[Index of all Weekly Divrei Torah pages]

The Jews are named after Yoseph. Rashi (on Psalms 80:2) explains this is because Yoseph took care of the Jews while they were starving. He cites a verse in our parsha (Gen. 47:12), “And Yoseph supplied his father and his brothers and all of his father’s household with bread in proportion to the [number of] children.” Learned simply, it means that because the Jews were dependent upon Yoseph before his father arrived in Egypt and after he passed away (once Yakov arrived, the famine ceased and didn’t return until after his passing), they are named after him. However, that raises a couple of questions;
1) Why should the Jews take on Yoseph’s name permanently on account of something he did for a relatively short time?

2) Rashi’s explanation is based on a verse in Psalms that requests G-d to listen to the prayers of the Jews and lead them “like the flocks of Yoseph.” Why should the fact that Yoseph fed and supplied the Jews lead G-d to listen to their prayers?

The events of Yoseph’s life correspond to Yakov’s life, but with a difference. Yakov was his own man, even as an employee. He was a laborer for twenty years for his uncle, Lavan. But even as an employee, his avodat haShem – service of G-d – was undisturbed. He was a shepherd, and that enabled him to remain “above the fray.” He could work without becoming overly involved in his profession. The life of a shepherd is not demanding, and he had plenty of time to meditate, study and pray. The same is true of Yakov’s sons, the eleven tribes (except for Yoseph). However, while Yakov was on such a high level that he transcended the world, his sons (except for Yoseph), needed to escape from the world. Yakov was a successful shepherd in the house of Lavan because he was essentially above the work. His success in the spiritual realm (through his avodat haShem) was the catalyst for success in the physical world as well. Because Yakov’s spiritual service of the One above was so powerful and high, he automatically succeeded physically as well. But his sons were not on such a high level. If they had been forced into any other profession, their avodat haShem would have suffered disturbances and interruptions. They needed to be shepherds precisely in order to escape the world. They couldn’t be intimately involved in world matters and also meditate, pray and study. Therefore, they minimized their involvement in the physical world in order to succeed in avodat haShem. They could do this because it was their father, Yakov who created the wealth (from the flocks and property of Lavan), and all the sons had to do was to manage it properly.

Yoseph, though, was a different story. His avodat haShem was on such a level that he could be intimately involved in the physical world and simultaneously wrapped up in meditation, prayer and study. That’s a new level of cleaving to G-d that had never been brought into the world before. Yoseph was not just an employee, as his father Yakov had been in the house of Lavan. Yoseph was a slave. From the time he was sold to the caravans and brought down to Egypt, he was not his own man. First, he was a slave to Potifar, where he successfully managed his home. Then, he was a prisoner and yet rose to become in charge of the prison. Finally, he was released and rose to the status of viceroy of Egypt. But even in this position, he was not his own man, and was still subservient to whatever Pharoah might decree. Throughout all this, Yoseph never abandoned his avodat haShem – his study, prayer and meditation in order to get closer to G-d. Yoseph wasn’t only “above the fray,” as was his father Yakov. He was above the fray even while he was in the fray and very much a part of it. Unlike his brothers, Yoseph didn’t find it necessary to run away from the world. Even while totally immersed and involved in the accounts of the kingdom, he was able to serve the One above and cleave to Him.

And that explains why the Jews are named after Yoseph. Like Yoseph, we are living in an exile (galut) that requires us to be intimately involved with the physical world. We are businessmen, scientists, professionals in all walks of life that demand that we immerse our minds and bodies in physical matters. The power to continue to serve G-d despite our total immersion and involvement in physical matters comes from Yoseph. All that we find here in the physical world comes from its spiritual counterpart in the worlds above. As the verse says, Yoseph supplied the Jews with all that they needed in the time of famine. If there was a physical famine down here in Egypt (exile), it meant that there was a spiritual famine as well. That is, the Jews weren’t getting what they needed in order to serve G-d properly on the spiritual level. They didn’t have the ability to meditate, pray and study as a Jew should, while in the physical exile of Egypt. The ability to do both – to be involved in the world even as we serve G-d – came from Yoseph. He was the one who first brought down to the world the ability to serve G-d even while immersed in matters of business, etc, and that is why the Jews, in this exile, are named after Yoseph.

That also explains why in the verse, we ask G-d to listen to our prayers because we are like the “sheep of Yoseph.” When we say a prayer to get out of exile, first we mention the name Yisrael (“Listen, shepherd of IsraelŔ), who is completely above the whole fray. That’s because we all have a piece of Yakov (Yisrael) inside of us, and first of all we call upon that aspect to arouse the connection with the One above. And then we ascend to the higher level and mention Yoseph, because he as well is within all of us. He gave us the power to serve the One above even while involved below. In the path of Yoseph, we can not only nullify the darkness of galut (exile) but also turn it into light and redemption.

From Likutei Sichot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, ztz’l, vol. 25, pp. 252-257 Rabbi David Sterne, Jerusalem Connection in the Old City of Jerusalem