Unclear & Present Danger- Israel’s Perceived Peril and Parshat Vayeshev

German physicist Albert Einstein famously argued in his 1905 Theory of Relativity that the biggest misconception in the world is perception- that when an object is in motion, we may try to perceive where it is, but since the speed of light is faster than the speed of the object, we will not be observing it correctly unless we make a complicated calculation. While special relativity may have been the biggest misconception in the early twentieth century, I believe that in our time, there is a bigger problem in the world, a different type of incorrect perception- the idea that `the State of Israel is one of the most dangerous places in the world.

From my personal experience in the non-religious world, working at a small insurance company, a big music firm, and taking classes at Rutgers University-Newark, this is truly a widespread problem- whenever I would mention that I live in Jerusalem, Israel, reactions usually varied from “I always wanted to visit there,” to “you mean, Jerusalem, the occupied capital of Palestine, right?” But, perhaps the most common response I received was one of concern- “how do you feel safe over there? Don’t you worry about rockets hitting you every day, or suicide bombers blowing up the bus you’re on? Why did you decide to put yourself in danger like that?”

As anyone who has ever spent significant time in the Jewish State can attest, there is a special holiness to the Holy Land, and as we’ve mentioned previously, there is without a doubt a higher level of hashra’at haShechina (Divine intervention) in Israel. However, these “spiritual arguments” aren’t always compelling enough for one to make the decision to either visit or, hopefully, move to Israel. For this reason, I would like to present an idea in our parsha, which interestingly tells the story of the beginning of the first Jewish Exile, that highlights this misconception of perception, and shows a more “down to earth” explanation.

This week’s parsha begins with incidents of jealousy between Yosef and his brothers, culminating in their sale of him. Throughout this story, the brothers seem very united in their hatred of their younger sibling, as the Torah doesn’t distinguish between them during most of the events, just referring to them as “Achim-the brothers.” However, halfway through the story, one of the brothers is singled out for having a different motive than the rest:

“וישמע ראובן ויצלהו מידם… למען הציל אתו מידם להשיבו אל אביו”

Reuven heard and he saved him (Yosef) from their hands… in order to save him and return him to his father.

Reuven, unlike the other brothers, had no intention to hurt Yosef, and successfully stopped his brothers from trying to kill Yosef. Instead he advises them to throw Yosef into a pit, a “בור ריק אין בו מים-An empty pit without water,” which Rashi interprets as a pit without water… but full of scorpions and snakes (see Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat). Though this pit is very lethal and dangerous (the Talmud (Gittin) teaches that a pit of scorpions is so dangerous that if a man is seen falling into a pit like this, his wife can remarry without any witnesses testifying that he actually died), Reuven is nevertheless praised for saving Yosef’s life.

The brothers then sit down to eat bread, when, suddenly, a caravan of Ishmaelites passes by. Yehuda, realizing that they could make some easy money off of Yosef instead of letting him rot in a scorpion-filled pit, says:

“מה בצע כי נהרג את אחינו”

What do we gain from killing our brother?

The brothers, following Yehuda’s advice, decide to sell Yosef to the Ishmaelites, which quite possibly saved his life.  Nevertheless, Yehuda is portrayed as a bad guy, as seen at the beginning of the next perek, where Rashi teaches that as the brothers saw Yaakov’s misery at his loss of his favorite son, they blamed it on Yehuda, the one who caused Yosef to be sold away, and as result:

“וירד יהודה מאת אחיו”

Yehuda was lowered [in the eyes of his brothers].

This analysis seems to be at odds with the outcome of the story- Reuven throws Yosef into a dangerous pit, and Yehuda saves him from that pit by selling him into slavery, yet Reuven is credited with trying to save Yosef, while Yehuda is blamed for Yosef’s untimely departure. What could possibly be going on here?

Rav Chaim of Volozhin, a student of the renowned Lithuanian scholar Rav Eliyahu of Vilna (the Vilna Gaon), presents a very unique answer to our question. He teaches that Reuven is praised for saving Yosef’s life because a man is safer in a pit filled with scorpions in Eretz Yisrael, than living in physical safety elsewhere. It is better to be in apparent physical danger in the Holy Land than to be in the Diaspora, he continues, because a person’s spirit is safer in Israel than outside of it, no matter how much safer it seems there. He concludes (verbatim): “In the Diaspora, even if a Jew is privileged to rise to greatness, he is closer to death than life.” By putting Yosef in the pit, Reuven might’ve put Yosef into temporary physical danger, but it was an attempt to save him from the seemingly-eternal spiritual danger that Yosef would face living in Egypt, even as he rose to power. Even though Rav Chaim passed away in 1918, he understood an idea which is an integral part of the modern State of Israel, an idea which is almost taken for granted by the inhabitants of Israel and the entire world; that miracles happen in Israel, that while one is in Israel, he may be putting himself into physical danger, but G-d is watching out for him and keeping him safe.

