The Sale of Yosef

  • Rav Yehuda Rock
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


This parasha series is dedicated
Le-zekher Nishmat HaRabanit Chana bat HaRav Yehuda Zelig zt"l.

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PARASHAT VAYESHEV

 

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Dedicated in memory of my father, Hillel ben Yechiel (Herman) Reiter, of Debrecen, Hungary,
whose yahrzeit falls on the 24th day of Kislev.

May his soul be among the Righteous in Gan Eden.

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The Sale of Yosef

By Rav Yehuda Rock

  

The story of the sale of Yosef is really two stories, two perspectives, with two different messages.

 

In our shiur on Parashat Chayei Sara we presented an exegetical methodology known as "shitat ha-bechinot" (developed by my rabbi and teacher, Rav Mordekhai Breuer, and presented in his books - Pirkei Mo'adot, Pirkei Bereishit, and Rav Mordekhai Breuer's Shitat Ha-Bechinot.) We recall that according to this approach, God wrote the Torah in "layers," with parallel narratives (or halakhic units), each reflecting a different aspect or message, and each of which may be read independently, such that they may appear to contradict one another.  Often, these narratives are interwoven so as to create a contiguous story.  The contiguous story blurs the transition seams between one narrative and the other, but preserves the difficulties posed by those transitions.  Each narrative expresses independent content with independent significance, and there is some relationship between them justifying their integration into a single story.  By means of the difficulties arising from the combination of these narratives – such as repetitions or contradictions – we are able to expose the two independent "aspects," and then examine their respective significance. 

 

In this shiur we shall use this methodology to analyze chapter 37 of Sefer Bereishit.  Rav Breuer himself applies his approach to this chapter (in chapter 35 of his book, "Pirkei Bereishit"); here we propose a different interpretation, although some of its details are based upon Rav Breuer.  

 

First of all, it is necessary to demarcate the narrative that we are about to analyze.  Here we note – without elaborating further – that the first verse of the chapter, along with the first three words of the second verse, are apparently meant to express a contrast to the description of the culture and settlement of the descendants of Esav, as described in the previous chapter (36) (see Rashbam and Ibn Ezra on 37:1), and as a conclusion and summary of the list of Yaakov's descendants that appears at the end of chapter 35 (see Rashbam ad loc.).  Hence, we shall focus on the narrative that begins in the middle of verse 2: "Yosef was seventeen years old…." Chapter 38 clearly introduces a new subject ("And it was at that time…"), and therefore our unit concludes at the end of chapter 37.

 

In verse 2 we read: "Yosef, who was seventeen years old, was shepherding together with his brothers; and the lad was with the sons of Bilha and with the sons of Zilpa, his father's wives.  And Yosef brought an evil report of them to their father."

 

A look at the Hebrew syntax presents us with a problem.  The expressions "et benei Bilha" and "et benei Zilpa" imply the object of the sentence, whether we understand the word "et" to mean "with" their sons, as in the previous clause – "Shepherding with his brothers" – in which case the sons of Bilha and Zilpa are indirect objects, or whether the word "et" conforms to its more common usage, such that they are direct objects.  Either way, they need a verb.  But immediately prior to this expression we find a nominal clause – "hu na'ar," identifying Yosef as a "na'ar."  This clause cannot contain an object!

 

To Rashi's view, we need to "complete" the verse with the missing verb: "He used to…." The direct object – "The sons of Bilha" connects with this implied verb, and the reader is meant to understand the meaning from the context.  What the verse means, according to this interpretation, is: "Yosef used to be with the sons of Bihla…." In other words, Yosef shepherded with all of his brothers, but he was close only to the sons of the handmaids.  Accordingly, Rashi explains that the "evil report" that Yosef conveyed to his father concerned only the sons of Leah, not the sons of Bilha and Zilpa.

 

Rashbam, on the other hand, interprets the words "hu na'ar" as a sort of verbal clause, in the sense of behavior characterizing youth: "His youthfulness and habituation and companionship was only with the sons of Bilha and the sons of Zilpa." In other words, professionally – as a shepherd – Yosef was like all of his brothers, but his youthful activities were shared only with the sons of the handmaids.  Hence Rashbam, too, concludes that the "evil report" concerned only the sons of Leah.

