Joseph's Brothers 


The saga of Joseph and his brothers is arguably one of the most poignant stories we read in the Five Books of Moses. It is also one of the most difficult narratives to comprehend. Commentators point out how unfathomable it is for Joseph’s brothers, who are called Shivtei Kah, G‑d’s tribes, could stoop so low that they tried to kill their own flesh and blood. It is no less incredible that Judah, the ancestor of King David and thus Moshiach, would “compromise” and “merely” sell him into slavery. After all, slavery is the closest thing to a living death.  Indeed, in many ways slavery is a slow form of death itself.

The explanation we often hear is that the 12 sons of Jacob were flawed like all other people. After all, this argument goes, weren’t they simply human?  This explanation fails to acknowledge the high level of holiness ascribed by our Sages to each of Jacob’s sons.  One does not have to ponder the matter deeply to see that the Torah would not regard them as G‑dly people if their flaws involved attempted fratricide, kidnapping and slavery.

Reenactment of the Jacob - Eisav Saga

Among the other explanations that are offered is that Joseph’s brothers thought their father was making the same error their grandfather Yitzchak made when he favored Eisav. If it had not been for Rivka’s intervention, the Divine blessings channeled through Yitzchak would have gone to Eisav. This would have enabled Eisav to exercise control over Jacob. In the long run, this would have stymied G‑d’s plan that the descendants of one who received Yitzchak’s blessing would be the ones to receive the Torah, which was the whole raison d’être of Creation. Rivkah saved the day and our people’s spiritual future by having Jacob appropriate his brother’s blessings from their father. She and Jacob risked their lives to prevent the tragedy that would have occurred had the blessings gone the wrong way.

Joseph’s brothers genuinely believed that if Jacob were to commit the same error and favor Joseph over them, a similar threat to the future of the world was at stake.  They perceived Joseph as a materialistic and self-righteous individual, much resembling their uncle Eisav. To them, this was therefore a matter of life or death. If the legacy of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs would end because Jacob bequeathed his spirituality and mission to the wrong son, this would have disastrous repercussions. The brothers therefore felt justified in removing the threat to the world that Joseph represented.  They believed that the loss of Joseph would compel Jacob to reconsider upon whom he should shower his love, energy and blessings.

Kernel of Truth

There was a kernel of truth in equating Joseph with Eisav. However, their relationship was one of polar opposites: Joseph as antidote to Eisav’s threat of dominance over the Jewish nation. This reciprocal relationship is underscored by the juxtaposition of the recitation of Eisav’s descendants at the end of last week’s parsha with the discussion of Jacob’s special relationship with Joseph that begins this week’s parsha.

Rashi comments that these themes are connected in this way to underscore Joseph’s role as the one who will neutralize the destructive power of Eisav.

Joseph’s brothers were prescient about a connection between Joseph and Eisav, but they were unable to see how that would pan out. They were concerned that matters would go the other way, and that Joseph would succeed in undermining the role of the Patriarchs where Eisav had failed.

Don’t Fight the Rebels

One of the lessons we can learn from their mistake is that the potential for negative energy is also the potential for the power to combat and neutralize that negative energy.

When you see someone who seems to be a rebel, don’t fight that spirit of rebelliousness, but transform it into the force of opposition to rebelliousness.

The Chanukah Connection

This week’s parsha is always read either on the Shabbos before Chanukah or the first Shabbos of Chanukah. Many commentators have drawn parallels from the saga of Joseph and his brothers to the struggle of the Jews during the historical period that led up to the miracle of Chanukah.

When the Talmud discusses the appropriate time to kindle the Chanukah lights, it speaks of lighting them when people can still be seen outside in the street. This timing is to ensure that the Menorah brings light to the public and that the miracle of Chanukah will be properly publicized.

The Talmud describes the deadline for the lighting in the following manner:

“Until the feet of the Tarmudites cease from the marketplace.”  Rashi explains that the Tarmudites would sell their wares in the marketplace and would tarry there later than the other vendors.

If we were to rearrange the Hebrew letters of Tarmud, it would spell Mored, meaning “rebel.” Chassidic literature thus reinterprets this legal requirement of when to light and retranslates the foregoing phrase in a spiritual vein, as follows:  

 “One must kindle the light of Chanukah until it causes the legs (read: lowliest aspects of) the rebels to kalya-cease from the marketplace.” The word kalya that is translated as here as “cease” can also be rendered as “expired.” Chassidus explains that the ultimate goal of lighting is to enable the souls of the rebels to achieve the spiritual state of ecstatic passion for G‑d, where the soul’s desire is to expire so that it can be united with G‑d.

