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Yosef and His Brothers: The Anatomy of a Sale

Vayeshev (Genesis 37-40 )

by Rabbi Zev Leff

Understanding this enigmatic story.

"...and Joseph would bring evil reports about them to their father." (Genesis 37:2)

Just as the Halachic sections of the written Torah were meant to remain a closed book without the elucidation of the Oral Torah, so too are the narratives incomprehensible without the explanations of the Oral Torah. One of the most difficult portions in the Torah to understand is the episode of Yosef and his brothers, that culminated in his being sold by them as a slave to Egypt. What follow is a compendium based on the Sages and later commentaries.

Each of the 12 sons of Yaakov possessed specific traits and talents that would be required by their descendants, the 12 tribes, in order for each tribe to fulfill its unique role in the building of the Jewish people. Each son expressed a different facet of their father Yaakov's personality. Yaakov himself embodied the entire Jewish people, Yisrael, in microcosm.

Yosef, unlike his brothers, was a complete replica of his father Yaakov, fashioned in his physical and spiritual likeness. Yosef was Yaakov's firstborn in thought, for Yaakov had intended to marry Rachel first, and Yosef was Rachel's firstborn. As Yaakov's likeness, Yosef also possessed all the various traits that would define the entire Jewish people.

Yosef's role was to provide the other tribes with the means to develop their individual roles. Thus Yosef preceded his brothers to Egypt and laid the foundation for his brothers' eventual sojourn there. Yosef's descendant, Yehoshua, conquered the land that the tribes then developed into the Jewish commonwealth. And at the end of time, Mashiach ben Yosef will prepare the way for Mashiach ben David.

With the birth of Yaakov's 12 sons, the transition between the period of the patriarchs and that of the tribes was completed. The question arose, however, did the 12 brothers constitute the beginning of the Jewish people, or were they only the forerunners of a nation yet to be? Did they have the Halachic status of Jews, or were they still considered Noachides?

The answer to that question obviously had profound significance. The brothers maintained that they already represented a nation in embryo and therefore possessed the status of Jews. Yosef, however, maintained that they were not yet a nation, but only the forerunners of a nation. To the brothers, the time had already come to start fulfilling their individual roles in the totality of the Jewish people, whereas Yosef saw himself as a shepherd to his brothers, to nurture and prepare them for their eventual roles.

Now we can understand why Yaakov conveyed to Yosef alone the Torah he had learned in the Yeshivah of Shem and Ever. Since this was a Torah of Noachides, only Yosef considered it relevant. The other brothers already considered themselves to be Jews.

Consonant with this view of his role, Yosef kept careful watch on his brothers. For instance, he nurtured and guided the sons of the maidservants, who were destined to become followers and supporters among the Jewish people. The Torah's description of Yosef - vehu na'ar (he was a youth) - suggests his self-appointed task - lena'er, developing and arousing their talents. With the more influential brothers, who would be the leaders of the future nation, Yosef served as a watchdog, monitoring their activities and reporting to his father.

The Sages tell us that Yosef reported three things concerning his brothers to his father: That they were eating flesh torn from a living animal; that they were calling the sons of the maidservants, "slaves"; and that they were conducting themselves in an immoral fashion with Canaanite women. In each of these cases, the disagreement between Yosef and his brothers hinged on their Halachic status.

A Jew is permitted to eat meat from an animal that has been ritually slaughtered, even if it is still twitching. Noachides, however, were prohibited, prior to the giving of the Torah, from eating meat from an animal until all motion ceased. Because the brothers considered themselves Jews, they did not wait to begin dismembering an animal until all movement ceased. Yosef, however deemed this meat torn from a living animal, since he considered them Noachides.

Similarly, if Yaakov had the Halachic status of a Noachide, then even though Bilhah and Zilpah were servants, their children were free men (see Talmud - Kiddushin 67b). But if he was considered a Jew, then his children by the maidservants were slaves, unless their mothers were previously freed or converted. Yosef assumed that Yaakov was of the same opinion as he, and therefore had not freed his maidservants. But according to the brothers, if the maidservants had not been freed, their sons were slaves. Thus, the brothers' halachic opinion, in Yosef's eyes, was tantamount to calling the children of Bilhah and Zilpah slaves.

The brothers considered themselves naturally separated from the other nations by virtue of their status as Jews. Thus there was no danger in engaging in business transactions with Canaanite merchant women. Yosef, on the other hand, saw no natural barrier between his brothers and their neighbors, and therefore regarded this association as fraught with danger.

Had Yosef reported to his father the facts and let him decide how to interpret them, there would have been no fault in his report. Instead, he reported his conclusions alone to his father, creating a negative impression of his brothers' conduct. He was still not mature enough, says the commentator Sforno, to consider the far-reaching implications of his actions.

The Torah then informs us that Yaakov, in his role as Yisrael, the progenitor of the future nation (and not as Yaakov, the personal father to 12 individual sons), loved Yosef mikol banav - literally, "from all his sons." His love for Yosef emanated from the love of all his sons, for he viewed Yosef as the one who represented them all and who would prepare them for their future tasks.

He made Yosef a kesones pasim, either a coat of many colors, representing his multi-faceted role, or a wristband (see Baalei HaTosafos). Just as the wrist represents the link between the arm muscles and the hands, so too, Yosef was the link to actualize the potential of the brothers. (The name Yosef is pas - wrist - plus two letters of God's Name.)

