Parshas VaYeishev - What Are The Odds?!

By BJLife/Moishy Pruzansky

Posted on 12/07/17

Many confusing things happen in this week’s Parshah: Yaakov’s favorite son Yosef was sent down to Egypt. Instead of Hashem revealing to Yaakov that Yosef was alive and well, and merely sent ahead to Egypt in order to prepare Egypt for the Jewish nation’s eventual settling there (which the Sages explain was a good thing, as it was a vital prerequisite for receiving the Torah) - Hashem kept this information from Yaakov a secret. Why? Wouldn’t Yaakov be able to serve Hashem better, with more joy and focus, if he knew Yosef was okay?

Hashem orchestrates events so that Yehuda performs yibum (a type of marriage to continue a deceased man’s name) with his daughter-in-law Tamar. Hashem then orchestrates events so that Yehuda must admit his act to the world, despite the public humiliation involved in doing so, in order to save her from being executed. Why would Hashem do that to Yehuda? What is there to be gained?

After being sold by his brothers as a slave and brought to Egypt, Yosef slowly rebuilds his life and works his way up to becoming his master’s most trusted agent and is given practically free reign over all of his possessions. After Yosef reaches this point, Hashem sent him a monumental difficulty: Mrs. Potiphar trying to convince him to do a terrible sin. Why did Hashem do so? Wasn’t Yosef serving Him well enough? What was the point?

 Charlie Harari relates that he knows a brilliant Jewish guy named Yosef, a Yale alumnus, who the Israeli intelligence agency called “The Mossad” very much wanted to recruit. The Mossad invited Yosef to fly to Israel to meet with them and he eagerly complied. After they discussed with Yosef their strong interest in hiring him to work for the Mossad, all that was left was for Yosef to complete a rigorous 2 year training. Yosef, with a sharp mind and intense work ethic, was a natural. He progressed through training with relative ease. Finally, it was time for his final test before graduating. His recruiting officer informed him that the final test was “do or die”, meaning that if he passed he would be accepted into the Mossad, but if he failed, the track ended there and he would never again be allowed to join their ranks. No second chances would be given. His assignment: he would be blindfolded, left somewhere in the desert with minimal supplies and a few men, and would have to use every navigational trick he was taught over the past 2 years to lead his men to a specific destination. That wasn’t all; he had a meager time limit to get there by. On the day of the mission, Yosef felt confident. Navigation was one of his stronger skills. After he was dropped off in the desert, he surveyed the landscape and began to lead his men towards their destination. As the day went on, they were running out of time and only had a few minutes left. If they were going to make it in time, it would be by the skin of their teeth. Yosef was hot, sweaty, and felt exhausted but remained focused on reaching their destination in time. He was so close to finishing 2 years of training and finally making it into the Mossad’s ranks. Suddenly, the driver of his jeep made a bad turn and one of the jeep’s tires blew. Yosef was devastated. He furiously berated the soldier who was responsible and began to yell at everyone. After all, he had a LOT riding on this. When they finally got to the destination house, he was 15 minutes late. He raced to the front door, only to find it locked, with a sign on the door that read “you have failed”. Yosef was crushed. A 2 year project, gone up in smoke, in just a day. How could it end like this? Later that night, Yosef’s recruiting officer came to speak to him. “Listen”, he said. “What happened out there today was just bad luck. I spoke to the higher ups, and they agreed to give you one more chance. Just don’t mess it up”. The next day things ran smoothly at first again, but with a few minutes left to their mission, the jeep’s engine blew. Yosef, seeing his dream disappear again, was furious. He yelled at everyone and gruffly did his best to make it to the destination house in time, with the same result as the previous day: the door was locked and the sign on the door read “you have failed”. When he got back to base, his recruiting officer had a disappointed look on his face. “I’m sorry Yosef, but it’s time to pack up your bags and head home”. Yosef was too determined to go down without a fight. He pleaded for a 3rd chance. The officer said it couldn’t be done. However, after pulling some strings, they worked out one final chance for Yosef. “Yosef”, his recruiting officer said with a grim look on his face. “If you don’t pass tomorrow, don’t bother coming back to the base. Just head home”. Yosef had a hard time sleeping that night. He had always had an easy time succeeding in life, but when it came to this final test, everything seemed to be going wrong. Did the Mossad just decide that they didn’t want him and were now setting him up for failure. Were they sabotaging his efforts? What was going on? The next day he was not given a jeep, but was rather on foot with a closer destination. The test began like the other 2 tests - easy sailing for the first few hours of the mission. Yosef braced himself for any challenge that may arise. Suddenly, he heard the soldier behind him shout in pain. “What’s wrong?!”, Yosef asked. “My ankle, I must have twisted it!”. Yosef’s first impulse was to release all of his frustration upon the soldier. Didn’t the soldier realize how much he had at stake?! But then, everything clicked - What were the odds that his jeep’s tire busted during the first test? What were the odds that the engine blew during the second one? What were the odds that this soldier’s ankle twisted during the third test - and all just a few minutes before time was up??? He came to a clear conclusion: I’m being tested! They want to see how I react under the pressures of war. After all, only the best could keep their cool even when everything goes wrong and that’s the type of soldier everyone needs. Yosef had a feeling that he finally knew how to pass the test. Yosef stopped caring about the clock. He gently bandaged the soldier’s ankle, gave clear orders to his men, and personally carried the injured soldier to the destination point. He was a solid hour late, but he didn’t care. He came to the destination point and noticed that this time there was no sign on the door. He smiled as he turned the knob and heard it “click”, as it was unlocked. Standing inside was his recruiting officer, with a friendly smile. “Congratulation Yosef. You did it - you finally passed the test”.

