Parashat Vayesheb: Keep Your Shoes On
The Torah in Parashat Vayesheb tells the story of “Mechirat Yosef” – the sale of Yosef as a slave by his brothers. The brothers, we read, sold Yosef to Yishmaelite merchants for a price of twenty coins. Curiously, the Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel commentary to this verse adds a seemingly trivial point to this story, relating that the brothers took the money they received for Yosef and purchased shoes.
Why did this need to be mentioned? What difference does it make to us if the brothers used the money for shoes or for some other commodity?
The question is magnified when we consider the Haftara portion selected for this Parasha, a prophecy from the Book of Amos. Different explanations have been given for the connection between this prophecy and Parashat Vayesheb, but according to one view, the connection relates to the very first verse of the prophecy, in which G-d warns that He will punish Beneh Yisrael “for selling a righteous person for money; a poor man for shoes.” Some commentators explain this as a reference to the brothers’ selling Yosef for shoes.
Once again, we must wonder, why is this important? What is the significance of the fact that the money received from the sale went toward shoes?
The work Pelah Harimon explains that ever since the sin of Adam and Hava, when G-d cursed the ground, there is a force of impurity that emanates from the ground. If one stands barefoot directly on the ground, he exposes himself to this force. Thus, for example, the Sages teach that the sorcerers in Egypt were able to perform their magic only while standing barefoot on the ground, which enabled them to access this force of impurity. Yaakob’s sons saw that unlike in the generations of Abraham and Yishak, each of whom had one wicked son (Yishmael, Esav), they were all righteous. They thus initially figured that the forces of impurity had finally been eliminated from the world, and they could thus walk barefoot without fear of direct exposure to the ground. But then they saw the way Yosef conducted himself, and they concluded that he was like Esav in the previous generation and Yishmael and in the generation before that – that he was an impure son, demonstrating that the forces of impurity still existed. And thus at the time of the sale of Yosef they realized that they had to purchase shoes to serve as a buffer between them and the ground, in order to protect themselves from the forces of impurity.
There is, however, an even deeper level to the significance of the shoes. Beneh Yisrael spent 210 years as slaves in Egypt, and miraculously, nobody intermarried. The Torah speaks of one woman who acted in a slightly flirtatious manner and had an encounter with an Egyptian man, but otherwise, Beneh Yisrael did not engage in relationships with the Egyptians for over two centuries. To put this into proper perspective, Jews have been living in the United States in large numbers for far less than two centuries, and millions of Jews, tragically, have already fallen to intermarriage and assimilation. The fact that Beneh Yisrael existed in Egypt without intermarrying for such an extended period is truly miraculous. This was made possible by Yosef, who paved the way for their separateness by refusing the advances of Potifar’s wife. When he withstood temptation and overcame his Yeser Hara, he generated a powerful surge of Kedusha into the promiscuous, corrupt environment of Egypt, which empowered Beneh Yisrael to resist temptation and avoid intermarriage. It was Yosef who paved the way for Beneh Yisrael’s spiritual and ethnic survival in Egypt by refusing Potifar’s wife, whereby he created a powerful force of holiness that had a profound effect upon Beneh Yisrael for 210 years.
We can now begin to understand the deeper significance of the shoes purchased by Yosef’s brothers after his sale. Often, an act done by a Sadik in this world triggers a spiritual effect in the heavens. When the brothers purchased shoes to protect themselves from the forces of impurity emanating from the ground, they unknowingly triggered a “blockade” that protected Yosef from the impurity of Egypt. Their placement of shoes resulted in a protective shield that guarded Yosef from the corrupt influences of Egypt, thus enabling him to resist the temptation of Potifar’s wife. And this is why these shoes are so significant. Without them, there would be no Exodus, and, in fact, there would be no Am Yisrael. The brothers’ purchase of shoes set in motion a process which would eventually serve to protect their descendants from assimilation in Egypt, thereby ensuring the survival of the Jewish people.
One practical lesson we may perhaps learn from this insight is the urgent need for “shoes” to protect us in our exile, in our generation. We live in a society characterized by immorality and permissiveness, whose culture is ever so pervasive and all-encompassing. Most of us wear on our belts devices that grant us access to both the holiest texts, but also the lowest depths of depravity. We need protection from the impurity that bombards us from all sides. And the “shoes” that we need to wear to block these forces are Torah study, classes, and the books and discourses of Musar that inspire us and reinforce our religious commitment. In our generation, more than ever before, we need to wear these “shoes” at all times and try to never take them off, so we can retain our stature of purity and not fall prey to the powerful forces of spiritual contamination that abound.