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THE PATH NOT TAKEN

by Rabbi Yisrael Shaw    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

When Joseph sent his brothers home to their father the third and final time, he ordered them, "Do not become agitated on the way" (Genesis 45:24). The Talmud (Tractate Ta’anit 10b) explains that Joseph was instructing his brothers not to get involved in studying Torah while traveling, lest they became distracted and lose their way.

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When Joseph sent his brothers home to their father the third and final time, he ordered them, "Do not become agitated on the way" (Genesis 45:24). The Talmud (Tractate Ta’anit 10b) explains that Joseph was instructing his brothers not to get involved in studying Torah while traveling, lest they became distracted and lose their way.

There are some difficulties with this verse. First, why did Jacob himself not instruct his sons to avoid getting involved in studying Torah while traveling? Second, why did Joseph only instruct them on their final trip home? Why did he not warn them the first two times that they left Egypt? Third, since they traveled to Egypt to buy food to bring back to Canaan during the famine, they were involved in a mitzvah, and we know that "no harm will befall agents of a mitzvah" (Talmud Tractate Kiddushin 39b). Why, then, did Joseph have to warn them to be careful?

The third question answers the first two. The fact that Jacob did not instruct them to not get distracted on the way shows that Jacob was sending them on a mission of a mitzvah, and that is why he did not warn them to be careful. When Joseph sent them back, though, they were not on a mission of a mitzvah, and thus he had to warn them to be careful.

However, what mitzvah were they doing when they came down to Egypt? It was not the mitzvah of buying food, since they already had food!

To answer this question and to better understand the verses, we must look at the rest of the Talmud (Tractate Ta’anit 10b) quoted earlier. The Talmud first teaches that if one mistakenly ate on a public fast day he should not make himself seen in public, so that all of the people fasting should not feel bad when they see that he is not suffering. The idea that one should avoid exulting while others are suffering is derived from an earlier verse (Genesis 42:1) in which Jacob, who had ample food to eat, told his sons not to let themselves be seen satiated among the other peoples of the land who were suffering from famine. For this reason, Jacob sent his sons to Egypt to buy food even though they did not need any more food, as they had plenty.

The Talmud then quotes the verse from this week’s Torah portion—"Do not become agitated on the way," and explains that Joseph was instructing his brothers not to get involved in studying Torah while traveling, lest they lose their way. The Talmud continues with similar laws for the traveler, and then returns to the topic of sensitivity for others who are suffering.

What does the law of not getting involved in studying Torah while traveling have to do with the Talmud’s teaching that one should be sensitive to the suffering of others?

The answer is that the mitzvah that the sons of Jacob were doing during their descent to Egypt was the mitzvah of being concerned for the feelings of others! The Talmud is showing that taking great efforts to respect the feelings of others is not just a minor concern, but it is a full-fledged obligation like any other mitzvah.

It teaches this by demonstrating that when Jacob told his sons to be concerned for the feelings of others by traveling to Egypt (to make it look like they shared the suffering of the famine), he did not tell them to be careful, because "no harm will befall the agents of a mitzvah." This shows that his concern that the natives who were suffering not see his sons (who were not suffering) was an actual obligation of a mitzvah.

In contrast, Joseph, when he sent them back, told them to be careful because they were no longer involved in the mitzvah of not being seen by those who were suffering, since they had already traveled to Egypt like those who were suffering from the famine (whether or not they actually brought food back home). The fact that Joseph told them to be careful and Jacob did not shows that Jacob had sent them on a mission of a mitzvah of being concerned for the feelings of others.

This approach answers an additional difficulty in the verses. The verse of "Do not become agitated on the way" states, "He sent away his brothers, and they went, and he said to them, ‘Do not become agitated on the way.’" The order of the verse is very strange. It says that he told them to be careful after they had already left! It should have written the words "and they went" after the words, "and he said to them...."

Perhaps the answer is that Joseph initially intended to send them to do a mitzvah, and thus he had no need to warn them to be careful. The Torah relates that Joseph told his brothers not to be concerned about what they had done to him, because it was all part of Hashem’s master plan (Genesis 45:5). He told them that Hashem sent him to Egypt in order to insure the survival of his family, and that it was only Hashem who sent him there to make him the head of Pharaoh’s household and ruler over Egypt. Joseph told his brothers to tell their father that Hashem has made him master over Egypt. Thus, Joseph was sending his brothers on a mission of a mitzvah, to relate the greatness of Hashem’s providence.

"He sent away his brothers" with a particular mitzvah to perform, but "they went," though, with their own agenda. They began to leave without accepting their mission. Indeed, when they returned to Jacob, they did not relate to him what Joseph had told them to say. They did not mention that Hashem had caused Joseph to become ruler in Egypt. All they said to their father was that Joseph is still alive and that he was ruler over Egypt (ibid. 45:26). They did not mention that it was Hashem’s doing.

When Joseph saw that his brothers were not accepting upon themselves to perform the mitzvah that he was sending them to do (the mitzvah of relating the greatness of Hashem’s providence), he realized that they would not be considered "agents of a mitzvah," and so at that point he had to warn them to be careful.

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Rabbi Yisrael Shaw, formerly of Atlanta, writes from Israel. This article has been adapted from Rabbi Shaw’s work with the Dafyomi Advancement Forum that can be viewed at www.dafyomi.co.il

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