Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Shabbat Hanukkah, Parashat Vayeshev 5764/ December 20, 2003

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,

Shabbat Hanukkah, Parashat Vayeshev 5764/ December 20, 2003

Jacob and Sons

Prof. Nathan Aviezer
Department of Physics

The greatest drama in this week's reading is undoubtedly the scheme plotted by Joseph's brothers to kill him. Murder is not a theme foreign to the book of Genesis; Cain killed Abel, and Esau had it in mind to kill Jacob. However Cain did not belong to the family of patriarchs, and Esau has been dubbed "wicked" by our tradition; but this parashah concerns the tribes, the sons of our patriarch Jacob, the progenitors of the Jewish people. How could it have come to pass that these eminent figures plotted and almost succeeded in carrying out the murder of their younger brother?

An answer is given in the Torah, but it is utterly incomprehensible: "They said to one another, 'Here comes that dreamer! Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits... We shall see what comes of his dreams!'" (Gen. 37:19-20). Could the fact that Joseph had a dream or two which the brothers did not like be a sufficient motive for murder? Is that a reason for killing Joseph in cold blood?

The cruelty of Jacob's sons is revealed by a close reading of Scripture. This week's reading describes the attempted murder only from the point of view of the brothers. But we must ask, how did Joseph respond when his brothers fell upon him, intent to kill him? The answer lies in Parashat Miketz, in the description of the scene where Joseph, then vizier of Egypt, meets Jacob's sons, who had come to Egypt to procure food. Recognizing his brothers, while they did not recognize him, Joseph begins to give them a hard time: "You are spies, you have come to see the land in its nakedness" (Gen. 42:9). Later he even locks them up in prison. Joseph's brothers interpret their hardships as retribution from G-d, saying: "Alas, we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us" (Gen. 42:21). According to this account, Joseph pleaded with his brothers, but their hearts remained as stone.

The Torah also indicates the cruelty of their act. Immediately after casting Joseph into the pit to die of thirst, the brothers "sat down to a meal" (Gen. 37:25). In other words, they felt no pangs of conscience, no second thoughts or hesitation. The brothers took action which would lead to the death of their younger brother and immediately thereafter sat down to feast. How is this dreadful behavior to be understood?

Family Relationships

Understanding the story of Joseph and his brothers hinges on understanding the relationships that characterized the family of our patriarch Jacob. As we know, Jacob made no secret of his special love for Joseph, and "made him an ornamented tunic" (Gen. 37:3). The Torah reveals how Jacob's preference for Joseph affected his other sons. In connection with the second trip that his son's made to Egypt, we are told that Joseph hid a silver chalice in Benjamin's sack and then sent his servant after the brothers, to accuse them of theft. The cup was indeed found in Benjamin's sack, and as punishment he had to remain in Egypt as a slave. In the wake of this catastrophe, all the brothers returned with Benjamin to Egypt, and Judah decided to embark on a desperate attempt at begging mercy from the Vizier, a cold and cruel man. On the doorstep of the vizier's house, in the most dramatic speech of the entire Torah, Judah entreated Joseph, laying before him the entire history of the family, including the special bond his father had with Joseph and Benjamin. Judah explained that Joseph had died and hence all of Jacob's love was focused on Benjamin, "his own life is so bound up with his" (Gen. 44:30). If Benjamin were not to return, tragedy would surely befall his father: "When he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die... For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father!" (Gen. 44:31-34).

Judah, son of Leah

This speech is remarkably successful. Joseph could hardly hold back his tears. Having succeeded thus far, next came the moment for Judah to present his request. We might expect Judah to say to Joseph something like the following: "Have mercy on the father, have mercy on the son; let Benjamin return home, even though he was caught with the cup in his sack." However Judah said something altogether different; he asked Joseph to take him as a slave instead of Benjamin. What sort of proposal is this? Is Judah any less Jacob's son than Benjamin? The answer is clear. In Jacob's eyes, Judah is the son of Leah, the "unloved" wife (Gen. 29:31), whereas Benjamin is the son of his beloved Rachel (Gen. 29:20). If Judah were never to return, life would go on; but if Benjamin were never to return, Jacob would die of heartbreak, plain and simple. Judah was not exaggerating in the least when he described how tragic it would be for his father, were Benjamin to remain in Egypt.

What about Simon?

Elsewhere we learn of Jacob's favoritism to his children, precisely from what the Torah omits saying. After the brothers returned home from their first trip to Egypt, where they had been told not to come back unless they brought their brother Benjamin with them, they tried to persuade Jacob to let Benjamin go to Egypt with them. Among all the arguments which they made in an effort to persuade Jacob, one argument is glaringly absent: in order to obtain Simeon's release. Simeon was rotting away in prison in Egypt and would not be released until Benjamin was brought there, yet none of the brothers mentioned this to Jacob. The rest of the family knew that it was inconceivable Jacob would risk his dearly beloved son Benjamin in order to free Simeon, and therefore it was pointless to bring the matter up.

These two events underscore the sad reality, known to all, in the house of Jacob. In this family there were two classes, two categories of sons: the sons of the beloved Rachel, and the sons of all the others.

Jacob's sons were well aware and fully understanding of this point, but they were incapable of changing the situation. It never occurred to them to complain to their father, the head of the family, the lofty personage who had a special relationship with G-d. Jacob's discrimination naturally led them to jealousy, hatred, and frustration; but prior to Joseph's reporting his dreams, these feelings had not been translated into action; after all, was it the fault of Joseph and Benjamin that Jacob favored them over the rest of the brothers? Thus, Joseph's brothers were left to suffer frustration, year after year.

Joseph's dreams opened the brothers' eyes. After all, Joseph's dreams revealed to them what was in his heart; now they knew that not only Jacob considered Joseph the favorite son, Joseph was also party to this unhealthy favoritism. Now there was an outlet for their pent-up frustration of many years. In an instant, in the wake of Joseph's dreams, the brothers' frustration turned into unbridled hatred, and the outbreak of this animosity is what led the brothers to plot to murder Joseph, finally accepting the idea of to sell him only as a compromise.