The Imagined Trials and Real Tribulations of Yosef

The story of Yosef and his brothers is well known: Jealousy escalates to hatred, and almost metastasizes into murder. To this very day, the brothers’ sale of Yosef is seen as a stain on the collective Jewish people. On the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, and on the saddest day of the year, Tisha B’Av, the consequences of this episode are included in the liturgy and are midrashically connected to the ten martyrs.

Nonetheless, there are those who read the story differently, defending the actions of the brothers. Understandably, some would prefer to take a more forgiving approach, exonerating Yosef’s brothers. But is this a fair reading of the text? Are those who defend the brothers’ behavior guilty of literary contortionism?

The text leaves very little room to wriggle them out of their guilt: While they were dissuaded from carrying out their plan to murder Yosef in cold blood, they were certainly guilty of another crime: Yosef was kidnapped, a crime included in the prohibitions of the Ten Commandments.[1]

One of the great teachers in the Mussor movement, Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, better known as “The Alter (elder) of Slobodka,” insisted that the brothers were not only highly principled but acted in good faith. He attacks those who read the story in a straightforward fashion as being superficial:

אור הצפון חלק א דין מכירת יוסף הרב נתן צבי פינקל סלבודקה תרפ"ח

כשאנו לומדים פרשת מכירת יוסף, קשה לנו להשתחרר מהתפישה המקובלת בין ההמונים כאילו היה כאן מעשה אכזריות מצד האחים כלפי יוסף עצמם ובשרם על לא דבר בכפו, וכאילו מתוך קנאתם בו בגלל כתונת הפסים, כמשמעות הכתוב, התנכלו להמיתו, השליכוהו לבור ומכרוהו לישמעאלים וגרמו צער כזה לאביהם הזקן שנפשו היתה קשורה בנפשו של יוסף.

כדי להוציא טעות זו מהלב, כדאי לציין את דברי המפרש הקדמון רבינו עובדיה ספורנו שכל האחים היו צדיקים גמורים, כי אחרת לא יתכן ששמותיהם יהיו חרותים על חושן המשפט לפני ה' לזכרון, אלא שהם הוציאו על יוסף משפט מות על יסוד ההלכה "הבא להרגך השכם להרגו". האחים שבטי י - ה ישבו על כס המשפט וירדו לעומק הדין, ולפי מיטב השגתם העליונה הכירו בו כרודף ומצאוהו חייב (ראה ספורנו בראשית ל"ז, י"ח). אמנם הם שגו במשפטם, ... ואי אפשר, איפוא, לבוא עליהם בתביעה על כך.

When we learn the section of the sale of Yosef, it is hard for us to free ourselves from the understanding accepted by the masses, as if this was an act of cruelty perpetrated by the brothers upon Yosef, who was for his part completely innocent, and as if they (the brothers) were motivated by (Yosef having received) the coat of many colors, as indeed it seems from a cursory reading of the text - they conspired to kill him, threw him in a pit, and then sold him to the Yishmaelites, and caused unspeakable pain for their elderly father whose soul was bound with the soul of Yosef.

In order to remove this mistaken notion from one’s heart, it is worthwhile citing the clear position expounded by one of the early commentaries, Rabbi Ovadya Seforno, who explained that all of the brothers were completely righteous; had this not been the case, how could their names eventually have been etched on the Choshen Mishpat before God as a memorial? Rather, they tried Yosef (in a court of law) and convicted him of a capital offense, according to the halachah which states that if someone seeks your death, be proactive and kill them first. The brothers – the tribes of God - sat in judgment and plumbed the depths of the law, and according to their superior understanding found him guilty, for they believed that he was “pursuing them to kill them”, so they found him guilty. However, they were mistaken in their judgment….and one cannot fault them for this. (Ohr Hatzafun part one “The Trial of Selling Yosef”)

The Alter insists that the so-called “pshat,” the meaning of the text, is not what a superficial reading of the verses would seem to indicate. The brothers were righteous – completely righteous, in fact - and it is therefore impossible that they could have done what the text seems to say they did.

This approach follows a well-trodden path of rabbinic exegesis which often exonerates otherwise positive characters of actions that would potentially sully their reputations. On occasion, the Talmud will teach that certain larger-than-life biblical characters who seem to be guilty of one transgression or another, are nonetheless innocent. For example, the Talmud teaches that King David did not sin; Reuven did not sin, nor did other biblical heroes whose behavior, recorded in the Torah, has raised eyebrows throughout the millennia. It should be noted that even in these instances, this interpretation of their behavior is far from unanimously accepted, although it certainly makes the biblical narrative a more convenient educational tool; biblical heroes who are blameless and who have an unblemished moral record are far more comfortable role models.  

תלמוד בבלי מסכת שבת דף נה עמוד ב

אָמַר רַב שְׁמוּאֵל בַּר נַחְמָנִי, אָמַר רַב יוֹנָתָן, כָּל הָאוֹמֵר, רְאוּבֵן חָטָא, אֵינוֹ אֶלָּא טוֹעֶה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר, (בראשית לה) "וַיִּהְיוּ בְנֵי יַעֲקֹב שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר". מְלַמֵּד שֶׁשְׁקוּלִים כְּאֶחָד. אֶלָּא מָה אֲנִי מְקַיֵּים, (שם) "וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֶת בִּלְהָה פִּילֶגֶשׁ אָבִיו"? מְלַמֵּד שֶׁבִּלְבֵּל מַצָּעוֹ שֶׁל אָבִיו, וּמַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִילוּ שָׁכַב עִם בִּלְהָה. תָּנִי רַב שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר אוֹמֵר, מוּצָּל אוֹתוֹ צַדִּיק מֵאוֹתוֹ עָוֹן, וְלֹא בָא מַעֲשֶׂה זֶה לְיָדוֹ, אֶפְשָׁר - עָתִיד זַרְעוֹ לַעֲמוֹד עַל הַר עֵיבָל, וְלוֹמַר, (דברים כּז) "אָרוּר שׁוֹכֵב עִם אֵשֶׁת אָבִיו", וְיָבֹא חֵטְא זֶה לְיָדוֹ? אֶלָּא מָה אֲנִי מְקַיֵּים, "וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֶת בִּלְהָה פִּלֶגֶשׁ אָבִיו"? עֶלְבּוֹן אִמּוֹ תָּבַע - אָמַר, אִם אֲחוֹת אִמִּי הָיְתָה צָרָה לְאִמִּי, שִׁפְחַת אֲחוֹת אִמִּי תְּהֵא צָרָה לְאִמִּי? עָמַד וּבִלְבֵּל אֶת מַצָּעָהּ. אֲחֵרִים אוֹמְרִים, שְׁתֵּי מַצָּעוֹת בִּלְבֵּל - אַחַת שֶׁל שְׁכִינָה, וְאַחַת שֶׁל אָבִיו. וְהָיְינוּ דִּכְתִיב, (בראשית מט) "אָז חִלַּלְתָּ יְצוּעִי עָלָה". (אל תּקרי "יצועי", אלא "יצועיי"). כְּתַנָּאֵי, (שם) "פַּחַז כַּמַּים אַל תּוֹתַר". רַבִּי אֶלִיעָזָר אוֹמֵר, פַּזְתָּ, חַבְתָּ, זַלְתָּ. רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ אוֹמֵר, פָּסַעְתָּ עַל דָּת, חָטָאתָ, זָנִיתָ. רַבָּן גַּמְלִיאֵל אוֹמֵר, פִּלַלְתָּ, חַלְתָּ, זָרְחָה תְּפִלָּתְךָ. אָמַר רַבִּי גַּמְלִיאֵל, עֲדַיִין צְרִיכִין אָנוּ לַמּוֹדָעִי, רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר הַמּוֹדָעִי אוֹמֵר, הֲפוֹךְ אֶת הַתֵּיבָה וְדוֹרְשָׁהּ, זִעְזַעְתָּה, הִרְתַּעְתָּ, פָּרְחָה חֵטְא מִמְּךָ. רָבָא אָמַר, וְאָמְרִי לָהּ רַבִּי יִרְמְיָה בַר אַבָּא, זָכַרְתָּ עוֹנְשׁוֹ שֶׁל דָּבָר, חָלִיתָ עַצְמְךָ חוֹלִי גָּדוֹל, פֵּירַשְׁתָּ מִלַּחֲטוֹא:

Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥmani taught in the name of Rabbi Yonatan: Anyone who says that Reuven sinned (with Bilhah) is mistaken, as it is stated: ‘And it came to pass, when Yisrael dwelt in that land, Reuven went and lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine; and Yisrael heard of it. And the sons of Yaakov were twelve.’ (Bereishit 35:22) This teaches us that all (of the brothers) were equal. How, then, am I to explain the verse: ‘And he lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine’? This teaches that (Reuven) rearranged his father’s bed. And the verse ascribes to him liability as if he had actually lain with Bilhah.

