"Slander" Scrutinized

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Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

In Parshat Veyeshev we are first introduced to Yosef as a seventeen year old. We find him shepherding the flocks with his brothers and spending his leisure time with the sons of the former maidservants. During this time, he observed his brothers and brought evil reports about them to their father. What were these reports? Rashi notes three transgressions Yosef accused his brothers of: eating meat from the body of an animal not yet slaughtered, belittling the sons of the maidservants, and interacting suspiciously with women.

 As Rashi then points out, because Yosef Hatzadik sinned in these three area, albeit he was trying to improve his brothers, he was punished by suffering in each of these areas measure for measure. When the brothers schemed to rid themselves of Yosef, they first slaughtered the goat before dipping Yosef’s coat in it; he lost all personhood by being sold as a slave; finally, he was under suspicion of committing adultery with the wife of Potifar. Just as Yosef was innocent of charges, so too were the brothers innocent. What Yosef was guilty of, however, was of speaking loshon horo.

Why does Rashi focus particularly on these three sins? Rabbi Chasman extrapolates these from the wording of the Torah. First, if Yosef was shepherding with his brothers, certainly he was with the sheep. Why write, “He was shepherding… with the sheep?” There must have been an issue about animals. Then, why name the mothers Bilhah and Zilpah and then add that they were his father’s wives? Within those two phrases we get both the distinction between these two wives and Rachel and Leah, hinting at a lesser status of their children, and adding that they were indeed Yaakov’s wives seems to allude to some unwholesome relationship toward women.

While we certainly cannot suspect such righteous men as these patriarchs of the tribes were, how could Yosef even suspect his brothers of such behavior? What is equally confusing is that immediately following these reports, the Torah tells us that Yaakov loved Yosef more than all his brothers and even made him a special garment indicative of this love and importance.

While it would seem that either the brothers had sinned and Yosef was right, or that the brothers had not sinned at all are the only two possibilities, Rabbi Uziel Milevsky explains that both sides were motivated strictly for the sake of Heaven. When Yaakov returned to Eretz Yisroel after his exile with Laban, Yaakov and his ten sons reasoned that the prophecy of exile had been fulfilled, and now they were truly living as Jews under Torah law. In contrast, Yosef understood that returning to the land was only temporary, Torah law did not yet apply, and the family was still bound by the seven Noachide laws that often differed in interpretation from Torah law. These three “transgressions” fell into that category, and each felt their interpretation was correct. Nevertheless, as Rabbi Sternbach notes, these are not simple stories to be accepted at face value, but are deep beyond our understanding.

Rabbi Mordechai Ezrachi points our attention to the Torah’s emphasis on Yosef’s being a na’ar/youth. In his righteousness and his zeal to present perfection to Hakodosh Boruch Hu, Yosef presented youthful impetuosity, neither investigating and questioning his suspicions nor foreseeing the consequences of his actions. His actions were youthfully inappropriate, and incongruent with his actual spiritual status.

However, na’ar can also refer to Yosef’s perception of himself. Seeing what he thought were his brothers transgressing, and knowing that one is supposed to rebuke the transgressor, Yosef felt young and inadequate to approach his brothers directly, opting to go directly to his father. This youthful error in judgment had major repercussions throughout our history, writes Letitcha Elyon, citing the Chofetz Chaim, and emphasizes how careful we must be in our speech. As a result of this lashon horo, the brothers hated Yosef, leading directly to our first exile in Egypt. And during the current Roman exile, the sale of Yosef was the excuse for the execution of our great sages, the Ten Martyrs whom we recall both on Yom Kippur and on Tisha B’Av.

Everything included in the Torah is meant as a lesson for our lives, never to denigrate our great tzadikim, reminds us Rabbi Kranz in Talmudo Beyado. Even though Yosef was relaying this negative information for the sake of Heaven, it nevertheless reverberated through the ages. How careful must we be with our own speech, even when discussing someone for constructive purposes, to relay only the information necessary without embellishment. Whether as teachers or as parents, we must think twice before we speak once. Perhaps Yosef had added more details than were necessary when he reported to his father.

