Shema Yisrael Home

              Fish&Soup.jpg - 12464 Bytes Subscribe

   by Jacob Solomon

This Week's Parsha | Previous issues | Welcome - Please Read!


 They saw him from a distance. He had not yet come near to them and they plotted to kill him… "Now, let us kill him… and say that a wild animal consumed him; we will see what became of his dreams"... Reuben said, "Do not shed blood! Cast him into a pit… and do actively harm him… They sold Joseph for twenty pieces of silver… (37:18-28).

What justification did the brothers have in reacting in such a way to Joseph’s behavior?

Surely a higher standard of conduct was expected of those who were to become the heads of the tribes of the Israelites? Yet nowhere in the text did the brothers appear to have been condemned for their sale of Joseph. In addition Sforno notes that when the brothers tried to come to terms with their being imprisoned in Egypt as suspected spies, they did not show any regret for the actual sale of Joseph, but only for their harshness towards him. He quotes the text: when he plead with us and we did not listen – therefore this trouble has befallen us (42:21).

One approach lies in examining details within the narrative, as below.

The text states that Joseph brought an evil report about his brothers to their father Jacob (37:3), which according to Bereishit Rabba (84:7) included elements of fraternal quarrelling, forbidden foods, and lust. The special garment that Jacob made for his son Joseph was, according to the Klei Yakar, a sign of special status among the brothers, despite his not being the firstborn son. The dreams did seem to cause the brothers to fear that Joseph would reach a position of power over the brothers, either by their consent or by force (Ibn Ezra on 37:8).

We therefore see contrasts between Joseph’s personal conduct on one hand, and the strong hints of his future potential as the developer of the tradition of the Avot on the other. In the eyes of the brothers, Joseph’s behavior exposed serious character weaknesses. Reuben, by virtue of his being the firstborn would have been the leader, only he lost the privilege (49:4), which was passed on to Joseph. Joseph displayed his status as the privileged son even when it was not welcome (37:23). People passing on negative information even with the best of intentions are not popular – especially in this case where, according to the Midrash, Joseph misunderstood the brothers’ conduct: A false accusation is as deadly as a sword (Mishlei 25:18). Additionally, his untimely recounting of his dreams to his brothers fuelled their fear that Joseph might indeed obtain power. He could therefore abuse that power – which could have undermined the great spiritual contributions of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Thus the brothers’ joint action in putting Joseph in a pit, and later selling him was in effect casting him into the hands of G-d: a trial by ordeal. In effect they were saying “Let G-d judge. Our job is to put Joseph into His hands…” And this was also a protest against their father’s favor of Joseph. From the point of view of their brothers, if their deception had been wrong, G-d would have used His ways of communicating the truth to Jacob.

This therefore explains why the brothers did not regret selling Joseph. They saw life as an interaction of hishtadlut (the necessity of human effort) on one hand, and bitachon (trust in the Almighty to resolve the situation) on the other…

However, as the narrative unfolds itself, we read that the Almighty’s plans were greater and far more wide reaching than their plans….

Judah… said, "She is right; it is from me, in as much as I did not give her to Shelah my son" (38:25).

The story of Joseph and his brothers is interrupted by that of Judah and Tamar. The narrative relates how Judah separated from his brothers, married, and had three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. Er married Tamar, but he died without children. Onan then married the widow, Tamar, in order to build the family of his brother, Er (an action sanctioned by the Torah as the Mitzva of Yibbum – levirate marriage: Deut. 25:5.). Onan died soon afterwards, but Judah did not allow Tamar to marry his third son, Shelah, because he feared that he might meet an early death, as did his brothers Er and Onan. Therefore Tamar disguised herself as a harlot. Judah, who used her services, did not identify her as his daughter in law. As a security for his fee, he gave her his signet ring, his cloak (Rashi), and his staff. Later on Tamar was found out to be pregnant. She was reported to Judah – the head of the family – who sentenced her to be burnt (to death, according to most commentaries). At her trial she did not shame Judah in public by telling the truth, but she produced the three articles that Judah pledged – the signet ring, the cloak, and the staff, and she said that she had become pregnant from the owner of those very articles. Judah admitted that those items belonged to him – saying "tzadka mimeni" – according to Rashi, "She is right – the pregnancy was caused by me!" - and according to the Ramban, "She is more righteous than I was".

The Torah explicitly forbids a father to have marital relations with his daughter in law (Leviticus 18:). The Mitzvah of Yibbum – propagating the family line of a deceased member - is for the brothers, never for the father. How could Judah say that that Tamar had behaved meritoriously?

The Ramban describes the act of Yibbum – by which the soul of the dead brother gets a new life - as one of the great mysteries of the Torah. He writes that even before the Torah was revealed on Mount Sinai, people knew of the spiritual benefits of Yibbum, and in those early times this obligation could be carried out by other relatives, in addition to the brothers.