It was taught: Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says, This righteous person was saved from that sin (of adultery), and that action did not come to him? Is it possible that his descendants are destined to stand on Mount Eival and say: “Cursed be he that lies with his father’s wife, because he uncovers his father’s skirt. And all the people shall say, amen,” (Devarim 27:20) and this sin will come to be performed by him? How then, am I to explain the verse: “And he lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine”? He protested the affront to his mother. He said: If my mother’s sister was a rival to my mother, will my mother’s sister’s concubine be a rival to my mother? He stood and rearranged her bed.

Aḥerim (Others) say: He rearranged two beds, one of the Divine Presence and one of his father. And that is the meaning of that which is written: “(Unstable as water, you shall not excel; because you went up to your father’s bed;) then you did defile it; he went up to my bed [yetzui]” (Bereishit 49:4). Do not read it as yetzu’i; rather, read it as yetzuai, my beds.

This is parallel to a dispute between tanna’im. The verse states: “Unstable [paḥaz] as water, you shall not excel.” The Sages understood paḥaz as an acronym. Rabbi Eliezer says: You were impulsive [pazta], you were liable [ḥavta], and you acted contemptuously [zalta]. Rabbi Yehoshua says: You trampled the law [pasata al dat], you sinned [ḥatata], and you were promiscuous [zanita]. Rabban Gamliel says: You prayed [pilalta], you trembled in fear [ḥalta], and your prayer shone forth [zarḥa].

Rabban Gamliel said: We still need the explanation of the Moda’i, as Rabbi Elazar HaModa’i said: Reverse the order of the letters in the word paḥaz and then interpret it homiletically: You shook [zizata], you recoiled [hirtata]; the sin flew [parḥa] from you. Rava said, and some say that Rabbi Yirmeya bar Abba said: Reverse the letters in paḥaz and interpret: You remembered [zakharta] the punishment for that offense, you made yourself gravely ill [ḥalita], and you successfully withdrew [peirashta] from sinning. (Talmud Shabbat 55b)

Clearly, the Talmudic tradition contains conflicting voices regarding a number of great figures, Reuven among them. While some exonerate him, offering creative interpretations of the verses, others insist that the text should be understood at face value: Reuven was guilty. The rabbinic commentators were not afraid to take the text at face value and find Reuven guilty of transgressing one of the Ten Commandments.[2]

The matter is actually more complicated in the case of Yosef and his brothers, for if we exonerate the brothers of one sin, we must then, almost by definition, find Yosef guilty of another.

In the case of Yosef and his brothers, though, there is a larger issue to consider: The Alter claims that a trial took place and Yosef was found guilty according to ‘the depth of the law.’ However, if we were to be technical and fastidious in following Jewish law, in a court of law Yosef’s aggrieved brothers could not even serve as witnesses – certainly not as his judge, jury and executioners. They are invalidated as witnesses by the very fact that they are brothers, but even had they been unrelated, they would have been invalidated because they hated him.

The source upon which The “Alter” based his interpretation is the Seforno, who in turn based his comments almost word for word on earlier sources[3] - none of which mention or even allude to Yosef having been put on trial by his brothers:

ספורנו בראשית פרשת וישב פרק לז פסוק יח

ויתנכלו אותו להמיתו. הנה לשון נכל יורה על המצאה להרע כמו אשר נכלו לכם (במדבר כה, יח). אמר שחשבו את יוסף בלבם נוכל להמית ושבא אליהם לא לדרוש שלומם אלא למצוא עליהם עלילה או להחטיאם כדי שיקללם אביהם או יענישם האל יתברך וישאר הוא לבדו ברוך מבנים ולשון התפעל יורה על ציור הדבר בנפש כמו אתה מתנקש בנפשי (ש"א כח, ט) מצייר בלבבך מוקש על נפשי ולשון להמיתו שימית הוא את אחיו כמו לעשותכם אותם (דברים ד, יד) לעברך בברית (שם כט, יא). ובזה הודיע מה היה למו בהיות כלם צדיקים גמורים עד שהיו שמותם לפני ה' לזכרון איך נועדו לב יחדו להרוג את אחיהם או למכרו ולא נחמו על הרעה כי גם כשאמרו אבל אשמים אנחנו על אחינו לא אמרו שתהיה אשמתם על מכירתו או מיתתו אלא על אכזריותם בהתחננו. והנה הגיד הכתוב כי ציירו בלבם וחשבו את יוסף לנוכל ומתנקש בנפשם להמיתם בעולם הזה או בעולם הבא או בשניהם והתורה אמרה הבא להרגך כו' (סנהדרין עב א):

They plotted to kill him; the root נכל always means ‘to plan to do something evil.’ One example of the use of this word in this sense is found in Bamidbar 25:18, “who plotted against you.” The brothers had entertained the thought of causing Yosef’s death while they saw him from a distance. They did not think that he had come to make peace with them but that he was spying on them to either cause them to commit a sin which would bring their father’s curses on them or which would cause God to punish them. As a result of this, Yosef imagined he alone would survive as blessed of all of Yaakov’s sons. The expression ויתנכל in the reflexive conjugation described what a person fantasizes about in his mind, what imaginary scenarios he entertains in his head. You find the expression in Shmuel I:28,9 אתה מתנקש בנפשי, “(the witch of Endor speaking to King Shaul who had disguised himself) “you are trying to trap me into forfeiting my life, trying to get me killed!” The word להמיתו in our verse refers to Yosef causing the death of his brothers. We find the expression used in a similar sense in Devarim 4,14 לעשותכם אותם, “so that you will fulfill them.” If we understand the thoughts described in our verse in this vein, we can solve the riddle of how the stones on the breastplate of the High Priest could have been inscribed with the names of all these brothers, if instead of being as righteous as such models ought to have been in order to serve as inspiration for us, they had indeed harbored such murderous thoughts without justification. Even if the brothers’ intention to sell Yosef had been based on mere hatred, how could such brothers qualify as inspiration for the Jewish people of the breastplate of the High Priest? We must therefore endeavor to understand the collective feelings of the brothers as being that they actually felt threatened by Yosef’s aspirations and they were convinced that when one feels threatened one is entitled or even obliged to take measures to neutralize the source of the danger. This is even a halachic principle clearly spelled out in Sanhedrin 72. If we needed any proof for the truth of the brothers’ feelings, it is best provided by their conversation among themselves while in jail (42,21) when they felt that God had repaid them for their misdeeds. They did not regret selling Yosef, nor even having planned to kill him; the only thing they regretted and considered themselves guilty of was that they had not responded to Yosef’s pleas for mercy. In other words, even over 20 years after the event they were still convinced that Yosef had posed the sort of threat to their existence that entitled them to take extreme defensive action against him. (Seforno, Bereishit 37:18)

While there is no mention of a trial, Seforno nonetheless defends the brothers for acting in what they perceived to be self-defense. While one could debate the evidence which they had, and if they were in fact reading the situation accurately, this approach attempts to bring the behavior of the brothers in line with Jewish law.[4]

While the idea of a trial is not found in the earlier sources it is mentioned in a later source by Rabbi Yeshayahu Horowitz in his Shlah Hakadosh:[5]

