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Parshas VaYeishev -Yoseif, the Ultimate Refusenik

By Reb Eliezer Bulka

Posted on 12/08/17

Earlier this month, in my haste, I skipped my usual dedication for the yahrtzeit of my rebbe, HaRav Yaakov Moshe Kulefsky, zt"l, 3 Kisleiv. I will try to compensate with a shtikle on this week's parsha he would often say over.


In this week's parsha we have the infamous episode, amongst others, of Yoseif and the wife of Potifar. The gemara (Sotah 36b) explains that Yoseif in fact had a desire to give in to her initially, but in the end he was able to overcome and suppress. This assertion seems difficult at first glance. The pesukim make no reference of such a desire and clearly says (39:8) "Vayemaein Yoseif", and Yoseif refused. What then did Chazal see to suggest that Yoseif in fact had an urge? My Rebbe, R' Yaakov Moshe Kulefsky, zt"l, explains in the name of the Afikei Yehudah that the explanation lies in the meaning of the word vayemaein. It does not connote an absence of desire but rather a refusal of an apparent desire. The contrast between meiun, refusal, and total lack of desire is illustrated in a number of places in the Torah.


When B'nei Yisrael requested permission from Edom to pass through their land, the language of Edom's refusal is "vayemaein Edom," (Bemidbar 20:21). When they requested of Sichon permission to pass through his land the reply is described as "v'lo avah Sichon," (Devarim 2:30) and Sichon did not want. Sichon was completely willing to do this favour for B'nei Yisrael. Edom would not have inherently opposed their passage if not for the fact that they were afraid that they would wage war against them. But it seems that the favour itself Edom had no opposition to. (Perhaps this contrast is also seen in the fact that Sichon waged war immediately and Edom did not.) That's why their answer is called a refusal whereas Sichon didn't want.


When Bil'am is convinced by HaShem not to curse B'nei Yisrael, the messengers of Balak report, "mei'ein Bil'am" (Bemidbar 22:14). Surely Bil'am at this point still wanted to curse B'nei Yisrael but because of HaShem's command he could not. That is why the language of refusal is used.


The final example is the most revealing as it uses both terminologies in the same pasuk. In the parsha of yivum, the woman is required to come before beis din and recite a specific passage: (Devarim 25:7) "Mei'ein yevami l'hakim l'achiv shem b'Yisrael, lo avah yabemi." As far as the component dealing with being meikim shem, to allow the name of the deceased to endure, which is the essence of the mitzvah, the verb of refusal is used because deep down every one really wants to do a mitzvah. Nevertheless, for a certain reason he has refused (as explained in the famous passage of Rambam in Hilchos Gittin 2:20). The end of the pasuk reads "lo avah yabemi," he doesn't want to do yivum to me. This is to say, "It is me he doesn't want at all."


This, suggests the Afikei Yehuda, is what Chazal observed to understand the episode of Yoseif as they did. Vayemaein Yoseif implies not that Yoseif had no desire whatsoever, but that he had a desire and refused it.