Hebraic Studies - Parashat Vayeishev

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Something Little Can Go a Very Long Way

With Rabbi Reuven Ben-Avraham.

Some time back I read a sermon by Rabbi Jack Riemer and he brought something to light which I very much wanted to share with you, as I had something similar in mind, but had not got around to it. But, he made something so much clearer and thus I am most grateful to him.

There was a special curiosity in this Torah portion. We will all recall that at the beginning of the portion, Yoseyf - Joseph was stripped of his coat of many colours, thrown into a pit, and then sold to a group of traders going down to Egypt. Think about it: Ya’aqov - Jacob’s favourite, pampered child suddenly finds himself near death, and then he is saved, seemingly by chance, when his brother Judah convinces the rest of his brothers to sell him into slavery instead of murdering him.

The Torah does not tell us much about the caravan of traders going down to Egypt. It basically tells us that they were Midianites or Ishmaelites. But it does go on and it clearly tells us one very curious detail. It makes it very clear what they were transporting. It states:

“… their camels bearing spicery and balm and ladanum (oil), going to carry it down to Egypt

Bereshit - Genesis 37:25 (JPS version of the Torah).

It certainly was very strange detail that thousands of years ago why did the Torah go out of its way, as it were, to tell us what A. that there were only spices and fine oil’s on the caravan was carrying, B. and it does not mention what they usually carry? The truth is here is a story about Elohim’s love for Yoseyf that this was the case.

Let me explain: Usually, these camel caravans of this kind would be transporting Naphta down to Egypt.

Originally, the word “Nafta” referred to what was like a “free trade agreement”, but at that time the word “naphtha” referred to a particular petroleum product that was known way back in antiquity. (For interest, in modern Hebrew, “neft” is kerosene). Besides that they also carried as well as “itran” (tar) thus both were strong and evil-smelling stuff. Naphtha can be found in certain areas seeping up from beneath the surface. It’s dark and sticky and smells really, really bad, well the truth is it really stank! Thus without a doubt, most caravans travelling to Egypt would be carrying naphta for fuel.

Now, had Yoseyf been sold to traders in a caravan carrying naphta, he would have been tossed into a chamber smelling of naphta, which would have been terrible and he would have been miserable. Instead, Elohim brought it about that the caravan was pleasant-smelling. This, was a sign of  Elohim’s, blessed be His Sanctified Name, love and caring for Yoseyf that he was brought down to Egypt in a pleasant smelling caravan and not a terribly smelling one.

But why did the Torah specially announce what they were laden with? I believe that it was to tell us how great the reward is for the righteous. The fact is that it was not usual at all for the Arabs to carry anything but “naphtha” as well as “itran” (tar) both strong and evil-smelling stuff, but for this one only camel train (the righteous Yoseyf) seemed like to have a specially arranged camel train and what were they carrying, well we know beautiful “fragrant spices” in order that he would not have to suffer from any foul odours. (For interest, in modern Hebrew, “neft” is kerosene).

Now, that sounds wonderful, but how convincing is all that? Do you think that if Yoseyf had been told that he was in a pleasant-smelling caravan rather than a putrid one, he would have said, “Thank you, Elohim! You made my day”?  Or he could have said instead, “I really don’t care what the caravan smells like; just get me out of here! Now, as we know, Elohim doesn’t do that. He was not going to rescue him. He merely did a very small, almost insignificant favour that added somewhat to Yoseyf’s comfort in his time of trouble.

Now, you might think, that gesture is so insignificant: maybe it doesn’t matter at all. It’s hardly worth mentioning. But it was mentioned. Why?

As was pointed out in a D’var Torah the point is that small deeds do matter, more than what we think that they do. A small deed may not be very significant; it may not be life-changing; yet it is still something, and they should never be taken for granted.

We can see other examples of the importance of small things, small steps, in the Jewish tradition.

For example, we know that poverty is a problem in our society - as it has been in every society. We all know that we are supposed to help the less fortunate, right?

But how? How much Tzedakah should we be giving to the poor? You could say that we should give everything we have to anyone in need whom we encounter, even if it leaves us needing support ourselves. Or you could say that because anything we might give is just a drop in the bucket, we might as well give up and do nothing.

If we were farmers, we obviously are not able to hand over our fields to the poor. And we will never ignore the poor either. Instead, we should leave them the produce as is sated from the corners of our fields. Not half our fields; not even a tenth of our fields;  but the corners.  And if you should ask: “How big is a corner?” The ‘Mishnah’ say’s, “About a sixtieth.” That is, you should leave to the poor at least about a sixtieth of the yield of your field.

We could all do that, could we not?  That is less than 2%. We won’t solve the problem of world hunger by giving just that; but it is something, isn’t it? And something is better than nothing, is it not?

Another example comes from our practice of reciting - ‘Birkat HaMazon, ‘Grace After Meals’. The source for the obligation to recite Grace is a verse in Davarim - Deuteronomy that goes like this: (You should know it because when we sing the ‘Birkat HaMazon’, and we sing this verse out-loud).

“And thou shalt eat and be satisfied, and bless  thy Elohim” Davarim - Deuteronomy 8:10 (JPS).

That tells us that if we eat and are fully satisfied, we owe Elohim a Brachaha, a blessing, being an expression of thanksgiving.

Although in Jewish practice is to recite ‘Birkat HaMazon’ even if we don’t eat until we’re full; in fact, even if we eat just an olive or a small amount of food! And Elohim, blessed be He, will look with favour upon us. Because by doing so, we’re acknowledging the importance even of a very small amount of food.

An olive’s worth or even just an egg may not be very much, but to a hungry person, it’s something to be thankful for, and we should also be thankful when we eat even a small amount of food, and say “Thank you!”

“For even a little can be a lot” and that can be in regard to so many other things as well, for …

Why not study a bit of Torah on a fixed basis, even though we do not have the time or the discipline that it takes to study a lot of Torah.

Let us be a bit kinder to each other, even if we cannot really feel each other’s pain completely, or take it completely away.

Let us do what we can, and by doing good, we will get used to doing good and eventually we will learn to do more.

Let us do a little, and understand that a little can lead to a lot; that a little is a lot.



For those who have a yearning to learn more about the Torah and grow in being a good and faithful Jew, there are many valuable studies on Hebraic Studies enter the index below. If you have any questions you are welcome to email me.

And please remember our motto seen on the logo at the top of this page: “The More Torah, the More Life”, for  Elohim, blessed be His Sanctified Name, is the one who gave us our Life!”

Rabbi Reuven Ben-Avraham.

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