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Understanding the Story of Joseph and His Brothers, Part 2

December 22, 2014

(part 1)

This leads us to an important principle that would be stated outright many times in the Bible: famine is the first-stage punishment for our failure to heed God’s will while we are settled in our land, and Exile is the ultimate punishment therefor. Our ancestors had been warned by famines a few times prior to this, and they overcame them, but Jacob’s sons did not, and eventually ended up in exile. It would be the height of gall to accuse of our ancestors of wrongdoing, especially if the Torah mentions no fault,  but it must be that God found fault in their actions and behaviors, and our sages have alluded to this in many instances. Those closest to Him are held to very high standards.

In verse 37:11 we read about Joseph’s dream that “his father guarded the matter,” on which Rashi comments, “He was waiting and looking forward in expectation of when it (the fulfillment) would come.”

Only Abraham was chosen from among his brethren to hear God’s word and found the chosen nation, only Isaac was likewise chosen, and only Jacob was chosen. Jacob feared that something similar would happen among his own children, and was only assured that mittatho sh’leima, all of his children were worthy, shortly before his death. The oldest children of Leah had all disappointed him in some way or another, and four of his children were born to surrogate mothers, like Ishmael, but Joseph was showing more promise, and now he was even beginning to receive the first stages of prophecy despite being among the younger of his brothers. That is why Jacob was looking forward. If the dream would come true, it would only further confirm his inkling that Joseph was the chosen one. It was due to the other brothers’ learning the secret of repentance that they all merited to stay part of the chosen people.

Why does the Torah include the account of Joseph losing his way and asking someone for directions when his father sent him to check on his brothers in Shechem, a three-verse digression (37:15-17) that does not seem to add anything to the story accept to point out that the brothers changed their location?

I believe it is there to teach two contrasts: On one hand, Joseph faithfully carried out his father’s orders, seeking his brothers out even though he was alone and they had not been where they were supposed to be, while on other hand the brothers did not stay where their father had told them to be. Keep in mind that the area of Shechem was, unlike most of the territories they had acquired via purchase or settlement, conquered land, and it was crucial that they maintain a symbolic showing there. (Later, Jacob would chastise Simon and Levi for initiating the conquest, but he still considered the territory his, and he chose to bequeath it specifically to Joseph. See the original Hebrew 48:22.) The second contrast is that Joseph went looking for his brothers when they went missing, whereas they did not. Instead, upon discovering that Joseph was no longer in the pit, they tried to stage a coverup, when they should have realized that maybe the Ishmaelite caravan they saw heading south on Route 60 might have had something to do with his disappearance. They should have sent for a large contingency of servants, grabbed their swords, and split up northward, southward, east and west to search for him. After all, they started a war the last time a sibling was kidnapped.

In sum, the story is an implicit indictment against the brothers, who are then shown to both plot to kill their brother and then sell him into slavery. This is similar to the contrast illustrated between Judah, who willing solicited who he thought was a prostitute, and Joseph, who refused the constant advancements of a married woman. This is also why Joseph put his brothers to such an elaborate test: in order to give them the chance to correct the mistakes they made in the past.

How is it that Joseph had the power to prosecute his brothers, if, as we claimed, he was just a slave to Pharaoh?

In one stage of the series of promotions Pharaoh gave Joseph, the Targumim have much to add (41:44):

And Pharaoh said unto Joseph: ‘I am Pharaoh, and without thee shall no man lift up his hand or his foot in all the land of Egypt.’

The first statement, “I am Pharaoh” is the old fashioned way of introducing a royal decree, along the line of God declaring “I am the Lord” as part of with certain commandments, and the second statement is explained by the Targumim to mean “and without your command (or permission) no man shall sharpen a weapon or lift his foot to ride on a horse in all the land of Egypt.” I.e., Joseph was appointed Minister of Public Security, and controlled who could bear arms and had freedom of movement. As such, he was doing his job when he took special notice of suspicious foreigners like his brothers.

(part 3)

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From → parasha

3 Comments
  1. avraham yeshaya permalink

    you wrote:

    The second contrast is that Joseph went looking for his brothers when they went missing, whereas THEY did not. Instead, upon discovering that Joseph was no longer in the pit, THEY tried to stage a coverup, when THEY should have realized that maybe the Ishmaelite caravan they saw heading south on Route 60 might have had something to do with his disappearance. THEY should have sent for a large contingency of servants, grabbed their swords, and split up northward, southward, east and west to search for him. After all, they started a war the last time a sibling was kidnapped.

    minor correction: it was reuven alone who “lost” yosef after interceding he be placed in the pit.

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