Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Yeshev 5770/ December 12, 2009/ Shabbat Hanukah

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,


“I Seek My Brothers”

Prof. Shaul Regev

Multidisciplinary Program in Jewish Studies


A question that perplexes any reader upon hearing the beginning of the Joseph story can be phrased as follows: Why on earth would Jacob send Joseph to see how his brothers are faring with the flocks?  After the Torah tells us about the unsympathetic relations and hatred of the brothers towards Joseph on account of his dreams, and the fact that “they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him,” it goes on to inform us that they were jealous of Joseph as well. The attitude of the brothers was well known by Jacob, the head of the family, and by Joseph, the object of this hatred.   Could he not have sent a servant in his stead?   What importance attached to this visit, the likes of which we have not previously encountered?  


One must ask, of course, whether Joseph, in agreeing to go see how his brothers were faring, was not trying to provoke them.  After all, he too knew that his brothers hated him and could not speak civilly to him and this must have seemed to them to be a partial realization of his dreams.   Joseph does not shepherd the flocks along with his brothers; rather, he enjoys a certain authoritative status, like that of overseer coming to check how the workers are faring with the property, i.e. the flocks.  Incidentally, throughout the entire story we never hear a word about Benjamin even though he, not Joseph, was truly the child of Jacob’s old age.  Was Benjamin too young to be considered?  Or perhaps he went with the brothers to tend the flocks – something which would have made the brothers’ hatred of Joseph all the more bitter, seeing that Joseph’s younger brother went out to work while Joseph himself did not?

Commentators express surprise at Jacob for sending Joseph, and also at Joseph for agreeing to go.  Therefore they look for fine points in the text to justify his being sent on this mission: they feel that Jacob and Joseph knew what the plain text does not say, namely that Joseph's trip might set right the relations between Joseph and his brothers.  Thus, for example, Ovadiah Sforno explains the mission:  Go and see – see with your intelligence and set aright all that is wrong, if necessary; since in truth he could have made do with one of his servants” (commentary on Gen. 37:14).

According to Rashbam and Sforno, Joseph had high regard for the commandment of honoring one’s parents and therefore he continued to seek his brothers even though he did not find them in the place to which his father had sent him, Shechem. In the opinion of these two exegetes, Joseph could have returned to his father and said he had not found them in Nablus ( Shechem), since they had moved on to pasture the sheep elsewhere. In this manner, he would have fulfilled the letter of his father’s request. 

The Brothers in Danger

Rashbam adds in the name of R. Joseph Qara that the object of the mission was precisely to see how the brothers were faring in Shechem, since that was where Jacob’s sons had massacred the residents in the wake of the Dinah affair.  Jacob feared for his sons’ well-being, since they had gone back to the place of danger from whence he had fled.  Once Joseph had heard that his brothers had moved on from Shechem and had taken the sheep to pasture elsewhere, his mission was completed and he could have returned to his father.  However, he took his father’s command further and continued to seek his brothers until he finally found them elsewhere.  As far as these two exegetes are concerned, no especial significance attaches to these two places, rather the entire story serves to teach us about Joseph’s righteousness in carrying out his father’s command.

Rosh (R. Asher ben Yehiel, a Tosafist) is more explicit, suggesting that Jacob knew the mission might end tragically, yet was more concerned lest the brothers be oblivious to the dangers lurking in Shechem. In Rosh’s opinion the danger threatening the brothers in Shechem was more concrete and certain than the risk of harm to Joseph.  Therefore Jacob took the risk of sending Joseph off to his brothers, so that by his very act of coming to them, they would be roused to examine their situation and leave that place of pasture for a more secure place:

It is most perplexing how a wise man such as our patriarch Jacob could have sent his most beloved son out to his brothers whom he knew hated him to the point of death.  One must say that Jacob did not send him for nought, but that he said to himself, his brothers are pasturing the flocks in Shechem and that is a place destined for trouble.   It cannot be long before they meet with adversity.  Who shall I send?   Who can go for us, whom they would believe and flee from that bad place, if not my favorite son?   In spite of the doubt, I shall send him, for they will certainly meet adversity if they remain there one hour, and that which is certain overrules that which is subject to doubt.   (Hadar Zekenim, Jerusalem 1986, p. 89).

A Divine Decree

Another group of commentators explain the story as a divine plan to realize the promise made in the Covenant of the Pieces.  Thus, for example, Maimonides’ son Rabbi Abraham explains that in his opinion the Holy One, blessed be He, blocked Jacob’s premonitions and hid from him the results of the action in order to begin the process of the descent to Egypt.

[Jacob] was not cognizant of this divine secret… and he threw caution to the wind in letting Joseph go off by himself to his brothers, whose hearts were filled with hatred.  This happened in order to carry out His will that they, Jacob and his sons, descend to Egypt.  

(Commentary on the Torah by R. Abraham b. Maimonides, London 1958, p. 138)

Nahmanides takes the same approach in his commentary, namely, that the object of the story is to show how the divine decree came to pass.  Joseph’s determination to visit his brothers, as his father bade him, in the end worked to his detriment.  However Joseph’s personality, according to Nahmanides, was such that he was unable not to fulfill his father’s command despite all the warning signs.   He was not one to be lazy and try to get out of fulfilling the mission, even though he no longer had any obligation.

