Yisrael loved Yosef more than all his sons, since he was a son of his old age….His brothers saw that it was he whom their father loved most of all his brothers.
Had Reuven known that the Torah would write about him that he heard Yosef’s cry, and attempted to save him, he would have carried him off on his shoulders. Had Aharon known that the Torah would write about him that he would see Moshe and rejoice in his heart, he would have gone out to meet him with instruments and dancing. Had Boaz known that the Torah would write about him that he handed Rus enough grain that she ate and had left over, he would have fed her fattened calves. In the past, the navi would write of the mitzvos of men. Today who writes? Eliyahu and Moshiach – and Hashem adds His seal.
Communications failure, we would call it. The brothers misread everything to do with Yosef.
Their jealously led to hatred, which meant that they looked at him with a jaundiced gaze, and saw evil where none was intended.
It began with their misunderstanding the relationship between Yaakov and Yosef. Parents can show favoritism in two ways. Sometimes, a child born in a particular place in the birth order will elicit more closeness than that shown to his siblings. This happens often with first children – and last children, like Yosef. Jealousy born of such feelings, while not pleasant, is not generally so severe. The other children understand that the specialness has nothing to do with the essential character of any child, but is simply an accident of birth. It doesn’t say anything about them. Such closeness is called choosing a son among the other sons. It is a product of when the child became a son relative to his siblings.
Sometimes, though, parents show special closeness because one child demonstrates talent, promise or accomplishment in excess of his brothers. This is called choosing from among the brothers, not from among the sons. The brothers perceived Yaakov’s choice as reflecting the latter process, while in Yaakov’s mind it was really the former. (Note the choice of words in our pesukim. “Yisrael loved Yosef more than all his sons;” the brothers stress his choice from among “all his brothers.”) Because the brothers believed that Yaakov saw Yosef as somehow better than the rest of them, it was especially hurtful. Their jealousy turned to hatred, and they viewed everything Yosef did with suspicion. They were certain that their father believed the “evil reports” about them that Yosef brought to his father, while in truth, Yaakov dismissed the stories as youthful excess on the part of Yosef.
All these tensions came to a head on the fateful day that Yosef sought out his brothers as they grazed the sheep some distance from their home base. Tragically misunderstanding his intentions, the brothers judged Yosef to be a threat, and determined to kill him.
Reuven saw things differently, and endeavored to save Yosef, with an eye on returning him to safety. His proposal to cast Yosef into a pit (one populated, according to Chazal, by dangerous snakes and scorpions, at that!) and avoid having to actively spill his blood seems a bit strange. It is true that Yosef had a better chance of surviving in a snake-pit than if they killed him on the spot, but why was Reuven satisfied with half-measures? If he was not convinced that Yosef posed a threat to his brothers, why did he not go much further in protecting him?
It is possible that Reuven himself was not sure that he read Yosef properly. He was certain that he should not be certain! That was enough to take a principled stand against actively shedding his blood. But his uncertainty about Yosef’s true intentions militated against fully sparing him. Reuven was caught between opposing possibilities, and therefore saw himself governed by the principle of שב ואל תעשה עדיף/ when in doubt, remaining passive is preferred to being active. Had Reuven known that the Torah would write approvingly of his efforts to save his brother, i.e. that the Torah itself found Yosef blameless and innocent, he would have carried Yosef off on his shoulders, as the midrash says.
Aharon found himself in similar circumstances when his brother Moshe rejoined his people after a long separation. Aharon was overjoyed to see his younger brother, and hastened to greet him. His thoughts were genuine – but private. He saw no need to display his emotion – to let the world and, most importantly, his brother witness his joy through an effusive display of pleasure. Such a display is sometimes called for when we wish to reassure another party of our delight in their presence. We show them how much we value their presence by loud proclamations of our delight. Aharon was confident in the lofty spiritual plane of his brother. He would need no confidence-building. It was perfectly okay to keep his inner joy under wraps.
Aharon did not realize that Moshe very much needed to hear words of reassurance from Aharon. Everything the Aharon thought about Moshe’s righteousness was correct – and then some. Aharon did not, and could not, have known about Moshe’s reluctance to assume the mantle of leadership, for fear that he would be trampling on the feelings of his older brother.
We have still not adequately explained Aharon’s quiet reception for his brother. Standard procedure calls for turning the spigot of honor wide open when we receive an important person. What harm could there be in receiving Moshe with a dramatic welcome ceremony?
Indeed, harm was possible. In the same way that we are told to act shelo lishmah because it can lead to the more perfect lishmah, we must be wary of travelling the reverse route. People who are praised for their work that is entirely lishmah sometimes grow into the role of public hero. The lishmah gradually erodes into the shelo lishmah of acting in order to receive the public accolades. Honor, reasoned Aharon, has to be given judiciously. Not knowing whether or not it would be helpful to Moshe, he too applied the passivity principle of שב ואל תעשה עדיף and met Moshe with pure joy in his heart – but not on his lips. Had he been able to resolve his doubt – had he known that the Torah would record the meeting as one of brotherly love – he would have shouted his enthusiasm from the tent-tops.
Boaz completes our set. He had heard of the great sacrifice that Rus made by not abandoning her mother-in-law, and in converting to Yiddishkeit. He was impressed enough to single her out for special treatment in the field in which she was gleaning. He gave her extra grain.
But why not go all the way, and sit her down to a sumptuous meal, and then supplying the needs of Rus and Naomi? What would be wrong with a show of appreciation for her acts of chesed?
Boaz faced a similar predicament. Acting with unbridled emotion in welcoming the convert from Moav might be appreciated by Rus – but it might also erode the purity of her decision. She might, in time, come to enjoy the limelight, and become less of a tzadeikes for it. Boaz decided, as did his two predecessors, to take the safe route of passivity.
We moderns seem to face many more questions that cry out for answers that are not forthcoming. We have long ago lost the navi who could answer the questions of how to act when in doubt. What happens today?
Today, there is only one way of ascertain which approach, which ideology, with political party to follow when multiple paths open in front of us. Eliyahu and Moshiach make the determination. In other words, we see the effect that our decisions and actions have on the unfolding of history. Which group made the greater contribution in the work that must be done prior to the arrival of our redeemer. History is what determines who was right, and who was wrong.
When we can recognize a path that has been blazed through time, we can also see how Hashem adds His seal to the process. We see how He aids some decisions through magnificent Divine providence that furthers His agenda for mankind. Studying history, with an eye on Hashem’s providential role in it, allows us to finally resolve our doubts.