe that Joseph’s method was an existential threat to Am Yisrael, and so he was to be thwarted at all costs. And yet Yehuda understood that this disagreement was so critical that it could not be settled at their pay-grade. Hashem would have to adjudicate. When Yehuda suggests selling Joseph to the Ishmaelites, he says [Bereishit 37:26]: “What is the use of us killing our brother”? Why bother killing him? If his world-view is correct, then Hashem will save him, no matter how hard we try to kill him. Let’s send him off to Egypt where he can mingle to his heart’s desire, and we’ll see how well he does.

Well, Joseph mingles, and he mingles some more. It certainly did appear that he had succeeded in Egypt. He became an Egyptian Joe Lieberman. He was an unabashedly Jewish Viceroy. When Joseph reveals to his father that he is still alive, he tells him [Bereishit 45:9] “Hashem has made me a Lord over all the Egyptians”[2], which can also be translated as “I have made Hashem Lord over all of Egypt”. Am Yisrael lived in Goshen, a well-to-do Egyptian suburb, but their influence was pervasive in all walks of society. The Midrash Tanchuma says that they were found even “in the circuses and theatres”, the centres of culture. So when the Torah says that “Joseph was in Egypt”, it is telling us that Joseph became the person he wanted to be, right there in Egypt. His world-view had been vindicated. He was successful beyond his wildest dreams.

Now we can revisit the problematic verses in Parashat Vayeshev. When Joseph was in the house of Potiphar, he went right to work, making monotheism an acceptable alternative to Egyptian polytheism. He was Joseph the mingler. Ditto when he ended up in jail. He landed feet-first and he hit the ground running. He became Morgan Freeman in “The Shawshank Redemption”, talking up the inmates, interpreting their dreams and smuggling in cigarettes. There, at the bottom of the dark pit, he was Joseph.

Explanation 2: The Torah testifies that Yaakov loved Joseph because [Bereishit 37:3] “he was a son of [Yaakov’s] old age”. Rashi explains that Yaakov taught Joseph “everything he knew”. What precisely did Yaakov teach Joseph? Yaakov had something in common with his grandfather, Avraham: they both had two names. Yaakov was also known as Yisrael and Avraham was originally called Avram. Except there is one seminal difference: The Talmud in Tractate Berachot [13a] teaches that a person who calls Avraham by his original name has sinned. Yaakov, on the other hand, retains his original name until the day of his death, and even afterwards. The Torah and the Prophets oscillate randomly back and forth, sometimes calling him Yaakov and sometimes calling him Yisrael. Why is Yaakov different than Avraham?

Avraham began life as Avram, literally “The Father of Aram”. He was a local figure whose sphere of influence was limited to Aram. Hashem changes his name to Avraham, calling him [Bereishit 17:5] “the father of many nations[3]”. He had become an international phenomenon, such that calling him Avram was incorrect and even denigrating. Yaakov is different. The name “Yaakov” comes from the word “trickery”. Esav tells him [Bereishit 27:36] “It is fitting that you are named ‘Yaakov’, as you have tricked me (va’Yaakeveni) twice”. The name “Yisrael”, on the other hand, comes from the word “Majesty”. An angel, after wrestling with Yaakov, calls him “Yisrael”, telling him [Bereishit 32:29] “You have wrestled (sarita) with Kings and you have prevailed”. This is explained by the Chizkuni as “You are equal to kings”. A name is more than just what your friends call you. A name is an identity; it is an integral part of who you are. While Avraham’s identity evolved, Yaakov had two conflicting identities. On the one hand, he was Yaakov the trickster. But on the other hand, he was Yisrael, the sovereign. He could never give up one identity for the other. Each of his identities had a time and a place. Yaakov’s trickery was most useful when he was in exile. Living for twenty years in the house of “Lavan the Liar”, Yaakov had to use all of his guile just to get by.

Yaakov’s guile was not only required in Aram, it was, and it will be, required whenever he or his descendants went into exile. While we are in exile, Am Yisrael lives by trickery alone. Only Yaakov – and not Yisrael – can survive in the Diaspora, because in the Diaspora there is no majesty and there is no glory. This is the message that Yaakov taught Joseph[4]. And this is the reason that Joseph was in Potiphar’s house, in the Egyptian prison, and everywhere else in Egypt, for that matter. He was Joseph, the son of Yaakov.

Perhaps these two explanations are really one and the same: Am Yisrael must be sovereign to wield real influence in this world. True mingling can only be done as nation among nations. I leave it to the reader to decide.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5775

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Nechemiah Uriel ben Tzipora Hadara

[1] See, for instance, our shiurim on Vayechi and Shemot 5762.

[2] שמני ה’ לאדון לכל מצרים

[3] The “heh” in Avraham stands for “hamon” – “many [nations]”.

[4] Why Yaakov taught this message only to Joseph is a topic for another shiur.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.