The story of Yosef and his brothers is one of the Torah’s most difficult stories to understand. How could the brothers’ jealousy towards Yosef have been so great that they wanted to kill him because of it? And, after they decided not to kill him, how could they heartlessly sell a 17-year old boy to a caravan of Yishmaelim? Did they not consider what could happen to him?
What complicates the matter further is that the brothers were holy and righteous people. Hashem, Who plumbs the depths of our hearts and knows our most secret thoughts, testifies in the Torah that they were all righteous. These were not people who succumbed to their base and earthy inclinations. Their every move was carefully evaluated to ensure that it complied with the will of Hashem. This is true even though it may not look so on the surface. When we look at the Torah through the eyes of our Sages, we are able to see the real picture.
A number of factors led to this seemingly strange result.
- The Torah tells us that Yaakov loved Yosef more than any of his other sons. The Torah also tells us why:
ספר בראשית פרק לז
(ג) וְיִשְׂרָאֵל אָהַב אֶת יוֹסֵף מִכָּל בָּנָיו כִּי בֶן זְקֻנִים הוּא לוֹ וְעָשָׂה לוֹ כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּים:
- Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons since he was the son of his old age, and he made him a fine woolen tunic:
Targum Onkelos (the Aramaic translation of the Torah) understands “son of his old age” to mean that Yosef was a wise child. Yaakov saw his son Yosef as a wise soul, beyond his years in wisdom. For this reason, Yaakov taught Yosef all the Torah that he had learned in the Yeshiva of Shem and Eber. Yosef was like a sponge and absorbed everything. Additionally, Yaakov, being over a hundred years old, needed someone to help him out. He chose Yosef, so while his brothers were busy with the sheep and cattle, Yosef did not leave his father’s side.
According to the Midrash, Yosef also looked very much like his father Yaakov, and both of them had been born circumcised, evidencing a strong similarity between them. This created a very special and deep bond between them. Yaakov also saw in Yosef spiritual qualities that were complimentary to his own, augmenting Yaakov’s spiritual powers.
Because of Yosef’s closeness to his father and the abundance of Torah that he learned, Yosef would teach and guide his brothers with his Torah. Yet in spite of his superiority, Yosef did not hold himself higher than any of them. On the contrary, he was very humble and would make it a point of helping out even the children of Bilhah and Zilpah, the former maidservants of Rochel and Leah, who had become Yaakov’s full-fledged wives. Leah’s sons, however, would denigrate them and call them slaves, and they, in turn, would have a few choice words for their brothers.
- Yosef looked like an instigator.
ספר בראשית פרק לז
וַיָּבֵא יוֹסֵף אֶת דִּבָּתָם רָעָה אֶל אֲבִיהֶם:
Genesis 37: 2and Joseph would bring evil reports about them to their father:
Yosef tattled on his brothers to their father regarding the brothers’ treatment of the children of the former maidservants as slaves. Yosef wanted Yaakov to intervene and make peace among them.
Yosef’s intentions were pure and humble: to teach his brothers the Torah that he learned from his father, and to help his downtrodden half-siblings. The brothers, however, misjudged Yosef and felt that he was preaching to them because he felt himself superior, and that he was helping the downtrodden only because he was like them.
Yosef related other complaints to his father. He claimed that they would cut off a piece of flesh from an animal before it died, something forbidden as one of the 7 Noahide laws. He also claimed that they were acting inappropriately with non-Jewish women.
The commentary פרשת דרכים (1657-1727) seeks to explain why Yosef suspected his brothers of violating these laws.
The Torah tells us that the forefathers, beginning with Avraham, kept the Torah’s mitzvot even before they were given on Sinai and became obligatory for all Jews. This is derived from the following verse.
ספר בראשית פרק כו
(ה) עֵקֶב אֲשֶׁר שָׁמַע אַבְרָהָם בְּקֹלִי וַיִּשְׁמֹר מִשְׁמַרְתִּי מִצְוֹתַי חֻקּוֹתַי וְתוֹרֹתָי:
- Because Abraham obeyed My voice, and observed My safeguards, My commandments, My decrees, and My Torahs.”:
Rashi explains that the safeguards refer to the Rabbinic laws designed to protect the biblical laws, the commandments refer to the logical laws like not to steal or kill, the decrees refer to the laws we do not understand, and the Torahs refers to the oral Torah.
