The Rich, the Poor, and the Evil? Chazal on Yosef

It’s been many years since I gave shiur in Hebrew, but tonight I gave an agadata shiur for the Kollel Gavoah.  As it happens to also relate to this week’s Parsha, and what Chazal wanted us to learn from Yosef, I’m posting a quick summary and a link to the shiur: here.  An English summary shiur is: here.

The Gemara on 35b tells the of 3 figures who will prevent people from having excuses for not learning Torah.  Hillel prevents the poor, R. Elazar ben Charsom the rich and Yosef the reshaim.  What seems to drive the Gemara, from my perspective, is the lack of parallelism with the third line.  The Gemara should have said baalei taava, etc.  It seems that it is polemicizing – people who have desires already think of themselves as having lost the battle.  However, what they don’t realize is that overcoming desire is possible, and it is that struggle that makes them tzaddikim.  Hence, Yosef is a tzaddik.  In the Yalkut, this is clearer – as instead of simply saying that they were “נאה” the midrash asks whether they were יפת תאר, drawing to mind that sense of internal coercion that Chazal see in דברה תורה כנגד יצר הרע.  The Gemara is ironic, in the sense that Chazal thought Torah was the cure to improper thoughts and desires, rather than an excuse to not learn (Kiddushin 30b).  Furthermore, this point is made clear in several midrashim who tell stories of how people got out of Yosef like situations by learning – drawing the connection explicitly (see below).  Thus, the message seems to be very clear, that people should not think of themselves as Reshaim, but rather believe that they can overcome desire, and that Torah helps and does not hinder.  The last irony of the Gemara is that Yosef was also at points poor and incomparably rich (and thus in charge of running “estates”), so he actually managed to learn throughout it all.  Chazal (cited by Rashi) celebrate his ability to do this, using the image of his always remembering the last thing he learned with Yaakov.


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