Judaism: Parshat Vayeshev

"How is it possible that such righteous individuals could have treated their brother with such hate?"

Painting by Yoram Raanan (photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
Painting by Yoram Raanan
(photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
One of the most troubling stories in the Torah is the story of Joseph and his brothers. What is disturbing of course, is not just the mistreatment of Joseph; but that the people who mistreated him are supposed to be paradigms of virtue. Yet, instead of being held up for disdain, they form the foundations of the Jewish people. Their names are engraved on the breastplate of the High Priest. How is it possible that such righteous individuals could have treated their brother with such hate? How could they have sold their brother into slavery? In what I believe to be one of the most brilliant explanations of the story, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik explains that the nature of the argument between the brothers and Joseph wasn’t over some petty sibling rivalry nor was it jealousy over a “technicolor dream coat.”
The issue between the brothers was philosophical. The parsha opens with the words “And Jacob settled in the land of his father’s dwelling.” The picture that is painted is that of a pastoral peaceful time, one of respite; especially after all of the drama of Laban’s house.
While the tribes were settling into their routine as shepherds in the land of their fathers, Joseph was bothered by a promise made by God to his grandfather Abraham: “Your seed shall be strangers in a land that does not belong to them.” The brothers on the other hand, were taking their assurance from the first verse: “And Jacob settled in the land of his father’s dwelling.”
Joseph is plagued by existential angst; he cannot rest. He fears the future. He knows that change is coming and it is going to disrupt the lives of the tribes in the most catastrophic manner. He argues with the brothers and tells them that they must prepare and learn to translate the legacy of Abraham into a new environment in which all is not as pastoral as it is now.
Joseph was so agitated that his sleep is disturbed by strange dreams. In his first dream, he sees his brothers as sheaves and in the second he envisions the sun, moon and stars.
After the dream of sheaves, Joseph tells his brothers that we must learn agriculture. The situation of living as shepherds is ephemeral and we need to learn how to adapt the covenant to a time period in which we will need to live in an agricultural environment. In the second dream, he sees the stars as representing science and astronomy. Joseph believes that there will be a time in which these disciplines will be of paramount importance to the Jewish people, who will need to learn how to cope in a new technological age.
The brothers, on the other hand, don’t like how Joseph is disturbing their lives and rocking the boat.
There’s another element here as well. Since the time of Abraham, a precedent was set in which the patriarch would have many children, but only one would be chosen to continue the legacy of Abraham, while the others fell to the wayside of Jewish history. Abraham had many children, but only Isaac continued the covenant.
Isaac had two children, but only one continued the covenant; Esau had to forge his own destiny.
Jacob now had 12 sons, and at this point it was unclear who would be the heir to the legacy of Abraham. By having dreams in which it seemed that the brothers were bowing to him, Joseph was demonstrating that he was the rightful heir to Abraham. This brought a cold shiver down the spine of the brothers. They did not want to be lost to Jewish history. They too wanted to have their fair share in the God of Israel.
Thus their jealousy was not of Joseph per se, but of his position as heir apparent to Abraham. The brothers sought to create a system in which all the brothers would share equally in the inheritance of the covenant, and Joseph threatened that goal. Getting rid of Joseph was not sibling rivalry but an attempt to create a cohesive and inclusive unit of Israel and ensure their part in that holy endeavor.
The brothers’ fears were not without merit. Joseph did eventually become a patriarch, he is the only brother that is not a single tribe. He instead fathers two tribes himself, Ephraim and Manasseh.
Rabbi Soloveitchik continues to explain (in a way that only Rabbi Soloveitchik can get away with) that the argument between Joseph and his brothers continues even in modern times.
In Europe, before the war, we had a situation of the Jews dwelling in their fathers’ land, relatively undisturbed.
These were the haredim (ultra-Orthodox), who were happy in their shtetls and ghettoes. Yet, there were those among our people called Zionists who saw the writing on the walls. They were able to somehow get a whiff of the crematoriums yet to be built. They, like Joseph, tried to warn the people of the dangers ahead. They said that we must learn farming and agriculture so that when we get to Eretz Yisrael we will be prepared to grow food for our sustenance. We must learn science and math in order to create industries and factories in our ancient new homeland.
The haredi world did not like what they were hearing and cast Joseph out. They made him a pariah. So Joseph the Zionist had to go at it alone and create the infrastructure of a Jewish state by himself. The Zionist movement had some help from religious Jewry, but for the most part they kept their distance from the Zionists and their state.
But after the war, when the shtetls were liquidated and the yeshivot were destroyed, there was a place set up for the Jews to find refuge; just like the Joseph provided for his brothers in the biblical story.
In the biblical tale there is a reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers. Let us hope that we reach that same reconciliation in our own day!
Shabbat shalom
The writer is a doctoral candidate in Jewish philosophy and currently teaches in many post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot.