The Torah in Parashat Vayeishev tells the disturbing story of mekhirat Yosef, how Yosef’s brothers plotted to kill him, eventually casting him into a pit from where he was later lifted and sold as a slave (either by the brothers or by passing merchants, depending on the different views among the commentators). This story begins with the brothers journeying to Shekhem to tend to the family’s herds: “His brothers went to shepherd their father’s sheep in Shekhem” (37:12). Rashi, citing the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 84:13), observes that according to tradition, two dots appear on top of the word “et” in this verse in the Torah scroll. This unusual feature, the Midrash explains, serves as an allusion to an additional element that is not explicated in the text. Specifically, whereas the text informs us that the brothers went to tend to their father’s flocks, the dots allude to the fact that, in the Midrash’s words, they went “to tend to themselves.”
Different approaches have been taken to explain this enigmatic Midrashic passage. Some, including the Taz (Divrei David Turei Zahav) and Rav Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apta (Oheiv Yisrael), explained that the Midrash seeks to draw our attention to the fact that this journey to Shekhem resulted in the brothers’ having a means of sustenance years later. Yaakov sent Yosef to observe his brothers in Shekhem, and when he arrived they threw him into a pit from which he was later lifted and brought to Egypt as a slave. He ended up rising to the position of vizier in Egypt after foreseeing the famine years, in preparation for which he oversaw the storage of gain, making Egypt the only country in the region with food when the famine struck. This resulted in the brothers and their families moving to Egypt so Yosef could support them, as they had no food in Canaan. Thus, this journey to tend to Yaakov’s flocks in Shekhem had the effect of ensuring that the brothers themselves were adequately tended to when a harsh famine struck the region. According to this interpretation, the Midrash seeks to demonstrate the mysterious hand of Providence, how God orchestrated the events such that a simple “business trip” had profound long-term consequences.
A different explanation is suggested by Rav Shlomo of Radomsk, in his Tiferet Shelomo. He writes that the Torah here alludes to the point of conflict between Yosef and brothers – namely, the issue of leadership and authority. Yosef received preferential treatment from Yaakov, reported to Yaakov about the brothers’ perceived misconduct, and dreamt dreams of authority over his brothers – all signaling his aspirations of superiority and leadership. The brothers outright rejected not only Yosef’s qualifications for leadership, but also the very assumption that such a position was necessary. They felt self-assured and confident with themselves, insistent that they did not need anybody – certainly not Yosef – telling them what to do. And thus when they traveled to Shekhem, away from Yosef, to tend to the family’s herds, their intention was not only to look after the animals, but also “to tend to themselves” – to distance and free themselves from Yosef and his dreams of authority. They left to Shekhem seeking independence and looking to spare themselves Yosef’s criticism. They wanted to assert their own path and direction, and to establish their freedom to make their own decisions and chart their own course without anybody instructing them how to live.
If so, then this comment of the Midrash highlights an aspect of the Yosef story which we might have otherwise overlooked – the brothers’ desire to assert their independence and their rejection of the need for any leadership, guidance and criticism. Their mistake culminated in their violent treatment of their brother, but it began with this desire to “tend to themselves,” to stubbornly resist criticism, advice, guidance and leadership. It was this exaggerated self-assurance which precipitated the feelings of resentment which eventually grew to feelings of outright hatred, and then to plans of fratricide.
This insight of the Rebbe of Radomsk teaches us the need for humility in the face of criticism and unsolicited advice. Too often, we dismiss criticism and advice without any rational consideration, out of our stubborn sense of self-assurance and our natural desire for independence and to feel independently competent and capable. The Tiferet Shelomo reminds us that although not all criticism directed towards us is legitimate, and many times it is off-base and inappropriate, we must be open to listen to other people’s observations and suggestions, rather than instinctively assume that we are always correct.