Parshas Vayeishev -Likkutei Sichos-The spiritual advantage of Yosef over Yaakov and his brothers and the lessons in Bitachon and Bechira Chafshis

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Parshas Vayeishev

The spiritual superiority of Yosef over his father Yaakov and his brothers, and the lessons in Bitachon and Bechira Chafshis

(Likkutei Sichos Vol. 3[1])

In this week’s Parsha, Parshas Vayeishev, we learn of the troubling tale of events that occurred between Yosef and his brothers. Yosef rouses his brothers’ anger and jealousy by retelling his dreams of them bowing to him, and by slandering them before his father. This eventually led to Yosef being thrown into the pit and sold to Egypt as a slave and ending up incarcerated due to false accusations. In this talk the Rebbe analyzes several aspects of this story including the spiritual advantage that Yosef had over his brothers, and even over his own father Yaakov. The Rebbe then uses this understanding of Yosef’s spiritual advantage to explain why Yosef was punished for having asked the butler to intervene on his behalf to help set him free, when all he was doing was making a physical channel for G-d to have him released. In the end of the talk, the Rebbe explains the logic behind the decision of the brothers to throw Yosef into a deadly pit rather than kill him directly. The discussions of this talk of the Rebbe teaches us major philosophical lessons regarding the Mitzvah to trust in G-d, and the extent of our power of freedom of choice, and how we could cause a person to be victimized due to our bad decisions, despite him being innocent in the eyes of heaven.

Explorations of the Sicha:

1. What was the difference in spiritual level between Yosef and his brothers and father?

2. Why did our forefathers and sons of Yaakov take the occupation of being shepherds?

3. Why was Yosef punished for asking the butler to intervene on his behalf when he was simply placing the neccessary effort of making a physical channel for his release.

4. Does placing effort to create physical means to solve a problem that one is facing, contradict one’s trust of G-d? May, or should one, throw all one’s trust in G-d and not even try to place effort to solve the problem that he is facing through physical means?

5. What was the advantage of throwing Yosef into a pit of scorpions and snakes rather than killing him directly?

6. Does man have freedom of choice to harm another person if in heaven they did not decree for that person to be harmed?

1. The spiritual advantage of Yosef over his brothers and father:[2]

As we know, the dreams that Yosef had in which he saw his family bowing down to him, eventually came true. Yosef was appointed to be the provider of sustenance to the world in the time of famine and was the one who provided his father and brothers with sustenance during those years. This position that Yosef held, in which he was the one supporting his family, including his own father, is the result of a spiritual advantage that Yosef contained over that of his brothers and even his father. Meaning, that since in certain aspects he was spiritually on a higher level than his brothers and father, therefore he was also appointed as King over them and had his father and brothers bow to him on several occasions.[3] The bowing of Yaakov and his brothers to Yosef, itself resulted from the fact that spiritually Yosef contained superior aspects over them. It is now left to us to discover what exactly his spiritual advantage was.

2. The ability to remain righteous despite involvement in worldly matters:

The brothers were shepherds and separated themselves from the world: Our forefathers, as well as the brothers of Yosef, spent their time shepherding flock. The work of a shepherd entails a person separating himself from worldly affairs and living in the field. Our forefathers, as well as the sons of Yaakov who formed the 12 tribes, chose this occupation to permit themselves spiritual bliss, and in order to segregate themselves from all physical matters of the world that can disturb their spiritual peace. This was of course with exception to Yosef, as explained next.

The ability of Yosef to retain his righteousness despite involvement in worldly matters: Yosef was not a shepherd and had an occupation which made him be involved in depth in the worldly affairs, which carried the physical worries and challenges, due to him living in the country of Egypt and leading their people. Despite all this, Yosef successfully managed to retain his piety and righteousness and not fall victim to the evil inclinations that surrounded him. This ability to be fully involved in the depths of the physical world and its challenges, and still retain one’s full level of righteousness, was solely within the ability of Yosef,, and was the spiritual advantage he held over his brothers, including even his own father. There is also another spiritual advantage that we find regarding Yosef, and that is regarding trust in G-d, as we will now explain.