The purpose of life is to test us, in order to facilitate concrete growth. Sure, we can do well when things go smoothly (which is definitely a victory), but how about when things go wrong? Will we lose ourselves, our focus and our tempers when things seem to be going wrong? Or, will we stop and think “what are the odds that these things are happening? Hashem usually makes things go so much smoother…this must be a test!”. Will we prove ourselves worthy to be in the top ranks? We will we rise to the occasion and achieve lasting growth?

The purpose of life can be summed up into one reason: to test us, thereby building us up and earning a level of perfection in every area of life*. The reason why Hashem caused Yaakov to think that Yosef had died was in order to test him; to see how Yaakov would react under such immense pressure. Will Yaakov still daven and learn with passion? Will he trust in Hashem completely? While many men could not, Hashem knew that Yaakov was up to the test and indeed…he passed! Yaakov continued being Yaakov, learning and davening the same as always**. R’ Shimshon Pincus writes that this stands as one of Yaakov’s greatest achievements and the reason why Yaakov is eternally referred to as the one who exemplified emes - truth, as he stayed true to Hashem through thick and thin.

Yehuda was also being tested to see how he would react. Would he save his daughter-in-law Tammar, despite the public humiliation it would bring? Would the thought of such humiliation cloud his otherwise good judgement? Yehuda passed the test, thereby earning himself the privilege that we jews are referred to as “Yehudim”, after Yehuda who had the courage to do what was right even in the face of intense adversity. This is also why there is a law that the Jewish king must always come from the tribe of Yehuda, as a leader needs the integrity that Yehuda exemplified.

Yosef, too, needed to be tested to see and demonstrate how great he was. True, he had stayed loyal to Hashem until now, but how about when things would get even tougher? His passing this test earned him the eternal title of Yosef HaTzadik, Yosef the righteous, forever. These tests brought these legendary individuals to even greater heights, due to the fact that they stayed focused on Hashem’s will even when everything seemed to be going wrong.

Living Inspired

Everyone goes through rough periods in life. It may be a rough few hours, few days, or even few months or years. In these situations, it can be very empowering to consider the context of the events; nothing is “going wrong”. G-d, Who has always been in control and given you so much good, still is. This is a test, one that you are strong enough to pass (whether it feels that way or not), and most importantly, one that if you overcome even to a small degree will earn you a piece of eternal perfection that will be with you forever (just as Yaakov, Yehuda and Yosef’s title that they earned is eternal). When one realizes that he is being tested, that everything is under Hashem’s control and that it leads to extreme personal growth, it can provide the extra strength needed to pass even the toughest challenges.


*- The hebrew word for a life test is “nissayon”. The root of that word is “nes”, which means a banner. Like a banner that one hangs high in the sky to announce something important, a test attests the greatness of a person, visibly, for all to see (R’ Avigdor Miller)

**- One simple proof to this is the fact that the Torah, which spares no criticism of even our most exalted greats, does not record otherwise.