Vayeshev: The beloved Zealot

The whole story of Yosef became the foundation of the history of the Am Yisroel because Hashem’s nation can only survive if there are those who love Hashem enough to act with zeal and enthusiasm to defend His honor. And that was Yosef.

HaRav Avigdor Miller zts"l

Judaism Haredi soldiers learning Torah
Haredi soldiers learning Torah
INN:Toras Avigdor

Part I. Righteous Zealotry

Yosef (Joseph) and His Brothers

וַיָּבֵא יוֹסֵף אֶת דִּבָּתָם רָעָה אֶל אֲבִיהֶם – And Yosef brought the evil report about his brothers to their father (Vayeishev 37:2). That’s one of the first things we learn in the Torah about Yosef Hatzadik – that he was always ‘telling’ on his brothers.

Now, the brothers were good brothers, no question about that. But you know that nobody is perfect — every human being sometimes does or says something wrong, and Yosef didn’t overlook anything. The truth is that I don’t even know if all of the things that Yosef said were factual. It could be he made mistakes – it could be it looked like they were doing something that wasn’t so proper and he suspected them too quickly; could be. I can’t tell you all the details, but what we do know is that he didn’t hesitate. He ran and told his father everything.

Yosef the Kana’i

Parshas Vayeishev is a remarkable story of a young man who was a kana'i, a zealot for the d’var Hashem who couldn’t tolerate any improper conduct. And that means that whenever Yosef saw his brothers do anything that seemed to him improper, anything that needed improving, he didn’t say, “It’s none of my business.” No; he was a kana'i and he brought it to his father’s attention.

A kana'i is somebody who loves Hashem so much that he cannot remain silent when he sees something being done against His will. The Mesillas Yesharim (Perek 19) says that. When he speaks about the subject of ahavas Hashem, the mitzvah and the attitude of loving Hashem, he declares that one of the vital branches of this avodah is to be a kana’i, to be zealous for Hashem.

It’s like a man who hears someone who is speaking unpleasant words about his father. You know, if you want to make trouble for yourself, a quick way to do that is to criticize a man’s father. It’s a sure way to upset him because he’s loyal to his father and therefore he can’t countenance people who speak against him or violate his will. He loves his father too much for that and therefore it bothers him very much; he becomes insulted, even incensed.

Who Truly Loves Hashem?

And so, as we speak tonight it’s important to keep in mind this definition of kana’us that the Mesilas Yesharim teaches us: A kana'i is somebody whom it hurts to see anything that contradicts the will of Hashem and he therefore acts with zeal and enthusiasm to defend the honor of Hashem. He speaks up to oppose the enemies of the Torah and to fight back against all the falsifiers.

And that’s what the Torah is telling us here about Yosef Hatzadik. It’s not what you learned in the cheder; Yosef wasn’t just a little boy who was slandering his brothers. He was an oheiv Hashem, and someone who loves Hashem will stand up for His will no matter what.

If you truly love Hashem then you just can’t tolerate anybody who is an enemy of Hashem. Not only that you can’t tolerate the atheists; that’s certain – but you can’t tolerate any infraction of the words of Hashem. You can't stand people doing what’s wrong because the one you love most, Hakodosh Boruch Hu, doesn’t want it.

Yosef Gets Himself in Trouble

And so when we study the story of Yosef, we understand that it’s not just a saga of a careless boy – it’s a case of a kana'i, a young man so in love with Hashem that he was willing to risk his life for the truth. Because you understand right away that Yosef’s zeal did not gain him any favor with his brothers. He was making a lot of trouble for himself when he did these things and he understood very well there were going to be some dangerous results. Actually, we see that he almost lost his life as a result; the brothers wanted to get rid of him because of that. וְעַתָּה לְכוּ וְנַהַרְגֵהוּ וְנַשְׁלִכֵהוּ בְּאַחַד הַבֹּרוֹת – “Let’s kill him,” said the brothers, “and throw his body into one of the pits in the wilderness” (ibid. 37:20).

Now, don’t think the shevatim weren’t people of great virtue. The brothers were good boys, very good boys. But when they saw a young man, especially a younger brother, who was so bold as to report faults to their father, they considered him a troublemaker, an upstart who was trying to gain favor with his father at their expense. Who knows what will happen someday? Before you know it, he'll be dreaming that he’s the boss over us, that we’ll be bowing down to him. He’s dangerous and has to be stopped.

Nevertheless, Yosef didn’t hold back and he continued to bring דִּבָּתָם רָעָה אֶל אֲבִיהֶם. He did what was commanded by his conscience – because he was full of zeal and so if something was wrong in his eyes, he went and told his father. That was kana’us!

Yosef Was Given Authority

And when Yaakov Avinu saw that this son was defending the truth, that he was taking up for righteousness, וְיִשְׂרָאֵל אָהַב אֶת יוֹסֵף מִכָּל בָּנָיו – so he loved him more than all the other sons, just because of that. The father saw that this son was a kana’i who was eager to uphold the truth of Hashem and וְעָשָׂה לוֹ כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּים – He made for him a special garment, a royal garment to show that this is the one who has the authority in the family.

