Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Vayeshev 5776
It all happened so quickly: Yosef, the maligned and hated brother, approached. The brothers’ enmity rapidly metastasized, and they began to talk about murder. For his part, Yosef felt love and kinship toward his brothers – all his brothers - but his love was repaid with jealousy and hatred. How had it come to this?
Years earlier, their father Yaakov had fallen in love with one woman. He worked for years to earn her hand in marriage, and endured all sorts of abuse for the love of his life: Although Rachel was all he had ever wanted, somehow Yaakov ended up with four wives, twelve sons and one daughter. There had always been jealousy and competition among the women who had come into Yaakov’s life, and the jealousy and competition carried on to their children, though the field was never an even one: It comes as no surprise that Yosef, the son of Yaakov’s beloved wife Rachel, was the favored one, the golden child. And yet, there is something unusual about the verse that describes this favoritism: The Torah tells us that “Yisrael loved Yosef” more than all his other children, rather than “Yaakov loved Yosef.” In general, the name Yisrael signifies the more public, tribal or national aspects of our patriarch’s life, whereas Yaakov, the name with which he was born and raised, reflects the more personal aspects of his life as a brother and a son, a husband and a father. In using the name Yisrael to describe the unique relationship with Yosef, the Torah gives us insight into the reasons for his preferential treatment: Yisrael loved Yosef because he saw his leadership potential. He knew that Yosef would excel as a leader of the nascent nation.
With this in mind, Yosef’s behavior may take on a different complexion: From a young age, Yosef used his favored status to chastise his brothers and to report on their behavior to their father. Specifically, it was the sons of Leah who were subjected to Yosef’s critical eye; their mistreatment of the sons of the “concubines” was something Yosef could not accept. To Yosef’s mind, all of Yaakov’s sons were equal; all his brothers deserved love and respect.
Yosef had been his mother’s only child for many years. When his brother Binyamin was finally born, the age difference between them must surely have made closeness difficult. Yosef must have craved the affection and camaraderie of his paternal brothers – and therein lay the rub: Some of his brothers, the sons of Leah, considered their own status to be higher than that of the sons of the “maidservants” Bilhah and Zilpah, and lorded it over them, throwing the weight of their greater numbers around: Leah had six sons, whereas each of the other wives had only two. This Yosef could not abide; he saw no justification for this caste system among brothers, and he took his complaints to his father.
The sons of Leah jostled for position, attempting to establish themselves as the most important faction, and as the most important sons. Only one person stood in their way: Yosef, the favored son. Yosef’s first “sin” was that he was the son of Yaakov’s favored wife. Adding insult to injury, Yaakov made no secret of the fact that he considered Yosef different than all the others; notwithstanding our distinction between the various aspects expressed by the use of his different names, the other brothers simply felt rejected and unloved in comparison. And then, Yosef rubbed salt in their wounds: He sided with the sons of Yaakov’s “concubines,” protecting the weak and outnumbered brothers from the taunts and abuse meted out by the sons of Leah, who were desperate to prove their superiority. In Yosef’s earliest display of leadership, he may have overlooked the fact that his largesse toward some of his brothers came at the expense of others: The sons of Leah may have been on a lower rung than the sons of Rachel, but they were adamant that the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah must occupy an even lower rung than they. Yosef, though, would not have it.
The atmosphere in Yaakov’s home was bristling with internecine rivalry and fraught with constant jockeying for position, power, status – and the love of their father. When the brothers set out with the flocks, Yosef was not among them; his job was somehow connected, but somehow disconnected, from the others’. Yaakov then sends Yosef out to find and check up on the brothers and report back to him. And so, the brothers see Yosef in the distance, his bright coat of many colors looking more and more like a target painted on his back. The sons of Leah – presumably led by Shimon and Levi, who had recently “solved” a different family problem in the very same geographic area through bloodshed - articulate a plan: “Let’s kill Yosef.”
How did the other sons react? Their silence is deafening, but perhaps understandable. First and foremost, we cannot help but imagine their shock. Yosef had been their protector, their leader, their brother in every sense of the word. Could they have considered standing up to the sons of Leah? They had never been able to do so before; certainly now, when the brothers had a murderous gleam in their eyes, this was no time to develop a backbone. Could they have refused to cooperate? Perhaps they did a cynical, Machiavellian cost-benefit analysis of the situation: If they acquiesce, if they join forces with the sons of Leah, they might lose their brother Yosef – but they would gain six brothers in his place, and they would no longer need a protector. The days of being tormented, second-class members of the family would be over. In the “moment of truth,” they say nothing, and, in their silence, they silently acquiesce to the murderous plan.
Then, an unexpected voice speaks up: Reuven, Leah’s oldest son, the eldest of all the brothers, weighs in against murder, and instead advises his brothers to throw Yosef into a pit. A plan crystalizes in his mind: First, calm the rabble; then, save the would-be victim. Reuven knows a thing or two about impetuous behavior; he himself had recently been guilty of shooting from the hip and acting on impulse. In what may have been the opening salvo in the battle for position within the family, Reuven climbed into bed with Bilhah in order to make a statement regarding status: The concubines were no more than chattel; they were not “real” wives, as was his mother Leah. As Yaakov’s property, the concubines would be inherited by his successor – in this case, he himself, as firstborn son. Reuven hoped to dispel any uncertainty regarding the proper order of things now that Rachel had passed, but his behavior, born of jealousy, fear of rejection and a lust for power, had been disastrous. Reuven had learned the hard way that a rash decision taken in the heat of the moment could wreak havoc not only on himself but also on the entire family dynamic. And so, he suggested that his brothers learn from his mistake: Rather than making a snap decision to murder, he advocates a slower, more deliberate course of action.
Reuven may have had an additional reason for stepping in as he did: When Yosef told them about his dreams, the entire family figured into the narrative. Reuven was as much a part of it as all the other brothers – despite the fact that his recent behavior might easily have led to his banishment. When Yosef recounted the sheaves and the stars prostrating themselves before him, Reuven heard a personal message of inclusion that was far from obvious. Yosef related to all of the brothers in the same way – despite the heinous crime Reuven had recently committed, despite the fact that Shimon and Levi, Reuven’s own brothers, no longer deferred to his authority as firstborn. When all the brothers heard Yosef’s dreams, they came away with a very different message than did Reuven: They heard Yosef laying claim to leadership, but Reuven heard, before anything else, a personal message of redemption. Despite the sins they had committed – Reuven, Shimon and Levi were still, in Yosef’s worldview, part of the family. Perhaps saving Yosef was Reuven’s way of expressing gratitude for Yosef’s inclusive approach. On the other hand, Reuven was desperate to regain his footing, and to work his way back into his father’s good graces; perhaps Reuven hoped that saving Yosef would be his way back into their father’s heart.
Unfortunately for them both, before Reuven could implement his plan, Yosef was snatched from the pit and sold off to Egypt; the brothers all assumed that he would never be seen or heard from again. The family that returns home to their father is broken, and as we recreate this scene in the weekly Torah reading each year, we wonder - year after year, generation after generation: When will our family finally become whole?
For a more in-depth analysis see:
Echoes of Eden
Unlike Avraham and Sarah, whose earlier names were never used again after God bestowed their new names upon them, Yisrael and Yaakov are both used at various junctures for the rest of his life. For this and other reasons, it is understood that each name reflects a distinct and co-existent aspect of his identity.