Tag Archives: Yehuda

The Difference between “Jew” and “Hebrew”

“Death of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram” by Gustave Doré

This week’s parasha is named after Korach, the rebellious cousin of Moses. Korach felt he had been unfairly slighted. Moses had apparently made himself like a king over the people, then appointed his brother Aaron as high priest. The final straw was appointing another cousin, the younger Elitzaphan, as chief of the Kohatites, a clan of Levites of which Korach was an elder. Where was Korach’s honour?

Korach’s co-conspirators were Datan and Aviram, leaders of the tribe of Reuben. They, too, felt like they’d been dealt a bad hand. After all, Reuben was the eldest son of Jacob, and as the firstborn among the tribes, should have been awarded the priesthood.

The Sages explain that Reuben indeed should have held the priesthood. Not only that, but as the firstborn, he should have also been the king. Reuben, however, had failed in preventing the sale of Joseph, and had also committed the unforgivable sin of “mounting his father’s bed”. For this latter crime especially, and for being “unstable like water”, Jacob declared that Reuben would “not excel” or live up to being “my first fruit, excelling in dignity, excelling in power” (Genesis 49:3-4).

Instead, the status of “firstborn” was awarded to Joseph, who had taken on the mantle of leadership and saved his entire family in a time of terrible drought. Jacob made Joseph the firstborn, and thus gave Joseph a double portion among the Tribes and in the land of Israel. He put Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Menashe in place of his own firsts Reuben and Shimon (Genesis 48:5). Meanwhile, the excellence of “dignity”—the priesthood—went to the third-born son, Levi, and the excellence of power—royalty—went to the fourth son, Judah. (The second-born Shimon was skipped over because he, too, had greatly disappointed his father in slaughtering the people of Shechem, as well as spearheading the attempt to get rid of Joseph.)

Levi merited to hold the priesthood because the Levites were the only ones not to participate in the Golden Calf incident (Exodus 32:26). The Book of Jubilees (ch. 32) adds a further reason: Jacob had promised to God that he would tithe everything God gave him (Genesis 28:22), and everything included his children. Jacob thus lined up his sons, and counted them from the youngest up. The tenth son, the tithe, was Levi (who was the third-oldest, or “tenth-youngest”, of the twelve). And so, Levi was designated for the priesthood, to the service of God.

Judah merited the royal line for his honesty and repentance—particularly for the sale of Joseph, and for the incident with Tamar. He further established his leadership in taking the reins to safely secure the return of Benjamin. The name Yehudah comes from the root which means “to acknowledge” and “to be thankful”. Judah acknowledged his sins and purified himself of them. Ultimately, all Jews would be Yehudim, the people who are dedicated to repentance and the acknowledgement and recognition of Godliness in the world. Much of a Jew’s life is centered on prayers and blessings, thanking God every moment of the day, with berakhot recited before just about every action. The title Yehudi is therefore highly appropriate to describe this people. Yet, it is not the only title.

Long before Yehudi, this people was known as Ivri, “Hebrew”, and then Israel. What is the meaning of these parallel names?

Hebrew: Ethnicity or Social Class?

The first time we see the term “Hebrew” is in Genesis 14:13, where Abraham (then still called Abram) is called HaIvri. The meaning is unclear. The Sages offer a number of interpretations. The plain meaning of the word seems to mean “who passes” or “who is from the other side”. It may refer to the fact that Abraham migrated from Babel to Charan, and then from Charan to the Holy Land. Or, it may be a metaphorical title, for Abraham “stood apart” from everyone else. While the world was worshipping idols and living immorally, Abraham was “on the other side”, preaching monotheism and righteousness.

An alternate approach is genealogical: Ever was the name of a great-grandson of Noah. Noah’s son Shem had a son named Arpachshad, who had a son named Shelach, who had a son named Ever (see Genesis 11). In turn, Ever was an ancestor of Abraham (Ever-Peleg-Reu-Serug-Nachor-Terach-Abraham). Thus, Abraham was called an Ivri because he was from the greater clan of Ever’s descendants. This must have been a powerful group of people recognized across the region, as attested to by Genesis 10:21, which makes sure to point out that Shem was the ancestor of “all the children of Ever”. Amazingly, archaeological evidence supports this very notion.