 

Beyond the grammatical points discussed by Rashi and Rashbam here, there is also the matter of fitting their interpretations into the context of the narrative.  If Yosef was indeed close to the sons of the handmaids, as Rashi and Rashbam maintain, then later in the story, why do we see no difference between the sons of the handmaids and the sons of Leah in terms of their attitude towards Yosef? Ramban raises this question: "… If so, why did the sons of the handmaids not save him, since he loved them and was close to them...  It also seems from the text that the brothers agreed unanimously to sell him." Obviously, we may suggest that, later, Yosef's dreams caused even the sons of the handmaids to share the hatred of the other brothers towards him.  But if this is so, then the evil report (occurring at that earlier time) is not, in itself, a factor in the tension between Yosef and his brothers – on the contrary, for some of them it would have been a uniting factor – and if so, why is it recounted at this point in the story?

 

Ibn Ezra understands the word "na'ar" (youth, lad) as a verb rather than a noun (like Rashbam) – not in the sense of "youthful" behavior, but rather in the sense of "service" (since the word "na'ar" is sometimes used in Tanakh to mean a servant or attendant.) Accordingly, the verse would mean that Yosef served the sons of the handmaids.  To Ibn Ezra's view it is clear that this service was forced upon him, and the function of this sentence, in the context of the narrative, is to specify the content of the evil report that Yosef conveyed to his father.  That is to say, he told Yaakov how the sons of the handmaids had made him into their servant.

 

Ibn Ezra's interpretation (aside from its novel syntactical perspective) presents us with the opposite problem from that raised by Ramban concerning Rashi's understanding.  If the evil report concerned only the sons of the handmaids, why did Leah's sons not save him? Once again, the interpretation of verse 17 conflicts with the absolute solidarity of Yosef's brothers, as reflected later on in the narrative.

 

For this reason, Ramban explains that the objects of the clause, "…The sons of Bilha and the sons of Zilpa, his father's wives," are a continuation and elaboration of the object mentioned previously in the verse – "His brothers."  The clause "hu na'ar" appears suddenly, in the midst of a string of objects, but from the syntactical perspective they should be read uninterruptedly.  Thematically, "hu na'ar" is a continuation of the opening clause – "Yosef, being seventeen years old…." Thus, the verse as a whole is to be understood as follows: "Yosef, being seventeen years old, was a youth.  [He] shepherded together with his brothers, with the sons of Bilha and with the sons of Zilpa, his father's wives.  And Yosef brought an evil report about them [concerning something that he had seen while shepherding with them], to their father."

 

In Ramban's interpretation, each expression in the verse is fully explained, both syntactically and in terms of the narrative context: during Yosef's shepherding with all the brothers, he noted some negative behavior, which he reported to his father.  The problem here, of course, is the order of the verse.  Why could the Torah not save us all the confusion and simply write the verse in logical order (as proposed at the end of the previous paragraph)?

 

Therefore it would seem that the text is intertwining two different perspectives.  From one perspective (which we shall refer to as A), it is proper that the narrative begin with the words, "Yosef, being seventeen years old, was a lad."  From the other perspective (B), the story should properly begin with the words, "Yosef shepherded with his brothers; with the sons of Bilha and with the sons of Zilpa, his father's wives.  And Yosef brought an evil report about them to their father." Each separate perspective is interpreted in accordance with Ramban, and within each of them we have now solved the problem of order.  The problem of the order of the verse arises only when the Torah joins the two perspectives together into a single narrative.  But this is no surprise. Just as it is important that the two perspectives be capable of being joined together into a single narrative in the Torah, so it is important that the reader be able to examine each of the perspectives – and for this purpose it is necessary that there be some difficulty in the transition between them.  We shall now continue to review the rest of the chapter, attributing the verses to one or the other perspective.  While doing this we shall also start noting the various narrative developments of the two perspectives, and then – finally – their significance.

