In the Footsteps of Yosef and the Midrash

  • Harav Yaakov Medan
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Parshat HaShavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion

This parasha series is dedicated
in memory of Michael Jotkowitz, z"l.



In memory of Chana Friedman z"l (Chana bat Yaakov u'Devorah) on her ninth yahrzeit.

This shiur is in memory of Israel Koschitzky zt"l, whose yahrzeit falls today, on the 19th of Kislev. May the world-wide dissemination of Torah through the VBM be a fitting tribute to a man whose lifetime achievements exemplified the love of Eretz Yisrael and Torat Yisrael.

Please pray for a refuah sheleimah for Chaya Chanina bat Marcel.

From the Valley of Chevron to the Valley of Dotan:
In the Footsteps of Yosef and the Midrash

By Rav Yaakov Medan


Yosef's journey from his father's house and the valley of Chevron to Shekhem and Dotan, to check on his brothers' welfare, introduces the reader to three important places in the region, as well as to aspects of the shepherds' way of life, caravans of traders, and wild beasts. The geography and cameos of life reflected in the parasha are a rich source of interest and inspiration to those who appreciate biblical "realia," and they are justifiably enthusiastic about analyzing it.

But this journey is at the same time the beginning of an important historical process - the Egyptian exile. In addition, it is filled with heavy moral problems. For these reasons, it is a source of much discussion and philosophizing among the Sages of the Midrash, who usually examine events principally from these two perspectives - the historical and the moral.

In this shiur, we shall address the relationship between these two approaches - the "realistic" and the midrashic - and the question of whether there are connections between them, or whether they are parallel paths with no points of contact.

Let us clarify the question: the realists seize the details of the situation, related to the time and place of the action, as elements that are critical for an understanding of it. The Midrash, specifically because of its broad scope and perspective, is generally perceived as ignoring the time and place of the action in order to connect it to the chain of history as a whole, in all its periods.

The Midrash, in this view, draws the essence or moral of the story out of its limiting details in order to present it as a general moral statement that is applicable at all times and in all places. If this is the case, then the realistic path and the midrashic path are indeed parallel roads that cannot meet.



"He sent him from the valley of Chevron, and he came to Shekhem." (37:14)

"[What do we mean by 'the valley of Chevron'?] Is not Chevron on the mountain, as it is written, 'They ascended through the Negev and came to Chevron'? Rather, [the phrase 'valley (emek) of Chevron' means] from a profound (amok) piece of advice from the righteous one who was buried in Chevron, to fulfill what was told to Avraham in the Covenant of the Parts - 'Your descendants shall be strangers [in a land that is not theirs, and they shall serve them and suffer four hundred years].'" (Rashi)

It is worth noting that Rashi, who did not merit to see Eretz Yisrael, brings proof from the verses as to Chevron's location in the mountains. The Midrash, authored mainly by the Sages of Eretz Yisrael, asks briefly: "But Chevron is in the mountain, and here it says that he sent him from the valley of Chevron!" (Bereishit Rabba 84, 11) - bringing no proof at all. The Sages of the Midrash were obviously familiar with Chevron, and knew that it was located in the mountains. They also knew that the inhabited places in the mountain region were on the mountain tops, not in the valleys and wadis. The mountaintops were easier places to defend, and suffered less from gushing water and mud; the wadis and valleys were better suited for agriculture, because of the abundant water supply and silt.

However, the biblical "reality" enthusiasts prefer the view that Yaakov lived in the valley over any other theory. Even if the city of Chevron was situation on the mountain [1], they contend that Yaakov lived in the valley, in a wadi in Al-Kina, at the foot of the hill on its northern side [2]. It is also possible, they maintain, that Yaakov lived to the west of the hill, in Wadi Tufach (next to the Tufach junction on the "peace road," at the site where the ancient oak tree is identified as "eshel Avraham," next to the Muscovia) - a place with a legend from the Byzantine period that identifies it with Elonei Mamrei [3].

In their view, Yosef was indeed dispatched from Yaakov's home in the Chevron valley. If there is any reason to delve into the significance of the names of this valley, it is only because of the uniqueness of the expression "valley of Chevron," and because the Torah chooses not to use the more commonly accepted name: Elonei Mamrei. Perhaps this is how Rashi understood it, for if the general location of Chevron is on the mountain, while the "valley of Chevron" is not a whole region, like the Valley of Sara or the Valley of Dotan, but rather just a wadi in a mountainous area, then there would be no reason for the Torah to note the name of this valley.

