“Heaven-Sent Spices”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeishev, we read of the sale of Joseph by his brothers, to merchants who eventually bring Joseph to Egypt. The implications of the sale are enormous, literally destiny-changing, for the Jewish people and for the world.

Joseph tracks his brothers down to Dothan, where they have gone to graze their father’s flocks. As soon as they see Joseph from afar, they scheme to kill him. The brothers say to one another (Genesis 37:19): “He’nay bah’ahl ha’cha’lo’moht ha’lah’zeh bah!” Look! That dreamer is coming! They decide to kill him and throw his body into one of the pits, and claim that a wild beast has devoured him. In this way, they hope to show what has become of Joseph’s dreams.

Reuben, the oldest son, who feels a greater sense of responsibility than the others, rescues Joseph from their hands, convincing his brothers not to shed blood, but rather to throw Joseph into one of the pits in the wilderness. Scripture records that Reuben’s intention was to rescue Joseph from their hands, and to return him to his father.

After removing Joseph’s coat of many colors, the brothers take hold of Joseph, throw him into the pit, and sit down to eat.

In Genesis 37:25, Scripture relates, “Va’yis’oo ay’nay’hem va’yir’oo v’hee’nay ohr’chaht Yish’mah’ay’lim ba’ah mee’Gilad, oog’mah’lay’hem no’s’eem n’choht ootz’ree vah’loht, ho’l’cheem l’ho’reed Mitz’ray’mah,” They [Joseph’s brothers] lifted their eyes, and behold, a caravan of Ishmaelites was coming from Gilead, their camels bearing spicery, balsam and lotus, on their way to bring them down to Egypt. Judah then suggests that instead of killing their brother they should sell him to the Ishmaelites. His brothers agree.

Why does Scripture go out of its way to specify that the caravan was carrying spices?

The Ramban notes that the brothers, who were familiar with the trade patterns, were able to recognize from the appearance of the camels that the caravan was an Ishmaelite caravan. Since it was coming from Gilead, they assumed that it was carrying spices on the trade route, transporting the spices to Egypt.

Others suggest that the brothers could not have known what the camels were carrying until the caravan drew near. In fact, Rabbi Dovid Tzvi Hoffman suggests that the caravan was several miles away, but because of the clear air of the land of Israel, they were able to see it from a distance. Recognizing from a distance that the merchants were Ishmaelites, the brothers assumed that the Ishmaelites were carrying their usual wares of malodorous commodities such as Naphta, tar and other unpleasant items. Hence, the Torah’s specification regarding spices.

Citing a Midrash Rabbah Bereishith 84:17, Rashi notes that the fact that Scripture informs us that the camels were bearing spicery indicates that the Al-mighty had especially arranged for the pleasant-smelling cargo for Joseph’s sake. Rather than their usual evil-smelling wares, on this occasion, Providence had arranged that the Ishmaelites would carry fragrant spicery, so that Joseph would be spared from having to endure the offensive odors.

The Malbim notes that it is no coincidence that the Ishmaelites were carrying spices. In fact, these same spices were later sent by Jacob, as a gift to his son Joseph (Genesis 43:11). These particular spices were considered precious in Egypt, and were used medicinally, and for incense and embalming.

The Malbim adds that since these spices were extremely valuable in Egypt, they were packed in small vials, leaving room for Joseph to travel on the camel itself. The Ha’amek Davar says that this too was a reward for Joseph, because the terribly fatigued Joseph would never have been able to make it to Egypt on foot.

The Rebbe, Reb Yitzchak of Varkeh, asks a poignant question. Why was the Al-mighty so concerned that Joseph should not have to smell the foul odors of the tar? Wasn’t the Al-mighty concerned with Joseph’s physical travails? He therefore suggests that, because of the enmity that Joseph had aroused in his brothers, a physical punishment had been decreed upon him, but not a spiritual punishment. G-d wanted to spare Joseph any spiritual travail on his soul from the foul odors.

Writing on Aish.comRebbetzin Feige Twerski asks cogently, “Could or should Joseph care about what the caravan smelled like when he was experiencing the agony of ultimate betrayal?” Rebbetzin Twerski then goes on to explain that the pleasant-smelling cargo is evidence of G-d’s love and caring even in a person’s darkest moments. The foul-smelling loads that were normally carried by the caravans were replaced by G-d with fragrant spices, as an indication of G-d’s love for Joseph, which was expressed even in the midst of his darkest hours of rejection and abandonment.

Says Rebbetzin Twerski:

No events in our lives are arbitrary or capricious. They are exquisitely custom tailored and crafted for our mission in life. While it is impossible to wrap our minds around the concept, each of our lives at any given moment is as perfect as it needs to be, the Divine plan for the destiny that awaits us. Human vision is confined to a very small slice in time, the narrow view. The narrow view that consists of the present alone, without the benefit of the broader scope that would include the past and future, circumscribes our grasp of true reality.

Could Joseph have possibly imagined at that moment that, given the travails that he had endured, he would rise to become the Viceroy of Egypt? The same possibilities of uncommon success may occur to any of us as well, no matter how challenged we feel at any given moment. The Al-mighty certainly has a Divine plan for us. Our goal must be to achieve the best we can under the circumstances.

Who could imagine that such a rich, powerful and reassuring message would emerge from a single verse about brothers sitting down for a meal and seeing a caravan of Ishmaelites carrying spices to Egypt? But then again, the Bible is no ordinary book!

May you be blessed.

The festival of Chanukah begins this Saturday night, December 8th, 2012 and continues for eight days, through Sunday evening, December 16th, 2012.

Wishing you all a very Happy Chanukah!