Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Vayeshev 5778
Worse Than You Thought
One of the most horrific episodes in the book of Bereishit, and perhaps in the entire Torah, is the sale of Yosef. Jealousy morphs into hatred, which leads to the brink of murder: Brothers who seem devoid of any fraternal love, at first plot to murder, and then “settle for” selling Yosef into slavery-or worse.
Perhaps our progress through the book of Bereishit has numbed us to this unimaginable state of affairs; otherwise, how could we possibly read about thoughts of fratricide and the callous sale of one brother by the other and not be shocked? Apparently, this sort of behavior is the norm, the leading motif or theme, of Bereishit: Brothers are unable to live together in peace, beginning with Kayin and Hevel, leading up to Avraham and Lot (who, though not brothers, were close relatives), Yitzchak and Yishmael, Yaakov and Esav – harmonious family life is a rare commodity in the first chapters of the book. Why would we expect anything else as we approach the final chapters?
The end of last week’s parasha hardly gave us any reasons to be optimistic:
Yaakov’s sons are loose cannons, and there do not seem to have been any consequences for their inexcusable behavior. A straightforward reading of the text indicates that one son bedded his father’s concubine (35:22), two others took murderous vengeance on an entire city (34:25-29), and the remaining sons apparently ransacked and plundered that city, and took the idols worshipped by their victims for their own use (35:2).
These three sins (murder, sexual impropriety, and idolatry) are the most severe offenses in Jewish thought, yet not only do the sons who perpetrated these crimes remain members in good standing of Yaakov’s family, there is barely a word of moral outrage recorded in the text; Yaakov’s censure of his children is nothing if not restrained. His objections and remonstrations are purely pragmatic. To be sure, before he dies, Yaakov will have a word with his wayward sons, yet they are not banished or shunned, disowned or distanced. Traditional Jewish commentaries on these chapters of Bereishit tend to downplay or reinterpret the textual description of their crimes, but the straightforward reading of the text is morally jarring.
Another instance of distinctly unbrotherly behavior between relatives involves Yaakov and his wives: When Yaakov, who has invested seven years of hard labor for the right to marry Rachel, finds that his father-in-law Lavan has tricked him into marrying her sister Leah, why does Yaakov accept the situation so blandly? The marriage to Leah was the product of deception, and should not have been legally or morally binding; why does Yaakov agree to continue, and even expand, his association with these crazy, deceitful people? It isn’t hard to conclude that his “wife,” Leah, and his wife-to-be, Rachel, were in collusion - not to mention his father in law Lavan. Yaakov should have run as fast as he could to escape this family.
Perhaps there is one answer to all these questions.
When Yaakov was young, his father Yitzchak had a dream that was never realized. What Yitzchak wanted more than anything was for his sons to work together. He wanted his family to be united. Perhaps the lessons of his own youth had taught Yitzchak about the tragedy of a broken family: Soon after his own birth, Hagar and Yishmael were banished from his father’s house, and midrashic sources tell us that Yitzchak never stopped trying to make the family whole again (see, for example, Rashi’s comments on Bereishit 24:62). Yitzchak was a man of conciliation, and he dreamed of his sons growing up together, and remaining united – as he and his half-brother Yishmael had not.
Rivka, on the other hand, knew that it was not to be. She had been told by God Himself that her sons would never form a unified family. They were destined to part ways from the outset, and their differences would grow as time went on. She knew there would be conflict; the rift was not to be bridged. Yaakov and Esav had separate identities and separate destinies that would preclude the sort of cooperation Yitzchak dreamed of.
Yaakov received his education from both of his parents. Even though he obeyed his mother and took the blessing Yitzchak had designated for Esav, Yaakov also internalized and cherished the values he learned from his father: Family should stick together.
This explains Yaakov’s strange passivity when he is tricked into marrying Leah. When Yaakov sees Rachel’s dedication to her sister, when he understands the lengths to which Rachel will go to protect Leah from shame and rejection, Yaakov is overwhelmed. He understands without a doubt that he has found the perfect woman: Rachel embodies the values his father Yitzchak had taught him. Sisters who will go to any lengths to protect one another’s honor, sisters who “have one another’s back,” are the antithesis of his own experience. They are a living example of the sort of family cohesion Yitzchak had dreamed of but that had eluded both him and his sons. When Yaakov understood that Rachel had helped Leah at her own expense, not only didn’t Yaakov run away, he fell even more deeply in love with Rachel. (Bereishit 29:18,30)
This also explains why Yaakov, while displeased with his sons, did not disown or banish them. He did not want to create another Yishmael or Lot; that would have been the easy way out. Yaakov was determined to keep his family intact. Even the outrageous behavior of Shimon and Levi was an outgrowth of this same world view: They “had their sister’s back,” and would not allow her to be victimized; their response was visceral, vengeful – and an expression of family cohesion that took the words out of Yaakov’s mouth. Even Reuven’s outrageous behavior may be seen as an attempt to re-engineer the dynamics between Rachel and Leah; Reuven sensed his mother Leahs’ pain when, even after Rachel’s death, Yaakov remained distant (as per Rashi Bereishit 35:22).
Perhaps Yaakov’s love for Yosef was an outgrowth of his love for Rachel: Yaakov favored Yosef, the son of Rachel, whom Yaakov loved more than anyone or anything else in the world. Yaakov never considered that there might be toxic fallout from this love; after all, Leah had entered into the marriage with her eyes wide open. She knew from the outset that Yaakov had always loved Rachel more, and that he always would. Surely her children understood as well. But just as Rachel fiercely defended her sister, Yaakov was convinced that all of the children, raised in a loving family by mothers who protected and cared for one another, would create a strong bond, and would evolve into a new kind of nation.
With this in mind, the sale of Yosef seems even worse than we initially thought: The brothers failed to internalize the teachings of their father and grandfather, failed to value family unity, and failed to learn from their mothers about the lengths to which siblings should go to protect one another. When they plotted to kill Yosef, and when they eventually sold him into bondage, the brothers not only rejected Yosef, they rejected the values which their father and mothers held so dear.
It is unclear whether Yaakov ever learned of the circumstances that led Yosef to Egypt; perhaps he imagined that Yosef had been kidnapped by strangers. We can only hope that Yaakov never found out that not only did his sons not “have Yosef’s back,” they were ready to put a knife in it.
© Rabbi Ari Kahn 2017
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