Clash of the Tribes

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


Clash of the Tribes


By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley





Last week, we discussed how the Torah presented the growing schism between Yaakov and the Leah's children, which began with his alleged passivity while Dina was attacked, and was exacerbated by his disastrous attempt to appoint Yosef as his successor.  We noted that while it is highly unlikely to elevate any son of Rachel as leader over Leah's children, the choice of Yosef was doubly calamitous; Yosef's habitual tattling and impolitic recounting of his dreams only ensured his brother's hatred.  Finally, upon hearing the vision that all members of Yosef's family will eventually bow down to him, Yaakov publicly rebukes him (while privately giving the dream some credence).  The Torah continues:


And the brothers went to graze their father's flock at Shekhem.  And Yisrael said to Yosef, "You know, your brothers are pasturing at Shekhem. Come; let me send you to them."  And he said to him, "Here I am."  And he said to him, "Please go to see how your brothers fare (lit. – shalom, the peace of), and how the flock fares, and bring me back word."


Yaakov's very request raises many questions.  The distance between Chevron and Shekhem is over 90 km.  The way was populated with wild animals and foreign merchants.  Surely sending a young man that distance, unaccompanied, bordered on recklessness.[i]  In addition, not much time had passed since Shimon and Levi had slaughtered Shekhem's inhabitants in revenge for the assault on Dina.[ii]  Surely, the local Canaanites, while not daring to attack the brothers who traveled together, would not hesitate to injure the lone Yosef.[iii]  Finally, as the Ramban points out, the distance from his father meant that Yosef would be at the mercy of his brothers' hatred.  Rashi poignantly interprets Yosef's response as follows:


"Here I am" – without hesitation, even though he know that the brothers hated him. 


Given the above litany of dangers, what possessed Yaakov to send Yosef to Shekhem?[iv]  Surely, not the negligible desire to inquire after the flock's welfare.[v] To answer this question, we have to ask why the brothers had left for Shekhem.  Some suggest that the brothers had willingly renounced Yaakov's abode.  They chose to dwell far away from the visionary son and his doting father.  As Rashi states:


The brothers went not to graze the flock, but themselves (37:12).


If we assume, however, that Yaakov sent the brothers to Shekhem on his own initiative, then we have to ask why he did not send Yosef with them originally.  We can suggest that Yaakov was very aware of the schisms that threaten the family: the hatred between Yosef and his brothers, and the resentment that the brothers felt towards him. Perhaps, he felt that a temporary separation would enable calmer heads to prevail.  We can also suggest that as Shekhem was Yaakov's first legal purchase of property in Israel, he was attempting to repair the breach that he has caused by giving Yosef the striped coat earlier.  Now, he has transferred to the brothers the deed and title to Shekhem and its environs as an attempt to repair his earlier mistake.[vi]  Sending Yosef then becomes the final step in an ill-fated attempt to heal the wounds that afflict this family.




Whatever Yaakov's motivations, it is clear that he sends Yosef into danger.  When he does not find them in Shekhem, we almost sigh with relief, until wondrously, out of nowhere, an unnamed man finds Yosef "wandering in the field."  The strangers divert Yosef to Dotan, where his brothers and trouble await.  He seeks his brothers; they see him coming from afar (perhaps due to his colored coat?) and plot his demise:


And they saw him from afar, even before he came near to them, and they plotted against him to kill him.  And they said, each to his brother, "Here comes the master of dreams!  So now, let us kill him and fling him into one of the pits, and we can say, 'a vicious beast has devoured him', and we shall see what becomes of his dreams. (37:18-20)


What prevents the brothers from carrying out their plan is the intervention of two of the elder brothers, Reuven and Yehuda.  Both attempt to assert their leadership over their unruly siblings, and try to prevent the heinous act of fratricide.  This episode is neatly structured around their two speeches:


A.  Yaakov commissions Yosef regarding the missing brothers (13a)

    B.  The father sends Yosef to the brothers (13b-14)

        C.  Yosef seeks his brothers, but does not find them (15-20)

            D.  Reuven's unsuccessful attempt to save Yosef (21-22).

                E.  The brothers cast Yosef into the pit (23-24).

            D1. Yehuda's successful attempt to save Yosef (25-28). 

        C1.  Reuben seeks Yosef, but does not find him (29-30).

     B1.  The sons send Yosef's cloak back to their father (31-32).

A1.  The brothers cannot console Yaakov over the missing Yosef (33-35).


