Vayeshev: A Divine Scent

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18 Dec 2008

“Other than that, how was the play Mrs. Lincoln?”

It is perhaps the classic line that expresses the utter triviality of the small stuff amidst the major calamities of life. Such a moment appears in the craziness of Yosef’s sale. The brothers put Yosef in the pit and break bread:

They raised their eyes and saw,— behold a Yishmaelite caravan was coming from Gilad. Their camels were carrying spices, balsam and lotus, bringing them down to Egypt.

Rashi wonders why it is significant to describe the caravan’s contents. His midrashic answer boggles the mind

Why does Scripture announce what they were carrying? It is to let us know the reward of the righteous. Because it is unusual for Arabs to carry anything, but naphta and itran whose odor is foul. But for this one [Yosef] it was arranged [that they be carrying] good smelling spices so that he not be harmed by the foul odor.

A beautiful midrash that seems to border on the maximally absurd – for even as the road to the gehenom, the suffering, that was sure to follow in Egypt might have been paved with the sweet balsam fragrance, would not Yosef, like the rest of us, rather travel smelly coach or cargo class all the way back home? What an apparently pathetic consolation prize for the Midrash to highlight.

And yet consider something remarkable as we examine the Yosef persona subsequent to these traumatic events. Listen to the words as he

1. responds to Mrs. Potiphar’s advances:

How can I do such a great evil, and sin against Elokim?

2. Proactively engages with the butler and baker:

“Do not interpretations belong to Elokim Tell them to me, please.”

3. answers Paroh’s “we hear that you really know how to interpret dreams” compliment:

“Not I. Elokim will respond to the peace of Pharaoh.”

4. evokes the following compliment from Paroh

“Can [another] one like this be found, a man who has Elokim’s spirit in him?”

5. names his children

Menashe – “For Elokim has made me forget all my trouble .. and Ephraim – because Elokim has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.”

One senses that we are dealing with a more humbled and a more developed tzaddik than the Yosef we first meet. Remarkably, the word Elokim is always on his lips. It was as if Yosef discovers Elokim in the world. Of course, Yosef HaTzaddik always knew Elokim, but dispassionate and intellectual knowledge is a far cry from the total internalization that wherever one is and however life goes, one can see Elokim, woven within the natural world. As Rav Sholom Tendler likes to say – the longest eighteen inches is the gap between head and heart!

And why davka Elokim, and not Hashem (the tetra gram, YKVK)? It is not merely that Yosef internalizes in a constant and remarkable way that Hashem is in his life, but more significantly it is Elokim that Yosef lives with; whereas the former is the manifest presence of God, the latter refers to the natural (and oft veiled) presence of God(1) in our lives. It is one thing to hear a God-scream, it is quite another to hear His whisper(2).

Despite God’s thick veiled presence in his life, Yosef does not get lost. Even as he does not understand why, he identifies that God is behind very twist and turn. Perhaps most stunning is his revelation to his brothers(3).

Now do not worry, and do not be angry with yourselves that you sold me here; for it was to preserve life that Elokim sent me [here] before you.For it is [now] two years that there has been famine in the land; .. Elokim sent me [here] before you to insure your survival in the land, and to keep you alive for a great deliverance. Now [then] it was not you that sent me here, but Elokim; and He has made me as a father to Pharaoh…

Not a tinge of vindictiveness. It is all Elokim.

Indeed, go through the text and you will discover that no less than ten times, in eight different contexts does Yosef invoke the name of Elokim – at times in the most unlikely of places.

Thus, our opening midrash: Yosef expects to return shortly after doing his father’s bidding. It doesn’t quite turn out that way. Before he knows it, his brothers confront him, plot, throw him into a rather unpleasant pit and suddenly, Yosef finds himself a slave to Arab merchants. It is a somewhat jarring experience, even to the naturally serene. And yet, Yosef smells the spices and things change. Why?

Per se, the sweet smell of the spices is not the point. It is the lurking Divine presence that Yosef senses. Yosef utilizes our most sensitive sense, to sniff out the presence of Elokim in the most unlikely of places. Consider the following mashal:

A young child is seriously injured and needs immediate surgery. As he is being wheeled on the gurney into the operating theater, he is bawling and beside himself. Who are these people and what are they doing with those masks? Suddenly, he catches sight of his mother, watching and waving through the window – on the other side of the door. Her comforting and brave smile calms the boy.

At this point, Yosef knows not God’s game plan, but it does not matter. In those unlikely spices, he sees the wave of the Shechina and that is enough. So long as he sees Elokim’s lurking presence, there is nothing he cannot handle. He is a changed man; not Mrs. Potiphar, nor jail, Paroh or even the brothers can rock his boat.

It is this serenity, the menuchas hanefesh amidst the turbulent waves that is Yosef Hatzaddik’s great reward and legacy to his people. It is his descendant, Mashiach Ben Yosef who will help us maintain the serenity until we see the complete redemption

Good Shabbos, Asher Brander



1. Classic Chassidic thought connects Elokim (86=1+30+5+10+40) in gematria (Jewish numerology) with Hateva (86=5+9+2+70), God of the natural world.
2. Rabbi Akiva Tatz, in Worldmask draws the remarkable etymological connection between teva (Nature) tava (to drown) and matbeia (a coin) – for the overwhelming naturalness of Nature can cause one to drown in it – completely forgetting the Lord; alternatively it can be the basis of a great spiritual epiphany – wherein one sees an imprimatur, the stamp of God in every aspect of life.
3. One wonders whether Yosef’s words were rehearsed or instinctive. Surely Yosef must have mulled a revelation and yet the timing (v’lo yachol Yosef l’hitapeik) implies a suddenness – all the more remarkable in light of his magnanimous and holy response.

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.