Vayeshev Sermon


Vayeshev Sermon

— From the Rebbe’s Torah —

Begin with joke:

I got caught cheating on my physics exam. Furious, my professor said to me "I hope you understand the gravity of the situation". But if I had known that, I wouldn't be in this situation in the first place.

Situation which are hard for us... things we’re not used to... subjects we don’t like — should we deal with them in the first place?

We know that G-d intentionally gave us a certain nature, so that we should use it in his service. But what if a tough situation arises when our behaving within our nature cannot do the trick? Does that mean that we are exempt of this particular challenge? Should we say that if G-d gave us a nature which is not productive in this situation, this means that we can bow out of this one?

We’ll hopefully have our answer by the end of this sermon.

In this week’s parsha, Vayeshev, we learn how Yaakov favored Yosef and created a special multi colored coat for him. This did not make his brothers happy — to say the least. “They could not speak with him peacefully,” the passuk says.

Yaakov’s sons were strong-minded people who spoke their minds freely, not worried about what people would think of them. It was not at all their nature to temper and distill their feelings; they “said it as it is,” as they say. If they were not happy with someone, that person knew it. They didn’t know how to “act” the act.

Yosef was the favored brother, but soon, matters took a graver turn: Yosef began dreaming about his brothers bowing down to him — and he shared these dreams with his brothers… As you can imagine, this didn’t do much good for his relationship with them…

It soon happened that the brothers, minus Yosef, were away for a while, while grazing their sheep. Yaakov sent Yosef out to find his brothers. As soon as they saw him coming near, they resolved to be rid of him.

However, Reuven — his eldest brother, saved him from their plots, and suggested that instead of killing him with their own hands, they should instead place him in a pit, where they would presumably leave him to rot.

Reuven had other plans. When the brothers would leave, he planned, he would linger behind and take Yosef out of the pit, and return him to his father.

What ended up happening, though, was that before Reuven had a chance to save him, a traveling caravan passed by and the brothers sold him to them, into slavery; eventually, he landed up in Egypt where the continuation of our parsha takes us.

We will stop and take a look at the story we just heard:

Reuven’s move to have the brothers place Yosef in a pit, is characterised by the Zohar as going “beyond the letter of the law;” he was being a Chassid.

The description given for a Chassid, in the Talmud, is one who goes beyond the letter of the law. They don’t just follow exactly what they are required. They don’t take things too literally.

Which brings a joke to mind:

Yankel's wife Shprintza wanted to help Yankel be less literal minded, so she decided to present him with a scenario. "You're alone in the desert and an angel shows up, who said he'd grant you three wishes". Yankel didn't even have to think before responding...

“No I'm not.”

Ok, so Reuven wasn’t so literal, he went beyond the letter of the law.

Now, the obvious question jumps out right at you: Why is saving someone from death considered “supplementary?” Wouldn’t that be obligatory? Are you just being “extra” nice by saving someone from certain death, or are you just doing the right thing, Plain and simple!?

This takes us back to the brothers’ nature which we discussed a few minutes ago. They were not people who acted two-faced very easily. If the brothers had understood that he intended to save Yosef, they would have never cooperated with him, they would have slaughtered Yosef on the spot. He had to be two-faced, he had to tell them that he agreed that he be killed, just that it should not be them to do it — rather to let him die in the pit.

I guess the brothers were a bit aggressive.


Which reminds me of when my teacher asked my classmate Berel: Berel, what did you do when Shmerl called you a liar? Berel replied: I remembered what you told me: “A soft answer turns away anger.” The teacher: Very good, Berel. What answer did you give him?

Berel replied: I answered him with a soft tomato.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t just tomatoes, the brothers were thinking of; and Reuvan had his hands full.

But, putting on this show, must have been very hard for Reuven. His nature would have been to tell them, “What do you think you’re doing! Are you going to kill someone because you are jealous of them?!” which would have spelled disaster for Yosef... and so, he acted slyly, getting them on the correct bandwagon without them realizing it.

This is what made him a Chassid. He had gone out of his way, paid heed and concentration to the circumstances and did what he had to do in a way which would produce the desirable outcome — even though it was completely beyond his normal mode of operation.

He was not a Chassid for trying to save Yosef — that would be the exact letter of the law. Rather, he was a Chassid for the way he tried to save Yosef, putting extra thought and effort into being something he usually was not; this was him going beyond the letter of the law.

I am reminded of another, more recent example of nature-altering conduct, which saved a life:

In his Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi states that the mind must rule the heart. This was how he trained his Chassidim, and this is how they led their lives.

