Seventeen years old? We are struck by this information. Why would the Torah deem it necessary to inform us about Yosef’s age? No word, no pasuk, no paragraph is out of place in Torah so we know the information is necessary and important. But what is its importance? What do we gain by this kernel of biographical information about Yosef?
To understand, it benefits us to first examine the conclusion of Parshat Toldot, where Yitzchak advises Yaakov to escape from his brother, Esav, by fleeing to Padan Aram. In commenting on this passage, Rashi notes that here we learn that Yaakov sojourned in the House of Ever for more than fourteen years studying Torah and only then, at the conclusion of his study, did he continue on to Padan Aram.
Again, we gain a glimpse of biographical information without yet understanding its value to us. Why inform us the length of Yaakov’s sojourn? And why was it even necessary for Yaakov to stop at Ever’s home in order to study Torah? There can be no doubt that, as a child growing up in Yitzchak’s home, he learned and absorbed Torah, chesed, morals and positive values. Indeed, the Torah identifies Yaakov as a scholar, “Ish tam yoshev ohalim“! So, why the additional fourteen years of study?
The answer to that question comes when Torah shows Yaakov wrestling with the angel of God, earning the name Yisroel and demonstrating that we all must wrestle with Torah or, as Ben-Bag Bag would teach it, turn it over and over, finding meaning in it. From this we understand that to learn Torah demands not only the pure and sanctified environment of a Bais Yitzchok but that to truly “wrestle” with Torah is to absorb it – and transplant its teachings and precepts – in the world at large. In Ever.
In his father’s house, Yaakov had superior training in pure Torah, in Torah that had meaning in the rarified world of his home and other, likeminded, scholars and students. However, in Parshat Toldot, as Yaakov prepares to flee his brother and his father’s house – leaving the protected environment of his home – he would be entering a foreign and threatening world. To survive and flourish in the intimidating environment of Charan, he needed first to wrestle with Torah in Bais Ever, a place not nearly as safe and nurturing as his own father’s house.
So too, Yaakov foresaw that Yosef would also find himself among Gentiles, Egyptians, in a large, intimidating and menacing society. To assure that Yosef would remain steadfast in all the Torah he had taught him even in the most threatening circumstances, Yaakov determined that Yosef, like himself, must be exposed to the same Torah in “foreign” territory. Therefore, all the Torah Yaakov learned in Ever’s academy he taught to Yosef for fourteen years.
And so we return to the Torah’s biographical note regarding Yosef. Yosef began learning Torah at three, when every child must begin to study Torah.
Thus, the Torah speaks of the point at which Yosef was prepared to confront life’s many challenges – at seventeen.
Like Yosef, we must all at some point leave the warmth and comfort of our homes; we must all attain the age of “seventeen”. And, like Yosef, we must be prepared to willingly and lovingly communicate Torah in an open, “Torah-less” society.
Torah is a glorious jewel, but it is not a fragile one. It will not only survive beyond the safety of our academies, it will thrive.
A Jew’s ability to live a Torah life beyond the safety and security of “Yaakov’s tent” is the ultimate test of Torah. Like any test of worth, it is not an easy one. A prominent Torah educator from Jerusalem was asked why it is that he pursued and attained higher academic degrees in prominent universities, whereas his sons were discouraged from continuing their general education beyond high school. “I grew up in the open European society. My sons live in Jerusalem.
“What more do they need in Jerusalem other than Torah?” he exclaimed.
It is not difficult to understand his thinking. Who could stand against such a pure and untarnished Jewish experience? And yet…there are those who would argue that a great number of Israel’s population might benefit from an open, loving outreach approach. Certainly that is true of the overwhelming majority of American Jews living in Ever’s society, thirsty to drink from God’s waters but never having been exposed to a genuine and authentic Jewish experience.