ספר השל"ה הקדוש - פרשת וישב מקץ ויגש

{לב} נַחֲזֹר לָעִנְיָן. מְלוּכַת יוֹסֵף אֵינוֹ אֶלָּא כְּדֵי לִהְיוֹת יִשְֹרָאֵל לְעַם, לְהַעֲמִיד מַלְכוּת יְהוּדָה. וְהַשְּׁבָטִים לֹא הֵבִינוּ דָּבָר זֶה, רַק הָיוּ סְבוּרִים אַךְ לוֹ הַמְּלוּכָה, שֶׁהוּא מְבַקֵּשׁ הַמְּלוּכָה בְּעֶצֶם לוֹ וּלְזַרְעוֹ. עַל כֵּן הָלְכוּ דֹּתָיְנָה לְבַקֵּשׁ נִכְלֵי דָּתוֹת, כְּלוֹמַר, לָדוּן אוֹתוֹ בְּדַת תּוֹרָה. וְהִסְכִּימוּ כֻּלָּם שֶׁהוּא בֶּן מָוֶת, אֲפִלּוּ בְּנֵי בִּלְהָה וְזִלְפָּה אוֹהֲבָיו הִסְכִּימוּ כֵּן מִצַּד דִּין וְדָת, מֵאַחַר שֶׁחוֹלֵק עַל מַלְכוּת בֵּית דָּוִד, וְכָל הַחוֹלֵק עַל מַלְכוּת בֵּית דָּוִד כְּחוֹלֵק עַל הַשְּׁכִינָה (ראה סנהדרין קי א). וְזֶהוּ עִנְיַן מַה שֶּׁאָמְרוּ רַבּוֹתֵינוּ זַ"ל (תנחומא, וישב ב) שִׁתְּפוּ הַשְּׁכִינָה עִמָּהֶם, כְּלוֹמַר, כִּי חוֹלֵק הוּא עַל הַשְּׁכִינָה מֵאַחַר שֶׁחוֹלֵק עַל מַלְכוּת בֵּית דָּוִד. עַל כֵּן בְּהִתְוַדַּע יוֹסֵף אֶל אֶחָיו וְרָאוּ שֶׁהוּא מוֹלֵךְ, רָצוּ לְהָרְגוֹ (שם, ויגש ה), כִּי מִכָּל שֶׁכֵּן שֶׁהָיָה הַדָּת אֶצְלָם לַהֲרֹג אוֹתוֹ, מֵאַחַר שֶׁרָאוּ מַחֲשַׁבְתּוֹ יוֹצֵא מִכֹּחַ אֶל הַפֹּעַל. וְשָׁלַח הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מַלְאָךְ וּפִזְּרָן. אָז 'וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף אֶל אֶחָיו גְּשׁוּ נָא אֵלַי' (בראשית מה, ד), רָצָה לְגַלּוֹת לָהֶם הָעִנְיָן שֶׁאֵינוֹ כֵן כְּפִי מַחֲשַׁבְתָּם שֶׁהוּא בְּכֶתֶר מְלוּכָה, אַדְּרַבָּא הַשֵּׁם יִתְבָּרַךְ שְׁלָחוֹ לִפְנֵיהֶם, כְּלוֹמַר, לְהָכִין דֶּרֶךְ לִגְרֹם שֶׁיִּהְיוּ יִשְֹרָאֵל לְעַם וִיהוּדָה לִמְלוּכָה:

Let us return to the matter at hand; the kingdom of Yosef was established only in order to facilitate the nationhood of Israel and to create the Kingship of Yehudah. The tribes didn’t understand this. They (mistakenly) thought that he (Yosef) too wanted a monarchy to be passed on to his descendants. Therefore, they went to Dotan judge him by Torah law. And they all agreed that he should be put to death. Even the children of Bilhah and Zilpah who loved him agreed that by law, because he did not accept the kingship of the House of David, he was guilty. For whoever doubts the House of David doubts the Shechina...

According to The Shla the sin of Yosef was his delusions of grandeur which were articulated in his dreams: He saw himself as king. This was considered a high crime; by extension, it was deemed a form of usurping the crown from the tribe of Yehuda.

This approach, which places the blame on Yosef and his inflated sense of importance, is not an easy one to justify - for a number of reasons. First, if Yosef was guilty of an oversized ego, then presumably Yaakov was equally guilty. Yaakov had given Yosef special status, clothing him in a princely striped coat of many colors. [6] It is certainly worth noting that at the time Yosef was sold into slavery, Yehuda had not yet been appointed by Yaakov to kingship; only many years later, when Yaakov was on his deathbed, was Yehuda singled out, making the Shla’s entire thesis seem anachronistic. Presumably, Yehuda’s ascension was due to his behavior in the intervening years.

As evidence to support his reading of the text, The Shla cites a midrash in which he sees evidence that God not only agreed with the sale but participated with the brothers in a conspiracy of silence. The midrash describes how the brothers took an oath of silence, and then subsequently “forced” God to take the oath as well, which explains why God never revealed Yosef’s fate to Yaakov. The Shla argues that if God agreed to uphold the oath of silence, He must have agreed to the sale, which to the Shla’s mind means a trial must have taken place.

מדרש תנחומא (ורשא) פרשת וישב סימן ב

עָבְרוּ עֲלֵיהֶם יִשְׁמְעֵאלִים. אָמְרוּ, לְכוּ וְנִמְכְּרֶנּוּ לַיִּשְׁמְעֵאלִים, הֵן מוֹלִיכִין אוֹתוֹ לִקְצוֹת הַמִּדְבָּר. עָמְדוּ מְכָרוּהוּ בְּעֶשְׂרִים כֶּסֶף, לְכָל אֶחָד מֵהֶם שְׁנֵי כֶסֶף לִקְנוֹת מִנְעָלִים לְרַגְלֵיהֶם. וְכִי תַעֲלֶה עַל דַּעְתְּךָ שֶׁנַּעַר יָפֶה כְמוֹתוֹ נִמְכָּר בְּעֶשְׂרִים כָּסֶף. אֶלָּא כֵּיוָן שֶׁהֻשְׁלַךְ לַבּוֹר, מִתּוֹךְ פַּחַד נְחָשִׁים וְעַקְרַבִּים שֶׁבּוֹ, נִשְׁתַּנָּה זִיו פָּנָיו וּבָרַח מִמֶּנּוּ דָמוֹ וְנַעֲשׂוּ פָנָיו יְרֻקּוֹת. לְפִיכָךְ מְכָרוּהוּ בְּעֶשְׂרִים כֶּסֶף בַּעֲבוּר נַעֲלָיִם.

אָמְרוּ, נַחֲרִים בֵּינֵינוּ שֶׁלֹּא יַגִּיד אֶחָד מִמֶּנּוּ לְיַעֲקֹב אָבִינוּ. אָמַר לָהֶם יְהוּדָה, רְאוּבֵן אֵינוֹ כָאן וְאֵין הַחֵרֶם מִתְקַיֵּם אֶלָּא בַעֲשָׂרָה. מֶה עָשׂוּ, שִׁתְּפוּ לְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא בְּאוֹתוֹ הַחֵרֶם, שֶׁלֹּא יַגִּיד לַאֲבִיהֶם.

כֵּיוָן שֶׁיָּרַד רְאוּבֵן בַּלַּיְלָה לְאוֹתוֹ הַבּוֹר לְהַעֲלוֹתוֹ וְלֹא מְצָאוֹ, קָרַע אֶת בְּגָדָיו וּבָכָה. חָזַר לְאֶחָיו אָמַר לָהֶם: הַיֶּלֶד אֵינֶנּוּ וַאֲנִי אָנָה אֲנִי בָא. הִגִּידוּ לוֹ אֶת הַמַּעֲשֶׂה וְאֶת הַחֵרֶם וְשָׁתַק. וְאַף הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁכָּתוּב בּוֹ מַגִּיד דְּבָרָיו לְיַעֲקֹב (תהלים קמז, יט), דָּבָר זֶה לֹא הִגִּיד, מִפְּנֵי הַחֵרֶם. לְפִיכָךְ אָמַר יַעֲקֹב, טָרֹף טֹרַף יוֹסֵף.

When a group of Yishmaelites passed by, they said to each other: ‘Come, and let us sell him to the Yishmaelites (verse 27). They took him to the edge of the desert, where they sold him for twenty pieces of silver. Each one obtained, thereby, two pieces of silver with which to purchase a pair of shoes. If you are surprised that a youth as handsome as he was sold for merely twenty pieces of silver, remember that when he was hurled into the pit, he was so fearful of the snakes and scorpions within it that his features were altered. The blood rushed from him, and his countenance turned pale. Therefore, they were forced to sell him for twenty pieces of silver, the value of a pair of shoes for each of them.