This line of thinking is that Yosef and the brothers disagreed about whether, because they kept all the mitzvot, they had full status as Jews or not. The brothers maintained that they were full-fledged Jews with all the stringencies and leniencies of Jews, whereas Yosef maintained that they were still Noahides who were voluntarily keeping extra stringencies. But, they were not permitted to use any of the leniencies of Jewish law.
One of the Noahide laws prohibits a person from cutting off and eating a piece of an animal until it has died. A Jew has this law as well; a Jew, however, also has the mitzvah of ritual slaughter, שחיטה. A Noahide, on the other hand, may kill an animal any way he chooses. Now, it is very common for an animal to spasm after slaughter, like a chicken running around without its head. For a Jewish person, though, since the animal has been properly slaughtered, it is considered completely dead, and even though it may still be moving, he may cut a piece from it. (He can’t eat it until the animal stops moving, though.) A Noahide must wait until the animal completely stops moving before he is permitted to cut off a piece of meat from it.
Yosef saw his brothers cut a piece of meat from a slaughtered animal before it stopped moving. Assuming they had the status of Noahides, this was clearly forbidden. Thus, he told his father that the brothers were transgressing the law of eating from a live animal. The brothers applying the law of the Torah that after ritual slaughter it is considered dead, were permitted to do so.
This line of thinking similarly explains the other two complaints that Yosef had against his brothers, but we will not go into them now.
Because Yaakov favored Yosef over his brothers, and because Yosef looked like he was trying to discredit his brothers to his father, the brothers suspected Yosef of trying to take over Yaakov’s legacy and exclude them from being part of the future Jewish nation. The precedent, notably, had been set. Avraham had two sons, Yitzchak and Yishmael; but only Yitzchak was chosen to carry on Avraham’s legacy. Yitzchak, too, had Yaakov and Esav, yet only Yaakov was chosen to carry on Yitzchak’s legacy. The brothers suspected that Yosef was trying to accomplish the very same thing with them, attempting to become the fourth patriarch leaving them out of the picture. This was very concerning to the brothers, and they could not speak peacefully to Yosef.
- The dreams
Yosef exacerbated the situation by relating to them the two dreams that he had. In the first, Yosef was the center of attention, and his brothers all bowed down to him. Yosef insisted on telling this dream to his brothers, as if, in their minds, to rub it in. In his second dream, the sun and the moon and 11 stars bowed down to Yosef. They understood the sun as referring to Yaakov, the moon to his mother, and the 11 stars the brothers. When Yaakov heard the dream he said, “How do you think I and your mother (who had died giving birth to Benjamin) would bow down to you?” Nevertheless, Yaakov saw from the dreams that Yosef was destined for greatness.
The brothers, on the other hand, saw an egomaniac, someone who dreams of power and dominion over his family. This only confirmed their suspicions about what Yosef was up to.
This is why, in his brothers’ eyes, Yosef was guilty of a capital crime. The law is that if a person is pursuing an innocent man to kill him, it is a mitzvah to kill the pursuer to save the innocent victim. This is the law ofרודף . By choosing to take another’s life, this person has forfeited his right to live.
Yosef, of course, was not trying to kill anybody physically, but in their eyes he was trying to kill their entire spiritual future and prevent them from forming the kernel of the Jewish nation. In their eyes, not only was Yosef committing a crime against them personally, he would also cause a tremendous loss to Hashem by not allowing the other 11 tribes to create greater honor for Hashem. They felt themselves worthy of being the building blocks of the nation that would ultimately receive the Torah on Sinai and, in their eyes, Yosef was trying to stop it. This is why they were so merciless to Yosef. They steeled themselves because the stakes were so high.