The younger brother should be given the privilege to wear a conspicuous garment of authority?! Yes! “If he’s the one who will take up for kvod Shomayim,” said Yaakov, “then his words should be listened to! And therefore, I’ll make him outstanding among his brothers by means of the kesones passim. People should know that Yosef is a man whose opinion carries weight.” The one who speaks up for what’s right and criticizes what’s wrong, that man is defending the dvar Hashem and he’s the one who should be clothed in a special garment of authority. “A man like that,” said Yaakov, “who tells the truth and sees to it that people should behave properly according to the ratzon Hashem, I want that man to be the leader.

Now, if you follow the career of Yosef, you’ll see that it wasn’t only his father who favored him. Hakodosh Boruch Hu Himself gave great authority to Yosef because of this quality of being a zealous defender of the Torah ideals. What did Hakodosh Boruch Hu say when He saw that Yosef was zealous for the dvar Hashem? Now, I wasn't there at that time to hear, but I can imagine what He said: “If you’re that kind of man who will take up for me, then I’m going to make you a man of authority over your people. The time will come when everybody will be afraid of you and you’ll be able to say whatever you want.”

Hashem Raises Up the Zealot

It’s a principle in the hanhaga of Hakodosh Boruch Hu in this world that the kana’im who are energetic in the defense of Hashem and His Torah are promoted to greatness. That’s what the gemara says, כָּל אָדָם שֶׁיֵּשׁ בּוֹ יִרְאַת שָׁמַיִם דְּבָרָיו נִשְׁמָעִין – Anyone that has yiras Shomayim, his words are heard; they’re obeyed (Berachos 6b).

The kana’im for the truth, they’re the ones to whom the world should listen and therefore Hakodosh Boruch Hu elevates them in order to give more power to their efforts so that the zealot should have an effect on the people. כָּל אָדָם שֶׁיֵּשׁ עָלָיו חֵן בְּיָדוּעַ שֶׁהוּא יְרֵא שָׁמַיִם – When a person fears Hakodosh Boruch Hu, so He puts a chein upon his words in order that they should be accepted (Sukkah 49b).

Now you understand what Yosef’s dreams meant. וַתִּשְׁתַּחֲוֶיןָ לַאֲלֻמָּתִי – When Yosef said, “I saw in my dream that your bundles were bowing down to my bundle,” it was a remez min haShomayim that someday he would gain authority as the leader. It was a portent of what Hakodosh Boruch Hu desired – that everyone in the family should look up to Yosef the kana’i as the authority. He was one of the youngest but because of his eagerness to uphold righteousness in the family and his inability to rest when he saw something wrong, Hashem wanted the brothers to bow down to him.

The Royal Edict

And that’s why when the brothers finally came down to Mitzrayim, what did they discover? They found a decree, a royal edict from Pharaoh that was posted on the walls everywhere: בִלְעָדֶיךָ לֹא יָרִים אִישׁ אֶת יָדוֹ וְאֶת רַגְלוֹ בְּכָל אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם — In this country nobody can even raise their hand or foot without permission from Yosef (Bereishis 41:44). And when the brothers saw that, they were afraid. It wasn’t “Yosseleh, our little brother” anymore. It was Yosef, the regent king, the Tzofnas Panei’ach. And they knew he was the kind of person who wouldn’t stand for any avlos. They had experience with him already; if he saw anything wrong, he took action.

And all that was only because וַיָּבֵא אֶת דִּבָּתָם רָעָה אֶל אֲבִיהֶם; it was because he didn’t remain silent when he saw something wrong. When you’ll read next week that Pharaoh took off his ring and put it on Yosef’s finger, you should remember that it was only because Hakodosh Boruch Hu saw that Yosef was someone who speaks up to defend the emes. All that power was given to him only because he was a kana'i, a man who took up for Hashem’s words.

And what did Yosef do with this power? He became the first and the greatest king that ever reigned among the Jewish people. There was no melech who was as long in office as Yosef — he ruled over our nation for almost eighty years. The whole klal Yisrael was in Mitzrayim. וַיִּרְבּוּ וַיַּעַצְמוּ בִּמְאֹד מְאֹד. There were millions already and they all obeyed one man, and that man was Yosef. And they were so afraid of him that every smallest thing that they did was according to his wishes as long as he was alive.

Don’t make any mistake about it; those long years spent under Yosef’s watchful eyes trained the people to be medakdeik, to be careful in the kutzo shel yud, in the smallest thing – because they knew Yosef would react. They knew he wouldn’t tolerate any deviation from what’s right. That was Yosef’s motto: אֶת הָאֱלֹקִים אֲנִי יָרֵא – “I fear Elokim.” It means, “More than anything else that I’m afraid of in this world, I’m afraid of Hashem.” And he meant it.

And therefore, when the nation lived under Yosef, they were becoming prepared to live under the Torah that Hashem would later give. The whole story of Yosef became the foundation of the history of the Am Yisroel because Hashem’s nation can only survive if there are those who love Hashem enough to act with zeal and enthusiasm to defend His honor.