Wednesday, December 23, 2020







Dedicated l’refuah shleimah for נטע יצחק בן רחל


          Yeshivas Eitz Chaim, the famed Volozhiner Yeshiva, was founded in 1806 by Rav Chaim of Volozhin, a noted disciple of the Vilna Gaon. It was the mother of all Lithuanian Yeshivos.

          During the mid-1850s a contentious debate broke out in the yeshiva about who should be Rosh Yeshiva. The two candidates were Rav Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin (The Netziv) and Rav Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchik (The Beis HaLevi).

          At the time, they both delivered shiurim in the Yeshiva. They had very distinct styles of learning and different groups of students rallied around each of them. The Netziv was a ‘baki’, who had brilliant encyclopedic knowledge of virtually all sources of Torah learning. The Beis haLevi was more of a ‘charif’, known for his sharp and incisive analysis.

          Four great Lithuanian rabbis were invited to adjudicate, including Rabbi Yitzchak Elchonon Spektor, Rabbi Dovid Tevele Minsker and the Vilna Maggid.

          Before the proceedings began, the Vilna Maggid addressed the assemblage and began: “Today we find ourselves involved in the story of Parshas Vayeshev.” This remark immediately drew everyone’s attention because it was the end of the month of Tishrei, and nowhere near the week of Parshas Vayeshev.

          The Maggid continued: “I am a Maggid and I teach life lessons based on the weekly parsha. During the weeks when Sefer Bereishis is read, it is easy to teach lessons from the parsha by depicting who is the hero and who is the antagonist.

          “In Parshas Bereishis, Adam and Chava are in opposition with the Snake, and Kayin is at odds with Hevel. In Parshas Noach, Noach stands up to his generation. In Lech Lecha, it is Avraham Avinu against Pharaoh. In Vayera, Avraham Avinu contends with Lot and deals with Avmelech. In Chayei Sarah, Avraham deals with Ephron, in Toldos, Yaakov vies with Eisav, and in Vayeitzei, Yaakov lives in the home of Lavan.

          “However, in Parshas Vayeshev, I find myself at a loss because there it is not good against evil. There both sides – Yosef and his brothers – are wholly righteous. It is impossible to take sides regarding who is right and who is wrong.

           “Today we find ourselves in a situation comparable to Parshas Vayeshev for both the Netziv and Bais HaLevi are great tzaddikim. That’s what makes this case so challenging.”[2]


          Rabbi Aharon Kotler was once asked how the story of Yosef should be taught to children. Rabbi Aharon keenly replied, "And how do you teach it to adults?”

          If someone were to ask what the most difficult parshios in the Torah are, one might reply that parshios Tazria and Metzora are the most complex, because they deal with the intricate laws of tzara’as with which we are so unfamiliar. Or one might say that parshas Mishpatim with its vast laws of monetary responsibilities and obligations is the most difficult.

          However, in a sense, the parshios of Vayeshev, Miketz, and Vayigash are the most difficult parshios in the Torah. The commentaries expend great effort to explain what truly occurred between Yosef and the brothers, beneath and beyond the surface of the text.  

          Years after I had left his class, I was speaking to my wonderful second grade Rebbe, Rav Chaim Trenk. He commented that we teach young children the stories of the Torah as we must, to develop a foundation of Torah within them. But then, it takes a lifetime to undo the childish pictures we conjure in our minds of those stories. Tragically, many people retain those childish images, notions, and ideas about the stories in the Torah throughout their lives.

            Picture the following story[3]: Yasir Arafat has a disturbing dream. He summons all his Moslem advisors, but none can offer him a satisfactory interpretation. One of his chief advisors suddenly recalls that, when he was imprisoned by Arafat, he met a forsaken Jew who successfully interpreted his own dream. The Jew had been jailed years earlier for the serious crime of trying to violate the wife of one of Arafat’s chief executives.

          As soon as Arafat hears about the Jew, he has the Jew hoisted out of prison and brought before him. The Jew successfully explains to Arafat the significance of his dream and is promoted to second-in-command to Arafat.

          This wild story is not too different from what transpired to Yosef. When the brothers came down to Egypt, Yosef could not eat with them at the same table because it was repulsive for an Egyptian to eat with a Jew. Clearly, the Jews were regarded as inferior to the Egyptians. Yet, Yosef - a Jew - became viceroy of the greatest superpower of the ancient world. The entire world must have known the story of the Jew who became viceroy of Egypt. It must have been on the front cover of every newspaper and the subject of every blog. Yet, the brothers did not even suspect that this man was Yosef.


