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Home » Vayeshev

Vayeshev: Responsible For A Nation

Submitted by on November 30, 2009 – 9:20 pmNo Comment | 2,732 views

The Case of the Hidden Item

The Talmud relates a story about a man who deposited jewelry with his fellow for safekeeping. When the owner came to retrieve the jewelry the custodian confessed that he had placed it in a hidden place for safekeeping and was not able to find it. The case came before Rabbi Nachman, who found the custodian liable for dereliction of duty. (1)

That the owner should be reimbursed seems fair; he entrusted his valuables to his fellow and incurred a loss. However, contemplating the case from the custodian’s perspective yields a problem. Why should the custodian be penalized? He was not negligent in his custodianship; he acted responsibly in safeguarding the jewelry by placing it in a safe spot where it would not be found. Is he to be penalized for forgetting? How can he be culpable for loss of memory when he did not deliberately erase it from his mind?

Talmudic commentators discuss this conundrum and offer two possible explanations.

The first explanation holds the custodian culpable for the act of hiding the jewelry. Notwithstanding the correctness of his action at the time, his act led to the loss of the Jewelry.

In defense of this position commentaries offer the following example. Suppose your friend enters your home unbidden and sees jewelry lying around.  Concerned that it might get lost or stolen he places the jewelry in a safe spot, but then forgets where he put it. Though his intention was honorable, his act led to the loss of your valuables and he must be held accountable. This basic principle does not change when the act was performed in the context of custodianship instead of friendship. When it was first performed it was a proper act, but notwithstanding the noble intention, it led to financial loss. (2)

Other commentaries disagree with this position because hiding the jewelry was to the owner’s benefit; if the act was constructive when it was performed it cannot be deemed destructive post facto.

They therefore conclude that the custodian’s negligence derives from his obligation to his duty at all times. He hid the jewelry in keeping with his obligation, but his responsibility to the owner was not discharged with this single act. The obligation to care for the valuables and ensure their safety, which requires him to know their location at all times continues throughout the term of the custodianship. Forgetting its location is therefore not just forgetfulness, but dereliction of duty. (3)

The Concerned Friend

The practical difference between these two positions relates to the case of the concerned friend, who found his neighbor’s jewelry and hid it for him. responsible for a nation - innerstreamThe first opinion holds him liable for misplacing the jewelry. The second opinion  exonerates him. They do not hold him responsible for the concealment because that was a positive act nor for his forgetfulness because unlike the custodian, he was not charged with safeguarding the object and was not required to know its location at all times. (4)

The Chamberlain of Cupbearers

Joseph was framed and imprisoned in Egypt for a crime he did not commit. In prison he met and befriended Pharaoh’s Chamberlain of Cupbearers, who was imprisoned for a minor infraction of palace etiquette. The chamberlain dreamed a terrible dream and asked Joseph to interpret it. Joseph accurately interpreted the dream as an omen for the chamberlain’s imminent liberation. Just before the chamberlain was released Joseph begged him to intercede before Pharaoh on his behalf. However, the Torah informs us, the chamberlain, “did not remember him and he forgot him.” (5)

Addressing the curious redundancy, “did not remember and forgot,” the commentaries wrote that the chamberlain made no attempt to remember and therefore forgot. When I fear I might forget something I was asked to remember do I make a sign for myself. I might wear my watch on my left hand or leave my keys in my pocket rather than on their hook. This helps me remember that there is something I must not forget. In those days people commonly tied knots in their handkerchief to help them remember. However, the chamberlain made no effort to help him remember and he therefore forgot. (6)

The chamberlain was not Joseph’s custodian; he was not responsible for Joseph’s well being. We cannot hold him culpable for forgetting because, like the friend, he was under no obligation to remember. However, the fact that Joseph was so kind and helpful to him in prison placed a moral obligation on him to remember or at least, to make a sign, to help him remember. He did not sin by forgetting; in fact he had every intention of remembering. However, he did sin by failing to tie his handkerchief. This led to his forgetting and in that he was negligent. The verse thus reads, “He did not remember,” he made no effort to remember, which was sinful, “and he forgot” which in and of itself would not have been considered sinful.

The chamberlain recognized this himself. Two years later when he finally remembered Joseph the chamberlain prefaced his words to Pharaoh with the statement, “My sin I recall today.” (7) Our sages taught that the chamberlain was addressing his sin of tardiness. He realized that though it was not willful, it was still sinful for he had a moral obligation to repay Joseph’s kindness. (8)

You and I

The chamberlain was not responsible for Joseph; he was just an acquaintance. We, on the other hand, are directly responsible for each other. Just before our ancestors entered Israel G-d struck a covenant with the entire nation and declared that henceforth every Jew would be responsible for the moral, spiritual and material well being of his fellow. (9)

We are appointed by G-d to act as custodians of our brothers and sisters. When a fellow Jew is in need, be it spiritual or material we cannot fail to act. If forgetting Joseph was a sin for the chamberlain, who was not responsible for Joseph, how much more sinful is it for us, the true custodians?

Just as the custodian must be aware of his charge and of its location at all times so is it our responsibility to be aware of our brethren, their location and their needs at all times. Just as custodian is responsible for the safety and welfare of his charge so is it our responsibility to care for the safety and needs of our brethren. A custodian is not excused for having been overly preoccupied with other concerns nor for having simply forgotten. The same holds true for us.

Our brother’s needs are our needs. Our sisters’ interests are our interests. Custodianship is our moral duty. And our sacred privilege.


  1. Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia, 35a.
  2. Netivot Hamishpat, Choshen Mishpat 291:7.
  3. Imrei Shefer, ch. 24.
  4. Meorot Hadaf Hayomi p. 182.
  5. Genesis 40: 23.
  6. Abarbenel ibid. Note that the chamberlain is not
    entirely guilty. In fact, according to the Midrash, the chamberlain did
    attempt to tie a knot in his handkerchief, but the angel untied it so
    that Joseph’s salvation would come by the hand of G-d (orchestrated
    through Pharaoh’s dream) rather than by man.
  7. Genesis 41: 9-10.
  8. Bereishis Rabbah 89: 7
  9. Babylonian Talmud Sotah 37b and Sanhedrin 43b.
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