From the teachings of Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef ztvk”l. written by his grandson HaRav Yaakov Sasson Shlit”a
translated by our dear friend Rav Daniel Levy Shlit”a, Leeds UK
We shall read in this week’s Parashah, “…from where he was on the bed, Yisrael bowed” (Bereishit 47:31). After Yosef swore an oath to his father Yaakov that he will do what he instructed him, Yaakov bowed to him. Rashi z”l explains that Yaakov bowed to the Shechinah giving thanks that Hashem gave him righteous children and especially Yosef, who withstood all the tests and remained righteous. Both the test of poverty that he first experienced and then the test of wealth, when he was made king of Egypt and earlier when he had been in prison, “Hashem was with Yosef” (ibid. 39:2), meaning that the Name of Hashem was always uttered by him, for everything he would give thanks to Hashem. Even after he was appointed king, when he was more susceptible to become assimilated amongst the Gentiles, he didn’t budge one iota from the Holy Torah, whether between matters between himself and his fellow or whether between matters between himself and Hashem.
This is how Yosef behaved towards his brothers, whether in our Parashah or last week’s. It states, “Yosef recognised his brothers, but they did not recognise him” (ibid. 42:8), which our chachamim explain to mean that when Yosef fell in their hands, “they did not recognise him”, but when they fell into his hands, “Yosef recognised his brothers”.
We also see later on, “Yosef said to them, ‘If you do as I say, you will live. I fear Hashem. We will see if you are really being candid. One of you will be held hostage in the same building where you were under arrest…’ He had Shimon taken from them and placed in chains before their eyes” (ibid. 42:18-19, 24). He called 200 warriors the mightiest in Egypt and ordered they bind Shimon. Shimon roared in a great voice and they were all shocked and frightened of him. Yosef called his son Menasheh and ordered him to bind Shimon, Menasheh came and smote Shimon’s shoulder. Shimon said in his heart, this is not a blow of an Egyptian! This is the strength of father’s home! And immediately he complied, entering the prison. However the passuk states that he bound him “before them”, because immediately after the brothers had gone Yosef released Shimon from his shackles and worried for his every need.
This is how Yosef behaved generously with his brothers and not harshly, until he revealed himself to his brothers, “Yosef said to his brothers, ‘I am Yosef!’” (ibid. 45:1-3). When he settled them in Egypt, “Yosef provided all the needs of his father, his brothers, and all his father’s family, down to the very youngest” (ibid. 47:12). Even the young ones, who often throw half the food that they are given, Yosef fed them. The whole world ate meagrely but Yosef cared for his brothers that all their needs be generously met. Yosef HaTzaddik said this whole famine only came to the world because Am Yisrael, for they are destined to leave Egypt and Hashem said, “they will exit with great wealth” (ibid. 15:14). Therefore the events transpired so that all of the wealth of Canaan and Egypt came to Paro’s palace, so that afterwards Am Yisrael will be able to take all this great wealth. Therefore for now whilst there is a famine it isn’t proper that Am Yisrael should suffer from it because it only came to the world for their benefit.
Likewise it states, “Yosef collected all the money in Egypt and Canaan in payment for the food [the people] were buying. Yosef brought [all] the money to Paro’s treasury” (ibid. 47:14). The commentaries explain the meaning by way of inference, but first we will preface the halachic explanation:
If a Jew travels and he finds something related to idol worship he is forbidden to take it. Why? Because anything associated with idol worship is forbidden to derive benefit from. And should such an item come into his possession he must ask a question from a talmid chacham what to do, since there are complexities regarding this.
During the time of the Gemara many worshipped idols, and the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 43a) relates that Rebbi Elazar HaKappar was riding on his horse and suddenly he saw (jewellery) [a coin] used in idol worship strewn on the ground. Rebbi Elazar knew that it was forbidden to take that (jewellery) [coin], so what did he do? He waited until a Gentile passed by and called him over. He asked him to annul the item from idol worship use. How is an item associated with idol worship annulled? If the Gentile will break the (jewellery) [coin] he will portray his feelings that the item is no longer important and then the item is permitted to derive benefit from. Only a Gentile has the ability to do this but if such an idolatrous item has already come into the possession of a Jew he is unable to annul it! Indeed this is what eventually happened that the Gentile broke the (jewellery) [coin] and Rebbi Elazar HaKappar took it.
