The Book of the Upright

To the consternation and dismay of Yosef, his father Yaakov “maneuvered his hands” to place his right hand on the younger son Efraim and not the first-born, Menashe, when Yaakov blessed both of his grandsons. Yosef protested, and Yaakov explained that he knows exactly what he is doing. Menashe will be great, but “his younger brother will be even greater and his name will be renowned across the nations” (Breisheet 49).

Efraim’s greatness, as Rashi explains, is that the world be astounded when his descendant Yehoshua stops the sun and the moon in the famous battle for the land of Israel that occurred at Bet Choron.

Indeed the narrative of that event is one of the two times in the Bible in which the book of Breisheet is referred to as “Sefer Hayashar,” the Book of the Upright. When Yehoshua defeated the Emori¸ the most powerful tribe in the land of Canaan – G-d rained on them heavy stones from heaven – Yehoshua beseeched G-d for the sun to stand still. And it did, for almost a full day, an event recorded in contemporaneous accounts of the Aztecs and the Incas, as “the day the sun didn’t rise” (read all about it in my “A Prophet for Today, Contemporary Lessons from the Book of Yehoshua;” if the sun doesn’t set in Israel, it won’t rise in the Western hemisphere). And the book of Yehoshua records (10:13): “And the sun and the moon stood still until the nation took vengeance on their enemies, behold this is written in the book of the upright.” Rashi there quotes the Gemara (Avoda Zara 25a) that the “book of the upright is the book of our forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov.” And where is this event recorded in that book? “It is written in the Torah, as Yaakov told Yosef that the descendants of Efraim would fill the nations” with discussions of their miraculous exploits.

Two questions are worth asking: why were our forefathers called “yesharim” – the upright – such that the book of Breisheet bears this name? And why was this miracle of the sun standing still in Givon so profound that even Yaakov referred to it prophetically? The truth is that it was unnecessary. The Emori were already defeated, and the miracle did not directly affect the tide of battle. Some say that Yehoshua stopped time because it was Friday (we all know the feeling of wishing the sun would stand still Friday afternoon) and he didn’t want any of the battle to carry over into Shabbat as he was now fighting for the Givonim. So why was this important?

Rav Eliezer Kastiel notes that no nation on earth has been able to sustain its nationhood and homeland without war. It’s just the way it is. And in war, each side thinks it is right and just, and usually the victor thinks it is more right and just than the loser. But this war was something else – the war for the land of Israel was the ultimate in justice and righteousness. So much so that Yehoshua wanted nature itself to testify to the world that something unnatural – the Jewish people separated from its land – was about to be rectified. Only nature itself could verify to the world that the Jewish people were home. The rotation of the earth stopped – and only restarted when this climactic battle for the land of Israel was concluded. Creation began anew. It is as if nature itself waited for the Jews to come home and establish their kingdom based on divine morality and integrity.

When it comes to “uprightness,” the world is still waiting for the Jewish people to be uniformly exemplars of rectitude. Count me in the group of people that thought Shalom Rubashkin was railroaded, selectively prosecuted, and punished more harshly because he was Jewish. And I even wrote about this injustice years ago. (See here for wonderful article about the history of this case.) But count me as well among those who found the singing, dancing and drinking celebrating his release a bit unseemly. This was justice being done – for which we should all be grateful, especially to the President – but not a hero returning home after victory in combat overseas. Notwithstanding his personal qualities, he is not Yosef Mendelevitch or Natan Sharansky. This is when we have to remind ourselves that tzni’ut (modesty) is not limited to sleeve length or skirt length but is a way of life, a value system. “Walk humbly with your G-d” (Micha 8:8). Bentch Gomel and go home to family and friends proud that you conducted yourself with dignity and faith even in prison. But it is not as if someone just discovered the cure for cancer or won the World Series.

The book of Breisheet is the book of the upright because it tells the story of our forefathers who were paragons of integrity. That is how they made their reputations, so to speak, among their contemporaries and that is their primary legacy to us, their descendants. There is a difference between yashar and tamim, upright or wholehearted. The Maharal (Netivot Olam 2:11) writes that the tamim know instinctively what to do; they walk with G-d without any calculation. Their ethical sensitivity is innate.  A yashar is different. His ethical sense is honed by his sechel, by knowledge, by wisdom. He thinks before he acts – like Yaakov who “maneuvered his hands” with intelligence – and hones his moral compass.

There are very few temimim. We have to strive to be yesharim.

Our forefathers, like all of us, were placed in challenging situations that demanded rigid adherence to a core set of values as well as the consciousness that they were always standing before G-d. We have those set of values in our Torah toolkits, even if we don’t always embrace them fully. What we need more of is the consciousness that we are always before G-d, and the occasional hostility of those biased against Jews does not change that.

This is the test of our lifetimes. It is the measure of our personal lives and of the homes and communities that build. Like nature waited for the Jewish people to return home and ratified it in Givon and the valley of Ayalon, so too nature and the world await our natural embrace of integrity as the essence of the Jewish personality. Then the world will again by astonished by our goodness and the day of G-d’s kingdom on earth will be ever closer.




4 responses to “The Book of the Upright

  1. Abe Dembitzer

    To play devil’s advocate: would you say the same thing if it would happen with Elor Azaria when he returns home?

  2. Joshua [Yehoshua] was the first prophet to lead the Jewish nation after the death of Moses; yet amazingly, he and the Biblical book named for him are rarely remembered.

    These blog posts teach lessons from the Biblical Book of Joshua [Yehoshua], that are especially relevant in our times:

    How intermarriage harms Jewish sovereignty over the Land of Israel:

    Biblical Book of Joshua, chapter 13, verse 1:

  3. El-Ad Eliovson

    Kol haKavod Rav Pruzansky!

    Would that the message of being Yeshareem spread across and all around the world as well.