Growing From Challenges[Editor’s Note: Shaya did not have a dvar Torah on Parshas Vayeishev, so I am sharing with you an inspiring vort from Rabbi Frand.]
In the middle of the narration of the story of Yosef and his brothers, the Torah interjects the story of Yehuda and Tamar. Yehuda had 3 sons, the first son – Er — was married to a woman named Tamar. Er died and then the second brother — Onan — married Tamar. When Onan also died, Yehudah did not want to allow his third son (Shelah) to marry Tamar. Tamar disguised herself and tricked Yehudah into performing a form of levirate marriage with her. When she became noticeably pregnant, Yehudah accused her of being unfaithful to his family. Rather than embarrassing him and announcing that he made her pregnant, she merely ambiguously said that she was pregnant from the person who gave her certain items as a security pledge.
Yehudah recognized the items as his own. Rather than deny the fact that he was indeed the one who lived with her, he admitted that he was the father of her children. In fact, one of the two sons born to Yehudah and Tamar (Peretz) eventually became the ancestor of King David and the Davidic dynasty.
Immediately after this interjection, the Torah resumes the story of Yosef, telling us that he was brought down to Egypt and placed in the house of Potiphar, Pharaoh’s officer, chamberlain of the butchers.
Rashi explains the juxtaposition of the two stories by the words “And Yehudah went down…” [Bereshis 38:1]. Yehudah had been admired by all his brothers; however after the sale of Yosef (which Yehudah suggested as an alternative to killing him) and the deep depression that overtook their father Yaakov, the brothers dethroned Yehudah from his role of leadership. They told him “had you insisted that we return him to our father instead of killing him, we would have also listened to you!”
When the narration of Yosef resumes, there is a similar expression of descent: “And Yosef was brought down to Egypt” [Bereshis 39:1] Here, too, Rashi comments on the linkage of the two stories and the fact that Yehudah was dethroned from leadership because of the fact that Yosef was brought down to Egypt.
The Shemen haTov comments that the incidents that occurred with Yehudah and Yosef may both be described as “yerida”, but there are tremendous lessons to be learned from these so-called “down-falls”. As things turned out, both descents were opportunities for these two brothers to achieve their maximum potential and to reach the high-points of their respective lives. This sordid incident of Yehduah’s involvement with Tamar and his public embarrassment over it may seem like a low-point. However, it was this very admission which gave Yehudah his claim to fame. Yaakov later said “Yehudah, you your brothers will acknowledge” [Bereshis 49:8] as part of the blessing that he gave to Yehudah. Jews are called by his name (Yehudim), not by the name of any other Tribe. Why are we “Yehudim”? It is because Yehudah did something that took a tremendous amount of self-discipline and honesty. He admitted: “You are right. I was wrong.”
This story, which began as a tremendous down-fall for Yehudah – he was dethroned, he was abused – this could have been his Waterloo, was in fact the nadir of his life. Things looked bleak, but he rose to the occasion. He became Yehudah and he demonstrated the power of confession (Hodaah – same root as Yehudah) to all of us.
Yosef also suffered tragedy after tragedy. He was sold as a slave to Egypt and then he was thrown from there into prison. But this descent too, this terrible period in his life, gave him the title by which he is known for all time: Yosef haTzadik [Joseph the Righteous]. Yosef was tempted by the wife of Potiphar and withstood the temptation. There are very few people in Jewish history that are given the title “Tzadik”.
The lesson of both these narratives is that sometimes we are thrown into circumstances that present us with tremendous challenges. We look like we are at the bottom of the pit looking up, like we have suffered an irreversible setback. Sometimes these very situations present opportunities to meet those challenges and thereby greatly improve our life situation.
The dual descents of Yehudah and Yossef turn out to be opportunities that gave these two sons of Yaakov the ability to achieve great accomplishments and to acquire immortal greatness.
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