“Habiru” in ancient cuneiform

From the 18th century BCE, all the way until the 12th century BCE, historical texts across the Middle East speak of people known as “Habiru” or “Apiru”.  The Sumerians described them as saggasu, “destroyers”, while other Mesopotamian and Egyptian texts describe them as mercenary warriors, slaves, rebels, nomads, or outlaws. Today, historians agree that “Habiru” refers to a social class of people that were somehow rejected or outcast from greater society. These were unwanted people that did not “fit in”. That would explain why Genesis 43:32 tells us that Joseph ate apart from the Egyptians, because “the Egyptians did not eat bread with the Hebrews; for that was an abomination to the Egyptians.”

One of the “Habiru” described in Egyptian texts are the “Shasu YHW” (Egyptian hieroglyphs above), literally “nomads of Hashem”. Scholars believe this is the earliest historical reference to the Tetragrammaton, God’s Ineffable Name, YHWH.

Defining “Hebrew” as an unwanted, migrating social class also solves a number of other issues. For example, Exodus 21:2 introduces the laws of an eved Ivri, “a Hebrew slave”. When many people read this passage, they are naturally disturbed, for it is unthinkable that God would permit a Jew to purchase another Jew as a slave. Yet, the Torah doesn’t say that this is a Jew at all, but an Ivri which, as we have seen, may refer to other outcasts from an inferior social class. The Habiru are often described as slaves or servants in the historical records of neighbouring peoples, so it appears that the Torah is actually speaking of these non-Jewish “Hebrews” that existed at the time. Regardless, the Torah shows a great deal of compassion for these wanderers, and sets limits for the length of their servitude (six years), while ensuring that they live in humane conditions.

Rebels and Mystics

Though he was certainly no slave or brigand, Abraham was undoubtedly a “rebel” in the eyes of the majority. To them, he was a “criminal”, too, as we read in the Midrash describing his arrest and trial by Nimrod the Babylonian king. Abraham spent much of his life wandering from one place to another, so the description of “nomad” works. So does “warrior”, for we read of Abraham’s triumphant military victory over an unstoppable confederation of four kings that devastated the entire region (Genesis 14). There is no doubt, then, that Abraham would have been classified as a “Habiru” in his day.

His descendants carried on the title. By the turn of the 1st millennium BCE, it seems that all the other Ivrim across the region had mostly disappeared, and only the descendants of Abraham, now known as the Israelites, remained. The term “Hebrew”, therefore, became synonymous with “Israelite” and later with Yehudi, “Judahite” or “Jew”. (This is probably why later commentators simply assumed that the Torah was speaking about Jewish slaves in the Exodus 21 passage discussed above.) To this day, in many cultures and languages the term for a “Jew” is still “Hebrew”. In Russian it is yivrei, in Italian it is ebreo, and in Greek evraios. In other cultures, meanwhile, “Hebrew” is used to denote the language of the Jews. It is Hebrew in English, hebräisch in German, hébreu in French.

In fact, another rabbinic theory for the origins of the term Ivri is that it refers specifically to the language. In Jewish tradition, Hebrew is lashon hakodesh, “the Holy Tongue” through which God created the universe when He spoke it into existence. The language contains those mystical powers, and because the wicked people of the Tower of Babel generation abused it, their tongues were confounded in the Great Dispersion. At that point, God divided the peoples into seventy new ethnicities, each with its own language, giving rise to the multitude of languages and dialects we have today.

A possible language tree to unify all of the world’s major tongues, based on the work of Stanford University Professor Joseph Greenberg. (Credit: angmohdan.com)

Hebrew did not disappear, though. It was retained by the two most righteous people of the time: Shem and Ever. According to tradition, they had built the first yeshiva, an academy of higher learning. Abraham had visited them there, and Jacob spent some fourteen years studying at their school. The Holy Tongue was preserved, and Jacob (who was renamed Israel) taught it to his children, and onwards it continued until it became the language of the Israelites.

Alternatively (or concurrently), Abraham learned the Hebrew language from his righteous grandfather Nachor, the great-grandson of Ever. We read of the elder Nachor (not to be confused with Nachor the brother of Abraham) that he had an uncharacteristically short lifespan for that time period (Genesis 11:24-25). This is likely because God took him away so that he wouldn’t have to live through the Great Dispersion. (Nachor would have died around the Hebrew year 1996, which is when the Dispersion occurred. The Sages similarly state that God took the righteous Methuselah, the longest-living person in the Torah, right before the Flood.)