 

It appears that the function of the introduction to the story in verse 2 ("Yosef, being seventeen years old, was a lad") is as background to verse 3.  It is with regard to this seventeen-year-old boy that we are told, in verse 3: "Yisrael loved Yosef more than all of his sons, for he was the son of his old age, and he made for him a striped coat."  Thus, it seems that verse 3 should be categorized with perspective A.

 

Let us now examine verses 4-11:

 

(4a) "His brothers saw that their father loved him more than all of his brothers, (b) and they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.  (5) And Yosef dreamed a dream and he told his brothers, and they hated him even more.  (6) He said to them: Hear, now, this dream that I dreamed.  (7) Behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and stood upright.  And behold, your sheaves were round about and they bowed down to my sheaf.  (8) And his brothers said to him: Shall you then rule over us; shall you have dominion over us? And they hated him even more, because of his dreams and because of his words.  (9) And he dreamed again, another dream, and he told it to his brothers.  And he said: Behold, I dreamed a dream again, and behold – the sun and the moon and eleven starts were bowing down to me.  (10) And he told it to his father, and to his brothers.  And his father rebuked him and said: What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers then come and bow down to you to the ground? (11a) And his brothers were jealous of him, (11b) and his father kept the matter in mind."

 

Since verse 4 is based upon Yaakov's special love for Yosef – a love described previously, in verse 3 (A), verse 4 should seemingly also be categorized as perspective A.  But the situation is not so simple.

 

In order to analyze verse 4, we first have to jump all the way to the first part of verse 11 (11a): "His brothers were jealous of him."  The location of these words is strange: they follow directly after Yaakov's rebuke to Yosef.  Were they jealous of him because of this rebuke? If the reason for the jealousy here is the dream of the stars (described immediately prior to the rebuke), then the significance of the hatred is that they accepted the dream as the truth, and were jealous of the status that Yosef was destined to acquire, in accordance with the dream.  But this attitude stands in direct conflict not only with what Yaakov expresses, in his rebuke to Yosef – "Shall I and your mother and your brothers then come and bow down to you to the ground?!" – but also with their own reaction to the first dream, where we are told (8): "His brothers said to him: Shall you then rule over us… and they hated him even more…."  What has changed in between the brothers' reaction to the first dream (incredulity and hatred) and their reaction to the second dream (jealousy based upon acceptance of the dream's message)?

 

Furthermore, since we are presented with two types of reactions on the part of the brothers – hatred and jealousy – it is not clear why the matter of the striped coat, symbolizing Yosef's special status in the eyes of Yaakov, gives rise specifically to hatred, when jealousy would seem to be a more appropriate reaction!

 

Therefore it seems that the jealousy described in 11a is a reaction neither to Yaakov's reproach nor to Yosef's dream, but rather to the special love that Yaakov displayed towards Yosef in general.  To reach this conclusion we shall have to assume that according to one perspective, 11a is the direct continuation of, "His brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers" (4a).  In other words, 4a and 11a belong to one perspective, and everything in between belongs to the other.  Only in this way can we read the jealousy as a direct reaction to Yaakov's special love for Yosef.  And, as noted above, 4a must belong to perspective A.  Thus, 11a, too, belongs to A, and everything in between (4b-10: "They hated him… to bow down to you to the ground") belongs to B.

 

Thus, in B, the hatred described in verse 4b – ("They hated him and could not talk to him peaceably") is a reaction to the evil report.

 

[Note: in verse 8 we read "dreams," in the plural, although at this stage we know of only one dream.  See Radak and Chizkuni.  It seems reasonable to understand this in accordance with Ibn Ezra's interpretation of Daniyyel 2:1 – that one dream which includes many events (as in verse 7 in our chapter – "And behold… and behold… and behold…") may be called "dreams."]

 

11b – "His father kept the matter in mind" – refers, of course, to the dream.  Although outwardly Yaakov rebuked his son, inwardly he hoped for the realization of the dream.

 

Thus far we have arrived at the following division:

 

Perspective A:

"Yosef, being seventeen years old, was a lad.

And Israel loved Yosef more than all of his sons, for he was the son of his old age, and he made for him a striped coat.

