Parshat Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23)

Rabbi David Stav 

Parshat Vayeshev centers on the sale of Joseph by his brothers, an event that led to the entire family going down to Egypt and the slavery that ensued there. Over the generations, commentators have toiled in an effort to get to the bottom of the contempt between the brothers, without which such a tragic story could never have occurred.

Many considered the sale of Joseph an event that brought a curse upon our nation: a curse that we have yet to shake off, and a curse that has exacted a high price from the Jewish people over the generations. Some, for example, say that the execution of the ten sages by the Romans during the era of the destruction of the Second Temple was a punishment for the sale of Joseph.

Soon, we will celebrate the holiday of Hanukkah, a holiday with which we are all familiar thanks to the bravery of the Maccabees. However, we tend to overlook the fact that the subsequent collapse of the Maccabee kingdom began with an internal dispute in Jerusalem between two brothers, Hurkanos and Aristobulos. Some of our rabbis linked this historical event, too, to the sale of Joseph.

Even during our nation’s most trying times – when we should have been focused on external threats – the curse of internal division and hatred amongst ourselves continued to plague us.

This envy, which has fueled so many controversies, began at the dawn of time. Early on, in the days of Cain and Abel, the first two brothers in Biblical history, we discover that Cain’s offering was not accepted, while Abel’s was, and this led Cain to murder his brother. Envy engulfs Joseph’s brothers, as well.

Our rabbis tell us that a person may not foment envy between his or her sons, and they place the blame for the brothers’ hatred for Joseph on Jacob and the striped coat that he made exclusively for Joseph.

However, if we delve into the beginning of this week’s portion, we will immediately notice that the tension between the brothers began somewhere entirely different, at a seemingly positive moment.

The Torah recounts that from early on, Joseph “was with his brothers with the flocks, and he was a lad, [and was] with the sons of Bilhah and with the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives…” [Gen. 37:2]. He had fraternized with the sons of Bilhah and Ziplah, Jacob’s concubines – or second-class wives. It is safe to assume that their children were younger and closer in age to Joseph, but most of all, they had an inferior status to Leah’s children, and were therefore mistreated.

Joseph, who was almost his mother Rachel’s only son – his younger brother, Benjamin, survived his mother’s death in childbirth – would certainly have felt some kind of empathy for his similarly disadvantaged half-brothers, so he reasoned they would be the right people to befriend.

So far, so good: empathy for others and the weaker elements of family and society is an admirable virtue. Things take a turn for the worse, though, when Joseph becomes judgmental toward his brothers. The Torah reports: “…and Joseph brought evil tales about them to their father…” [ibid.].

What “evil tales” was he telling about his brothers? Were they true? Our rabbis cite several midrashim to propose a number of explanations. Some say that these evil tales are tied to how the children of the concubines, whom they called “slaves”, were treated. Others explain that Joseph had claimed his brothers were eating the limbs of animals while they were still alive. Others still say that the brothers hadn’t watched over their sheep properly.

All of these explanations may have been correct, but one thing is clear: the Torah does not tell us what these evil tales were about, or if they were true or false. It turns out that this was not the crux of the matter for the Torah, and it wasn’t nearly as important as the fact that these tales were told, and that the teller was not handled appropriately.

Our rabbis tell us that if someone has something against another person, the one with the grudge should inform the other person. True, it is not always pleasant. We do not know how the other side will react to our comments. He or she might be insulted and stop talking to us. But at least we will know that we have done the right thing, and had not kept the other person in the dark while talking behind his or her back.

Joseph told these evil tales to his father, and not to his brothers themselves. His intentions were undoubtedly good, having seen the horrible things that he alleges that his brothers were doing, but the Torah does not regard this favorably.

Speaking ill of his brothers without speaking to them about it may be why he wins the trust of his father, who loved him more than all his sons. But it is also how he lost his brothers’ love. He may have felt that he had no other choice, and that no one else would listen, but this decision would cost him dearly.

It is difficult to describe how much people suffer with their families, their spouses, their children or their parents because they feel hurt by their loved ones but are unable to bring themselves to say anything about it.

It is difficult to be part of a family without knowing what the other family members feel, only to ultimately learn of these hard feelings indirectly. The results of Joseph’s “evil tales” are described shortly thereafter, with the words “…and they could not speak with him peacefully” [ibid., v. 4]. Since these evil tales were not dealt with at the time, peace evaded Joseph’s family, with tragic results.

What was true for Joseph and his brothers is true for us today. Imagine how much acrimony and hostility we could avoid if we could just speak to each other eye to eye and tell them how we feel. Fortunately, and unlike the case of Joseph and his brothers, our story is still unfinished. We, too, are the children of Jacob, and we can begin to change the discourse in our families today.

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