April 19, 2024
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Bearing Our Spiritual Arms

After a rollercoaster of drastic events, from almost being killed by his own blood brothers, to being thrown into a deadly pit, then being sold many times over to various people, Yosef finally lands and is taken in by Potiphar. Yosef had a special “siyata dishmaya,” and because of him, Potiphar’s estates were successful, and Potiphar thus appointed Yosef to be in charge of them. The very next pasuk says “and Yosef was very handsome and had a beautiful complexion,” and the very next pasuk introduces the incident involving Potiphar’s wife and Yosef. What’s the connections between these verses and events? Rashi explains that once Yosef attained authority (hence the promotion by Potiphar), he began to pay a little too much attention to himself and his physical features (hence the pasuk “and Yosef was handsome…”). Hashem said, you’re priding over your beauty while your very own father is mourning over you; I will bring the bear [Potiphar’s wife] out to incite you.

What does Yosef’s over interest in himself cause that he be tested with “the bear”? Here too, what’s the connection? The Midrash (B”R 87:3) describes a little more where Yosef was coming from by giving a parable: A “gibor” was standing in the marketplace preening his eyes, grooming his hair, elevating his physical stature to appear taller, proclaiming, “I am beautiful, handsome, and mighty.” The bystanders viewing this scene responded, “If indeed you are mighty and beautiful, there is a bear right here, go and conquer it.”

R’ Yerucham Levovitz asks: Wasn’t Yosef truly a gibor? Surely he was a phenomenal person, so him proclaiming he’s a gibor is accurate! Rav Yerucham therefore seems to indicate that the critique posed on Yosef is the fact that on some level he became complacent and he forwent the good fear one is to have in ruchniyut that propels one to constantly become stronger to overcome any obstacles and tests that may arise.

Indeed, a person is to always be on guard, and constantly growing. For feeling like one is a gibor—able to overcome any tests, or thinking that “I made it”—can stifle a person’s desire and motivation to achieve and improve, and thus causes complacency and self assurance. Yosef’s proclamation may have been accurate, but on some level it perhaps indicated a smug feeling about himself. We can therefore perhaps say that Hashem bringing out “the bear” on Yosef wasn’t necessarily a punishment, for maybe we can presume that Yosef already overcame many “bears” in his life thus far. Rather, once Yosef became complacent, even the typical bears that he already triumphed over in the past now seemed greater since Yosef on some level stopped growing spiritually and in character. And as we know, if one is not becoming stronger or at least resisting the current, he is in fact becoming weaker.

When Reuven went to the fields to find some “duda’im,” the pasuk says that it was during the harvest season. Why do we need to know what time of the year it was? Rashi explains that the Torah is teaching us the praise of the righteous: Although it was harvest season, Reuven nevertheless did not steal any wheat or barley but only took from things that were ownerless. This Rashi can raise some eyebrows—as if we are saying, “R’ Chaim Kanievsky is to be praised, for he does not steal things”! Is it a praise to say Reuven, one of the shevatim, did not violate something that even regular people are cautious of?!

R’ Moshe Feinstein explains that there is a tendency for people to become self assured that they would never violate something like stealing since it’s so severe. However, Rashi is teaching to not let our guard down even by something like stealing. The praise of Reuven is the fact that even though he was already so righteous, he didn’t become complacent and smug that he is free from falling to even a big-time transgression like stealing.

Thus we see that Reuven is commended for constantly devoting himself to self improvement—even toward an obvious and severe prohibition—despite his already lofty level.

In the period right before Chanukah developed, the Jews were under very harsh decrees. Why? Bach writes because the kohanim took it easy in regard to their performance of the avodah in the Beit Hamikdash.

Perhaps here as well, the kohanim—the role models of the Jewish people—may have also believed they were at a good place in their spiritual growth, and thus didn’t constantly strive to become greater.

The rectification of this came about through going to the opposite extreme—showing utmost devotion to Hashem: Matityahu and his sons put their lives at stake to battle the enemy in order so that they can once again perform the avodah in the Beit Hamikdash. The Bach writes, since they put their lives at stake in order to be able to once again perform the avodah, they merited to be recipients of the miracle of the oil that remained untouched (see Sifsei Chaim, Moadim, 2:38,48). (Perhaps we can say Yosef as well came around, putting his life at stake, realizing that by opposing Potiphar’s wife, she may have him killed by Potiphar [as we see from how she related to Potiphar an outrageous fabrication about Yosef].)

Chanukah is a time of strengthening our commitment and resolve to become better people and closer to Hashem. Taking it easy is easy, yet the lights of the menorah infuses us with the inspiration to approach Torah and mitzvot with devotion and enthusiasm, realizing that when we give more than we can to Hashem, Hashem can give more than expected to us.


Binyamin Benji is a graduate of Yeshivat Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan and Wurzweiler School of Social Work. He can be reached at [email protected].

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