PREPARE THE FESTIVAL OF HANUKKA
1. The position of the parasha
The last parasha taught us the 3rd mitzva, and we shall
have to wait till parasha Bo in the Book of Exodus before
coming to the 4th mitzva.
Vayeshev is the 9th of 12 parashiot in the Book of Bereshit.
We shall therefore soon conclude our exploration of the
fundamental bases of human creation which is the subject
of Bereshit, the "beginning."
Within this context, this
parasha teaches about the solitude and poverty that is
the lot of those who choose to live according to the Torah:
this applies to every Jew and the Jewish people itself.
Our great ancestors experienced this and the Torah describes
their moving stories so that we can understand what it
means to live according to the Torah, to live as Jews.
These are not idyllic stories, or stories of pure spiritualism:
they are stories that recount difficult choices in life.
When Rashi comments on the Torah, he does not simplify
the Torah as though he were writing for children. He analyzes
it with great rigor and always stresses, with a particularly
apt formula, the fundamental meaning of a verse. See his
commentary on verse 37, 2 which describes Joseph as a
naar, a young man:
"ve hu naar, she haya ose maase naarut
this means that he did all the things which young people
metaken bisearo memashmesh beeinav, kede she nire yafe
he fixed his hair, took care of his eyes, in order to
He writes this on the first
verse of the parasha:
Yaakov raa kol haalufim kakhetuvim lemaala, tama ve amar
mi yakhol likhbosh et kulam?
Yaakov, seeing all the princes listed above (in the last
verses of the preceding parasha), asks himself who could
possibly overcome them all.
With this one question, Rashi
throws light on the meaning of the whole parasha and on
issues that involve all of. Is this not what every Jew
says today about Israel, as a land and as a people, confronted
with the vastness of the Torah and the challenges of existence?
Themes of the parasha
" The descendants of
" Yosef's dream, the jealousy it arouses in his brothers
because of the destiny that it augurs. Their betrayal
of their brother, when they sell him to a stranger.
" The sin of Onan in refusing to procreate.
" Tamar's courage and will to have a child at any
" Yosef's journey to Egypt and the false accusation
against him by Potifar's wife
" Yosef is imprisoned but continues to find strength
in his dreams
" Yosef is forgotten in prison and betrayed by his
There are many difficulties
and many betrayals, all of which are encompassed in the
word "ger" in the first verse of the parasha:
vayeshev Yaakov beeretz megure aviv beretzkenaan
"And Jacob dwelt in the land of his father's sojournings
in the land of Canaan."
kol makom sheneemar vayeshev wino ella leshon tzaar
"every place where it is written vayeshev is only
a place of sorrow" (as in Bereshit 37, 25; Shemot
32, 6 etc.).
This is what we are going
(Read the parasha, with close
attention to these themes, in order to fully understand
the following commentaries)
Questions to see if you have
read the parasha in details
" At what age does Yosef's adventure begin?
" What did Yosef tell his father?
" How many dreams did Yosef tell his family and what
" What is the name of the brother who wanted to save
" What did Yaakov refuse to do?
" How was Paretz born?
" What did Potifar's wife use to accuse Yosef?
" What were the dreams of the butler and the baker?
" What was Yosef's interpretation?
" How do you understand verses 40, 14 and 40, 23?
meaning of the parasha
The meaning of a parasha is
usually found in the mitzva revealed in the parasha (there
is none in this one) or in the first verse. This is why
the title of a parasha is usually drawn from the first
words of the first verse. But in order to understand the
significance of these words, we must turn to the Sages.
I have chosen this time to
report in its entirety the commentary of Rabbenu Bahya,
in order to demonstrate the particular method of interpretation
of a Sage to whom I often refer.
Rabbenu Bahya opens his commentary on the parasha with
a quotation from the proverbs of King Solomon (Shlomo
hamelekh), which enables us to fully understand the first
verse of the parasha and thus the meaning of the whole
parasha. The Proverbs are not a simple collection of moral
dictums; indeed they hold the key to the meaning of the
Torah and to life itself.
I quote below the full translation of Rabbenu Bahya's
commentary (noting in addition detailed references which
are not in his text, for he imagined that everyone knew
the Bible by heart!). These references are found in the
remarkable edition published by Mosad HaRav Cook.
The complete commentary of
Al-tighzal-dal ki dal-hu
veal-tedake ani vashaar
"Rob not the poor because he is poor,
neither oppress the afflicted in the gate.