Interestingly, we don’t see much of an association between the Hebrew language and the Hebrew people in the Tanakh. Instead, the language of the Jews is called, appropriately, Yehudit, as we read in II Kings 18:26-28, Isaiah 36:11-13, Nechemiah 13:24, and II Chronicles 32:18. The term Yehudit may be referring specifically to the dialect of Hebrew spoken by the southern people of Judah, which was naturally different than the dialect used in the northern Kingdom of Israel.

Israel and Jeshurun

The evidence leads us to believe that “Hebrew” was a wider social class in ancient times, and our ancestors identified themselves (or were identified by others) as “Hebrew”. This was the case until Jacob’s time. He was renamed Israel, and his children began to be referred to as Israelites, bnei Israel, literally the “children of Israel”. The twelve sons gave rise to an entire nation of people called Israel.

The Torah tells us that Jacob was named “Israel” because “he struggled with God, and with men, and prevailed” (Genesis 32:29). Jewish history really is little more than a long struggle of Israel with other nations, and with our God. We stray from His ways so He incites the nations against us to remind us who we are. Thankfully, throughout these difficult centuries, we have prevailed.

Within each Jew is a deep yearning to connect to Hashem, hinted to in the name Israel (ישראל), a conjunction of Yashar-El (ישר-אל), “straight to God”. This is similar to yet another name for the people of Israel that is used in the Tanakh: Yeshurun. In one place, Moses is described as “king of Yeshurun” (Deuteronomy 33:5), and in another God declares: “Fear not, Jacob my servant; Yeshurun, whom I have chosen.” (Isaiah 44:2) Yeshurun literally means “upright one”. This is what Israel is supposed to be, and why God chose us to begin with. “Israel” and “Yeshurun” have the same three-letter root, and many believe these terms were once interchangeable. The Talmud (Yoma 73b) states that upon the choshen mishpat—the special breastplate of the High Priest that contained a unique stone for each of the Twelve Tribes—was engraved not Shivtei Israel, “tribes of Israel”, but Shivtei Yeshurun, “tribes of Yeshurun”.

What is a Jew?

By the middle of the 1st century BCE, only the kingdom of the tribe of Judah remained. Countless refugees from the other eleven tribes migrated to Judah and intermingled with the people there. Then, Judah itself was destroyed, and everyone was exiled to Babylon. By the time they returned to the Holy Land—now the Persian province of Judah—the people were simply known as Yehudim, “Judahites”, or Jews. Whatever tribal origins they had were soon forgotten. Only the Levites (and Kohanim) held on to their tribal affiliation since it was necessary for priestly service.

As already touched on previously, it was no accident that it was particularly the name of Yehuda that survived. After all, the purpose of the Jewish people is to spread knowledge of God, and within the name Yehuda, יהודה, is the Ineffable Name of God itself. This name, like the people that carry it, is meant to be a vehicle for Godliness.

Perhaps this is why the term Yehudi, or Jew is today associated most with the religion of the people (Judaism). Hebrew, meanwhile, is associated with the language, or sometimes the culture. Not surprisingly, early Zionists wanted to detach themselves from the title of “Jew”, and only use the term “Hebrew”. Reform Jews, too, wanted to be called “Hebrews”. In fact, the main body of Reform in America was always called the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. It was only renamed the “Union for Reform Judaism” in 2003!

All of this begs the question: what is a Jew? What is Judaism? Is it a religion? An ethnicity or culture? A people bound by some common history or language? By the land of Israel, or by the State of Israel?

It cannot be a religion, for many Jews want absolutely nothing to do with religion. There are plenty who proudly identify as atheists and as Jews at the same time. We are certainly not a culture or ethnicity, either, for Ashkenazi Jews, Sephardi Jews, Mizrachi Jews, Ethiopian Jews, all have very different customs, traditions, and skin colours. Over the centuries, these groups have experienced very different histories, too, and have even developed dozens of other non-Hebrew Judaic languages (Yiddish, Ladino, Bukharian, and Krymchak are but a few examples).