And his brothers saw that their father loved him above all of his brothers,

And his brothers were jealous of him."

 

Perspective B:

[Yosef] shepherded with his brothers,

With the sons of Bilha and with the sons of Zilpa, his father's wives.  And Yosef brought an evil report about them to their father.

And they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.

And Yosef dreamed a dream, and he told his brothers, and they hated him even more.  He said to them: Hear, now, this dream that I dreamed.  Behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and stood upright.  And behold, your sheaves were round about and they bowed down to my sheaf.  And his brothers said to him: Shall you then rule over us; shall you have dominion over us? And they hated him even more, because of his dreams and because of his words.  And he dreamed again, another dream, and he told it to his brothers.  And he said: Behold, I dreamed a dream again, and behold – the sun and the moon and eleven starts were bowing down to me.  And he told it to his father, and to his brothers.  And his father rebuked him and said: What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers then come and bow down to you to the ground? And his father kept the matter in mind."

 

At this stage we are already able to discern some inkling of the message behind each perspective.  In A, the background of the tension between Yosef and his brothers is the brothers' jealousy of the special status that Yaakov awards to Yosef, the son of his old age – a status symbolized by the striped coat.  In B, on the other hand, the background to the hostility is the brothers' hatred towards Yosef in the wake of actions not by Yaakov, but by Yosef himself – the evil report and the dreams.  From this perspective Yaakov is not portrayed as showing Yosef preferential treatment; on the contrary, he acts to bring about equality amongst the family, by rebuking Yosef and outwardly nullifying the dreams.

 

Let us now move on to verses 12-14:

(12) "His brothers went to feed their father's flock in Shekhem.

(13a) And Yisrael said to Yosef: Are your brothers not shepherding in Shekhem? Come, let me send you to them.  (13b) And he said: Here I am.

(14) And he said to him: Go, I pray you, see how your brothers are faring, and how the flocks are faring, and bring word to me.  And he sent him from the valley of chevron, and he came to Shekhem."

 

The expression, "Here I am," usually signifies readiness to accept a command.  As such, it usually appears in the wake of a general call; only after the person called answers, "Here I am," does he receive a specific command.  Thus, for example, we see above, in 22:1 – "… He said to him: Avraham! And he said to Him: Here I am.  And He said: Take, I pray you, your son…." In our case, however (13b), Yosef declares "Here I am" after already hearing what he is being commanded to do.

 

Therefore, it seems logical to separate the command – "Are your brothers not shepherding in Shekhem? Come, let me send you to them," from Yosef's response – "He said to him: Here I am." The declaration, "Here I am," should be the response to a general addressing: "Yisrael said to Yosef."  (It is possible that, were this perspective to have existed alone, the text would have said "He called" rather than "He said," and that it is only because of the intermingling of the two perspectives that the expressions were combined.)

 

Accordingly, the command that follows after the utterance, "Here I am," is what we find in verse 14: "He said to him: Go, I pray you, see how your brothers are faring, and how the flocks are faring, and bring back word to me."

 

We see, then, that verses 13 and 14 contain two different commands, belonging to two different perspectives.  There is also a clearly discernible difference between them. In verse 14, Yaakov is commanding Yosef to check on the welfare of his brothers, and then immediately to return.  In verse 13, he says only, "Come, let me send you to them"; since Yaakov stops there, we assume that his intention is for Yosef to remain there with them.  This also seems logical because it would not make sense to go from Chevron to Shekhem just to check on the brothers; it would seem more reasonable to undertake such a journey if Yosef himself was supposed to be there, to share in the shepherding work.  This being so, it seems that verse 12, which precedes the brothers' departure for Shekhem, and verse 14b, describing Yosef's journey from Chevron to Shekhem, should belong to the same perspective, along with the command in verse 13, where the intention is that Yosef should go out to join his brothers.

 

How should these verses be related to our system of perspectives? The answer seems clear. In B, Yosef is described from the outset as someone whose profession is shepherding, together with his brothers.  This is the background to Yaakov sending him off to join them.  In A, on the other hand, Yosef is Yaakov's most precious son, and it seems that he does not work together with his brothers, but rather remains with Yaakov at home.  Within this framework Yaakov sends Yosef out to his brothers – whom, from this perspective, are likely not too far away – in order to see how they are faring, and then to return home.

 

The division of this unit, then, is as follows:

 

Perspective A:

"Yisrael said to Yosef:

And he said to him – Here I am.

And he said to him: Go, I pray you, see how your brothers are faring, and how the flocks are faring, and bring word back to me."

 

Perspective B:

"Yisrael said to Yosef:

Are your brothers not shepherding in Shekhem? Come, let me send you to them.

And he sent him from the valley of Chevron, and he came to Shekhem."

 

Let us skip over the encounter with the anonymous man and the turn to Dotan, and continue with the main storyline – the encounter between Yosef and his brothers, their act of throwing him into the pit, and his sale.

 

Verses 18-30; 36:

(18) "And they saw him from afar, and before he drew close to them, they conspired against him, to slay him.

(19) And they said to one another: Behold, this dreamer is coming; (20) Now, come, let us kill him, and we shall cast him into some pit, and we shall say – a wild animal devoured him, and then we shall see what will become of his dreams.

(21) And Reuven heard, and saved him from their hands.  He said: Let us not kill him.  (22) And Reuven said to them: Do not spill blood! Cast him into this pit which is in the wilderness, but do not lay a hand upon him – in order that he might save him from their hands, to restore him to his father. 

(23) And it was, when Yosef came to his brothers, that they stripped Yosef of his coat, the striped coat that was upon him.

(24) And they took him and cast him into the pit.  And the pit was empty, there was no water in it.

(25) And they sat down to eat bread.

And they lifted their eyes and saw, behold, a caravan of Ishmaelites was coming from Gilad, with their camels bearing gum balm and ladanum, on their way to take it down to Egypt.

(26) And Yehuda said to his brothers: What shall we gain by killing our brother and covering his blood? (27) Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let our hand not be upon him, for he is our brother, our flesh.  And they listened to him.

(28) And there passed by Midianite people, merchants, and they drew and brought up Yosef from the pit.

And they sold Yosef to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver.

And they brought Yosef to Egypt.

(29) And Reuven returned to the pit, and behold – Yosef was not in the pit.  And he tore his clothes.  (30) And he returned to his brothers, and said: The child is gone, and I – where shall I go?...

(36) And the Midianites sold him to Egypt, to Potifar – Pharaoh's chamberlain, a captain of the guard."

 

The commentators battle with these verses.  From verse 28 it would seem that it was the Midianites who lifted Yosef out of the pit and sold him to the Ishmaelites, since the subject of the verbs – "They drew," "They sold" – would seemingly be the same people previously referred to in the verse, i.e., the Midianites.  Furthermore, it is not the Midianites who draw Yosef out, what is the point of mentioning their arrival?

 

Accordingly, Rashbam explains that the brothers cast Yosef into the pit, and when they saw the Ishmaelites, they planned to sell him to them.  But meanwhile the Midianites arrived; they drew Yosef out of the pit and sold him to the Ishmaelites.  This interpretations sits well with these verses, but conflicts with what we read two verses later.  Firstly, at the end of the chapter, in verse 36, we read, "The Midianites sold him to Egypt."  But if the Midianites sold Yosef to the Ishmaelites, then it must be the Ishmaelites who sold him to Egypt (as indeed the text tells us explicitly, in 39:1 – "Potifar, Pharaoh's chamberlain, captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had taken him down to there").  Secondly, in 45:4 Yosef tells the brothers, "I am Yosef, your brother, whom you sold to Egypt."

 

Rashbam addresses both of these difficulties.  Concerning verse 36, he proposes a distinction between "Midianites (Midyanim)" and "Midanim."  The Midianites lifted Yosef from the pit and sold him to the Ishmaelites, while "Midanim" is another name for the Ishmaelites.  As to Yosef's words in chapter 45, Rashbam suggests that what Yosef means is that by casting him into the pit, the brought about a chain of events that led to him being sold to Egypt (since it enabled the Midianites to kidnap him from there).  Clearly, these interpretations are rather forced.