3. Why was Yosef punished for simply asking the butler to mention his name in front of Pharaoh?[4]

In the end of Parshas Vayeishev, we learn of Yosef’s imprisonment together with the butler and Baker of Pharaoh and of the dreams which they had which Yosef interpreted correctly. Yosef asked the butler to do him a favor in exchange for interpreting the butlers dream in a positive way. He asked him to mention his name for release in front of Pharaoh when he becomes released from jail and is reinstated to serve him. The Mefarshim[5] explain that this request of Yosef from the butler was a sign of lack of faith in G-d as Yosef should have relied on no one other than G-d to help save him, and should not have asked the Egyptian butler for any assistance. For this reason, Scripture[6] states that the butler forgot to mention Yosef in front of Pharaoh, and Yosef went on to remain another two years in jail as a punishment for having depended his salvation on the butler.

This commentary is quite puzzling, as certainly one is allowed and even obligated to do everything in his power in this physical world to relieve himself of a problem that he is facing, and one may not just lay back and throw it to the hands of G-d and free himself of any responsibility or action. A Jew is required to make a vessel for G-d’s blessing and not forget that is the blessing of G-d that saves and bring sustenance, however, he is not meant to rely on G-d without making the physical channels for G-d’s blessing to come to fruition.[7] If so, it is not understood why Yosef did anything wrong by asking the butler to mention his name to Pharaoh, and certainly it should not have been deserving of the punishment of remaining an extra two years in jail. In fact, one can rightfully argue that Yosef followed in the path of his own father Yaakov who in his anticipated meeting with his archenemy brother Esav, sent his brother presents and prepared for war, and did not simply rely on his prayer in trust of G-d. Yaakov performed two physical matters and created two physical channels in addition to his prayer while Yosef only did one. We do not find it mentioned anywhere that Yaakov was punished for what he did, or that there was something wrong with what he did, and so what was wrong with Yosef following the same line of action as that of his fathers? The explanation to this matter lies in understanding the difference between the spiritual level of Yaakov and that of his son Yosef.

4. For Yosef’s spiritual level, making a physical channel is unnecessary:[8]

The above rule that a person must make a physical channel to serve as a receptacle for the blessing of G-d to take fruition applies to majority of Jewry, including the majority of Tzadikim. However, certain Tzadikim are on a level that it is not necessary for them to even make a physical channel for G-d’s blessing, as they are connected to G-d on a level that is above the limitations of the world. For these Tzadikim, a simple and pure faith and trust in G-d is enough to bring down the salvation, and they may literally sit back and not do anything about their problem. By a regular Jew, including even regular Tzadikim, the trust in G-d that they are required to have entails trusting that G-d will give them blessing through the channel that they created, and hence they are required to first create this channel and then trust. However, by some rare Tzadikim, the level of trust demanded of them requires them to trust that G-d will provide them with a blessing despite not having created any channel for the blessing to rest on, and thus they trust that G-d will provide for them both the blessing, and the physical channel for it to become realized. For such Tzadikim, making a physical channel is a lack of trust in G-d. This is precisely the difference between Yosef and his father Yaakov. Yaakov was from the spiritual level of the regular Tzadikim who are not only allowed to build a channel for G-d’s blessing, but are required to do so, and then trust that G-d will provide them with blessing through that channel. However, Yosef was from the level of the rare higher Tzadikim who are not even allowed to make a physical channel for the blessing and must have complete trust that G-d will give them salvation regardless. This is why Yosef was punished for asking the butler to intervene on his behalf, while his father Yaakov was not punished for sending presents to his brother Esav.

We will now analyze another part of the story with Yosef and his brothers recorded in Parshas Vayeishev, regarding his brothers throwing him into the pit instead of killing him.

5. Understanding the strategy of throwing Yosef to a pit in which he will for certain die:

When Yosef first approached his brothers in the city of Shechem, they conspired amongst themselves to kill him with their bare hands although later decided, based on the advice of their brother Reuvein, to simply throw him into the pit and not to kill him directly.[9] The sages[10] teach us that the pit was filled with scorpions and snakes, which would have meant a most certain death for Yosef. In fact, the Talmud[11] states that falling into a pit with snakes and scorpions is viewed to cause such definite death that if this occurred to a husband, G-d forbid, then his wife could remarry even without witnesses seeing the corpse. If so, the question is rightfully raised as to the strategy of the brothers throwing their brother Yosef into the pit filled with snakes and scorpions, instead of killing him, if in truth this is synonymous with death. [This question especially applies towards Reuvein, who is the one who gave the advice of throwing Yosef into the pit rather than killing him directly, whose true intent was to later come and save his brother from the pit. What was Reuvein thinking in advising to throw Yosef into a pit of snakes and scorpions in which for certain he would die, if his true intent was to save him and let him live?]

