Torah Study

Yosef - The Fourth Forefather

While Yosef was one of the twelve tribes, he also seems to play a more significant role than his brothers do in the development of the nation of Israel

Yosef - The Fourth Forefather

Of all the sons of Yaakov, the Torah gives by far the most attention to Yosef HaTzaddik. It is very apparent that his contribution to the future of the Jewish people was even more significant than that of his brothers. Rav Yitzchak Hutner, ztz”l, writes in depth about Yosef’s unique role in the development of the Jewish nation. It is instructive to analyze his contribution and how it influenced the following generations of Jews as they faced the challenges of exile.

Rav Hutner notes that while Yosef was one of the twelve tribes, he also seems to play a more significant role than his brothers in the development of Klal Yisrael. For example, each brother represented one tribe, whereas Yosef, through his two sons, Efraim and Menashe, represented two. Rav Hutner also points out a unique fact about Yosef – his death is mentioned twice: once at the end of the book of Bereishis, and once at the beginning of parashas Shemos. In contrast, the death of all the other brothers is mentioned only in Shemos. How do we understand Yosef’s role?

Rav Hutner explains that Yosef is somewhere in between the Avos(Forefathers) and the tribes.[1] In a certain sense he is almost an Av, but in other aspects he is like a tribe. According to Rav Hutner, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov were called Avos because each defined Klal Yisrael, ensuring that it would last forever. Avraham was the first Jew, and he thereby created the very existence of a Jew as someone who follows the will of HaShem. Yitzchak was the first to be holy from birth, thus providing the Jewish nation with the purity and holiness it would need to last. However, Avraham’s and Yitzchak’s contributions did not guarantee the Jewish people’s endurance, because both men had children who were not part of the nation. Thus, their descendants too might have proven unworthy of being part of Klal Yisrael. Yaakov was the first whose children all remained part of the new Jewish nation. As such, he created the concept that someone born of a Jewish woman is always a Jew, regardless of his actions.

Nonetheless, continues Rav Hutner, Jewish continuity was still not assured, because the child of a non-Jewish woman is a non-Jew, even if the father is Jewish. It is in this area that Yosef played a defining role. Unlike his brothers, he was alone in an alien environment and subjected to great temptations, particularly involving Potifar’s wife. By withstanding such challenges and maintaining his identity as a Jew, he enabled all future generations to withstand the assimilatory pressures of exile. In this way, Yosef’s contribution completed Yaakov’s role in ensuring Jewish continuity. Yaakov created the concept that a person born of a Jewish woman is always a Jew, but Yosef emboldened him to refrain from intermarriage.

Now we can explain why Yosef’s death is mentioned twice. Ramban writes that Bereishis is the book of the patriarchs, and Shemos is the book of the children. The deaths of Yaakov’s other sons are mentioned only in Shemos, because that is the book of the children. Yosef is also a kind of patriarch, however, through his completion of Yaakov’s role. Accordingly, Yosef’s death is also discussed in Bereishis. Similarly, he merits that two tribes descend from him, because he is something more than a regular tribe.[2]

Yet how did Yosef pass the great test of being surrounded by an atmosphere that made it so difficult to maintain his allegiance to HaShem? Not only did he himself remain strong even in Egypt, but the children he raised there continued the tradition of the Avos.

Several examples of Yosef’s behavior help explain his remarkable devotion to HaShem. At the beginning of parashas Mikeitz, Yosef was suddenly taken out of prison and placed before Pharaoh, the most powerful man in the world. Pharaoh asked him to interpret his dreams. Even before Pharaoh related the contents of the dreams, Yosef boldly asserted, “This is beyond me; it is HaShem who will respond to Pharaoh’s welfare.” Every year we read this verse and give it little thought, but with some reflection we can begin to fathom how incredible Yosef’s words are. Imprisoned in a hellhole for twelve years, he was finally given a golden opportunity to attain freedom, if only he could appease Pharaoh. He knew Pharaoh did not believe in G-d; indeed, this arrogant king considered himself a god. Yosef could therefore have concluded that now was the time not to attribute everything to G-d, but to promote himself and his talents. Yet Yosef attributed all these talents to G-d.

This is a remarkable lesson in how to act in an alien environment, a test that all the generations of galus have had to face. Some have hidden their Judaism from the non-Jews, trying to conceal the differences between them. Sadly, this approach has generally resulted in assimilation. Removing the barriers between Jews and non-Jews only paves the way to a loss of Jewish identity. In contrast, Yosef’s confident assertion of his beliefs is one reason he and many in subsequent generations resisted assimilation throughout the long exile.

After Yosef became viceroy, he had two sons, after which he thanked God for “making me fruitful in the land of my suffering.” Rav Moshe Sternbuch, shlita, notes that Yosef called Mitzrayim “the land of my suffering” even as its viceroy. This way, he avoided the trap of making himself at home in exile. This was another reason Yosef was able to remain steadfast in his adherence to Torah values even amid alien influences. History has proven that once a Jew becomes too comfortable in galus, he is far more likely to assimilate. Such was the case in Germany, where the early Reform Jews called Berlin “the New Jerusalem.” Such has also been the case in America, where, in their efforts to succeed in the “land of opportunity,” countless Jews have been lost to the Jewish people forever.

Yosef maintained his values and identity in an atmosphere antithetical to everything he stood for. In so doing, he enabled the Jewish people to follow in his footsteps and reject assimilation throughout its long galus. Mikeitz always falls on Chanukah, because the Greek exile was the first in which assimilation posed a major threat to Jewish continuity. The Greeks were the first nation to offer an enticing ideological alternative to Judaism. Sadly, many Jews failed to learn from Yosef and gladly discarded all vestiges of their Judaism – they even tried to undo their circumcisions! However, the Chashmonaim resisted the attraction of the Greek way of life and risked their lives to stay Jewish. Like Yosef’s fortitude in Egypt, their spiritual victory over the Greeks and the Hellenists continues to guide and inspire us to withstand the challenges of galus to this day.


Notes and Sources

[1] The Gemara (Berachos 16b) states that there are only three Avos. Therefore, Yosef is certainly not a full Av, but he represents something of a transition between the Avos and tribes.

[2] Indeed, Chazal say he should have had twelve children, who would have constituted twelve tribes, but for a moment of temptation regarding Potifar’s wife.

From the book "Beacons of Light"


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