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Parashas Vayeishev- long vort מדה כנגד מדה

Written by Daniel Sandground

Parashas Vayeishev

After all the obstacles Yaakov has had to overcome in order to reach Canaan, the first word of this weeks parasha implies that at last Yaakov can finally ‘שב/shev’, sit or settle, in the land. As the famous phrase says however, no rest for the righteous! (For the record, I never rest). Rashi implies that although the righteous are obviously entitled to tranquility, Yaakov had not completed his mission yet as he still had an important part to play in preparing the way for the future of the nation. Though the righteous seek tranquility, Hashem asks… ‘Are the righteous not satisfied with what awaits them in the World to Come that they expect to live in ease in this World too?’ This provides insight into how we are judged according to our own unique standards, set by Hashem based on situation and ability etc. Yaakov, being at the top of the food chain when it comes to serving Hashem should have known better than to try and ‘sit’ his final days out.

A similar analogy could be found if Gordon Brown fell asleep in parliament… this would be completely unacceptable behavior, whereas if the MP for Cornwall was schluffing in the back row no one would even take notice as it is pretty much in an MP’s job description anyway. Another lesson to learn from this is as a Jew we should never be static in life, a Jew should always be looking to improve on himself, even at such a late age in life there are no excuses. Yaakov’s worst aggravations with the on coming episodes involving Yoseph come as a result of this astaticism (big word, I know).

The Torah states that… ‘Israel (Yaakov) loved Yoseph more than all his sons’, this seems a strange way to behave for someone as holy as Yaakov but just as Avraham favoured Yitzhak over Ishmael, and Yitzhak then favoured Yaakov over Esav, Yaakov had good reason too with his astute recognition of Yoseph’s spiritual and intellectual superiority. This idea is reinforced by Rabbi Bachya’s observation that the Torah uses the name Israel here rather than Yaakov, implying his choice was a function of greatness, not frailty. Regardless of Yaakov’s intentions, we can learn from his mistake of favouring Yoseph, something which all parents are discouraged from doing as it can lead to jealousy and even hatred from siblings, which is spelt out in the subsequent events.

Although the Torah informs us of how Yoseph ‘would bring evil reports about [his brothers]’ to Yaakov it isn’t until he is given ‘a fine woolen tunic’ (Yes, that famous coat of many colours) that the Torah actually states that they hated him. This Tunic appears to be the beginning of the end for Yoseph and any brotherly love he was hoping for, as with this garment the brothers confirmed their suspicions that just as Ishmael and Esav had been discarded in previous generation, so to they would be with Yoseph stealing the limelight. The tunic was given as a sign of leadership as Yoseph was elevated to the status of ‘first born’ after Reuven (the actual first born) discredited himself from the position after tampering with Yaakov’s bed (Vayishlach 35:22). Rashi points out that dissection of the word פסים/pasim (Tunic) reveals all of Yoseph’s future troubles.

פ= פוטיפר = Potiphar… whose wife slandered him and in turn caused his imprisonment
ס = סוחרים = Merchants… who Yoseph’s brothers sold him to
י = ישמעאלים = Ishmaelites… who bought Yoseph from the Midianites to be sold in Egypt
ם = מדינים = Midianites… the first traders to purchase Yoseph
There are some very interesting insights into how G-d runs the world in this week’s sedra. The first of these themes which underlines all the episodes taking place is that of destiny and the reality that although we have the attribute of free will, if something is meant to be, G-d will make darn* sure it happens (*darn has to be said in a very American accent). When reading the events that lead to Yoseph becoming king of Egypt it is almost comical to review how this happened…
• Yoseph reports to his farther about his brothers,
• Yaakov favours him and gives this famous tunic,
• the brother’s misinterpret this favouritism to think it means they will be discarded like Ishmael and Esav were,
• Yoseph aggravates them more with his revelation of dreams in which he appears to be ruling over them,
• Yaakov sends Yoseph off to find his brothers in Shechem,
• his brothers sell him to merchants who happen to be passing by at the perfect time,
• after a series of different sales he ends up in the hands of Potiphar whose wife tries to seduce him and then slanders him,
• luckily enough in prison Yoseph interprets a dream for just the right guy (The butler) who then recommends Yoseph to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams once he is back in service!

