Rabbi's weekly Blog

Be Yosef

“Every week one should live with the weekly parasha, and learn from it for our lives. Sometimes one has to delve deeply into the words of the commentators and put some effort into studying it in order to understand what is being said and its connection to our lives, but in the parashas of Vayeshev and Miketz, which deal with the life of Yosef Hatzaddik, there is no need to expend effort and delve deeply. If we just translate the story into Yiddish or into any other language we understand, one can acquire from Yosef instructions and guidance as to how a Jew is supposed to behave.” This is how the Rebbe started his discourse on the weekly parasha on Shabbat parashat Vayeshev, 5728 (1967). 

Following that introduction, the Rebbe continued to describe Yosef’s trials and travails in flowery language (tzuros un churbanos) – how he was sold as a slave, and as Yosef himself described it, “For I was surely stolen from the land of the Hebrew.” He was torn away suddenly from his father and grandfather, and from his natural environment in general, and he had to learn skills, ways of life and methods of survival that were foreign to him. 

His grandfather, Yitzchak, who had lived in a protected environment most of his life, certainly never needed this kind of life wisdom. Even his father Yaakov, who had been alone in Lavan’s house for 20 years, didn’t have to cope the way Yosef had to. For Yaakov, even though he was in Charan, from the moment that he built his home with his wives and children was in charge of his life, at least in regard to everything connected to his private home. He ran his house as he saw fit, to the point that he could say, “I lived with Lavan and observed the 613 mitzvot” (Rashi). But Yosef for many years did not have a household of his own – he didn’t even have a private abode at all. At the beginning he was a slave in the home of his master, and afterwards he was in prison and so on. 

And all this through no fault of his own. He went through trouble after trouble. His situation got worse from moment to moment. First he was in the pit, then he was sold to the Yishmaelim and the Midyanim, and they sold him to the Egyptians. Try to imagine how slaves used to be sold, and imagine a seventeen-year old lad, orphaned and pampered, all alone in a strange land, and finally bought by Potiphar. I would expect him to be resentful and sad, in despair, bitter. But no. Yosef got up every morning and worked faithfully for his master, not like a miserable wretch, but like a successful person, and he was, indeed, very successful. But the troubles didn’t leave him. Again, in the same way, not only did Potiphar not thank him for his work, but he even threw him into jail even though he was innocent – and even more so, he was thrown into jail because he didn’t want to abuse his master’s trust in him. Did he become bitter and resentful in the jail? Not there, either. There, too, he arose every morning like new and did what he thought was the right thing and was very successful at it, to the point that he became the manager of the jail. And the story repeats itself; he helps the king’s cupbearer by interpreting his dream, and he has only one request: Mention me to Pharaoh. Not money, not gifts – nothing that will cost you anything or necessitate any effort. But the cupbearer forgot about him the very next morning. 

So passed a few years of disappointment from the world: suffering, humiliation and shameful behavior of people. I would have expected him to give up on this world, to run away from people and go live alone in the desert. But no, Yosef continued to run his life as he saw fit. And the reason for that was that Yosef had grown up in a home that had taught him one central thing: that everything that happens in the world comes from Divine Providence, and everything has a reason, and as he himself said to his brothers when they were afraid that he would pay them in kind: “it was not you who sent me here, but G-d.” When a person lives with such a deep awareness, nothing that happens to him can knock him down. 

This is the central message for anyone who reads Yosef’s life story. Everyone has the possibility of collapsing, giving up and being sad as he tries to cope with difficulties and challenges, and there is also the possibility of lifting up one’s head, looking forward and understanding that everything has a reason and a goal – like Yosef did. 

In the book “Hayom-Yom” for the 1st of Cheshvan, the Rebbe spells this out even more: Since Hashsem said to Avraham Avinu “Go forth from you land etc.” the secret of beirurim (extracting) started, and by the decree of the superior Providence, a person goes his ways in the places where the sparks that need to be discovered by him are waiting for their salvation. 

Be Yosef.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

When our Son was supposed to fly to a summer camp

One of the children that Hashem has entrusted us with, so that we will educate him and raise him for Torah and Chuppah and good deeds, is a particularly sensitive one; I would say he is naive and pure. When he was supposed to fly to a summer camp in a different country for three weeks, we were very concerned. Flying alone (though we did make sure that he would be entrusted to a flight attendant, but he was really flying alone) and staying in a strange place for three weeks seemed to us to be too much for him. Who knows what other children would be there – would they hurt him, and if so, how would he respond? Suffice it to say that it reached the point that we considered not sending him. But then we understood that that would be a mistake, because we won’t be able to protect him forever. It might even cause him harm in the long run, for sooner or later he will have to go out and face the world. And the world outside, as everyone knows, does not always welcome you with a red carpet. We understood that we had no choice – we must let go and allow him to cope alone. Difficult – but that’s life.

