In this week’s Parashah, Parashat VaYeishev, the Pasuk states that Yaakov loved Yosef because he was his “Ben Zekunim” (BeReishit 37:3). Rashi presents three explanations as to what precisely this means. One of Rashi’s interpretations is that Yaakov taught Yosef all that he had learned in the Beit Midrash of Sheim and Eiver. However, Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky poses an obvious question on this: What did Yaakov study with Sheim and Eiver for the 14 years he was there? Neither the Torah SheBiChtav nor the Torah SheBe’al Peh were given yet! Rav Kaminetsky explains that in order to answer this question, one must consider who Sheim and Ever were. Sheim was the son of Noach, who lived amidst a generation of Resha’im who were so immoral that they forced Hashem to destroy the entire world. Similarly, Eiver lived during the Dor Hapelagah, where he was surrounded by wicked people who built a tower to challenge the authority of Hashem (Rashi to BeReishit 11:1). The commonality between Shem and Eiver is that both of them lived in environments that were hardly conducive to righteousness, yet they both emerged from their respective environments as pious Tzadikim. Therefore, explains Rav Kaminetsky, Sheim and Eiver taught Yaakov how to live under great spiritual duress, and still emerge as a Tzadik. This also explains why, in Parashat VaYishlach, when Yaakov says, “Im Lavan Garti” (BeReishit 32:5), Rashi adds the line “Taryag Mitzvot Shamarti VeLo Lamadti Mima’asav HaRa’im.” Yaakov is saying here that he “passed the test” and truly internalized what Sheim and Eiver taught him. He was able to live in the house of Lavan, and still keep the word of Hashem.
Furthermore, when Yaakov is about to encounter his brother Eisav, he davens to Hashem: “Hatzileini Na MiYad Achi Miyad Eisav,” “Please save me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Eisav” (Bereishit 32:12). The Beit HaLeivi asks why Yaakov has to use a double Lashon of “Achi” and “Eisav;” he just as easily could have only mentioned one. He answers that Yaakov is teaching us that there are two types of enemies in this world: “Eisav,” the enemy who obviously wants to attack and murder us, as well as the “Achi,” the enemy who makes us feel safe and secure, yet when we are not ready, it will stab our spirituality in the back. So, Yaakov was afraid on the one hand, that his brother would physically murder him and his family (“Eisav”), and on the other hand, that he would create an environment that will lead his family astray (spiritually).
Based on Rashi’s explanation of “Ben Zekunim,” we see that Yaakov taught Yosef how to rise above the spiritual deficiency of an environment, and to maintain an honorable level of Tzidkut. This also explains how Yosef was so strong in the climax of Perek 39, his confrontation with Eishet Potifar. Yosef was a very handsome man and, in addition to Potifar’s wife being attracted to him, it is very likely that he was attracted to her. Additionally, it is unlikely that anyone would have thought twice about his relationship with her; after all, Mitzrayim was the world capital of immorality. We see that it was because he was a true “Ben Zekunim” to his father that Yosef was able to overcome this urge and remember who he was and what he represented.
In Parashat VaYechi, when Yaakov first finds out that his son is still alive, Hashem tells him: “Al Tira MeiRedah Mitzraymah,” “Do not be afraid of going down to Egypt (BeReishit 46:3). Rashi explains that Yaakov was afraid of going to Chutz LaAretz. I suggest that this fear was rooted in the fact that he knew how difficult it would be for his family to resist the many temptations that would invariably surround them. However, Yaakov is reassured by Hashem and changes his feelings because he is told that Bnei Yisrael will be living in Goshen, in relative isolation.
The Midrash tells that Bnei Yisrael were on the 49th level of Tum’ah when they left Mitzrayim. This proves that Yaakov’s fear was accurate and appropriate, because as soon as he and his family left Goshen and began moving into Mitzrayim proper, they began assimilating into Mitzri society. Bnei Yisrael no longer adhered to the teachings of Sheim and Eiver; their spiritual state was so low that they needed a period of slavery followed by miraculous redemption to rectify the spiritual desolation.
Although, I venture to say, that we are not currently on the 49th level of Tum’ah, this conflict is the great challenge to world Jewry today. Maintaining the balance between being “involved” in the outside world, as well as maintaining a sense of Tzidkut, is a challenge that Jews grapple with all over the world. It is our duty to remember that we are the children of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, and even though America is a “Medinah Shel Chesed,” (land of kindness; a phrase used by Rav Moshe Moshe Feinstein to describe the United States) we must be cognizant of the great deal of immorality that it contains. American culture contains many ideas and philosophies that are totally antithetical to what it means to be a Ben Torah and it is greatly responsible for why there are so many assimilated Jews today. We should not forget the teachings of Sheim and Eiver, to stay strong in our Avodat Hashem, even in a less-than-perfect world. May we all find the Koach to rise above the culture that envelops us, and find the true Derech Hashem.