The following Dvar Torah is an excerpt from Rav Milston’s book, The Three Pillars, Sefer Breishit.
Perspectives – Rav David Milston
The Talmud Bavli (Ta’anit 21b) tells us:
“Rabbi Yossi states: It is not the place that honors man; it is man who honors the place. As we find regarding Har Sinai, as long as the Divine Presence was there, the Almighty forbade us to go anywhere near the mountain (see Shemot 34:3;) yet as soon as the Divine Presence had ‘left’Har Sinai, we were told that there was no prohibition (Ibid. 19:13) to alight the mountain. Similarly, there were stringencies regarding impure individuals and their proximity to the area in and around the Ohel Moed, as long as the Ohel Moed was standing in the wilderness (see beginning of Bamidbar, 5.) However, once the camp was dismantled, no such restrictions applied.”
The fundamental principle here is that man is the definer. A place has no definition, but as soon as God defines that place, it becomes something of great importance. Once the Almighty decides to remove its status, the very same ground that was once the holiest of holies becomes wasteland. Although the Talmud derives its statement from verses referring to Hashem, its conclusion is that man, created in the image of God, has the same ability.
I believe that this principle should not be limited to places and inanimate objects; it can also be applied to life itself.
Our lives are not defined by what happens to us, but rather by how we react and deal with any given situation. It is not life that defines man; man defines life.
Different people can see the very same events take place, yet interpret them and react very differently. The incident itself determines nothing; it is a catalyst inviting reactions.
There can be no greater example of this than the episodes involving Ya’akov and his sons. Let us examine three different perspectives on the opening sequence of events in the parasha, as defined by three different parties with very different outlooks.
It would be naive to assume that we can view the events of our parashawithout any reference to preceding parshiot. When discussing the future of the people of Avraham, one has to look back at the past, because, presumably, this is exactly what the brothers did.
Avraham has two sons – Yishmael and Yitzchak. Yishmael is not the son of Sarah, Avraham’s chosen wife, but he seems to play a major role in the family, second only to his father, until Yitzchak’s birth. When Yitzchak is born and clearly the preferred heir, Yishmael decides not to play a secondary role, but rather to search for ideological alternatives that will provide him with an identity of his own. The par between the brothers becomes so evident that Sarah, with Divine support, throws Yishmael out of the Abrahamic colony.
Yitzchak also has two sons, but in contrast to his father, his sons are both born to his chosen wife, Rivka. Once again, for reasons that are unclear, Eisav chooses a very different way of life to his father and grandfather, and his own mother plays a pivotal role in ensuring that he too is excluded from the Abrahamic dynasty.
By the time we reach Ya’akov’s children, we have two very different but very clear examples of two brothers choosing diametrically opposed paths. We also have seen Sarah and Rivka initiate two extremely severe acts, wishing to preserve the purity of the Abrahamic camp by banishing a member of the family. I have often wondered why so many students are perplexed by the brothers’ behavior towards Yosef, but have no comments regarding Sarah’s treatment of Yishmael.
The brothers see Yosef as their father’s protégée: Ya’akov ‘favors’ him and has only good things to say about him. This reminds us of how Avraham viewed Yishmael, or indeed how Yitzchak perceived Eisav. However, the brothers see a very different side to Yosef. He has dreams that seem to imply his rule over the family, and he apparently slanders his brothers when giving a report to his father. Yosef is not ‘one of the gang’ and they see him as a threat to family unity. Subsequent events indicate that there is no internal leadership battle amongst the brothers, for after Yosef is sold, the brothers continue with no hint of any further disunity.
Therefore, we must assume that they all agreed that Yosef was a bad influence, and that the differences between them had reached the level that forced them to act as their grandmother and great-grandmother had done. Their father was ‘unable’ to see things for what they really were, and despite his overwhelming love for his ‘favorite son,’ the brothers step in and ‘banish’ Yosef in much the same way that Sarah and Rivka had banished Yishmael and Eisav respectively.
Each time I read these parshiot, I become more convinced that this was indeed the brothers’ perspective. I am aware that Rashi speaks of Yosef defending certain brothers from the hierarchical aspirations of other brothers, yet none of them, except Reuven perhaps, did anything to defend Yosef in his hour of need. Our parasha offers no indication of any fundamental disagreement amongst the brothers regarding Yosef’s future in the family. They believe they are acting in the interests of family unity and in the long-term interests of the Jewish people; Yosef is clearly their Eisav. In their minds, Ya’akov’s blind love for their brother has more to do with his everlasting love for Yosef’s mother Rachel.
