When I was a kid, I used watch the Disney Channel’s Boy Meets World every night. This show, which lasts seven seasons, follows Corey Matthews as he grows from a young boy into a married man, and learns about himself, his friends and family, and the world around him. I loved Boy Meets World because it was entertaining yet also educational: every episode left me with a “life lesson,” and many of them have stayed with me until today.
One of my favorite episodes was called “Risky Business.” In it, Corey and his friend Sean decide to bet on horse races as part of a school assignment to setup a mock company. The boys win $680 fairly quickly and can hardly contain their glee. Shortly afterwards, a classmate of theirs drops by their home announcing that he’s spotted Phillies center-fielder Lenny Dykstra at a local pizza shop. Corey is supposed to be babysitting his little sister, Morgan, but figures that nothing can go wrong if she’s alone for a few minutes. So he runs off with his friends and leaves his sister unsupervised.
By the time Corey returns, his house is in disarray: the front door is wide open, a window is smashed, and Morgan has disappeared. Corey is frantic. Eventually, he finds Morgan hiding in the treehouse and discovers that she was responsible for the mess. But the fear of not knowing what had happened to her makes a deep impression upon him. When, on the next day, his teacher asks him to share one insight that he gained from his experience running a business, Corey thoughtfully replies: “Never gamble something that you can’t afford to lose.”
Over the years, Corey’s advice has come to serve as one of my life’s guiding principles. It is indeed wise advice. And yet, I don’t think I appreciated its full significance until earlier this week, while reviewing the story of Joseph and his brothers. Only then did it occur to me how truly tempting it can be to “put it all on the line” when you’re convinced that the odds are in your favor. As it turns out, eleven year old boys are not alone in finding such prospects difficult to resist. Even—להבדיל—our forefathers and foremothers struggled in such situations.
Take, for instance, the dramatic exchange between Joseph’s brothers and his servant that occurs at the end of this week’s Torah portion. The brothers travel to Egypt to buy food because a severe famine has stricken their native Canaan. They are on their way back home when suddenly they are overtaken by Joseph’s servant. The servant accuses them of stealing Joseph’s silver goblet and instructs them to return to the palace, where they will be tried.
Joseph, it should be remembered, is acting as the viceroy of Egypt at this time. The brothers do not know that it is him, though—nor do they know that he has planted his goblet in Benjamin’s sack in order to frame the boy. They are frightened by the charges against them, yet they know them to be untrue. Thus, they cut a deal. So sure are we that we have not committed this crime, they imply, that we’re prepared to accept the following punishment if we’re wrong: “Whichever one of us with whom the goblet is found shall be put to death, and the rest shall become slaves to the viceroy” (Gen. 44:9).
The brothers are counting on the fact that Joseph’s servant will back down when he realizes how confident they are in their position. It is a classic poker strategy. What’s the worst that could happen, they reason? If the servant calls our bluff, he’ll discover that it was no bluff after all. From their perspective, then, there could be no safer bet: they have something to gain, and nothing to lose.
Yet the brothers haven’t seen Benjamin’s hand—or rather, his sack. They’ve gone “all in” when there was no need to, and they soon recognize what a grave error this was. Their bags are searched, and sure enough—the goblet is found with Benjamin. Benjamin’s brothers are distraught. They rent their garments, re-load their donkeys, and prepare to receive their sentence. That is how our Torah portion ends.
When Benjamin is incriminated, the brothers have no choice but to turn around and head back to Egypt. Yet as readers, our minds race to Canaan. We think immediately of the boys’ poor father, Jacob, because we know how anxiously he is awaiting their return.
A chapter earlier, Jacob had done everything he could to prevent Benjamin from leaving his side. Even as his family’s supply of food dwindled, he remained adamant: the other brothers could go buy provisions in Egypt, but Benjamin was to stay behind. Never mind that the viceroy of Egypt had issued a summons for Benjamin, and never mind his “repeated warnings that ‘you shall not see my face unless your youngest brother is with you’” (Gen. 42:3)—Jacob is simply not willing to take a chance with another son. “You have bereaved me [enough]!” he protests. “Joseph is gone, and Simeon is gone, and now you want to take Benjamin too?” (Gen. 42:36).
It is at this point the Reuben, the eldest, intercedes. “Entrust Benjamin with me,” he assures his father. “I will return him to you. And if I don’t, you may put to death my own two sons” (Gen. 42:37). Reuben, of course, has no intention of letting his children be killed. Indeed, he bids them as collateral precisely because he anticipates that his “debtor” will never collect; like his brothers would later do in Egypt, Reuben is “buying trust” by making a guarantee which he’s certain he won’t be called upon to uphold.
Ultimately, Jacob declines Reuben’s offer. “My son shall not go down with you,” he insists. “His brother is dead, and he alone is left [from Rachel’s children]; and if misfortune befalls him on the way you are going, you will bring down my gray head in sorrow to the grave” (Gen. 42:38). What Jacob is trying to impress upon his children here is that some risks are just not worth taking. But they miss the message: they refuse to travel without Benjamin, leaving the family starving to death and forcing Jacob to acquiesce in the end. The patriarch sends off his sons with a heavy heart, begging them to be careful. They promise that they will be.
Two aliyot later, they’ve condemned Benjamin to capital punishment and have pledged themselves as slaves to Pharaoh.
