Vayeishev – The Negative Drive for the Easy Life

Many people get a thrill out of taking risks, finding in it enjoyment or pleasure of some sort, even if it means risking one’s life. It can be as seemingly innocent as riding a roller coaster or hiking up a mountain, water skiing, snowboarding, or even more thrilling activities like bungy jumping, sky diving or even worse drinking or taking drugs. Where does this urge to take a risk come from, and why do people feel it is worth it?

In this week’s Torah portion of Vayeishev we find the scene that leads up to the selling of Yosef to Egypt: “And his brothers went to pasture their father’s flocks in Shechem. And Yisrael said to Yosef, ‘Are your brothers not pasturing in Shechem? Come, and I will send you to them.’ And he said to him, ‘Here I am.’ So he said to him, ‘Go now and see to your brothers’ welfare and the welfare of the flocks, and bring me back word.’ So he sent him from the valley of Hebron, and he came to Shechem. Then a man found him, and behold, he was straying in the field, and the man asked him, saying, ‘What are you looking for?’ And he said, ‘I am looking for my brothers. Tell me now, where are they pasturing?’ And the man said, ‘They have traveled away from here, for I overheard them say, Let us go to Dosan.’  So Yosef went after his brothers, and he found them in Dosan” (Breishis 37:12-17).

The lesson the Ralbag learns from these pesukim is that, “It is not befitting of a person to seek out pleasure (enjoyment) because that will lead to placing oneself in danger. For we see that the children of Yaakov, when searching for a place of pasture for their father’s flock, and it appeared to them at first glance that in Shechem they will find good pasture, as well as having an easy time to find food for themselves, so they were inspired to go there and overlooked that that was a place of grave danger, for what they had done to the people of that city. They were there for a bit and then decided to leave from there. Because of this Yosef was sent after them and this was a reason for why our forefathers went down to Egypt and the Egyptians enslaved them with harsh labor for an extremely long time.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
The brothers, Yaakov’s sons, grew up in a household of simplicity and mesiras nefesh [self-sacrifice], to do what was right, as we saw by the way Yaakov lived in Lavan’s house. They themselves were righteous, and there is zero indication anywhere that they were bad people. If you examine their intent, it was for the sake of taking care of their father’s flock, not even their own, and just to be able to eat. The Ralbag says nothing about indulging in delicacies or stuffing themselves, just of being able find an easy bite to eat. They also had to have known the dangers of the area. (I have a dvar Torah many years ago which depicts the battles from surrounding neighbors from the aftermath of the episode in Shechem, based on a Yalkut Shimone. Click here for the dvar Torah and here for the text of the Yalkut Shimone in Hebrew). If this is the case, how could they have gone wrong, and why was what they did so bad that it was treated as one of the catalysts for the Egyptian exile and servitude?

We must say that they erred on a very miniscule level, and due to their stature Hashem punished them the way that He did. The issue obviously was not that they had a problem with overindulgence and a drive to just enjoy themselves at any cost. But rather, on some minute level, they had this attitude of having a drive to “seek out pleasure,” which clouded their decision making and made them decide to first go to Shechem because it was more enjoyable and easier to find food there for themselves and their flock. When Yaakov heard where they were he got concerned and sent Yosef out to see if they were okay, and that is what spiraled into the Egyptian exile. If they would not have been clouded by this drive to seek out pleasure on this tiny level then they would have been able to think clearly and not worry their father and history would have somehow been different.

Good Shabbos and Happy Chanukah,
Rabbi Dovid Shmuel Milder

  • (Interesting tidbit: This is one of the rare Shabbosim that Chanukah falls out on the Torah portion of Vayeishev. Usually it is on Miket. If both Cheshvan and Kislev have 29 days, then Hanukkah will begin on Friday. Only the Sabbath of Vayeshev will fall during Hanukkah, and the Sabbath of Miketz will not be during Hanukkah; this is the only case in which this will occur and where Miketz‘s proper haftarah will thus be read).