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Rabbi Doniel Staum on Parshas Vayechi 5771 - "The Maid's Sons"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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During my school years, one of my rabbeim told our class that he wished to tell us something very profound, something we would have a hard time believing: “I want you all to know that every student in this room has the capability to become one of the gedolei hador[2].” I recall that at first that comment encouraged and inspired me. But within a short time, it left me feeling very dejected. In fact, I have thought about that comment numerous times since then, and it took me a long time to understand what bothered me about it.

The Torah introduces the epic contentious saga between Yosef and his brothers at the beginning of Parshas Vayeshev. There the Torah states, “Yosef, at the age of seventeen years, was a shepherd with his brothers by the flock, but he was a youth with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Yosef would bring evil reports about them to their father.” Rashi explains that, whereas the sons of Leah would denigrate the sons of the maids, Yosef befriended them. This was one of the negative points that Yosef recounted to his father about the brothers; “they would belittle the sons of the maids by calling them servants.”

How could the righteous sons of Leah speak negatively about their half-brothers? Why did they make it a point to refer to them as sons of the slaves?

Rabbi Shimshon Pinkus zt’l explains that the Sages taught that Klal Yisroel descends from Four Matriarchs. “We do not call anyone a matriarch except for four (women).[3]” Those four women are undoubtedly Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, and Leah.

If that is true how can the four sons of Bilhah and Zilpah be considered members of the twelve tribes if they do not descend from Leah or Rachel? The only way was for Bilhah and Zilpah to completely subjugate themselves to their sisters, Leah and Rachel, with complete faithfulness and servility[4]. Their sons were able to be considered as descending from Rachel and Leah since their mothers considered themselves to be an extension of their sisters.

In addition there arose a philosophical dispute between Yosef and his brothers, a dispute that had far-reaching consequences. The brothers felt that in order for the sons of Bilhah and Ziplah to be considered as if descended from Rachel and Leah, it was insufficient that their mothers subjugated themselves to their sisters/masters. Rather, they felt that the sons of the maids had to personally subjugate themselves to the sons of Rachel and Leah. The sons of Leah made it a point to refer to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah as the sons of the maids - not to denigrate them - but with the opposite intent. If they were servants to the sons of Rachel and Leah then they could have equal status vis-à-vis their lineage and father Tribes in Klal Yisroel. The brothers felt Bilhah and Zilpah’s efforts were insufficient, for the son’s own efforts were necessary as well.

Yosef however countered that the fact that their mother’s maintained an attitude of servility before their sisters was enough to grant their sons equal status. Thus Yosef felt that the brothers were being unnecessarily harsh in calling them sons of the maids. The brothers however felt they had to do so in order for the sons of the maids to achieve their due greatness.

This philosophical disagreement further manifested itself in the interpretation of Yosef’s dream. Yosef dreamed that the sun, moon, and eleven stars were bowing to him. The brother’s argued that Yosef’s dream was nonsense since the moon referred to his mother Rachel who had already died. Yosef however believed that Bilhah had fully taken the place of his mother and it was she who was represented by the moon in his dream.

In his efforts to assuage the brother’s anger towards Yosef, Yaakov scolded Yosef by stating that indeed it was impossible for his mother to bow before him. But the Torah says that Yaakov furtively anticipated the fruition of Yosef’s dream, because in his heart Yaakov agreed with Yosef’s view that Bilhah had indeed taken the place of his mother Rachel.

This also explains Reuven’s actions on a different occasion. After Rachel died Yaakov moved his bed into the tent of Bilhah. Reuven saw that as a slight to the honor of his mother and he proceeded to transport Yaakov’s bed into Leah’s tent. Reuven felt that in order for Bilhah’s sons to be considered part of Klal Yisroel, Bilhah had to continue to subjugate herself to Leah. But Yaakov felt that Bilhah had literally taken the place of Rachel and therefore she came before Leah (just as Rachel had come before Leah).

It is noteworthy that from when the Torah records the birth of Yaakov’s eleven sons in parshas Vayetzey until parshas Vayechi when Yaakov blesses each son prior to his demise, the sons of the maids are not mentioned or referred to at all. Virtually every one of the sons of Rachel and Leah on the other hand[5], are mentioned explicitly somewhere in the drama of the account - or at least alluded to.

Perhaps it may indeed seem as if the sons of the maids are not so important, for they seem to lack the renown of the other brothers. But we know otherwise, for without the sons of the maids there is no Klal Yisroel. “All these are the tribes of Israel – twelve…[6]

In our world everybody wants to be the best. But if everybody is destined to become a Rosh Yeshiva or a Chassdic Rebba, there won’t be any yeshivos or chassidus. To be a leader one must have followers, and to be a follower one must be ready to accept leadership.

The truth is that this concept is not limited to academic achievement but it is something that plagues us in all facets of life.

In the field of education we have bred a generation that believes that anything less than a straight ‘A’ report card is terrible. Young adults feel that their lives are ruined because of their grades before they even hit adolescence. Teens have committed suicide because they realize they aren’t going to be the next iconic pop star or professional athlete, and they feel that without the glitz and glamour what’s life worth?

This is not only a challenge we face in the education of our children, but in regards to our own growth as well. People feel that if they are not the CEO or the boss of the company they are a complete failure.

And in regards to Torah study and spiritual growth we are paralyzed by feelings of inadequacy. “Why should I even bother to learn my one meager page of gemara?” “I’m never going to know the entire Talmud anyway.” “Why should I work on improving my mitzvah performance, what are my actions worth anyway?”

Klal Yisroel is not only composed of Reuven the firstborn, Levi the priest, Yehuda the king, and Yosef the viceroy. Without the sons of the maids[7] there is no Klal Yisroel. Not only are the sons of maids inextricable members of Klal Yisroel, but our actions which we deem to be analogous to ‘the sons of the maids’, i.e. our Torah study, efforts to concentrate in prayer, good deeds, efforts at spiritual growth, etc. are all vital components of our identities as well.

In psychology one of the most rudimentary raging debates is about ‘nature versus nurture’. Are we more programmed by the way we are created or are we more influenced by our surroundings and culture? We believe that G-d creates every person with the tools he needs, and then places him in the perfect environment suited to help him achieve his own level of greatness.

Yaakov gathered his sons individually and blessed each one by delineating his strengths and innate greatness. “Each man according to his blessing, he blessed them.” Every tribe possessed his own contribution to the nation, based on the inner greatness that G-d had already implanted with him. Yaakov’s blessing was that each tribe should be able to cultivate and develop the greatness that lay within every one of them.

The slogan of the United States army expresses this idea so eloquently: “Be all you can be.” We aren’t all destined to be the Gadol Hador! Yet each of us possesses the ability to become a Gadol in our own way, if we appreciate the gadlus (greatness) that lies within us. One person’s greatness is as Yehuda or Yosef, while another person’s greatness is analogous to the roles of Asher and Naftali. And each possesses a vital contribution to Klal Yisroel.

“All these are the tribes of Israel – twelve”

“Each man according to his blessing, he blessed them.”

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[1] Lecture given on Shabbos Kodesh parshas Vayechi 5770 at Kehillat New Hempstead.

[2] Torah leaders of the generation

[3] Berachos 16b

[4] Their father Lavan had designated Bilhah and Zilpah to be maids to Rachel and Leah

[5] With the notable exceptions of Yissachor and Zevulen

[6] 49:28

[7] maids only in regards to their complete subjugation and humility

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