Friday, December 16, 2011

Parshat Vayeshev - פרשת וישב

ויספר אל אביו ואל אחיו ויגער-בו אביו ויאמר לו מה החלום הזה אשר חלמת הבוא נבוא אני ואמך ואחיך להשתחות לך ארצה. ויקנאו-בו אחיו ואביו שמר את-הדבר. וילכו אחיו לראת אׄתׄ-צׄאן אביהם בשכם.

בראשית לז:י-יג

Yoseph, having just related the second of his famous prophetic dreams to Ya’akov is met with by a certain ambivalence from his father. Whereas his siblings abhorred and utterly resisted Yoseph’s visions, his father’s reaction was to initially rebuke his son, but soon turned to being more open-minded and receptive. The verse employs the conservative “שמר,” indicating that his father quietly listened to him and regarded Yoseph’s words as a possibility in his mind, but did not act on it one way or another.

It is interesting to note that the last of the three verses quoted above is broken with an Etnachta (a symbol used for singing the Torah which indicates a pause) in an unusual place. Liberally translated, the verse then reads, “And the brothers went (Etnachta) to see their father’s flock in Shchem.” Why the break? What does the break imply? Rav Hirsch goes on to point out that Shchem was 80km away from Hevron, where the brothers were. He explains that the brothers left immediately as soon as they heard their father humour Yoseph and seriously entertain the notion that his dreams had true meaning, hence the Etnachta cuts off the words “And the brothers went” from the rest of the sentence to show that the brothers left immediately. And why Shchem? Rav Hirsch points to the Midrash Rabba, which references the two dots that appear above the word את. These two dots signify that the brothers didn’t truly go to the sheep, rather that they used the sheep as an excuse to get away and spend some time mulling things over. They actually went to themselves, in that decided to take some time for introspection. It is significant that they went to Shchem because that was the place where they first demonstrated their sense of family unity. It was at Shchem that Shimon on Levy massacred the whole male population so that their sister’s name would not be besmirched. If this was the case when they were threatened from outside the family, it makes sense that when they were threatened from within the ranks, the family should return to the place where they first experienced true solidarity.

So Yoseph’s brothers did not exactly warm to his predictions, as is clearly stated in the verse, “ויקנאו-בו אחיו – and his brothers were jealous of him.” The traditional understanding of this verse is that the brothers were appalled to hear of their younger sibling’s grandiose statements about his future role as ruler over them. Moreover, the assertion that he would dominate over his father was even more contemptible in their eyes, and they soon moved to act in an attempt to ensure that such an occurrence would never come to fruition.

The interpretation that Rav Hirsch provides however, is far more fulfilling. In the same way that Adam HaRishon came to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil as a result of his ultimately good intentions, it would be churlish to suppose that the brothers’ scheming was simply evil, or that they were acting in a selfish manner.

Rav Hirsch offers the explanation that the brothers actions (like those of Adam HaRishon) were ultimately meant for the good, and that we should not allow ourselves to think that they merely acted on impulse against a perceived threat to the regular familial hierarchy. It would be a mistake to think that they were so simple. Often people look back at history and wonder how famous people could have acted quite so foolishly. If we think that way, we are the fools; those people knew what they were doing. Just because the characters we study in our history classes lived hundreds of years ago, doesn’t mean that they were lacking in common sense! Additionally, as was the case with the twelve tribes, many were far more spiritually sensitive than we are today.

So how can we understand their behaviour? What was the cause for their mistake? Rav Hirsch proposes that only recently had Nimrod introduced the world the concept of a kingdom. Up until that time, the brothers had never been exposed to a ממלכה – a Kingship, and and to be honest, Nimrod’s Kingdom wasn’t all that great. Nimrod was an evil and corrupt ruler who imprisoned his people and subjected them to slavery. The brothers’ cousins in Seir-Edom had “been enslaved by the whip of the Alufim (chieftains) and kings.” By way of comparison, Ya’akov’s family were quietly creating a society of equality and tranquillity. But what would happen to this model if one man were to rise to the top and dominate over everyone else? The brothers had this one terrible example of Kingship, and when they heard their younger brother’s dreams, they quite understandably resolved themselves not to allow the Jewish nation to be ruled over by a monarch, assuming with relative plausibility that a rule of monarchy lead to the oppression of Am Yisrael. The brothers were determined not to let the future generations of the Jewish nation be reduced to slaves, and so we can now understand that their actions were not out of foolish pride or a bloated sense of self-importance, rather they were driven by their perception of Yoseph as a severe threat to the future of Am Yisrael.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom.

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