Then they decided: “Let us make a vow of excommunication among ourselves, lest one of us be tempted to tell our father, Yaakov.” Whereupon Yehuda said: “Reuven is not here, and a vow of excommunication cannot be executed unless ten witnesses are present.” What did they do? They included the Holy One, blessed be He, in their pact of excommunication (by which they agreed) not to tell their father what had transpired.

When Reuven descended to the pit during the night to rescue his brother, and found that Yosef was no longer there, he tore his clothing and wept. He returned to his brothers and told them: The child is not; and as for me, whither shall I go? (verse 30). They related to him what had transpired and told him about the pact they had entered into. And he remained silent. Though it is written about the Holy One, blessed be He: He declares His word to Yaakov (Ps. 147:19), He did not disclose this matter to him because of the pact of excommunication. That is why Yaakov said: Yosef is undoubtedly torn in pieces (Gen. 37:33). (Midrash Tanchuma Vayeshev Siman 2)

Mainstream rabbinic interpretation not only ‘neglects’ to mention a trial, it states categorically that the brothers bore the guilt of this action until the day they died.

מדרש תנחומא (ורשא) פרשת וישב סימן ב

רַבִּי מָנָא אוֹמֵר, בִּמְכִירַת יוֹסֵף לָקוּ הַשְּׁבָטִים וְלֹא הִתְכַּפֵּר לָהֶם עֲוֹנָם עַד שֶׁמֵּתוּ. וַעֲלֵיהֶם הַכָּתוּב אוֹמֵר, אִם יְכֻפַּר הֶעָוֹן הַזֶּה לָכֶם עַד תְּמֻתוּן (ישעיה כב, יד).

וּלְפִיכָךְ בָּא רָעָב בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים, וְיָרְדוּ אֲחֵי יוֹסֵף עֲשָׂרָה לִשְׁבֹּר בָּר מִמִּצְרָיִם וּמָצְאוּ יוֹסֵף חַי וְהִתִּירוּ אֶת הַחֵרֶם, וְשָׁמַע יַעֲקֹב שֶׁהוּא חָי, וּכְתִיב בּוֹ וַתְּחִי רוּחַ יַעֲקֹב אֲבִיהֶם. וְכִי מֵתָה הָיְתָה, אֶלָּא שֶׁחָיְתָה מִן הַחֵרֶם וְשָׁרְתָה בוֹ רוּחַ הַקֹּדֶשׁ שֶׁנִּסְתַּלְּקָה הֵימֶנּוּ.

R. Mana maintained: The tribes were punished because they sold Yosef, and their sin was not forgiven until they died. Hence Scripture says of them: Surely, this iniquity shall not be expiated by you until you die (Yeshayahu 22:17).

It was because of this episode that a famine befell Canaan, compelling Yosef’s ten brothers to descend to Egypt to buy grain, where they discovered that Yosef was still alive. (Only then) did they abrogate the pact of excommunication and Yaakov learned that Yosef was alive. It is written about him: The spirit of Yaakov their father revived (Gen. 45:27). Had his spirit actually died? No! His spirit was revived from the despair that resulted from the vow of excommunication they had entered into, and the Holy Spirit had departed from him because of it, but now it hovered over him once again. (Midrash Tanchuma Vayeshev Siman 2)

A note on the text of the commentary attributed to the Shla (although it was likely penned by his son) adds that the brothers were surely mistaken, and their hatred caused their terrible error.

ספר השל"ה הקדוש - פרשת וישב מקץ ויגש 1555-1630


 וְאֵין לְהַקְשׁוֹת, לָמָּה נֶעֶנְשׁוּ הַשְּׁבָטִים מֵאַחַר שֶׁדָּנוּהוּ בְּדִין תּוֹרָה. יֵשׁ לוֹמַר דְּעַל כַּיּוֹצֵא בָּזֶה תְּנַן (אבות פ"ד מי"ג; בבא מציעא לג ב) שִׁגְגַת תַּלְמוּד עוֹלָה זָדוֹן, דְּהָיָה לָהֶם לֵידַע לְהַשִֹיג הָעִנְיָן. אֶלָּא שֶׁהַשִֹנְאָה מְקַלְקֶלֶת הַשּׁוּרָה (בראשית רבה פנ"ה ס"ח) מִכֹּחַ שֶׁשָּנְאוּ אוֹתוֹ, וְלֹא כִּוְּנוּ הַהֲלָכָה:

And one should not ask -why were the tribes (brothers) punished, if they judged him (Yosef) by Torah law? One can answer, regarding matters like this it states (in the Mishna Avot 4:13) “for an error in study counts as deliberate sin.” For they should have known how to comprehend the matter. Rather, it was the hatred which corrupted the matter, for they indeed hated him, and therefore misunderstood the law.

As we have noted, hatred is a factor that would have disqualified the brothers from judging Yosef, making the very idea of a trial seem farfetched.

Later, The Shlah expands on the idea of the trial and claims that it is hinted at in elsewhere - in another midrash about the eventual confrontation between Yosef and Yehuda. The midrash treats this confrontation as a showdown between two kings.[7] At this point in the narrative, Yosef controls the Kingdom of Egypt, and Yehuda has stepped up and taken a leadership role. In fact, Yaakov’s sons are now described as ‘Yehuda and his brothers.’[8] We might well argue that it is precisely because of this behavior at this juncture that Yehuda is tapped for the job of King. This makes it much harder to accept the suggestion that he was already leader and the brothers felt Yosef should be killed for insurrection.

The central theme of the last third of the book of Bereishit is the question of who will lead. The candidates emerge rather quickly: the contest is between Yosef and Yehuda. When Yehuda eventually receives the nod, it seems unanticipated, a ”surprise ending” to the story.[9]

We now realize that even though The Alter based his “trial scenario” on the comments of the Seforno, there is actually no mention of a trial in Seforno’s commentary. The trial of Yosef was invented later by The Shla, who read it into earlier sources, as did The Alter of Slobodka.

It is interesting to note that this is not the only instance of an imagined trial in this week’s parasha; there are two other instances.

After the sale of Yosef, we are taken on a detour that details the family of Yehuda, including his marriage, the death of his two oldest sons, and Tamar’s long, lonely wait.

Tamar engineers a tryst with Yehuda, who was unaware of her identity, and she becomes pregnant. Yehuda responds with what may be perceived as a vindictive sentence: “Take her out to be burned.”[10] Rashi reports a tradition that Tamar was to be executed by fire, because she was the daughter of a kohen, and therefore she was “judged” as a bat kohen (daughter of a kohen).

רש"י בראשית פרשת וישב פרק לח פסוק כד

ותשרף - אָמַר אֶפְרַיִם מִקְשָׁאָה מִשּׁוּם רַבִּי מֵאִיר, בִּתּוֹ שֶׁל שֵׁם הָיְתָה, שֶׁהוּא כֹהֵן, לְפִיכָךְ דָּנוּהָ בִשְׂרֵפָה:        

AND LET HER BE BURNT — Ephraim the Disputant said in the name of Rabbi Meir: She was the daughter of Shem who was a kohen (see Rashi on Bereishit 14:18) on this account they sentenced her to be burnt (cf. Vayikra 21:9) (Bereishit Rabbah 85:10).

Later, Yosef is accused of rape by the wife of Potifar, the mistress of the house, and according to tradition, he is tried and fully exonerated, although in order to spare Mrs. Potifar the humiliation of being caught in her lie and her failed advances on a Hebrew slave, Yosef was removed from Potifar’s household. The elaborate description of the trial, the verdict and the face-saving compromise is meant to explain why Yosef was not executed; we would otherwise have expected a lowly slave who accosted and sexually abused the matron of the house would have been killed – especially if the cuckolded husband was Pharoh’s chief executioner:

חזקוני בראשית פרשת וישב פרק לט פסוק כ

ויתנהו אל בית הסהר לא היה בן מות כי לא היו עדים בדבר רק להניחו במשמר. אסורי המלך כתיב אסירי קרי. ונמצא באגדה שהביאו יוסף לפני המלך בא גבריאל כדמות איש ויאמר אם על המלך טוב יצוה לבדוק בבגדיהם אם בגדי האשה נקרעים בידוע שהחזיק בה יוסף לאנסה ואם בגדי יוסף נקרעים החזיקה היא לאנסו ויבקש הדבר וימצא שהיו בגדי יוסף קרועים ובשביל כך לא דנוהו להריגה ומ"מ לא נפטר מיד כדי שלא לבייש אשת פוטיפר לאמר אכן נודע הדבר כי היא אנסה את יוסף. וכהני מצרים דנו דין זה ולכן לא קנה יוסף אדמתם בשני הרעבון.

