Blessings don’t come easily in this world. Everything of great value comes through hardship. Even peace itself comes from being diligent in bittul (self-transcendence), choosing how to navigate our reactions.
The deeper and more meaningful a relationship is the better the chances are of having difficult elements to work through. If you want to go deep in a relationship, there will be work to get through so that each person feels that they are being heard and loved in the way that they need. It’s similar in relationships between parents and children: the amount of love a parent feels for their child is indescribable, but it comes from a constant giving of one’s emotional and physical faculties. In the newborn stage, it’s waking up every couple hours to feed, hold or change the baby, when we just want to have one solid night’s sleep. When they are older, it’s a series of challenges that any human goes through and every parent wants to take on. But the connection could not be deeper and the love more profound because of those challenges on the journey. Through the hardships come the blessings.
In this parahsah, Rashi says that “Yakov sought to dwell in tranquility.”1 But as soon as he did, immediately the troubles with Yosef and his brothers began, and instead of peace, Yakov ended up mourning Yosef, thinking he was dead for twenty years, only reuniting with him in his old age. It’s said that when a tzadik wishes to live at ease, Hashem says to them: “Are not the righteous satisfied with what is stored up for them in the world to come that they wish to live at ease in this world too!2
There’s a song by Cage The Elephant that I remixed for my Bonnaroo album called “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked.” It’s a play off the verse from Isaiah, “There is no peace for the wicked.”3 But in Talmud Berachot, Chazal (Our Sages) say the same in regards to tzadikim, “The righteous have no rest.”4 And Job wrote that “man was born to toil”5 Essentially, in this world, we have work to do, and we can’t hope to sit idly by as our unique gifts and talents grow stale.
As we covered last week, we are all interlinked, especially on the spiritual level, and so, by fulfilling one’s mission, a righteous person is fulfilling and completing the missions of the righteous souls that preceded him. This comes into play with Yakov, as he “sought to dwell in tranquility.” But this tranquility only came into being after Yakov went through the hardship of Yosef’s descent into Egypt. The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that this brought about complete bittul. Yakov’s relationship with the material was to dominate it but always remain above it, still elevating it to its source. But Yosef took this a step further when he was brought against his will down to Egypt as a slave. So, Yakov, ultimately finding himself in Egypt, was able to merit bringing the sparks of holiness that are found in the lowest levels of material existence. It was the very elevation to the highest level of the materiality and physicality found in the lowest level that allowed Yakov’s request of dwelling in tranquility (a taste of the World to Come) in this life to finally be answered.
The Zohar teaches that after this period, Yakov was granted “another seventeen years of pleasure, luxury, delight, and ecstasy, as it’s written, ‘and Yakov lived..’ with ‘pleasure and delight,’6 like the righteous who will ‘delight in the radiance of the Infinite Light.’7 It’s interesting that this period of delight and tranquility came after the 22 years Yosef was away from Yakov, which perhaps was a tikkun that Yakov himself needed for the 22 years that he spent away from his father, Yitzchak.8
But going back to the initial breaking of Yakov’s tranquility– it began when Yosef told his father Yakov about his brothers’ inappropriate behavior behind their backs. Yosef’s karma came quickly. Everything that he had reported to his father about his brothers came back to him. He shared how his brothers were eating flesh cut off from a living animal, and his brothers sold him, cutting him off from the family. He told Yakov how the brothers treated the sons of the handmaids with contempt and called them slaves, and then “Yosef was sold for a slave.”9 Because he shared with his father that his brothers were acting immorally, Yosef’s “master’s wife cast her eyes upon him etc,”10 and he landed in prison in Egypt for two years.
We see the same when Yosef shared his dreams with his brothers, which painted a picture of them worshiping him. Even though it was a dream, it stirred jealousy in them. R’ Samson Raphael Hirsh explains that the “evil reports” Yosef would bring to his father about them was what united the brothers to turn against him. Yosef was the one brother that had the ability to unite them for the positive, since he was the only one who had dealings with both groups– Leah’s sons and the sons of the handmaidens. But instead of uniting the two, Yosef, in a childlike way, would share with his father the bad things that each group said about each other. This is what ultimately united them, as the common ground for people that dislike each other is often when those two groups find a common “enemy”.
Tzofnat Pane’ach points out that this Parashah mentions that Yisrael loved Yosef more than his other sons. The word ‘Yisrael’ generally implies the entire nation, and so the choice of the word to be used here where many other parshiot still write Yakov is a hint towards the beginning of the exile of the Israelite nation, in accordance with what Hashem told Avraham at the Brit Bein Habetarim (“The Covenant of Parts”), which stated that Avraham’s descendants would be enslaved and then, eventually, redeemed and that they would inherit the Land of Canaan, known as Israel. The Jewish nation started to take form through Yakov’s twelve sons, forming twelve tribes, and the sale of Yosef into slavery marks the beginning of the nation’s exile.11 And what began this long, bitter exile? Words. Words of a brother against his brothers.
