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Yosef and Yeravam

Vayeshev (Genesis 37-40 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

After Yosef told the brothers about his dreams, they recognized that the dreams indicated that he believed he would rule over them. They reacted to this with contempt, saying: "Will you surely be king over us, will you surely rule over us?!"[1] The Shem MiShmuel asks why the brothers found this possibility so astonishing. If it was because Yosef was one of the youngest, then what was the difference between Yosef and Yehuda, whom they accepted as their ruler, and was only three years older. Moreover, King David was the youngest in his family, yet he became King.[2]

In order to answer this question, it is necessary to analyze on a deeper level the historical roles of Yehuda and Yosef. The sages and the commentaries tell us that two Messiahs will redeem the Jewish nation: Moshiach ben Yosef (the Messiah from the line of Yosef) and Moshiach ben Dovid (the Messiah from the line of King David). Moshiach ben Yosef will achieve the 'sur merah' (leaving evil)[3] aspect of Divine Service by defeating the enemies of the nation. In that way he will pave the way for Moshiach ben Dovid to complete the 'aseh tov' (do good) aspect of Divine Service by bringing about the ingathering of the exiles and rebuilding the Temple.

There are many sources that teach that Yosef is uniquely suited to the role of destroying evil, hence his descendants will have the ability to defeat our enemies. Furthermore, the sources tell us that in every generation throughout history there are people who had the potential to fulfill these roles, but failed either through their own mistakes or the flaws of the nation as a whole. In this vein, King Saul was intended to fulfill the role of Moshiach Ben Yosef by wiping out Amalek. Had he done this, then King David would have become the king and been Messiah. He would have not have had to fight any wars and would have built the Beis HaMikdash, the holy Temple. Once Shaul failed in his task, David now had to assume the role of Moshiach ben Yosef as well and fight the wars. But because of the blood that he spilt in the process, God informed him that could not build the Temple.[4]

The one question on this analysis is that Shaul was from the Tribe of Binyamin, not Yosef. It is clear that Binyamin represents a kind of continuation of Yosef. This is seen in a number of ways: For example, the Sages tell us that Yosef was destined to have twelve sons who would constitute twelve tribes, however during the incident with Potiphar's wife, ten drops of seed were lost and as a result Yosef only had two sons, Ephraim and Menashe. His brother, Binyamin, had a further ten sons which completes the number of the two combined to twelve sons. Moreover, the Talmud tells us that all the names of Binyamin's sons were connected to the loss of his beloved brother, Yosef.[5]

Accordingly, it is understandable that the closest replacement to a descendant of Yosef would be one from his brother, Binyamin. But the question remains as to why couldn't the first King be from Yosef? The Shem MiShmuel addresses this problem with a fascinating approach. He begins by citing a concept discussed by the Ramban based on the verse in Nitzavim: "Perhaps there is among you a root flourishing with gall and wormwood."[6] The Ramban writes that this comes to allude to the fact that a very minor weakness or failing at the root of something will develop in time to something much larger and more pernicious. Based on this idea, the Shem MiShmuel explains how the evil king Yeravam[7] of the tribe of Ephraim[8] could emerge from the righteous Yosef. He notes how the Torah records that Yosef spoke badly about his brothers.[9] It is clear that Yosef sinned in a very minor way when he did this, because he perceived that they were acting incorrectly in a number of areas. It is also evident that Yosef's intents were pure, but on a subtle level his actions were inappropriate, and for someone of his spiritual stature the Torah treats it as if he spoke outright lashon hara, slander.

The Shem MiShmuel explains that Yeravam's major failings emanated from the initial, minor flaw displayed by Yosef in his behavior towards his brothers. In this way, a weakness that was very minor in its root, mushroomed in later generations in a far more destructive fashion.[10] The Shem MiShmuel continues that Yeravam became king after the Temple had already been built, and he caused tremendous damage to the spiritual level of the Jewish people. He cites the Sages with regard to an earlier rebellion in the time of King David of Sheba bin Bichri, which took place well before the Temple had been built. The Sages say that, in truth, Yeravam's rebellion should have been in the time of Sheba bin Bichri's, but had that taken place then, it would have caused so much spiritual damage that the Temple would never have been built at all. Based on this, the Shem MiShmuel writes, that all the more so had a person like Yeravam become king before King David, it would have caused so much damage that it could have prevented the whole creation of the Davidic Dynasty and the resultant Temple.

Accordingly, it was not possible for a King from the tribe of Yosef to become King before David, because had that taken place, he may well have had the same spiritual weakness as Yeravam, based on the root failing of Yosef, with disastrous consequences. Therefore, although it was essential that a descendant of Rachel be King, because the descendants of Rachel had a special power against Amalek, the first King could not be from Yosef, but rather he had to be from the only other descendant of Rachel, Binyamin.

To return to the original question: why did the brothers find it so hard to envisage that Yosef could be the king? The Shem Mishmuel explains that they saw his minute flaw that was manifest in his lashon hara, and they recognized that it could expand in a disastrous fashion in the future, preventing Yosef's descendants from being effective kings, with terrible consequences. In that sense, they were correct with regard to Yeravam, yet it seems that their mistake was that it was not set in stone that every descendant of Yosef would choose the evil approach. Indeed, we know that the Moshiach ben Yosef is destined to usher in the era of Messiah.

One lesson to be derived from these ideas is that while the spiritual genes that a person inherits do have an effect on him, they need not define him. Each person is judged based on his unique set of characteristics, and how he deals with his challenges. The descendants of Yosef may have had a propensity to sinning in a certain area, but many overcame this and became righteous people.[11] May we all merit to overcome our challenges and reach our own, unique potential.


1. Bereishit, 37:7.
2. Shem MiShmuel Vayeshev, 5677.
3. From the verse, "leave evil and do good", Tehillim, 34:15.
4. Divrei HaYamim Aleph, Chapter 22, verse 6-10.
5. Sotah, 36b.
6. Devarim, 29:17.
7. He was the first King of the Northern Tribes of Israel. Initially, he was a very great scholar and righteous man, but when he feared the loss of his Kingdom, he banned the people from going to Jerusalem and set up two Golden Calves to be worshipped. This caused the Northern Tribes to become deeply involved in Idol worship. Thus, He is considered the paradigm of one who causes others to sin (Avot, 5:21).
8. Yosef had two sons - Ephraim and Menashe. Both merited to become fathers of tribes in their own name. 9. Bereishis, 37:2.
10. The Shem MiShmuel points out that this does not mean that Yeravam did not have free will, as otherwise he could not be punished for his sins. However, it means that great people generally have an extra level of spiritual protection to help them overcome the yetzer hara, and he did not have this protection, because the flaw that was at the root of Yeravam's ancestry pulled him towards sin and he did not overcome that pull.
11. The most well-known example is Yehoshua.

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