A People Restored 

Rabbi Reuven Mann


This week’s parsha, Vayeshev, initiates the stirring saga of Yosef and his brothers, the most dramatic episode recorded in Scripture. In general, the Torah reveals little, if anything, about the personal proclivities of its heroes.

Here, however, we have a unique view of the family dynamics and interactions among the siblings who were destined to be the leaders of the 12 tribes of Israel. Things did not proceed  as we would imagine in a group of lofty people. Perhaps we have a naive expectation of how superior individuals should behave.

The Torah is committed to absolute honesty. It does not gloss over the flaws of even the greatest humans. No one is righteous from birth. Every one of us must contend with the “Satan,” otherwise known as the irrational component of human nature that constantly resists reason and truth.

The family turmoil revolved around the personality of Yosef. He was destined for greatness but, at the age of 17, he displayed a certain vanity and sense of superiority. 

It was not his fault that he was his father’s favorite, nor that Yaakov was mistaken in displaying his love by favoring him with a special coat. A situation of great danger was unfolding. The brothers hated Yosef, but neither he nor Yaakov was aware of its lethal potential.

Yosef erred by revealing his dreams of domination to his brothers. He appeared oblivious to the envy and hatred so engendered. Yaakov, also, seemed to be insufficiently cognizant about the storm that was brewing.

He did rebuke Yosef in front of the brothers after he had revealed his second dream. However, that proved to be too little, too late to reverse the mounting calamity.

While Yaakov and Yosef were aware of the brothers’ animosity, they substantially underestimated its destructive potential. Why else would Yaakov send Yosef on the fateful journey to look in on his brothers and see how they were doing? And why would Yosef accept the mission? One is not obligated to obey one’s parent if doing so puts his life in jeopardy.

The brothers’ actions against Yosef had devastating consequences, tearing the family asunder. No one suffered more than Yaakov, who refused to be comforted and said that he would go down to his grave in mourning.

All hopes that this shattered group would somehow develop into the Chosen People were, now, utterly dashed. By every reckoning, they should have disappeared from the stage of history. Yet, as we all know, the impossible did happen. The family was miraculously reunited and restored and went on to become the founders of the Jewish nation. How did this happen? What is the lesson of this inexplicable miracle?

The story of Yosef and his brothers illustrates the unique nature of the Jewish People and the secret of its history. After Yosef was sold into slavery, and Yaakov was smitten with depression, the dynamic forward movement and national development of the 12 tribes was effectively terminated.

However, the strangest and most unlikely series of events ensued.  Yosef experienced a meteoric rise to power and became the functional ruler of Egypt. Yehuda regained his leadership stature by acknowledging Tamar’s righteousness. Famine forced the brothers to travel to Egypt, where they were subjected to Yosef’s painful maneuvers. The entire charade came to an end when Yehuda rose to greatness and offered to take Binyamin’s place as Yosef’s slave to keep the promise he had made to his father.

Yosef made peace with and forgave his brothers. The broken family was restored and reunited. Yaakov came to Egypt and spent his remaining years with his beloved son and the rest of his children. The 12 tribes’ forward progress resumed, and Jewish history proceeded to its next stage.

Why did Yaakov’s family survive and overcome its initial dissolution? Was this phenomenal comeback simply a product of the great deeds of unique individuals like Yosef and Yehuda?

That is certainly a major part of the story. But who saw to it that Yosef would be acquired by Potiphar? And that he would be imprisoned with Pharaoh’s chief baker and butler, whose dreams he would successfully elucidate? Who caused Pharaoh to have dreams that none but Yosef could interpret? And who arranged a famine that forced Yaakov to send his sons to procure sustenance in Egypt?

The Creator, who crafted the circumstances and opportunities that made reconciliation possible, reunited the torn family. It is true that very great people rose to the occasion and acted heroically. But without Divine intervention, which provided the opportunities where the protagonists’ deeds would be efficacious, nothing could have happened. This story poignantly illustrates the interface between human action and Divine Providence.

The Jewish people are Hashem’s special creation. They are certainly not immune to setbacks and failures, but they cannot be permanently defeated. Hashem will always be there to lift them up from the depths of despair to a position of great prominence. When the Maccabees arose to perform great deeds to restore Torah observance, Hashem empowered them to defeat the mighty Greek superpower. 

As we express our gratitude and praise to Hashem on the holiday of Chanukah, let us strive to emulate the dedication to Torah and heroic action of this small band of men, who drove out the Greeks and purified the Holy Temple.

Shabbat shalom and Chanukah sameach.