VaYeshev 5778

D'var Torah | Genesis

Jacob’s behavior is difficult to explain. From his own childhood experiences, Jacob should have realized the dangers in favoring one child over another. He knew that parental favoritism fosters resentment and anger or worse. Yet Jacob, we are told, favors Joseph over his other children, ignores Joseph’s immaturity, and rewards him with a special garment. (The commentators are divided on whether this garment was multi-colored, striped, or short-sleeved.) Even though Jacob understood that his other children – included the hot-headed and violent Simon and Levi (Genesis 34:25) – despise Joseph, Jacob sends his seventeen-year-old son Joseph alone on a mission to a distant place to check on his brothers. Knowing what he knows, it seems almost incredulous that Jacob would expose Joseph, his beloved son, to potential risk or harm.


That is why Rabbi Hayyim ben Moshe ibn Attar, author of the eighteenth century Biblical commentary Or HaHayyim, explains that Jacob did not have to be concerned. Since Jacob made Joseph his agent in performing a “mitzvah” of carrying out his filial responsibilities, Joseph would be under divine protection (Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 8a and parallels).


But we need not accept this interpretation to explain Jacob’s absence of worry. Jacob intuitively understood the teaching of the Talmud (Yebamot 63b) that, in paraphrase, counsels: “Don’t worry about tomorrow because you never know what tomorrow may bring. What is of concern today may no longer be a concern tomorrow in a world that is under God’s control.” Applied to Joseph’s mission, it may turn out that by the time Joseph finds his brothers, he may have gained a measure of maturity that he previously lacked. Being out on one’s own can have that effect. Besides, the brothers’ attitude towards Joseph may have changed. Importantly, there was no immediate threat to Joseph that Jacob perceived. And anyway, just as Esav’s anger towards Jacob was assuaged over time, so could the anger of the brothers towards Joseph. Hence, Jacob had no need to worry about Joseph’s welfare. He could send him on this mission without hesitation.


Among the hardest lessons in life to learn is when to worry. Jewish worries, as the Talmud advocates and as Jacob illustrates, ought to focus on the here and now and not on the indeterminate future.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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