Parshas VaYaishev - An Attitude of Gratitude

By Avraham Cohen

Posted on 12/03/15

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“Va’yishma Reuven va’ya’tzee’lai’hu me’ya’dam..  – And Reuven heard and rescued [Yosef] from their hand…[Genesis 37:21]

The following dvar Torah based on an essay by Rabbi Benjamin Yudin, shlit”a, Rav of Shomrei Torah in Fairlawn, NJ. with several emendations and additions:

Parshas Vayeishev is one of those parshiyos which does not get easier from year to year. It represents the first step of the implementation of that which G-d told Avraham in no uncertain terms back in Parshas Lech Lecha that “you shall surely know that your children will be strangers in a land which is not theirs and they are going to be enslaved as well as persecuted.” How will this take place? It unfolds through the act of selling Yosef down to Egypt, which occurs in this week’s parshah.

The Torah tells us that “Reuven heard and rescued [Yosef]” by suggesting that the brothers throw Yosef into a pit rather than kill him. The Torah tells us that Reuven’s ultimate intent was to return Yosef back to his father. What was it that Reuven ‘heard’?

According to our Sages, he ‘heard’ Yosef’s dreams [Bereishis Rabbah 84:15]. Our parshah begins with Yosef telling his brothers of his two dreams. The first dream depicted the brothers out in the field and eleven bundles bowing down to Yosef; the second dream depicted the scene of eleven stars bowing down to Yosef. Reuven ‘hears’ Yosef telling these two dreams – and views them through a semi-prophetic lens. Reuven thinks, “Yosef counts me among my brethren despite the act which I had done inappropriately.”

Which act was it that so concerned Reuven? After Rachel had died, Yaakov’s bed was in Bilhah’s tent (Rachel’s maidservant). Reuven, out of affection and devotion to his mother, Leah, moved his father’s bed to his mother’s tent. Nevertheless, this was certainly an inappropriate act on Reuven’s behalf. Even though Reuven did teshuvah, he was still afraid that as a result of this action he would lose his stature and be ‘demoted’ from being counted among the tribes of Israel. However, when he hears Yosef’s dreams specifying that there were eleven stars and eleven sheaves – meaning that Reuven was still included amongst the tribes – then he thought, “Look what my brother has done for me; shall I not save him in return?”

Here we must ask yet one more question: Did Yosef have the intent of being kind to Reuven when he told over his dreams? The answer is most probably not. Reuven, however, did derive a certain benefit from Yosef’s dreams. Therefore, Reuven is teaching us a very important lesson:  If one receives benefit from another person – even if only inadvertently – then one has to show appreciation and express thanksgiving to them!

We see a similar lesson in the name which Rachel gives to her son after many years of being unable to conceive. Rachel calls her firstborn son ‘Yosef’, saying that G-d “has gathered in my disgrace” [Genesis 30:23]. Rashi zt”l quotes an incredible Midrash on this verse, which says: “As long as a woman does not have a child, she has no one to blame for all the little things which go wrong in the house. But once she has a child, she can blame them. If her husband asks, ‘Who broke this?’ she can say ‘Your son broke it.’ And if her husband asks, ‘Who ate the brownies?’ she can say ‘Your son ate them.’”

This is the reason she named Yosef ‘Yosef’!? Potifar called Yosef and ish matzliach (a successful man) [Genesis 39:2]. That’s nice; how about naming him ‘Matzliach?’ Or, Yaakov (in his final blessing; Genesis 49:22) called Yosef ben poras (a graceful son). Another nice name; why not call him ‘Poras?’ No; instead she calls him ‘Yosef’, with the Midrash intimidating that she was even grateful for the ‘minor’ blessings her long-awaited son would bring her.

In yet another example of the Torah teaching us to be grateful for even inadvertent blessings, the Midrash comments on the precarious situation of Yisro’s daughters, who were regularly bullied by the other male shepherds in their vicinity. After being rescued by Moshe, Yisro asks his daughters, “How is it that you are home so early today?” [Exodus 2:18]. They answer him, saying that “an Egyptian man saved us.” On the surface, it would seem that the ‘Egyptian man’ is none other than Moshe, who had just come out of Egypt. But the Midrash tells us that the ‘Egyptian man’ is actually the Egyptian slave-driver whom Moshe had so recently killed, thereby forcing Moshe to flee Egypt! To whom do Yisro’s daughters show appreciation? To the ‘Egyptian man’ that caused Moshe to inadvertently become their savior.

A separate Midrash compares the above story to a situation where a person is bitten by a noxious animal. With his foot all swollen and on fire, our victim runs to the nearest well in order to secure water for his foot – when he is alarmed to see that just moments before, a child has fallen into the well! When the family of this youngster thanks him for saving their child, he says “Don’t thank me; thank the animal that bit me! Without its knowing, it was that animal which was actually responsible for saving your child.”

We could go through life in one of two ways: we can either have an attitude whereby we take everything for granted, or we can be grateful for everything we have.

Rabbi Dov Heller (in an article posted on Aish) writes that eliminating entitlement from your life and embracing gratitude is spiritually and psychologically liberating. Gratitude is the recognition that life owes me nothing and all the good I have is a gift. My eyes are a gift; so is my wife, my clothes, my job and my every breath. This is a major shift from the entitlement mode. Recognizing that everything good in life is ultimately a gift is a fundamental truth of reality:  ​To speak of seeing everything good we have as a gift leads us to confront the reality of a Giver and the source of all this good: G-d. Gratitude is where we begin to experience God in a powerfully personal way. "Thank you" is the simplest and one of the most powerful prayers a person can say. If you can say, "Thank you" – even for the small things in life – then you can connect with God and begin to develop a personal relationship with Him.

Rabbi Yudin quotes R’ Yechezkel Sarna zt”l, who writes that whenever we bentsch (say the Grace over meals after eating bread), we note that G-d gives us our food “bechein, b’chessed u’v’rachamim – with grace, with kindness and with mercy.” How is it that G-d sustains us with ‘grace’? R’ Sarna writes that the food we eat could have had a very limited color palette i.e. black-and-white. But, instead, our foods come in a rainbow of colors and textures and tastes, making the mundane task of nourishment a gourmet experience! It’s even the ‘little’ things in life which we must appreciate and be grateful for.


Parshas Vayeishev is usually read around the holiday of Chanukah (which begins this year on Sunday night, December 6, 2015), and we should take note that this lesson of being grateful for everything can be learned from Chanukah as well:

On the holiday of Chanukah, the halacha says that we are to let the candles burn ”ahd she’tichle regel min ha’shuk.” The literal meaning of this phrase is that we can and should light our Chauakah candles all the time that people are walking (regel) in the street. However, the Sfas Emes zt”l gives a homiletical explanation to the word regel and explains that it is related to regillus – habituation. Now the halacha can be read as follows:  One should be grateful for the miracles which G-d performs for us – not just the ‘big’ ones, but even for the everyday miracles to which we have become habituated.