 

Other commentators have attempted other explanations for these verses.  Rashi suggests: "Yaakov's sons drew Yosef out of the pit and sold him to the Ishmaelites, the Ishmaelites to the Midianites, and the Midianites to Egypt." In other words, to Rashi's view, the syntactical subject changes in mid-verse, such that from "They drew him" onwards, the subject is the brothers.  In addition, in order to explain the very appearance of the Midianites in the verse, as well as in verse 36 (where we are told that the Midianites sold Yosef to Egypt), Rashi invokes the assumption that the Ishmaelites sold Yosef to the Midianites – even though there is no hint of such a sale in the text.  According to Rashi's explanation, the beginning of chapter 39 must be viewed as describing what was apparently an indirect sale: Potifar bought Yosef from the Ishmaelites indirectly, via the middle stage involving the Midianites. 

 

We shall not spend more time reviewing the various exegetical approaches; the difficulties inherent in the verses are clear.  It is equally clear that a simple and logical answer lies in dividing the unit into two different perspectives: since there is a verse telling us explicitly that the Midianites sold Yosef to Potifar (the final verse of our chapter), and another explicit verse according to which Potifar bought Yosef from the Ishmaelites (beginning of chapter 39), the Midianites and Ishmaelites must feature, respectively, in two different aspects.  There is one perspective according to which the brothers cast Yosef into the pit and then, as Rashbam explains, the Midianites arrived, pulled him out, and sold him to Egypt.  Then there is the other perspective, in which the brothers see the caravan of Ishmaelites and decide to sell Yosef to them.  The role of the Midianite merchants in the story is indeed to draw Yosef out of the pit, such that they are the syntactical subject of "They drew him," which appears in one perspective.  But the brothers, who previously lifted their eyes and saw the caravan of Ishmaelites, are the ones to have sold Yosef to the Ishmaelites, and it is they who represent the syntactical subject – in the other perspective – of "They sold."

 

Before we attempt a precise division of the verses, attention should be paid to another point. After the brothers cast Yosef into the pit and they sit down to eat bread, Yehuda says (26): "What profit is it to us if we kill our brother and cover his blood."  This is a strange-sounding utterance: just prior to this the brothers agreed that they would not spill his blood, but rather cast him into the pit! It is clear that their intention was for Yosef to die in the pit anyway, but since Reuven says, "Do not spill blood," and the brothers listen to him, we deduce that the brothers did not regard casting Yosef into the pit as an act of "spilling blood."  If so, why is Yehuda now saying – after this decision – "What profit is it to us if we kill our brother and cover his blood"?

 

Apparently, the respective initiatives of Reuven and Yehuda also belong to two different perspectives.  And since Yehuda's suggestion stands alone, without any reliance on Reuven's idea, we must conclude that Yehuda's proposal is raised without Yosef first having been cast into the pit.  From the perspective in which Yehuda is the spokesman, there is actually no pit; rather, the brothers were planning to kill Yosef; they ripped his coat from him, and just before they were ready to kill him, Yehuda suggested that they not kill him but rather sell him to the Ishmaelites, and this they do.

 

Reuven, then, is the speaker in the perspective describing the pit and the Midianites, while Yehuda is the speaker in the perspective focusing on the Ishmaelites, where there is no casting into a pit, but rather a direct sale by the brothers.

 

According to the above, verses 19-20 – representing a single unit of speech by the brothers: "They said to one another, Here comes that dreamer; now, come, let us kill him and cast him into some pit" – in which the brothers plan to throw Yosef into a pit, belong to the perspective of Reuven, the pit, and the Midianites.  Thus we are able to connect the perspectives in this part of the chapter to our division into perspectives in the earlier part of the chapter: in these verses, belonging to the perspective of the pit, the brothers make mention of the dreams.  Thus, the perspective of Reuven, the pit and the Midianites is the continuation of the perspective that included the evil report, the dreams and the hatred, while the perspective of Yehuda and the Ishmaelites is a continuation of the coat and the jealousy.