So, what is a Jew? Rabbi Moshe Zeldman offers one terrific answer. He says that, despite the thousands of years that have passed, we are all still bnei Israel, the children of Israel, and that makes us a family. Every member of a family has his or her own unique identity and appearance, and some members of a family may be more religious than others. Family members can live in distant places, far apart from each other, and go through very different experiences. New members can marry into a family, or be adopted, and every family, of course, has its issues and conflicts. But at the end of the day, a family is strongly bound by much more than just blood, and comes together when it really matters.

And this is precisely what Moses told Korach and his supporters in this week’s parasha. Rashi (on Numbers 16:6) quotes Moses’ response:

Among each of the other nations, there are multiple sects and multiple priests, and they do not gather in one house. But we have none other than one God, one Ark, one Torah, one altar, and one High Priest…

There is something particularly singular about the Jewish people. We are one house. We are a family. Let’s act like one.

The Stones, Symbols, and Flags of the Twelve Tribes of Israel

Bamidbar is the fourth book of the Torah, and the name of its first parasha. It is known in English as “Numbers”, since it begins with a detailed census of the Jewish population in the wilderness. We are given a description of how the nation was organized in their camps: the tribes of Yehuda, Issachar, and Zevulun were positioned towards the East; Reuven, Shimon, and Gad to the South; Ephraim, Menashe, and Binyamin to the West; and Dan, Asher, and Naphtali to the North. The Levites and kohanim were in the centre. We are told that each of the tribes had their own flag, just as in a large military formation. What did these flags look like? Which colours did they bear, and what symbols graced them?

Modern Rendition of the Choshen, the High Priest's Breastplate

Modern Rendition of the Choshen, the High Priest’s Breastplate

In an intriguing passage, the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:7) provides a summary of the flags’ appearance. It begins by telling us that the colours of the flags corresponded to the colours of the stones that were on the Choshen (or Breastplate) of the High Priest. The High Priest was commanded to wear a special breastplate that had twelve precious stones, one for each of the twelve tribes. Each stone had a symbolic meaning unique to that particular tribe.

Jasmine flower

Jasmine flower

 

Reuven’s was the odem, a ruby, and so his flag was red. The symbol on the flag was the duda’im, flowers that Reuven had picked for his mother Leah (Genesis 30:14). It was on account of these flowers that Leah went on to have three more children. Duda’im is often translated as “mandrakes”, though according to Rashi they were of the Jasmine plant.

Shimon had the pitdah, probably topaz, and his flag was green. The symbol upon the flag was an image of the city of Shechem. This is in memory of the episode where Shimon (together with his younger brother Levi) took up swords to decimate the Shechem population after the abduction and rape of their sister Dinah (Genesis 34).

Levi’s was bareket, possibly an emerald or onyx, and the flag had three bands of colours: white, black, and red. Upon the flag was an image of the Urim V’Tumim, the mystical objects kept within the High Priest’s breastplate that were apparently used for communication with the Divine.

Modern-day Coat of Arms of Jerusalem, with the Lion of Judah

Modern-day Coat of Arms of Jerusalem, with the Lion of Judah

Yehuda had nofech, a stone more difficult to identify, with different opinions holding that it was either red, green, or blue. The Midrash here describes the flag as blue like the skies. Emblazoned upon it was the image of a lion. Before his passing, Jacob blessed each of his twelve sons, and in his blessing, he described Yehuda as a lion (Genesis 49:9). The lion would later become associated with the Davidic dynasty of kings (which hails from the tribe of Yehuda), and with the seat of their throne in Jerusalem, a city that goes by a number of names, including Ariel (“God’s lion”).

Issachar’s was a sapphire (or lapis lazuli) stone, and his flag was of a very dark blue colour. Upon it was the image of the sun and moon. The Midrash explains why, citing I Chronicles 12:33, which describes the people of Issachar as being wise in astronomical and chronological matters.

Zevulun had a yahalom, today’s Hebrew word for diamond, though there may be other possibilities. Zevulun’s flag was white, and bore a depiction of a ship, again based on Jacob’s blessing to the tribe to be successful sea-going merchants, and live along the Israeli coastline (Genesis 49:13).

Dan had leshem, amber, with a flag of a sapphire-like colour (despite the fact that amber is typically golden-red). Upon the flag was the symbol of a snake, once more based on Jacob’s blessing (v. 17). Likewise, Gad’s flag bore the image of a military camp (v. 19), on a black and white background, based on Gad’s stone of shevo, a black agate or obsidian.

