Parshat Vayeshev 2017
Why couldn’t Yosef’s brothers stand him? Jealousy caused by a technicolor coat, special treatment? These are reasons for anger, annoyance, a punch in the nose – but murder? That’s a bit extreme. Why was this brother different from all other brothers?
That’s not the only question that arises in this, the first installment of what is the most detailed and literarily intricate story in the Bible, the story of Yosef. Here are some more questions. Why did Yaacov send Yosef to his brothers? He knew how much they hated him. Why did Yosef go? Was Yehuda’s plan to sell Yosef to the passing Ishmaelites (or Midianites) actually a lifesaving decision? Why is the story of Yehuda and Tamar inserted into this story? Why is Yosef, the spoiled brat, called a Tzadik, a righteous person? That’s for starters.
The answer to the big question of why the brothers hated Yosef so much is hinted at. He was friendly with the sons of the two concubines, the “second class” brothers. Perhaps Yosef tattled to his father about the other brothers’ bad behavior towards them. Maybe.
Knowing of this hatred, why did Yaacov send Yosef to his brothers? This may be a case of 20-20 hindsight. Of course he should have been more cautious but, again, who would have believed the brothers capable of such extreme actions? It’s like a president making a declaration without realizing what his words may do.
Why did Yosef go? Because his father told him to and Yosef could not refuse, just as Yaacov could not refuse his mother Rivka’s command to pretend to be Esau.
Yosef is thrown into a pit which, we are told, did not have water. So, the rabbis say, there must have been snakes and scorpions. Reuven tells his brothers, don’t shed blood. Yehuda later says, what’s the advantage of killing our brother? Let’s sell him and make some money out of it.
Generally, we think this suggestion is crass, heartless and materialistic. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, however, offers another view. He points out that Yehuda’s suggestion might actually have been a lifesaver. Think about it. The brothers hated. After throwing him into the pit they weren’t going to just pull him out, dust him off and send him home. What if he told their father what they had done? Reuven wanted to sneak him out to safety but even if he had succeeded, considering their attitude, it was just a matter of time until they killed him. Yosef had to die.
According to Rabbi Riskin, Yehuda realizes that he can’t just come out and say that killing your own flesh and blood is simply not acceptable. You’re getting soft in the head is what they would tell him. But if he can offer them a deal they can’t refuse – get rid of the brat AND make money – that would be a reasonable way to save him and not reveal your feelings. Future dangers? That’s the kid’s problem.
So Yehuda shows his leadership here. And this may be why his story appears here, with his three sons and one daughter in law, Tamar. We see in this side bar that even if he makes a mistake, he owns up. He is willing to admit he is wrong. Something that very few leaders have the temerity to do, even – especially – today.
Then comes the question of the spoiled brat. Yosef is brought down to Egypt as a slave, which is very demeaning, but he quickly works his way up to head servant in a high official’s home. He still has some arrogance. He tells the official’s wife who’s trying to seduce him: there’s no one bigger in this house than I, but – he adds – I cannot sleep with you because then I would be sinning to God.
This is a new development, something that must have germinated in him sometime during the trek down to Egypt where he was treated as human goods to be sold to the highest bidder. Yes, he was top servant in the house, but evidently he had learned some humility.
However, it is when he ends up in jail, again down in the dregs, that he adopts what seems to be a pose as a righteous God-fearing person. Perhaps because he was so arrogant before it is hard to accept that he really believes his words. He attributes all his abilities to God, and never misses a chance to beat that drum as the second in command of the jail. Evidently he means what he says.
Has his fate really made him into a different person? Does he truly realize that plans don’t really matter very much and that they can be discarded with ease? The answer seems to be yes. For years I cringed when Yosef was referred to as a tzadik – the picture of the spoiled kid in his tunic was stuck in my head. But over time, we see that people can change, sometimes as in this case for the better, and sometimes for the worse.
The story should also give pause to those who would take advantage of their good luck and successes and think their lives will always be charmed and secure. The growing procession of celebs and politicians, newscasters, actors, musicians, professors, bank managers and doctors who are being exposed (rightly or wrongly) as predators is proof that just because you are up today does not necessarily mean you will be there tomorrow.
In the same vein, just ask the Greeks what happened when the Hashmonaim decided they had had enough. That’s another story we’ll be telling, later in the week.