Friday, December 11, 2009

Moral lessons from parshat Vayeshev

Summary: Some straightforward lessons about interpersonal relationships, from Ralbag. Some of which are fairly obvious when you just stop and consider the story carefully. Some of it, of course, it a matter of how one parses the Biblical narrative and associated midrashim.

Post: Based again on Ralbag, some moral lessons from the parsha. He leads off with three lessons in traits.

[1] The first purpose is that one should not cast jealousy among his sons, by raising up one of the individuals. For this will cause him {a corresponding} lowering. Do you not see that Yaakov, because he made the ketonet pasim for Yosef alone from among his brothers in order to show that he was the most beloved of all of them, they placed him as a mesharet {aid, helper, servant} for the sons of the maidservants. And this was, as well, a cause for his brothers hating him with a grievous hate.

[2] The second purpose is in traits, and this is that it is not fitting for a person to relate to his father everything that he hears of the negative matters of the members of the household. For from this is created strife and discord in a household, and will cause himself the loss. Do you not see that Yosef, because he brought the negative report to his father, his brothers hated him, to such a degree that they would have killed him had Hashem not aided him.

[3] The third purpose is in traits, and that is that it is not fitting for a person to tell his fellow something which informs about his own success and the lower stature of the other fellow, for with this many activities will be set into motion and will create strife and discord. Do you not see that which happened to Yosef, when he related his dreams to his brothers, which was informed about his own success and their low stature?
And indeed, all these can be derived from a fairly straightforward reading of the parasha. Of course, some of these narrative elements are open to interpretation, but that is just as it should be. Ralbag is a parshan hamikra, and that is his job. Pointing out where I differ, though, can help make clear those exegetical decisions.

For example, in [1], this may well depend on what vehu naar means.

The parsha leads off with

ב  אֵלֶּה תֹּלְדוֹת יַעֲקֹב, יוֹסֵף בֶּן-שְׁבַע-עֶשְׂרֵה שָׁנָה הָיָה רֹעֶה אֶת-אֶחָיו בַּצֹּאן, וְהוּא נַעַר אֶת-בְּנֵי בִלְהָה וְאֶת-בְּנֵי זִלְפָּה, נְשֵׁי אָבִיו; וַיָּבֵא יוֹסֵף אֶת-דִּבָּתָם רָעָה, אֶל-אֲבִיהֶם.
2 These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brethren, being still a lad even with the sons of Bilhah, and with the sons of Zilpah, his father's wives; and Joseph brought evil report of them unto their father.
ג  וְיִשְׂרָאֵל, אָהַב אֶת-יוֹסֵף מִכָּל-בָּנָיו--כִּי-בֶן-זְקֻנִים הוּא, לוֹ; וְעָשָׂה לוֹ, כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּים.
3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a coat of many colours.

When he was naar et bnei Bilhah ve`et bnei Zilpah, does the word naar mean mesharet, as some meforshim put it? If so, then there is the placement as assistant to the sons of the concubines. And further, the  juxtaposition of psukim seems taken to indicate that the reason Yosef was placed in this position was his father's favoritism.

But one could of course explain this otherwise. I am not sure we should take naar to mean mesharet as opposed to being a lad, growing up with them. But even if we do, I would claim that this is setup, not the punishment imposed by his brothers. Because I maintain (see here) that bringing dibatam raa actually means that it was Yosef's job to bring the grazing report (from roeh). This is his role, and a normal one at that, rather than some fraternal punishment.

Despite this, the main point about Yaakov's favoritism towards Yosef caused them to hate him. This is explicit in pasuk 4.

In terms of [2], indeed, this seems to be the plain peshat meaning, that he was reporting negative things, and that this was a cause of their hating him. But again, see what I wrote above about the grazing report.

In terms of [3], indeed. And I think this comes out from a straightforward reading of the Biblical text. Contrast this though with Yaakov's actions (item [1]) in sending a message about his personal situation to Esav, in parashas Vayishlach.

Also, all of these three appear to be blaming Biblical characters. Effectively, Ralbag appears to be stating that Yaakov and Yosef acted inappropriately, and that we ought to learn from their negative example. I can wonder, though, if that is truly the intention in all cases, or if we run the risk of blaming the victim. Consider how Yosef forgives his brothers, and in Vayigash (45:5) states that

ה  וְעַתָּה אַל-תֵּעָצְבוּ, וְאַל-יִחַר בְּעֵינֵיכֶם, כִּי-מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי, הֵנָּה:  כִּי לְמִחְיָה, שְׁלָחַנִי אֱלֹהִים לִפְנֵיכֶם.5 And now be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither; for God did send me before you to preserve life.

Indeed, everyone (including medieval parshanim and modern scholars) understand this as part of an overarching framework in which the Divine plan given over to Avraham is carried out. If we think about it, who gave the dreams to Yosef, despite how they caused this enmity? It was surely Hashem.

Of course, that does not really excuse the brothers from responsibility for their actions. And they indeed feel guilty, and sorry. Perhaps just as they feel guilty, Yosef should feel some guilt or regret for his role in all of this.

But about what? If dibatam raah indeed means a bad report, rather than a grazing report, then I suppose he did play a huge role in making them hate him. On the other hand, if they were really violating ever min hachai, were treating the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah with lack of respect, and violating gilui arayot, then perhaps one should tell Yaakov so that he can give them mussar and instruct them. What if Yitzchak had known that Esav was committing sins, instead of being blissfully unaware? Isn't it possible that he could have intervened and engaged in proper chinuch? The same thing here. On the other hand, perhaps these were minor infractions, in which case Yosef was merely a tattle-tale.

In terms of the dreams, Yosef perhaps should have known better. But maybe he thought he was being friendly and brotherly, in letting them know his dreams and thoughts. And this friendly overture was interpreted negatively by his brothers. Perhaps  וְלֹא יָכְלוּ, דַּבְּרוֹ לְשָׁלֹם means that they were already negatively predisposed towards him, such that his friendly overtures were interpreted otherwise. On the other hand, see Yaakov's reaction.

One final, related thought, only tangentially related, but I thought I would put it in here. When Yosef relates his first dream to his brothers, they respond:

ח  וַיֹּאמְרוּ לוֹ, אֶחָיו, הֲמָלֹךְ תִּמְלֹךְ עָלֵינוּ, אִם-מָשׁוֹל תִּמְשֹׁל בָּנוּ; וַיּוֹסִפוּ עוֹד שְׂנֹא אֹתוֹ, עַל-חֲלֹמֹתָיו וְעַל-דְּבָרָיו.8 And his brethren said to him: 'Shalt thou indeed reign over us? or shalt thou indeed have dominion over us?' And they hated him yet the more for his dreams, and for his words.

This suggests (to me) that they do not regard every dream as prophetic. For if they thought it prophetic, this would not be a reason for hating him. It was a message from Hashem! Rather, it seems that they regarded this dream, and some dreams, as merely expressions of what the person was thinking of during the day. And so this was evidence to them of Yosef's intentions. (One could interpret this in another manner, that they hated him because of envy over this prophecy and thus his eventual ruling over them. And compare to Kayin and Hevel.)

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