We had some deep conversations with him, being careful not to blacken the world and life for him. We explained to him situations that he might encounter. We described to him situations of insults, laughter, mocking and others that he might encounter. We did all this in order to hear from him how, in his opinion, he should respond. I told him stories from my own life and childhood, how I had been hurt, and difficult days I had had, and how I had responded. The principle idea was: you are the one who decides what will hurt you and what not; you are the one to decide how to respond to an attack or an insult, and always, always, before responding, even before you burst into tears or are badly insulted, you should go aside and have a cup of water, calm down and tell yourself: I won’t let anyone or anything ruin the day for me!

Every year, when parashat Vayetze comes around, I think about this. Rivka and Yitzchak send Yaakov from Charan, called by Chazal the “Charon af” – anger – of Hashem. It is enough to be somewhat familiar with Yaakov’s dear uncle in order to understand that his stay in Charan was going to be very challenging for a “wholesome man, a tent-dweller” like Yaakov. And what did they send with him for the journey? What emotional strengths did they give him? How much did they worry about him for so many years? Spending 22 years far away and alone is not an enjoyable three-week summer camp. 

True, living with Esav had hardened him more than a bit. There are those who will say that his mother, when sending him to impersonate Esav and receive the blessings, was really teaching him how to get along with cheats such as Lavan; after all, who knew Lavan like she did? He also learned Torah and observed the mitzvot, and that is surely strengthening; and then there were those ascending and descending angels who accompanied him on his way. 

And still, I thought that there was one essential thing in Yaakov’s education, and that was the fact that he came from a home that did what seemed right, without relating to what the surrounding culture had to say. His grandfather, Avraham, was the person who invented the famous Jewish Chutzpah. He never got to know Sarah, but he surely heard stories about her courage in going with Avraham to an unfamiliar land – one couple facing the whole world. He saw his father, Yitzchak, behaving proudly and confidently towards Avimelech. And his mother – from age three she knew to choose right and not to be impressed by what the rest of the world had to say. Growing up in a home like that meant growing up with an inner strength that no wind could sway. 

And indeed, when we read the rest of the story in the Torah, there are no surprises. Life in Charan was very challenging for Yaakov. “Whether it was stolen by day or by night,” he said, describing in four words his life beside his uncle; but he got through it all courageously and successfully.

What happened to Yaakov happened to many thousands of his offspring throughout the generations. His handling of the situations was and still is and inspiration for the following generations; it would be good to take it on as an inspiration for us, too. 

Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

No child is born evil, and Esav, too, was not born evil

 In this age of WhatsApp various proverbs are passed around within the groups. It is always fascinating to me to watch the power of mass media: according to the number of times that you get these words of wisdom from different sources, you can understand the extent to which they touched, amused or merely interested the public.

One of the more special ones, which appeared repeatedly last week, says: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” It’s obvious why this is going from group to group, for who of us is not fighting a battle that only he knows about? Who doesn’t have a challenge that is his alone?

I thought about this in the context of the story of Yaakov and Esav, who are born in this week’s Parasha. I don’t know about Yaakov, but Esav certainly would have agreed with this sentence, and would done a “cut and paste” with it.

Both of them were born in a special, elevated household. The two of them were together already in Rivkah’s womb, and even started to fight there: “The children agitated within her.”

Chazal tell us that each one of them pulled in a different direction. Yaakov’s nature was to be “a wholesome man, living in tents”; he felt pulled to any place where there was good, holiness and spirituality. In contrast to that, Esav was a person who “knows hunting”; he felt pulled towards anything material, earthly – and to evil as well.

No child is born evil, and Esav, too, was not born evil. He just came into the world with a challenge very different from that of Yaakov. The role of Esav in the world was not to do evil acts – not at all. No – Esav came into the world with the special goal of dealing with this material world, sifting through it, correcting it, bringing it to a state of holiness. He also received special tools: “A man who knows hunting”. That is a man who has the ability to hunt down materiality, pick out the good from the bad, as one picks out the wheat kernels form the chaff covering it. This is a sublime role, but not at all easy, apparently.

Yitzchak Avinu knew the sentence spinning through WhatsApp. He knew that Esav was fighting a war that no one else knew about it, and he was kind to him. “Yitzchak loved Esav because game was in his mouth”. Yitzchak recognize Esav’s potential. He knew that he had the power to hunt, and he understood that that is his challenge, so he loved him, accepted him and tried to be there for him so that he would succeed in his task in this world.

Friends, we should learn from Yitzchak.

A moment before we judge people, badmouth them or condemn them, it would be good to remember to “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” 


Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

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