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Greatness In Contrast

 

The brilliance of derush, homiletical explanations of the Torah, lies in the practitioner’s ability to utilize insight into the human experience to explain textual difficulties. The greater the individual’s sensitivity and eloquence, the more profound the derush. R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik was a master darshan who explained the text with deep human insight, often revealing himself through the text.

This past Shabbos I studied R. Soloveitchik’s explanations of the Yosef narratives in his recently published Vision and Leadership: Reflections on Joseph and Moses. The brilliant derush about Yosef is mostly taken from his Saturday night Boston lectures (the Moshe sections come from a variety of sources). Some of the material was already published in R. Avishai David’s Darosh Darash Yosef (which of course has much more on other Torah portions) but appears here in greater detail. This is R. Soloveitchik at his homiletical height. In the following excerpt (pp. 16-18), he explains a narrative theme with psychological and autobiographical tools.

Joseph was sold to Ishmaelites, and then he was sold to Midianites–according to the Sages there were a few sales–and then the Midianites sold Joseph to Potiphar, who is described as sar ha-tabbahim (Gen. 37:36). Rashi (s.v. ha-tabbahim) says that this means he was the head butcher, but Nahmanides, Targum Yonatan, and most midrashim say that he was Pharaoh’s executioner. You can imagine what kind of an “ethical” personality this fellow was! There were so many ways that Divine Providence could have arranged for Joseph to be introduced to Pharaoh. He could have been sold to a very decent person in Egypt, a prominent citizen who was very close to Pharaoh, and this citizen, being impressed with Joseph’s wisdom, could have recommended Joseph to Pharaoh. Why was he then sold to the chief executioner, where murder and bloodshed and injustice and cruelty were the order of the day, and then had to spend so much time in a cruel Egyptian jail?…

In my opinion, God wanted the children of Israel, and particularly their representative, Joseph, to appreciate the code of Abraham. Do not forget that they were born into the house of Jacob, where Abraham’s mores and moral laws prevailed. They were guided by Abraham’s principles of morality and Abraham’s ethics, whose basic cornerstones were mercy, charity, benevolence, kindness, appreciation, and human dignity…

There is an old idea that one begins to appreciate one’s most precious treasure–freedom, health, parents, friendship–only after one loses it. The household of Jacob did not appreciate Abraham. I know it from my own childhood. Many times I could not understand what was so great about our household. I was brought up in a house of rabbis, in a scholarly home, but I used to find fault with my father, with my grandfather, and so forth. No one could convince me until I spent a number of years among gentiles, among Germans. I spent my time among the best of society in the academic community, and I saw many people who were supposed to be very ethical and moral. But I began to compare them with my grandfather or father, and I realized the difference. My confrontation with a non-Jewish society opened up a new world for me. It was as if a shining star had appeared on the horizon, as if a comet had suddenly exploded. I realized that my grandfather Reb Hayyim would have acted differently, that my father would have helped this person. In order to appreciate the good, you need to be confronted with evil. In order to appreciate traditional Jewish charity, you need to be confronted with cruelty. In order to appreciate the truthfulness and veracity which the Halakhah requires of every person, you need to view how politicians act. Colors can be identified only by comparing varying shades. The same is true regarding morality; appreciation is possible only if confronted with the opposite. And this is exactly what the Almighty wanted Joseph to see.

Joseph was brought up in Jacob’s house. He took for granted that everyone should be charitable and truthful, that all who need should receive shelter, that a human life is precious and one should sacrifice oneself in order to save a human life. He did not appreciate the greatness of Jacob. Perhaps he was even critical of the old man: after all, he was young and imaginative, a very colorful personality, very capable. The clan could not become a great nation unless the children were ready to sacrifice. If every ethical system is just as good as the Torah, there is no need to make so many sacrifices for it. There must be something singular, something unique, something which sets the Torah apart from other codes of ethics. There is something sublime, something exalted in the Torah, but it is impossible to find within. One must leave the house of Abraham and the house of Jacob for a while, and come to Egypt…

 

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Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Torah Musings.

 
The opinions and facts here are presented solely by the author. Torah Musings assumes no responsibility for them. Please address religious questions to your rabbi.
 

6 Responses

  1. joel rich says:

    The brilliance of derush, homiletical explanations of the Torah, lies in the practitioner’s ability to utilize insight into the human experience to explain textual difficulties.
    ——————————
    R’ Gil,
    When I read it (my friends would say if I read “The Rav’s Favorite Recipes” it would knock my socks off :-))my reaction was The brilliance of derush, homiletical explanations of the Torah, lies in the practitioner’s ability to mainatain a childlike innocence in reading text that we have all seen 1000 times. I agree with your statement but would also add that there were points where I would have added that I’m not sure that this was what the pshat was but it was a great opportunity to make a point.
    KT

  2. Abe says:

    Gil,
    I believe this also appears in Rabbi Holzer’s “The Rav: Thinking Aloud”.

  3. Reuven Spolter says:

    I have often found the Rav’s drush most compelling when he personalizes it, transforming the Torah and message from an abstract idea into something relevant, intimate. It seems to be a common theme. After the brilliant drush, he then stops and asks, “What did this idea mean to me, personally?” forcing us to ask ourselves, “And if the Rav learned such a powerful lesson, it’s clearly something for us to consider as well.”

  4. The Dude says:

    Unfortunately, much of the darshanut in N. America today is just vortlach. The Rav was able to weave a majestic tapestry of the Religious Experience and address the challenges that confront modern man. His darshanut was part of a larger gestalt. Sadly, we live in a very superficial age – just take a look at the topics offered at Boca Raton Synagogue, for example. Typical of the anti-intellectualism of the MO community. People just want to watch Real Houswives, I guess.

  5. Mike S. says:

    The brilliance of derush, homiletical explanations of the Torah, lies in the practitioner’s ability to utilize insight into the human experience to explain textual difficulties.

    I would have said:
    The brilliance of derush, homiletical explanations of the Torah, lies in the practitioner’s ability to utilize explanations of textual difficulties to develop and communicate insight into the human experience

  6. shmuel says:

    The power of drash is and should be that the audience should be inspired towards introspection and spiritual growth. The Rav had that ability. There are a number of good speakers (some excellent) both Charedi and more modern who continue in that tradition. Some resonate with members of one community while others resonate with other members of the community. The key ingredient is an able speaker and a receptive audience

 
 

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