There is an aggada which says that Yosef was brought before the king (for judgment) and Gavriel came in the image of a man and said to the king, “It would be wise to inspect their clothing. If the woman’s clothing is torn, then it is obvious that Yosef was the aggressor and had attempted to rape her. If, however, Yosef’s clothing is ripped, then she was the aggressor and she had tried to rape him.” The matter was investigated, and it was revealed that Yosef’s clothing was ripped. And therefore they did not sentence him to death. Nonetheless he was not summarily released in order to avoid the embarrassment of Mrs. Potifar – which would have revealed that she had tried to rape Yosef. The Priests of Egypt were the judges, and therefore (in appreciation and “payback”) Yosef did not purchase their land in the years of famine. (Hizkuni Bereishit 39:20)

There is a recurring subtext of judgment and trials that runs through the parasha, alongside another recurring midrashic element: the angel Gavriel.

In the trial of Yosef, Gavriel played a central role in the saving of Yosef’s life. Similarly, in the earlier trial episode involving Tamar, a familiar angel lends a hand:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת סוטה דף י עמוד ב

"הִיא מוּצֵאת וְהִיא שָׁלְחָה אֶל חָמִיהָ". "הִיא מִתּוּצֵאת" מִבָּעֵי לֵיהּ?! אָמַר רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר, לְאַחַר שֶׁנִּמְצְאוּ סִימָנֶיהָ, בָּא סַמָּאֵל וְרִחֲקָן, בָּא גַבְרִיאֵל וְקֵרְבָן:

“When she was brought forth [mutzet], she sent to her father-in-law, saying: (By the man whose these are, am I with child” (Bereishit 38:25).) It should have stated: When she was mitutzet. The word mutzet also carries the implication of being found. Rabbi Elazar says: After her signs, which she was using to prove that she was impregnated by Yehuda, were brought out, the evil angel Samael came and moved them away, and Gavriel came and moved the signs closer again. (Talmud Sotah 10b)

According to the Talmud, Esav’s angel tried to suppress the evidence that would save Tamar, and Gavriel, the angel in charge of fire, saved Tamar.

מהרש"א חידושי אגדות מסכת סוטה דף י עמוד ב

בא גבריאל וקרבן. כי הוא מלאך הממונה על השריפה ומלמד זכות לישראל ... בשביל דוד שיצא ממנה:

Gavriel arrived and moved them close again: because he is the angel in charge of fire. And he argues the merit of the Jewish people, …. For David was destined to descend from her (Tamar) (Maharsha Commentary to Aggada Sotah 10b)

Gavriel appears at an earlier point in Yosef’s life, but in what seems like a very different role. When Yaakov sends Yosef to Shechem to look in on his brothers, Yosef cannot find them. Unbeknownst to Yosef, the brothers had moved on from Shechem toward Dotan. Wandering and lost, Yosef happens upon a man in the field:

בראשית פרשת וישב פרק לז

(יב) וַיֵּלְכ֖וּ אֶחָ֑יו לִרְע֛וֹת אֶת־צֹ֥אן אֲבִיהֶ֖ם בִּשְׁכֶֽם: (יג) וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל אֶל־יוֹסֵ֗ף הֲל֤וֹא אַחֶ֙יךָ֙ רֹעִ֣ים בִּשְׁכֶ֔ם לְכָ֖ה וְאֶשְׁלָחֲךָ֣ אֲלֵיהֶ֑ם וַיֹּ֥אמֶר ל֖וֹ הִנֵּֽנִי: (יד) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ל֗וֹ לֶךְ־נָ֨א רְאֵ֜ה אֶת־שְׁל֤וֹם אַחֶ֙יךָ֙ וְאֶת־שְׁל֣וֹם הַצֹּ֔אן וַהֲשִׁבֵ֖נִי דָּבָ֑ר וַיִּשְׁלָחֵ֙הוּ֙ מֵעֵ֣מֶק חֶבְר֔וֹן וַיָּבֹ֖א שְׁכֶֽמָה:(טו) וַיִּמְצָאֵ֣הוּ אִ֔ישׁ וְהִנֵּ֥ה תֹעֶ֖ה בַּשָּׂדֶ֑ה וַיִּשְׁאָלֵ֧הוּ הָאִ֛ישׁ לֵאמֹ֖ר מַה־תְּבַקֵּֽשׁ: (טז) וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אֶת־אַחַ֖י אָנֹכִ֣י מְבַקֵּ֑שׁ הַגִּֽידָה־נָּ֣א לִ֔י אֵיפֹ֖ה הֵ֥ם רֹעִֽים: (יז) וַיֹּ֤אמֶר הָאִישׁ֙ נָסְע֣וּ מִזֶּ֔ה כִּ֤י שָׁמַ֙עְתִּי֙ אֹֽמְרִ֔ים נֵלְכָ֖ה דֹּתָ֑יְנָה וַיֵּ֤לֶךְ יוֹסֵף֙ אַחַ֣ר אֶחָ֔יו וַיִּמְצָאֵ֖ם בְּדֹתָֽן:(יח) וַיִּרְא֥וּ אֹת֖וֹ מֵרָחֹ֑ק וּבְטֶ֙רֶם֙ יִקְרַ֣ב אֲלֵיהֶ֔ם וַיִּֽתְנַכְּל֥וּ אֹת֖וֹ לַהֲמִיתֽוֹ:

(12) His brothers went to feed their father’s flock in Shechem. (13) Yisrael said to Yosef, “Your brothers are grazing the flock in Shechem. Come, and I will send you to them.” He said to him, “Here I am.” (14) He said to him, “Go now, see whether it is well with your brothers, and well with the flock; and bring me word.” So he sent him out of the valley of Hebron, and he came to Shechem. (15) A certain man found him, and behold, he was wandering in the field. The man asked him, “What are you looking for?” (16) He said, “I am looking for my brothers. Tell me, please, where they are grazing the flock.” (17) The man said, “They have left this place, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dotan.’” Yosef went after his brothers, and found them in Dotan. (18) They saw him afar off, and before he came near to them, they conspired against him to kill him. (Bereishit 37:12-18)

The man had overheard the brothers speak of going to Dotan. With the help of this anonymous man, Yosef locates the brothers – but is nearly killed. Instead, he is sold and sent to Egypt.

Had Yosef not happened upon this person in the field, he would have given up on finding his brothers in the Shechem area, and would have turned around and headed home to his beloved father. In this alternative scenario, the perfidious act of selling Yosef never takes place and Yosef returns home to his father, unscathed.

Who was the unidentified man who pointed Yosef in the direction of his destiny? The rabbis identify him as the Angel Gavriel.

מדרש תנחומא (ורשא) פרשת וישב סימן ב

…וַיִּמְצָאֵהוּ אִישׁ, אֵין אִישׁ הָאָמוּר כָּאן אֶלָּא גַּבְרִיאֵל, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וְהָאִישׁ גַּבְרִיאֵל (דניאל ט, כא).

The man referred to is none other than (the angel) Gabriel, as it is said: The man Gabriel (Dan. 9:21). (Midrash Tanchuma Vayeshev37:2)

רש"י, בראשית לז:טו

וַיִּמְצָאֵהוּ אִישׁ - זֶה גַּבְרִיאֵל, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר וְהָאִישׁ גַּבְרִיאֵל (דניאל ב'):

AND A MAN FOUND HIM — This was the angel Gabriel (Genesis Rabbah 84:14) as it is said, (Daniel 10:21) and the man (והאיש) Gabriel” (Midrash Tanchuma, Vayera 22).

In order to understand this parasha and the perhaps imaginary trials and judgment, and the constant appearance of Gavriel, we need to understand the essence of this angel.

Gavriel is associated with Midat haDin – justice. The word “gevrua” which is the operational core of the name of this angel, is connected to judgment. In this instance, Gavriel takes on a role that differs slightly from his usual job description: He doesn’t save the innocent or protect Israel as a nation. Rather, Gavriel facilitates the sale of Yosef into slavery. He helps Yosef along the path that eventually takes him to Egypt. The brothers don’t kill him; Yosef, who is innocent of the crime of which his brothers suspected him, is saved. Justice is served.