But as we have said, it seems that the authors of the Midrash recognized the dwelling places in Chevron, both Tel Chevron (the "hill of Chevron") and the place known today as Elonei Mamrei [4]. The places of habitation were naturally on the mountain, and therefore the Midrash has no problem with the wording of the verses; it addresses only the question of the situation: if indeed Yaakov lived on the mountain, why did he send Yosef from the valley?


We find three principal answers to our question above.

The first is to be found in the midrash quoted above by Rashi: "He went to fulfill the profound counsel that God had placed between Himself and the pleasant friend [Avraham], who was buried in Chevron."

In my view (I learned this from R. Chanan Porat), Chazal never meant to detract from the significance of the valley in their interpretation. But the valley (Wadi Al-Kina, Wadi Chevron mentioned above) was not where Yaakov lived. Rather, the valley is the location of Me'arat ha-Makhpela. The cave is not right next to the city, but rather at the edge of the field of Efron the Hittite (23:9). The fields, as we have already noted, were in the valley, which was full of silt and saturated with water. Efron's field, together with all the trees that were in the field and the cave together with them, were purchased by Avraham.

In the expression "valley of Chevron," the Sages detected a hint at Me'arat ha-Makhpela. Perhaps they understood that before Yaakov sent Yosef on his dangerous journey northward, he went with his son to pray at the grave of grandfather Avraham in the valley of Chevron, and from there he sent him. In this interpretation, Chazal perceive a clear connection between what Avraham saw at the time of the deep sleep that fell upon him, in the Covenant between the Parts, when he was told, "Your descendants will be strangers... for four hundred years" (15:12-13), and what his grandson Yosef saw in his dream. Both visions were about to start being fulfilled with Yosef's departure from Me'arat ha-Makhpela on his way to Shekhem.

A similar idea is presented by Chazal concerning Kalev ben Yefuneh, in the commentary on the verse, "They ascended from the Negev and came [written in the singular - i.e., 'he came'] as far as Chevron." They teach the phrase "he came" refers to Kalev, who went to prostrate himself on the graves of the forefathers because of the counsel of the other spi(see Sota 34a and Rashi on Bamidbar 13:22).

Chazal apparently understood that the spies ascended via the valley of Arad, on the ancient road leading up from Negev ha-Keini and Negev Kalev, through Karmel, Ma'on and Zif, on the way to Chevron.

If our assumption is correct - that the spies entered the land through the eastern route rather than the western route - then it is entirely possible that, having trekked through the low places, arrived at Chevron via Wadi Kina from the south, up to the east of Chevron. Since in many midrashim Chazal understand the expression "up to," or "as far as" ('ad), as meaning "up to but not including," the words "he came as far as Chevron" may be understood to mean "up to somewhere close to Chevron," and from this direction, of Wadi Kina - up to Me'arat ha-Makhpela. This is the basis of Chazal's explanation that "he came as far as Chevron" refers to Kalev, "who went to pray at the graves of the forefathers."

This midrash sits well with the description of Yosef setting off for his dangerous journey after going to pray at the graves of the forefathers (at this time, it was the grave of Avraham and Sara alone). The problem that Kalev faced - a plot by the princes of ten of the tribes - was similar to the problem that Yosef had faced. Yosef's prayer signifies the beginning of the "profound counsel" - the prophecy of "Your descendants will be strangers." Kalev's prayer at the same site signifies the purpose of that counsel: the prophecy that "the fourth generation will return here."


The second answer is anchored in the following explanation, offered by the Seforno:

"'He sent him from the valley of Chevron' - he escorted him [from the city on the mountain] as far as the valley."

There is a parallel Midrash Sekhel Tov:

"'He sent him' - he escorted him, with a view to returning."

The Seforno, it seems, had difficulty with the same question that troubled Rashi, Radak, and the Midrash, and which we addressed above: why did Yaakov sent Yosef from the valley, if Chevron is situated on the mountain? The Seforno solves the problem very simply: although Yaakov lived on the mountain, he escorted Yosef to the valley, and then parted from him. If indeed Yaakov lived in Tel Chevron, then he apparently must have escorted Yosef to the Wadi of Chevron, but if he lived in the place known today as Elonei Mamrei (on the hill next to the "Glass Junction"), then he accompanied him northwards, to Wadi A-Zarka, which lies between Chevron and Chalchul - a wadi that joins up with Wadi Netziv, and onwards to Wadi Guvrin.

