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Home » Vayeshev

Vayeshev: Jewish Survival

Submitted by on November 20, 2021 – 8:39 pmNo Comment | 962 views

What is the secret that has enabled the Jewish survival over two thousand years of our diaspora?

Two weeks ago, we read about Jacob’s sojourn in his uncle Laban’s home. Last week we read about Jacob’s harrowing return journey home. Among many other challenges, he encountered his brother Esau, and they made peace. We concluded the reading by describing the many chieftains in Esau’s powerful clan.

This week we read about Jacob settling down in Israel. The reading begins with the words, “And Jacob settled in the land where his father resided, in the land of Canaan.” The Torah then shifts immediately to Joseph’s life journey. First his squabbles with his brothers, then being sold to the Egyptians, and finally his imprisonment in Egypt for a crime he did not commit.

Our sages wondered why the Torah’s narrative shifts so suddenly and dramatically from Jacob to Joseph. Now that Jacob finally settled in Israel, we would have wanted to hear about his life in Israel and his reunion with his father. But the Torah is mum on the subject and shifts to Joseph.

The Spark
Our sages explained it by way of a parable. A flax dealer’s camels entered the town laden with flax. Worried that he might need to surrender his smithery to make space for the flax, the blacksmith wondered aloud where the town would find space for all the flax. A wise man observed, “with one spark from your bellows, you can burn it all.”

The analog: After his encounter with Esau and all the powerful chieftains in Esau’s clan, Jacob feared for his family. How will they survive, how will the legend of Abraham, the legend of G-dliness and holiness, survive the powerful opposition of Esau’s clan?

G-d reassured Jacob by reminding him that he was the father of Joseph. The prophet Obadiah said, “And the house of Jacob shall be a spark, and the house of Joseph a flame, and the house of Esau shall become stubble.”[1] One spark from Joseph can take down the entire house of Esau. The Torah shifts from Jacob to Joseph to reassure us that we have no reason to fear Esau because Joseph will take a spark from the house of Jacob and build it into a flame that will consume Esau.

Among The Nations
Let’s review this from a historical perspective. G-d dispersed our people to countries around the world. Many nations were kind to us, but most use their power to oppress us. In Babylon, Rome, Persia, Greece, Spain, Germany, England, and France, Jews suffered at the hands of barbarians. Each of these nations was powerful and aggressive. In each, Jews worried as Jacob did, how will we survive?

And the answer is, by the spark of Jacob and the flame of Joseph. What is this spark we speak of? It is the spark of unity. Despite everything his brothers did to him, Joseph responded to his brothers with love. When he became viceroy of Egypt, he embraced them, gathered them in, and provided for them. When they tried to apologize to him, he would have none of it. It was not your doing, he told them, it was all from G-d. He wanted me to be in Egypt so that I might rescue you.

In this, Jacob followed his father’s example. When Jacob returned from Laban’s home laden with prosperity, he did not grow haughty. He could have hired a mercenary army and pursued Esau with force. Instead, he proclaimed to G-d, your blessings have humbled me. Humble people don’t persecute others. The humble seek peace and tranquility, and he reached out to Esau with love.

Jacob and Joseph represent the unending endurance of the Jewish people. We survive because we don’t allow our power and wealth to corrupt us. On the contrary, it humbles us. From a base of humility, we march forward through history in unity. And where there is unity, there is endurance and strength because one stands for all and all stand for one.

The nations that persecuted us allowed their success and power to get to their heads. They were drunk with power and aggressive in wielding it. In this sense, they were like Esau.

Alef Bet
Esau had few sons, yet each built a separate empire. Each son carved out his own fiefdom and became a chieftain. It comes as no surprise that their children refused to remain in their fathers’ fiefdoms. As they grew up, each carved out a territory of his own and became his own chieftain.

The Hebrew word that the Torah employs to describe their chieftains is aluf—leader. The word aluf begins with the letter alef—one. Indeed, everyone in Esau’s family wanted to be the alpha male. Each wanted to be at the top. Each wanted to lead. They had great power, but their fragmentation hampered their ability to exercise it. It is fascinating that the word aluf begins with the same letter as the word arur—cursed. When powerful leaders can’t get along with other powerful leaders, they self-destruct.

Each of the countries we mentioned earlier that persecuted the Jews, was weakened by war against other countries. They were unable to cooperate with others. Tensions led to violence and wars that they eventually lost. By contrast, the Jewish people, who follow the Torah, are still here.

The Torah begins with the word bereshit, a word that begins with the letter bet—two. This represents the willingness to cooperate; to submit to others when prudent and to be number two when necessary. Humble people tend to see others in the best possible light, and they cooperate. Arrogant people tend to see others in the worst possible light, and they compete.

It is fascinating that the word berachah—blessing, begins with the letter bet. When nations, organizations, families, and individuals compete for supremacy, they are cursed. When they are humble, united, relaxed, and cooperative, they are blessed.

A load that can’t be lifted alone, can be lifted when it is shared with others. We, the Jewish people have each other. No matter where we are from, we are family. Like a family, we often squabble and play silly games. But when we need each other, we don’t jostle for position and fight for supremacy. We stand together and are there for each other.

This trait—the trait of Jacob and Joseph, has sustained us for thousands of years while our enemies have faded with time. It is our sacred task and awesome privilege to do all that we can to preserve our unity as we reach the end of our journey.

Mashiach is nearly here; he will arrive any day now. Let’s net allow petty squabbles and vane jealousies to tear us apart. We are much better than that. Let’s move forward as one family to greet Mashiach. And when we do, Mashiach will move forward to greet us. Amen.[2]

[1] Obadiah 1:8. This analogy is cited by Rashi ad loc and is from Midrash Tanchumah, Vayeshev 1.

[2] This essay is based on Chidushei Harim on Genesis 37:1