I think there is a clear-cut underlying message in this… Hashem’s in charge here, no matter what series of obstacles had to occur Yoseph was destined to be king, just as he had been told in his dreams. Fortifying this opinion the Torah describes how ‘Yoseph had been brought down to Egypt’ (38:1), implying this divine intervention.

The second insight which we find scattered throughout parashas Vayeishev is Hashem’s attribute of pure justice through ‘מדה כנגד מדה/mida kaneged mida’ (translated as ‘measure for measure’). It is taught by our sages that any pain or suffering a person is experiencing is a direct result of a related sin or misdeed they enacted and when observed in depth a common theme can be found between the them; the modern day understanding of this is that ‘what goes around comes back around’. Numerous examples of how this justice is focused are seen in this week’s sedra…

As discussed above, Yaakov experiences a huge amount of aggravation in the events which unwind in regards to Yoseph… so it is important to ask, why did the righteous Yaakov have to endure the painful loss of his son? Answers our commentators, when Yaakov was away from Yitzhak for 34 years with Shem and then Lavan (see Parashas Vayeitzei), he did not contact his farther… this terrible worry which he inflicted on his farther, meant that he was punished ‘מדה כנגד מדה’ with the loss of his own son. Another wrongdoing we saw Yaakov carry out was the deception of his farther to steal the blessing which was really Esav’s… what did he use to deceive his farther (discussed last week)… goats (remember the food he prepared him and the skins he put on his arms and neck)… what do Yaakov’s sons use to deceive him into thinking that Yoseph was killed by an animal… goats blood which they covered the tunic in (I know what your thinking, I mention goats a lot… what can I say, my star sign is Capricorn!).

It isn’t just Yaakov who is being dealt justice by Hashem, we see that Yehudah is the most unfortunate recipient of this in two incidents which occur towards the end of the sedra. Following the sale of Yoseph, Yehudah was deposed from his position of leadership over his brothers as they blamed him for being the ring leader in the devious plot when they saw their father’s intense grief. As a result of this disenchantment with him Yehudah moved away from his family and settled in Adullam, married and had three children. Within a few lines of their birth in the Torah, Yehudah’s two oldest sons die which Sforno notes to be ‘מדה כנגד מדה’… because of Yehudah’s culpability for Yaakov’s suffering, he was repaid by losing his oldest two sons, so that he would experience the same grief he had caused his farther. The Midrash cites in the name of Rabbi Yochanan another situation where Yehudah is punished measure for measure… the brothers led by Yehudah wounded Yaakov by showing him the tunic and saying the words ‘Identify, if you please’… this same language is used by Tamar when she shows Yehudah his signet, wrap and staff (known as a ring, scarf and stick to us) in order that he recognises that he was the person who impregnated her, he therefore faced public humiliation for his relations with her through these same exact words (if you are not familiar with the story then please look it up as it is extremely interesting but also extremely hard to summarise).

Yoseph was yet another victim of ‘מדה כנגד מדה’… by telling his brothers his dreams of having a higher status than them and ruling over them he fed their hatred of him. When his brothers famously threw him into a pit they were making a statement, by putting him physically lower than them they were showing that his status is not higher and the sale of him as a slave was ironically disproving his second prophecy because instead of him ruling over people he will instead be ruled over by his numerous masters.

The final example of this which I would like to share is my favourite… after the brothers sold Yoseph, the Torah states that ‘they sat down to eat food’, Midrash Tehillim 10 brings down a fascinating insight into this… though G-d is patient, he eventually exacts punishment. “Just as you (as in the brothers AND future nations of Israel) sold your brother, then sat down to eat,” the Holy One, Blessed is He, said of the tribal ancestors “there will yet come a time that your descendants will be sold in the midst of a feast!” And so it was many centuries later in Shushan when the king and Haman sat down to a meal, after plotting the extermination of the Jews.

It is clear that we live in a world where everything is in the hands of Hashem, where his continuous justice runs course. If we continue to do good deeds and follow the ways taught to us in the Torah then we will be rewarded accordingly, if not then your going to be in more trouble than Wigan at White Hart Lane. With that I wish you all a fantastic Shabbat and a Chag Somayach! Don’t eat too many doughnuts, I always find the real miracle of Chanukah is how they burn inside me for 8 days after I eat one.

Daniel Sandground, (student at Ohr Somayach Yeshiva, Jerusalem)

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