Why was Yosef so severely punished for this improper speech? Rabbi Heineman suggests that Yaakov Avinu saw great leadership qualities in Yosef, making him a special kutonet/tunic indicative of his leadership status. After all, a kutonet is a special garment worn by the High Priest and by royalty. But a leader has the responsibility of focusing on the positive within others rather than on the negative. Certainly there must have been good that Yosef could have reported to his father, at least to begin, and only then perhaps mentioning the negative as a footnote. The goal of a leader should be to build up others, not to destroy them.

Further, continues Rabbi Heineman in Chayei Leivov, Yosef should have been genetically predisposed to silence, as his mother Rachel knew how to keep silent [as Queen Esther, descended from Rachel Imeinu through Binyamin kept secret her nationality in the palace of Ahashuerosh. CKS]. Because he couldn’t control his speech, Yosef became a slave who was not able to speak freely. Yosef Hatzadik should have been the forefather of our kings and priests, as indicated by his special garment, but he lost both as a consequence of this sin.

Later, when Yosef goes to look for his brothers, he meets an “Ish/man.” Our commentators generally identify this mysterious man as the Angel Gavriel, giving Yosef a cryptic message. When Yosef tells the Angel/Man that he is looking for the brothers, the angel answers in code, “They have gone mizeh/from here.” Yosef, you may be searching for your brothers, but be aware that the no longer consider you one of the zeh/twelve [brothers]. “They have gone to Dotan, to find means to plot against you”

Now Yosef, in spite of his youth, was generally very wise and understood the nuances of speech, and even had Divine inspiration, but because he had sinned with speech, and had not repented of that speech, he was unable to discern the hidden warning in Gavriel’s speech. As Rabbi Gifter notes, Hashem presents us with challenges to guide us to the areas in which we need improvement. Yosef’s challenges eventually helped him grow until he would be called Yosef Hatzadik. When one speaks negatively about another, it is rooted in one’s inability to fully recognize God’s image in the other person. To rectify this problem, Yosef was sold into slavery, dealt with as an animal rather than as a human being. In this situation, Yosef would recognize not only his uniqueness, but also the unique image of God imprinted on every human being.

Hashem sends each of us messages for our improvement on a daily basis. Even the incident with the wife of Potifar was a wake up call for Yosef. Just as he had suspected his brothers of improper sexual behavior without proper investigation or evidence, so was he now being accused of similar behavior. But the term for each consequence and rectification is strictly calculated, writes Rav Moshe Salant. When Hashem’s calculations for Yosef were complete, Hashem introduced some new scandals, those of the butler and the baker, to dominate the news cycle. When you sin, whether to man or to God, you have laid the groundwork for your own corrective measure, adds Rabbi Grosbard.

The question remains, how could Yosef suspect his brothers of this behavior? Rabbi Michel Twerski explains that most often when we recognize a character flaw in another it is because we have a similar flaw. We are projecting our own weakness onto another without investigating or seeking alternate interpretations of the words or actions we have witnessed. Yosef was interpreting the brothers’ speech and discussions on a surface level. For example, perhaps when the Leah’s sons were referring to the sons of Bilha and Zilpa as avodim/servants, they meant the boys were servants of Hashem, much as they viewed themselves, and as Yosef viewed himself. We must be extremely careful not to assume the worst when we hear something negative. [As Shira Smiles related in an old shiur: Little Yussie comes home from kindergarten and tells his mother how Reuven kept pushing him for a very long time… in a little wagon all around the room. CKS]

Rabbi Pliskin teaches us how to avoid the pitfall of judging others unfavorably. First, check your personal biases that may be coloring the words or the actions. Then, which is undoubtedly harder, try to see the situation from the other person’s point of view.

In spite of these reports, Yaakov saw the goodness in all his sons, and recognized the potential goodness and greatness of Yosef in spite of his youthful behavior. He therefore gave him that special coat, writes Rav Yosef Baldi, the teacher of the Ramchal. Or perhaps we are interpreting Yosef’s words in a completely negative way when what he was saying was that his brothers were so great, he would have expected better from them, writes Rabbi Epstein.

Rabbi Mattisyahu Solomon here makes a profound observation. Each character in this saga is acting and reacting according to his own unique character and position. Now Hashem, the Master Weaver, takes the individual threads and weaves them into complementary tapestries, personal tapestries and a giant, historical tapestry according to the Design He has created. How we speak figures prominently in the final texture of the tapestries.