ספר בראשית פרק לז
(יח) וַיִּרְאוּ אֹתוֹ מֵרָחֹק וּבְטֶרֶם יִקְרַב אֲלֵיהֶם וַיִּתְנַכְּלוּ אֹתוֹ לַהֲמִיתוֹ:
- They saw him from afar; and when he had not yet approached them they conspired against him to kill him:
The Seforno (1480-1550) comments on this verse:
ספורנו עה”ת ספר בראשית פרק לז פסוק יח
(יח) ויתנכלו אותו להמיתו. הנה לשון נכל יורה על המצאה להרע כמו אשר נכלו לכם. אמר שחשבו את יוסף בלבם נוכל להמית ושבא אליהם לא לדרוש שלומם אלא למצוא עליהם עלילה או להחטיאם כדי שיקללם אביהם או יענישם האל ית’ וישאר הוא לבדו ברוך מבנים ול’ התפעל יורה על ציור הדבר בנפש כמו אתה מתנקש בנפשי מצייר בלבבך מוקש על נפשי ולשון להמיתו שימית הוא את אחיו כמו לעשותכם אותם לעברך בברית. ובזה הודיע מה היה למו בהיות כלם צדיקים גמורים עד שהיו שמותם לפני ה’ לזכרון איך נועדו לב יחדו להרוג את אחיהם או למכרו ולא נחמו על הרעה כי גם כשאמרו אבל אשמים אנחנו על אחינו לא אמרו שתהיה אשמתם על מכירתו או מיתתו אלא על אכזריותם בהתחננו. והנה הגיד הכתוב כי ציירו בלבם וחשבו את יוסף לנוכל ומתנקש בנפשם להמיתם בעולם הזה או בעולם הבא או בשניה’ והתורה אמר’ הבא להרגך כו’:
The verse reveals that in their hearts they saw Yosef as someone plotting to kill them. He was not coming to see how they are doing; rather he has come to look for something to tell Yaakov and have him curse them, or get them punished from heaven, so that he alone should remain the blessed son… This explains how even though they were all completely righteous such that their names are inscribed on the breastplate of the High Priest and accompanies him into the Holy Temple, they plotted to kill their brother, or to sell him, and didn’t refrain from the evil. For even though they did feel remorse at one point for what they did, they did not feel remorse for the act itself, just that they were unmerciful and did not heed his supplications to him. (They felt they were being punished for being so merciless) This is because they saw him as plotting to kill them in this world and in the world to come, and the Torah says “If someone is trying to kill you, hurry, and kill him first.”
The brothers, the Midrash tells, convened a court, judged, and sentenced Yosef. After the sentencing, they sat down to eat. They had no qualms or guilt feelings about what they had just done, confident that they had done the right thing. This is what they needed to do to preserve their status as the basis for the Jewish Nation.
The Midrash further informs us that when the brothers judged Yosef, they created a חרם – a ban, against anyone from telling Yaakov, including Hashem. Yitzchak also knew that Yosef was alive but didn’t tell Yaakov either. Even Yosef abided by this ban. This is why he did not communicate with his father the entire time, even though he knew how much pain his alleged death would cause him. It seems that their judgement was correct, for Hashem and Yitzchak abided by their ban and did not reveal to Yaakov that Yosef was alive.
Another important component is necessary to round out this story.
Hashem told Avraham Avinu in the ברית בין הבתרים – the covenant between the parts, that his children would be slaves in a foreign land for 400 years. The counting began with the birth of Yitzchak, and it was now 168 years later. The time had come for this decree’s fulfillment. The place selected for this exile was Egypt, and somehow Yaakov and his family needed to get there to begin the process.
The Midrash tell us:
מדרש תהלים – מזמור קה
אמר רבי יהודה בר נחמן בשם רבי שמעון בן לקיש, ראוי היה יעקב לירד למצרים בשלשלאות של ברזל ובקולרין, ועשה לו הקב”ה כמה עלילות וכמה מנגנאות ונמכר יוסף למצרים כדי לירד. ויקרא רעב על הארץ, וכל כך למה, (שם מו, ו) ויבא יעקב מצרימה. אמר ר’ פנחס הכהן בר חמא, משל לפרה אחת שהיו רוצין למשוך אותה למקולין שלה ולא היתה נמשכת. מה עשו, משכו בנה תחלה והיתה רצה אחריו. כך עשה הקב”ה מנגנאות, שעשו אחי יוסף כל אותן הדברים כדי שירדו למצרים גם כן כדי שירד גם יעקב, שנאמר (הושע יא, ד) בחבלי אדם אמשכם:
Rabbi Yehuda son of Nachman said in the name of Reish Lakish: Yaakov should have been taken down to Egypt in chains of steel, but Hashem made different pretenses so that he go with dignity. Yosef was sold to Egypt, and then there was a famine in the land. Rabbi Pinchas HaCohen said: It’s like the cow that would not go to slaughter. They led its son in front of it and it came running. Similarly, Hashem made the pretense by having Yosef’s brothers do what they did for Yaakov to go down to Egypt.
The Torah hints to this concept in the following verse. Yaakov sent Yosef to check on his brothers. The Torah tells us that Yaakov sent him from the “Valley of Chevron.”