He received many indications that he ought to return, but he endured everything in order to respect his father. Further this incident is to inform us, that that which has been decreed [by G-d] is truth, and no amount of effort can avoid it, for unbeknownst to Joseph the Holy One, blessed be He, had provided a person ("the man", 37:15) to show him the way and bring him to them.   This is what our Sages (Gen. Rabbah 84.14) had in mind when they said that these persons were G-d’s messengers and that the entire story was not for naught, but to let us know that the Lord’s design will come to pass. (Nahmanides, Gen. 37:15)

Rabbi Isaac Karo explains Nahmanides’ remarks about how the divine decree directs the course of events by pointing out that the narrative is not natural.  In his opinion, since Joseph was the one wandering along the way, he should have been the one asking "Where are my brothers?" and not the one who was asked.  In the story, the man (who according to legend was an angel) asks him whom he seeks and thus essentially directs him towards the solution, fulfilling G-d's decree and bringing him into the hands of his brothers.   (Toledot Yitzhak)

Seeking Brotherhood

Rabbi Isaac ibn Arroyo, in his book of sermons “Tanhumot El,” explains Joseph’s motives in going to meet his brothers.  Joseph went to achieve reconciliation with them.   He derives this notion from Joseph’s answer to the man, “I am looking for my brothers.”  Arroyo holds this answer to have been not essential, since from the point of view of the asker trying to help Joseph, wandering in the fields, it was altogether immaterial what relations pertained between him and those for whom he was looking.  Further, Joseph should have given a more precise description of whom he sought, for the fact that they were his brothers is not written on their faces and does not provide a way of identifying them.  Even if, following the Sages’ legend, we know that the man was an angel, and in Arroyo’s opinion the man was revealed to Joseph as an angel and even sent ahead a warning to the brothers that they not harm Joseph, still the description of Joseph’s brothers as a group of shepherds does not add anything.  Therefore, Arroyo says, Joseph said "I seek my brothers" in the sense of "I seek their brotherhood." Joseph sought to make peace with his brothers.

The angel asked Joseph what he was seeking.   He answered him, his brothers, since the angel had asked him what he was seeking in order that his brothers might know that he was beloved of Heaven, and that if they mistreat him, then the Holy One, blessed be He, would exact from them the price of having insulted him.  This we know from the word l’emor, which means that he was to tell his brothers that an angel had asked him, “What are you looking for?”   He responded, “I am looking for my brothers,” meaning that I seek brotherhood and unity.  For he was going to them in order to allay their fury and to appease them. (Tanhumot El)

"They've Moved On"

The man/angel’s answer to Joseph was, “They have gone from here.”  That is, he intimated to him that the brothers were far from any sense of brotherhood and unity, as far as Shechem from Dothan.   This idea is developed by two contemporaneous exegetes from Safed, Rabbi Mordechai ha-Cohen and Rabbi Tuviah ha-Levi, who apparently had heard this from their teacher.  In their opinion, Shechem symbolized brotherhood and unity, presumably because the brothers had acted there in concert. When Jacob saw that the brothers had gone to Shechem he understood that this intimated their desire for unity, and therefore he sent Joseph to see how they were faring, thus hoping to bring about reconciliation between them.   Joseph, too, went with intentions of making peace with his brothers and acknowledging the fact that they are older and more mature than he and therefore that he owes them respect.   However, when he arrived there his brothers were no longer in that place, but had moved on to Dothan, an allusion to another viewpoint (Heb. dat), antithetical to brotherhood and unity.

He answered, “I am looking for my brothers” – he mentioned brotherhood, something he had not experienced with them.   The man said, “They have gone from here” – the brotherhood you refer to they have left, just as they left this place, for it would remind them that they should accept the yoke of the Almighty; they traveled on and are now conspiring … So Joseph followed his brothers and found them at Dothan – Dothan, because they had a new cause [ dat, meaning religion] of their own.   (R. Mordechai ha-Cohen, Siftei Cohen; also cf. Hen Tov by R. Tuviah ha-Levi)

We conclude with the interpretation in the Zohar, essentially summing up the story from the various angles taken by the exegetes presented above.   The Zohar stresses several main points, namely:  1) that all that took place happened by way of divine providence in order to fulfill the Covenant of the Pieces in the best and most convenient way for the children of Israel; 2) the integrity of the brothers; 3) Joseph is not presented as perfect, but rather as errant.

A man came upon him – What does it say above?   Israel said to Joseph, ‘Your brothers are pasturing at Shechem.   Come, I will send you to them.’”   Why did the perfect Jacob, who loved Joseph most of all his sons and knew that all his brothers hated him, send him to them?  Rather, he did not suspect them, knowing that they were all righteous, and so he did not suspect them.   The Holy One, blessed be He, caused this all to happen in order to fulfill the decree He had made in the Covenant of the Pieces.  I found in the works of early Rabbis that Jacob’s sons had to reign over Joseph before going down to Egypt, for had he gone down to Egypt without their first ruling over him, the Egyptians might have reigned over the Israelites forever, and they would not have been able to leave.   Therefore, it was wrought that Joseph be sold into slavery by his brothers and that they rule over him; and even though Joseph subsequently became regent and the Egyptians, his slaves, it turns out that Israel ruled over them all.

Ponder the words, a man came upon him – this was Gabriel … now, he was wandering – in all respects he was lost.   For he trusted his brothers and sought brotherhood from them, but he did not find it.  He also was looking for them themselves, and did not find them; hence, in all he was lost.  Therefore the man asked him, “What are you looking for?”  ( Zohar, Genesis, p. 184a)