This entire section is permeated with Midat haDin. There is judgment in the air, crackling and sizzling behind the constant midrashic or rabbinic refrain of trials and sentencing. These sections of the text give focus their energy through a prism of judgment and strictness. The music which would accompany this section would be ominous, a warning of the inevitable: Yosef moves inexorably toward slavery in Egypt; he cannot escape it, and Gavriel is sent to make sure that the inevitable sentence of generations of hard labor and abuse in a foreign land promised by God as part of His covenant with Avraham comes to fruition.[11]

The inevitability, the inescapability of following the Divine script, is articulated by Rashi in the verses describing Yosef’s instructions to find his brothers.

בראשית פרשת וישב פרק לז

(יג) וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל אֶל־יוֹסֵ֗ף הֲל֤וֹא אַחֶ֙יךָ֙ רֹעִ֣ים בִּשְׁכֶ֔ם לְכָ֖ה וְאֶשְׁלָחֲךָ֣ אֲלֵיהֶ֑ם וַיֹּ֥אמֶר ל֖וֹ הִנֵּֽנִי: (יד) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ל֗וֹ לֶךְ־נָ֨א רְאֵ֜ה אֶת־שְׁל֤וֹם אַחֶ֙יךָ֙ וְאֶת־שְׁל֣וֹם הַצֹּ֔אן וַהֲשִׁבֵ֖נִי דָּבָ֑ר וַיִּשְׁלָחֵ֙הוּ֙ מֵעֵ֣מֶק חֶבְר֔וֹן וַיָּבֹ֖א שְׁכֶֽמָה:

 (13) Yisrael said to Yosef, “Your brothers are grazing the flock in Shechem. Come, and I will send you to them.” He said to him, “Here I am.” (14) He said to him, “Go now, see whether it is well with your brothers, and well with the flock; and bring me word.” So, he sent him from the valley of Hevron and he came to Shechem. (Bereishit 37:13,14)

Rashi notes a topographical oddity in this description: While Yosef begins his journey in what is described as a valley, Hevron is on a mountain, not in a valley:

רש"י, בראשית לז:יד

מעמק חברון - וַהֲלֹא חֶבְרוֹן בָּהָר, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר וַיַּעֲלוּ בַנֶּגֶב וַיָּבֹא עַד חֶבְרוֹן (במדבר י"ג), אֶלָּא מֵעֵצָה עֲמֻקָּה שֶׁל אוֹתוֹ צַדִּיק הַקָּבוּר בְּחֶבְרוֹן, לְקַיֵּם מַה שֶּׁנֶּאֱמַר לְאַבְרָהָם בֵּין הַבְּתָרִים כִּי גֵר יִהְיֶה זַרְעֲךָ (בראשית ט״ו:י״ג):

FROM THE VALLEY OF HEVRON — But is not Hevron situated on a hill, as it is said (Bamidbar 13:22) “And they went up through the Negev and they came to Hebron”? Why then does it state that Yaakov sent him from the emek, (the vale, the depths) of Hevron? The meaning is that Yaakov sent him because of the necessity of bringing to fruition the profound (עמוקה) thought of that righteous man who is buried in Hevron, to fulfill what was said to Avraham in the Covenant of the Pieces, “your descendants shall be strangers.”(Rashi Bereishit 37:14)

Rashi explains that the profound concept that lay in the depths of Hevron was the covenant forged with Avraham, who was buried there; the time had come for history to be set in motion. The judgment in the air was not a series of trials, but rather the will of God which would be fulfilled. Yosef could travel north, to Shechem, to find his brothers, yet nonetheless end up being brought to the south, to Egypt, in chains - from prince of his father’s home to slave in a home in Egypt. The Will of God determined that this was the way destiny would unfold. The chapter had begun; the electricity of judgment in the air was the turning of the pages of history, the crackle of the Covenant beginning to come to life.

The microcosm of the slavery-turned-dramatic liberation of Yosef would eventually be played out on the larger stage, in the macrocosmic version, as the entire people would make their way to Egypt, experience slavery – and eventually experience a sudden, stunning redemption. The exercise of Divine Judgment, which may at first have seemed harsh or strict, facilitated a greater good. The children of Yisrael were forged into a nation, and that nation, by keeping up their side of the Covenant, were able to march to the Land of Israel that had been promised in that same covenant forged long ago with to Avraham, the man who lies deep in the ground of Hevron.

There was more than one aspect of judgment at work, though: The fact that the slavery and suffering had been foretold does not exonerate the brothers who had sold Yosef. There were many other ways for Yosef to have ended up in Egypt; there was never anything preordained that required the brothers to sell their own flesh and blood and turn a profit on his suffering. God has angels in his employ who would have seen to it that His will is fulfilled, and that the inevitable slavery begins “right on time.” The brothers were all too willing to mete out an unfathomably harsh sentence on their brother, just as Pharaoh delighted in his power to inflict unspeakable cruelty on the Jews. They would all be judged; those who refused to come to terms with their own outrageous behavior, like Pharoh, would be punished for their cruelty and abuse. Those who repented, like the brothers, would be spared – even uplifted.

The rabbinic subtext that lies just below the surface of the verses is that an angel, an emissary of God named Gavriel, was extremely busy as the trials were being held and judgment passed. But when the time of redemption arrives, no angels are involved. God takes his people by the hand and leads them to freedom – freedom that was unavoidably, necessarily, inevitably born out of slavery.

[1] See Rashi Shmot 20:13.

[2] To avoid the charge that Reuven broke one of the Ten Commandments, one could offer a defense that Yaakov was not married to Bilhah, or that this incident occurred prior to the giving of the Torah.

[3] See commentary of Rav Chaim Paltiel Bereishit 37:18

ר' חיים פלטיאל בראשית פרשת וישב פרק לז פסוק יח

ויראו אותו מרחוק. וא"ת מאחר שהיו כ"כ צדיקים מה עלה בדעתם להרוג אותו, וי"ל שכך הייתה סברתם כיון שמגיד שאנו מגלים עריות ואוכלי אבר מן החי א"כ הוא מגיד עלינו דברים שאנו חייבים עליהם מיתה א"כ הוא רודף אותנו א"כ אנו אומרים הבא להורגך השכם להורגו.

[4] Also see the comments of the Seforno on 37:25, where he describes their sitting to eat as an act done with a clear conscience.

ספורנו בראשית פרשת וישב פרק לז פסוק כה

וישבו לאכל לחם. שלא היה כל זה בעיניהם תקלה או מכשול שימנעם מלקבוע סעודתם כמו שהיה ראוי לצדיקים כמותם כשאירעה תקלה על ידם כמו שעשו ישראל אחר שהרגו את שבט בנימין כאמרו וישבו עד הערב לפני האלהים וישאו קולם ויבכו בכי גדול ויאמרו למה ה' אלהי ישראל היתה זאת בישראל כו' (שופטים כא, ב - ג). וכן דריוש כשהשליך את דניאל בגוב אריות דכתיב ובת טות ודחון לא הנעל קדמוהי (דניאל ו, יט). וזה קרה להם מפני שחשבו את יוסף לרודף שכל הקודם להרגו זכה כשאין דרך להציל הנרדף בזולת זה:

They sat to eat bread: to demonstrate that what they had done was no crime in their eyes, or that the incident was not something that should interfere with their regular meal. When righteous people become aware of having inadvertently committed a sin, they not only do not celebrate it by eating, but they impose a fast day or more upon themselves. A prominent example of people imposing a fast day upon themselves, although they did not feel guilty for having done something wrong, were the Jewish tribes after having practically wiped out the tribe of Binyamin. We read about this in Judges 21:2-3 as well as about the fact that they imposed a fast upon themselves in spite of being convinced that they had done the right thing in going to war against that tribe. We also find something parallel when King Darius threw Daniel into a pit full of starving lions. (Daniel 6:19). If the brothers sat down to eat immediately after throwing Yosef into the pit, this is clear evidence that in their minds they had certainly not committed any wrong. We, who were not part of Yaakov’s household, and who know that these brothers were unanimously elevated to become the founding fathers of the Jewish nation, must therefore accept the premise underlying their actions as being that they had truly felt themselves personally threatened by Yosef, someone who was considered so mature that his own father had appointed him as manager over his senior brothers. The brothers had made strenuous efforts to put physical distance between themselves and Yosef in order to avoid any altercation. When he had sought them out in spite of their having signaled clearly that they wanted to avoid him, they felt understandably very threatened.