This is what is stated with Yosef HaTzaddik. During Yosef’s time all the nations in Egypt and Canaan were worshipping idols and they would punch their coins with images of idols. Yosef knew that they may not be benefitted from but how will Am Yisrael then take them from Egypt when they leave. What did Yosef do? Every person who came to purchase grain from Yosef, he would order them to damage part of the punched out design of the idol. In so doing the Gentiles annulled the prohibition of using the coins. Only then did he ensure everything was brought to Paro’s treasury, as the passuk states, “Yosef collected all the money in Egypt and Canaan in payment for the food [the people] were buying. Yosef brought [all] the money to Paro’s treasury”. The Hebrew words for the English “in payment for the food [the people] were buying” is “bashever asher hem shovrim” – which can also mean based on the Hebrew root of these words in other contexts, “in the breaking that they broke” – indicating that they broke part of the coin – and only then “Yosef brought [all] the money to Paro’s treasury”, (Bereishit 47:14).
Such was Yosef HaTzaddik’s wisdom and therefore it wasn’t for nothing that it states, “Yisrael bowed”, for Yaakov Avinu gave thanks to Hashem that he had such righteous children as these.
Events later on show Yosef’s righteousness, for it states in the Parashah, “Yosef’s brothers began to realise [the implications] of their father’s death. ‘What if Yosef is still holding a grudge against us?’ they said. ‘He is likely to pay us back for the evil we did to him.’ They instructed [messengers] to tell Yosef: ‘Before he died, your father gave us final instructions. He said, ‘This is what you must say to Yosef: Forgive the spiteful deed and the sin your brothers committed when they did evil to you.’ Now forgive the spiteful deed that [we], the servants of your father’s G-d, have done’” (ibid. 50:15-16). Yosef’s brothers were afraid after they buried their father that perhaps now Yosef will punish them for what they did to him. Therefore they had a plan – since it is permitted to bend the truth for the sake of shalom [Bava Metzia 87a], they allowed themselves to tell this untruth. They sent Bilhah’s children, who were especially close to Yosef, and they told him that their father instructed them before he passed away that he should forgive their indiscretion. Why did they suspect that Yosef would punish them? Since when they returned from Yaakov’s funeral they passed very close to the place that they had thrown Yosef into the well. About which it is said, “the well was empty, it had no water in it” (ibid 37:24) and our chachamim expounded this to mean that whilst there was no water in it but there were snakes and scorpions in it!” (Shabbat 43a). All the time he was in the well, he was petrified lest the snakes kill him, since in regular person who falls into a well full of snakes will certainly die (as our chachamim explained in Berachot 33a). He was only saved by a miracle through Hashem’s hands. So now that Yosef had passed close to the well, he approached the well and made the berachah, “Baruch Ata Hashem Elokeinu Melech HaOlam she’asah li nes bamakom hazeh”, that Hashem performed a miracle for me in this place. When the brothers saw this, they said to one another, Yosef hasn’t forgotten what we did to him!
Before Yaakov’s passing, the brothers sat down together to eat. Yaakov was at the head, Yosef to his right, and Yehudah to his left, and the other brothers according to their ages. But now Yaakov had passed away, Yosef said to himself how shall I seat my brothers? If I will sit at the head they will say a junior has jumped to the top, since I am the [second] youngest and I may cause them to feel enmity towards me. Therefore he instructed that each family should eat on their own. The brothers saw this and thought Yosef was alienating them, remembering what they did to him. Therefore they were petrified what Yosef would do to them.
Yosef responded to them, “…He comforted them and tried to make up” (Bereishit 50:21), he said to them words which are received by the heart, “Don’t be afraid of me, for all the time that I was king and you had not yet come to Egypt, the people were saying, what type of king has been placed over us? Is there a person who has no brothers? No family? This is a waif! But when you came to Egypt my honour was increased for everyone saw that I am not simply a waif, rather I am the son of a very important person with distinguished brothers. So now, don’t be afraid that chas veshalom I will harm you. Know that I will remain loyal to you.” The Gemara explains further assurances that he gave them.