6. Can a person’s freedom of choice interfere or override decisions of G-d:

The explanation behind the above query draws us into a deep and philosophical exploration as to the parameters of freedom of choice, and if it has the power to interfere with decisions made by G-d. For example, if a person chooses to steal from somebody else, will G-d allow him to be successful in stealing even if the victim does not deserve to have something stolen from him? Does freedom of choice also come with freedom of decision to harm another, or is it limited to only those cases in which G-d has already decreed harm on the victim. In other words, if G-d did not decree for the victim to be robbed, or to lose his item or money, is it possible for a person to choose to rob him and successfully do so due to his freedom of choice, or would G-d stop him from being able to accomplish his decision to rob, being that G-d himself never decreed for the victim to lose an item. In answer to this question, the Mefarshim[12] explain that indeed included in the power of freedom of choice that G-d gave a Jew, is the power to make decisions of harming another, even when G-d himself has not decreed such harm on the victim. Based on this, we can now explain the strategy that the brothers acted upon when deciding to throw Yosef into the pit of scorpions and snakes rather than directly killing him.

7. Killing Yosef directly would be risking Yosef’s innocence:[13]

The holy brothers of Yosef who were truly righteous men would never murder an innocent victim, especially one of their own blood. They were fully convinced that their brother Yosef was deserving of death under Torah law being that he was informing on them to their father, and potentially causing them to lose their portion in the lot of Israel. It is for this reason that they decided to put Yosef to death. Reuven however argued to them that it is better that they do not kill him directly, as while they certainly believe that Yosef is liable for death, perhaps they are making a legal mistake, and in truth, in the eyes of heaven, Yosef is innocent. Now, argued Reuven to his brothers, if we decide to kill him directly with our own hands, we may be successful in killing him even though in truth he is not really legally liable, as everything is in the hands of heaven except for fear of heaven, and we as human beings have freedom of choice to harm Yosef even if such death was never decreed upon him in heaven. Perhaps Yosef is innocent according to some legal opinions, or perhaps he has merits which would stand in his favor to prevent a heavenly decision of death, and by us killing him directly we would prevent these arguments from standing in his merit. Therefore, suggested Reuvein, it would be better that we throw Yosef into a pit of snakes and scorpions, and leave it to G-d to decide his true fate. If G-d believes that Yosef is deserving of death, then he will not perform a miracle for him, and will let him die in the hands of the snakes and scorpions, and we shall rest assured that we did not manipulate the Divine judgment. However, if G-d believes that Yosef is not deserving of death, then he will not give power to the snakes and scorpions who do not have freedom of choice and are directly under His will, to have the power to kill him, and G-d will allow a miracle to occur to have Yosef saved, as precisely occurred. However, continued Reuven to argue, if we were to kill him directly, we could potentially manipulate the Divine judgment and cause him to die despite being undeserving of death and worthy of a miracle to save him.

8. Contradictions to the above:

In a letter written by the Rebbe[14], the following contradiction is raised to what was stated in the above talk: The idea that a person can decide to inflict harm on another individual despite him not being deserving of it, and it not having been decreed in heaven to occur, directly contradicts a teaching of the Alter Rebbe in Tanya [which in fact we elaborated on in this book under Parshas Lech Lecha]. In Igeres Hakodesh 25, Admur explains that it is not possible for one to inflict harm on another unless the harm was a ready decreed in heaven. For this reason, explains Admur, when one becomes the victim of another person, one should not get angry at the perpetrator as he was just a messenger to fulfill the Divine decision, as everything that occurs is with absolute Divine providence. This completely contradicts what we explained above that in truth the power of freedom of choice gives people the power to injure innocent victims who are undeserving of punishment in the eyes of heaven. The Rebbe’s reply to this contradiction is short and cryptic, and we will attempt here to elaborate and explain the matter, according to our understanding of the Rebbe’s reply.