In simpler language, this implies that the objective of the lighting of the Chanukah lights goes well beyond dispelling the darkness associated with rebelliousness.  Its true goal is to transform defiance into an extraordinary and unconventional positive force.

Joseph’s Name

What is it about Joseph that was so powerful?

Joseph’s very name, which means “may he increase,” reveals some of his uniqueness. Joseph is about continuous growth; never standing in one place.  A mountain climber cannot dare stay in one place.  To prevent oneself from falling, one must continue to grow.

This theme is associated with Chanukah’s requirement that we increase the number of lights kindled each night. The term employed by the Talmud for this progressive increase is “mosaif,” similar to the name Joseph. Chanukah is all about embracing the Joseph ideal.

Chanukah, too, was a war against the forces who attempted to adulterate the purity of the oil and light in the Bais Hamikdash. The antidote to that poison in our own day is to continually add light and not settle for the light that has already been generated.

But the demands of the Joseph ideal are not satisfied by mere incremental increases. He received the name Joseph because his mother exclaimed: “May G‑d increase for me another son.” When Rachel sees the soul of Joseph at his birth, she realizes that he will do much more than just fight rebelliousness. Joseph, according to the Tzemach Tzedek (the third Lubavitcher Rebbe), represents even more than just continual positive growth. Joseph is about taking the “other” and transforming him into a son.

Living the Joseph ideal is the hallmark of the Messianic Age. Moshiach will not only add to the light and goodness, his role is also to transform the otherness and negativity of the world into potent positive forces.

We Don’t Want to be Excluded

There is another, opposite, approach to understanding the motives of Joseph’s brothers. Rabbi Aryeh Fromer (Rosh Yeshivah of the famed Chacmei Lublin Yeshivah in Poland, martyred by the Germans, yemach shemam) explains that they feared Jacob’s special relationship with Joseph threatened their own ability to carry on Jacob’s legacy. From past experience it was clear that Abraham, who fathered 8 sons, only entrusted his teachings and spiritual role to Isaac. Isaac, too, would ultimately give his blessings to one son, Jacob, making him the true heir. Eisav was pushed aside and lost his role in the Divine plan that would pave the way for the giving of the Torah.  Eisav was thus expelled from the process that would lead inexorably to realization of G‑d’s purpose in Creation—to make this world a dwelling place for Him.

Joseph’s brothers were terrified that Jacob’s special relationship with and apparent preference for Joseph was a sign that they, like Eisav, were going to be excluded from this process. For them, spiritual alienation was worse than death. They therefore devised a scheme to prevent their apparent fate by killing Joseph first.  Judah, however, argued that all they had to do to realize their objective of distancing him from their father was to ensure that Joseph would not remain loyal to his father. They would accomplish this goal by selling their brother into slavery in Egypt, a country was known for its immorality and depravity. Surely, they imagined, Joseph would not be able to remain a true follower of the legacy of the Patriarchs in the spiritual cesspit that was Egypt.

Once Joseph was out of the picture, physically or spiritually speaking, Jacob would be forced to turn redirect his attention to his other sons.

Joseph and Moshiach: the Channels

Obviously, Joseph’s brothers were utterly mistaken.  Jacob’s affinity for Joseph was not going to be at their expense. On the contrary, Joseph was to be the conduit through which the lofty ideals of the Patriarchs would be channeled into the other brothers. Only Joseph was endowed with an uncanny ability to reach the spiritual heights and draw that spirituality down to the lowliest places. 

This idea of reaching for the heights and bringing it down into our ordinary existence is one of the signal characteristics of Moshiach and the Messianic Age.  Moshiach embodies the loftiest spiritual ideals, but unlike other righteous people, he serves as the ultimate leader who can relate to even the simplest and most “distant” Jew.  Moreover, Moshiach, like Joseph, possesses the ability to instill the most sublime levels of G‑dly light, exemplified by the Chanukah lights, into the most ordinary and even alienated, rebellious person; thereby transforming the “other” into a most sublime “son.”