Few stories in the Torah have so fascinated the biblical scholars and critics as “Yoseph and his Brothers”. For some, it proves that our ancestors were beset by the normal challenges of life: jealousies, seductions, power-plays, and spiritual confusion. Yakov is depicted as a feeble and ineffective father who fostered jealousy between his sons by playing favorites with Yoseph. This perceptive and powerful decision maker, who survived the hatred of Esav and the devious evil of Lavan, was finally bested by his own beloved sons.
The twelve sons are depicted as vying for attention and potential national dominance. They sold their own brother for a few silver coins, and they lacked the moral fortitude and courage to admit their shortcomings. Instead, they conspired to hide their guilt by leaving their elderly father to suffer years of pain.
Yoseph is depicted as a vain and self-centered young man whose ego-directed sense of destiny fueled the jealousy that his brothers felt toward him. His rags to riches story is viewed as the forced maturation of a young man cast adrift in a society, more sophisticated and cosmopolitan than the farm-like simplicity of Canaan and the home of Yakov. He battled temptation and persecution and is industrious, highly intelligent, and ambitious. He wielded his good looks and insightful mind with the skill of a sculptor who must incorporate every natural flaw and color in the stone to produce an art of lasting beauty. In the end, opportunity through the dreams of Pharaoh’s officers, presented itself and he skyrocketed to success.
Allow me to tell you the rest of the story. With the death of Rachel and Binyamin’ birth, the 12 essential components of the Jewish people were completed. These “12 Shevatim – Tribes” contained within them the means for attaining national eternity and world redemption. However, it required the critical number of 12. Yakov Avinu had requested from Hashem, “And I will return whole to my father’s home”. This request was a special prayer that he merit to raise a family who would all participate in the eternity of the nation. Avraham had Yishmael; Yitzchak had Esav; but Yakov had 12 sons, each worthy of being a major contributor to the future of the people. In this regard he was truly the “The chosen among the fore-fathers”. As the progenitor of these 12 sons, Yakov had to train each one separately, and all 12 collectively, to accept responsibility for the development of the Jewish nation.
By showing favoritism to Yoseph, Yakov identified to all the other brothers that Yoseph would be “King”, and that they needed to accept this inevitability. Yoseph himself accepted the implied responsibilities of being the King. His job was to safely lead the sons of Yakov through the labyrinth of early national development. Growing to nationhood among the pagan nations of biblical time was a daunting task that required the unyielding discipline of the Yoseph who survived the temptations of Egypt. From the start, he behaved like a King. He was concerned about his appearance, and he was attentive to the moral development of his brothers. He shared with them dreams of personal responsibility / glory, and ignored their growing resentment. Yoseph was in the business of leading a nation, not winning a popularity contest.
Yakov remained relatively quiet because leadership could not be mandated, it had to be earned. Just as he had survived the villainous attempts of Esav and Lavan, so too would Yoseph survive the challenges from his youthful, but truly righteous, brothers. However, the brothers misunderstood Yoseph’s position. They understood Yoseph’s posturing as self-righteous, egotistical, manipulation and positioning. They interpreted Yoseph’s actions and dreams as desiring to become the 4th of the fore-fathers! His running to Yakov to tattle was seen as attempts at discrediting them from participating in the building of the nation. From that perspective, they viewed Yoseph as a dangerous and mortal threat to their own personal destiny and the future of the Jewish nation. Therefore; they grabbed the first opportunity to remove Yoseph as a threat and sell him into slavery. However, for Yakov this proved disastrous.
Yakov’s greatest hope was to give birth to the essential 12 components that insured the eternity of the Jewish people. Upon loosing Yoseph he lost, not just one son, but possibly 11 sons! To Yakov it meant that his wasn’t the last stage prior to nationhood. Another stage still awaited the development of the nation. Yakov didn’t know which of his sons would finally belong to the Jewish people, and which of his sons would be among the “other nations”. With the assumed death of Yoseph, Yakov suffered the inconsolable loss of his greatest hope – that all his children remain a part of the Jewish people.
Copyright © 1997 by Rabbi Aron Tendler and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation, Valley Village, CA.