Ba'al ha-Turim, on the other hand, arrives at the idea that Yaakov accompanied Yosef on his way from a completely different direction:

"He accompanied him as far as Chevron.

He said to him: Father, return home.

Yaakov answered: It is written, 'Our hands have not spilled this blood' - meaning that [the elders of the city] did not send him off without escorting him.

And with these words he parted from him. And it was thus that Yosef remembered him, and this is as it is written, 'He saw the wagons (agalot) that Yosef had sent.'" [The "agalot" were a sign to Yaakov that Yosef remembered the last subject they had discussed, the "egla arufa."]

The Ba'al ha-Turim is referring here to the midrash which teaches: "He gave them a sign as to what he was engaged in when they parted: the law of the egla arufa (heifer whose neck is broken)" - Rashi 45:27 and Bereishit Rabba 94:3. The Ba'al ha-Turim is not hinting that he had a problem with the "valley of Chevron" when he speaks of the mitzva of escorting that Yaakov fulfilled with regard to Yosef, nor does the Seforno hint at the midrash of Chazal concerning the heifer whose neck is broken. However, the Riva - quoted in the commentary of Ba'alei ha-Tosfot and in the Moshav Zekeinim - connects the two points:

"Is Chevron then not on the mountain? This is meant to teach us that he accompanied him as far as the valley. Yosef said: 'Father, return home.' He answered, 'It is written, "Our hands have not spilled this blood..."' - and this is as it is written, 'He saw the wagons....'"

In any event, it is specifically the topographical paradox that leads the Sages of the Midrash and Ba'alei ha-Tosfot to their conclusion as to the mitzva of escorting and the related mitzva of the heifer whose neck is broken. The moment of parting in the valley, and the moment of reunification (when Yaakov saw the "agalot" and remembered the "egla arufa," whose neck is broken in the wadi) were joined together by Chazal into the same symbol.


The Chizkuni offers a third answer, which is a variation on the second:

"The city is located on the mountain, and Yaakov escorted him as far as the valley. Our Sages taught that Yaakov accompanied Yosef and they were engaged in the matter of the heifer whose neck is broken, and from there he sent him off." (Chizkuni 37:14)

There is no hint in the Chizkuni that Yaakov studied the matter of the heifer with Yosef because he was accompanying him, as the Ba'alei ha-Tosfot explain. On the contrary, Yaakov accompanied him because they were engaged in learning this subject. According to this view, the author of the midrash seems to be connecting the heifer in the wadi to the valley of Chevron, understanding that Yaakov went down with Yosef to the valley in order to teach him and illustrate the law of the heifer whose neck is broken.

We have already mentioned that the common practice was to settle the mountaintops and hilltops. These areas are relatively rocky and unsuited to agriculture, but they are good for protection from the enemy. The lower places - streams and wadis - were designated for agriculture because of the water flowing to them, the silt that they contained and the fact that these were inferior areas from a security point of view. The cleft of the valleys was therefore an open area between two inhabited places located on the hills on either side. A murderer seeking to carry out his deeds in secret - like Kayin, who killed Hevel when they were in the field - would lie in wait for him outside the inhabited place, like the rapist who ambushes a girl who is engaged to another man in the field; she cries out but there is no one to save her (Devarim 22:27). There, at a distance from human habitation, the murderer carries out his attack. The place that is hidden and distant from all habitation is the river bed.

It is to this ravine, between the two inhabited places, that the Torah commands us to bring the heifer. Concerning this rocky wadi, full of water and surrounded by fertile fields, the Torah stipulates: "...a wadi which has not been ploughed, nor sown" (Devarim 21:4). Its soil, which covered the blood of the victim and hid his murder, is cursed; it shall not give of its strength to man any longer. We are told the same of Kayin who, after killing Hevel, covers the blood and tries to escape from his punishment. Thus the parasha of the heifer presents the law, "The elders of that city shall bring the heifer down to a rocky wadi, which has not been ploughed, nor sown," as a continuation of what was told to Kayin: "Now - you are cursed from the earth that opened its mouth to accept the blood of your brother from your hand; when you plough the ground, it shall no longer give you its strength..." (Bereishit 4:11-12).

It is to such a wadi - to the valley of Chevron - that Yaakov took Yosef as they were learning Torah together, in order to teach him the laws of the heifer and how the distance from the wadi to the nearest city is measured. Yaakov had no books of Halakha; his teaching was handed down orally and experientially - by bringing him down to the wadi and demonstrating the laws. Thus we may assume that when they were in the field, he taught Yosef the laws related to the field, and when they were in a vineyard he taught him the laws pertinent to a vineyard. In any event, the fact that he sent Yosef off from the valley of Chevron - according to Chizkuni's understanding of the Midrash - is a function of their studying together the laws related ta wadi, the parasha of the heifer whose neck is broken.

This interpretation does not provide any explanation as to why Yaakov and Yosef were engaged in this particular halakhic issue. But perhaps Yaakov sensed somehow, without being fully conscious of it, the brothers' scheme to kill Yosef and cover his blood, to cast him into the pit and thereby hide their crime? Then the valley of Dotan and the wadi in which the pit was located (since a pit is usually found in a wadi) would be a place to which the curse, "It shall not be ploughed, nor sown," would apply forever. The pit, temporarily empty, would become a pit that would never contain any water, and in which snakes and scorpions would creep eternally.

In any event, this interpretation of the midrash again derives from intimate knowledge of the geography and topography of the valley of Chevron and the valley of Dotan, and of the habits of farmers, were so familiar to the Sages of the Midrash.

Let us summarize the three interpretations presented by Chazal for the expression, "the valley of Chevron."

The first interpretation concerns the prayer offered by Yaakov and by Yosef at the grave of Avraham at Me'arat ha-Makhpela. This taught us the importance of "service of the heart" - prayer. The prayer services were instituted to correspond with the daily sacrifices (Berakhot 27b), and they, like the sacrifices, are the root of Divine service.

The second interpretation introduces the subject of the broken-necked heifer, from one perspective - the mitzva of escorting that we learn from it; it was because of this law that Yaakov took the trouble to accompany Yosef as far as the valley. The mitzva of escorting is certainly a branch of the great tree that represents "gemillut chasadim" (acts of kindness), and so Yaakov acted accordingly towards his son Yosef.

The third interpretation involves the actual study of the subject of the broken-necked heifer in the valley itself, at the riverbed. There the victim is generally found, there the heifer's neck is broken, and there - at the riverbed - Yosef learned from Yaakov the laws pertaining to this parasha. Yaakov is learning Torah with his son, just as they are about to part for such a long period.

We learn that the world exists by the merit of Torah, Divine service, and acts of kindness (Avot 1:2): these are the "image of Yaakov" that Yosef takes on his long journey.



"His brothers went to pasture their father's flocks in Shekhem." (37:12)

The reader is at once curious: why are these people, whose father's house is in Chevron, taking the sheep all the way to Shekhem?

Our assumption will be that a realistic understanding of the situation in which Yaakov's sons lived was the basis for Chazal's view of Shekhem as a place destined for trouble for all generations. Their view, which serves as a background to what we shall propose, comes to answer a question that arises specifically from the most literal level of the text: what are people who live in Chevron doing in the distant pastures of Shekhem?

The Midrash teaches as follows:

"'Rechavam went to Shekhem, for it was to Shekhem that all of Israel came, in order to coronate him.' We learn in the name of R. Yossi: This is a place destined for trouble. In Shekhem Dina was raped, in Shekhem Yosef was sold by his brothers, and in Shekhem the kingdom of the house of David was divided." (Sanhedrin 102a; compare Bereishit Rabba 37:14)

We may interpret this as meaning that, according to the Midrash, Shekhem has some special quality of dispute, controversy and trouble (there are further examples of this quality of Shekhem elsewhere in Tanakh and also afterwards). A "special property" is a power bestowed by decree of the Creator; He decided thus, and His decision cannot be questioned. This inexplicable power is the great enemy of any "realistic" interpretation, making it difficult for us to explain the literal text and to understand the purpose of the brothers' journey to Shekhem.

What we can understand is that Shekhem turned from a thriving city to a wasteland because of Shekhem ben Chamor and his brutal treatment of Dina, and the legitimacy granted to this deed – at least retroactively – by the people of Shekhem and Chamor, their prince. In the wake of this deed, Shimon and Levi went to kill all the males of Shekhem. From a hint in Yaakov's words to Yosef (48:22) and an explicit teaching in the midrash, we learn that, following the vengeance of Shimon and Levi, a war broke out against many cities in the area of Shekhem, with Yaakov's sons and their allies emerging victorious (35:5). Perhaps Yaakov's sons sought to establish their rule over this region, settling some of their people there together with Canaanites who had converted out of fear or out of their free will to become their partners. (It is possible that it was from among these proselytes that Yaakov's sons took their Canaanite wives, according to the view of R. Nechemia.)

Since that time, Shekhem was a volcanic time-bomb with its insufficiently defined population; many mixed families lived there (such as Avimelekh, son of Gidon's handmaid, and the other squabbling inhabitants of Shekhem - Shoftim chapter 9). Shekhem is the center where all the mixed multitude that Esar-hadon, king of Ashur, brings to the land following the exile of Shomron (Ezra chapter 4). This was a vortex of hatred, dispute, tale-bearing and all the problems associated with the Second Temple Period.

Shekhem's immoral act with Dina, and the bloody response of Shimon and Levi, bequeathed upon this place - forever - a population of "mixed multitude" and a mingling of Divine service with idolatry; a population with divided loyalties - between Avimelekh and his opponents during the period of the judges, and between Am Yisrael and their enemies upon the return of the exiles, during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. All of these are the reason for Shekhem being a place destined for trouble and strife. The curse, "The land was defiled and I visit its iniquity upon it; the land shall expel its inhabitants" (Vayikra 18:25), attached to the sin of sexual immorality, is fulfilled literally in Shekhem. In a halakhic context (concerning the cities of refuge), the Gemara likewise teaches: "In Shekhem there were many murderers" (see Makkot 10a and Hoshea 6:8); again, sexual immorality goes along with bloodshed.

The view of Shekhem as a place destined for trouble is therefore not only symbolic or related to some inexplicable inherent quality; it has a historical background and substantiation up until the period of the authors of the Midrash. The root of the problem of Shekhem and why the brothers go there may be interpreted against the backdrop of the controversy stirred up by the campaign of revenge that Shimon and Levi undertook there. Perhaps a hint to this is to be found in another midrash from our parasha that is related to Shekhem:

"'The brothers went to pasture (et) the flocks of their father in Shekhem' - there is a vocalization point above the word 'et' (denoting the direct object), teaching that they really went to pasture themselves [i.e., take care of their own interests]." (Bereishit Rabba 84, 12; Sifri Be-ha'alotekha 69 and others, as well as Rashi 37:12)

Perhaps it is just the vocalization point above the word 'et' that raised, for the Sages, the question of why the flocks of a Chevronite family are pasturing in Shekhem. Their conclusion was that the brothers had other business to take care of - business unrelated to their shepherding. Their business related to their reign over Shekhem and its surroundings, and contact with their loyalists living there; it was a reign of strife in a place destined for trouble.

On the other hand, the controversial background explains Yaakov's grave concern for his sons - a concern that made him forget momentarily the danger to Yosef, whom his brothers hated, and whom he sends there:

"Yisrael said to Yosef: 'Are your brothers not pasturing in Shekhem; go, I send you to them.' He said to him, 'Here I am.' [Yaakov] said to him: 'Go, then; check on your brothers' welfare and the welfare of the flocks, and repback to me.'" (37:13-14)

Thus the text; the midrash comments:

"Why was Yaakov fearful for his sons' welfare? He feared that perhaps the avengers of Shekhem would attack them, and Yaakov's sons would be killed." (Torah Sheleima, 102; this also reflects the interpretation of the Jerusalem Targum, known as the Targum Yonatan)


"A man found him [Yosef], and behold, he was wandering in a field. The man asked him, saying: What do you seek? ...

The man said: They have moved on from here, for I heard them saying, 'Let us go to Dotan.'" (37:15-17)

The Midrash (Tanchuma Vayeshev 2; Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 38, as well as Rashi) identify this "man" as none other than the angel Gavriel, in sharp contrast to the literal interpretation offered by Ibn Ezra: "According to the literal text, he was a regular passer-by."

This would seem to represent incontrovertible proof that that Midrash abandons the earthly, defined reality of time and space, concerning itself rather with the infinite expanses of ideals. In other words, no "realistic" exegetical approach could possibly accept that the man who comes across Yosef wandering in the field is in fact an angel!