 

The rest of the chapter – Yosef's encounter with the "man," as well as the final verses in which the brothers report to Yaakov that Yosef has been devoured – may likewise be integrated into the same framework that we have proposed above, but the parts that we have already divided are enough to help us examine the essence of the chapter and its significance.  Therefore, for the sake of brevity, we shall not elaborate on the division of the rest of the chapter here.  Let us summarize the perspectives with all that we have discussed thus far (adding in the division of a few points without proof), and then turn our attention to the significance of this division.

 

Perspective A:

"Yosef, being seventeen years old, was a lad.

And Israel loved Yosef more than all of his sons, for he was the son of his old age, and he made for him a striped coat.

And his brothers saw that their father loved him above all of his brothers,

And his brothers were jealous of him.

Yisrael said to Yosef:

And he said to him – Here I am.

And he said to him: Go, I pray you, see how your brothers are faring, and how the flocks are faring, and bring word back to me.

And they saw him from afar, and before he drew close to them, they conspired against him, to slay him.

And it was, when Yosef came to his brothers, that they stripped Yosef of his coat, the striped coat that was upon him.

And they lifted their eyes and saw, behold, a caravan of
Ishmaelites was coming from Gilad, with their camels bearing gum balm and ladanum, on their way to take it down to Egypt.

(26) And Yehuda said to his brothers: What shall we gain by killing our brother and covering his blood? (27) Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let our hand not be upon him, for he is our brother, our flesh.  And they listened to him.

And they sold Yosef to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver.

And they brought Yosef to Egypt."

 

Perspective B:

[Yosef] shepherded with his brothers,

With the sons of Bilha and with the sons of Zilpa, his father's wives.  And Yosef brought an evil report about them to their father.

And they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.

And Yosef dreamed a dream, and he told his brothers, and they hated him even more.  He said to them: Hear, now, this dream that I dreamed.  Behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and stood upright.  And behold, your sheaves were round about and they bowed down to my sheaf.  And his brothers said to him: Shall you then rule over us; shall you have dominion over us? And they hated him even more, because of his dreams and because of his words.  And he dreamed again, another dream, and he told it to his brothers.  And he said: Behold, I dreamed a dream again, and behold – the sun and the moon and eleven starts were bowing down to me.  And he told it to his father, and to his brothers.  And his father rebuked him and said: What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers then come and bow down to you to the ground? And his father kept the matter in mind.

Yisrael said to Yosef:

Are your brothers not shepherding in Shekhem? Come, let me send you to them.

And he sent him from the valley of Chevron, and he came to Shekhem.

And they saw him from afar.

And they said to one another: Behold, this dreamer is coming.  Now, come, let us kill him, and we shall cast him into some pit, and we shall say – a wild animal devoured him, and then we shall see what will become of his dreams.

And Reuven heard, and saved him from their hands.  He said: Let us not kill him.  And Reuven said to them: Do not spill blood! Cast him into this pit which is in the wilderness, but do not lay a hand upon him – in order that he might save him from their hands, to restore him to his father.

And it was, when Yosef came to his brothers, that they stripped Yosef of his coat, the striped coat that was upon him.  And they took him and cast him into the pit.  And the pit was empty, there was no water in it.  And they sat down to eat bread.

And there passed by Midianite people, merchants, and they drew and brought up Yosef from the pit.

And Reuven returned to the pit, and behold – Yosef was not in the pit.  And he tore his clothes.  And he returned to his brothers, and said: The child is gone, and I – where shall I go?...

And the Midianites sold him to Egypt, to Potifar – Pharaoh's chamberlain, a captain of the guard."

 

Thematically we can understand the connection between a division of perspectives on the basis of reasons for the tension (jealousy as opposed to hatred) and a division into perspectives on the story of the pit and the sale.  In A, the source of all the tension between Yosef and his brothers is their jealousy because of Yaakov's special treatment of him.  They do not hate him, but his status in the family offends them.  The plan to kill him is meant to remove him from the family, not to exact revenge.  For this reason Yehuda can say, "What profit is it to us if we kill our brothers and cover his blood" – in other words, we gain nothing by killing him nor do we have any reason to actually put him to death; all that we want is that he disappear.  Therefore, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites; that way we will attain the same objective and also gain something.  Yehuda's suggestion is accepted and Yosef is sold to the Ishmaelites, who take him down to Egypt. 

