This week we begin the Yosef Chronicles. Our attention shifts from our beloved Patriarch, Ya’akov, to his beloved son. But Yosef never becomes an AV, because our nascent nation is no longer a one-man show. From now until the end of Breishit, Yosef will share the spotlight with Yehuda. In Kabbalistic thought, they represent different character traits, which are the Kabbalistic SEFIROT or spiritual levels (spheres?). Yosef is YESOD (foundation) and Yehuda, who is also King David, is MALCHUT (royalty).
Before we describe the niche of Yosef, a brief word about Yehuda. Yehuda portrays the necessary character traits required of a monarch. They are: 1. the ability to recognize a mistake and repent, and 2. the strength of character to always take responsibility. We see Yehuda as the BA’AL TESHUVA in the story of Tamar (Breishit 38:26), and we observe Yehuda’s acceptance of responsibility (AREIVUT) when he offers to replace Binyamin in the Egyptian prison (44:32).
Yosef, on the other hand, is the ZADIK. He resists temptation, most famously in the story of Potifar’s wife, and remains true to his heritage throughout his time in Egypt. This is important because it sets the tone for the concept called ZADIK YESOD OLAM (a ZADIK is an everlasting or universal foundation, Mishle 10:25). Just like a structure is only as strong as its foundation, so, too, our world is built on the strong bedrock of the righteous in our midst. As Rebbe Nachman said, ‘Everything stands upon him.’ This is true sociologically and spiritually. Yosef is the paradigm for that individual.
But here’s the problem: If Yosef is the ZADIK upon which all is built, how come Yosef seems to be initially portrayed with character flaws? The verse records: Yosef brought bad reports of them (his brothers) to their father…they hated him so much that they could not speak a friendly word to him (Breishit 37:4). The text seems to describe a self-centered gossip.
The critical term to help us understand the situation is NA’AR (‘youth’) in the second verse of our parsha. Some commentaries believe that in our context the term means to serve, we’ll ignore them. Normally, the term describes a young man during the half year after Bar Mitzva. Obviously, that can’t be true here because we are told that he was 17. So, what do we learn from the fact that he’s called a NA’AR?
I believe that our understanding of NA’AR is decisive to comprehending the story. Option number one is that for various reasons he was still treated as a youth. He stayed mainly with the sons of the maidservants, Zilpah and Bilhah, and herded sheep with them, rather than the more prestigious work being performed by the sons of Leah. This must have led to a resentment which bubbled up in his report to Ya’akov.
On the other hand, it could mean that, for various reasons, he behaved younger than his years. Younger siblings often are coddled or ‘babied’. So, this led to behavior which otherwise would be frowned upon in late adolescent. Rashi alludes to this approach when he comments on his concern for his hair and eye makeup.
This apparently subtle difference can lead to a major variance on how to view Yosef, and, by extension, the concept of the ZADIK. Perhaps, the term NA’AR is used to excuse problematic behavior on the part of Yosef. Since he was still a NA’AR his LASHON HARA (gossip) is understandable. He wasn’t yet the ZADIK who is the foundation of society and the world.
Or, perhaps, the ZADIK, as the rock upon which our reality is built, is blameless from the time of first hearing of right and wrong. Yosef is called a NA’AR not because he did anything approaching a sin, rather he was still a bit inexperienced in presenting his righteousness to the world, and his brothers. The Seforno explains that when he brought reports of his brothers’ behavior, it was far from LASHON HARA. Instead, he was presenting Ya’akov with an objective and comprehensive report of frictions between the brothers for his father to adjudicate the matter. The brothers’ growing animosity was a result of poor communication by Yosef, not any objective wrongdoing.
So, did Yosef commit spiritual errors or were the brothers totally wrong in their analysis of him and his actions? I don’t know, but that will not prevent me from presenting an opinion.
I believe that Yosef and all ZADIKIM can go through a growth period during which they commit acts which can be categorized as sins. Their spiritual greatness is based upon the fact that at some relatively early point in their religious development they had the strength of character to successful resolve to not sin. It’s at that point that they become the bedrock which society requires for stability. This position is in keeping with Shlomo HaMelech: There is certainly no person who is so good as to never sin (Mishle 7:20).
I know there are wonderful people who want to believe that the great historical ZADIKIM were saying BRACHOT with their first words, and never jaywalked. I don’t appreciate that position not only because of innate skepticism, but because that reality would make them irrelevant to my life. I need spiritual heroes who struggle with the same problems which plague me. Only then can their exploits inspire me. Because he’s believable and real, Yosef HaZADIK definitely inspires me.