Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and exiled the Jewish people from the Land of Israel. Many of the captives were put to work for the Babylonian king himself, including four young men, called Daniel, Chanania, Mishael, and Azaria. These four lads were from aristocratic families and Nebuchadnezzar was impressed by their wisdom and charm. He appointed them to ministerial positions in the palace, where they maintained their incredible faith and righteousness, in the face of great pressure to conform. They adopted a strict vegetarian diet and abstained from wine.
One morning, the king awoke in a baffled state. He was bothered by his dream which he could not recall. Daniel managed to help him remember and make sense of the perplexing vision. As a result, he was promoted as a special adviser to the king. Even so, as we all know, despite the prominence of his post, eventually Daniel would be cast into a lion’s den. Nevertheless, the Almighty was with him and he was able to befriend the hungry beasts and survive the ordeal.
On one occasion, the king decided to build a large statue in the Valley of Dura and commanded all his subjects to worship the graven image. Shocked to hear that the four young men had refused, Nebuchadnezzar decided to make a public example of them. As the king’s adviser, Daniel was spared, but his three friends were cast into a fiery furnace. So hot was the fire that those that had escorted them to the furnace were burned alive. As for Chanania, Mishael, and Azaria, they emerged unscathed, having received angelic protection. The king was awestruck and elevated them to further positions of prominence in his royal court.
וַיֵּלֶךְ יוֹסֵף אַחַר אֶחָיו וַיִּמְצָאֵם בְּדֹתָן׃ יחוַיִּרְאוּ אֹתוֹ מֵרָחֹק וּבְטֶרֶם יִקְרַב אֲלֵיהֶם וַיִּתְנַכְּלוּ אֹתוֹ לַהֲמִיתוֹ׃ יטוַיֹּאמְרוּ אִישׁ אֶל־אָחִיו הִנֵּה בַּעַל הַחֲלֹמוֹת הַלָּזֶה בָּא׃ כוְעַתָּה לְכוּ וְנַהַרְגֵהוּ וְנַשְׁלִכֵהוּ בְּאַחַד הַבֹּרוֹת וְאָמַרְנוּ חַיָּה רָעָה אֲכָלָתְהוּ וְנִרְאֶה מַה־יִּהְיוּ חֲלֹמֹתָיו׃ כאוַיִּשְׁמַע רְאוּבֵן וַיַּצִּלֵהוּ מִיָּדָם וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא נַכֶּנּוּ נָפֶשׁ׃ כבוַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם רְאוּבֵן אַל־תִּשְׁפְּכוּ־דָם הַשְׁלִיכוּ אֹתוֹ אֶל־הַבּוֹר הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר בַּמִּדְבָּר וְיָד אַל־תִּשְׁלְחוּ־בוֹ לְמַעַן הַצִּיל אֹתוֹ מִיָּדָם לַהֲשִׁיבוֹ אֶל־אָבִיו׃ כגוַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר־בָּא יוֹסֵף אֶל־אֶחָיו וַיַּפְשִׁיטוּ אֶת־יוֹסֵף אֶת־כֻּתָּנְתּוֹ אֶת־כְּתֹנֶת הַפַּסִּים אֲשֶׁר עָלָיו׃ כדוַיִּקָּחֻהוּ וַיַּשְׁלִכוּ אֹתוֹ הַבֹּרָה וְהַבּוֹר רֵק אֵין בּוֹ מָיִם
So Joseph followed his brothers and found them at Dothan. They saw him from afar, and before he came close to them they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, “Here comes that dreamer! Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; and we can say, ‘A savage beast devoured him.’ We shall see what comes of his dreams!” But when Reuben heard it, he tried to save him from them. He said, “Let us not take his life.” And Reuben went on, “Shed no blood! Cast him into that pit out in the wilderness, but do not touch him yourselves”—intending to save him from them and restore him to his father. When Joseph came up to his brothers, they stripped Joseph of his tunic, the ornamented tunic that he was wearing, and took him and cast him into the pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.