How can they gain such experiences but from those Jews who have been nurtured and taught in Yaakov’s tent and then sent out to teach Torah to them, in the world? To teach Torah in the world demands the teacher have the experience and preparation to communicate with all Jews, at their level, in their language, wherever they are – from the secular, Jewishly ignorant, and assimilated to the ever-growing population of frum drop-outs, Jews who simply walk away from Torah life for countless reasons.
In the early ‘80s, I worked to recruit young talmidei chachomim to join what was, at the time, little more than a dream of what would become a Pittsburgh Kollel, one of the very first such community-oriented kollelim in the United States. It was no easy task to convince a minyan of Lakewood scholars to leave the warmth and safety of Lakewood to migrate to the Steel City.
After one of my visits to Lakewood in pursuit of “ten yungeleit,” I asked the saintly Rav Schneur Kotler z”l why the vast majority of the outstanding scholars in the Lakewood Yeshiva were so reluctant to move from the famed Yeshiva to America’s secular city? “They will accomplish so many positive and beneficial things for Klal Yisrael,” I argued.
The wise and perceptive Rosh Yeshiva z”l smiled softly and, in his inimitable loving manner, noted that for many of the Yeshiva’s graduates, particularly those who have been in the Yeshiva for a number of years, the Yeshiva is like “a warm and comforting womb, from which it is traumatic to exit.
“You know,” the Rosh Yeshiva went on, “it is not easy for a newborn to leave the mother’s womb after having been completely taken care of with all of one’s needs for nine months.”
The Rosh Yeshiva’s analogy is apt. And, just like a newborn in its mother’s womb, there comes a time when, despite accompanying trauma and loud cries, it must emerge, attain its own independence and eventually make its own contribution to the world at large. It is only when the Yaakovs and Yosefs of our current day are able to make the purposeful transition from the secure and untroubled tents of their fathers and make their way in the tumultuous and demanding societies in need of their counsel, guidance, and care that we will know that their upbringing and background was significant and purposeful.
However, it is not Torah knowledge alone that ensures the transition is successful. There is a spark, a quality, that is required if one is to motivate and challenge a Jew to reach out and touch the soul of a fellow Jew with one’s own talents and abilities – the ability to embrace and maintain one’s youthfulness, one’s sense of wonder and constant renewal. In other words, the ability to remain a na’ar.
Yosef always maintained his youthfulness, his sense of renewal. Reb Aharon of Karlin explains that Yosef is the epitome of na’ar hayiti v’gam zakanti – “I was young and I have grown old.” Even as I have grown older, become more mature and seasoned, I have maintained the same excitement, vigor and enthusiasm as in my youth. To maintain such an approach, one needs to retain a sense of renewal about life.
The Talmud notes that Jews use a lunar calendar, while the nations of the world make use of a solar calendar. The reason says the Sfat Emet is because the nations of the world accomplish certain goals and missions and then their sun sets. They rise and fall. Jews, on the other hand, are compared to the moon, because even as tasks are accomplished, they are able to renew their sense of excitement and vigor, just as the moon which emerges anew even from perceived darkness.
Of course it is “easier” to remain within the confines of Yitzchok’s academies and neighborhoods, never having to confront the challenges and threats of Ever’s needs. But the “easy” path has never been the path for the Torah Jew. It was not for Yaakov. It was not for Yosef. The easy path, the one that clings to comfort and security, leads to disaster. It leads not only to the disintegration of large numbers of the American Jewish community, but is also disabling many in our so called well-secured kehillas.
When one attains the age of “seventeen,” after having been raised and nurtured by Yitzchaks and Yaakovs, and is willing to remain a perpetual na’ar, then it is time to throw open the tent flaps and enter the world. Frightening, yes. Challenging, without question. Worthwhile, absolutely. To walk the path of Yaakov and Yosef is to realize benefits never-ending and rewards eternal.
Am Yisrael is waiting for you!
Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran serves as OU Kosher’s Vice President of Communications and Marketing.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.