Rosh Hodesh Kislev Torah Essay
During the month of Kislev, we will read the parshiot that introduce the story of Yosef. On Shabbat Chanukah, we read parshat Vayeshev and with it, our introduction to Yosef’s dreams, his descent to Mitzrayim, his experience in the house of Potiphar, and his time interpreting dreams while incarcerated.
While it is clear from the pesukim that Yosef’s brothers have treated him terribly, it is also evident that Yosef is not entirely innocent. From the beginning of the story (37:2) we learn of Yosef’s bringing evil reports of his brothers to Yaakov and the retelling of his dreams of leadership to his brothers, to which they retort: “Do you mean to reign over us? Do you mean to rule over us?” We encounter Yosef resplendent in his כתונת פסים, his royal garment, going to look for his brothers at the behest of his father. We know that the cloak was bequeathed to him because he was his father’s favorite, but did he really need to wear it to go look for his brothers in Dotan? It certainly seems like Yosef is intentionally pushing his brothers’ buttons! He has been granted gifts, both physical and spiritual, but he does not yet seem to know how to channel them properly; nor is he crediting anyone other than himself for all that he has.
Later in the narrative, Yosef is sold to Potiphar, the chief executioner of Pharaoh (Targum) and is put in charge of his household. Prior to the story of Potiphar’s wife seducing Yosef, the Torah reminds us of Yosef’s physical gifts saying: “ויהי יוסף יפה תאר ויפה מראה’’ – “Yosef was well built and handsome”. Commentators note that telling us this particular fact about Yosef at this moment is a bit odd. Why didn’t we learn this about Yosef’s beauty when we first met him? Rashi on this pasuk cites the Midrash Tanchuma and comments: כיון שראה עצמו מושל, התחיל אוכל ושותה ומסלסל בשערו. אמר הקב״ה: אביך מתאבל ואתה מסלסל בשערך, אני מגרה בך את הדוב. מיד: ותשא אשת אדוניו וגומ׳. As soon as he saw that he was ruler (in the house), he began to eat and drink and curl his hair. Hashem said to him, “Your father is mourning and you curl your hair! I will let a bear loose against you.” Immediately the wife of Potiphar is unleashed.
Rashi points out the self-centered nature of Yosef the teenager. He is too enamoured by his gifts and looks to think about the real reason why he might be blessed to have them, let alone to think about his suffering father or the G-d who is the source of his blessings. Slowly, however, throughout this parsha and the next, Yosef begins to see beyond himself and recognize who he is supposed to be and how he is supposed to behave. In jail, he credits Hashem with providing the interpretations of the dreams of the butler and baker, and when his brothers come down to Egypt, he recognizes that it was Hashem who orchestrated that he be sent there earlier. The Torah portrays the character development of Yosef, from a self-centered talented adolescent, to a man who ultimately credits his gifts to Hashem and channels them properly. Yosef the “na’ar” becomes “Yosef HaTzadik,” the righteous one, and channels his talents to ensure the survival of his family and the land of Egypt from famine.
With this perspective of Yosef in mind, I find that reading Parashat Vayeshev on Shabbat Erev (eve of ) Chanukah this year is quite apropos. While Channuka is indeed a joyous celebration of Am Yisrael’s ability to rededicate the Mikdash after it was defiled by the Seleucid Greeks, it cannot escape us that it was a rededication because we had lost our way. As is sadly repeated numerous times in our ancient history, we had become too enamoured with our own power and too secure in our position in Eretz Yisrael. Our leaders were focused on pursuing their self-interests and our spiritual leaders became corrupted as well. Like teenage Yosef, Am Yisrael was not cognizant enough of Hashem’s role in their success.
We are so blessed to have the merit and ability to live during a time when Am Yisrael is once again firmly rooted in Eretz Yisrael and Torat Yisrael has never before been more accessible. Our true power as a nation and as leaders is in our recognition that we are actually not in control. During this season of sharing light, may we illuminate and uplift others with the gifts bestowed upon us by Hashem as we continue to share our values and teachings as an אור לגוים – a light upon ourselves and the other nations.
Shabbat Shalom, Chodesh tov & Chanukah Sameach!