Rabbi Moshe Meisels, a Chassid of the first Chabad Rebbe — the Alter Rebbe, whose holiday of liberation we have celebrated this past week — was an extremely learned man, and fluent in German, Russian, Polish and French. During Napoleon's war on Russia he served as a translator for the French High Command. Rabbi Schneur Zalman had charged him to associate with the French military officials, to attain a position in their service, and to convey all that he learned to the commanders of the Russian army. Within a short while, Rabbi Moshe had succeeded in gaining the favor of the chief commanders of Napoleon's army and was privy to their most secret plans.

It was he, Reb Moshe, who saved the Russian arms arsenal in Vilna from the fate which befell the arsenal in Schvintzian. He alerted the Russian commander in charge, and those who tried to blow up the arsenal were caught in the act.

"The High Command of the French army was meeting," related Reb Moshe "and hotly debating the maneuvers and the arrangement of the flanks for the upcoming battle. The maps were spread on the floor, and the generals were examining the roads and trails, unable to reach a decision. Time was short. Tomorrow, or, at the very latest, the day after, the battle on the environs of Vilna must begin.

"They were still debating when the door flew open with a crash. The guard stationed inside the door was greatly alarmed and drew his revolver. So great was the commotion, that everyone thought that the enemy had burst in in an attempt to capture the French Chief Command...

"But it was Napoleon himself who appeared in the doorway. The Emperor's face was dark with fury. He stormed into the room and raged: 'Has the battle been planned? Have the orders to form the flanks been issued?'

" 'And who is this stranger?!' he continued, pointing to me. In a flash he was at my side. 'You are a spy for Russia!' he thundered, and placed his hand upon my chest to feel the pounding heart of a man exposed.

At that moment, our teacher, the Alter Rebbe’s teaching, stood by me. My mind commanded my heart to beat not an increment faster. In an unwavering voice I said: 'The commanders of His Highness the Emperor have taken me as their interpreter, as I am knowledgeable in the languages crucial to the carrying out of their duties...' "

Napoleon then left him alone.

Now we return to the question with which we began: What do we do when qualities needed are not who we usually are. Can we shirk?

So the lesson from Reuven beacons us: It is true that G-d has bequeathed us with a unique nature which we are to utilize; there is usually no reason to be who we are not. However, when a situation arises in which our nature will not be to good use — we should go out of our usual selves — beyond the letter of the law, and make sure that needs to be accomplished is accomplished. That is the test of the Chassid.

There are many situations in which this ideal can be put to good use; whether if our child needs a strong word, but we are the kind type; or if our child needs a kind word and we are the strict type. Whether it is our nature to be forthright but the situation will best be handled discreetly, or if we are the discrete type but something needs to be said. Whether we are the following type, but a leader is desperately needed, or if we are the leading type, among many others, and some leaders need to follow for the success of the endeavor. Let’s not get caught up in our nature and the way we are and like to me; let’s be cognizant if a change is needed for a particular situation, and take the plunge.

Let’s aim for the goal, and not get caught up in our preferable means. Let us truly care to make things good.

And now for another story:

There was once a conference of Rabbis in Russia, with government officials in attendance. The government officials demanded that the Rabbis sign off on a proclamation which would be to the detriment of the state of Yiddishkeit in Russia. It was a very reasonable debate, as the officials warned that if the Rabbis would not agree, the government would instigate pogroms against the Jews.

The fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber, was in attendance and was asked to speak; he said:

“We did not leave the land of Israel by our own will, and we will also not return to by our own will. Our father and king chased us from there, and he will return us to there. But we must say openly to everyone, that while our bodies are in Golus, our souls are not.”

After he finished his speech, Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber fainted.

The government representatives who were in attendance transcribed what the Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber had said, and reported it to the government; and for coming out so strongly against the government’s position, Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber was placed under house arrest, in his hotel room. A policeman was stationed outside his door.

After the guard was removed, one of the great Rabbis attending the conference, entered the Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber’s room and found the Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber in heartfelt tears.

When the Rabbi asked him why he was cried, explaining that they had done all they could to rectify the situation and it was clearly out of their control, Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber replied, “But what we set out to accomplish — we did not accomplish!” This is why he cried.

To him, it was all about getting the job done, and he would not allow himself to pat himself on the back.

Let’s be thankful for how G-d made us and use our unique set of talent and skill. Let’s enjoy the way we lead our lives. But let’s always remember that when it comes down to a situation which is difficult for us, getting it right is better than getting it feeling nice. Let’s aim for the goal.

A Good Shabbos.

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