Maran the Hida z”l (1724-1806), in his work Mariyat HaAyin, writes that he studied for many years with the Gaon Rav Chaim ben Attar z”l (1696-1743) the author of the Orach Chaim HaKadosh, Rav Chaim passed away aged 48. First he lived in the city of Salé in Morocco, then he travelled to Livorno and then to Yerushalayim, where he lived for 18 years and established there yeshivat “Orach Chaim” in the Old City. He was an exceedingly great man with a frighteningly brilliant intellect with phenomenal ideas! His pupils and his pupil’s pupils were great chachamim and they were astonished at his wisdom and genius.
And so Rav Chaim ben Attar related to Maran the Hida that when he was young living in the city of Salé he was sat in a Bet Kenesset studying Torah and there also was a righteous person a foundation of the world, who was also studying Torah. That tzaddik drew the table nearer to himself so he could learn more easily. The gabbai entered, who was an empty reckless person who had no appreciation of what Torah is and the honour that should be accorded to those who study it, and he began shouting at that tzaddik who had moved the table. He verbally abused him and cursed him, yet that tzaddik just sat quietly, not responding. After the gabbai left the Bet Kenesset, Rav Chaim approached him to comfort him. That tzaddik replied, “My friend Rav Chaim, and do you really think I paid any attention to this? Believe me that every word that the gabbai said I immediately said to myself that I forgive him!” Rav Chaim said, “I am astonished how can a person who is merely flesh and blood withstand such harshness and insults as this and remain quiet?” The tzaddik responded, “I will explain it to you.”:
The Torah states, “He spread His wings and took them, carrying them on His pinions” (Devarim 32:10). It is written in the Zohar HaKadosh that the Shechinah spreads its wings in order to protect Am Yisrael from all the nations that harass her. When a Jew performs a mitzvah the Torah says about him, “Acknowledge invincible might to Hashem, Whose grandeur is upon Yisrael as His might is in the skies” (Tehillim 68:35), that through the mitzvah, the person, so to speak, gives the Shechinah strength to protect Am Yisrael. Conversely, when a Jew sins it is as if he has placed a heavy burden on the Shechinah’s wings and it has to struggle with itself not to fall. With every sin we weigh down on the Shechinah’s wings. So at that very moment I said to him you are forgiven, you are released, I forgave everything so that his sins won’t weigh heavily on the Shechinah’s wings!
Rav Chaim ben Attar stood up and kissed that tzaddik on his head! So it is with Yosef HaTzaddik, his brothers said to him, “Now forgive the spiteful deed that [we], the servants of your father’s G-d, have done!” Even though your father isn’t alive, however, your father’s G-d is here and if until now you haven’t forgiven us then it is befitting for you to forgive us because of the honour of your father’s G-d, so as not to make the Shechinah’s wings heavy.
But Yosef HaTzaddik, didn’t think for one moment to avenge them, “As [the messengers] spoke with him, Yosef wept” (Bereishit 50:17). He cried that they merely suspected him, because for a long time already he had already forgiven his brothers for everything and he believed with all his heart that Hashem had intended it all for the greater good!
Someone who is offended and he forgives, then in Heaven they forgive him too, and this is exactly what Yosef did! In the future Hashem says, Am Yisrael sinned against me but despite this I forgive them. If Yosef my son can forgive, then I too will forgive Am Yisrael, and if Yosef can console his brothers, then I too will console Am Yisrael, “I, only I, am He Who comforts you” (Yeshaya 51:12). This was Yosef’s greatness, that he, so to speak, obligated the Shechinah how to act. When Am Yisrael will see the future miracles that Hashem will perform for them, they shall say, we aren’t worthy of all this! Why is Hashem doing this for us? They will cry, “With weeping they will come and through supplications I will bring them” in Yosef HaTzaddik’s merit, “for I have been a Father to Yisrael, and Ephraim is my firstborn” (Yirmiyahu 31:8).
With Hashem’s help may we speedily merit a complete redemption, Amen ken yehi ratzon.