In Yaakov’s blessing to Yosef just before his death, he recalls how “va-yistemuhu ba’alei chitzim” – he was despised by “people of arrows,” meaning, those who sought to inflict harm upon him (49:23). A number of commentators, including the Rashbam and the Radak, explain that this refers to Potifar’s wife who falsely accused Yosef of assaulting her, and those who believed her accusation and sentenced Yosef to imprisonment. Seforno suggests that this refers to those who, as a number of sources relate, opposed Yosef’s appointment as Egyptian vizier, and sought to prevent Pharaoh from bringing him to power by disparaging him.
There are two reasons why these commentators did not prefer what would at first appear to be the far simpler interpretation, that Yaakov refers here to Yosef’s brothers, who sold him as a slave. First, as noted by the Rashbam and Seforno, the image of archers is used in Sefer Yirmiyahu (9:7) as an allegorical depiction of slander, likely because arrows harms people from a safe distance, just like slander is spoken at a distance from the victim, but inflicts great harm. The term “ba’alei chitzim,” then, is more likely to refer to those who caused Yosef harm through libelous charges, as opposed to his brothers, who caused him harm by first attempting to kill him and then selling him into slavery.
The Radak adds a different consideration, claiming that Yaakov would not have castigated his other sons at this special moment, when all his sons surrounded his bedside at his final moments of his life, and he blessed them. Although it is true that Yaakov spoke harshly to Reuven, Shimon and Levi in addressing them, the Radak notes that this was done solely to clarify why they were denied rulership, despite being the oldest. But Yaakov would not have mentioned the grave sin of the sale of Yosef in this setting.
Nevertheless, others, including Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, indeed interpret “ba’alei chitzim” as referring to Yosef’s brothers, who directed their “arrows” of hatred and hostility towards him. Rav Hirsch discusses in this context the etymology of the word “va-yistemuhu” which is used here in reference to the brothers’ hatred, and which appears earlier, in Parashat Toldot (27:41), in reference to Esav’s resentment of Yaakov – “va-yistom.” According to Rav Hirsch, this word is connected to the verb s.t.m. which is often used to mean “blocked” or “closed.” In Eikha (3:8), for example, Yirmiyahu laments that “satam tefilati” – his prayer was “blocked,” in the sense that it was rejected by God, as though it never reached its destination. Rav Hirsch thus interprets the word “va-yistemuhu” as meaning “to nurse a secret resentment, a deep-lying hate.” He notes the similar connotation of the command, “lo titor” (“do not bear a grudge” – Vayikra 19:18), which is derived from the verb n.t.r., a term normally used to mean “guard.” Like s.t.m., this refers to a deep-seated resentment that is kept within a person’s heart.
Extending this notion one step further, we might add that s.t.m. refers to animosity which one insists on “blocking,” on keeping inside of him, where it grows and festers, instead of allowing it to naturally leave. Feelings of resentment and anger should, with time, subside – but only if we let them subside and gradually take leave of our minds and hearts. Sometimes, though, we feel inclined to “block” these negative feelings from leaving, and to keep them inside us. This was the case with Esav, who kept hold of his enmity towards Yaakov for seizing his blessing, and with Yosef’s brothers, who insisted on viewing him with suspicion, instead of opening their minds to the possibility of reconciliation.
If so, then Yaakov’s description of his sons’ hostility towards Yosef – “va-yistemuhu” – perhaps warns us against this tendency to “block” our feelings of anger and resentment from leaving. The brothers had valid reasons for resenting Yosef, but they were wrong for holding onto those feelings, instead of letting them go and finding other ways to handle the situation. We should try to alleviate, rather than keep hold of, our anger and hostility, so we can look and act towards each other with genuine respect and goodwill, despite our past grievances, legitimate as they may be.