While perhaps difficult to accept the suggestion that the brothers think that their father is ‘blinded’ by his love for Rachel (it certainly belittles Ya’akov,) they do clearly interpret Ya’akov’s behavior in one particular way. We can suggest another possible reason for Ya’akov’s extraordinary love for Yosef.
Yosef and Binyamin, the ‘orphaned’ children, were at risk of losing the motherly education and support that is so important in the developing years of a child. The other mothers: Leah, Bilha, and Zilpa, were all apparently still alive. It therefore makes sense that Ya’akov would spend more time and effort with his two youngest, motherless children. Certainly, the extra attention afforded to Binyamin would have been explained as an obvious necessity when dealing with an infant. However, as we all know very well, the teenage years are crucial, and it is not so far-fetched to suggest that Ya’akov was trying to fill two very different roles when dealing with Yosef, irrespective of his siblings. And that’s why Ya’akov gives Yosef special clothes and plays the protective, motherly role.
The brothers see Yosef as a problem, a danger to the future of the Jewish people. Ya’akov, on the other hand, sees a child without a mother. The fact that he was Rachel’s son cannot be ignored, yet the extra attention given to Yosef could simply have been the extra attention any father would give in the absence of the child’s mother. This could be Rashi’s allusion (Ibid. 37:3) – “Ya’akov loved Yosef because he was born to him at a time when he was aging.” The love was not because he had chosen Yosef over the brothers, but because Ya’akov understands that he is getting old, and Yosef is in need of all the guidance he can give him.
Ya’akov is clearly aware of the friction between Yosef and his brothers, and it is fair to assume that he had to deal with quite a number of issues before the climax described in our parasha. But since Ya’akov sees Yosef very differently from the brothers, there is no way that he can naturally foresee the events that eventually transpire.
Yosef clearly enjoys being with his father, and maybe because he stays home, and does not journey out into ‘the real world,’ Yosef remains pure. He does not necessarily perceive that what he says can be interpreted in a number of ways. And if he reports on his brothers, it is not because he wants to get them into trouble with their father, but rather because he wants to help. And when he tells them his dreams, he is not playing the role of the royal pretender, but rather naively asking his brothers for help in interpreting his dreams.
We know that this is Yosef’s nature because many years later, after years of political training, and enough experience of the ‘real world’ to outweigh the experiences of all his brothers put together, he remains truthful and honest. He refuses to take credit for anything that he does, and when faced with a real chance to take revenge on his brothers, he settles them in Goshen and looks after their needs, with no real sign that he ever lorded over them.
The story of Yosef and his brothers is the ultimate tragedy. Although we are left with a ‘happy ending’ by the end of Bereishit, one cannot help but cry over the 20 years of inner suffering that all three parties endured.
It would appear that the brothers eventually understood that they might have reacted unnecessarily. Ya’akov, as opposed to his father and grandfather, refused to be comforted. Throughout the time away from Yosef, he remained convinced that Yosef was an inherent part of the Jewish people. Yosef suffered tremendously in exile in Egypt; a single believer amongst a multitude of idolaters.
Leaving Heavenly decrees aside, all this may well have been avoided if the protagonists had acknowledged their lack of communication and mutual insensitivity. The truth was there to be discovered, yet each party seemingly lacked the sensitivity required to bridge the gap. The brothers decided ‘far too early’ regarding Yosef’s intentions, and were consequently unable to perceive his actions in any way that contradicted their preconceived opinions. Ya’akov, though rightly protective of Yosef, could possibly have shown more understanding and awareness of his other children. And even Yosef could perhaps have been more aware of his brothers’ frustrations and worries.
All three parties were Tzaddikim; they all had the best interests of our people at heart, yet from differing, misconstrued perceptions, our people ended up in exile.
The Almighty has given us the incredible ability to define our own reality. Any given situation is as good or as bad as we wish it to be (within reason). However, our story teaches us, that whilst defining our own situations, we must be extremely careful to be both sensitive and aware of everything and everyone around us. Before arriving at conclusions, let us be aware of the ramifications of those conclusions and be extra careful when judging other people. Our life is built on how we understand and interpret events; our consequent actions are directly derived from our perceptions. We are thus duty bound to ensure that we think long and hard before everything we do. Our life depends on it.