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Sotah 9a-14a: Israel’s Destiny

“Vayeseh Yaakov be’eretz meguri aviv,” the word “meguri” is in the plural, because Yitzchak—like Avraham before him—was constantly moving between Be’er Sheva and Hebron, never settling down in one place. Avraham and Yitzchak always thought of themselves as geirim (strangers) wherever they resided, because they understood that the land of Canaan—later to be called “Eretz Yisrael,”—did not yet belong to them. They never forgot that they were living in the diaspora called “Canaan,” and yearned for the time when the land would belong to them.

Once Yaakov returned home to Canaan, from the 20 years he had spent living like a stranger in Lavan’s domain, “im Lavan garti,” he felt comparatively comfortable. He forgot the injunction of the Torah, “U’vagoyim haheym lo targia—you should not become too comfortable in the diaspora and if you do, you will be driven out of your comfort zone and live under harsher conditions.” Because Yaakov felt like a citizen of Canaan—instead of a foreigner there—he set in motion the “Toldot,” the events that began with a quarrel between Yosef and his brothers and culminated with their descent to Egypt.

“Yisroel loved Yosef more than all his sons since he was a child of his old age and made him a coat of many colors.” How could Yaakov—who had suffered from the favoritism his father showed Eisav—repeat the same mistake and favor Yosef? Was he not aware of the prohibition of “Le’olam al yeshaneh adam beno bein habanim,” a person should never favor one child over the other?

“Yisroel said to Yosef, your brothers are tending to the sheep in Shechem, I will send you to them.” How could Yaakov—who knew that the brothers hated Yosef—send him to Shechem to be alone with them? And to Shechem of all places—the town where Dina was tortured—and which had a reputation of being a dangerous city?

The answer is that it was not Yaakov, in his individual capacity, who did these things. It was “Yisroel,”—in his national capacity, that did them. That is why it says “Yisroel” loved Yosef over his brothers and “Yisroel” sent Yosef to Shechem, not Yaakov. And that is why the Torah tells us, “Vayishlacheihu me’emek Chevron,” which means, “Me’eitzah Amukah shel oto tzaddik hakavur beChevron,” he was sent on account of the profound prophecy imparted to Avraham earlier at the bris bein habetarim that the people of Israel were destined to go down to Egypt and would be strangers and oppressed for 400 years.

Yaakov’s actions as the leader of Yisrael were being controlled by God in order to bring about His master plan of “Anochi Hashem Elokecha asher hotzeitichah mei’eretz mitzraim.” Being slaves in Egypt was a precondition to the implementation of God’s ultimate plan of giving the Torah to the Jews. The essence of the Torah is, “Ve’ahavta le’reiachah kamochah—love your neighbor as yourself.” One can only do that if one has experienced oppression, “You must show love toward the foreigner since you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.”

Sometimes—in order to achieve His goal—God takes over the minds of wise men and makes their thinking foolish, “Meishiv chachamim achor veda’atam yisokel.” The same thing happened to Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai who—when given the opportunity to ask Vespasian for anything he wanted—asked for Yavneh and its sages to be saved when he could have asked for Jerusalem to be saved. Like Yaakov before him—who was involuntarily fulfilling God’s plan of sending the Jews to Egypt—Rabban Yochan Ben Zakai was involuntarily fulfilling God’s plan of destroying Jerusalem and sending the Jews into exile.

What does that say about freedom of choice? Was Yaakov’s mind entirely taken over? No, not really. We are told that Yaakov had good reason to favor Yosef, “Ki ben zekunim hu lo.” He thought his older sons would treat Yosef as their baby pet brother too, rather than be jealous of him. And as for sending Yosef to Shechem, Yaakov thought that Shechem was a brotherly city. After all, it was in Shechem that Shimon and Levy went to war to save their sister Dinah from captivity. Surely Shimon and Levy—who showed such brotherly love to their sister, Dinah—would not harm their baby brother Yosef? Yaakov was not entirely blind to the danger. He was, so to speak, in two minds about it. In weighing up the two opposing courses of action, whether to treat Yosef more favorably than the others, or whether to send him to his brothers or not, he made the wrong choice. But, it was still his choice. And that is where God stepped in, and used Yaakov’s mistake to further His master plan.

Another way of explaining it is as follows. In controlling Yaakov’s actions, God was being kind to him because if Yaakov would not have gone down to Egypt voluntarily out of love for his son, Yosef, he would have been forced to go there, since this was destined to happen. Yaakov was destined to go down to Egypt in iron chains, however his great merit caused him to escape this fate as it is written, bonds of love will take him there.”

For us, the lesson to be derived from Yaakov is that one should never—leolam—under any circumstances—favor one child over the other, even where there is some rational justification to do so. One never knows how the other children will take it.

The story of Yosef is interrupted by the story of Yehuda and Tamar. This is because God prepared a remedy before the onset of the ailment. The seeds of Mashiach Ben David, who descends from the union of Yehudah and Tamar and who will, ultimately, liberate the Jews from the diaspora, were planted even before the exile to Egypt began.

In order for the kingdom of David Hamelech to endure and not be eroded by hubris and conceit, David had to descend from a flawed pedigree, from the less than perfect union of Yehudah and Tamar. It was this genealogical flaw that enabled David to say, “But I am a worm and not a man, scorn of humanity and despised of nations.” As such, when accused of wrongdoing, he could immediately confess to Natan the prophet, I have sinned before God. Sha’ul on the other hand, who tried to justify his actions, had his kingdom torn away from him. What helped David to hold on to his kingdom was what Chazal call his kupat sheratzim, his box of imperfections. He did not believe in the divine right of kings. He was the product of a tainted union and the descendant of a convert to Judaism. That tempered his self-esteem.

That leadership must to be tempered with humility in order to survive is also learned from the story of Yosef. “Veyosef Hurad Mitzraima,” Yosef was brought down to Egypt. Before becoming viceroy of Egypt, he was humbled; he had to serve time in jail. The word “hurad” comes from the root “red” which has two meanings. It can mean to go down. Yaakov tells his sons, “Redu shama—go down to Egypt.” But, it can also mean to rule, “U’redu bidegat hayam,” man is told that “he will rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky.” Indeed, a perquisite to an enduring reign is to be brought down from one’s pedestal before one is elevated to the throne.


Raphael Grunfeld, a partner at the Wall Street law firm of Carter Ledyard & Milburn LLP, received semicha in Yoreh Yoreh from Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem of America and in Yadin Yadin from Harav Haga’on Dovid Feinstein, zt”l, whose commentary on Bereishit informed this article.

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