וְאָמַר רַב כָּהֲנָא, דָּרֵשׁ רַב נָתָן בַּר מִנְיוֹמֵי מִשְּׁמֵיהּ דְּרַב תַּנְחוּם: מַאי דִכְתִיב ״וְהַבּוֹר רֵק אֵין בּוֹ מָיִם״? מִמַּשְׁמַע שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר ״וְהַבּוֹר רֵק״ אֵינִי יוֹדֵעַ שֶׁאֵין בּוֹ מָיִם? אֶלָּא מַה תַּלְמוּד לוֹמַר ״אֵין בּוֹ מָיִם״ — מַיִם אֵין בּוֹ, אֲבָל נְחָשִׁים וְעַקְרַבִּים יֵשׁ בּוֹ
Rav Kahana quoted Rav Nasan bar Manyumi citing Rav Tancḥum: What is the meaning of the scripture, “and the pit was empty, there was no water in it”? By inference from that which is stated: And the pit was empty, don’t I know that there was no water in it? Rather, why does the verse say: There was no water in it? Water, there was none of it, but there were snakes and scorpions inside.
If there were snakes and scorpions in the pit, then how could the Torah say that it was empty? Ramban explains that the brothers didn’t realize that there were serpents inside. Had they known that they’d thrown Yosef into a dangerous pit and he’d survived, they would have realized how holy he was and refrained from selling him into slavery. Just like Nebuchadnezzar, who treated Daniel, Chanania, Mishael and Azaria like royalty after their miracles, Yosef’s miraculous feat of surviving a snake-infested pit should have transformed their attitudes towards him. The fact that their enmity remained suggests that they had no idea of his close call and miraculous escape.
The problem with a simple reading of Ramban is that if the brothers didn’t know about the serpents, and the serpents didn’t affect Yosef, then what difference did their existence make? It’s like the proverbial tree that falls in the forest! Why would the Gemara point out an irrelevant fact, of no consequence to the plotline?
Rather, Ramban is imparting a powerful message. Of course they knew there were snakes in the pit. According to the Zohar, they deliberately chose a pit lacking water, but containing serpents so that they would not harm him directly. Throwing him into a pit of water, they would have been guilty of drowning him. But in a pit of serpents, it would be up to God to decide whether to allow the creatures to attack, just like Daniel in the Lions’ den. If he died, they figured, it would have been Heaven’s decree.
So if indeed he survived, why did they then sell him into slavery? At that point, it became clear to them the spiritual threat he posed to them. Here, living amongst them, was a paragon of virtue and goodness. So righteous was he that God was prepared to perform miracles for him. If he’d survived poisonous snakes, then they could sleep at night, knowing that Hashem would protect their brother wherever he might end up.
And they didn’t really care where he ended up, as long as it wasn’t anywhere near them. Now that his threatening presence had been removed from their midst, they could breathe a collective sigh of relief. No more dreams about agriculture and farming when all they wanted was the carefree nomadic life of a shepherd. No more suggesting to them to dream for the skies, the sun, stars and the moon, they were happy, thank you, with their simple life. And no more little brother preaching to them about their religious life and practice. They could live life the way they chose without his virtuousness constantly showing up their relatively laidback attitude.
In the early twentieth century, an adage was borrowed from the print-media by American clergy and adapted to describe the role of religious leaders. They must “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted.” The man of the cloth is not in situ to make people feel good about themselves. That’s what your favourite internet echo-chamber is for. A good spiritual leader says the right things to bring comfort to the flock when they are in pain. A great spiritual leader is not afraid to challenge their comfortable flock to leave their comfort zone and grow spiritually.
While the above phrase may have been coined by a newspaper columnist around the turn of last century, the concept has always existed in the Jewish tradition. In the nineteenth century, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter summed it up as follows, ‘A rabbi who does not find favour in the eyes of his congregants is a bad rabbi. But a rabbi who finds favour in the eyes of all his congregants is a terrible rabbi.’ The rabbi who always tells people want they want to hear is not fulfilling his Divine mission. An effective rabbi constantly challenges his balabatim (members) to think more, do more, and grow more, even to the point of making them feel uncomfortable.
In the aleinu prayer, we praise “Hashem who is God in the heavens above and in the earth below.” A chasidic adage quips that human nature is to look up to the person with greater material prosperity and wish for what they have, but to look down upon the person who is less religiously observant and gloat over our higher level of spiritual commitment. In fact, the proper approach is “in the heavens” – when it comes to religion, I should be looking “above.” And “in the earth” – when it comes to worldly pursuits, “below” – I should be looking at all the people worse off than me materially. May you never be afraid to surround yourself with people you can look up to religiously, and may they inspire you to strive for ever-higher spiritual levels!