Parshat Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23)
(Translated from the Hebrew original)
Reading the story of Yosef and his brothers is heartbreaking. We have already grown accustomed to the tension between Yitzhak and Yishmael, and between Ya’akov and Eisav. But in those cases, we took comfort in the fact that each side represented a separate nation (even if both members of the pair had the same parents, or the same father). Yet in the case of the sons of Ya’akov – the progenitors of the nation of Israel – consolation eludes us.
How could adult brothers harbor such profound hatred that they would conspire to kill – or sell – their younger brother, who at a very young age had lost his mother? How did jealousy and contempt push the brothers over the edge? They clearly understood the gravity of their actions; we know this because they used various methods to try to conceal their deeds from their father.
These verses describe a murky relationship that begins when Yosef speaks ill of his brothers to his father. Today, we would call Yosef a “snitch”. The text doesn’t specify what Yosef said, or if he was lying or telling the truth. Some of our rabbis posit that Yosef accused his brothers – those born to Leah – of acting improperly towards the maidservants’ children, or of committing other unethical acts. By omitting the details of Yosef’s report, the Torah indicates that the content of the report wasn’t truly important.
The seeds of hatred had germinated and had begun to sprout within the family.
The tension grows when the brothers see how their father gives their young brother preferential treatment. He even makes him special clothes, a “ketonet passim” (a coat of many colors). This was apparently a type of royal garment, perhaps akin to high-end clothing produced by the prestigious brands of today. If so, why shouldn’t the brothers become jealous after getting the short end of the stick?
The Torah spares no details or words as it continues to describe the growing family tensions. Yosef begins dreaming about sheaves in a field that prostrate themselves to his sheaf. In spite of the harsh response of his brothers, who say “…will you reign over us or govern us?” (Bereishit / Genesis 37:8), he doesn’t relent, and tells them his second dream, in which he sees a sun, a moon and eleven stars bowing down to him. The rest of the story is like a predictable screenplay. Yosef’s brothers try to kill him at the first opportunity, and be free from him and his dreams, once and for all.
An inquisitive reader might wonder where the logic is in this plot. What possessed Yosef to tell his jealous brothers stories that would incense them even further? Hadn’t he already realized what kind of trouble he was getting himself into?
Wouldn’t it have been better for him to simply let those dreams come true and be proven right, without being so outspoken? Or if there wasn’t any truth to them to them to begin with, to just let them fade away, as if they had never existed in the first place? Wasn’t Yosef aware of the consequences of his behavior toward his brothers?
It seems that the key expression here is ולא יכלו דברו לשלום, “they couldn’t speak with him peacefully” (Bereishit / Genesis 37:4). Some of our rabbis see this verse as commending the brothers, who didn’t carry fire in one hand and water in the other.
Ultimately, however, this expression describes a disgraceful state of affairs: the distance between Yosef and his brothers was so great that they couldn’t even engage in casual conversation. Not even a “Good morning” or a “How are you?” could be exchanged between them. The text describes a consistent lack of understanding between the brothers.
Had the brothers spoken to Yosef, they may have been able to explain the stories that Yosef wanted to tell his father. Had they spoken with Ya’akov, he would have told them why he decided to treat Yosef to a particularly elegant garment. The problems begin after the text tells us that the brothers could not have a conversation.
Compounding the problem, Yosef is completely oblivious of his surroundings when he relates his dreams. He doesn’t understand how serious and outright dire his situation has become, so he allows himself to talk about dreams that stir up his entire family (including his father).
He also has no problem going on his own to see his brothers in Shechem, nor does he perceive of any problem between them. This is the story of a communication breakdown that begins with the phrase “they couldn’t speak with him peacefully”.
The Hasmonean dynasty, which flourished for over approximately two centuries, also faltered on this very principle. One of the main reasons for its decline was its unwillingness to conduct dialogue with the various groups of the public on how to fight the Romans, on the relationship between the priests, the sages and the monarchy, and other issues.
We are all too familiar with this phenomenon and on how it manifests itself in our daily lives – in our relationships with our spouses, with our families, and at work. The magic formula is to speak – and to speak peacefully.