Yosef and the Yevanim

Michael Nachbar – 5768

Over the course of the stories that we read about Yosef Hatzaddik in last week’s and this week’s parshiot, we see a significant transition in his personality; he grows from an immature “youth,” as the Torah calls him in Vayeshev, to an adult and leader of a world power in this week’s parsha, Mikeitz. The change Yosef goes through and the aspects of his personality that come to the fore also reflect some of the important differences between Greek culture and that of Klal Yisrael.

The most famous difference between the Greeks and Jews is the relative importance of what is on the outside and that which is inside a person. Greek philosophy maintained that the body is beautiful. The Greeks’ desire to keep their bodies beautiful led them to engage in various activities, including sports. The Jewish mentality, however, was that one’s strength comes from the inside and that true beauty is that of a complete and pure soul. A further difference between Greek culture and the Jewish mindset is that the Greeks focused on the greatness of man, regarding both man’s body and knowledge. Judaism, on the other hand, stressed the greatness of God and that which man still has to accomplish rather than what he has already accomplished. Essentially, this difference stems from the Greek trait of ga’ava, haughtiness, as opposed to the midda of anava, humility, that Judaism emphasizes.

In last week’s parsha, Yosef is described as a “na’ar,” a youth (37:2). Rashi explains that he was absorbed in his own looks, and would often fix his hair or his eyes in order to look his best. Even after Yosef is sold to Potiphar the Torah (39:6) describes him as beautiful, which Rashi interprets as a reference to Yosef’s continued concern for his looks. It seems at this point as though Yosef has adopted some of the traits characteristic of Greek thought.

However, as Yosef’s personality develops, we see that he displays the characteristics of the Jewish people and not those of the Greeks. He is able to overcome the temptation of eishet Potiphar, he credits Hashem with his ability to interpret dreams for the butler and baker and then for Pharaoh himself. The Medrash writes that Yosef required the Egyptians to undergo brit mila in order to make them more spiritual. We see clearly that he places God at the center, is not concerned with his own glory and is able to do what is right rather that what feels good.

The trait of humility is one that is extremely important. There is a great saying: “He who knows, knows not and he who knows not, knows.” The meaning is that one truly starts to obtain knowledge and wisdom when one realizes how much there is that one does not yet know. We must realize that there is so much Torah and so much chochma that we don’t know, and when we adopt this humble perspective in our limud Torah, our learning will take on a new meaning and our kinyan of Hashem’s Torah will be that much stronger.

The ability to not focus solely on oneself leads to another important trait. By way of introduction, Rav Meir Goldwicht of Yeshiva University asks what differentiates our parsha from the last one. Both start out with dreams but they end very differently; in last week’s parsha Yosef ends up in jail, while in this week’s parsha he becomes ruler of Mitzrayim! Rav Goldwicht answers that when someone does something for himself the outcome will never be in his favor; Yosef interpreted and acted upon his own dreams in a selfish manner and he ended up in jail. On the other hand, when one does something for others, the outcome will be positive. Yosef helps the butler and baker and eventually Pharaoh, and through that he rises to power and helps the world overcome famine. This ability to help others is only possible if one has a degree of humility and is able to shift his focus away from himself.

As Jews, we must adopt the positions of Yosef Hatzaddik and not those of the Yevanim. The Yevanim have long since disappeared from the world, yet we are still here and will continue on forever.

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