Being Special – VaYeshev 5784

D'var Torah | Genesis

In the Biblical narrative, the word “vayehi” is taken to mean “it was,” from the root meaning “to be.” It often introduces a particular episode which the Rabbis consider woeful (from the combination of “vay” and “hee”). In Genesis 39:2 “vayehi” appears three times in the verse, making it a rare, if not unique, usage. It calls for special consideration.

Don Isaac Abarbanel claims that each usage serves a different purpose. The first use of “va-yehi” indicates that God was with Joseph. For Abarbanel, this means that God enabled Joseph to clearly and correctly analyze dreams, unencumbered by the depressing effects of slavery. Joseph’s interpretive ability is ultimately what earns his redemption. The second use of “va-yehi” indicates that Joseph was a successful man: all the household affairs entrusted to him by his master flourished. And the third use of “va-yehi” refers to “staying in the house of his Egyptian master,” which Abarbanel takes to mean that unlike other slaves who would be assigned field work, Joseph was given indoor tasks in his master’s house, tasks that were far less exhausting. Collectively, the three uses of the word “va-yehi” transform the usual Rabbinic understanding. Instead of referring to a woeful story, the threefold use of “va-yehi” makes it a joyful one.

Moreover, to Abarbanel, the novelty of the features of this verse demonstrate that God had a special interest in Joseph. He enjoyed a depth of divine support unexperienced by any other Biblical hero. It is not exactly clear why Joseph stood out, though the legendary tradition offers some suggestions. Joseph resembled his father in appearance and, like his father, Joseph born circumcised.  The main incidents of their lives were parallel. Both were born after their mothers had been barren for a long time, both were hated by their brothers, and both were met by angels at various times (Gen. Rabbah 84:6; Num. Rabbah 14:16). But resemblance alone is insufficient to explain Joseph’s special treatment.

More convincing is the midrashic association of respect for parents with Joseph for Jacob. When Jacob requested that Joseph go and see how his brothers fared, he went promptly and with gladness of heart, although he knew that they hated him and he might be at risk (Mekhilta Beshalla?, Vayehi, 1; Gen. Rabbah 84:12, 15). If Joseph earned divine protection for his filial piety, then we would be wise to behave similarly.

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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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