David Walk
David Walk

Competition Sparks Excellence

According to the Slonimer Rebbe, a major issue in last week’s Torah reading introduces the major issue of this week’s parsha. In Vayishlach, the mysterious ‘man’ and God both inform Ya’akov that ‘your name shall no longer be Ya’akov, but Yisrael (Breishit 32:29 & 35:10).’ However, we continue to hear the name Ya’akov throughout Tanach. How can this be? The Slonimer in his Netivot Shalom explains that the name Ya’akov represents the fight to resist physical temptations, and is the continual war against Esav. The name Yisrael signifies the effort to maintain our faith and belief. That is the struggle against Lavan and all he represents. So, the name Ya’akov will only be retired when the war against physical sins is won. 

Great, but how does that introduce our parsha? The Slonimer concludes his explanation by informing us that the war against physical sin is fought by the Mashiach ben Yosef, while the war against false beliefs is fought by Mashiach ben David, who is really is Yehuda. Our parsha introduces the core reality of Jewish history: the eternal competition between Yosef and Yehuda. 

Parshat Vayishlach ended with the TOLDOT or genealogy of Esav. So, it’s no surprise that Vayeshev begins with the TOLDOT of Ya’akov. What’s extremely surprising is that after the heading ‘These are the TOLDOT of Ya’akov’ comes the announcement: At seventeen years of age, Yosef tended the flocks with his brothers (37:2). Wow! Not only does Yosef, son number 11, get top billing, but the other brothers are not even listed in the credits. Here is the clear indication that Ya’akov has decided to make the first-born of beloved Rachel the heir to the BECHORA, rights of the first-born. Where have we seen this plot development before? 

So, Yosef has been set up as one of the competitors for national leadership. Where does Yehuda get his, ultimately successful, claim from? That’s a bit more complicated and requires two scenes from our parsha. 

When the brothers begin to plot their nefarious plans for Yosef, it seems that the true oldest brother, Reuven takes his rightful place. He hears the bitter brothers hatching schemes to do away with Yosef. So, Reuven steps up to suggest that they not have Yosef’s blood on their hands and let him die from the hazards of the pit. The verse informs us that Reuven’s intent is to save Yosef (verse 21), but he then disappears without carrying out his rescue. Reuven, here and next week with the protection of Binyamin (42:37-38), fails to inspire confidence I the family. In both stories, who actually inspires confidence? Yehuda. 

We see two simultaneous paths to family leadership. Yosef is thrust into the role by Ya’akov. Yehuda nominates himself to take control of difficult situations, when he notices a power vacuum at the top. 

The parsha also goes out of its way to present the two parallel stories as they develop. Yosef is sold to caravan merchants and goes down to Egypt, and then there is a break in the action to relate a seemingly extraneous narrative about Yehuda. But it’s not extraneous; it’s comparing the two candidates for leadership of the family and of Jewish destiny. Yosef goes down to Egypt; Yehuda ‘goes down from his brothers’ (38:1). In these dueling narratives, Yosef resists feminine charms (Potifar’s wife), and installs himself as the Zadik. Yehuda succumbs to temptation (verse 16), but publicly repents, becoming the BA’AL TESHUVA (verse 26). 

The clash reaches its apex when, in two weeks, we read, ‘Yehuda confronted him (Yosef, 44:18).’ But this competition for the hearts and minds of Israel continues throughout Jewish history, Yehoshua v. Calev; Northern Kingdom of Efraim v. the Kingdom of Yudah/David; Mashiach ben Yosef v. Mashiach ben David/Yehuda. 

The first one to notice this rivalry for the sake of heaven is, of course, Ya’akov. He sends Binyamin to Egypt under his protection, and later sends Yehuda as the advance guard for the family’s descent into Egypt.  

But the greatest expression of the Patriarchs acknowledgment of this competition is on his death bed. Ya’akov first gives a double (Efraim and Menashe become Tribes) BECHOR blessing to Yosef. However, in the blessing for Yehuda, he acknowledges: Yehuda is a lion’s cub…Who dares rouse him? The scepter shall not depart from Yehuda (49:9-10). The scene is set for these two giants to dominate the millennia of Jewish destiny. 

The Slonimer helped us to see that our spiritual growth through the ages requires both of these pillars to help us fight the dual dangers of false ideas and unfettered desires. We need Yosef to help the Ya’akov side succeed, and we need the David/Yehuda strength to fight the dangers which face the spiritual Yisrael.  

We await the day when this vast struggle subsides and we unite under the banner of Yisrael, through the agency of Ya’akov. May it come speedily in our day.   

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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