Five Rashis a Week, Vayeshev: When To Act

A project in memory of Baruch Leib HaKohen b. Mordechai Yidel ve-Dobba Chaya.

I produce this column every week by picking Rashis that strike me, and then eliminating one by one until I’m down to five. When they come together around a theme, as they do this week, it’s an added dividend, but not part of my selection process. Hope they interest you as much as they did me.

The Serenity of the Righteous

The first Rashi on the parsha has three parts, aiming to explain why the verse identifies Yosef as Ya’akov’s תולדות, descendants, since there were eleven other brothers.  His first answer is that תולדות here means the story of his life, and what caused his various moves. Yosef’s story figures most prominently, since he is the reason Ya’akov ends up in Egypt.

He then moves on to a Midrash Aggadah, not the simple sense of the text, which argues that Yosef was more connected to Ya’akov than the others, since Ya’akov preferred Rachel to the other wives, since Yosef looked like Ya’akov, since Yosef had a similar life story to his father. Last week, we discussed how we establish connections among people and identities of people (in the context of Shimon and Levi), so I won’t do it at any length here. I can’t leave it without noting that it suggests that what connects us to others is a mix of emotional connection and a sense of commonality or familiarity.

Rashi’s third idea is the one that I want to look at some more. He connects the introduction of Yosef to the words וישב יעקב, Ya’akov settled, and says that Ya’akov hoped to finally settle, to put behind him the wanderings of his life, to find a calmer, more rooted existence. The Yosef story prevented that.

Then he generalizes, that the righteous hope to live in serenity, and Hashem says (or admonishes): “What is prepared for the righteous in the World to Come is not enough for them, that they seek serenity in this world?”

And then, in that reading, denies it to Ya’akov, with the start of Yosef’s travails.

I am thinking about this because Shabbat Chanukah morning, I hope to give a shiur in the Riverdale Jewish Center entitled, “A Crisis Is a Terrible Thing to Waste: The Model of Chanukah.” This Rashi makes a remarkable claim (which I won’t address in that shiur): It notes that we tend to see troubles or crises as problems, as an attack on us, a break from how the world is supposed to work. Rashi portrays Hashem as saying that serenity is for the World to Come, a time of passively receiving reward.  Life is about facing challenges and overcoming them, dealing with what comes our way as best we can, and from that to grow or develop.

Accepting What We Have to Accept

On 37;13, Rashi comments on Yosef’s saying הנני, I am here, when his father calls him to go check on his brothers. Despite knowing that his brothers hated him, he answered לשון ענוה וזריזות, a language of humility and alacrity.  He uses similar language to characterize Avraham’s use of the same word in 22;1, when Hashem calls him for the Akedah. Rashi even calls it “the language of the righteous.”

It’s only here that Rashi makes explicit that that language indicates a readiness to follow a superior’s command (Hashem or a father) even when it seems that it will bring disaster. Avraham thinks he’s going to have to kill his son, Yosef thinks he’s going to face brothers who hate him (without the protection of his father).

The same issue arises in 38; 25, where Tamar is being taken to her death, for having become pregnant instead of waiting for Shelah to marry her. She sends her father in law (Yehudah) the identifying items he had left with her when they conceived the children, and asks him to recognize whose they are.

Rashi notes, first, that she demonstrates Jewish tradition’s opposition to embarrassing others publicly (even if that meant she would die). He also reads her הכר נא, please recognize, is a call to recognize his Creator, to know that he cannot allow her and her children to be killed.

With such stakes, she was still unwilling to say outright that Yehudah was the father. For Rashi, the righteous know when they cannot act.  This is not quietism; Avraham acts forcefully on many occasions, as does Yosef. But when called by Hashem or a parent (whom tradition adjures us to treat almost as if they are divine), the only possible answer is הנני, here I am. Tamar took decisive action to further her life, but when the only possible action she would take was contraindicated by the need to avoid embarrassing someone in public, she held back.

The righteous are not wallflowers, nor are they afraid of taking matters into their own hands. But they don’t slide over into the arrogant assumption they can always influence events.  They recognize times when they can do only that which they are told and times when all they can do is wait and hope others will do what they should.

