Vayeshev 3

D'var Torah by Rabbi Jay Spero


The Sins of Fathers

Parshas Vayeshev

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In this week’s portion, Yoseph, the son of Yaakov, is sold by his brothers. The Torah does not whitewash the lives of our ancestors and tells their stories in total. But we must also be aware that these were great people, and that even when these people made mistakes, they thought they were doing the right thing.

When the brothers sold him, they had a problem. How were they going to tell their father Yaakov? Yoseph was his most beloved son, and this news would devastate him. They proceeded to slaughter a goat and dip Yoseph’s garment in its blood. They then brought the garment to Yaakov as "proof" that his son had been torn apart by animals. Interestingly, the Zohar tells us that because Yaakov had deceived his own father, Yitzchok, by use of a garment (when Yaakov had pretended to be Eisav), Yaakov was in turn tricked by a garment, which in fact was the very same garment! (Although Yaakov had been in the right when he had worn the garment, nonetheless, he had used deception, and righteous people are judged by a higher standard.)

What are the ramifications of this act of trickery performed by the brothers? As we know, the acts of the ancestors are a signpost for their descendants.

Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman writes that he fears that this is the root cause of the blood libel phenomenon (the blood libel is the age-old canard that Jews murder non-Jews because they need their blood for religious purposes). The reason blood libels happen is because of the improper use of blood by Yoseph’s brothers. But how could this be true? We know that children are not punished for sins of their parents (Devarim 24:16).

The Ibn Ezra explains using the verse in Shemos (20:5): "A jealous Hashem, who visits the sins of fathers upon children." The Ibn Ezra asks, how is this verse to be understood in light of the verse in Devarim? The answer is, the only time children are punished for the sins of their fathers is when the go in their fathers' ways and perpetuate the very sin committed by their fathers.

So we are only punished for sins committed previously if we continue to make the same mistake, and we sin as our fathers did.

What was the sin committed by the sons of Yaakov? They thought they were one hundred per cent correct in their treatment of Yoseph. Their sin was they never listened to his cries, they never considered that perhaps they were doing the wrong thing, and had been treating him unfairly. In other words, they never gave Yoseph the benefit of the doubt.

The old canard of the blood libel is once again being resurrected in Arabic countries. That is no surprise. But the fact that it is not being condemned by the "enlightened" Western European countries, perhaps is.

The Midrash (Tanchuma, Parshas Vayeshev) tells us that Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Chiya were walking and Rabbi Shimon remarked that the Roman soldiers were remarkable physical specimens. Rabbi Chiya took him to the marketplace and showed him a basket filled with grapes and dates, which had been infested with flies. Rabbi Chiya explained that these flies and those soldiers are the same - one has no more power than the other. This story is telling us that when the nations of the world oppress the Jewish people, it is not because of their physical or diplomatic prowess, rather, it is because of our weakness. In reality, their power is only that of a fly.  

The answers to our problems today are not demonstrations, voting on CNN polls, or sending nasty letters to the editors of the New York Times (though the last one is fun). The answer is to not make the same mistakes our ancestors did, and to try to see our fellow Jew's side of the story, and not be so quick to judge him.

When we are strong in our relationship with Hashem, our enemies have no power over us.

Rabbi Jay Spero is the rabbi of the Saranac Synagogue in Buffalo.

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