Amethyst, the Greek root of which is literally "not intoxicating"

Amethyst, the Greek root of which is literally “not intoxicating”

Naphtali had achlamah, the purple amethyst. His flag was of a similar colour, described by the Midrash as pure wine that isn’t too strong. It is interesting that the Midrash should compare it to wine, since amethyst was believed in ancient times to keep one sober and prevent drunkenness. Upon the flag was an image of a gazelle, also from Jacob’s blessing (v. 21).

Asher’s stone of tarshish is certainly the least identifiable of the dozen. Opinions range from chrysolite and coal to flint and hyacinth. The Midrash doesn’t help in clarifying the matter, describing the flag as similar to the colour of an expensive jewel stone worn by women. Whatever the case, the image upon the flag was that of an olive tree, since Jacob blessed Asher with fatty riches and delicacies (v. 20).

In the encampment, the tribes of Ephraim and Menashe were counted separately. On the breastplate, however, they were counted as one, under the banner of their father Yosef. This is because Ephraim and Menashe were not Jacob’s sons, but his grandsons, and on his deathbed, Jacob elevated their status to that of his own sons. Thus, we always maintain that there are twelve tribes: if we include the priestly Levites in the count, then Ephraim and Menashe are combined into one, Yosef, to ensure twelve. If we do not include the Levites since, after all, they are in a different class (and did not inherit any land for that matter), Ephraim and Menashe are counted independently of each other.

Malachite

Malachite

The stone of Yosef was shoham, which also has a number of opinions to its identity. The Midrash tells us that the flag was black, which supports the suggestion that shoham is malachite, a stone that has dark green and black colours. Ephraim’s black flag had a bull depicted on it. This is drawn from Moses’ final blessing to the tribes of Yosef (Deuteronomy 33:17), which the Midrash quotes. (Jacob’s blessing also mentions the word for a bull, but it is translated differently there.) The Midrash also tells us that the bull represents Joshua, who was of the tribe of Ephraim.

Based on the same verse in Moses’ blessing, Menashe’s black flag had a re’em, a horned animal sometimes translated as a unicorn, or perhaps an ox or even a rhinoceros. Again, the Midrash points out that this represented the Biblical judge Gideon, who was of the tribe of Menashe.

Last but not least, Binyamin’s flag famously depicted a wolf, based on Jacob’s description (Genesis 49:27). The stone of Binyamin was the yashfe, another unidentified one. The Midrash tells us that Binyamin’s flag had a mix of the colours of all the other tribal flags. This is likely due to the fact that Binyamin was the beloved little brother of the family, and all of his older siblings, though sometimes at odds with one another, always united to protect him. It is said that this is the reason why the Holy of Holies in the Temple was specifically in the territory of Binyamin (while the rest of the Temple was in the land of Yehuda), since the whole nation put aside their differences and united as one when it came to the smallest of their brothers.

The Eighth Day of Pesach: Isaac, the Afikoman, and Mashiach ben Yosef

Of the three patriarchs, the holiday of Passover is most intimately tied to Isaac. According to tradition, Isaac was born on Passover. Commenting on Genesis 18:10, Rashi explains that the angels’ visit to Abraham and Sarah occurred on Passover, and the angels promised a son to be born – Isaac – exactly one year from that time. This important detail helps to solve a key chronological problem. Earlier, God had told Abraham that his offspring would be subjugated for 400 years. However, when one makes an accounting of the timeline, they will find that the Jews were only in Egypt for a total of 210 years! How could this be?

Commenting on that verse (Genesis 15:13), Rashi calculates how the Exodus occurred exactly 400 years from the birth of Isaac. Thus, God’s word was perfectly fulfilled, since Isaac was the very first of Abraham and Sarah’s offspring. Although Isaac was not subjugated in the sense that the Jews in Egypt were, nonetheless he was certainly troubled by the Canaanites and Philistines, as the Torah records, and was considered a “foreigner” in the Holy Land throughout his life, since God had not yet officially granted the land to the Jews, nor did Isaac settle it permanently.

