Vayeshev: Unshakable Faith

Opportunities for Greatness
Who pulled Joseph out of the pit?

Table for Five: Vayeshev

In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

When Midianite traders passed by, they pulled Joseph up out of the pit. They sold Joseph for twenty pieces of silver to the Ishmaelites, who brought Joseph to Egypt.

– Gen 37:28

Rabbi Elchanan Shoff, Rabbi, Beis Knesses of Los Angeles

20 silver coins. Midrash teaches that Yosef was sold for exactly the price of 10 pairs of shoes, which 10 brothers involved in the sale purchased immediately. This is quite perplexing.

Yosef was magnificently beautiful, brilliant, capable; presumably the most eligible 17-year-old slave around. The price seems low. This price almost seems specifically designed in order to purchase shoes. Either way, what is the lesson of the brothers going to purchase shoes?

As if that were not enough, the story following the sale of Yosef is the story of Tamar, where brothers and family married their deceased brother’s wife in a ceremony much like levirate-marriage later mandated by Torah. When a brother doesn’t choose to marry and care for his late brothers wife, a chalitza ceremony happens, where he takes off his shoe!

Grandfather Yitzchak opted in to Avraham’s values, Yishmael did not. Their father Yaakov opted in – Esav didn’t. They understood that Yosef didn’t belong. They saw him turning Yaakov against them, trying to be the chosen one. They determined that excluding Yosef was right! But they accepted the obligation to make up for their fallen brother, so they donned shoes – the very opposite of the biblical expression of taking off shoes, expressing a lack of inclination to compensate for one’s brother’s shortcomings. They thought they were doing the right thing.

Let’s make sure we don’t satisfy ourselves that “we are doing the right thing” when we dismiss our brothers completely due to a perceived shortcoming.

Rabbi Aryeh Markman, Executive Director, Aish LA

The sale of Yosef teaches us a secret of the continuous success of the Jewish People. Joseph was sold three times. His trail was untraceable.

While anyone else would be despondent, Joseph’s outlook was unshakable. He understood that all the events of one’s life are managed solely by Gd for one’s benefit. He did not become depressed and embittered, blaming the world for his problems (listen up, Ye). Rather he sought to make the best of his present situation.

The Torah teaches us that our difficulties are opportunities for greatness. So many parts of our lives are not the way we want them to be, but Gd purposely makes it that way for us to grow. Maybe we have to recalibrate our definition of greatness, rather than fame and fortune, to be about having rock solid positivity when confronted by seemingly unscalable challenges.

A few years ago, 3 yeshivah boys were jailed in Japan on false charges that they had knowingly smuggled in marijuana. The last one of them, Yaacov, was finally transferred to a prison in Israel to serve out the rest of his sentence after 1743 days in a Japanese penitentiary. While incarcerated in Israel he singlehandedly revived Judaism in the prison, starting a minyan and Torah study. Despite the extent of his depraved suffering in Japan, he utilized his imprisonment during the prime of his life for personal growth and to inspire others. Joseph will rule Egypt, not in spite of his slavery, but because of it.

Benjamin Elterman, Screenwriter, Essayist, Bnei Mitzvah Speech Consultant

Who pulled Joseph out of the pit? The surface reading implies the Midianites were the ones who not only lifted Joseph out of the pit, they were the ones who sold him! It’s only when you look at Rashi that he says “they pulled him out of the pit” means the brothers. If the brothers are the ones who, in fact, sold Joseph, why does the Torah obscure it?

On the surface, the brothers thought they were doing the right thing. They believed that Joseph was their family’s Esav, a wicked son their father was blind to recognizing. But deep down the brothers knew they were wrong to sell him. So when considering the matter in their own minds, they may have viewed it as if someone else was carrying out the sale.

When we commit acts we know are wrong, we often do things that separate us from reality. We rationalize the facts, turn blind eyes, blatantly ignore warning signs, and we will almost certainly put the blame on other people. I believe the text is communicating the brothers’ states of mind as they commit one of the biggest mistakes in the Torah. When you feel whole, connected, and at peace, you are the most confident in your identity. But when you make a big mistake, not only is it difficult to own up to, it can be even hard to look at yourself in the mirror.

Rabbi Michael Barclay, Spiritual Leader, Temple Ner Simcha www.NerSimcha.org

“Just because there are cherry blossoms after a blight, let us not credit the blight for the blossoms.” These words of Robert Bly z”l must be remembered when looking at this verse so that we do not make the mistake of substituting popular “inclusiveness” for faith in God.

After almost being killed by his brothers, Joseph is sold to Ishmaelites, who take him to Egypt to begin a journey that ultimately saves his family, brings the Hebrews to Egypt, and sets the stage for demonstrations of God’s greatness through the exodus and ultimate revelation at Sinai. In the context of the greater story, it is clear that this temporary slavery would be necessary for Joseph to fulfill his destiny. It is an example of how God’s designs are always perfect, and encourages us to increase our personal faith and relationship with the Divine.

Sadly, this verse has also been co-opted by those who preach “inclusiveness” over Jewish pride as “proof” that all Jews owe Ishmaelites and their descendants a debt for our very existence, since they saved Joseph. But just because Ishmaelites were used by God does not mean they should be credited with Joseph’s survival and success any more than the blight should get credit for the blossoms. They were only the tools God used to set the stage for Joseph’s rise and the coming greatness that would bless the Jewish people.

This verse once again demonstrates that God always has, and always will, look out for the Jewish people; and will use whatever tools needed for that Divine purpose.

Kylie Ora Lobell, Community Editor at the Jewish Journal

Whenever I hear the story of Joseph, I think of the phrase, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

Joseph was an incredible person and yet, his brothers tried to kill him. Then, he was sold into slavery and imprisoned and faced a number of other challenges. In the end, though, because he was taken to Egypt, he saved his family and everyone around him from starvation.

Joseph forgave his brothers for what they did to him because he saw that it was all part of God’s plan. Sometimes in life, we can see why bad things happen to us. Challenging and traumatic events may make us stronger or change our worldview for the better or enable us to fulfill our ultimate purpose. Joseph could clearly see that.

Sometimes in life, we cannot see why bad things happen to us. After this event, why were the Jews enslaved in Egypt? Why did the Inquisition and the Holocaust and Pogroms happen? Why is antisemitism on the rise today? The true test is believing in God’s plan even when we don’t know what it is.

Hopefully, it will be revealed to us when Moshiach comes or when we go to shamayim when we are 120+, God willing. For now, we have to be like Joseph: try to see the bigger picture and have faith in God that everything is for the good.

With thanks to Rabbi Elchanan Shoff, Rabbi Aryeh Markman, Benjamin Elterman, Rabbi Michael Barclay, and Kylie Ora Lobell

Image: Henrik Le-Botos

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