Bossewitch Wide

What Yaacov Taught Yosef

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Sep 17, 2007

And Yisrael loved Yosef more than his other sons because he was a ‘ben zekunim’… Rashi points out that the phrase
‘ben zekunim’ is translated by Unkelos as ‘bar chakin,’ i.e. that Yosef was the wise son, he had a unique capacity to learn, and therefore, continues Rashi, Yaacov taught Yosef all that he learned from Shem and Ever.

This statement of Rashi is very strange. It is true that Yaakov learned in the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever for fourteen years on his way to the house of Lavan, but if Yaacov had to choose a certain body of knowledge to pass on to his son Yosef—wouldn’t it have made more sense to teach Yosef the Torah of Avraham and Yitzchak? Wouldn’t that which Yaacov learnt when he was an “ish tam yosheiv ohalim,” when he was learning with his father and his grandfather, have been a more proper heritage to pass down to his favorite son?

Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky, zt”l, answered this question as follows: Certainly Yaacov taught all his sons, including Yosef that which he received from Avraham and Yitzchak, the heritage we have as Jews. However, there is a unique body of knowledge — the knowledge of Shem and Ever — that Yaacov felt he should transmit specifically to Yosef. What is the special characteristic of the knowledge of Shem and Ever? It is the key to remaining G-d fearing in an environment which is totally inhospitable to a religious lifestyle. Shem was brought up in the generation of the flood; Ever in the generation of the Tower of Babel. They had to struggle to maintain their spiritual identity in a society with totally antithetical values, and they succeeded. This is why Yaacov spent fourteen years in the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever before fleeing to Charan. He knew he would need that strategic knowledge to maintain his spiritual development in the house of Lavan and in the society of Charan. He learned that special Torah, so well that after twenty years by Lavan, he was able to return to Eretz Yisrael and tell Eisav: “Im Lavan garti, v’taryag mitzvot shamarti.”

Yaacov had a premonition that his wise son Yosef, who was so similar to him in so many ways (see Rashi on “toldot Yosef”—they were similar in appearance; both had brothers that hated them; both had brothers who wanted to kill them; etc.), would also need the knowledge of Shem and Ever. Yosef would also have to struggle to maintain his identity in a foreign environment similar to Shem, Ever, and Yaacov, and therefore Yaacov specifically taught these ideas to Yosef.

What was the content of Torat Shem V’Ever? We don’t know, but perhaps an insight of my mechutan, Rav Chaim Brovender ’65R, in an explanation of the Ramban on Chumash, would at least parallel one aspect of this very special tradition. The juxtaposition in the calendar of the parsha of V’Yeshev with Chanukah is reflected in masechet Shabbat (22a) where the drasha of the pasuk “vhabor reik, ein bo mayim” is found in the middle of the entire sugya of Chanukah.

Chazal there infer from the tautology “reik, ein bo” that the pit was empty of water, but was full of snakes and scorpions. The Ramban in his commentary on Chumash was bothered by the question as to whether the brothers were aware of this situation. If they were aware, how would casting Yosef into the pit serve as the means of “hatzalah” that Reuven intended? If they were unaware, then why would the Torah bother to give us this information? The Ramban posits that the brothers were totally unaware, because had they become aware that at any point Yosef was being miraculously saved from certain death (similar to Daniel in the lions’ den), they would have immediately realized that their thesis was totally wrong. Yosef was a tzaddik in G-d’s eyes. They never would have continued with the sale, the deception of Yaacov, etc. Rav Brovender pointed out that the Ramban is showing us a scenario in which obvious and open miracles are occurring literally under the feet of the brothers, and their living and acting in ignorance of the
miracles brought about tragic results.

The knowledge and perspective that we are living in a world that cries out ‘al nisecha shbechol yom emanu’ and yet society ignores the implications of that reality would be a concise summary of the struggle between Judaism and Hellenism.

The miracle of the ‘pach hashemen’ as the response to the question of the braita “mai chanukah” puts in proper perspective what the war was all about: the Nes nigleh of the pach hashemen which reflects on the reality of a world of ‘Nisecha Shbechol yom emanu,’ which is antithetical to the Hellenist philosophy.

Perhaps this is part of the tradition that served Shem and Ever so well, and was passed down from Yaacov to Yosef. It would certainly be meaningful to us in our challenge of maintaining our spiritual identity while living in western society, “im Lavan garti, v’taryag mitzvot shamarti”.


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Learning on the Marcos and Adina Katz YUTorah site is sponsored today by the Goldberg and Mernick families to mark the yahrzeit of Samuel M. Goldberg, R’ Shmuel Meir ben R’ Eliyahu HaCohen z”l and by Reuben Pludwinski in memory of his father Jacob, Yaakov Meyer ben Yitzchak