9. Man has freedom of choice to influence the decisions above:

The Rebbe’s reply: In the above letter, the Rebbe replies to the contradiction as follows [free translation]: When an individual with freedom of choice chooses to do harm to another it is similar, and in truth even more dangerous, then the victim finding himself in a dangerous area, even though here too it is all dependent on the decree of G-d. The danger of falling victim to a person who has freedom of choice is worse than the danger of falling victim to an animal and therefore even a small merit suffices in contrast to people who have freedom of choice. One should refer to the statement of the sages regarding how gossip kills three people, and that which is explained regarding this in Hayom Yom of the 13th of Cheshvan.

The explanation-Man retains a freedom of choice to create a dangerous situation which requires G-dly intervention based on merit: The explanation behind the Rebbe’s answer is seemingly as follows: We are taught that it is an absolute prohibition to enter ourselves into danger and rely on miracles. The reason for this is because G-d does not always perform a miracle for a person, and one must have enough merits for a miracle to be done to take him out of a situation of danger.[15] Now, one may rightfully ask as to why this is the case, as if G-d did not decree for something to happen to someone, then it should not happen regardless of the situation and as to how dangerous it is. For example, if G-d did not decree for someone to get hit by a car, then seemingly he should not get hit by a car whether he’s walking on the sidewalk, or sprinting onto a busy highway with speeding cars? What is incorrect about this notion? The answer is that G-d created the world with a certain system of nature, and the more that is required to override the natural system, the more merits one needs in the eyes of G-d. In other words, while an individual may not be deserving of getting hit by a car while walking on the sidewalk, and thus G-d will not make the rare event occur of a car going out of control and slamming into him while walking on the sidewalk, this may not be the case if the person decides to sprint down I-95. In that case, it is not G-d who is directly deciding for the person to get hit by the car, but rather His rules of nature that He embedded into creation, which have nothing to do with a person’s innocence or guilt, but rather with the natural order of the world. Now, while of course G-d retains the ultimate decision of whether this individual will die as a result of the natural danger, He does not choose to override this natural danger so easily and freely, and requires that the potential victim have enough merits to deserve being saved, and have G-d intervene to stop the laws of nature which He created, from applying to him.

Based on this, we can explain that man’s freedom of choice also gives him the freedom to place an individual under judgment and scrutiny of whether he is deserving of G-dly intervention to save him from the threat of the potential perpetrator. Meaning, that under normal circumstances it could be that G-d did not decree upon a certain individual to be victimized, nonetheless it is possible for G-d to allow him to be victimized if he makes himself vulnerable to the victimization, as perhaps he does not retain enough merits to save him from the situation that he is in. This concept applies even if one’s current standing in a vulnerable situation is not one’s own fault, but rather the fault of a human who has freedom of choice. If a perpetrator decides to victimize someone, then he places the victim in a vulnerable situation which requires G-dly intervention for him to be saved, and rather than the question being as to whether G-d has already decreed this victimization on the victim due to his sins, the question is whether the individual contains enough merits to have G-d save him. Accordingly, while in the end of the day anything that happens to a person is either with G-d’s direct decree or at least His approval, man has the power due to his freedom of choice to so to say force G-d into agreeing to allow someone to be victimized, by placing that individual in a situation of danger which he does not have enough merits to save him from.

Despite the above explanation, in truth it does not fully suffice, as in the end of the day not only does this explanation dilute the power of G-d to run everything as He sees fit and justified, but furthermore it throws the main responsibility and liability for the victimization upon the perpetrator. Hence how can the Alter Rebbe argue to a victim that he should not get angry at the perpetrator, when in truth it is the perpetrator who put G-d in a position to allow this to happen despite him not being liable for it due to his sins and bears the full responsibility. One can therefore suggest an even deeper approach to the subject based on the last statement of the Rebbe in his above letter, that in truth it is always G-d’s direct decision.

