Skip to main content

Yosef and His Brothers

Rav Michael Hattin




Parashat Vayeshev introduces us to the storied individual known as Yosef.  The apple of his father Yaakov's eye, the precious and long-awaited offspring of beloved Rachel his mother, the exclusive object of his brothers' venomous hate, few Biblical characters can match Yosef – his travails and triumphs – for sheer dramatic effect.  At the same time, the Torah is more than a storybook, and the narratives that it records are complex and profound examinations of humanity's most pressing struggles and failures, as well as its noblest aspirations for the good and the Godly.  This week, we shall consider the story of Yosef and his brothers and attempt to fathom Yosef's central role in the convoluted series of events that eventually and inevitably find their resolution in parashat Vayigash, eight chapters hence.





Our story begins innocently enough as Yosef, a mere youth of seventeen years old, is presented as Yaakov's favorite.  He soon enough uses his status to good effect in order to report in unflattering terms on the doings of his half brothers, the children of Bilha and Zilpa, Yaakov's other wives.  Yaakov in the meantime has given his son a fine 'coat of many colors,' unknowingly exacerbating the already strained relations between Yosef and his brothers.  Yosef, truth be told, needs no help in arousing his brothers' ire, for he is a dreamer who repeatedly sees visions of success for himself and servitude for his siblings.  How he delights in sharing his nighttime reveries with them, taunting them with his predictions of achievement!  In short, Yosef is introduced to us as an immature and egocentric youth, but one with initiative, ambition and potential. 


In hindsight, however, it is clear that the remainder of his story is not about his self-fulfilling prophecies, but rather about his coming of age.  In the end, Yosef will be even more accomplished than he imagined in his wildest dreams, but his true greatness will derive from something else entirely.  By the conclusion of his saga, it will be obvious to all that Yosef's place in posterity is secured not by his donning of the robes of Viceroy of Egypt, but rather by his slow but steady evolution, sometimes plagued by setback but invariably forward-looking, from self-made man to man of God.  Yosef who initially dreams in petty and self-serving colors, will eventually become Yosef the visionary, who will utilize his God-given talents to secure sustenance and life for his brothers, his family, and his adopted people as well.





What of Yosef's brothers?  On the one hand, their significance in the story seems to be a function of narrative necessity and nothing more.  They are required to drive the story forward, to catapult Yosef to places and situations that will be formative and transformative for him.  On the other hand, their role is so central to the unfolding of the tale that we must begin to ponder if in fact there is not a similar 'coming of age' motif associated with their lives?  Are we able to chart the trajectory of their spiritual development in order to reassuringly conclude that they too are different people by the time the story exhausts itself with Yosef's cathartic revelation?  If so, by what mechanism is that process initiated and what is the engine that drives it inexorably forward?  And, most importantly for us the readers and students, can we too harness any of this enormous groundswell of emotional and spiritual energy released by the protagonists during the course of the upcoming parashiyot, in order to change our lives as well?


The chronology of the events is clear enough.  Yosef enters the center stage at the age of seventeen (Bereishit 37:2), is promptly trounced by his jealous brothers and sold into Egyptian servitude, and experiences a series of exhilarating triumphs as well as crushing disappointments by the time he stands before the Pharaoh himself, to interpret the god king's unsettling dreams at the tender age of thirty years (Bereishit 41:46).  A further seven years of plenty (Bereishit 41:53) and two years of famine (Bereishit 45:6) will elapse before he unexpectedly meets up again with his unsuspecting kin.  Thus, there are a total of twenty-two years that separate the first narrative from the last, amply filled with more than two decades of Yosef's emotional growth and spiritual maturation. 


In past years, we have exhaustively delineated the various stages of Yosef's transformation from dreamer to interpreter of dreams, from selfish insensitive youth to thoughtful God-aware man, and have identified the catalysts that trigger those quantum leaps in his development. This time, we will shift our focus to his brothers and to their conduct, attempting to separate their seemingly cohesive cabal into its constituent parts.  We will examine the specific contributions of specific brothers to the saga and try to trace each one's progress or lack thereof towards self-realization and actualization.  It will soon become apparent that although some brothers play prominent parts, others have supporting roles and most provide only a cameo appearance, there is an underlying motif that links all of them as one, militating against our exegetical efforts to unlink them.  The brothers, it seems, must remain together.





Let us begin by briefly outlining the prominent events of the saga, insofar as they relate to the conduct of the brothers.  As stated, the tale begins with Yosef the shepherd basking in the glow of his father's adoration as well as his own self-worship, all of which quickly contributes to fraternal rage.  Although Yosef seems to have a special affinity for the children of Bilha and Zilpa, he utilizes that relationship to detrimental effect, informing on their seeming misdeeds to their father.  In the initial stages, though, Yosef's siblings are always described as 'his brothers' without further elaboration, indicating that they have formed a united front against his scarcely veiled attempts to dominate and to rule over them.


Finally, the fateful day dawns when Yaakov sends beloved Yosef to check on the well being of the brothers and their flocks, who have traveled northwards from the homestead in search of greener pastures.  Yosef dutifully goes, eventually meeting up with his brothers in Dotan. 


"They saw him from afar and before he had approached, they devised plans of killing him.  They said, each to his brother, 'behold, this master of dreams is coming.  Now, let us kill him, throw his body into a pit and claim that a wild animal consumed him.  Then we shall see what shall become of his dreams!'" (Bereishit 37:18-20). 


