Yosef, Hanukah and Heshbon Hanefesh

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Miriam Zami

This week’s parasha recounts Yosef’s rise to power, the descent of the brothers to Egypt, and the fateful meeting of Yosef and the brothers after 20 years of estrangement. Yosef deals with the brothers in seemingly peculiar ways, raising most notably the question of the framing of Binyamin. There have been many approaches to Yosef’s  plan all along and what his ultimate purpose was. I’d like to take a textual look at the passages circulating the encounter of Yosef and the brothers in order to explicate what was most certainly a divine plan.

Before telling his sons to go down to Egypt, the last words the Torah reports of Ya’akov speaking are כִּי-אֵרֵד אֶל-בְּנִי אָבֵל שְׁאֹלָה – “I shall go down to my son to she’ol mourning” (37:35). Now, his words are רְדוּ-שָׁמָּה וְשִׁבְרוּ-לָנוּ מִשָּׁם, וְנִחְיֶה וְלֹא נָמוּת – “go down…so that we may live and not die” (42:2). This overt change suggests a new outlook in Ya’akov; he cares about living, whereas before he was associated with death and morning. He recovers his leadership that had been lacking previously (as in his passivity in the Dinah story). The reversal of circumstance reflects the divine plan coming to fruition.

In addition, at the last interaction of Ya’akov and Yosef, Ya’akov had sent Yosef to check on his brothers, unaware that he was creating a problem. Now, he is unknowingly sending his sons to Yosef, allowing for a solution. With this parallel, the Torah is further alluding to the reconciliation.

The use of “achei Yosef” (42:3) as the brothers are leaving to Egypt instead of “bnei Ya’akov” (which was previously used) or “bnei Yisrael” (which appears shortly afterwards) foreshadows the momentous series of events which is set to occur, emphasizing that the point of this trip is for the brothers to go specifically to Yosef. The description as bnei Yisrael two pesukim later connects their journey to the larger macrocosmic picture, foreshadowing the longer-range purpose of their trip to Egypt.

Later, in their second trip to Egypt (with Binyamin, after the episode of the silver returned in all the bags), Yaakov instructs his sons to prepare a gift containing מְעַט צֳרִי וּמְעַט דְּבַשׁ נְכֹאת(“a little balm, and a little honey, spicery and ladanum” [43:11]), the very same items carried by the caravan that took Yosef to Egypt (37:25). The brothers are essentially traveling in the trail of their sin. Presenting such a tribute to Joseph symbolically recalls and apologizes for their transgression, setting the stage for reconciliation.

Ya’akov also tells the brothers to take kesef mishneh in addition to the silver returned in their packs (43:12). With this, the Torah may furthermore be hinting at the sale of Yosef by emphasizing the silver, as if the return of the silver is to undo the effects of the sale. In addition, Ya’akov blesses the brothers before their journey that G-d should give them mercy before the “man” (v. 14). Bereshit Rabah points out that the “man” may be referring to G-d, also directing our attention to the underlying buildup of the divine plan.

Nearly a chapter later, the brothers are summoned back to Egypt upon finding the goblet in Binyamin’s sack. Yehudah, taking responsibility as the leader he is, speaks for the brothers. His speech has an underlying meaning obvious to the reader – it is a confession of the sale of Yosef; he understands it as the cause of their predicament, and accepts the punishment of slavery as retribution. This is sincere repentance: awareness of the severity of the crime and concentrating solely on repair, no matter what that entails.

As many commentators explain, the entire motive of Yosef is to reunite the family, but to do so, he must test that they have fully changed their ways. This isn’t Yosef trying to play G-d, but rather taking responsibility of his destiny. He puts the brothers in the same predicament that they were in all those years ago by framing Binyamin. The entire story line is deeply laden with the hand of G-d, moving closer to the fulfillment of destiny.

The parasha makes way for the unification of the house of Yaakov. While the plan surely has divine origins, it was up to the characters to take action and bring it to fruition. We must not forget that although G-d watches over us in each generation, it is our responsibility to maintain our moral standards and the unity of Am Yisrael. Hanukah is the perfect time for such heshbon hanefesh; as we watch the burning of the candles each night, it is not enough to just say thank you for the divine intervention. We must also remember that it is our responsibility to continue the legacy of the Macabim in our generation. The battle that we commemorate was the physical manifestation of the ideological war between the Jews and the Greeks, and while the Jews were few in number, they did what was necessary and G-d took care of the rest. May we all take responsibility of our choices while recognizing the hand of G-d in our own lives. Shabbat shalom, Hanukah sameach and hodesh tov!

Miriam Zami (SBM 2015), of Brooklyn, is a 2013 graduate of the Yeshivah of Flatbush. She spent a year after high school studying at Midreshet Lindenbaum and is now a sophomore in the Macaulay Honors College at Brooklyn College.

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