The Brothers’ Choice

Brian Cahn – 5768

In Parhsat Vayeishev, a simple question arises; who sold Yosef? This seemingly easy question alters our understanding of the story in its entirety. Before discussing the answer, it is imperative to attempt to explain the relationship/ conflict that ensued between Yosef and his brothers. 

The conflict surfaces very early in the story due to Yaakov’s preferential treatment of Yosef over his other sons. It is evident from the text that Yaakov provided Yosef with greater love and affinity than his brothers: “Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons since he was a child of his old age, and he made him a fine woolen tunic.” (Bereshit 37:3). This conflict is further exacerbated when the brothers arrive at the painful realization that indeed the favoritism does exist, and subsequently develop vehement envy and rage: “His brothers saw that it was he (Yosef) whom their father loved the most of all his brothers so they hated him; and they could not speak to him peaceably.” (Bereshit 37:4). Joseph reinforced these feelings by naively disclosing to his brothers very descriptive dreams that foretold that he would one day rule over them and that even his mother and father would prostrate themselves before him. These dreams intensifed the already aggravated feelings of envy and rage: “His brothers said to him, ‘would you reign over us? Would you dominate us?’ and they hated him even more- because of his dreams and because of his words” (Bereshit 37:8).

Following these events, Yaakov sends Yosef to check up on his brothers who are herding his (Yaakov’s) flock. As soon as Yosef arrives in Dotan, the brothers immediately conspire to kill him: “They saw him from afar; and when he had not yet approached them they conspired against him to kill him” (Bereshit 37:18). Many suggest that the brothers believed they were justified to heinously murder their brother because they assumed that Joseph was trying to usurp the nation that Hashem had promised to make of their forefathers. In addition, it seems as if it also stems from the inability to cope with the emotions brought about by the favoritism Yaakov displayed towards Yosef. This point will further be expounded upon as the different methods of how to dispose of Yosef are discussed.

The first method suggested by the brothers is to kill Yosef immediately and then cover up any evidence by burying him in the pit: “So now, come and let us kill him, and throw him into one of the pits; and we will say, ‘a wild beast devoured him.’ Then we shall see what will become of his dreams” (Bereshit 37:20). Understanding that he would not be able to quell the intense resolve of his brothers to eliminate Yosef, Reuven suggests an alternative route in the disposition of Yosef with the intention of later saving him: “’Shed no blood! Throw him into this pit in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him!’ –intending to rescue him from their hand, to return him to his father” (Bereshit 37:22). The brothers accede to this alternative suggestion and cast Yosef into the pit.

What proceeds in the subsequent pesukim is essential to understand our original question, and thereby, is crucial to the story in its entirety: “They sat to eat food; they raised their eyes and they saw, behold! – a caravan of Ishmaelites was coming from Gilead, their camels bearing spices, balsam, and lotus- on their way to bring them down to Egypt” (Bereshit 37:25). The question that now arises is where the brothers sit down to eat. It seems conceivable to assume that the brothers returned to eat at their campsite in Dotan, because the pesukim specify that they threw him into a pit in the “wilderness;” therefore, in order to eat they would have to return to Dotan. Furthermore, it seems rather implausible to presume that the brothers ate a meal while listening to their brother scream.

After seeing Ishmaelite traders, Yehuda suggests the third alternative to ridding themselves of Joseph: “Judah said to his brothers, ‘what gain will there be if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites- but let our hand not be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh’ His brothers agreed” (Bereshit 26-27). This is in opposition to Reuven’s intended plan of saving Yosef, and as a result he must go back to the pit to release Yosef. Rabbi Menachem Leibtag suggests the geographic differences between the hilly area of Dotan, and the ancient trade route to Egypt, Via Maris. Dotan is situated 660 ft above Via Maris, and 6 miles south of it, which explains why the pasuk emphasizes, “…they raised their eyes” (Bereshit 37:25).

The pasuk after the subsequent agreement to sell Yosef sheds true light on who really sold him: “Midianite men, traders, passed by; they drew Joseph up and lifted him out of the pit and sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver; then they brought Joseph to Egypt” (Bereshit 37:28). From this pasuk, with the previous knowledge of the geographic situation of Dotan, it seems obvious the Midianites were indeed the ones who sold Yosef. If not, who are these Midianites? Following these events, Reuven returns to the pit with the hopes of freeing Yosef. Seeing that he is not there, Reuven runs to tell his brothers of Yosef’s absence: “Reuben returned to the pit- and behold! – Joseph was not in the pit! So he rent his garments. Returning to his brothers he said, ‘The boy is gone! And I- where can I go?’” (Bereshit 37:29-30). Had the brothers been at the pit to sell Yosef, why would Reuven have to return to the pit, and then return to his brothers? Although from Yosef’s standpoint it would seem like his brothers were the ones who arranged the selling, it seems from the p’shat of the pesukim that Yosef was sold by the Midianites.

These aforementioned events shed light on the seeming contradiction between the respective, axiomatic ideas of Hashem’s omniscience and free will, “Everything is foreseen; yet free will is given” (Pirkei Avot 3:15). In the story, the brothers seemed to rationalize all of their extreme emotions of envy and rage to go about and kill Yosef. However, if they truly felt justified, does it not seem illogical that they settled for selling him? Yehuda’s reason for deciding to sell Yosef, “…for he is our brother, our own flesh” (Bereshit 37:27) clarifies this point. Originally, they were intent on murdering Yosef and concealing their crime by claiming a wild beast had killed him. Nevertheless, once Reuven argued that they could not actively kill him, they acquiesced. Furthermore, their rage was additionally diminished when Yehuda suggested that they sell him rather than indirectly causing his death. By the mere fact that the brothers lessen the severity of their respective plots, the brothers appear as if they believed it may be wrong to dispose of Yosef. Had Yosef not been sold by the Midianites, it would seem logical that the next step to the realization of this truth would have happened on the 6 mile trip down to Via Maris to sell Yosef, in which they would have potentially agreed not to sell him. In Parshat Vayigash it is evident that it was all part of Hashem’s Divine Plan for Joseph to end up in Egypt, however the brothers went through the choice whether or not to be the agent in this matter. Nevertheless, since it is part of Hashem’s Ultimate Will for Yosef to be in Egypt, and the brothers exercised their free will not to be the mediators, God placed the same choice in front of the Midianites, who chose conversely.

Most people assume that Yosef was sold by his brothers, though the p’shat of the pesukim implies otherwise. These ideas, on some level, resolve the paradox between predestination, foreknowledge, and free will. Although we have been endowed with free will, i.e. choice, we are all part of a Divine Plan which ultimately governs all.



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