[5] This idea is found in many later sources, creating for some an illusion that the commentary is midrashic. For a hint which the Shla saw in the Midrash see below. Rav Mordechai Carelbach in his Havazelet Sharon claims that while the brothers found Yosef guilty, there was a lack of a consensus regarding the particular crime he was guilty of. Hatam Sofer Bereishit 50:17, says the crime Yosef was judged for was moser and malshin. Rav Heschel of Cracow (1596-1663) in his Chanukas Hatorah claims they wished to kill Yosef because of descendants which would eventually emerge from his family, namely Yerovam. This idea is also found in the writings of Rav Yehonatan Eybshitz, Tiferet Yehonatan Bereishit 42:8.

חתם סופר על בראשית פרק נ פסוק יז  1762-1839

שא נא פשע אחיך וחטאתם כי רעה גמלוך ועתה שא נא לפשע עבדי אלקי אביך, יל"ד מתחיל בתרתי ומסיים בחדא בפשע, ועוד מיותר ועתה שא נא, ועוד מה לשון גמלוך משמע גמול בגמול כאשר עשה כן יעשה לו. וי"ל אחז"ל [ספ"ב דב"מ] הגד לעמי פשעם אלו ת"ח ששגגת תלמוד עולה פשע, והנה השבטים דנו את יוסף בדין ומשפט ועפ"י דין תורה חייבוהו כמסור ומלשין, אך עתה איגלי למפרע שהוא משיח ה' והם טעו בדינו, נמצא הם שוגגים שחשבו שמשלמים לו גמול בגמול וטעו והוה שוגג בהוראה ואינם ראוים לעונש אלא מפאת שתחשבם לגדולי עולם ות"ח שחטאתם לפשע יחשב, א"כ לעומת זה כשמגיע לענוש אותם הקלו חז"ל בעונשם של ת"ח ואמרו [מו"ק י"ז.] כסהו כלילה ומעולם לא אימנו במערבא על נגידא דת"ח משום ח"ה ותורתו, ע"כ אמרו שא נא פשע אחיך וחטאתם דייקא כי רעה גמלוך, זה היא חטאתם שוגג שחשבו שרעה גמלוך גמול בגמול בדין ומשפט וזהו שגגתם ואתה תחשוב אותו לפשע, ועתה אחר שתחשבוהו לפשע מצד גדולתם א"כ מאותו הטעם בעצמו שא נא לפשע עבדי אלקי אביך שהם ת"ח ואיכא ח"ה אם אתה מענישם וכנ"ל. [תקפ"ו]:

חנוכת התורה - בראשית פרק לז פסוק יז

במדרש רבה על הפסוק נסעו מזה כי שמעתי אומרים נלכה דותינה וגו' נסעו מזה ממדותיו של הקב"ה. וצריך להבין מה זה ועל מה זה. ויש לפרש על פי מה דאיתא בגמרא ובמדרש על הפסוק ויתנכלו אותו להמיתו שראו שיצא ממנו ירבעם שעתיד להחטיא את ישראל וכו' עיין שם. אם כן חזינן שהאחים דנו את יוסף על שם סופו. והנה ידוע דמדת הקב"ה אינו כן דאינו דן אלא באשר הוא שם כמו שמצינו גבי ישמעאל כידוע. וזה הוא שאמר המדרש נסעו מזה ממדותיו של הקב"ה שאינו דן אלא באשר הוא עכשיו והם רוצים לדון אותך על שם סופך: (דרוש שמואל. תורה מציון שנ"ד ח"ד):

תפארת יהונתן על בראשית פרק מב פסוק ח

 ועוד י"ל ויכר יוסף את אחיו וגו' דהשבטים דנו ליוסף למיתה כי ראו בחכמה שנשמתו של יוסף מגולגל בירבעם שיעשה עגלים. אבל זאת לא ראו כי קודם שהשתחוה ירבעם לעגלים נסתלק נשמתו של יוסף ממנו וידו לא הי' במעל הזה אבל יוסף ראה כי יוד השבטים היו נשמתם מגולגלים בעשרה מרגלים כמ"ש האר"י ז"ל אבל טרם שהרעו להוציא דבה על ארץ ישראל נסתלקו נשמתם מהם ולא היו עמם במעל וזהו ויכר יוסף את אחיו ולא דן אותם בשפטים כי הכיר בהם שלא יהי' במעל מרגלים והם לא הכירהו רק חשבו שנשמתו תהי' בירבעם מתחלה ועד סוף ע"כ רצו לדונו במיתה כשהיה אצלם כאיש שעושה רע בעיני ה'

חבצלת השרון על בראשית פרק מב פסוק כב

בביאור המקראות ובמה שהשבטים גמרו דינו של יוסף למיתה:

 ויען ראובן אותם לאמר הלא אמרתי אליכם לאמר אל תחטאו בילד ולא שמעתם וגם דמו הנה נדרש:

 בביאור דברי ראובן נראה, שהיה לו לראובן שתי טענות חלוקות כלפי אחיו, חדא אל תחטאו בילד, שנית וגם דמו הנה נדרש, והוא מכוון כנגד הנך שני ענינים שאמר ראובן לאחיו בפרשת וישב [פל"ז פכ"א], וכך כתוב שם, וישמע ראובן ויצלהו מידם ויאמר לא נכנו נפש, ויאמר אליהם ראובן אל תשפכו דם וגו', הרי דשני ענינים טען להם ראובן, חדא שלא להכותו, ושנית לבל ישפכו דמו, וצ"ב בזה:

 והנראה בזה, דהנה כבר נתבאר בפרשת וישב שהאחים כולם דנו את יוסף וגמרו דינו למיתה, אלא שהיו חלוקים בעיקר חיוב מיתתו של יוסף, דשמעון ולוי דנו את יוסף כדין מורד במלכות בחשבו למלוך ולשלוט על אחיו, [כי אחר הלב הולכים החלומות], והמלכות ניתנה כבר לראובן או ליהודה, [וכן מובא בשם השל"ה בטעם מה שהשבטים דנו אותו למיתה], ואליהם בא ראובן ואמר לא נכנו נפש, לבל יכוהו על היותו מורד במלכות: אולם שאר האחים פסקו שיוסף מחוייב מיתה על היותו רודף את אחיו בזה שהביא את דיבתם רעה אל אביהם, [או כדברי האוה"ח שיש לו דין עד זומם], נמצא שלדעת האחים היה לו ליוסף דין רודף ואין לו דמים, כלשון הכתוב ברודף שאין לו דמים, ואליהם אמר ראובן אל תשפכו דם, השליכו אותו אל הבור הזה, והיינו שבאמת יש לו דם ואין להרגו, [ולשיטתכם השליכוהו הבורה ולא תשפכו דמו בידים, ויעוין בנימוקי הרמב"ן]:

 מעתה פשוט שזהו מה שאמר ראובן הלא אמרתי אליכם אל תחטאו בילד וגם דמו הנה נדרש, דבאמת שתי טענות היה בזה לראובן, חדא אל תחטאו בילד היינו שטען לשמעון ולוי לבל יכוהו מכת נפש על היותו מורד במלכות, ושנית טען לשאר האחים וגם דמו הנה נדרש, שזהו מוסב על מה שדנו אותו בתורת רודף שעליו אמרה תורה 'אין לו דם' ואמר להם ראובן שבאמת היה זה שפיכות דמים, וע"כ גם דמו הנה נדרש:

[6] See Rambam Shmot 28:2.

רמב"ן שמות (פרשת תצוה) פרק כח פסוק ב

לכבוד ולתפארת - שיהיה נכבד ומפואר במלבושים נכבדים ומפוארים, כמו שאמר הכתוב כחתן יכהן פאר (ישעיה סא י), כי אלה הבגדים לבושי מלכות הן, כדמותן ילבשו המלכים בזמן התורה, כמו שמצינו בכתנת ועשה לו כתנת פסים (בראשית לז ג), שפירושו מרוקמת כדמות פסים, והיא כתונת תשבץ כמו שפירשתי, והלבישו כבן מלכי קדם. וכן הדרך במעיל וכתנת, וכתוב ועליה כתנת פסים כי כן תלבשנה בנות המלך הבתולות מעילים (ש"ב יג יח), ופירושו כי עליה כתנת פסים נראית ונגלית, כי המנהג ללבוש בנות המלך הבתולות מעילים שתתעלפנה בהן, ונמצא שכתנת הפסים עליה מלבוש עליון, ולכן אמר וכתנת הפסים אשר עליה קרעה:

[7] See Shla HaKadosh – Parashat Vayeshev and Parashat Miketz.

