December 20, 2016
Rabbi H. Greenberg in #1049, Parsha Thought, VaYeishev


Yoseph’s brothers conspired to kill him out of jealousy, but the oldest brother Reuven stepped in and convinced his brothers to throw Yoseph into an empty pit. Reuven intended to take him out later and return him to his father.

The Torah describes the pit as: “And the pit was empty, it had no water in it.”

The Talmud (Shabbos 22a), quoting Rabbi Tanchum, notes the redundancy here and states:

From the words “it was empty” do I not know that it had no water in it? Why then does the Torah have to state “it had no water in it?” It is to tell us that while it had no water, it did contain snakes and scorpions.

An obvious question arises: if the pit was infested with deadly snakes and scorpions, what was Reuven thinking when he threw Yoseph into the pit? If his intention was indeed to save Yoseph’s life, what did Reuven think he was gaining by surrendering Yoseph to these deadly creatures?

Nachmanides writes that it is obvious that the brothers did not know these creatures were present, for had they known and seen Yoseph remain unscathed, they would have realized that he was a righteous person for whom G-d had performed a miracle.

From this comment, it is clear that the Torah wants us to know that Yoseph was indeed a righteous individual and deserved to be saved from these deadly creatures. Lest we had begun to indict Yoseph for inciting his brothers against him and concluded that he was an unworthy heir to his father’s legacy, we are informed that, on the contrary, he was perfectly righteous.

There is another, deeper explanation for why the Torah emphasizes that there were snakes and scorpions in the pit that reveals to us Yoseph’s greatness.

The fact that Yoseph was thrown into a pit of deadly snakes and scorpions is emblematic of his uncanny moral and spiritual strength. It was strength that his brothers did not possess and for which reason they so misunderstood him. Yoseph, unlike most others, could be cast into a pit of snakes and scorpions, literally and figuratively, and still be immune to their venom.


To better understand Yoseph’s uniqueness we must preface our thoughts with the analysis offered by Chassidus:

The Patriarchs, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, as well as Yaakov’s sons, were shepherds. That allowed them to remain divorced from the corrupt and degenerate urban areas of society. By becoming shepherds, they had the freedom to engage in deep spiritual meditation. Indeed, it was Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov who instituted the three daily prayers of Shacharis, Mincha and Maariv. These were not perfunctory prayers but profound meditative experiences that connected them to G-d and divorced them from spiritual “snakes” and “scorpions.”

Yoseph was different; and it would seem not in such a good way. He was not a shepherd. In fact, he appeared to be a lightweight contender for the legacy of the Patriarchs. Yoseph engaged in what most observers would think was immature behavior; focusing on his looks and clothes. In later years, upon reaching greater maturity, he transitioned into a worldly person, ultimately running Egypt. Both his youthful endeavors and his later secular leadership would hardly seem to prepare him to follow the lead of his brothers, parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, who were no-nonsense spiritual people.

This, Chassidic thought explains, is why his brothers hated him. It was not a petty jealousy. They were concerned and deeply troubled that Yoseph’s behavior represented a serious departure from the tradition of the Patriarchs. They thought Yoseph was turning out to be another Yishmoel or Eisav, who strayed far from the path trodden by Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. In short, he was an embarrassment and they feared he would even pose a spiritual and physical threat to their family.


As we know, their fears were unfounded. Yoseph possessed a singular talent for constancy. He was not affected by his environment. In Chassidic literature, Yoseph was simultaneously a resident of two worlds. On the one hand, his soul was from and reflected the highest spiritual world of Atzilus, the world of G-dly emanation. It is a realm where G-d’s light shines brightly and where even the vessels, i.e., the instruments that contain and channel the light, are transparent. Yet, at the same time, Yoseph was able to live in the most secular and hostile of places without losing his connection to the lofty world of Atzilus.

Yoseph possessed the potential to withstand both the icy indifference of a secular environment and to resist its powerful temptations.

These two threats are represented by the twin metaphors of snakes and scorpions. Our Sages teach that a snake’s venom is “hot” whereas the scorpion’s is “cold.” In spiritual and moral terms this means that the “snake” personality possesses unholy and immoral passions. The scorpion’s “cold” venom, by contrast, represents one who is coldly indifferent to anything holy and spiritual.