Keeping Our Past in Mind

37;29 describes Reuven’s finding Yosef gone. Rashi’s second answer to the question of where he had been when Yosef was sold is that Reuven had been involved in sackcloth and fasting for having messed up his father’s bedding (this refers back to 34;22, Rashi’s view that Reuven hadn’t slept with Bilhah, as the text says, but had mixed up his father’s bedding in protest of his mother’s being marginalized).

The comment confronts us with two points. First, for all that some would say that Chazal were “protecting” Reuven by saying he didn’t actually commit adultery, Rashi sees the substitute sin as culpable enough that Reuven felt the need for sackcloth and fasting.

More, this attempt to atone his sin (causing him to absent himself from his brothers) comes years after the event. We today forgive ourselves more easily than that, are often satisfied that true regret suffices. Reuven shows an awareness that one ill-considered act can leave a mark that lasts, a stain not easily cleansed.

There is an halachic element to that, a difference of opinion among the authorities as to whether we should or must say vidui for sins we’ve committed in previous years even if we have not repeated those sins. Tehillim 58;5 says כי פשעי אני אדע וחטאתי נגדי תמיד, for my iniquities I know and my sin confronts me always. Whether or not that extends to including those sins in our recitations of sin before Hashem, the verse (and Reuven) remind us not to dismiss the wrongs we’ve done too quickly or casually.  Part of feeling bad for something we’ve done is holding it with us, remembering that we once stepped wrong, with all of the consequences that ensued.

Success Has Many Fathers

Immediately after the brothers sell Yosef, the Torah pauses (38;1) to tell us of Yehudah’s leaving his brothers, finding a wife, having children, and so on. Rashi wonders why the Torah places it here, answering that it teaches us that the brothers deposed him from his role as their leader. Seeing Ya’akov’s distress, they said to him, in Rashi’s version, “had you told us to return him, we would have listened to you.”

How you react to the comment depends on how you evaluate their accuracy. Only Reuven’s intervention had stopped the brothers from killing Yosef. It took Yehudah’s idea for them to take him out of the pit (which Rashi thinks had snakes in it) and save him from death. When they now claim they would have listened had he said to return Yosef, how accurately are they remembering their emotions at the time?

I think they are not correctly representing themselves.  I think Rashi portrays a certain kind of person, happy to blame leaders he would never have followed had they tried to lead further.   Elected officials, for example, depend on their constituents for their jobs and the possibility of positive action.  If they lead too forcefully, or in too different a direction, their constituents will abandon them.  When matters turn south, though, the electorate sometimes nonetheless blames the “leader” for the failure.

When to Try, When to Rely on Hashem

The last Rashi on the parsha is famous, and I am trying to avoid repeating what readers might already know.  But the pathos of Yosef’s situation always hits me. The Torah comments that the butler did not remember Yosef, but forgot him.  Rashi attributes this to Yosef’s having trusted the butler instead of trusting in Hashem.

It’s odd, since one of Yosef’s next acts, the one that propels him to the leadership of Egypt, was to recommend that Par’oh take advantage of the years of plenty to prepare for the years of famine. Which is it, then? Is Yosef supposed to take action or to rely on Hashem?

I think the answer is both, in one of two ways. The easier claim is that Yosef erred in his timing, that the butler’s dream was not a call for him to take action to shape his future, whereas Par’oh’s dream somehow signaled that it was  a call to respond. I think the more likely answer is that Yosef was supposed to do both, to keep Hashem in mind as he also took action. I think Rashi thinks he was supposed to say something along the lines of “Hashem is putting you back into a position where you can help me; I hope you will.”

Had he said to the butler, I think Hashem is telling you to be my vehicle for leaving this prison, Rashi would have responded differently. Here, Yosef only says that interpretations belong to Hashem at the beginning of the conversation. When he comes before Par’oh, he speaks about Hashem all the time (Rashi had noted, 39;3, that the marker of Hashem’s being with Yosef was that he frequently spoke about Hashem); here, suddenly and fatefully, he does not.

It’s a good note on which to close, because it is the theme of this week’s Rashis—that the righteous have to recognize that they are not vouchsafed serenity in this life, that Yosef and Tamar accept that they might not be able to save themselves, that Reuven knows he must continue atoning for his sin years later, that Yehudah is blamed for others’ passive followership, and now Yosef’s need to remember to include Hashem in all his construction of events.

Models for all of us as we try to move forward, acting where we should, refraining where we shouldn’t.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.