Sharing Torah Insights

Care for the the victimizer?

Posted on ז׳ בטבת ה׳תש״ע (December 24, 2009) | in VaYigash | by

Parshat VaYigash serves as the climax of the last few weeks of parshiot, wherein Yosef is finally reunited with his brothers and with Yaakov 22 years after being sold away to slavery.

There is a famous question asked about Yosef’s actions during these 22 years. Why didn’t Yosef try and contact his father to let Yaakov know that he was still alive? Even if Yosef didn’t have the ability as a slave or in jail during the first portion of his time in Egypt, he certainly had the ability to contact Yaakov when he was regent of Egypt? How could he have allowed his father to suffer more emotional pain than necessary?

The Ohr HaChaim comes to Yosef’s rescue. He quotes the Gemarrah in Brachot (33b) where it says “נוח לו לאדם שיפיל עצמו לתוך כבשן האש ואל ילבין פני חברו ברבים – it should be more agreeable to a person that he throw himself into a fiery furnace than embarrass others in public.” This is why Yosef first cleared the Egyptian court of all visitors before revealing himself to his brothers and why Yosef allowed the brothers the opportunity to break the news to Yaakov on their own terms.

In addition, Yosef needed the opportunity to show the brothers in practical terms that he harbored no hard feelings by giving them gifts during their two trips to Egypt.  Rashi explains that when Yosef says “וְהִנֵּה עֵינֵיכֶם רֹאוֹת, וְעֵינֵי אָחִי בִנְיָמִין – And, behold, your eyes see, and the eyes of my brother Binyamin” that Yosef is telling the brothers that just as Binyamin had no part in the sale of Yosef and no negative feelings are harbored against him, so too Yosef feels no ill will towards his other brothers.

The brothers on the other hand needed the opportunity to properly repent from the sale of Yosef. The Rambam in Hilchot Teshuva says that teshuva gemurah (complete teshuva) is only achieved when someone has the opportunity to do the same sin previously committed, yet conquers the temptation. Yosef orchestrates the whole brothers-in-Egypt story to make sure that the brothers have the same chance to get rid of Binyamin as they had with Yosef.

Both of these aspects are important lessons in how true peace is made. The victim must show that he not only forgives the one who has harmed him, but cares about them as well. The victimizer, on the other hand, must accept responsibility for what he has done wrong and repent in full, thus proving that he truly regrets what he has done wrong.

After the brothers have had their opportunity to repent and Yosef successfully reveals himself to his brothers, the brothers are finally called “Bnei Yisrael” instead of “Bnei Yaakov” for the first time. Only now are they able to join together as the founders of the nation of Israel rather than merely a collection of Yaakov’s sons.

In life we all have situations where we have done wrong and been wronged. May we learn the lesson of Yosef and his brothers and realize that by showing care and compassion to those around us can overcome even the most egregious wrongdoings.

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2 Responses to “Care for the the victimizer?”

  1. Todd Wilkof says:

    The Lessons of the Wagons

    “And they went up from Egypt, and came to the Land of Canaan, to Yaakov their father. And they told him, saying, ‘Yosef is still alive, and he is governor over the whole land of Egypt.’ And his heart fainted, for he did not believe them. And they told him all that Yosef had said to them, and he saw the wagons that Yosef had sent to transport him, then the spirit of their father Yaakov was revived.” (Vayigash, 45:25-27)

    A well-known midrash explains why the sight of the wagons lifted Yaakov’s spirit:

    “Rabbi Levi said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan Bar Shaul: Yosef said to his brothers: ‘If he initially believes you when you tell him that I am alive, fine. However, if he refuses to believe, then show him the wagons being drawn by heifers, because we were learning the parsha regarding the breaking of the heifer’s neck immediately before we parted.”

    As a father, Yaakov of course wished to know whether Yosef was physically alive, and as patriarch of Am Yisrael he needed assurance that his son’s soul had survived the Egyptian experience. According to this midrash, Yosef was telling his father through the sign of the wagons drawn by heifers that the last Torah portion that they had been learning together was still fresh in his mind, 22 years latter. Having now received confirmation that Yosef lived and had remained spiritually intact in Egypt, Yaakov moves from disbelief and darkness to joy and spiritual clarity.