Digging further, if Isaac was born on the first day of Passover, then his brit milah (circumcision) would have been on the eighth day of Passover. Though the eighth day is not celebrated in Israel, it is celebrated in the diaspora. According to Chassidic custom, as initiated by the Baal Shem Tov (the founder of Chassidism) the eighth day of Passover is associated with Mashiach. In fact, it is customary to hold a Seudat Mashiach, a “Mashiach Feast” on the final afternoon of the holiday, complete with matzahs and four cups of wine. Just as Passover celebrates the First Redemption (led by Moses), the last day of Passover is meant to represent the Final Redemption (led by Mashiach). And it is only commemorated in the diaspora since, after all, it is diaspora Jewry that needs the Final Redemption and the Ingathering of the Exiles more than anyone.

Finally, during the Pesach seder we have three matzahs to go along with the Pesach platter. It is taught that these three matzahs represent the three patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. One of the fifteen steps in the seder is yachatz, where the middle of the three matzahs is broken in half. The larger half is covered and hidden as the afikoman, while the smaller half remains at the seder table. Thus, the matzah which we break is specifically the one associated with Isaac.

So then, what is the deeper connection between Mashiach and the Redemption, Passover and the Afikoman, and the forefather Isaac?

Who is Mashiach?

The Jewish mystics teach that there are actually two messiahs: Mashiach ben Yosef, and Mashiach ben David. This is derived from a number of texts and principles. One of these is the fact that the Tanakh has a clear pattern when it comes to major national events: first comes a descendant of the matriarch Rachel to usher it in, and then comes a descendant of the matriarch Leah to complete the mission. For example, Yosef (a son of Rachel) came to Egypt first to set the stage, and then came Yehuda (a son of Leah) to prepare the land for the actual arrival of the rest of the family (see Genesis 46:28). First, Joshua (of the tribe of Ephraim, and a descendant of Rachel) brought the Jews into the land of Israel following the Exodus, then Othniel (from the tribe of Yehuda) finished the job of conquering and settling the land. The first king of Israel was Saul (from the tribe of Benjamin, and a descendant of Rachel) and only then came King David (again of Yehuda). Thus, in every major event, we see clearly that first comes a descendant of Rachel to prepare the way and fight the battles, and only afterwards comes a descendant of Leah to finish the job.

In the same way, the Sages teach that first comes Mashiach ben Yosef (a descendant of Rachel), whose mission is to fight all the battles on behalf of Israel, and only after this comes Mashiach ben David (a descendant of Leah), who completes the messianic role. And who is Mashiach ben Yosef? Amazingly, the Sages say that this is none other than Isaac, reincarnated!

Of all the patriarchs and major Torah figures, Isaac is spoken of the least in Scripture. Hardly anything is said of him. It is explained that this is because Isaac has not completed his mission, and his story is not over. He has yet to fight many battles. The Sages permute his name – Itzchak (יצחק) – into the words Ketz Chai (קץ חי), literally that he “will live [again] at the End”. This is one reason why Itzchak (which means “will laugh”) is in the future tense. Isaac is Mashiach ben Yosef, who will come at the End to fight the final battles. Beautifully, the gematria of Itzchak (יצחק) is 208, equivalent to Ben Yosef (בן יוסף), also 208.

This brings us back to Passover and the afikoman. The middle matzah is broken in half. One half – the one associated with the patriarch Isaac – remains on the seder plate, together with the other matzahs that symbolize the other patriarchs. The other half – the larger one – is hidden away, only to be revealed at the very end. This is symbolic of Isaac’s final role as that of Mashiach, whose arrival is also concealed until the very ‘End of Days’. And on the eighth and final day of the Passover holiday – the day on which Isaac was circumcised and entered into the Covenant – we hold a ‘Mashiach Feast’ to celebrate the coming Final Redemption, may it arrive speedily and in our days.

Chag sameach!

Was Joseph Really Sold By His Brothers?

‘Joseph Sold by His Brethren’ by Gustave Doré

This week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev, describes the infamous sale of Joseph into slavery by his very own brothers. At least, this is the commonly-held view of what had transpired. A closer examination reveals that the story is a little more complex than that, and the brothers are not as guilty as they may seem at first glance.

First, the background: The parasha begins by telling us “These are the geneologies of Jacob…” (Genesis 37:2) and then only mentioning Joseph. What about all of Jacob’s other children? They are not mentioned, and the text continues to describe how Joseph was the favourite of his father. It’s as if Jacob didn’t even pay attention to any of his other children. He knits a special garment just for Joseph, and spends most of his time with this son, while the others are off shepherding in faraway pastures. Not surprisingly, this caused some tension among the sons.

