These are the generations of Yaakov, Yosef being seventeen years old….
Seventeen years old? We are struck by this information. Why would the Torah deem it necessary to inform us about Yosef’s age? No word, no pasuk, no paragraph is out of place in Torah, so we know the information is necessary and important. But what is its importance? What do we gain by this kernel of biographical information about Yosef?
To understand, it benefits us to first examine the conclusion of parshat Toldot, where Yitzhak advises Yaakov to escape from his brother, Eisav, by fleeing to Padan Aram. In commenting on this passage, Rashi notes that here we learn Yaakov sojourned in the House of Eiver for more than fourteen years studying Torah and only then, at the conclusion of his study, did he continue on to Padan Aram.
Again, we gain a glimpse of biographical information without yet understanding its value to us. Why inform us as to the length of Yaakov’s sojourn? And why was it even necessary for Yaakov to stop at Eiver’s home in order to study Torah? There can be no doubt that, as a child growing up in Yitzchak’s home, he learned and absorbed Torah, chesed, morals and positive values. Indeed, the Torah identifies Yaakov as a scholar.
So why the additional fourteen years of study?
The answer comes when the Torah shows Yaakov wrestling with the angel of God, earning the name Yisrael and demonstrating that we all must wrestle with Torah. From this we understand that to learn Torah demands not only the pure and sanctified environment of a Bais Yitzchak but that to truly “wrestle” with Torah is to absorb it – and transplant its teachings and precepts – in the world at large.
In his father’s house, Yaakov had superior training in pure Torah, in Torah that had meaning in the rarified world of his home and other, likeminded, scholars and students. However, in parshat Toldot, as Yaakov prepares to flee his brother and his father’s house – leaving the protected environment of his home – he would be entering a foreign and threatening world. To survive and flourish in the intimidating environment of Charan, he needed first to wrestle with Torah in Bais Eiver, a place not nearly as safe and nurturing as his own father’s house.
So too, Yaakov foresaw that Yosef would also find himself among gentiles, Egyptians, in a large, intimidating and menacing society. To assure that Yosef would remain steadfast in all the Torah he had taught him even in the most threatening circumstances, Yaakov determined that Yosef, like himself, must be exposed to the same Torah in “foreign” territory. Therefore, all the Torah Yaakov learned in Eiver’s academy he taught to Yosef for fourteen years.
And so we return to the Torah’s biographical note regarding Yosef. Yosef began learning Torah at three, when every child must begin to study Torah. Thus, the Torah speaks of the point at which Yosef was prepared to confront life’s many challenges – at seventeen.
Like Yosef, we must all at some point leave the warmth and comfort of our home; we must all attain the age of “seventeen.” And, like Yosef, we must be prepared to willingly and lovingly communicate Torah in an open, “Torah-less” society.
Torah is a glorious jewel, but it is not a fragile one. It will not only survive beyond the safety of our academies, it will thrive.
A Jew’s ability to live a Torah life beyond the safety and security of “Yaakov’s tent” is the ultimate test of Torah. Like any test of worth, it is not an easy one. A prominent Torah educator from Jerusalem was asked why he pursued and attained higher academic degrees in prominent universities whereas his sons were discouraged from continuing their general education beyond high school.