As the above diagram demonstrates, Reuven, while managing to obtain a temporary stay of execution, fails to dissuade the brothers' their desire to kill Yosef.  Yehuda, however, succeeds.  Why?  Let us compare both speeches side by side:


And Reuven heard and came to his rescue.  And he said, "We must not take his life!"

And Reuven said to them, "Shed no blood!  Fling him into this pit in the wilderness, and do not raise a hand against him"  - so that he might rescue him from their hands to bring him back to his father.

"What profit is there if we kill our brother and cover his blood?  Come, and let us sell him to the Yishmaelites – and our hand will not be upon him.  For he is our brother, and our flesh."   


We immediately note several flaws in Reuven's plan; returning Yosef to Yaakov would not only delay the inevitable confrontation, it would inflame the brothers further.  He himself does not reveal his true intentions to the brothers, something that would eventually come out into the open even if his plan succeeded.  When compared to Yehuda's later speech, we note that Reuven only issues commands, and does not attempt to persuade them towards any higher value.   We note the following differences between Reuven's tone and Yehuda's:


Reuven - And Reuven said to them:

[You should] shed no blood.

Yehuda - And Yehuda said to his brothers:

our hand will not be on him.


Intentionally or not, Reuven speaks with the tone of an outsider.  Yehuda speaks, in first person plural, from within the group.


            From this starting point, we note one more difference in their proposals that can help us comprehend why the brothers reacted positively to Yehuda's speech, while Reuven's attempts failed.  A first reading lead many to condemn Yehuda's almost mercenary proposal, as opposed to Reuven's principled declaration "Shed no blood."  A more careful reading, however, notes how Yehuda successful use of rhetoric ultimately saves Yosef's life.  He begins by appealing to his brothers' base love of profit (per the ransacking of Shekhem after Shimon and Levi's revenge).  Once having gained their confidence, however, he reminds twice Yosef "is our brother, flesh."  Having started with material gain, he concludes with moral principle.  


            It is this distinction, we note, that is lacking from Reuven's speech.  While Reuven had good reason to conceal his true intentions from his siblings, ultimately, they do not sense that he is particularly troubled by the idea of killing their brother – just the manner of its execution.  The Ramban states:


For Reuven had told them not to kill [Yosef] directly, but to throw him into a pit and let him expire there.  This way, they would only be indirectly culpable for his death, a less serious crime that actively killing him.  Yehuda told them that ultimately, they would be held accountable for his murder, as if they had actually killed him by their own hands. (37:26)


More significantly, the careful reader notes that Reuven avoids using the term "brother" whenever he refers to Yosef.  Noting that Reuven intended to "return Yosef to his father", we can speculate that Reuven viewed the saving of Yosef as an opportunity to redeem himself in the eyes of his father after his affair with Bilha.  Rashi alludes to this in his comments on Reuven's failed attempts to save Yosef:


"And Reuven returned" - … Another interpretation:  Reuven was involved in wearing sackcloth and fasting, for he had 'confused' his father's bed.


            Sadly, we see that Reuven remains incapable of relating to Yosef as a brother throughout this week's parasha as well.  The confrontation with the Egyptian viceroy (Yosef) stirred something in the recesses of the brothers' consciences.  Perhaps, it was the realization that once again, they were returning home to their father absent a brother (Shimon),[vii] or the recognition that they would be gambling with the well-being of Rachel's remaining son, Binyamin.  Whatever it was, the floodgates of their consciences erupt:


And they said to one another, "Indeed, we are truly guilty regarding our brother, in that we saw his mortal distress when he pleaded with us, and we refused to listen.  That is why this misfortune has come upon us."

And Reuven answered them, saying, "Did I not tell you, 'Do not sin against the child', and you did not listen?  And now, see, his blood is required."


Again, we sense the disconnect that exists between Reuven and his brothers.  Assuming the moral high ground, he refuses to identify with the brothers' suffering. He absolves himself of responsibility for their predicament, and shifts the blame onto the brothers' shoulders.  More importantly, while they now view the departed Yosef as a brother, he continues to refer to him as "the child."[viii]




            The brothers return from Egypt laden with food, but minus Shimon.  Hesitantly, they approach Yaakov and inform him that unless Binyamin accompanies them on their next trip, they will not be able to buy more food, and Shimon will be lost.  Reuven makes one final, inept attempt to assert his leadership by making the following suggestion to Yaakov:


And Reuven spoke to his father, saying, "You may put to death my two sons if I do not bring him [Binyamin] back to you.  Give him into my hands, and I will return him to you."

