> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > M'oray Ha'Aish

Reading the Signs

Vayeshev (Genesis 37-40 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

The situation quickly spiraled out of control: Words, dreams, jealousy and hatred - and then, talk of murder. Yaakov's family had always been a complicated one, with children from different mothers creating a difficult dynamic, especially when there was a clear favorite: The "golden child," Yosef.

Yosef lorded it over his brothers. He was made to feel special, and in turn he earned his brothers' resentment by being judgmental and reporting their misdeeds to his father. But for Yaakov's other sons, the proverbial icing on the cake was Yosef's apparent need to tell them about his dreams, his delusions of grandeur, his fantasy that he would rule over the family. Yaakov, who never does seem to realize the depth of the hatred directed toward Yosef, unwittingly contributes to the situation and sends Yosef to look in on the other sons and report back. And so, when they see him approach, they conspire to murder their spoiled, arrogant brother - and prove once and for all that his dreams are in fact the stuff of fantasy.

We should recall that these same brothers had previously "solved" a problem by resorting to bloodshed against someone (and his entire city) who had abused their sister. It seems they had extrapolated some skewed conclusions from that episode, namely, that violence solves problems. When they felt "abused" by Yosef, they turned to the same solution they had used so successfully before: Violence and bloodshed. This time, the victim would be their own flesh and blood, their (half-) brother Yosef.

They strip Yosef of his regal clothing and throw him in a pit. But then something happens that dissuades them from following through with their heinous plan. Perhaps savoring their opportunity to torture the object of their jealousy, they sit down - within earshot of Yosef's screams and pleas for mercy - and eat a meal. Suddenly, they see something that they apparently interpret as a Divine message: A caravan of Yishmaelites, heading toward Egypt. There, right before their eyes, is the solution God has sent them, a solution both elegant and befitting their most revered family tradition: No lesser role model than their great-grandmother Sarah had solved the problems of discord in Avraham's tent by sending away the offending half-brother, Yishmael. Although Avraham was hesitant, God Himself intervened and instructed Avraham to acquiesce to his wife's wisdom and maternal insight. Mothers, after all, do know best - especially matriarchs.

To their minds, the same problem Sarah had faced was repeating itself, and the solution was literally staring them in the face. They saw the appearance of the Yishmaelites as a sign from heaven, as a message from Sarah herself. The message they heard was that they should send their problematic half-brother away with the Yishmaelite caravan, and the problem of Yosef (like the problem of Yishmael) would be solved once and for all.

If that sign was not strong enough, a second group of pretenders come by at the most fortuitous moment to reinforce the message, just in case the brothers missed it: A band of Midianites appears on the scene. They, too, are descendants of Avraham, children of a concubine Avraham had taken late in life. They, too, were sent away - by Avraham; they would not inherit the Land of Israel or the blessings given to Avraham. They, like the children of Yishmael, were the disenfranchised descendants of a common patriarch. Both Yishmael and Midian were discredited pretenders to the inheritance of Avraham.

As the brothers see the scene unfold before them, they are convinced that they are doing the right thing. Avraham and Sarah are clearly with them, and God has given them a dramatic sign to support their chosen course of action. They need not kill Yosef; God wants them to send him away, to reduce his stature to that of a slave, and to banish him along with the other pretenders to the legacy of Avraham.

Although the brothers were convinced of their own righteousness, there is an unavoidable problem with their interpretation of events: They misunderstood Yosef, misjudged his character and capabilities, and most importantly, misjudged God's estimation of Yosef. Yosef was never rejected by God. The brothers could easily have done a "reality check"; they could have sought out their father's opinion and guidance, or perhaps even turned to their grandfather Yitzchak, who apparently was still alive, and who knew a thing or two about family rifts. But deep down, they knew that Yaakov would side with Yosef, and Yitzchak would stop at nothing to prevent them from causing a split in the family and casting out their brother. The brothers had no desire to hear these opinions and would not have heeded advice or guidance that so sharply differed from what they wanted to hear. They preferred to seek out signs and messages that supported their bloodlust, signs that seemed to justify their behavior as they sinned against Yosef, against their father, and against God. Sometimes the worst sins are the ones perpetrated when the sinner thinks he or she is doing a mitzvah.

Even people who think of themselves as most sincere can see "signs" and discern messages that support their own view of the world, and tend to disregard or even actively avoid dissonant information. When pursuing their chosen path, people tend to interpret events in a selfish, self-serving fashion. In this case, the brothers could just as easily have interpreted the appearance of the Yishmaelite and Midianite caravans in the opposite manner. Had they made the effort to re-examine their own motives, they would have read these "signs" as a message of conciliation and repentance: Yosef, unlike Yishmael and Midian, was loved and cherished by his father. Whereas Sarah and Avraham saw that Yishmael and Midian had no place in the emerging Jewish Nation, Yaakov saw in Yosef what the brothers could not: Yosef was gifted, special, and would one day realize all of the dreams of his youth. He would, indeed, grow to spiritual and political greatness, and would become the backbone and savior of the entire family. The day would come when he would lead not only his brothers, but all of Egypt. His dreams would come to fruition: His brothers would bow to him and turn to him for economic support.

Rather than finding signs to support their jealousy, the brothers should have been able to read the signs that pointed to Yosef's unique personality, and then join together to strengthen their family and their future. Instead, they saw only what they wished to see.

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