In commenting on the opening word of this week’s parsha, Rashi quotes the famous midrash that states as follows. “Yaacov sought to dwell (layshev) in tranquility (b’shalva). (Instead) the troubles of Yosef sprang upon him… (Of course, this midrash is probably famous because Rashi quotes it and not the other way around. But we all know the definition of a “famous” midrash). The question, of course, is whether the words “sprang upon him”(kafatz alav”) are in fact accurate. Are not these troubles which Yaacov experiences, at least in part, self-inflicted? Should Yaacov not have anticipated the friction that would be caused by his according special treatment to Yosef, even if he could not foresee the tragic results of this hatred that developed between the brothers?
That Yaacov was at least partly at fault is the obvious conclusion that can be drawn from the “pshat”. This conclusion is accepted both by the midrash (see, for example, Breishit Raba, parsha 84, “Reish Lakish said in the name of R. Eliezer ben Azarya, a man should (be careful) not to distinguish between his sons, as the multi colored coat that Yaacov made for Yosef caused the brothers to hate him”) and subsequent commentators. Most cutting in his comments is the RALBAG (R. Levi Ben Gershom, Provence, 1288-1344). The RALBAG’s commentary on Tanach is organized into three distinctive parts: 1) definition of words, 2) the story line, and 3) the lessons that may be learned from the story. The first lesson derived from the story of the sale of Yosef, writes the RALBAG, is one of “moral behavior (middot)”. “It is improper for a person to sow jealousy between his sons by elevating one above the others…Observe Yaacov, who made a multi colored coat for Yosef alone amongst the brothers…(gave a) reason for the brothers extraordinary hatred. What then was Yaacov’s motivation?
No less troubling is the reaction of the rest of the brothers to the special relationship that develops between Yaacov and Yosef. Surely, this is not the first family where some siblings feel that one of their number is being treated preferentially. Yet attempted murder and kidnapping as a solution to family strife is something which is still the domain of daytime talk shows, and certainly not the behavior expected of Yaacov’s sons, who we know will form the core of Am Yisrael, and who are referred to as “shivtei ka”, the tribes of G-d. How, then, can we understand the dynamics at play, and of equal importance, what can we derive from these lessons?
First, let us consider precisely why the brothers hated Yosef. A cursory reading of the passukim in question appears to give the answer. Firstly, Yosef “tattles” on the brothers (Vayaveh Yosef et dibatam ra’a el avihem). Secondly, as we have already noted, Yaacov openly flaunts his preference for Yosef by supplying him with the ktonet passim. It is noteworthy, however, that the sources we quoted above do not mention the tattling as the source of hatred between the brothers, focussing instead on the ktonet. Why this is the case can perhaps be understood using the approach of the Akaidat Yitzhak (R. Yitzhak Arama, Spain, 14th century). The Akaidat Yitzhak explicitly rejects the idea that the tattling was the source of the hatred that the brothers felt toward Yosef. As the passuk itself states, Yosef was immature (v’hu naar), and this was a behavioral pattern which Yosef would eventually outgrow. Even the ktonet is only a symptom of the problem, but not its source. The issue here is that Yaacov has expressed a clear preference for one son over the others, a preference that threatens the entire future of Am Yisrael. The brothers are not insensitive to the history of their family. They know full well that both their grandfather and great grandfather chose one son over another, annointing Yaacov and Yitzhak as successors and relegating Eisav and Yishmael to the sidelines. The key phrase in the passuk then becomes “ki oto ahav avihem micol banav”, “and (Yaacov) loved him above all his sons”, and the key word “micol”, which we translated as “above”, but is literally “from all”. Yosef is being anointed from all the brothers as Yaacov’s heir. As Nechama Leibowitz points out, a glance at one of Rashi’s explanations to the words Ben Zekunim, strengthens this idea. Rashi, is troubled by the fact that Yosef is called a Ben Zekunim. After all, Yosef is not significantly younger than the other brothers,and even if he were Binyamin is younger still. Working off of the Targum Onkelos, Rashi suggests that Ben Zekunim is an allusion to Yosef’s superior mental capabilities, a talent that Yaacov seeks to encourage. The brothers, however, only see that Yosef is being groomed for something. Hence the hatred, and ultimately the violent reaction to Yosef.
The Seforno understands the dynamic in a similar fashion. The major difference between his interpretation and that of the Akaidat Yitzhak is that while the Akaidat Yitzhak sees Yaacov as being responsible for the brothers suspicions, the Seforno pins the blame on Yosef himself. According to the Seforno the diba once again becomes an issue, as the brothers see Yosef as using tales of their shortcomings to drive a wedge between their father and themselves. In the words of the Seforno, “that their father should curse them or that G-d should punish them, and he (Yosef) alone will remain blessed.” The Seforno offers a compelling proof to the general approach he (and the Akaidat Yitzhak) suggest. We know that when the brothers first encounter Yosef in Mitzrayim, his harshness and his demand that they bring Binyamin to him, while Yosef holds Shimon hostage, stun them. Their reaction is telling. “But we are guilty, (because) of our brother. We saw his suffering when he cried out to us, and we did not listen (42:21). Even at this critical juncture the brothers are not questioning their strategy, only their tactics. They apparently feel that given the danger they were justified in removing Yosef as a threat to the future unity of Am Yisrael. They upbraid themselves, however, for the cruel and heartless fashion in which they treated Yosef, and now sense that they are paying the price for this behavior.
While we can now understand the mindset that enabled the brothers to behave as they did, Yaacov’s actions remain an enigma. Why does he favor Yosef in so blatant a fashion, thereby setting the stage for everything that follows? The Netziv focuses on a commonality of personality between Yaacov and Yosef, which turns what seems like obtuseness to the outside observer into understandable behavior on the part of Yaacov. Here, too, our starting point is Rashi on the passuk of Ben Zekunim. In a different explanation to the question of why Yosef is referred to as Ben Zekunim, Rashi says that Yosef was physically similar to Yaacov. The Netziv expands this idea to include other similarities. Yaacov sees that Yosef shares with him a passion for righteousness (chesed) and peace (shalom). While the other brothers are also capable of exhibiting these middot, they are not defined by these characteristics. One need only recall Shimon and Levi’s action in Shechem to realize that “peaceful” is not the precise adjective that one would use to describe them. Similarly, the Netziv sees the brothers as bridling at the need to bow to Eisav, while Yosef accepts this as a diplomatic necessity, to be borne with grace and skill. In is therfore understandable that Yosef becomes Yaacov’s protege, not as a sign of greater love or affection, but as a natural flow of events. The brothers, of course, don’t see it this way, but Yaacov’s obliviousness to the dangerous family dynamic is now understandable.
Nonetheless, as we have already seen, the midrash and the meforshim do not spare Yaacov when assigning blame. This, perhaps, is the overriding message. No one, least of all a parent or a leader, can allow himself the luxury of myopia when dealing with a group. Not only must the needs and concerns of all be addressed, but sensitivity to perceptions is paramount. While Yaacov might never have intended to single Yosef out as different from his brothers, his actions sent a different message. The challenge lies before us all.
Shabbat Shalom and Channuka Samaech