ספר בראשית פרק לז
וַיִּשְׁלָחֵהוּ מֵעֵמֶק חֶבְרוֹן וַיָּבֹא שְׁכֶמָה:
רש”י על בראשית פרק לז פסוק יד
(יד) מעמק חברון – והלא חברון בהר שנאמר (במדבר יג) ויעלו בנגב ויבא עד חברון אלא (ב”ר) מעצה עמוקה של אותו צדיק הקבור בחברון לקיים מה שנאמר לאברהם בין הבתרים (לעיל טו) כי גר יהיה זרעך:
But Chevron is on a mountain, as the verse says, “they went up to Chevron”! But here it means, rather, from the deep council of the righteous person, Avraham, who is buried there, to fulfill the decree said to him at the covenant between the parts: “your offspring will be sojourners in a foreign land.”
Why would Yaakov send his 17-year old son on a lonely mission to find his brothers in, of all places, Shchem? This is the city that Shimon and Levy just destroyed! And if Yaakov was worried about his ten older boys, how could he send this one younger son alone? This was a very dangerous place for all of Yaakov’s sons, most certainly for a lone son. But, as Rashi explains, there was a different agenda here.
In reality, Yaakov sent Yosef to his brothers, the beginning of the story, to fulfill the decree of Hashem to Avraham. This had to happen.
When Yosef didn’t find his brothers in Shchem, he became lost in the field. At this point a “man” saw him and asked him “what do you seek?” Who was this man who just happened to be where Yosef needed him at the right time and had the information Yosef was seeking? Rashi tell us that it was the angel Gavriel. Yosef needed to find his brothers to fulfill the decree of Hashem to Avraham, so Hashem sent an angel to achieve that result.
There seems to be a contradiction here, however. On the one hand, Hashem has set the agenda, to send Yaakov to Egypt. But, on the other hand, the brothers are faulted for not having listened to Yosef’s cries and supplications. If this was the agenda, were they not just actors in the play, needed to bring about the objective? Why blame them for their actions?
The Baal HaAkeida (1420-1494) explains how these two concepts are consistent.
While Hashem’s goal will always be achieved, He does not decree or determine the nitty gritty details of how it will happen. It could happen in a myriad of ways, and that is up to us to carry it out. When our actions, the individual free choices that we make on a day to day basis, are useful to Hashem for His purpose, He harnesses them for His objective. When in the throes of making a choice, we are totally unaware that our seemingly insignificant choice may just fit into the tapestry of events needed to accomplish Hashem’s objective. This is true in the case of a good deed, which brings forth a good result, and in the case of a bad deed, which brings forth a negative result.
Therefore, while Yaakov needed to go down to Egypt, if the brothers had acted as they should have, it would have happened in a different way. Once they made the wrong choice, Hashem used it to accomplish his objective.
This explains what the Sages say:
פסיקתא זוטרתא (לקח טוב) ויקרא פרשת אמור דף סט עמוד א
אמרו חכמים מגלגלין זכות על ידי זכאי וחובה על ידי חייב
Hashem brings about good things through good people, and bad things through bad people.
When Hashem has something good He needs accomplished, He looks to the people whom He knows will make the right choices to get it done. The same is true for the bad. When Hashem wants something bad done, He will turn to someone who always makes the wrong choices to get it done.
This idea resonates with me very deeply. I would like to apply it to Jewish life today. Our Sages concur that we currently live in the time called “the footsteps Mashiach.” The idea is that he is so close that we can hear his footsteps as he comes down the hall. When we choose to follow Hashem’s path and do the mitzvot, Hashem is weaving these actions into the tapestry of actions needed to bring the Mashiach. When he comes, we will all see, how our seemingly insignificant choices, were the very fabric of what ultimately brought the Mashiach.
The Malbim (1809-1879) agrees with the Baal HaAkeida in principle, however, he posits that the story with Yosef and his brothers is an exception to the rule. In this case specifically, if not for the hidden agenda of getting Yaakov to Egypt, the brothers would not have misinterpreted Yosef’s intentions and would not have gone to the extreme that they did. Additionally, because their thoughts and intentions were pure and completely for the honor of Heaven, under normal circumstances, if they were mistaken, Hashem, to save them from a sin, would have somehow indicated to them that they were wrong. Therefore, once the brothers concluded that Yosef was out to kill them, they were compelled to follow through; it wasn’t their fault. That is also why Yaakov couldn’t perceive the danger in sending Yosef on this mission.