Insight on the Weekly Torah Reading: V'yeshev

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Dispelling Darkness

By Michael Chessen

This week's reading of V'yeshev is the first of two Chanukah Shabbats this year. Whereas next week's reading of Mikketz only falls on Chanukah in special "double" years such as this, V'yeshev always falls on the "Festival of Lights", and very aptly so because this Torah portion has much in common with the holiday.

V'yeshev commences the final phase of the book of Genesis, that which sets the stage for Jacob's family becoming the Jewish people awaiting redemption as "strangers in a land that is not theirs", as foretold to Abraham in the "Covenant of the Halves" (Genesis 15:13). Between these events, however, there are a number of other events which give hint to other future developments in Jewish history.

When Isaac is bound on Mt. Moriah as a sacrifice, the entire future existence of the Jewish people appears to be in peril, until God reveals the horn tangled ram as the "proper" sacrifice. In a much later period of our history, in other physically threatening circumstances, the salvation of the Jewish people would lead to the establishment of the holiday of Purim.

While Isaac seems not to have feared on Mt. Moriah, years later, after he had blessed his son Jacob in the guise of Esau and the actual Esau then subsequently appears, Isaac is then "seized with a violent fit of trembling"(Gen. 27:33). As Rabbi Isaac Bernstein points out, Isaac realizes that he had been fooled by Esau's "verbal entrapments" and the thought that future generations might similarly be spiritually led astray by either words or deeds aroused fear within him in a manner that the threat of physical destruction could not. Many years later the holiday of Chanukah would commemorate the spiritual salvation of the Jewish people from the Greeks, who had sought not to physically harm us, but to simply "neutralize" Judaism.

In this week's Torah reading, Joseph's brothers perceive him, or more precisely, his dreams, as a threat to their physical existence. Accordingly, they begin to plot to neutralize him by slaying him. Upon reflection of the gravity that this sin would potentially carry, the brothers decide that they can achieve the same ends by settling for the "compromise" of throwing Joseph into "an empty pit with no water"(Gen. 37:24). Rashi's commentary here explains that the significance of the Torah's need to inform us that an empty pit was without water is that in the water's absence, snakes and scorpions had seeped in to fill the ensuing vacuum. The mistaken assumption of the brothers was that a void could remain neutral, when in reality, the absence of good actually invites the penetration of bad.

In our day, many Jewish parents mistakenly assume that they can raise their children to be moral by simply "refraining from bad deeds", without the positive instruction of the Torah, which our sages compare to water, only to find their children eventually seeking to fill their ensuing spiritual voids from foreign sources. However, Chanukah, while occupying only "minor" status as a holiday, has nevertheless spawned remarkably widespread observance of the commandment to light candles for eight days. It is well known that a minimal amount of light is capable of dispelling a great deal of darkness. At this time of year, we should all be encouraged by this phenomenon occurring among our people.

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom!

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