Here, the Torah indicates that the 'brothers' hatch a murderous scheme, but mercifully fails to mention the instigators by name.  Let us nevertheless bear in mind that one or a few of them must have been the guilty party.


Enter Reuven, Yaakov's firstborn, into the fray.  Dissuading his brothers from committing an act of premeditated murder in the first degree, he instead suggests that Yosef be summarily cast into a pit to passively perish of hunger and thirst.  The Torah indicates however, that his true intention was "to save him (Yosef) from their hands in order to return him to his father" (37:22).  Immediately, the other brothers heed Reuven's advice, first stripping Yosef of his coveted coat, and then throwing him into a dry well.  They then calmly sit and break bread, callously impervious to Yosef's frightened and vocal pleas to be released.  Suddenly, a camel caravan of Ishmaelites appears on the horizon, traveling spice merchants on their way down to Egypt to peddle their wares.  Yehuda suggests to his brothers that they sell Yosef to the Ishmaelites, and thus rid themselves of his overbearing and meddlesome presence without resorting to even indirect bloodshed.  Yosef is drawn out of the pit and sold for "twenty pieces of silver" (Bereishit 37:28), and so begins his incredible journey.  Reuven, who in the meantime has made himself inexplicably absent, returns to the pit to release Yosef, but to his horror discovers that he is too late.  He dejectedly returns to his brothers, foreseeing all too well his father Yaakov's aggrieved reaction. 


Thus far, the role of two brothers, Reuven and Yehuda, is spelled out explicitly, while allusion is made to the role of some of the others.  Reuven's attempt saves Yosef from immediate death but he cannot prevent his exile, while Yehuda succeeds in preserving Yosef from fatal exposure but also is the direct cause of his sale into Egyptian bondage.  Let us note that the account of the brothers' dastardly deed concludes with their almost ritual dipping of Yosef's precious torn coat, the symbol of everything about their brother that they find repugnant, into goat's blood.  The grisly shredded trophy is then deviously presented to their aging father as proof of Yosef's tragic and untimely demise at the hands of "evil beasts!"  Yaakov enters a prolonged and pronounced period of mourning over his lost son, and his dutiful sons arise to comfort him, all the while aware of the terrifying likelihood that Yosef is not really dead and therefore Yaakov's intense grief is unnecessary.





At this point, the Torah introduces an abrupt digression with the narrative of Yehuda, his 'Canaanite' wife, and their three sons.  Er, his firstborn, marries a woman by the name of Tamar, but God strikes him down because he "is wicked in His sight" (Bereishit 38:6).  Onan, the second son, takes Tamar in levirate marriage, but is also struck down when he refuses to father offspring in memory of his dead brother.  Tamar, now widowed of two husbands, patiently waits to be united with the third son Shela, but Yehuda is in no rush to formally sanction the marriage.  Tamar is sent back to her father's house to wait interminably, and after many years, Yehuda's own wife dies.  After recovering from her death, he decides to travel to Timna in order to attend the shearing of his sheep flocks. 


Tamar, disheartened of ever marrying Shela, hears of Yehuda's plans, removes her mourning attire and dons instead the disguise of a veiled prostitute.  Planting herself squarely in his path, an inevitable tryst occurs, but Yehuda is of course unaware of her identity.  Yehuda readily concurs to her request of a kid from his flocks as payment, but Tamar is careful to demand collateral: his signet, ceremonial tassel and staff.  Yehuda surrenders the articles but when he attempts to furtively send payment with his friend, she is no longer to be found.  Quickly, Tamar returns home to again don the distinctive widow's clothing.  About three months later her pregnant state can no longer be concealed, and she is accused of adultery.  Yehuda her father-in-law pronounces the sentence: death by fire.  As she is being led forth, she sends a message to him: "I am pregnant by the owner of these articles!"  Readily admitting his guilt, Yehuda exclaims "she is more righteous than I, for I withheld her from my son Shela."  Subsequently, Tamar gives birth to twins, Peretz and Zerach.





Although we could easily devote a lesson to the above incident, so strange is it in content and so obscure in meaning, for our purposes let us attempt to sketch its broadest outlines.  The core of the story concerns a case of misplaced justice: Yehuda who champions righteousness is found culpable on all counts, while Tamar who appears guilty is acquitted of any wrongdoing.  What appears to be and what is are often two different things entirely.  Additional points of contact between this passage and what precedes are the themes of children's death, and concomitant intense bereavement. 


We should note that with this episode, the direct involvement of Yosef's brothers in the saga terminates, until their reappearance some twenty years later when famine strikes Canaan and its environs.  From this point onwards, the Torah will shift its focus to the story of Yosef: his meteoric rise to fame, ignominious fall and unjust imprisonment at the hands of Potiphar his master, and eventual release at Pharaoh's behest and return to prominence and preeminence.


Next time, two weeks hence (parashat Vayigash), we will pick up the thread of the tale as Yosef and his brothers meet up once more.  We will carefully follow Yosef's treatment of them while again searching for specific involvement on the part of one or more of them in the ensuing drama.  We will link the new events with what we already know, in the hopes of constructing an inclusive and meaningful matrix.  In such a way, we will attempt to explain Yosef's cruel behavior and insensitive ploys by considering the narrative from the point of view of the brothers, as we continue to search for intimations of their own emotional and spiritual development.




Shabbat Shalom  


This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!