5756 - #6

Binyamin: A Definition of Youth

The description of Yosef as a na'ar, a youth, in Bereishit 37:2, initiates much discussion among the commentators. As presented in Bereishit Rabbah 84:7, there is the question of age: Yosef was seventeen, too old to be a na'ar. [1] As explained, for example, by the Maharal, [2] there is also a problem of propriety; the term na'ar implies incorrect behaviour, a certain level of immaturity and, even, foolishness.[3] Why is Yosef referred to as a na'ar? What did Yosef do that declared this immaturity? Thus Rashi on the verse explains that Yosef was pre-occupied with how he looked, tending to his hair and eyes - actions of youthful immaturity. Yet, why does the consistent reference to Binyamin as a na'ar draw little comment?

In Bereishit 43:8, Yehudah steps forward and requests Yaakov to send "the na'ar", referring to Binyamin, with him; Yehudah will guarantee Binyamin's protection. Applying the term na'ar to Binyamin, it would seem, is even more of a problem than its application in the case of Yosef. There is, clearly, a definite problem of age. Binyamin is approximately thirty-one years old at this time.

There is also a definite problem with declaring Binyamin's actions improper on any level. T.B. Shabbat 55b declares that Binyamin was one of four individuals who died without committing a sin. The same question that is asked in reference to Yosef should be asked in reference to Binyamin, and perhaps with more vigour. Why is Binyamin referred to as "the na'ar"? [4] Actually, Binyamin is not the first person in his thirties to be referred to as a na'ar. In Bereishit 22:5, Yitzchak Avinu is called "the na'ar", although he was thirty seven-years old.[5] It may be that the term na'ar simply reflects the relationship within the family. Yitzchak was born to elderly parents who longed for a child; Binyamin was the youngest, born eight years after his brother Yosef. It is common in such situations for family members to see such a child always as "the baby". In fact, it is family members, such as Yehudah and Avraham, who use the term ha'na'ar. Yet this explanation seems shallow in the recognition of the Torah's concern for precision in language. Furthermore, Ramban[6] implies a real need to protect Binyamin because of his "youth".

Within the words of Ramban, though, we may also find the basis of a solution. Ramban defines a na'ar as someone who cannot comprehend between good and evil. As Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explains: "there is no such thing as a bad child. A person can be branded 'bad' only if he transgresses with a fully mature mind."[7] An adult knows what is wrong yet a child or na'ar does not understand the inherent wrongness of an act. A na'ar does not know the distinction of good and evil; thus he/she must be educated. Yet what if one cannot learn this distinction because one simply does notcomprehend the concept of evil? Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz[8] argues that the reason for Rivkah's ability to understand the nature of Esav was because she grew up with evil - Betuel and Lavan, her father and brother. Yitzchak had no such model; he, the na'ar, simply could not comprehend the evil that was Esav.

Binyamin never sinned. I am sure that he saw sin, understood the action of sin - but could he understand the motivation, feeling and inner turmoil of sin? We know that there are heartless murderers who are able to "pull the trigger" without concern for the taking of a human life - but do we understand this, do we understand that there are people without this most basic of human emotions? We may attempt to explain psychologically, project sympathy for this obviously troubled individual who must feel something and is ignoring his own call for humanity - but can we accept the simple evil of this total lack of empathy? Binyamin, the na'ar, could not know, feel, understand the difference between good and evil for he could not understand evil. He could not understand not following Hashem. Within him rested the purity of good and the undying belief in the ultimate good of all men. Yet, and thus, he had to be protected by Yehudah, the leader who could comprehend evil, had felt its taste, and won.

T.B. Megilla 26a informs us that the Holy of Holies lies in the territory of Binyamin. What better place for the holiest place on earth than a land marked by purity and hope. Yet this land is surrounded by Yehudah. Life, and leadership, demands that mankind comprehends and battles evil. Ultimately, it is not enough for evil simply not to exist; it must be defeated.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail



[1] The exact age of a na'ar is a matter of some controversy. The Perush Maharzav in Bereishit Rabbah implies that a na'ar is someone below the age of thirteen while Siftei Chachamim, Shemot 2:6 gives thirteen as a na'ar's age. Still, according to both these views, Yosef's age of seventeen is a problem. The Mizrachi, though - posing a question on the approach in Bereishit Rabbah - argues that the term na'ar applies to anyone up to the age of twenty. It is perhaps interesting to note that the female stage of na'arah - which is a halachically significant stage, unique to women, between childhood and full adulthood - is a six month period between the ages of twelve and twenty that is determined in conjunction with an individual woman's personal pubescent development. See Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Ishut 2:1. In any event, the application of the term na'ar to anyone over the age of twenty is definitely a problem according to all views.

[2] Gur Aryeh, Bereishit 37:2.

[3] To further substantiate the connection between the term na'ar and foolishness, see such verses as Mishlei 22:15 and 29:15, especially noting the commentary of the Vilna Gaon. See also Sforno, Bereishit 37:2 which refers to a na'ar as someone who does not consider the full consequences of an action. This is to be contrasted with the definition of a wise person as someone who can foresee the outcome. See T.B. Tamid 32a.

[4] It is perhaps interesting to note that Binyamin is always referred to as "the na'ar" with the definite article heh. Yosef, on the other hand, in Bereishit 37:2 is called a na'ar without the definite article.

[5] See Rashi, Bereishit 25:20.

[6] Bereishit 44:22. See also Rashi on the verse.

[7] From the Wisdom of Mishle, Parents and Children, (chapter 4, page 127). See also the above noted references to the Vilna Gaon's commentary to Mishlei.

[8] Biblical Images, Rivkah.