And he [Yaakov] said, "My son will not go down with you [plural].  His brother is dead, and he alone remains …" (42:37)


Before analyzing Reuven's almost grotesque suggestion that Yaakov kill his two grandchildren should Reuven fail to return Binyamin, we note that once again, Reuven emphasizes the bond between Binyamin and Yaakov, without acknowledging him as his brother.  Yaakov almost contemptuously ignores his offer, but tells the brothers under no circumstances will Binyamin be permitted to go down to Egypt, as "his brother" is no longer.


            What did Reuven's intend with his offer?  The Ramban suggests that he was engaging in rhetorical overkill – equating one son of Yaakov as equal to two of his own.  The Ohr Ha-chayim suggests that he did not make this suggestion explicitly, but alluded to it.  Perhaps, he felt that he had the capability to match his father's losses.  Inadvertently, he also confesses his guilt for Yosef:  If I do not bring Binyamin back, than I will deserve two sons' worth of punishment.  Given the tensions between Reuven and Yehuda, we can suggest another interpretation:  while Reuven speaks to his father, he is also directing his words to Yehuda, who recently lost two sons ("I have two sons to spare – do you"). 


            Time passes, and the supplies run out.  Sensing that Yaakov's resistance has weakened, the brothers approach Yaakov again.  When Yaakov requests that they descend to Egypt to buy more provisions, Yehuda firmly yet clearly reminds Yaakov that without Binyamin accompanying them, a return visit was impossible.  Yaakov berates the brothers for divulging Binyamin's existence to the Egyptian; they feebly attempt to exonerate themselves with the lie that it was under the Egyptian's heavy questioning that they revealed that information.  Then, Yehuda clearly demonstrates why he, and not Reuven or Yosef, has become the true leader of the brothers:


And Yehuda said to Yisrael his father," Send to boy with me, and let us rise and go, that we may live and not die, neither us, nor you, nor our little ones.  I will be his pledge.  From my hand, you can request him.  If I do not bring him to you and set him before you, I will bear the blame to you for all time.


Yehuda's speech is masterful.  Using Yaakov's words against him ("that we may live and not die"), he reminds his father of the dire circumstances in which they find themselves.  He reassures Yaakov of his concern for the entire clan; and states that his fate is tied to the fate of the greater community (unlike Reuven, who passed the consequences of his actions onto his children's shoulders).  His usage of the phrase "and from my hand, you may request him" reminds Yaakov of the time when he stood before Lavan, and proudly declared his honesty and integrity – "Whatever was torn up by beasts … I bore the loss.  From my hand, you could request it. (31:39)" Most importantly, he states that he is "a pledge" for Binyamin[ix] – that he views his brother as equal to himself.  With this declaration, Yaakov allows the brothers to descend to Egypt, and begin the ultimate process of reconciliation between al the siblings.


[i] Indeed, Yaakov's first instinct was to assume that Yosef was devoured by wild animals (37:33); see also Shmuel 1 17:36.

[ii] Rashbam (quoting R. Yosef Kara) and Chizkuni.  Rashi, based on the Talmud (Sanhedrin 71a), provides a broader historical view as to the troublesome nature of Shekhem. 

[iii] Several times (see Rashi 45:27, TB Sota 45b) the Rabbis connected this story with the commandment to ensure that no traveler should ever leave a city unaccompanied for fear of the dangers that await him on the way.

[iv] Leon Kass notes that "several remarks in this exchange – Jacob's "Go, please" and Joseph's "Here am I"- eerily echo the story of the binding of Isaac, a story of another father's willingness to sacrifice his only son."  Reading Genesis, p.519.

[v] However, a Midrash does state that this is the case (Torah Sh'leimah 37:10).  Note also Rashi (32:25) who suggests that Yaakov endangered himself for small pots, and eventually found himself wrestling with a stranger.  

[vi] Did the brothers misinterpret Yaakov's gift as another attempt by Yaakov to rid himself of them, just as Abraham had given gifts to the concubines and sent them off (Bereishit 25:6)?

[vii] Close readers note the irony that one of the words used to describe "prison" in Hebrew (see 40:16) – bor – is the same word used to describe the pit that Yosef was thrown into. 

[viii] Emphasizing once again the relationship between Yosef and Yaakov, but not acknowledging his connection to Yosef. 

[ix] A lesson is responsibility that he learned from Tamar, who demanded of him "a pledge" (38:18).