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Vayeishev - Yosef, The Brothers and Interpersonal Relationships

One should not impose his own stringencies or praiseworthy actions on others

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Bereishit, 37:2: “…And Yosef brought evil speech about them to their father.”

Rashi, 37:2, Dh: Es dibasam raah: “Every evil thing that he saw in his brothers, the sons of Leah, he would tell to his father: They were eating eiver min hachai, were degrading the sons of the maidservants to call them servants, and were suspected of immorality. For all three, he was punished…”

The relationship between Yosef and the brothers began to deteriorate when he gave negative reports of the brothers’ actions to their father, Yaakov Avinu.  One of those actions was that they would eat from a limb of an animal that they had slaughtered, while the animal’s body was still shaking (known as mefarcheses), even though it seemed to be dead. 

Yosef believed that they were transgressing the prohibition of eiver min hachai – eating a limb from a living animal. This account is very difficult to understand.  Surely, the righteous brothers would not transgress such a severe issur, but what was their justification for eating it while it was still shaking?  And why was Yosef punished for reporting this to Yaakov, if it seemed to him that they were committing a transgression?  On the other hand, if they were not transgressing eiver min hachai, how could Yosef give a slanderous report to their father?

The Parshat Drachim[1] explains that there was a fundamental halachic disagreement between Yosef and the brothers, which was the at the root of all of the actions that Yosef reported to Yaakov.  There was a major question as to the halachic status of the bnei Yaakov at that time – did they have the status of Bnei Noach, or were they already considered to be in the category of Bnei Yisrael? There are numerous ramifications of this question, and in most cases, being a Ben Yisrael would involve far more issurim than being a Ben Noach.

However, there are some situations where having the status of Yisrael would be more lenient than being a Ben Noach, and it was in these areas where the brothers and Yosef disagreed[2].

The Parshat Drachim explains that according to Torah law for Bnei Yisrael, once the animal has been slaughtered, it is permitted to eat from its limbs, even if it is still shaking.  However, according to the law for Bnei Noach, even if the animal has been slaughtered, as long as it is still shaking, it is still considered to be alive, and therefore, if a person would eat from one of its limbs while it is still shaking, then he would transgress eiver min hachai. 

The Parshat Drachim continues that the brothers considered themselves to have the full status of Bnei Yisrael, and therefore, it was totally permitted for them to eat a limb from the animal even while the body was still shaking.  He then argues that Yosef also agreed that their basic status was as Bnei Yisrael. However, even though this was the basic halacha, Yosef was on such a high level of righteousness, that he felt that he should only conduct himself with the status of a Yisrael when that meant that he would have to be stricter in halacha. 

However, when adhering to the status of a Yisrael would result in leniencies, he felt that he should be strict as if he was a Ben Noach.  It is likely that the fact that he was strict on himself, would not seem to have bothered the brothers, but the problem was that he also felt that they should be as strict as he was.  In addition, he acted on this belief, and informed Yaakov that they were transgressing eiver min hachai by eating the shaking animal, because that is forbidden for Bnei Noach.

As is always, the case, when Chazal point out failures of the great people in the Torah, they significantly magnify their errors so that they become relatable on our level.  But on some minute level, it seemed that Yosef’s mistake was that he wanted to impose his own stringencies on others, and the result was that they resented him. 

The obvious lesson we can derive from this explanation, is that one should not impose his own stringencies, or praiseworthy actions on others.  This also applies in the realm of our attitude - how do we view others who are not on our level.  It is interesting to note that when a person takes on an additional stringency in any area of halacha, he has a temptation to now look down on others who do not observe this stringency.   It seems that the damage of doing this outweighs the gain. 

One great Rav once advised someone who wanted to take on a new chumra (stringencies), that if, as a result of this chumra, he will look down on others, then it is better to refrain from it, as the downside of feeling better than others, dwarfs the gain of the new stringency.

May we all merit to strive in our avodat HaShem (service of G-d) but at the same time, to not impose our standards on others.

Notes and Sources
[1] Parshas Drachim, Drush 1.
[2] We will focus only on the dispute about eiver min hachai, but the Parshas Drachim explains at length how this idea is the basis of all the actions that Yosef reported to Yaakov.