Ki-Hashem yariv rivam
vekava et-kovehem nafesh
For Hashem will plead their cause
and spoil the soul of those that spoiled them" (Proverbs
King Solomon tells us here
what punishment is reserved for those who steal from the
There are 4 groups of people which the Torah commands
us to treat with rahamim (mercy) and not to do them ill.
These are: the poor, the orphaned, the widowed and the
converted (gerim). (cf the meaning of the word ger).
The passage which refers to
these 4 groups in one verse is Devarim 16, 1:
ve samahta behagekha, And
thou shalt rejoice in thy feast (Succot),
ata u vinekha uvitekha veavdekha va amatekha, thou, and
thy son, and thy daughter, and they manservant and thy
ve hallevi vehager hehayatom ve hallmana, and the Levite,
the stranger, the fatherless and the widow,
asher bisherakekha, that are within thy gates. (Read all
Our Sages comment (Rashi 16, 11): "four who are for
me and four who are for you." If what is mine is
blessed with joy, then I will bless what is yours with
1. The poor
The Levites represent the poor for they were not given
a part of the land of Israel, but they benefit from what
is offered to Hashem and they are the wealth of Hakadosh
Barukh Hu, as is written: "blessed Hashem his wealth."
Hakadosh Barukh Hu is their
part: "I am thy part and thine inheritance"
(Bemidbar 18, 20).
The Torah teaches us how to
treat the poor both through positive and negative mitzvot.
The positive mitzvot:
" naton titen, thou shalt surely give (Devarim 15,
" thou shalt surely open thy hand (Devarim 15, 8)
The negative mitzvot:
" and thy heart shalt not be grieved when thou givest
unto him (Devarim 15, 10)
" thou shalt not..shut thy hand from thy needy brother
(Devarim 15, 7)
After setting out the negative
commandment "thou shalt not steal" (Vayikra
19, 13), which applies to everyone, the Torah does not
feel the need to specify that one must not steal from
the poor, but rather that one must give. This is why,
in his wisdom, Shlomo Hamelekh, stresses the negative
commandment and the punishment reserved for those who
steal from the poor.
Shlomo does not add a mitzva to those set out by Moshe,
but chooses instead to place a seyag, a protective fence
around the Torah, saying: "do not rob from the poor
because he is poor," though he should not have needed
to specify this, for one should not steal even from the
The sad reality
But he judged that this had to be stressed, for it is
a fact that one steals more easily from the poor as they
do not have guards or lawyers to protect or plead for
them, as do the rich. And people hate and spurn the poor,
as is written in Proverbs 19, 7:
kol ahe-rash seneuhu
All the brethren of the poor do hate him,
af ki mereehu rahaku memenu
how much more do his friends go far from him!
Meradef amarim, lo-hemma
he pursueth them with words, yet they are wanting to him."
This is why it is written:
"do not rob the poor because he is poor." The
poor person is helpless and everyone knows that no one
will come to his aid or defense.
The poor person's only succor
But there is someone who will come to his defense and
this is Hakadosh Barukh Hu. He will plead his case and
will severely punish those who steal from him, not with
a fine, but with a cruel punishment that strikes the very
soul of the thief; for the verse uses the word nefesh
which encompasses the whole person.
2. Orphans and widows
There are many verses in the Torah that deal with orphans
Shemot 22, 21: "kol almana veyatom lo teanun, ye
shall not afflict any widow or fatherless child."
Our Sages elaborated: "even the widow of a king and
even the orphans of a king."
The reason is that anyone who is orphaned or widowed suffers
greatly and is very vulnerable to being exploited.
The Torah goes on to stress this commandment, by repeating
im ene teane ot ki im tzaok yitsak elai
"And if thou afflict them in any wise, and they cry
at all unto me, I will surely hear their cry," (Shemot
ki yitzak elai veshamati ki-hanun ani
"And it shall come to pass that when he crieth unto
me, that I shall hear; for I am gracious," (Shemot
Indeed, all other people can defend themselves against
those who afflict them, but the widow and the orphan have
no savior and cannot turn to anyone except Hakadosh Barukh
This is why Hakadosh Barukh Hu hears them and takes up
their cause and acts in their defense. This is why it
is written in Mishle 23, 10-11 (Proverbs): (look up the
text and write the verses in).
3. The gerim
The gerim are mentioned in numerous passages in the Torah:
"Thou shalt neither vex a stranger (ger) nor oppress
him; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt"
(Shemot 22, 20).