ספר השל"ה הקדוש - פרשת וישב מקץ ויגש

{לח} נַחֲזֹר לְעִנְיַן הַשְּׁבָטִים, שֶׁהָיוּ מִתְּחִלָּה חוֹשְׁדִין אֶת יוֹסֵף שֶׁהוּא מְבַקֵּשׁ כֶּתֶר מְלוּכָה. וְדָבָר זֶה רָמוּז [בִּבְרֵאשִׁית רַבָּה] פָּרָשַׁת וַיִּגַּשׁ (פצ"ג ס"ב) זֶה לְשׁוֹנוֹ: 'כִּי הִנֵּה הַמְּלָכִים נוֹעֲדוּ [עָבְרוּ] יַחְדָּו' (תהלים מח, ה). 'כִּי הִנֵּה הַמְּלָכִים' זֶה יְהוּדָה וְיוֹסֵף. 'עָבְרוּ יַחְדָּו', זֶה נִתְמַלֵּא עֶבְרָה עַל זֶה, וְזֶה נִתְמַלֵּא עֶבְרָה עַל זֶה. 'הֵמָּה רָאוּ כֵּן תָּמָהוּ' (שם שם, ו), 'וַיִּתְמְהוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים אִישׁ אֶל רֵעֵהוּ' (בראשית מג, לג). 'נִבְהֲלוּ נֶחְפָּזוּ' (תהלים שם), 'וְלֹא יָכְלוּ אֶחָיו לַעֲנוֹת' וְגוֹ' (בראשית מה, ג). 'רְעָדָה אֲחָזָתַם שָׁם' (תהלים מח, ז), אֵלּוּ הַשְּׁבָטִים, אָמְרוּ מְלָכִים מִדַּיְּנִים אֵלּוּ עִם אֵלּוּ [אָנוּ] מָה אִכְפַּת לָנוּ, יָאֵי לְמֶלֶךְ מִדַּיֵּן עִם מֶלֶךְ, עכ"ל. מְבֹאָר בַּמַּאֲמָר הַזֶּה, שֶׁהַוִּכּוּחַ שֶׁהָיָה בֵּין יְהוּדָה וְיוֹסֵף הָיְתָה מֵחֲמַת הַמְּלוּכָה, שֶׁחָשַׁד אֶת יוֹסֵף שֶׁהוּא מְבַקֵּשׁ הַמְּלוּכָה, עַל כֵּן נִתְמַלֵּא עָלָיו עֶבְרָה. וְיוֹסֵף נִתְמַלֵּא עָלָיו עֶבְרָה מֵחֲמַת כִּי לֹא כֵן הָיָה עִמָּדוֹ, רַק כַּוָּנָתוֹ לְהַעֲמִיד מַלְכוּת יְהוּדָה. וְאַף עַל גַּב דַּעֲדַיִן לֹא הִכִּירוּ אֶת יוֹסֵף, מִכָּל מָקוֹם נִצְנְצָה בָּהֶם רוּחַ הַקֹּדֶשׁ. וַאֲנִי אוֹמֵר, שֶׁאֲפִלּוּ בַּגַּשְׁמִיּוּת שֶׁלָּהֶם אֶפְשָׁר הָיוּ מְסֻפָּקִים בּוֹ אִם הוּא יוֹסֵף אוֹ לֹא, וְהָיוּ יְרֵאִים לְהוֹצִיא מִפִּיהֶם, עַל כֵּן דִּבְּרוּ לִישְׁנָא דְּמִשְׁתַּמֵּעַ לִתְרֵי אַפֵּי. וְהִנֵּה בְּעִנְיַן 'וַיִּגַּשׁ אֵלָיו יְהוּדָה' כוּ' (בראשית מד, יח), הָיָה מֵחֲמַת בִּנְיָמִין, כִּי מַעֲלַת מַלְכוּת יִשְֹרָאֵל הוּא אֶרֶץ יִשְֹרָאֵל שֶׁעִקָּרוֹ בֵּית הַמִּקְדָּשׁ. וּבִנְיָמִין זָכָה לִהְיוֹת בְּחֶלְקוֹ בֵּית הַמִּקְדָּשׁ אַף שֶׁנִּטַּל מִמֶּנּוּ הַמַּלְכוּת, אַךְ זָכָה מִתְּחִלָּה לְהַמַּלְכוּת שֶׁיִּשְׁתַּחֲווּ לוֹ כָּל בֶּרֶךְ, מֵחֲמַת כִּי הַיָּרֵךְ שֶׁלּוֹ לֹא הִשְׁתַּחֲוָה לְעֵשָֹו שֶׁבּוֹ אֵל אַחֵר, כְּמוֹ שֶׁכָּתַבְתִּי לְעֵיל (אות כג-כד), וְנִשְׁאָר בּוֹ עוֹלָמִית בֵּית עוֹלָמִים יֶרֶ"ךְ הַמִּזְבֵּחַ. וְרֹאשׁ הַהַנְהָגָה בְּבֵית הַמִּקְדָּשׁ הוּא הַכֹּהֵן הַגָּדוֹל וְהוּא מִשֵּׁבֶט לֵוִי, עַל כֵּן יוֹסֵף לֹא שָׁלַח בְּלֵוִי יָד לֶאֱסֹר אוֹתוֹ רַק בְּשִׁמְעוֹן, אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁשִּׁמְעוֹן וְלֵוִי הָיוּ אַחִים בְּעֵצָה אַחַת עָלָיו:

[8] Bereishit 44 :14.

בראשית פרשת מקץ פרק מד פסוק יד, יד

(יד) וַיָּבֹ֨א יְהוּדָ֤ה וְאֶחָיו֙ בֵּ֣יתָה יוֹסֵ֔ף וְה֖וּא עוֹדֶ֣נּוּ שָׁ֑ם וַיִּפְּל֥וּ לְפָנָ֖יו אָֽרְצָה:

[9] This idea will be covered in an essay on Parashat Vaychi.

[10] Bereishit 38:24.

בראשית פרשת וישב פרק לח פסוק כד,

וַיְהִ֣י׀ כְּמִשְׁלֹ֣שׁ חֳדָשִׁ֗ים וַיֻּגַּ֨ד לִֽיהוּדָ֤ה לֵֽאמֹר֙ זָֽנְתָה֙ תָּמָ֣ר כַּלָּתֶ֔ךָ וְגַ֛ם הִנֵּ֥ה הָרָ֖ה לִזְנוּנִ֑ים וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְהוּדָ֔ה הוֹצִיא֖וּהָ וְתִשָּׂרֵֽף:

[11] Bereishit 15:13-16.

בראשית פרק טו, יג-טז

(יג) וַיֹּא֣מֶר לְאַבְרָ֗ם יָדֹ֨עַ תֵּדַ֜ע כִּי־גֵ֣ר׀ יִהְיֶ֣ה זַרְעֲךָ֗ בְּאֶ֙רֶץ֙ לֹ֣א לָהֶ֔ם וַעֲבָד֖וּם וְעִנּ֣וּ אֹתָ֑ם אַרְבַּ֥ע מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָֽה: (יד) וְגַ֧ם אֶת־הַגּ֛וֹי אֲשֶׁ֥ר יַעֲבֹ֖דוּ דָּ֣ן אָנֹ֑כִי וְאַחֲרֵי־כֵ֥ן יֵצְא֖וּ בִּרְכֻ֥שׁ גָּדֽוֹל: (טו) וְאַתָּ֛ה תָּב֥וֹא אֶל־אֲבֹתֶ֖יךָ בְּשָׁל֑וֹם תִּקָּבֵ֖ר בְּשֵׂיבָ֥ה טוֹבָֽה: (טז) וְד֥וֹר רְבִיעִ֖י יָשׁ֣וּבוּ הֵ֑נָּה כִּ֧י לֹא־שָׁלֵ֛ם עֲוֹ֥ן הָאֱמֹרִ֖י עַד־הֵֽנָּה: