The article below is from Rabbi Riskin’s book Bereishit: Confronting Life, Love and Family, part of his Torah Lights series of commentaries on the weekly parsha, published by Maggid and available for purchase here.

Parshat Vayeshev: What Constitutes Guilt?

Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin is the Founder and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone

RSR Head Shot Gershon Ellinson credit

“And there passed by Midianite merchants, and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver, and they brought Joseph down to Egypt.” [Genesis 37:28]

Who bears the ultimate responsibility for a criminal act? Is it the person who plans the crime, or the one who pulls the trigger or stabs with the knife? Is it the agency that sets up the act, the terrorist inciters, the mercenary for hire, or even the disinterested parents or apathetic society that nurtured the evil intent leading to the villainous deed? An ambiguous verse in Vayeshev dealing with the sale of Joseph initiates a difference of opinion amongst biblical commentators that have relevance to this important question.

Let’s consider this scene of déjà vu. We know that Isaac was actually blind when he gave the blessing to his favored son, Jacob. Now, we find Jacob is equally blind in his relationships with his own sons, for ‘Israel [ Jacob] loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age, and he made him a coat of many colors’ [Gen. 37:3]. This infuriated his brothers. ‘And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him’ [Gen. 37:4]. The Talmud declares:

“A person must never favor one child among the others; because of a piece of material worth two selahs that Jacob gave to Joseph more than his other children, his brothers became jealous of him and the matter degenerated until our forefathers were forced to descend to Egypt.” [Shabbat 10b]

Apparently, our Sages felt that Jacob bore ‘ministerial responsibility’ for the tragedy of the brothers, although his sin was certainly inadvertent. Jacob suffers grievously for his mistake in family management, believing for twenty-two years that his beloved son is dead. But he certainly is not the main culprit.

Joseph doesn’t do anything to assuage his brothers’ feelings: he recounts his dreams that flaunt his superiority and eventual domination over the other family members [Gen. 37:5–11]. Then, in a fateful move, Jacob sends Joseph to Shekhem to see ‘whether all is well with his brothers, and well with the flock’ [Gen. 37:14]. Sighting Joseph from a distance and clearly aggrieved by their father’s favoritism, Joseph’s brothers conspire in their hearts to kill him. They tear off his coat of many colors and cast him into a pit. Shortly afterwards, the brothers spy an approaching caravan, prompting Judah to suggest that since killing isn’t profitable, they should rather sell Joseph to the Ishmaelite caravan and tell their father he was devoured by a wild beast.

Undoubtedly, the moment Joseph is sold into slavery is one of the turning points in the Torah. It is considered the most heinous crime of the biblical period – the sin of sibling hatred foreshadowing the Jewish divisiveness that led to the destruction of the Second Holy Temple and its aftermath of tragic exile and persecution.

However, when we examine the verse recording the sale of Joseph, it’s hard to figure out who actually sold the hapless brother.

“And they [the brothers] sat down to eat bread, and they lifted up their eyes and saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming. And Judah said, Come, let us sell [ Joseph] to the Ishmaelites. And there passed by Midianite merchants, and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. And they brought Joseph down to Egypt.” [Gen. 37:27–28]

Although the brothers spotted Ishmaelites, it seems that it was the Midianite traders who actually passed by and captured Joseph in order to sell him. After all, the phrase, ‘they drew up and lifted him out’ seems to refer to the Midianites.

So, who actually pulled Joseph out of the pit to sell him? Rashi [ad loc] suggests that it is the brothers of Joseph, ‘bnei Yaakov,’ and not the Midianites. Rashi draws on Joseph’s comment twenty-two years later when he reveals himself to his brothers: ‘I am Joseph whom you sold into Egypt.’ Rashi argues that the initial biblical verse describing the sale seems ambiguous precisely in order to inform us that Joseph was sold many times before ending up in Egypt: the brothers sold him to the Ishmaelites, the Ishmaelites to the Midianites, and the Midian- ites to the Egyptians.

Nahmanides agrees that it was the brothers who did the selling, but suggests that the Midianite traders hired the Ishmaelite caravan drivers, thus explaining the usage of both nations interchangeably.

In contrast, Rashbam maintains that the brothers were not the ones who actually pulled Joseph out of the pit, and therefore not the ones that sold him, Yes, the brothers put him into the pit, abandoned him and certainly would have sold him had the opportunity arisen. However, before the brothers had a chance to sell him, Midianite traders came by, pulled Joseph from the pit and sold him to the Ishmaelites. The twenty silver shekels lined the pockets of the Midianites, not the pockets of the brothers. According to Rashbam, the brothers had nothing to do with the actual sale. However, this leaves us with the problem: how do we understand Joseph’s declaration to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph your brother whom you sold into Egypt’? [Gen. 45:4].

I think that this difference between interpretations may be under- stood as conflicting views regarding the nature of responsibility. Rashi understands the initial verse to mean that the brothers themselves lifted Joseph from the pit and personally sold him, because otherwise it contradicts Joseph’s words later on, ‘I am Joseph whom you sold.’ For Rashi, the words are facts, not metaphors, and although responsibility can have all kinds of shades and meanings, ultimate responsibility can only fall upon the person who actually carries out the deed. According to Rashi’s logic, since Joseph held the brothers responsible, they must have executed the actual act.

Rashbam’s concept of responsibility differs. He argues that although the brothers did not actually pull him out of the pit and sell him, nevertheless they must still share responsibility for the events that unfolded as a result of the sale. Their initial act of casting their brother into the pit was done with murder in their hearts. Rashbam casts guilt upon everyone who shares in unleashing the forces of evil, even those whose hands remain clean while others do the actual dirty work.

I share the view of Rashbam. One must do something – not merely think something – in order to be responsible, but the one who sets the ultimate crime in motion by his action, even though he might not have perpetrated the act of the sale itself, must nevertheless cert- ainly take responsibility. Hateful intentions cannot create culpability, but placing an individual in a vulnerable position – like casting him into the pit – inciting others to participate in that hatred as well as actively aiding and abetting the perpetrators of the crime, certainly makes one a partner in crime who must assume a share of the guilt.

But there is a twist in this portion, and Joseph engages in a little historical revisionism. A much wiser and more mature Joseph looks upon this incident from the perspective of Jewish history, sub specie aeternitatis, under an eternal gaze. From his vantage point, twenty-two years later, he continues ‘But now do not be sad, and let there not be reproach in your eyes because you sold me here; it was in order that you might live that God sent me [to Egypt] before you…to ensure your survival in the land and to sustain you [for a momentous deliverance]. And now, it was not you who sent me here but God…’ [Gen. 45:5–8]. Hence Joseph may very well be holding the brothers responsible for the sale even though it may have been the Midianites who actually committed the transaction – not only because he wishes to implicate them in guilt, but mostly because he wishes to involve them in redemption. For Joseph, the act that began as a crime, concluded – owing to divine guidance and Joseph’s own quick-wittedness – as the salvation of the family of Israel. Joseph is anxious to restore family unity – and to look upon the sale from a divine perspective.

The brothers are responsible both for the crime, as well as for the good that resulted from the crime. Although Jewish tradition never forgave the brothers for their cruelty to their brother (witness the Eleh Ezkera dirge which traces the Hadrianic persecution which cruelly took the lives of ten great rabbis back to the sale of Joseph), Joseph praises God for having extracted salvation from sin; triumph from transgression.

Shabbat Shalom

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