Man has the power to affect Divine scrutiny and judgment: The sages[16] taught that one who speaks gossip of another cause’s damage to himself, the listener, and the person he spoke about.[17] Now, the Baal Shem Tov explains that this damage is not just physical but also spiritual, which is much worse than physical murder. Seemingly, the explanation is as follows: When one speaks negatively of another, it causes that individual to be scrutinized to see if he contains those bad traits, and that scrutiny itself can then cause something bad to happen to that individual. In other words, just as looking at someone with a bad eye or cursing them or judging them negatively can cause the heavenly courts to scrutinize the victim and bring punishment to him[18], so too, the decision of a person to victimize someone can cause that victim’s case to be scrutinized before heaven and have it decree that he is deserving of it. Accordingly, while it is G-d who makes the final decision and decree in whether someone deserves to have something bad happened to him, man has the power to influence this decree by bringing the victims case to G-d’s attention. Based on this, in the end of the day, it is man’s own sins, and G-d’s final decision, which are responsible for the bad that happens to him, however, there is an element of blame also on the perpetrator being that he so to say informed on the victim before G-d.

The Divine lessons:

· Don’t be jealous, everyone is created with different qualities and missions: Yosef’s brothers were angry at him because they believed that he was unjustifiably elevating himself above them, while in truth the fact was that Yosef contained spiritual qualities that were greater and higher than his brothers, and even that of his father. We can learn from this that sometimes we need to accept the fact that G-d granted qualities to others that we do not contain, and in relation to those qualities we should humble ourselves before them. Furthermore, G-d gave everyone the qualities he needs to fulfill his mission in life and hence if you don’t have someone else’s qualities, that itself is a sign that you don’t need them to fulfill your life mission. Having this attitude can help diminish the jealousy that can be developed against another who we may view to be of higher stature and in competition with us.

· Do the effort necessary to merit your trust in G-d: One must balance his trust in G-d with his efforts in creating a physical channel for G-d’s blessing to be expressed through. The concept of trust in G-d is not that one throws the personal responsibility to G-d, and takes no action of his own to deal with the issues, but rather that within his effort and toil to solve the problem, he trusts that G-d will make him successful, and he will merit for it to be a proper vessel for G-d’s blessing. The concept of absolute trust without even making a vessel is something relevant only for the most elite Tzadikim.

· Beware of decisions that can affect others, and always try to judge and look at everyone in a positive light: We must be aware of the power that we contain in our actions and decisions, and in our words and thoughts, and how that can influence G-d’s decision regarding ourselves and another. If we think and speak derogatorily about a person, and certainly if we decide to do something to harm another person, we can cause that person to be scrutinized and judged in heaven, and influence the heavenly decision in having him in having him be punished. Thus, we must be very careful to never utter a curse from our lips or wish another any harm, and we cannot excuse such language with saying that our words are meaningless, and G-d will anyways decide whatever he wants. On the other hand, from here we can learn that thinking and speaking positively about another, can help influence that person’s standing in heaven for the better. Let us all use our minds, mouths, and hands, to influence the Divine tribunal to judge others favorably, and consequently benefit that we too are judged favorably above.


[1] This talk is printed by Parshas Vayechi of Likkutei Sichos ibid, although in truth its content relates to Parshas Vayeishev, and indeed its original recital by the Rebbe was not on because of Parshas Vayechi. We have therefore chosen it for the Sicha of this week’s Parsha.

[2] See also Toras Chaim Vayechi 103b

[3] The brothers bowed to Yosef a total of five times. [Bereishis Raba 84:10]

[4] See Toras Chaim Vayechi p. 107

[5] Rashi 40:23; Bereishis Raba 89:3

[6] 40:23

[7] See Devarim 15:18; Kuntrus Umayan 25

[8] See Rabbeinu Bechayeh on 40:23

[9] Bereishis 37:22

[10] Shabbos 22a

[11] Yevamos 121a; Michaber E.H. 17:29

[12] Or Hachaim Vayeishev 37:20

[13] See Or Hachaim ibid “As a person has freedom of choice and freedom of will and is able to kill someone who is not liable for death. This is in contrast to dangerous animals which cannot injure a man unless he is liable for death in heaven.”

[14] Printed in Likkutei Sichos volume 30 Parshas Vayeishev page 297

[15] See Brachos 55a

[16] Erechin 15b

[17] See Rambam Deios 7:3; Bach on Eerechin ibid; Vayikra Raba 26b; Unlike Pirush of Besht in Hayom Yom 13th Cheshvon; Igros Kodesh 6 p. 141 who seems to accept the commentary of the Rambam; See Likkutei Sichos 5 p. 45, 15:32 and 36:6 that the Lashon Hara causes the evil in one’s friend to become revealed.

[18] See Sefer Habaal Shem Tov Parshas Kedoshim 2

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