Vayeshev: True Success

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayeshev


I hope all the Americans reading this had a lovely Thanksgiving with friends and family. In our Torah readings, family gatherings aren’t so happy. . . . the portion Vayeshev begins the story of Yosef, who appears as a kid with a fancy coat who acts arrogantly towards his brothers. They respond by throwing him into a pit, perhaps as an indirect form of fratricide, but Yehudah has the bright idea of making a few shekels by selling Yosef to the Yishmaelites, who in turn take him down to Egypt.

When the brothers set upon Yosef, they apparently mean to kill him, but Reuven, the eldest, prevails upon them to cool their murderous rage:

“And Reuven went on, ‘Shed no blood! Cast him into that pit out in the wilderness, but do not touch him yourselves’ — intending to save him from them and restore him to his father.” (Bereshit 37:22)

It’s unusual for the Torah to tell us what someone is thinking- usually we just read what they said, or did, and in fact, this attention paid to Reuven’s intentions becomes the occasion for an interesting commentary found in the Torah Temimah, a collection of rabbinic texts which connect teachings of the sages to passages in the Torah. On the verse above, the Torah Temimah quotes an earlier sage as saying that we should learn from this that it’s proper to publicize or make known when somebody does a mitzvah– as Reuven tried to do when he thought that he might return Yosef to their father. That is- we learn from the fact that the Torah tells us about Reuven’s actions that it’s proper to praise people for doing a mitzvah– to which I would add, even when it’s not entirely successful.

Note, please, that Reuven wasn’t able to return Yosef to safety- but the commentators are willing to give him moral and spiritual credit for worthy actions even if the outcome was not what was hoped. To me, this illustrates an important point: that “success” in the spiritual realm is not the same as “success” in the external world.  A spiritual success can be a moment of growth, perhaps the widening of moral vision or the discovery of previously unknown inner resources, while in the material world, success is usually quantifiable as projects finished and acknowledged by others.

Some of the greatest spiritual successes one will ever experience are entirely inward, and result only in the transformation of one soul; perhaps Reuven had such a moment when he resolved to go against his brothers to do the right thing. Seen from a religious perspective, it matters less that Reuven prevailed over Yehudah than that he prevailed over his own reticence and cowardice- and indeed, he does deserve praise for that. Doing a mitzvah should change the world- but it should also change the self, and this, too, is wondrous.

Shabbat Shalom,


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