By Noam Levenson
Parshas Vayeshev takes us through the first half of Yosef’s story – his privilege and potential, his immaturity and sufferings. Yosef is the righteous person who receives strict and immediate punishment for seemingly minor transgressions. When reading these accountings, we often reflect on our own lives, on the countless times we’ve transgressed similarly with little consequence. Perhaps we think life is a little unfair for Hashem’s beloved tzaddikim. Yosef is consistently punished throughout the parsha, yet no punishment is brought upon his brothers (tzaddikim in their own right), seemingly the real villains in the story. After all, they tried to murder their brother. Where is their punishment?
Yosef is punished for three different transgressions. The first are the “evil reports 1 [דִּבָּתָ֥ם רָעָ֖ה]” that Yosef delivers to his father about his brothers. The reports are evil because he tells of every transgression they commit. Rashi tells us that for each evil report delivered, Yosef receives a specific punishment. For reporting how the sons of Leah referred to the secondary wives as “slaves,” Yosef himself is sold into slavery. For reporting on his brothers’ abuse of animals, his linen coat is bathed in goat’s blood as part of the story sold to Ya’akov. For reporting on their sexual immorality, he is subjected to the advances of Potiphar’s wife.2 A second reason is also given for Yosef needing to endure the test of Potiphar’s wife. Rashi says that once Yosef saw himself ruling in Potiphar’s home, he began to eat, drink, and curl his hair. Hashem scolded Yosef saying “your father is mourning and you curl your hair?” For this Rashi says, Potipher’s wife is set upon Yosef.3 Finally, Yosef is punished because he asks Pharaoh's cupbearer in the prison not to forget him, demonstrating a lack of emunah in Hashem. For this Rashi tells us that Yosef spends an additional two years in prison.4
The classic Jewish answer to this question is that tzaddikim are on a higher level so they’re held to a higher standard. However, these examples speak to a deeper element of human consciousness – that of sensitivity. Sensitivity is one of the most precious aspects of spirituality and it is cultivated delicately by those that embark on spiritual journeys. Sensitivity is always developed in the areas we choose to place our awareness. When we focus our attention on the shortcomings of our loved ones, we become far more sensitive to their imperfections. When we focus on the subtle flavors of fine wine, we become unable to drink anything less. Tzaddikim place their awareness on themselves – their emotions, their actions, their thoughts. Consequently, their sensitivity increases in those areas.
When we set an ideal for ourselves, we begin to notice when we fail to reach that ideal. If we recognize that yelling is a harmful way of expressing anger, then we begin to notice each time we yell. First, we notice after the fact – after the flash of anger or verbal outburst. But then we begin to notice the emotion or inclination rising in us before we express it. We begin to notice the triggers that lead us to our unhelpful expressions. We become sensitive to others around us and how they express their anger. Slowly, slowly, we build our sensitivity.
This leads us to an important message: the punishment for the sensitive is swift and immediate. Those who direct their attention to their middot (roughly translates as character traits, although it is more inclusive: our life force, our drive, the things that motivate us), also become sensitive to the consequences of their actions. They immediately notice when they transgress their ideals and feel the consequential pain. To those who are aware of their emotions, losing control and yelling is extremely painful – they see the pain they caused others, they know their actions did not reflect their ideals or values. The sensitive learn and grow from those moments. That is Yosef. He is on a level of sensitivity that warrants immediate consequences for his actions so that he might learn and grow and expand his spirituality and sensitivity.
The insensitive are likely not even aware of their transgressions, nor the consequences. They rationalize their actions. “I yelled because so and so disrespected me.” The punishment might be there, for example, disconnection from those they love – but they might not even be aware. They do not draw the causative relationship to their action. They accept no punishment for their actions because they aren’t even aware they acted wrongly. Only when they go through the process of t’shuva do they finally confront their consequences retroactively – in a far more painful manner.
The Ramchal in Derech Hashem writes that Hashem divides reward and punishment between this world and the next. The wicked receive their reward in this world and their punishment in the next. The righteous receive their punishment in this world and their reward in the world to come.5 To the sensitive, each transgression immediately slices their heart like a knife, driving them further towards personal perfection. Their reward in the world to come is the perfection they have achieved in this world through their ongoing and consistent process of t’ahuva. The wicked however live their lives reaping their rewards blindly and immediately and with little consequence. Only in the world to come are they faced with the pain of their t’shuva. This is the case with Yosef’s brothers. They are eventually faced with remorse for their actions when they encounter their brother Yosef alive in Egypt.6 However, the Talmud tells us (although there is disagreement among the sages) that the true consequence of their actions is realized a thousand years later when the Romans execute the Ten Martyrs – one for each complicit son of Yaakov.
When we read stories about the punishments of tzaddikim we should find them inspiring. They tell of people so sensitive to their own internal worlds, so sensitive to right and wrong and the subtle shades of grey in-between, that they immediately feel their punishments. And with each fall they rise again to a higher level – for that is the only way of perfecting ourselves. The alternative is willful ignorance and a life dedicated towards ignoring responsibility. But the consequences come always in the end. May we all merit to know our potential, to be immediately aware of our shortcomings, and to have the strength of character to bear the pain of falls and seek truth in the darkness, so that we may always rise higher than before.
- Bereshit 37:2
- Rashi: Bereshit 37:2
- Rashi: Bereshit 39:6
- Rashi: Bereshit 40:14
- Derech Hashem, Part 2:3
- Bereshit 42:21