Parshat Vayeshev- Unclear and Present Danger

(וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם רְאוּבֵן, אַל-תִּשְׁפְּכוּ-דָם–הַשְׁלִיכוּ אֹתוֹ אֶל-הַבּוֹר הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר בַּמִּדְבָּר … לְמַעַן, הַצִּיל אֹתוֹ מִיָּדָם” (ל”ז: כ”ב”

This week’s פרשה begins with the incidents of jealousy betweenיוסף  and his brothers, culminating in the sale of יוסף. Throughout this story, the brothers seem very united in their hatred of יוסף- the תורה doesn’t distinguish between them during most of the sale of יוסף, just referring to them as “אחים- the brothers.” However, mid-way through the story, one of the brothers is singled out for having a different motive than the rest- “וישמע ראובן ויצלהו מידם… למען הציל אתו מידם להשיבו אל אביו – Reuven heard and he saved him (Yosef) from their hands… in order to save him and return him to his father.” Reuven, unlike the other brothers, had no intention to hurt Yosef, and successfully stopped his brothers from trying to kill יוסף. Instead he advises them to throw יוסף into a pit, a “בור ריק אין בו מים- An empty pit without water,” which רש”י  interprets as a pit without water… but full of scorpions and snakes (see Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat). Though this pit is very lethal and dangerous (the גמרא in גיטין teaches that a pit of scorpions is so dangerous that if a man is seen falling into a pit like this, his wife can remarry without any עדים testifying that he is actually dead), ראובן is nevertheless praised for saving יוסף’s life.

The brothers then sit down to eat bread, when, suddenly, a caravan of ישמאעלים passes by. יהודה, realizing that they could make some easy money off of יוסף instead of letting him rot in a scorpion-filled pit, says “מה בצע כי נהרג את אחינו- What do we gain from killing our brother?” The brothers, by יהודה’s advice, decide to sell יוסף to the ישמאעלים, which quite possibly saved his life. Nevertheless, יהודה is portrayed as a bad guy as seen at the beginning of the next פרק, where רש”י teaches that as the brothers saw יעקב’s misery at his loss of יוסף , they blamed it on יהודה, the one who caused יוסף to be sold away, and as a result “וירד יהודה מאת אחיו- Yehuda was lowered [in the eyes of his brothers].”

Why is ראובן praised for trying to save יוסף’s life when in reality, he put him in an extremely dangerous, life-threatening situation, while יהודה, who saved יוסף’s life by selling him into slavery, is shunned by his brothers?

Rav Chaim of Volozhin זצ”ל, a תלמיד of the Vilna Gaon, brings a very interesting answer with shocking implications. He teaches that ראובן is praised for saving יוסף’s life because, a man is safer in a pit filled with scorpions in ארץ ישראל than living in physical safety in חוץ לארץ. It is better to be in apparent physical danger in the Holy Land than to be in the Diaspora, he continues, because a person’s spirit is safer in Israel than outside of it, no matter how much safer it seems there. He concludes (verbatim): “In the Diaspora, even if a Jew is privileged to rise to greatness, he is closer to death than life.” By putting יוסף in the pit, ראובן might’ve put יוסף into temporary physical danger, but it was an attempt to save him from the seemingly-eternal spiritual danger that יוסף would face living in Egypt, even as he rose to power. Even though Rav Chaim passed away in 1918, he understood an idea which is an integral part of the modern State of Israel, an idea which is almost taken for granted by the inhabitants of Israel and the entire world; that miracles happen in Israel, that while one is in Israel, he may be putting himself into physical danger, but השם is watching out for him and keeping him safe.

At the beginning of the Second Intifada, Professor Edward H. Kaplan, the William N. and Marie A. Beach Professor of Management Sciences at Yale University, visited Israel to give lectures at Hebrew University and the Technion Institute. Despite warnings from the US State Department and his friends and colleagues not to go, he nevertheless decided to travel to Israel, and he later wrote an article, published in the Jerusalem Post in January 2002, describing his trip and responding to some of the misconceptions of living in Israel at that time. I would like to quote one part of his article which really shows how Rav Chaim’s idea is alive in the modern Jewish state:

“One cannot deny that, with help from the media, Israel is perceived as a dangerous place due to the threat of terrorism. Indeed, while recently in Israel giving talks and attending a conference, I received numerous e-mails from colleagues and friends worrying for my safety, admonishing me to avoid public places, or otherwise urging me to watch out. I truly appreciate such genuine expressions of concern, but they stem from the aforementioned perception that Israel is much more dangerous than America. A simple review of available data, however, suggests the opposite.

According to the Israel Defense Forces, during the 442 days from the beginning of the current Palestinian intifada until the end of December, 2001, 120 Israelis were killed by terrorist [attacks]… All of these murders are tragic, and I do not intend in any way to make light of them here. However, given that 6.3 million people reside within Israel proper, these deaths work out to an annual personal risk of death from terrorism of 16 in one million, within the boundaries of Israel proper, which would be the destination of most visitors…

The 2000 Statistical Abstract of the United States reports that about 41,500 traffic fatalities have occurred in each of the past several years in the US. With a population of 286 million people, the annual personal risk of death from a motor vehicle accident in the United States is 145 per one million. That’s right … the risk of road death in the United States is nine times higher than the risk of death from terrorism in Israel! Since we Americans readily accept the 145 per million risk of road death without worry, why has the US State Department warned us not to travel to Israel? [1]”

Professor Kaplan continues to write that, statistically, the most dangerous part of his trip was driving to Kennedy Airport in New York at the beginning of his trip. The biggest danger is psychological danger, as it will only affect one’s life only while they believe they are in danger. He concludes that “When the US State Department issues travel warnings, many people listen. If citizen safety is the goal, perhaps the State Department should urge all of us Americans to stop driving. But then, wouldn’t that conflict with the goal of leading a normal life? [1]”

This idea extremely applicable now as well. From the media’s reaction to recent military operations and the symbolic Palestinian Authority victory in the United Nations, most of the world believes that Israel is one of the most dangerous places in the world. The Global Peace Index recently rated Israel as the fourth to last peaceful country in the world, sharing the bottom of the list with such distinguished nationalities as Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Sudan. Why is Israel perceived this way? Why do people believe it is so dangerous?

I believe that the answer to this can be found by thinking of the Middle East as the בור “ריק”, the ’empty’ pit. To the innocent passer-by (the nations of the world), the pit is full of scorpions and snakes (the Arab people and their countries). They don’t notice the captured יוסף  (the Jewish state) being attacked- quite the opposite: they see יוסף’s attempts to push off the scorpions as attacks, and think יוסף to be the aggressor, the worst of all of the snakes and scorpions. They want יוסף out of the pit, though whether for his safety or for the scorpions’ safety is a mystery. ראובן’s actions, seen through Rav Chaim’s teaching, teaches us that the best way of dealing with this problem is not to take יוסף out of the pit and send him somewhere else, but rather to leave him in the pit, for it is better to stay in ארץ ישראל and be in constant danger from the metaphorical snakes and scorpions, than to leave the land. This is a message of the story of מכירת יוסף, which started the process of גאולת גלות מצרים,  and with השם’s help, the Jewish people of the גולה should continue to listen to this message so that we can bring גאולת גלות אדום,  our גאולה,  the final גאולה, very soon. Shabbat Shalom and Chanukah Sameach.

[1]- “Competing risks and realities” Prof. Edward Kaplan <http://faculty.som.yale.edu/edkaplan/Media_Files/Competing_Risks_Ed_JPost.html> (originally printed in the Jerusalem Post 8 Jan, 2002)