Words create worlds. Hashem spoke existence into being. Words have the power to create, but can also destroy the very same thing. So, it’s not surprising that it is forbidden to speak lashon hara (“evil tongue”), which means speaking negatively about someone else, even if it is true. As Tupac famously sang, “Only God Could Judge Me,” because there are three sides to any story– each person’s perspective and the truth and only Hashem knows the truth. So when we spread stories about others, whether true or not, we are destroying the potential of connecting elements and people, and in some cases destroying the elements or connection that already existed between people. In such cases, negative begets negative and judgement tends to skew, unfavorably playing on people’s predilection for DRAMA. In those moments, we tend to forget each of us are our own complex universes and not what one would perceive as 100% good or a 100% “bad”, but just individuals trying our best. By avoiding lashon hara and focusing only on the positive, we can judge everything favorably. And as Rebbe Nachman of Breslov teaches, that very act can bring a person to a place of merit, to a place of revealed good and teshuva (‘return’).
Rabbi Moshe Weinberger shares a story of Reb Simcha Bunim: There was once a tzaddik named Reb Shiyela, a brilliant man of Torah, living in the town of Pushelberg. He was opposed to the chassidim of Reb Simcha Bunim of Peshischa (Przysucha, Poland), although he still had many friends who were followers of this man. For example, he was on very good terms with Reb Yitzchok of Vurka, who was a follower of the chassidim of Bunim.
One day, this man, Reb Yitzchok was traveling through Pshetberg, and he stopped in to visit his friend Reb Shiyela. Reb Shiyela was disturbed by this gap between them, and said, “Reb Yizchok, I know that you are a follower of Reb Simcha Bunim, how can you even come to see me? Doesn’t it bother you? You know that I’m against your Rebbe! If you are a real chassid, how can you even come to talk to me?”
Reb Yitzchok answered, “If I knew you were opposed to my Rebbe, you’re right, I wouldn’t be able to look at your face; our friendship would be impossible. But, I don’t believe that you’re really opposed to my master. You have never met him. You are judging only based on lashon hora that has been spoken about him. I know him well– he is holy and pure. Whoever says against him is telling lies. If you actually met him yourself, you would agree. And so, when you’ve said anything negative against Reb Bunim, you weren’t saying it against him.”
Then, Reb Yitzchok told Reb Shiyela a story: “Last year,” he said, “I was traveling through a new town where I had never been before. I was in the market when out of nowhere a woman attacked me. She was screaming and hitting me with a lot of anger. The people around us pulled her off of me, and it turns out that she had been abandoned by her husband years before and, when she saw me, she thought that I was him. When she realized her mistake, she was so embarrassed and apologized profusely. It was especially terrible for her because the people around us were chastising her for attacking a rabbi. She asked if I could ever forgive her, and I explained: ‘Don’t be upset. Really, the person you were attacking was your husband, because you thought I was him. If you had known I was Yitchok from Vurka, you never would have attacked me.’”
The lesson we learn from these teachings is that when Reb Shiyela was saying negative things about Reb Simcha Bunim, he was not actually talking about Reb Simcha Bunim. As Reb Yitzchok explained, this is because the person Reb Shiyela was imagining Reb Simcha Bunim to be is not really who he is. “You’re imagining him to be a terrible person,” he explained, “as a result of all those negative rumors you’ve heard. But that is not him at all. That is not the person I know him to be. If my Rebbe had really done those things that people are saying about him, then you would be right to oppose him. I would oppose him too. Therefore, I have no problem with you or our friendship, because the things you are saying are true, but you’ve got the wrong man. The man you are describing is not my Rebbe.”12
The Rabbi most associated with not speaking lashon hara is Rabbi Israel Meir Hakohen of Radin, known simply as the Chafetz Chaim, so named for his sefer by the same name, inspired by the verse in Tehillim, “Whoever of you desires life (chafetz chaim) . . . guard your tongue from evil . . .”.13
Lashon Hara as a concept is fairly well known and people seem to remind others of it from time to time, but it also seems as though so many people don’t actually know the laws pertaining to this important prohibition. If you were studying for a test of how to be a good semitic samaritan, the Cliffs notes might look a bit like this:
Lashon hara means “bad talk.” This goes so far as to it being forbidden to speak negatively about someone else, even if it is true.14
There is also the concept of not partaking in rechilut (gossip), where it is forbidden to repeat anything about another, even if it is not a negative thing.15
The prohibition is also on the listener, as it’s forbidden to listen to lashon hara. And accordingly, one should either make sure the one who is speaking stops, or if that’s not possible, one must remove themselves from the space of lashon hara.16
If the person has already heard the lashon hara, the prohibition goes as far as making sure to not believe what one has heard. And in those cases, we have to be extra careful to judge the person and indeed every person favorably.17
Talmud Niddah says even with all that in mind, it is important to take the necessary precautions to protect oneself in regards to what was spoken.18
We also cannot retell a negative event using names and even without using names, since the listeners might be able to figure out who is being spoken of.19
The one exception with lashon hara is when it comes to certain circumstances, such as to protect someone from harm. For example, in business dealings and shidduchim (marriage arrangements), it is permissible or even obligatory to share negative information. But there are many intricate details to these exceptions and so it is important to learn them prior to using them as a leniency in any specific situation.20
The Baal Shem Tov explains that “Lashon hara “kills three people”: the inventor of the slander, the one who relates it and the listener. He adds that this kind of “spiritual murder” in many ways can be considered more severe than physical murder. There are also many stories of the Baal Shem Tov illustrating the damaging effects of lashon hara.
