> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > Parsha Potpourri

Whiter Than Milk

Vayeshev (Genesis 37-40 )

by Rabbi Ozer Alport

Rabbi Shalom Schwadron points out that the entire miraculous unfolding of events in the upcoming Torah portions is entirely predicated on one chance encounter. The accurate interpretation by Yosef of the dreams of the cupbearer and the baker in prison set in motion a chain of events which altered the course of Jewish history. It led to Yosef's release from jail, his appointment as second-in-command in Egypt, the fulfillment of his dreams about his family bowing down to him, his emotional reunion with his brothers and eventually his father, and the descent of the Jewish people to Egypt where they were ultimately enslaved by Pharaoh and redeemed by Moshe.

However, the pivotal episode of Yosef interpreting their dreams wouldn't have even occurred were it not for one seemingly trivial exchange. Yosef woke up one morning and noticed that his fellow prisoners appeared aggrieved and upset. He chose to initiate a conversation which would literally change the future of all mankind, asking them quite simply, "What's wrong?" (Gen. 40:6-7)

The Alter of Slabodka once gave a discourse on the topic of greeting others kindly and showing an interest in their welfare. He noted that if a person stood next to the synagogue door and poured a glass of milk for each person who passed by, everybody would rightfully declare him to be a person who does great acts of kindness. However, the Talmud (Ketubot 111b) derives from Genesis 49:12 that showing another person the white of one's teeth with a warm smile is an even greater act of kindness than giving him milk.

So often, we pass somebody who looks like he could use a kind word, a warm smile, and a little extra attention, yet the evil inclination discourages us from stopping to waste our valuable time on such inconsequential matters. The next time this happens, which will likely be tomorrow, we should remember the lesson of Yosef that nothing that a person does is ever minor, and one has no idea what cosmic chain of events he could set in motion with just a few "trivial" words.

* * *


While the rest of the brothers were plotting to actually kill Yosef, the Torah records that Reuven saved him by suggesting that they instead throw him into a pit (37:21). As Rashi writes (37:24) that the pit was full of poisonous snakes and scorpions, in what way was this considered "saving" Yosef and not merely substituting one type of death for another?

The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh explains that while humans have free will and the ability to do to somebody even something which wasn't decreed in Heaven, animals have no such free choice and are limited to whatever was decided by God. Reuven knew that Yosef wasn't the wicked pursuer that the other brothers thought he was and was confident that a death sentence hadn't been decreed upon him. Nevertheless, Reuven feared that his brothers, with their free will, would succeed in their plans to kill Yosef, so he "saved" him by having him thrown into a pit where he knew that the snakes and scorpions would have no permission to harm him.

Alternatively, the Panim Yafos answers that being killed by snakes and scorpions is considered death at the hands of Heaven. However, Rashi writes (Gen. 23:1) that the Heavenly Tribunal doesn't punish a person until the age of 20. Since Yosef at this time was only 17, Reuven knew that even if he was guilty, throwing him to the poisonous animals would still be a salvation.

The Panim Yafos adds that Reuven was relying on this principle to escape punishment for moving his father's bed after the death of Rachel (Rashi Gen. 35:22), as at that time he was also under the age of 20. When he returned to the pit and found Yosef missing, Reuven presumed that he had been devoured by the poisonous animals inside. This shattered his planned defense and caused him to exclaim in agony: "The boy (Yosef) is missing, and where will I go" (Gen. 37:30) - upon which the Midrash comments, "Where will I go with my actions in moving my father's bed from Bilhah's tent?"

Finally, the Tosefos Rid suggests that Reuven intended for his brothers to throw Yosef into a different pit, which was empty, but they didn't listen and instead threw him into a pit full of serpents.

* * *


The Shulchan Aruch rules (Orach Chaim 678:1) that if a person only has enough money to buy either a candle with which to light his menorah or wine upon which to make Kiddush, he should purchase the candle, as the menorah takes precedence because it serves to publicize the miracles that God performed. Doesn't Kiddush, which serves as testimony that God created the universe ex nihilo, serve as an even greater form of publicizing miracles?

Shevus Yaakov (3:49) and Avnei Nezer (OC501:3) answer that the light of the menorah is seen outside by the masses and therefore publicizes the miracle more than Kiddush, which is recited inside and heard only by those few who are present.

However, Rav Yosef Engel (Gilyonei HaShas Shabbos 23b) suggests that the actual Creation itself is not considered a miracle because nothing is inherently miraculous for God to do, and the concept of a miracle only applies after the world was created with the laws of nature which are changed for a miracle.

Related Posts

1 2 3 2,889

🤯 ⇐ That's you after reading our weekly email.

Our weekly email is chock full of interesting and relevant insights into Jewish history, food, philosophy, current events, holidays and more.
Sign up now. Impress your friends with how much you know.
We will never share your email address and you can unsubscribe in a single click.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram