The Fall and Rise of Yosef

  • Rav Yosef Zvi Rimon

Parshat HaShavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion



The Fall and Rise of Yosef

By Rav Zvi Shimon


This week's parasha marks the beginning of the narrative of the children of Ya'akov, which continues until the end of Sefer Bereishit and prepares the foundations for Sefer Shemot. Yosef is sold into slavery and taken to Egypt where he is elevated, after many trials and tribulations, to the position of viceroy. Due to this position, he manages to save his family from famine and invites them to dwell in Egypt, where he continues to sustain them.


Although the characters act of their own volition and initiative, and, as opposed to the rest of Sefer Bereishit, God's name is barely mentioned, His presence is nevertheless felt behind the scenes. God is functioning "be-nistar," in a concealed way. Yosef, for example, has what are apparently prophetic dreams about his future dominance over the House of Ya'akov. In addition, Rashi comments on the verse, "So he [Ya'akov] sent him [Yosef] from the valley of Chevron" (37:14):


"But Chevron is on a mountain! [So why does the Torah speak of the valley ('emek') of Chevron?] The valley of Chevron alludes to the profound ('amuka') counsel of the righteous one (Abraham) who is buried in Chevron to fulfill that which God told Abraham in the brit bein ha-betarim: 'Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed...' (15:13)."


Ya'akov sends Yosef to verify the welfare of his brothers tending the flocks at Shekhem. This is a fateful act which allows the brothers to conspire, out of their father's sight, to sell Yosef into slavery - an act which leads to Yosef's being taken down to Egypt. The simple meaning of the clause "the valley of Chevron" is that Ya'akov accompanied his son to a valley situated at the outskirts of Chevron (see the Sforno). The Sages, however, through a play on words, homiletically interpret the word "emek" (valley) as "amok" (profound) and thus relate Ya'akov's sending of Yosef to a divine master plan for the creation of the Jewish people in Egypt.


God's part in the unfolding of events is also attested to by Yosef himself after he reveals his true identity to his brothers in Egypt:

"God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; and he has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt." (45:7,8)


This is also the approach adopted by the Psalmist:

"He [God] called for a famine upon the land; He broke every staff of bread. He [God] sent a man before them, Yosef, sold into slavery." (Tehillim 105:16-17)


It is the will of God, then, that Yosef be taken down to Egypt. While man functions independently and is responsible for his actions, he is nevertheless also a tool for the accomplishment of God's will.


Accepting that the narrative is part of a divine plan, we must attempt to understand the outline of this plan. If God desires that Yosef arrive to Egypt in advance of his family and thus help facilitate their settlement there, why does it occur in such a tortuous manner? Why does Yosef have to suffer the humiliation and the agony of being thrown into a pit and then sold off as a lowly slave? Is there not a less painful way of accomplishing the objective?


I believe the answer to these questions lies in the narrative in the beginning of our parasha which recounts the origins of the brothers' hatred towards Yosef. As you read the following verses, pay attention to the number of times the brothers' hatred is mentioned and the different explanations given for this hatred. We shall then examine the way various parshanim (exegetes) extracted meaning from a close reading of this passage.

"These are the generations of Ya'akov. Yosef, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brethren; and the lad was with the sons of Bilha, and with the sons of Zilpa, his father's wives; and Yosef brought to his father their evil report. Now Yisrael loved Yosef more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat with long sleeves. And when his brethren saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.

And Yosef dreamed a dream, and he told it his brethren: and they hated him yet the more. And he said to them, Hear, I pray you, this dream which I have dreamed: for, behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and, lo, my sheaf arose, and also stood upright; and, behold, your sheaves stood round about, and bowed down to my sheaf.

And his brethren said to him, Shalt thou indeed reign over us? or shalt thou indeed have dominion over us?

And they hated him yet the more for his dreams and for his words." (Bereishit 37:2-8)




Our narrative begins with an uncharacteristic mention of Yosef's young age of seventeen. We may infer from this that his age is of importance for the understanding of the subsequent verses. The Torah, then, informs us the he was a "na'ar" (translated: a lad) with the sons of his father's wives Bilha and Zilpa. The commentators offer different interpretations of the word "na'ar."


Rasag (Rav Sa'adia Gaon) interprets simply that Yosef grew with the sons of Bilha and Zilpa; he spent his adolescent years in their company. Ibn Ezra interprets that due to Yosef's young age, he was used as a servant by the sons of Bilha and Zilpa. Thus, "na'ar" is used here not in the sense of a lad (as in the interpretation of Rasag) but rather in the sense of a servant (compare Shemot 33:11). The Ramban interprets conversely that the other sons served Yosef and cared for him due to his young age. "Na'ar" here is, thus, being used in its usual sense, a lad. Rav David Zvi Hoffmann, by contrast, interprets "na'ar" to mean a student, and suggests that Yosef was learning the trade of being a shepherd from his brothers. He, thus, connects the clause that Yosef was a "na'ar" to the beginning of the verse, "Yosef tended the flocks with his brothers."


Rashi, building on the interpretation that "na'ar" means a lad, expands the term beyond a description of age to include a description of behavior: "For he would do the things a lad does, such as arranging his hair and fixing his eyes so as to appear handsome." By stating that Yosef is a "na'ar" (lad), the Torah informs us, according to Rashi, of Yosef's childish behavior. Sforno similarly suggests that it was Yosef's young age which caused him to sin and bring bad reports of his brothers to Ya'akov (verse 2). Yosef lacked the wisdom and prudence to think of the possible repercussions of his actions. Scripture mentions that Yosef is a lad to explain the reason for Yosef's misguided behavior, which causes the animosity that his brothers feel towards him.




The end of verse 2 states that Yosef brought bad reports of his brothers to his father. Which brothers is Scripture referring to? Is it just the sons of Bilha and Zilpa (Ramban), just the sons of Leah (Rashi and Rashbam) or all the brothers (the Sages)?


The different interpretations also effect our understanding of the content of the bad report. Sforno connects the end of the verse, the bad report, to its very beginning, "Yosef tended the flocks with his brothers." He suggests that the bad report related to the brothers' improper tending of the sheep; Yosef would tend the sheep with his brothers and then report back to Ya'akov on his brothers' incompetence as shepherds. As opposed to Sforno, who connects the bad report to the beginning of the verse, the Rashbam relates it to the middle clause: "and the lad was with the sons of Bilha and Zilpa." He posits that the bad report was only against the sons of Leah and suggests that its content related to their improper treatment of the sons of Bilha and Zilpa, the maidservants. Yosef trthe latter respectfully, while the other brothers related to them as slaves.


Rashi cites an interpretation of the Talmudic Sages:

"He would report to his father that they ate flesh cut from a living animal (see Bereishit 8:4), and degraded the sons of the handmaids by calling them slaves, and were suspect regarding incest. And for these three reports Yosef was punished: 'they slaughtered a young goat' when selling Yosef (37:31) and they did not eat it alive; and concerning the evil which he told about them, that they call their brothers slaves, as a slave was Yosef sold; and concerning the incest which he told about them, Potiphar's wife was sent against him (see 39:7)."

Rashi thus explains all the tribulations which Yosef experiences as punishment for being a tattle-tale against his brothers.




The continuation of our narrative presents the causes for the brothers' hatred of Yosef. These can be divided into two categories delineated by Scripture itself:


1) Verse 4 informs us of one cause of hatred: "And when his brothers saw that their father loved him [Yosef] more than any of his brothers, they hated him." It is not so much an outcome of Yosef's behavior as much as a result of Ya'akov's conduct and preferential treatment of Yosef.


2) Verse 8 is a second cause of hatred: "And they hated him [Yosef] yet the more for his dreams and for his words." Yosef's behavior and thoughts aroused animosity on the part of his brothers.




We will begin by analyzing the first cause for the brothers' hatred. "Now Yisrael loved Yosef more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat with long sleeves" (37:3). Ya'akov loved Yosef because he was a "ben zekunim" (translated: the child of his old age) and as a result of this love Ya'akov made him a special coat. Rashi interprets "ben zekunim" as a determination of the time of Yosef's birth: "For he was born to him in the time of his old age." Yosef was the last son born to Ya'akov during his years in the house of Lavan, so Ya'akov had a special regard for him. This, despite the fact that Benjamin was born after Yosef and was actually the youngest. It is this difficulty which perhaps prompted the Targum Onkelos to translate "ben zekunim" not as "the child of his old age" but rather "a wise son." The Hebrew root "zaken" here takes on the secondary meaning of wisdom and not its primary meaning of aged. According to Onkelos, our verse is not a chronological determination but rather a personal attribute of Yosef, namely his wisdom.


The Ramban offers a very novel interpretation:

"It was the custom of the elders to take one of their younger sons to be with them to attend them. He would constantly lean on his arm, never being separated from him, and he would be called 'ben zekunim' because he attended him in his old age."


"Ben zekunim" is not a chronological determination, nor a personal attribute, but rather a function, a position. Ya'akov designates Yosef to be his personal helper, a then common practice among aged parents requiring assistance. This is, of course, not only a function but also an honor; Yosef is the chosen son. This creates jealousy and subsequent animosity towards Yosef.


Scripture relates that Ya'akov manifested his love for Yosef by making him a "ketonet pasim," a special coat. What type of coat was it? What is the meaning of the word "pasim?" According to the Septuagint (an ancient Jewish translation of the Bible into Greek), the coat contained many colors. According to Rashi, the word "pasim" denotes the material out of which the coat was made, which was fine wool, or according to Rav Saadia Gaon, silk.


Our Sages interpret "pasim" as a designation of the length of the garment that reached the "pas," the end, of the hands and feet. Shadal (Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzatto, Italy, 1800-1865) comments that the length of the coat is a sign of stature and liberty. It signifies Yosef's freedom from any labor, for it is not practical to work in such long attire. A similar term is used in the book of Shemuel to describe the clothing of the daughters of the king: "And she [Tamar] had a long-sleeved robe ('ketonet pasim') upon her, for with such robes were the king's daughters who were virgins appareled" (II Shemuel 13:18). The brothers are jealous of the coat not only for its beauty but also for what it represents - power and nobility. Yosef is the "ben zekunim" and he dons regal attire as a testimony to this status.




The brothers' hatred is not only a result of Ya'akov's preferential treatment of Yosef; it is also a result of Yosef's own behavior and, more specifically, his fantastic dreams: "And they hated him [Yosef] yet the more for his dreams and for his words" (37:8). What "words" is the verse alluding to? Both Rashi and Rashbam interpret the "words" as the "bad reports" about his brothers which Yosef told Ya'akov (verse 2). The Ramban disagrees and interprets the "words" as Yosef's recounting of the dream: "They hated him for the dreams and for relating them in a BOASTFUL manner." Yosef is completely engrossed in the idea of leading his brothers. He, the young lad, is already making claims for the leadership! The Sforno points out that he not only recounts the dreams but also asks his brothers to interpret them, stressing their content and thus exacerbating the situation. Why did Yosef recount his dreams to his brothers? Did he not know that this would arouse antipathy?


Radak explains that Yosef purposefully recounted the dreams to aggravate and pain his brothers since he knew that they hated him. The Sforno does not go so far, but, continuing his exegetical direction (see above regarding "na'ar"), explains that Yosef's recounting of the dream is due to his lack of wisdom and his young age. The purpose of the opening verse of the narrative that states Yosef's age is to explain his absurd behavior. Yosef is trying to impress his brothers and gain their appreciation. His behavior, however, is accomplishing the exact opposite. He simply lacks the wisdom to anticipate the repercussions of his actions.


Let us return to our original question: If God desires that Yosef go down to Egypt, why did it have to occur in such a tortuous manner? Why did Yosef have to suffer the humiliation and the agony of being thrown into a pit and then sold off as a lowly slave?


The Torah describes the brothers' assault on Yosef as follows: "When Yosef came up to his brothers, they stripped Yosef of his coat, the long-sleeved coat that was on him, and took him and cast him into a pit" (37:23-24). The brothers first rip off his coat, since it symbolizes the special status that Yosef enjoyed. They then throw him into a pit and subsequently sell him off into slavery. Yosef experiences a dramatic fall. He deteriorates from being the preferred son with special privileges to being a powerless slave. I believe this fall is not accidental.


Yosef, as his prophetic dreams predict, is indeed destined to lead his brothers. His special talents, recognized by his father Ya'akov, make him fit for this task. Yosef, however, has a serious problem. He is completely engrossed in the idea of ruling over his brothers. He has become drunk with the prospects of power. He behaves pompously and smugly towards his brothers and they hate him for this. He reacts immaturely to the prospect of being designated leader. He holds it to his merit, and instead of preparing for the responsibilities of leadership, he behaves condescendingly towards his brothers. It is this immaturity, pointed out by the Sforno, and his misunderstanding of the function of leadership, which require correction.


So long as Yosef relates to his leadership position as he does, he is not worthy of it. He is stripped of his coat and left totally powerless. He must realize the true source and objective of his power. For this purpose, Yosef sinks to the lowest stratum of society, to slavery. Through his downfall he realizes his vulnerability. He is no longer the arrogant lad who flaunts his self-perceived and importance. Yosef realizes that he misunderstood his dreams. The purpose of his future greatness is not so that his family bow down to him. The purpose of his power, intimated by the dream of the sheaves of grain, is that he sustain his family during the famine. His greatness is not his own; it stems from God and was bestowed upon him for the purpose of accomplishing God's plan for the building of the nation of Yisrael.


It is only after Yosef comes to the realization that God is the source of his power that his dreams are realized. When Yosef's brothers go down to Egypt, they do not recognize that the Egyptian ruler speaking to them is none other then their brother Yosef. This is due not only to the change in his external appearance, but to the change in his personality. He is no longer the presumptuous lad who flaunts and boasts of his greatness at every possible opportunity. He is Yosef, viceroy of Egypt and sustainer of the House of Ya'akov.




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