One of these is of a man that loved to tell stories, some about folks he knew, others about folks that he had heard of. He would always embellish the stories to make them more entertaining. Once he found out something strange about another businessman in his community and couldn’t wait to share this story with his friends. They, of course, shared it with their friends, until the strange news made its way around town. Finally, the main character of the story, the businessman himself, heard the news. This businessman ran to the Rabbi in distress, ruined, no one in the community would deal with him now. Just like that, his good name was gone!
This Rabbi looked to the businessman and said, “I have an idea,” and he decided to send for the man who loved to tell stories, figuring if it was not he who started spreading the lashon hara, perhaps he would know who it was. The man didn’t think much of it, because it was true, but after hearing from the rabbi how devastated the businessman was, the man who loved to tell stories felt true sorrow and regret.
The Rabbi explained that whether it is true or not true, it is all slander, which is akin to murder. As we see in this case, one kills the person’s reputation and their ability to live. The man started to feel even worse and asked, “What can I do to make it undone?… I will do anything you say!”
The Rabbi looked at the man and told him, “Go to your home, find a feather pillow and bring it back to me.”
The man thought this was a strange request, but it seemed easy enough. He fetched a pillow and came back to the rabbi. The rabbi opened the window and handed him a knife and said, “Cut it open!”
The man replied, “But Rabbi, here in your study? It will make a mess!”
The Rabbi nodded that it was fine and said, “Do as I say.”
So the man cut the pillow and saw a cloud of feathers come out, landing on the chairs, on the bookcase, on the clock, on the cat which jumped after them. They started to float over the table and into the teacups, on the rabbi and on the man with the knife, and a lot of them flew out of the window. The rabbi waited ten minutes and then looked at the man and said, “Now bring me back all the feathers and stuff them back in your pillow. All of them, mind you. Not one may be missing!”
The man stared at the rabbi in disbelief and said, “That is impossible, Rabbi. The ones here in the room I might get, most of them, but the ones that flew out of the window are gone. Rabbi, I can’t do that, you know it!”
The Rabbi looked to him and said, “Yes, that’s how it is: once a rumor, a gossipy story, a ‘secret’ leaves your mouth, you do not know where it will end up. It flies on the wings of the wind, and you can never get it back!”
The Rabbi waited a couple more minutes, as the man felt horrible, and then said to him, “Now it is time to deeply apologize to the person about whom you spread the rumor. It will be difficult and painful, but it’s the least you can do. You will have to do the same with the people to whom you told the story, making them accomplices in this lashon hara.”
The lesson for us in this parashah is clear: lashon hara has very heavy consequences. But when reading the Torah in regard to Yosef and the brothers, we have to keep in mind that, in their case, they were acting in their time in accordance with what was destined for us to have a descent to Egypt which was needed for the eventual ascent to Israel. And so Abarbanel stresses that the Torah does not want to disparage Yosef but rather praise him for being diligent and wise, and stresses the importance of speaking up to their father, as an attempt to keep them from sinning. He explains that the brothers are also not to blame, as they were acting out of the assumption that Yakov wanted to reject them just like Avraham had done with his firstborn son, Yishmael, and Yitchak had done with his first born son Esav.