The brothers viewed Yosef as a threat to the nation, which in their view had already come into being. They perceived him as attempting to curry favor in Yaakov's eyes at their expense. They viewed their father's love for Yosef as coming at their expense, and thus estranged themselves from him and could not find the ability to speak to him in harmonious perfection that had to be reached through the unity of each tribe contributing its unique portion, and not usurping the role of another tribe.

The Sages tell us that there are two distinct types of dreams: those generated by one's own thoughts and ideas; the other linked to prophecy. When Yosef related his dreams concerning his brothers' sheaves of grain bowing to him - and later the dream of the sun, moon and stars bowing to him - he did so because he viewed them as prophetic mandates. The brothers, however, saw them as further proof that thoughts of domination preoccupied his mind.

When Yosef was sent by Yaakov to report on the welfare of the brothers, they saw this as an opportunity to defend themselves against this usurper of their roles in the Jewish nation. They feared he would defame them to Yaakov, and that they would be banished, as Yishmael was by Avraham and Esav by Yitzchak.

Thus, Yosef was in their view a rodef, a pursuer who threatened both their physical existence and eternal roles as the founders of the Jewish people. For this reason they decided that they were justified, perhaps even required, to kill him first. Rather than kill Yosef, however, they listened to the pleas of Reuven who argued that their involvement in his death should be passive, and ultimately to Yehudah, who urged them to sell Yosef as a slave.

The brothers were so convinced that they were justified, that after selling Yosef they sat down to eat bread without any pangs of guilt. Their common meal was in effect a celebration of the fact that now unity and harmony between them would be unhindered by Yosef's evil designs. Even years later, when they searched their pasts for any sins that could explain a series of apparently tragic events, they could not come up with anything other than their failure to be more merciful. But they still deemed the sale itself to have been justified.

In the final analysis, both Yosef and his brothers seemingly acted with proper intentions. But if so, why did Yosef's sale leave such a stain on the history of the Jewish people? Classical Jewish writings attribute, for instance, the death of the Ten Martyrs mentioned in the Yom Kippur prayers to the sale of Yosef.

Though the brothers felt fully justified, the Torah reveals to us that their misperception concerning Yosef was not simply an innocent mistake. Coloring their judgment was a slight trace of jealousy. The Sages tell us that jealousy removes a person from the world. This means, in part, that it removes one from the world of reality and causes him to view people and incidents in a distorted fashion.

Since the brothers' deed was tainted by jealousy, both they and future generations had to suffer the consequences. Rabbeinu Yona finds in the causeless hatred for which the Second Temple was destroyed, an echo of the hatred of Yosef's brothers.

With this understanding of how one imperfection in character can have such long-range effects, we can understand a difficult statement of the Sages. When Rebbe Yochanan ben Zakkais's students went to visit him on his death bed, he began to cry. His students asked him why he was weeping. He answered that if he were brought before a mortal king who could be appeased or bribed, and whose decrees extended only as far as the grave, he would wail. How much more so now that he was soon to face the judgment of God, Who cannot be appeased or bribed and Whose punishment is eternal.

Did Rebbe Yochanan ben Zakkai really entertain the possibility that he was deserving of eternal death, the punishment reserved for heretics of the worst type?

When Rebbe Yochanan ben Zakkai went out to meet the Roman general Vespasian during the siege of Jerusalem, he was allowed to make certain requests. He asked: (1) that the Sanhedrin be permitted to continue in Yavneh, (2) that Rabban Gamliel be spared and the line of the Nesi'im thereby preserved, and (3) that a doctor be provided to heal Rabbi Tzaddok, who had fasted 40 years to avert the destruction of the Temple.

Many years later, the Sages discussed whether Rebbe Yochanan ben Zakkai acted correctly. Some thought he should have instead asked that the Temple and Jerusalem be spared. Others argued that had he asked for too much, he might have ended up with nothing. The Talmud concludes that he erred. He should have asked that the Temple be spared, but it was in fact the Divine Will that he err, since God had decreed that the Temple be destroyed.

Before his death, Rebbe Yochanan ben Zakkai was also beset with doubts as to whether he had acted properly. In his rigorous self-scrutiny, another explanation of why he erred came to him. He had opposed the zealots, who led the rebellion against Rome. But the zealots had ignored his opinion and forced the issue by burning all Jerusalem's food supplies. The destruction of the Temple and exile of the Jewish people was an apparent vindication of Rebbe Yochanan ben Zakkai's stance, since the zealots could hardly claim a Divine sanction for a policy that failed so miserably.

On his deathbed, Rebbe Yochanan ben Zakkai worried that perhaps subconsciously he had not asked that the Temple be spared out of a fear that there would then be no clear proof that he had been right. And he suspected that his own honor - offended by the zealots' refusal to heed his decision - might have influenced his request. If that were true, and as a consequence the Temple were destroyed, would he not have merited eternal death?

The Talmud tells us that Rebbe Yochanan ben Zakkai's suspicions were unfounded; he was innocent; the Temple was destroyed by a Heavenly decree. Yet we can learn from Rebbe Yochanan's concern as to the power of subtle traces of honor, desire and jealousy in distorting one's decisions.

It is incumbent upon us to learn from the sale of Yosef the devastating effect of jealousy and hatred, even in its subtlest forms and even in the greatest of people, so that we can strive to conduct ourselves in a manner that will cause us to merit seeing the ultimate reunion of Yosef and his brothers, when Mashiach ben Yosef will be sent as a harbinger of Mashiach ben David.

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