Looking at the issue from a wider perspective, there are several instances in Genesis where the Patriarchs are reported to have acted against Torah teaching. One example is Jacob’s marriage to Leah and Rachel – two sisters. The Torah seems concerned about Laban’s tricking Jacob into marrying Leah instead of Rachel, but nowhere does the text show any disapproval of Jacob’s behavior.

As an approach towards these issues, consider the following ways of looking at Torah:

The Almighty created the Universe and the Earth. He revealed to Moses and the Israelites how we are to make the best of our hundred and twenty or so years here, by giving us the key to the Creation - the Revealed Torah. That is His instruction book for us - how to harmonize with the Creation, how to maximize our positive potential, and how to become a partner in His Creation.

The Almighty created the Universe and the Earth. He gave people the intelligence and the sensitivity to observe His Creation and appreciate His wonders through it. (A scientist recently told me that the simplest cell is far more complex that the most sophisticated computer developments known to Man.) He learns to 'read' the Creation. By reading a book, one gets to know the author. By reading the Creation, one comes closer to G-d. Through seeing the work of His Hand, a person comes to love G-d and he desires to get close to Him. G-d, realizing his sincerity, helps him along that path. He grows spiritually closer to Him, as He inspires him into deeper understanding of His secrets of how the Creation works. This appears to be closer to the mystical approach.

These two paths do not necessarily contradict each other – the latter is certainly favored by certain Hasidic sects today, but only within the framework and the discipline of the Revealed Torah and the Halacha. However the Patriarchs and their disciples did not have a revealed Torah as such – their concept of Torah was built to a great degree on their very deep reading of the Creation.

Thus when Jacob married two sisters he ‘read the Creation’. Jacob was also close enough to G-d to learn from Him his individual purpose in the Creation – to be the third of the Patriarchs of the Israelite nation. As the blessings of Jacob show (Genesis 49), each son had unique characteristics that he was to pass on, and which ultimately were to become part of the rich mosaic making up the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Although initially deceived by Laban, he saw that these very different, complementary, streams within the Torah nation would only come into the world were he to marry those two sisters. That is probably why he did not use the mekach ta-ut (mistaken sale) Halachic argument which would have been sufficient to void his marriage with Leah. Thus he perceived that he would raise, rather than lower, the Creation by his marrying Rachel as well as Leah. This fits into the fact that the narrative shows no explicit disapproval of Jacob’s marrying Leah and Rachel in those circumstances.

The case of Judah and Tamar may be argued on similar lines. Tamar also read the Creation, and she understood that her destiny was to propagate the family of Judah – which would include the future King David. As she was not to be given to Shelah, she had no alternative, but to become pregnant by her father in law, Judah. The Rambam (Hilchot Ishut, 1:4) explains that harlotry was permitted in those times. Even though the Patriarchs and probably their families observed the Torah before it was given, they did so voluntarily: at that time they had the option of ‘reading the Creation’ and suspend the general law for the exigencies of the situation…

The Chief Butler did not remember Joseph; he forgot him (40:23).

Bereishit Rabba (89:3) states that Joseph had to remain in prison for another two years because he put his trust in someone else to promote his release – mention me to Pharaoh and get me out of this prison (40:14). In support, the Midrash quotes Tehillim 40:5 – Happy is the man who puts his trust in G-d and does not turn to those who worship false gods. On the face of it, this seems to go against Torah teaching, which emphasizes the importance of hishtadlut (effort) as well as bitahon (trust in the Almighty). After all Yaakov Avinu did not just pray, but he used his own active initiative to pacify Esau.

The Midrash could be explained in the following way. Joseph’s putting his faith in the sar hamashkim was somewhat out of character with his relationship with G-d. Other incidents in the narrative show that he publicly and proudly put his faith in G-d when he was in a critical situation. When confronted and tempted by Potiphar’s wife (39:7) he returned How can I do this great evil and sin against G-d? This was notwithstanding his being in a privileged position, while at the same time being a foreigner and a slave in a country of idolaters (Shemot 12:12). When Pharaoh’s own sar hamashkim and the sar ha-ofim confided their dreams, Joseph again proclaimed Is G-d not the source of interpretations? (40:8)

By contrast the text would seem to indicate that Joseph did not explicitly mention G-d when trying to get his own release. In those circumstances he had not made the Kiddush Hashem in a nation of idol worshippers that was characteristic of him.

When he was eventually brought to Pharaoh, he put this right – he effected a tikun for this shortcoming. Pharaoh said I have heard that you can understand a dream and interpret it (41:15). Even though Joseph knew that his whole future stood in the balance he proclaimed – before the monarch of a country of polytheists – It is not in me! G-d shall answer for the welfare of Pharaoh (41:16).



This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Permission is granted to redistribute electronically or on paper,
provided that this notice is included intact.

For information on subscriptions, archives, and
other Shema Yisrael
Classes, send mail to

Jerusalem, Israel