The Arizal explains that the brothers knew that previously there was always one son worthy of spreading the consciousness of Hashem in the world and another son who was too egocentric to do so. They knew that the unworthy/egocentric son had to be sent away, so that the mission and potential of revelation in this world would not be contaminated. They thought Yosef the unfit one of their generation, knowing that the light of Avraham was purified by the rejection of Ishamel. And when this light was passed onto Yitzchak, it still contained some secondary impurities which had to be fully purified by the rejection of Esav. Yosef’s brothers mistakenly thought that the rejection of Yosef was needed in their generation for the same purpose. The Ari explains that the brothers thought Yosef was blemishing the sefirah of Yesod (foundation, יסוד), which corresponds to the tzaddik, by slandering them to Yakov, their father, this being the antithesis of peace. They feared blessings wouldn’t flow to the family, since peace is the ultimate vessel for receiving blessings. This is why yesod is associated with peace, because it is the vessel which the Divine blessings flow into malchut (sovereignty, מלכות). The incredible quality of malchut, the tenth sefirah, is that it contains two completely opposite qualities– “exaltedness” and its opposite “humility”– but these combined bring the Redemption.
R’ Moshe Wisnefsky in Apples From The Orchard writes:
Yosef felt that he was the guardian of yesod, that he was the long-term peace-maker, while his brothers felt that he was an obstacle to peace. They, of course, were wrong; peace is meaningful only if it is predicated on submission to G-d’s will. Otherwise, if there is any element of self-orientation or egocentricity in the so-called peace, it cannot be true peace and will fall apart sooner or later. This egocentricity will eventually surface, and as soon as it does, petty self-interests will outweigh the motivation for peacefulness. Thus, although the brothers were correct in their vision of peace as being crucial to the perpetuation of the Divine idea, they were wrong in giving precedence over the more fundamental issues of Divine service. Peace is a means, a vessel, not an end. Only when recognized as such can it be meaningful, and therefore endure.21
In a sense, all of these events were actually directed by Hashem, even though the brothers and Yosef seemed to be acting of their own free will. At the end of the series of events, Yosef looks to his brothers and says, “Elokim thought it for the good.” And even if the decree of exile was ordained from Brit Bein Habetarim, it was the sinat chinam (baseless hatred) that was a major factor in manifesting the exile in Egypt, and so we learn from this that jealousy and hatred have grave consequences. And humility is what brings redemption. Rebbe Nachmon teaches that the place name KeNaAn (Canaan, כנען) is similar to the word haKhNaAh (submission, הכנעה) indicating that through humility a person can dwell in the Holy Land, reaching their own promised land.22
In the words of Lin Manuel Miranda, the creator and star of Broadway’s musical “Hamilton,” in a speech he gave at the 2016 Tony Awards:
We chase the melodies that seem to find us
Until they’re finished songs and start to play
When senseless acts of tragedy remind us
That nothing here is promised, not one day.
This show is proof that history remembers
We lived through times when hate and fear seemed stronger;
We rise and fall and light from dying embers, remembrances that hope and love last longer
And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed or swept aside.23
And so I pray that we lean into hope and humility, as we judge each other favorably and guard our tongues to not speak ill of each other, and instead of even an ounce of sinat chinam, baseless hatred, our default becomes ahavat chinam, baseless love, which will surely usher in the final redemption!
– Erez Safar
Get your copy of the book: ‘LIGHT OF THE INFINITE: THE GENESIS OF LIGHT‘ now available as Prime on Amazon! The second half of the book parallels the Parshiot (weekly Torah reading) of Bereishit/Genesis, which we are reading now! – https://amzn.to/3ShxLvn
Notes & Sources
- Rashi on Genesis 37:2
- Genesis Rabbah 84:3
- Isaiah 48:22
- Talmud, Berachot 64a
- Job 5:7
- Biurei HaZohar, p31b
- Berachot 17a
- Chatam Sofer 174 ד״ה בארץ
- Psalms 105:17
- Rashi on Genesis 37:2, and Bereishit Rabbah 84:7
- Chatam Sofer 174 ד״ה ויגע
- Lecture series titled “Reb Simcha Bunim Of Pshischa (7) Greatness As The Leader And His Opposition (2) by Rabbi Moshe Weinberger”
- Psalms 34:12–13
- Shulchan Aruch Harav, Orach Chaim 156:10
- Leviticus 19:16, and Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De’ot, chapter 7
- Chafetz Chaim 6:2, Talmud, Ketubot 5a
- Ibid. based on Talmud, Pesachim 118a
- Talmud Niddah 61a. Jeremiah, ch. 41
- Chafetz Chaim 3:4
- Chafetz Chaim, ch. 10
- Arizal, Apples from the Orchard p.217-219
- Rabbi Nachman’s Wisdom #261
- A speech by Lin Manuel Miranda at the 2016 Tony Awards