          When reading these parshios, there are many questions left unanswered.

          For example, after Yosef revealed himself, what did he say, and what did they say? Did Yosef ever tell them how he became the viceroy? Did the brothers ever tell Yosef why they sold him? In addition, the Torah doesn’t tell us if Ya’akov ever found out the whole story and if he did what his reaction was.

          My rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, notes that, at one point, there was a commodity in the United States called ‘paint by numbers’. A person purchased a canvas and followed directions as he painted. The number one was to be painted blue, so wherever it said one he painted blue. The number two was to be painted red, so wherever it said two he painted red.

          When the amateur was done, he didn’t exactly have a Rembrandt. But he did have a nice picture that he was involved in creating.

          There are countless life lessons to be gleaned from the story of Yosef. Perhaps that’s exactly why the Torah doesn’t tell us all of the details, so that we can fill in the blanks. The Torah is painting by number, as it were, so that we can ‘fill it in’, by extrapolating lessons, through seeing how these stories speak to us in our daily lives.  

          In a sense, the Torah records these parshios to be like the psychological Rorschach test. When someone is given a Rorschach test, he is shown a blot of ink and asked what he sees. It’s just a blot of ink, but everyone sees something different, and what one sees reflects upon himself.

          The Torah presents the story and asks us to answer what we see and how the lessons of these great men apply to us.

          Rabbi Wein added that part of the problem of contemporary chinuch is that we teach children explanations of certain commentaries when they are young, and for the rest of their lives they think it is the only explanation.

          This may be a story that a five-year old can understand, but it’s not a story written for a five-year-old mind. ”זה ספר תולדות אדם – This is the book of the generations of man”[4]; everyone has to see lessons that are applicable to himself.


          After Yosef revealed himself to his brothers, he instructs them to go directly back to Cana’an and, אל תרגזו בדרך – don’t tarry along the way[5].

           תרגזו has a connotation of anger or frustration. In Yiddish, when people say someone is ‘broygez’ it means they are consumed with anger, and often can become nasty.

          Yosef told the brothers not to discuss how they sold him so that they shouldn’t get into the blame game. 

          Menachem Zion[6] offers another explanation: The word derech mean road/way. אל תרגזו בדרך means don’t be angry about the way G-d brought this about. He did it להחיות עם רב  - to bring life to millions of people, and ultimately the family will be reunited. Yosef told them not to be angry that it happened in a way they didn’t like.

          Rabbi Wein notes that much of the Torah world is angry about ‘the way it happened’, particularly regarding the Jewish People’s return to Eretz Yisroel in 1948 and beyond. We thought the Chofetz Chaim was supposed to bring us back, not Ben-Gurion.

          Yosef told them not to be angry about the way things happened. G-d has his reasons and His plans and it’s not up to us to decide whether it should have happened that way or not. Our job is to figure out how to best react and proceed with what G-d has brought about. There were numerous different ways we could have gone down to Egypt, and numerous ways Egypt could have been saved from the famine. But this is how G-d chose to make it happen.

          It’s a vital lesson for life.

          Yosef told them not to fall into that trap. Look at what is, not at how we got here.

          This is another one of the timeless lessons that this parsha teaches us about our outlook and lives. A story that happened so long ago and yet reverberates as if it happened yesterday, and tomorrow!


          “Don’t tarry along/about the way”

          “This is the book of the generations of man”


 Rabbi Dani Staum


[1] This essay was originally disseminated in 5762. I thank Eli Hirschman who has maintained these “early Stam Torahs” on his website

[2] The final decision defied expectations: the Netziv would be the head of the yeshiva. Rabbi Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik accepted the verdict, and soon afterward he left Volozhin to become the rabbi in Slutsk and later in Brisk.

Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik had a son, Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik¸ a child prodigy, who later became one of the great men of Israel. Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik married the granddaughter of the Netziv. Therefore, the families became one, and Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik became the next Rosh Yeshiva in Volozhin together with his grandfather.

[3] At the time this essay was originally written, Yasir Arafat and the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) were of the Jewish People’s most formidable enemies.

[4] Bereishis 5:1

[5] Bereishis 45:24

[6] Rabbi Menachem BenZion Sacks


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