The story of Yoseph’s discord with his brothers’ waxes as a factual, albeit eternal, analogy to feuding Jews. There are dreams and fantasies, jealousies and misconceptions. Unfortunately, the saga never seems to end, as even today it seems that there are those of our brethren who would sell out their kin – all for the sake of Heaven.
The Torah relates: Yoseph’s brothers go to Shechem to tend the flock of their father, Yaakov. Yoseph is sent by Yaakov to find out what they are up to. As he approaches them they declare, “Behold, the dreamer approaches.” At first they plot to kill him but Reuvain and Yehuda intervene, one suggesting he be cast into a pit, and the other convincing the brothers to sell him to passing merchants.
Were the plans to rid themselves of their younger sibling premeditated, or was the sale an impromptu action based on sighting Yoseph as he approached them?
Let us analyze the story and the commentaries.
Yaakov asked his children to tend his sheep. The verse tells us that, “Now, his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock in Shechem.” In the Hebrew language, a prefix “es” is often used in conjunction with a noun. Here it is used in conjunction with the word sheep. Es is a word usually placed to allude to something additional. (e.g. the famous command, “In the command, “Honor your father and your mother” the Torah adds an es before the words father and mother, “Honor es your father and es your mother.” The extra word es is there to include elder siblings, stepparents and the like, all who must be afforded honor.) In this case the word es in conjunction with the sheep is not only extra, it also has dots above it. Those dots intone, says Rashi, in the name of the Midrash, that the brothers did not set out to tend only the sheep, thus solely for the purpose of honoring their father, rather they were intent on tending to themselves. They were interested in a self-serving outing, one that involved eating and drinking, without the service of their father in mind.
The question is simple. How does the Medrash know that from the extra word es and the dots above it? Maybe the extra word and the dots imply that they had an extra mission to fulfill? Maybe it implies sheep and other cattle, thus the extra es. Where does it imply that they were not fulfilling their fathers’s will. rather they were fulfilling their own agenda? The Gemara (Bava Kama 50a) relates that once there lived a man known as Nechunia the Well Digger. Nechunia selflessly dug wells to provide water for the pilgrims, who traveled to Jerusalem for the three pilgrimage festivals, Pesach, Sukkos and Shavuos.
It happened once that Nechunia’s daughter fell into a deep well that he had dug. People ran to the great tzadik, Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa, who was known for his miraculous ability to intercede on behalf of those in distress, and asked him to pray for the child.
It seemed that he was not the least bit concerned. During the first hour he said to them, “Don’t worry, she will be all right.” An hour later, when there was still no sign of the girl, Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa still seemed unperturbed. “She still is fine,” he said.
During the third hour, he told those who had come to him “do not worry, she has come out of the well already.” When they asked the girl, “Who brought you up?” she replied, “A ram materialized, and an old man was leading it.” After hearing this, the people asked Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa, “What made you so sure that she would be saved? Are you a prophet?” Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa replied, “I am not a prophet, nor am I the student of a prophet. But I said to myself, it is impossible that a deep well, one that the tzadik Nechunia the Well Digger took so much pain to dig in order to quench the thirst of travelers, would be a pitfall for one of his children! I felt it would be impossible for his child to be harmed by his good deed. Therefore I knew she would be safe.”
The Midrash used simple logic. If the brothers’ intent was solely to honor and service their father by tending his sheep, then that mission could never have produced the consequences that brought Yaakov misery for 22 years. How is it possible that an exercise in parental honor would turn into an activity that would cause such parental grief and anguish? Therefore, those two dots that hover over the extra word contain a powerful message. Tainted acts cause tainted results. If the mission is pure, so are the results, and when we see sullied circumstances then we must assume tainted intent. However, when brothers act out of purity of purpose and with a non-tainted mission, then their intent will only bring honor to Heaven.
Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky
Copyright © 2001 by Rabbi M. Kamenetzky and Project Genesis, Inc.
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The author is the Dean of the Yeshiva of South Shore.
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