The fact that Yoseph was thrown into a pit infested with these poisonous threats and survived demonstrated Divine Providence. It was also an omen that he would be subjected to both of these challenges, inappropriate passions and secular distraction, but pass them with flying colors.

Moreover, Yoseph possessed another unique quality. It was his ability to influence others to follow in his footsteps. The third Rebbe of Chabad, known as the Tzemach Tzedek, retranslates the verse in last week’s parsha, which explains why he was called Yoseph. The simple translation of his mother’s words upon naming him is: “May G-d add another son for me.” The Tzemach Tzedek retranslates this as: “may G-d make an ‘other’ (an outsider) into a son.” In other words, Yoseph was capable of reaching even the Jew who considers himself or herself to be an outsider, an “other,” and transform him or her into a son, the ultimate insider.

Had his brothers been aware of Yoseph’s righteousness, as demonstrated by his immunity from the physical snakes and scorpions and imperviousness to the associated spiritual threats, they would have never challenged him.


We can now begin to understand why the Talmud juxtaposes Rabbi Tanchum’s statement that the pit was infested with snakes and scorpions with his statement concerning that Chanukah lights may not be placed at a height greater than 20 cubits.

Commentators have grappled with the juxtaposition of these two totally unrelated statements. What connection is there between the placement of a Chanukah Menorah and Yoseph being thrown into a pit infested with snakes and scorpions?

We may also ask, what is the connection of these two statements to their author, Rabbi Tanchum? The name Tanchum relates to consolation and is usually associated with the ultimate consolation that we will receive from G-d in the imminent Redemption through our righteous Moshiach. According to the Talmud, Moshiach’s name is Menachem, which shares Tanchum’s root; they both relate to the notion of consolation.

In light of our preceding analysis of the brother’s misunderstanding of Yoseph we can discover a connection between these two statements:

The Chanukah lights emerged out of the attempt by the Syrian-Greeks to contaminate the soul of the Jewish people. It has been suggested that the reason we place the Menorah at the entrances of our homes is to commemorate how the enemy removed the doors of the homes of the Jewish people so that they could not hide their observance of Judaism.

In other words, the Syrian-Greeks did everything in their power to ensure the infiltration of malign outside influences into every Jewish home and heart. There were to be no barriers to block the “snakes” and “scorpions” from entering.

The Chanukah lights that we place at our entrances or our windows cannot be contaminated, just like the lone cruse of uncontaminated oil that lasted for eight days. This parallels Yoseph’s first quality: that he was impervious to outside influences.

Moreover, just as Yoseph was not content simply to resist the negative forces, but also transformed the “other-outsider” into a “son-insider,” so too, the Chanukah lights illuminate the darkness of the night. It has the power to transform night into light; the “other” into a son.

However, in order for the Chanukah lights to have their intended effect they cannot be placed beyond eye contact. A Menorah placed so high that the eye does not easily notice it cannot illuminate the darkness.

We can now also understand the connection of these statements to the name of Rabbi Tanchum. As stated, Tanchum is closely related to Moshiach. Moshiach will succeed in achieving the goal of transforming the outside. Moshiach is known as a warrior against the influences that threaten the integrity of the Torah, Jewish people and the Land of Israel. But Moshiach is more than that. He will influence every Jew to follow in the ways of G-d and indeed, he will even reach out and perfect the entire world, thereby bringing true peace and unity.

Moshiach will transform the snakes and scorpions into positive forces. Indeed, the word snake in Hebrew (Nachash) has the same numerical value as Moshiach (358). And the word scorpion in Hebrew (Akrav) equals the numerical value of “Moshiach” combined with “David.”

Moshiach inherited from Yoseph the power to accomplish these things, for Yoseph was singularly endowed with the abilities associated with Moshiach.

All of us possess a spark of Moshiach, especially now that the Rebbe informed us that the Redemption is in front of us. The only impediment before us is if we place the symbol of Moshiach, the Chanukah lights, so high that our eyes do not see them.

This echoes the Rebbe’s repeated exhortation to us that we must “open our eyes” to see the energy and light of Moshiach and Redemption in front of us.

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (
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