There is something deeply troubling about the way the brothers repeatedly roll the dice with their lives. In doing so, they seem to forget that their actions do not affect them alone. “All these sorrows fall upon me” (Gen. 42:36) Jacob attempts to remind them, albeit in vain. When his sons play with fate, it is their father who must bear the cost of their mistakes. That is terribly unfair.
Yet on some level, the brothers are merely mimicking the behavior they observed as children. There are, after all, strong parallels between the incident of Joseph’s goblet, told in this week’s parsha, and an incident that unfolds several parshiot earlier, as Jacob and his family flee from the home of Laban, his father-in-law (see Gen. 31). In both stories, Jacob’s sons depart from a foreign land and head for Canaan. In both stories, they are “pursued” (ר.ד.ף) by men who demand that they return. In both stories, the members of Jacob’s family are suspected of stealing an object of religious significance: Joseph’s servant claims that the brothers stole his master’s “divine goblet,” and Laban claims that Jacob’s family stole his “teraphim idols.” In both stories, these items have in fact been taken: Benjamin unwittingly left Egypt with Joseph’s goblet, and his mother, Rachel, deliberately left Aram with Laban’s idols. Yet neither Jacob, in the first story, nor his sons, in the second, are aware of this “theft.” Both profess their innocence, both invite their accusers to search their belongings—and both decree death upon the culprit, assuming that none exists. Joseph’s brothers proclaim: “the one with whom the goblet is found shall be put to death” (Gen. 44:9); years earlier, their father had proclaimed: “the one whom your gods are found shall not live” (Gen. 31:32). These are dangerous wagers to make, and they end up backfiring in the end.
To be sure, Laban never does discover who stole his teraphim: when he enters Rachel’s tent, she conceals them under her seat, rendering them impossible to find. Yet Rachel does not emerge unscathed from the ordeal. According to our sages, her death, which occurs shortly afterwards, is brought about as a result of the curse which Jacob inadvertently cast upon her—“whoever has the teraphim shall not live (Gen. Rabbah 74:4).” This is a tragedy the scope of which neither Jacob nor his children fully apprehend. Only Rachel, perhaps—and we the readers—understand what has happened here. Jacob, to use Corey’s line, “gambled something he couldn’t afford to lose.” And he lost.
How ironic that Rachel dies while giving birth to Benjamin—the very Benjamin who would, in the future, also be doomed to death by well-meaning loved ones. The irony is compounded by the fact that, years earlier, Rachel had turned to Jacob while still barren and pleaded: “Give me sons, and if not—I shall die!” (Gen. 30:1). Rachel desperately wanted to bear children, and, like her children after her, she intimated that she was prepared to pay with her life in order to have her way. In the end, that is exactly what happened: Rachel gave life to Benjamin, but she gave up her own life in the process.
There is yet a third layer of irony here. Rachel, we should recall, is Jacob’s first-cousin. Her father is the brother of Jacob’s mother, Rebecca. This Rebecca is the one who initially sends Jacob to Laban’s house, with the charge of finding a wife there. “If Jacob marries one of the local Hittites,” she demurs, “of what use is life to me?” (Gen. 27:46). Like Rachel her daughter-in-law, Rebecca commoditizes her very existence; she leverages it, through emotionally-charged rhetoric, in a bid to “increase” its value. Ultimately, then, the practice of “risking one’s life” (or the life of a loved one) as a way of communicating to others that “I mean business” does not begin with the brothers, with Jacob, or even with Rachel. It begins with Rebecca. In order to ensure that Jacob leaves Canaan, Rebecca announces that she’d rather die than see him wedded to a Canaanite; years later, as Jacob returns home, it is his wife Rachel who dies before ever seeing Rebecca.
The patriarch and matriarchs were ovdei Hashem par excellence. They stand as our eternal models for what it means to dedicate oneself wholeheartedly to the service of God—to chase after truth, justice and peace no matter what that entails. Abraham waged war against the mightiest empires of his day so that he could free captives from oppression. Isaac bound himself on an altar for his Creator. Tamar was prepared to throw herself into a furnace in order to avoid publicly embarrassing her fellow human being. These men and women exhibited tremendous commitment to their beliefs. From them, we learn the value of mesiras nefesh: of holding so firmly to your ideals that you are willing even to sacrifice your own welfare for them.
Yet the same Torah which commands us to worship Hashem בכל לבבך—with your very life, if necessary (though never by taking someone else’s life!)—instructs us to guard that life vigilantly: ונשמרתם מאוד לנפשותיכם. Life is precious. It is also precarious—far more so than we often realize. For this reason, it must be treated with great care. It is the most valuable gift we have, and it can never be replaced.
Perhaps this is one meaning of the Talmudic aphorism, לא סומכים על הנס. Hazal warned us never to rely on miracles. What Jacob and his family teach us, for their part, is that even “certainties” should not be relied upon, when the stakes are too high. There is, after all, no such thing as a “sure thing;” as the Yiddish saying goes, “man plans, and God laughs.” And if there is one story in Tanach that bears out this principle, surely it is the story of Joseph and his brothers.
Therefore we must never take for granted this beautiful life which we have been blessed with. We must recognize it for the privilege it is and treat it with the responsibility it deserves. We must appreciate every moment, and infuse each of them with sanctity and significance. And we must express our sincere gratitude to Hashem each time He grants us some more.
ברוך אתה ה’, אלוקינו מלך העולם, שהחיינו וקימנו והגיענו לזמן הזה: Blessed are You Hashem, our God, King of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.
Shabbat shalom, and Chanukah sameach!