    A lesser-known version of the midrash on this same verse expands on the nature of Yaakov’s spiritual revival. This midrash suggests that Yaakov and Yosef were not learning about the breaking of the heifer’s neck before their final separation- but rather a lesson pertaining to the wagons of the Mishkan. This version holds closer to the text in that the verse clearly states that Yaakov saw the “wagons” and was revived. Moreover, when looking back to the scene of Yosef’s fateful departure from Hebron, the lesson of the wagons seems a most fitting topic for Yaakov to be sharing with his son.

    “And Israel said to Yosef, Your brothers are pasturing in Shechem, are they not? Come, I will send you to them. He said to him: Here I am. And he said to him, Go now, look to the welfare of your brothers and the welfare of the flock, and bring me back word.” (VaYeshev, 37: 12-14)

    It is at this juncture, our midrash says, that Yaakov and Yosef share their final torah lesson.

    What lesson did Yaakov share about the wagons?

    We are taught that the tribe of Levi was divided into three families: Kehat, Gershon and Merari. The work in the Mishkan was split between them, though according to a certain hierarchy. When Bnei Yisrael traveled the desert, Gershon and Merari were responsible for the structure and infrastructure of the Mishkan, and they used wagons to transport the beams and curtains from place to place. The families of Kehat were responsible for transporting the holy vessels, which could only be moved by hand.

    One might conclude that the Kehat family was greater than the Gershon and Merari families. The people chosen to handle the Holy Ark, the Menorah, etc. must surely be of higher status than the families designated to transport wooden beams from within a wagon. But Yaakov taught his son, as he was sending him off to reunite with his brothers in Shechem, that this is not so.

    We can now understand why Yaakov was discussing the wagons of the Mishkan with Yosef.

    Yosef had dreams; dreams that imagined himself atop a hierarchal ladder of Bnei Yaakov. Yaakov, recognizing the dissension that such self-importance would breed within the family, wanted to pre-empt this by a final lesson to his departing son: “Go now, look to the welfare of your brothers and the welfare of the flock.” Using the example of the Kehat, he then explained to Yosef that all of the brothers will play an equally crucial role in the future of Am Yisrael. Even though Kehat had the honor of carrying the Ark, there would be nowhere to place that Ark if Gershon and Merari did not provide the materials to be transported by their wagons.

    This was the last mussar message that Yaakov passed on to his son. It was this lesson that the two of them must have played out in their minds as they tried to make sense of their experiences over the course of 22 bewildering years. And then finally Yosef “brings back word” to his father, via the message of the wagons: “Despite my dreams having been realized, despite, my position of leadership, I remember the wagons: I remember there can be no place for the Ark if there is no Mishkan. I understand that everyone in Am Yisrael is a crucial part of the Almighty’s chosen people.”

    When Yaakov sees the wagons he recognizes the possibility of tolerance, understanding, and sensitivity amongst his sons, an ideal he waited over two pain filled decades to be realized. What is more, he can now finally foresee the survival of the Jewish people. In view of the wagons “sent to carry him,” he envisions a future when all the tribes will come together in their various roles to dedicate the Mishkan, its construction founded on the importance and equal status of every Jew. Just as he had taught his son 22 years earlier.

    We too learn the lesson of the wagons of the mishkan during the eight days of Chanukah. Each day the Canukah torah portion recounts the offerings brought by the Tribal Princes for the dedication of the Mishkan, “each man according to his work,” culminating in the final reading with the return of the Shechinah- absent since the acts of the Golden Calf. These daily Chanukah portions always coincide with our reading of the Yosef story. Examined together through the teachings of our midrash here, we recognize their common themes of darkness and spiritual revival, initial dissension and ultimate unity, the strong delivered into the hands of the weak and more. At the core of both stories is the lesson of the wagons, infused with layers of meaning that extend over the course of our history, reminding us that the strength of the Jewish people depends on our ability to recognize the importance and equal status of each other.

    With thanks to Rav David Milston,


    Liron Kopinsky Reply:

    Yasher Koach! Keep em coming :).


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