The tension was further exacerbated by the fact that Joseph would apparently “snitch” on his brothers. Though the commentaries suggest that this was done with positive intentions, with the hopes of improving his brothers’ conduct, nonetheless it may have been misinterpreted as a form of lashon hara – evil speech. On top of this, Joseph had a number of dreams where he saw himself dominating over his family, with the others bowing down to him. He proudly shared these stories with his siblings. Naturally, the brothers thought that he was some kind of megalomaniac who wished to rule over them. They soon began thinking of a way to get rid of him.

Many question how it was possible for such great people, the sons of Israel, and the progenitors of the Twelve Tribes, to even think of such actions. However, there is quite a bit of logic in their plans. The brothers knew that essentially every preceding generation in their family line had at least one wayward son who was wicked. In their father Jacob’s time, it was their uncle Esau, and in their grandfather Isaac’s time, it was his half-brother Ishmael. Even before this, Abraham had Haran, the sons of Noah had Ham, and all the way back to Eden where Abel had Cain. There was a clear pattern of one child doing more harm than good. The sons of Israel thought that Joseph played that role in their generation. Their intention was to get him out of the way before he could do some serious damage. But how?

Putting Joseph to the Test

Led by Shimon, the brothers said, “And now, let us kill him, and we will send him into one of the pits, and we will say, ‘A wild beast devoured him,’ and we will see what will become of his dreams.” (v. 20) Rashi draws from the Midrash when commenting on this verse, pointing out an apparent inconsistency: why would the brothers say “we will see what will become of his dreams” if they were going to kill him? Obviously, if they were going to kill him, his dreams would not materialize!

What Rashi is telling us here is that the brothers essentially put Joseph to a test. If he was indeed the wicked one, as they believed, then he deserved to die, and they would succeed in killing him, proving that his dreams were nothing more than crazy fantasies. On the other hand, if the dreams were truly prophetic, and Joseph was really the greatest among them, then they could never succeed in killing him anyway, and his dreams would materialize after all.

The brothers agreed that this is the best course of action, but Reuben protested. “And Reuben said to them, ‘Do not shed blood! Send him into this pit, which is in the wilderness, but do not lay a hand upon him’” (v. 22). Reuben agreed that Joseph should be put to the test, but they should certainly not be trying to kill him. Instead, they should just leave him in a pit in the wilderness. If he were to be saved from such an ordeal, it would be proof enough.

At the same time, Reuben intended to return to the pit and save Joseph himself. Reuben, the elder of the brothers, understood that the others had taken their understanding of God’s ways in the wrong direction. They thought that God would save Joseph if He so wished. Reuben understood that the world didn’t necessarily work that way. At the end of the day, God gave man the gift of free will. People can use this gift for the good, or for the bad, and God rarely intervenes. If the brothers tried to kill Joseph, he could indeed die, despite his greatness and prophetic dreams. (An analogy to this twisted logic may be one where a murderer says that since he succeeded in killing another, God must have wanted it that way, and he should be exonerated! Of course, this is completely false.) Reuben recognized his brothers’ flawed logic, and convinced them not to kill Joseph. Nonetheless, they would still throw him into the pit.

After they did so, they sat down for a meal and spotted a caravan of Ishmaelite merchants passing by on their way to Egypt. Yehuda got an idea: “Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and our hand shall not be upon him, for he is our brother, our flesh” (v. 27). Instead of killing Joseph, Yehuda proposed selling him into slavery. Why would he suggest such a thing? Did the brothers really need twenty pieces of silver? We have already read previously how wealthy the family was; it is unthinkable that the ten of them would sell their brother for just two silver coins each. No, Yehuda’s suggestion had far more meaning. Joseph had dreamt and told his brothers that he would one day rule over them. So, what could be better to test Joseph than to sell him into slavery, the very opposite of what he dreamt? Can it ever be possible for a slave to rise to the level of royalty, especially in a foreign land? If this could happen, it would indeed be miraculous, and no better proof would be necessary. The brothers would sell Joseph into slavery. But somebody beat them to it.


This is an excerpt from Garments of Light – 70 Illuminating Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion & Holidays.