At the beginning of the Second Intifada, Professor Edward H. Kaplan, the William N. and Marie A. Beach Professor of Management Sciences at Yale University, visited Israel to give lectures at Hebrew University and the Technion Institute. Despite warnings from the US State Department and his friends and colleagues not to go, he nevertheless decided to travel to Israel, and he later wrote an article, published in the Jerusalem Post in January 2002, describing his trip and responding to some of the misconceptions of living in Israel at that time. I would like to quote one part of his article which really shows how Rav Chaim’s idea is alive in the modern Jewish state:

“One cannot deny that, with help from the media, Israel is perceived as a dangerous place due to the threat of terrorism. Indeed, while recently in Israel giving talks and attending a conference, I received numerous e-mails from colleagues and friends worrying for my safety, admonishing me to avoid public places, or otherwise urging me to watch out. I truly appreciate such genuine expressions of concern, but they stem from the aforementioned perception that Israel is much more dangerous than America. A simple review of available data, however, suggests the opposite.

According to the Israel Defense Forces, during the 442 days from the beginning of the current Palestinian intifada until the end of December, 2001, 120 Israelis were killed by terrorist [attacks]… All of these murders are tragic, and I do not intend in any way to make light of them here. However, given that 6.3 million people reside within Israel proper, these deaths work out to an annual personal risk of death from terrorism of 16 in one million, within the boundaries of Israel proper, which would be the destination of most visitors…

The 2000 Statistical Abstract of the United States reports that about 41,500 traffic fatalities have occurred in each of the past several years in the US. With a population of 286 million people, the annual personal risk of death from a motor vehicle accident in the United States is 145 per one million. That’s right … the risk of road death in the United States is nine times higher than the risk of death from terrorism in Israel! Since we Americans readily accept the 145 per million risk of road death without worry, why has the US State Department warned us not to travel to Israel? [1]”

Professor Kaplan continues to write that, statistically, the most dangerous part of his trip was driving to the airport in New York before his journey even began. The biggest danger is psychological danger, as it will only affect one’s life only while they believe they are in danger. He concludes that “When the US State Department issues travel warnings, many people listen. If citizen safety is the goal, perhaps the State Department should urge all of us Americans to stop driving. But then, wouldn’t that conflict with the goal of leading a normal life? [1]”

This idea extremely applicable now as well. Between all of the “peace” negotiations and constant threats from Iran of a nuclear holocaust, Israel has acquired a reputation as a very unsafe place. The Global Peace Index recently rated Israel as the fourth to last peaceful country in the world, sharing the bottom of the list with such distinguished nationalities as Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Sudan (way below such stable countries as Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey). Why is Israel perceived this way? Why do people believe it is so dangerous?

I believe that the answer to this can be found by thinking of the Middle East as the בור “ריק”, the ’empty’ pit. To the innocent passer-by (the nations of the world), the pit is full of scorpions and snakes (the Arab people and their countries). They don’t notice the captured Yosef (the Jewish state) being attacked- quite the opposite: they see Yosef’s attempts to push off the scorpions as attacks, and percieve him to be the aggressor, the worst of all of the snakes and scorpions, when in fact this couldn’t be further from the truth. They want Yosef out of the pit, though whether for his safety or for the scorpions’ safety is a mystery. Reuven’s actions, seen through Rav Chaim’s teaching, teaches us that the best way of dealing with this problem is not to take Yosef out of the pit and send him somewhere else, but rather to leave him in the pit, for it is better to stay in Israel and be in constant danger from the metaphorical snakes and scorpions, than to leave the land. This is a message of the story of the sale of Yosef, and this an important message for the Jewish people of the Diaspora, as they live in a world which believes that their homeland is the most dangerous place in the world. But, then again, everything is relative, and, as Einstein has taught us, perceptions cannot always be trusted. With G-d’s help, we will see an end to these harmful misconceptions, so that the Jewish People will continue to return home en masse,and through this, we will hopefully see the final Redemption, whose story started with the sale of Yosef so long ago, very speedily in our days.


[1]- “Competing risks and realities” Prof. Edward Kaplan <> (originally printed in the Jerusalem Post 8 Jan, 2002)

About the Author
Born and raised in Teaneck NJ, Tzvi Silver moved to Israel in 2012 after catching aliyah fever while learning abroad. Tzvi is now pursuing a degree in Engineering from the Jerusalem College of Technology, and works on the side as a contributor for local newspapers in the New York Area. Tzvi's interests include learning Torah, rabble-rousing, and finding creative ways of mixing the two.
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