Rabbi Goldschmidt

Parshat Vayeishev

The holy Ramban discusses the principle of “Maaseh Avot siman lebanim” for the first time in Parshat Lech Lecha whereAvraham passes through Eretz Yisrael [1] he writes:

“I will tell you a rule that you should understand in all the upcoming Parsha regarding Avraham, Yitzchok, and Yaakov.This is an important concept mentioned briefly by our sages who say, ‘Whatever happened to the fathers is a sign for the sons.’ This is why the verses speak lengthily of the story of the journeys, digging of wells, and other happenings, which a person might consider unnecessary and inconsequential. All come to teach of the future. For when something happens to a prophet among the three fathers, one can derive from it what was decreed to happen to his descendants.

“The midrash the Ramban usesas a source for this lofty idea is likely[2]:

“Hashem gave Avraham a sign that whatever happened to him would (also) happen to his sons. “The deeds of the Avot foretold not only tragedy (being slaves in Egypt) but also joy and celebration – an excellent example is the building of the two Temples and our future redemption with the 3rd Temple (may it come in our days speedily).

As the Ramban explains there, the wells[3] dug by Yaakov servants hint at the three Temples built by his descendants – the depth of this teaching is that they were originally the wells of Abraham.

Incidentally, although a variety of commentators use this term “Maaseh Avot siman lebanim”, neither the Ramban nor Chazal actually ever use this exact expression.

It appears for the first time in the works of the early Acharonim[4] such as the Maharsha[5] and Maharshal[6] and ever since and is frequently quoted in this phraseology:

Let’s look at a larger idea: in order to achieve this we have to leave the linear flow of the Chumash and look at themes and repeating ideas and concepts– We have a tradition that there is no chronological order in the Torah which is based on the Talmud[7] – one of the most incredible things about our Torah is that it can be read in a variety of ways and draw teachings and inspiration through multiple levels of understanding.

Avraham in Parshat Lech Lecha[8] is given the following promise from Hashem:

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לְאַבְרָ֗ם יָדֹ֨עַ תֵּדַ֜ע כִּי־גֵ֣ר ׀ יִהְיֶ֣ה זַרְעֲךָ֗ בְּאֶ֙רֶץ֙לֹ֣א לָהֶ֔ם וַעֲבָד֖וּם וְעִנּ֣וּ אֹתָ֑ם אַרְבַּ֥ע מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָֽה׃

And [God] said to Abram, “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years”; Immediately after the powerful promise of Avram undergoes a change of name to Avraham indicating a new spiritual destiny and the promise of progeny[9].

Avraham of course had already descended to Egypt due to famine[10]– similarly to the brothers actions in our next week’s Parsha of Miketz.

Avraham is asked to do what seems to us as impossible, he sacrifices both his children: Ishmael is sent off to the wilderness and Itzhak, the younger brother is taken up the mountain to be sacrificed – in an almost cinematic twist, Ishmael marries an Egyptian[11] and Itzhak isexchanged for a ram rather than dying.

The Torah’s repeating of the ascendancy of the younger brother over the elder is repeated constantly beginning with the story of Cain and Hevel and can be understood as a direct challenge to the norm of the ancient world – After the children of Abraham our narrative takes a profound twist: Eisav and Yaakov aret wins: Yaakov (with the assistance of his mother) slaughters two goats and dresses in their skins to take the firstborn blessing from his brother after having purchased the status and still achieving ascendency of the younger over the older brother.

Despite having a multitude of sons, Yaakov favors his youngest son Yosef and with the jealousy generated from this (much like the jealousy of Cain and Hevel that prompted the first murder in Human history) the brothers decide to kill Yosef – however this does not actually transpire and he is instead thrown in a pit and then sold intoslavery (eventually to descendants of Ishmael) and in order to hide this up agoat is slaughtered in his place (reminiscent of Abraham and Itzhak) and usedto deceive his father as to what has actually transpired (the parallel isobvious with the way that he deceived his own father).

