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Parashat Vayeshev: Judging Favorably

We read in Parashat Vayesheb of the sale of Yosef as a slave by his brothers. Yaakob sent Yosef to check on his brothers who were tending to their herds in Shechem, and when Yosef arrived in the area, he did not find them. A mysterious man, whom the Sages identified as the angel Gabriel, saw Yosef and asked what he was looking for. Yosef explained that he was looking for his brothers, and the angel said, "Nas’u Mi’zeh" – "They journeyed from here," and they went to a nearby area called Dotan. Yosef then made his way to Datan, where he found his brothers, and they proceeded to throw him into a pit and eventually sold him as a slave.

Rashi, based on the Midrash, writes that when the angel said, "Nas’u Mi’zeh," he meant not only that the brothers had journeyed from Shechem, but also that they "journeyed" from their feelings of fraternal love and commitment, and were planning to kill him.

The Or Ha’haim (Rav Haim Ben-Attar, 1696-1743) raises the obvious question of why Yosef went to his brothers after receiving this news. Once he heard that his brothers "journeyed" from their brotherly devotion, and were devising a plan to inflict harm, how could he endanger himself by going to them?

The Or Ha’haim suggests that Yosef chose one of the two possible interpretations of the angel’s response. The angel’s words, taken plainly, meant that his brothers moved from Shechem and went to Dotan. The information that they despised Yosef and planned to kill him was conveyed through a subtle allusion. Yosef realized that this response could be understood in one of two ways, and he made the conscious decision to judge his brothers favorably, and assume that they were still committed to him and had not resorted to virulent hatred.

But if this is the case, the Or Ha’haim proceeds to ask, then for what purpose did the angel bother to subtly inform Yosef of his brothers’ hostility? If he wanted Yosef to know that his brothers despised him, then why didn’t he just say so explicitly?

The Or Ha’haim gives a remarkable answer. He writes that perhaps the angel sought to offer Yosef the opportunity to earn great reward by assuming the more favorable possibility. By choosing to judge his brothers charitably, and interpreting the angel’s words to mean simply that they relocated, Yosef became worthy of reward. In fact, the Or Ha’haim writes, it is perhaps on this account that Hashem granted Yosef the grandeur and prestige which he attained in Egypt. All this honor was earned through Yosef’s having judged his brothers favorably, by preferring the positive perspective over the negative one.

When it comes to our perception of other people, our natural tendency is, usually, to do just the opposite – to find fault, to be suspicious, to interpret people’s words and actions critically, and to assume the worst about them. The story of Yosef, as understood by the Or Ha’haim, teaches us about how precious a Misva it is to judge people favorably, to look upon them from a positive angle. Rather than rush to find fault and criticize, we should do just the opposite, and rush to identify people’s fine qualities and offer compliments and praise. By following Yosef’s example of judging favorably, we will be worthy, as he was, of great success and reward, Amen.

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