The Sages add: "you have understood in your hearts
what it means to be a ger: veatem yedatem et nefesh hager."
The text does not say"
you have understood what is a ger" but "you
have understood what is the spiritual condition (nefeshj)
of being a ger" which is to be downtrodden, dominated
and oppressed, with eyes always turned towards Hakadosh
This is why the Sages say: if someone is the son of a
ger, do not remind him of his ancestors and what they
did. If he wants to study the Torah, do not say: "what!
the mouth that ate non-kosher animals now wants to learn
what has come out of the mouth of Hashem!"
You will say none of these things, for you two were gerim
moum shebekha, al tomar lehaverekha
"the impurity which is in your heart, do not attribute
it to your friend (Tractate Baba Metzia 59 b).
The greatness of the gerim
Indeed, the tzaddikim, the righteous men are called gerim.
The word ger comes from the verb gargir (to scatter, to
pick) what is separate. The tzaddik sees himself as unique
(yahid), a solitary, special person, who does not have
any earthly dwelling and considers any dwelling he does
have as temporary (arei).
This is why David says of himself (Psalem 119, 19):
ger anokhi vaaretz al-taster mimmeni mitzvotekha
"I am a ger in the earth; hide not thy commandments
He described himself as a ger who has to move from place
to place, and who never knows when he has to leave. Since
he never knows this, he must always have his provisions
And what are these "provisions" (tzeda)? They
are the realization of the mitzvot and this is why David
says: "hide not thy commandments from me."
The patriarchs are also described
Of Avraham, it is written:
ger ve toshav anokhi imakhem
"I am a stranger and a sojourner with you" (Bereshit
Of Yitzhak, it is written:
"I am a stranger on this earth" (Bereshit 26,
Of Yaakov, see the first verse
of this parasha.
(conclusion of Rabbenu Bahya's
The deeper level of meaning
In order to fully understand the importance of these concepts
at the critical moment in history when Jacob, the father
of the 12 tribes, founded the Jewish people, we need to
listen to what the Sages teach us about their deeper meanings.
There are two important points:
" The ger connects the impure with the pure. This
is needed in order to better the world, and this is the
task of man. For this reason, the Jews descended into
Egypt, and this is also why Yaakov loved Esav. This is
also why it is impossible not to love all men, even if
they are different. And this is why the inclusion of the
gerim among the Jewish people is a good thing. (Refer
to the file on Conversion and to Shaar Hagilgulim, Introduction
" a ger who becomes a ger tzaddik achieves total
kedusha. This level is so great the the Ari zal shows,
in respect of Psalm 119, 9, that the gematria for the
word ger is the same as the combined gematria for Hashem,
Elokim and Adonut. These concepts are too complex to be
analyzed in detail here: I refer to them simply in order
to show the depths of their meaning. Those who wish to
delve more into them, must study with a rabbi. There is
no other way, for all shortcuts are meaningless, and the
only true way is the long one.
Ribbi Yaakov Abuhatzera's commentary
Ribbi Abuhatzera wonders why the first verse of the parasha
refers to Yaakov's ancestors. He then shows that the Torah
wants to stress here the great devotion with which Yaakov
kept the mitzvot.
Yaakov's life was a veritable kiddush Hashem, for he devoted
it completely to Hashem.
Avraham also demonstrated kiddush Hashem when he accepted
to sacrifice Yitzhak.
Yitzhak demonstrated kiddush Hashem in his submission
to the akeda.
Yaakov demonstrated kiddush Hashem by his great integrity
and devotion to the mitzvot during his stay with Laban,
and despite having to wait many years for his self-fulfillment.
This period of waiting testifies to kiddush Hashem.
This should give hope to all those who have to wait a
long time before they fulfill their deepest desires.
There is so much to reflect on in this text that readers
can now re-read it in a new perspective, then proceed
to the exercises below and finally exchange ideas with
those close to you.
Examine your conduct and thoughts towards the poor, and
try to correct both your thoughts and your acts as prescribed
in the Torah.
Find a verse in the parasha which you particularly like
and learn it in Hebrew and in English.
Identify where in the Torah the patriarchs are described
as gerim. Refer to Avraham. Read Bereshit 47, 4: Shemot
18, 3: Psalms 33, 13, etc.
- look up the references cited in this commentary
- Mishle (Proverbs) 19, 1-7
- For advanced students: Mekhilta on Mishpatim 22 and