Complete Obedience

By Rabbi Louchheim

Friday, December 12, 2014

This week’s portion, Vayeshev, we read of the sad story of how Joseph was sold by his brothers.

The story begins with his brothers being away too long in the fields and their father Jacob sending Joseph to find them. We know the rest of the story. Joseph finds his brothers and immediately they decide to do away with their hated brother. Fortunately, they change their minds and instead of killing him, they decide to sell him off. In fact, as a result, Joseph never returns home again (except in a casket, four centuries later). He was sold into slavery and spent time in prison. Years later, Jacob and his eleven sons went to live in Egypt, where they found Joseph.

We have heard this story so many times before. There is little doubt in our minds that Joseph was aware of how much his brothers hated him. If not, then was his arrogance so great that he was unaware of their feelings toward him? In that case, he must have been completely inconsiderate and chose to be unaware of their feelings because of their inferiority. In either case, why did he go? Let’s just agree for argument sake tonight that he did fear his brothers. Why then did he agree to go and find them? He should have told his father that he was afraid of going.

The rabbis of the Talmudic period wrestled with this very question. Why didn’t he say something? They felt that Joseph was such a good and obedient son, that he did not argue with his father even though the request put his very life in danger. At first he did suffer for this. He was enslaved. He was an innocent person put in prison. He was a stranger in a foreign land. But later he was rewarded. He was made of prince of Egypt and became very powerful and wealthy.

Are literature is filled with stories like this one where an individual suffers in the beginning but ultimately benefits. One such story in the Talmud is about Dama the son of Netima who live in Ashkelon. The family is not Jewish. Customers come into Dama store desiring to buy diamonds and precious gems. Dama goes in the back room where he finds his father sleeping. Knowing that the key to the safe is beneath his father’s pillow and not wishing to disturb him, he tells the gentleman that he can not sell them any jewels today. When his father awakes and hears what happens, he gets angry at his son for not making a profit. His son responds, “I am not prepared to disobey the command to honor one’s parents for any money in the world.” A week later the price of diamonds and gems rises. Dama sells some of his jewels at a greater profit than he would have made the week before.

There are many lessons in our literature about the importance of parents obeying their parents and by extension obeying the instructions of our rabbis, teachers, and senior elders. There may be initial suffering, and yet we obey because we believe that they are telling us to do something that will ultimately be to our benefit.

But what if the case is clear that only the person telling us what to do, only they will benefit? It is clearly in their own interest only. In such a case should we not do it? In fact, we should learn to do things that do not benefit us directly, but are meant for the welfare of someone else. We need to learn to act for someone else’s advantage and pleasure. Our pleasure should come from helping others. We must be willing to act for others even if it means a certain sacrifice from ourselves.

Joseph knew that his life was in danger but when asked to go, he did not refuse. He went because he did not have his own interest in mind, but the benefit of his father, who was anxious about the welfare of his sons. That wish was more important to Joseph than his own safety and welfare.

We must learn to show the same courage that Joseph showed. It is the courage to obey without questioning, of accepting missions and tasks without asking whether it serves in our own interests. Our interest should be to listening to our elders and our parents and causing happiness and pleasure in their lives.