Yosef descends to Egypt and then through false accusations is imprisoned (in much the same way that Yosef gave accusations upon his brothers).

All of this narrative is of course needed to save the brothers from famine in the next Parsha, to provide the setup for what will be the beginning of exodus the Children of Israel and of course the fulfilment of the earlier promise given to Abraham by Hashem:

We are being taught that this world is operating in cycles that do not exactly match but nonetheless contain the repeating motifs or elements of what has transpired before; as Shlomo HaMelech wrote[12]:

מַה־שֶּֽׁהָיָה֙ ה֣וּא שֶׁיִּֽהְיֶ֔ה וּמַ֨ה־
שֶּׁנַּֽעֲשָׂ֔ה ה֖וּא שֶׁיֵּֽעָשֶׂ֑ה וְאֵ֥ין כָּל־חָדָ֖שׁ תַּ֥חַת הַשָּֽׁמֶשׁ

“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.”

We find ourselves in a similar position as Yosef: strangers in a foreign land(physically or ideologically) and yet Jews have been blessed with ability not only to survive the exile but also to prosper, however this comes with great spiritual peril:

“The pit was empty, there was no water in it.”[13]

Rashi comments on the verse our tradition that the pit was not empty since “there was no water in it, but there (actually) were snakes and scorpions in it.”[14]

“Nature abhors a vacuum”[15] – In other words: where water (a common metaphor for Torah/Spiritual teachings throughout the Tanach) cannot be found, snakes and scorpions (negative spiritual influences) will – ultimately our environment influences us greatly[16] and the norms and surrounding culture affect much of our individuality personal experience:

The greatness of Yosef and why we call him “HaTzaddik” (the righteous one) is that he held onto the morals and spiritual teachings he received from his father and his tradition despite being alienated from his family and sold to slavery in a foreign land – he resisted seduction in a both a physical sense and in terms of the power he would wield as viceroy to Egypt:

The power of the Torah and its profound teachings is that in every age and social paradigm we have retained our commitment to Truth, kindness, honesty, education and our unwavering belief in Hashem and our people to achieve good things despite human nature, we have proven to ourselves and to history that we can choose to transcend the mere material and seek spiritual greatness.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Jonathan Goldschmidt 2022 ©

[1] Bereshit/Genesis 12:6
[2] Midrash Tanchuma on LechLecha: 9
[3] Bereshit/Genesis 26:20
[4] Acharonim in Jewish law and history, are the leading Rabbis and Poskim (Jewish legal experts) living from roughly the 16th century to the present day, and more specifically since the writing of the Shulchan Aruch the a code of Jewish law written in 1563 CE
[5] Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer HaLevi Eidels: a renowned rabbi and Talmudist famous for his commentary on the Talmud, Chiddushei Halachot (1555-1631).
[6] Known as the Maharshal, Rabbi Luria was one of the great Ashkenazic poskim (halachic authorities) and teachers of his time. Heserved as rabbi in various communities in Poland and Lithuania. His major work of halacha, Yam Shel Shlomo, covers sixteen tractates of the Talmud – HisChochmot Shelomo, consisting of notes on the text of the Talmud and comments,is printed in most standard editions of the Talmud ((1510-1573).
[7] Jerusalem Talmud:Megillah 7a:
אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה [8] Bereshit/Genesis 15:13
[9] Ibid 17:5-7
[10] Ibid 12:10
[11] Ibid 21:21
[12] Kohellet/Ecclesiastes 1:9
[13] Bereshit/Genesis37:24
[14] TalmudShabbat 22a
[15] In physics, horror vacui, or “plenism” is commonly stated as “nature abhors a vacuum”, is a postulate attributed to Aristotle, who articulated the belief, later criticized by the atomism of Epicurus and Lucretius, that nature contains no vacuums because the denser surrounding material continuum would immediately fill the rarity of an incipient void- it is used as a generic idea beyond the scope of physics in a wide variety of settings.
[16] Stern, P.C. (2000). Towards a coherent theory of environmentally significant behaviour. (Journal of Social Issues, 56, 407-424)