In this week’s parsha of Vayeishev, we read of the travails of Yosef, Yaakov’s favorite son, the one whose life most closely followed the pattern of Yaakov’s. Hounded by brothers who wanted to kill him, forced to run away, held against their will, Yaakov by Lovon and Yosef in captivity, the list of comparisons is quite long.
Yaakov’s dedication to his mission of raising twelve shevotim empowered him to persevere despite his many travails. From the day he left the home of his parents, he remained focused on his goal of perpetuating the mesorah he had been handed by his father, Yitzchok, and his grandfather, Avrohom.
The posuk (Bereishis 37:9-11) states that Yosef told his father and brothers of his dream in which the sun, moon and eleven stars bowed to him. Yaakov scolded him for seeming to foretell that they would bow to him. The brothers were furious at Yosef, but Yaakov “shomar es hadovor,” waited to see when the dream would be realized.
The brothers despised Yosef and let their bias affect their thinking. They scoffed at the dream and mocked Yosef for repeating it. Yaakov, displaying his middah of constant focus on his goal and mission, “shomar es hadovor,” paid attention to the dream and anticipated watching it play out.
As we go through life, there are many ups and downs. There are things that go our way and things that don’t. There are friends who stand by us and some who hinder us. There are health issues that crop up and challenges of a financial nature. Small people become deterred and thrown off course, while great people never permit anything to disturb their concentration and focus.
Listen to people who have accomplished things in life and you will hear tales of dreamers who wouldn’t let naysayers talk ‘sense’ into them. Listen to people who have accomplished much and you will hear how they responded to their “hair will grow on my palm before that happens” moment. War, hunger and pestilence could not take their eyes off the prize that awaited them for continuing to pursue their goal. And nothing should deter us from realizing ours.
Yaakov saw in Yosef the attributes that would make him the one who would carry on the mesorah. The posuk (37:3) explains Yaakov’s affection for Yosef: “ki ven zekunim hu lo.” Onkelos says that it means that Yaakov saw intelligence in his son. The Ramban explains that Yaakov taught him everything he learned at the feet of Sheim and Eiver. By the time Yosef was sold into captivity, he was versed in all of Torah, with wisdom way beyond his years.
This, says the Alter of Kelm, is what is meant by “v’oviv shomar es hadovor.” Yaakov waited to see how his plan for Yosef to transmit his Torah to future generations would play out.
The brothers were selling a young boy to a traveling tribe, thinking that they would be done with him. Yaakov, however, though he accepted the tale that Yosef had been killed, watched to see how his plan for the future would unfold.
In fact, as Yosef was repeatedly tested in Mitzrayim, he withstood every temptation and remained loyal to his mission as the “ben zekunim,” because the image of his father appeared before him (Sotah 36b, quoted by Rashi 39:10).
While commonly understood as meaning that he was reminded of his father, perhaps we can explain that he was reminded of his mission to perpetuate the teachings of his father. He remained focused on what his mission in life was, and therefore wasn’t thrown off track by what came his way.
The parsha, in discussing the saga of Yosef, relates how he was sold into Egyptian slavery. The posuk (39:2) then tells us that Yosef was a very successful person: “Vayehi ish matzliach.” If you were asked to describe a young man hated by his siblings who attempted to kill him and sold him to a group of vagabonds who sold him as a slave, would you call him a success?
To all outward appearances, Yosef was anything but a success. He was a lonely slave in a strange land with no home. Why does the Torah describe him as an “ish matzliach”?
I was discussing this with my dear friend, Shalom Mordechai ben Rivka Rubashkin, this past Motzoei Shabbos, and he suggested an answer quite fitting for him and the way he lives his life in the place Hashem has put him in.
Shalom Mordechai said that the answer lies in the beginning of that same posuk: “Vayehi Hashem es Yosef, vayehi ish matzliach, vayehi b’vais adonav haMitzri.” Yosef was with Hashem even as he slaved in his master’s house. The reason he was termed a success was because he stayed loyal to Hashem.
We attach success to physical accomplishments. If a person is wealthy, he’s referred to as a success. If he has a good business, a nice house and car, a good wife and children, then he’s successful. Here the Torah is teaching us that to be a success, a person must remain loyal to Hashem – and, if we may add, loyal to his mission in life.
Yosef was an ish matzliach and blessed because he didn’t permit his surroundings and situation to affect him, his identity and his mission. By any other definition, a lonely young slave is an abject failure, but not by the value system of the Torah.
Shalom Mordechai is locked away with the worst criminals, but he grows daily in Torah and emunah and bitachon. He prays that every day will be his last in that place, and Jews around the world pray with him that he merit a quick redemption.
Our situations are nowhere as extreme as his, and it is much easier for us to maintain our commitment to Hashem and His Torah. It is easier for us to remain focused on achieving success.
Temptations and nisyonos abound. We live in a time of moral depravity and laziness. We have to keep them at bay. Yaakov and Yosef paved the way for us to succeed in golus, remaining optimistic about the future and focusing on the real goal.
We can do it. We can all do it. We can all succeed. We can each be a success story.
Rabbi Yisroel Meir Lau, chief rabbi of Tel Aviv and former chief rabbi of the State of Israel, told me that he once met Cuban President Fidel Castro at the United Nations. Castro mentioned to Rabbi Lau that he had read his story and knew about his fascinating history. Rabbi Lau’s brother snuck him into the Buchenwald concentration camp as a young child and kept him alive there by hiding him under a bed and feeding him scraps. Castro recalled the story of his miraculous deliverance from the gehennom of the concentration camps.
“But I have one question,” said Castro. “How was it that after all you went through, you didn’t give it up? How did you not abandon your religion? Not only did you keep your religion, but you became a rabbi. What was the force that kept you going? What is your secret?”
Rabbi Lau told the communist ruler, “I descend from a line of 37 generations of rabbis. I wasn’t going to be the one to break that chain.”
It takes tremendous fortitude to hold on to a legacy in the face of severe hardship and adversity. We should never go through what Rabbi Lau endured, and we should never know of such evil and pain. But we must ensure that no matter what challenges life hurls at us, we will remain determined enough and strong enough to keep that chain going.
Every Jew forges his own link in the chain of generations that stretches back to Har Sinai. It is our duty to keep our link strong and durable, capable of weathering the pressures and the pitfalls of modern life.
We are descendants of Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov. We descend from great, smart and strong people. Our forebears struggled through anti-Semitism, pogroms, blood libels, holocausts, churbanos worse than anything we can imagine, and the most awful deprivations known to man. They had few physical possessions, small dwelling places, no heat in the winter and no air conditioning during the summer, and no running water or electricity, yet each one was a success. Each one had a mission and lived their life by it. They all lived so that we could live, so that we could succeed, so we could prepare the world for the next generation and for Moshiach.
Let’s focus on success!