 

In perspective B, the brothers are motivated by hatred.  From this perspective, selling him will not suffice; their aim is specifically to harm him.  Reuven suggests that his killing be somewhat "cleaner": "Do not spill blood… let our hand not be upon him"; rather, let us kill him by abandoning him in the wilderness in a pit that is empty of water.  The brothers listen to Reuven and cast Yosef into the pit.  While they sit eating bread, at some distance from the pit, some Midianite merchants pass by; they draw Yosef out of the pit and take him down to Egypt.  When Reuven gets back to the pit after his lunch, he finds Yosef gone.

 

Let us now consider the significance of these two perspectives.

 

In A, the "jealousy" perspective, all the events of the story follow one another naturally in the wake of the actions taken by the characters involved.  Yaakov shows preferential treatment towards Yosef, thereby arousing the brothers' jealousy; the brothers attack Yosef and, since they are in Dotan – on the highway from Gilad to Egypt – it is natural for them to encounter a caravan of Ishmaelites traveling to Egypt.  The brothers send Yosef off to Egypt, through the agency of the Ishmaelites.

 

In B, the story unfolds in the wake of events that are "external" to the characters: Yosef experiences dreams, which exacerbate the tension that has already developed as a result of Yosef's evil report about them.  After they cast him into the pit – for their part, to die – Midianite merchants appear as if from nowhere, and take him down to Egypt.

 

Thus it would seem that perspective B is the story of Divine Providence, whose machinations eventually bring Yaakov's entire household to Egypt.  In the Covenant Between the Parts, Avraham was told that his descendants would be exiled; our chapter records how God brought this upheaval about.  God's intervention in the story is emphasized by the external factors that influence the events differently from the way in which they would have developed naturally.  It is God Who shows Yosef visions of power and grandeur, in order to create hatred on the part of the brothers – hatred that will lead them to cast him into a pit.  And when Yosef is in the pit, Divine Providence brings the Midianites, who take him down to Egypt.  Finally, it is Yosef's descent to Egypt that will eventually pave the way for the exile of Yaakov's household.  "Many are the thoughts in a man's heart, but God's counsel will prevail." 

 

Perspective A, on the other hand, is the story of the results of man's actions.  In Massekhet Shabbat (10b) we learn: "Rabba bar Machsiya quoted Rav Chamma bar Guria, who taught in the name of Rav: A person should never show favoritism towards one of his children.  It was for the weight of and extra two sela'im of wool that Yaakov gave Yosef over and above the other brothers that they were jealous of him, and it ended up with our forefathers going down to Egypt." Yaakov's educational mistake, together with the brothers' jealousy, led to the entire family being exiled.  This is a human story of actions and their results, of crime and punishment, as it were.  The moral lesson of the story is spelled out in the Torah in Sefer Devarim: "If a man has two wives, one beloved and the other hated, and they bear him sons – the beloved [wife] and the hated [wife], he may not grant special status to the son of the beloved wife more than to the son of the hated wife…."

 

The Torah weaves these two perspectives into a single narrative, teaching us that the same event can be the deliberate handiwork of Divine Providence and simultaneously the result of behavior by people, who are responsible for their actions.  From this we learn two lessons. First, God's plans do not exempt people from responsibility for their actions and behavior.  Historical plans of the fulfillment of prophecies and blessings are the result of Divine considerations.  Man, for his part, must act in accordance with the values of Torah and its ethics; he cannot justify actions that are in themselves wrong by claiming that they are part of a Divine plan.

 

And second, the corollary. Even within events that are brought about directly by the freely-chosen behavior of human beings, we must still look for the hidden hand of Divine Providence.  We must study and analyze the processes and developments of human history and discern the Divine plan concealed within them.

 

Translated by Kaeren Fish