But we must try to understand what this midrash is trying to teach; we may even end up arriving at something of a realistic interpretation.

The midrash may be viewed in a number of different ways.

1. Linguistically: We may present three reasons to depart from the Ibn Ezra's literal description of the man as nothing more than a passer-by. Firstly, there is a three-fold emphasis on the word "ha-ish" (the man). Secondly, the man's strange wording of his answer seems to be hiding some secret: "They have moved on from here, for I heard them say, 'Let us go to Dotan.'" Thirdly, there is the very fact that the Torah dwells on such an "unimportant" detail as Yosef's conversation with a man on his way to his brothers.

2. Exegetical parallel: Chazal could be comparing Yosef, sent by his father to a dangerous place and losing his way, to Hagar, who flees to the desert and is sent there again by Avraham following the birth of Yitzchak. There we are told, "She went and wandered in the desert of Be'er Sheva" (21:14). There, too, an angel finds her and encourages her to continue in her path, promising that despite the servitude and the maltreatment that she has endured, her son will grow up and "He will dwell in the presence of all his brethren" (16:12). Yosef, too, proceeds – in accordance with the instructions of the man who finds him wandering – towards servitude and maltreatment, and from there to kingship over all his brothers. Perhaps it is for this reason that the "man" is associated with the angel appearing in chapter 16 and chapter 21.

3. Historical parallel: Midrash Tanchuma deduces that the man was in fact Gavriel from a verse in Daniel. The parallels between Daniel and Yosef are too numerous to mention, and we shall not dwell on them. The "man clothed in linen" (Daniel 10:5) is Gavriel; he appears to Daniel in his distress; he strengthens him and tells him of the future redemption to be effected by the kings of Persia. Here, too, Yosef is in a difficult situation when the man appears and hints to him (according to this Midrash) about the future exile in Egypt.

None of the above considerations answers the question of what Chazal are trying to teach us in this midrash that could aid our understanding of the literal text itself and its real situation.

Perhaps Chazal were addressing the simple question of what caused Yosef to "wander," i.e., to lose his way, and what perplexed him to such a degree that he needed the man's assistance. Apparently, Yosef did not become lost for no reason in a regular field. Quite innocently, he came upon a specific field - the one concerning which we read:

"Yaakov came whole to the city of Shekhem, which was in the land of Canaan, on his return from Padan-Aram; and he encamped facing the city.

And he bought the piece of land, upon which he had erected his tent, from the hands of the children of Chamor, the father of Shekhem, for a hundred 'kesita.'

And he placed an altar there and called it E-l E-lokei Yisrael." (33:18-20)

Yosef - and very likely Yaakov, too - innocently believed that the brothers had gone to Shekhem in order to realize their ownership of the field that Yaakov had purchased for a hundred "kesita." They never imagined that the brothers regarded themselves as owners of the entire region of Shekhem and its environs by virtue of their violent conquest following the episode of Dina. Hence, there was no likelihood of Yosef finding his brothers without some assistance, since the valley of Dotan is situated about 25 km north of Shekhem, but it is possible that it was still considered part of the Shekhem region – a region of which Yaakov's sons regarded themselves to be the patrons, and to which they journeyed in order to further their interests.

If indeed the man met Yosef in the plot of the field that Yaakov had bought, and close to the altar that he had built, then he met him at the first spot where God appeared to Yaakov upon his return to Eretz Yisrael. There is room to suggest that Yaakov had made this special effort to purchase the field where Avraham had pitched his tent when he came to Eretz Yisrael, "up to the place of Shekhem" (12:6), and that God had appeared to him at the same place in which He had appeared to Avraham, telling him, "To your descendants I shall give this land." Moreover, the altar that Yaakov built stood on the same place where Avraham had built his first altar. Perhaps the author of the midrash is teaching that the Shekhina never moved from the altar built on the site of the first revelation, and Yosef, arriving there, merited a sort of revelation of his own in the form of the man-angel who spoke to him. For Avraham and Yaakov, the revelation took place as they took their first steps in the chosen land, while for Yosef, the revelation signaled his last steps in the land, prior to being exiled, until the end of his life, to Egypt.

Perhaps the angel was even sent to accompany him in Egyptian exile, just like the angels descending the ladder had been sent to accompany his father Yaakov.

In any event, it was in this very field, where (according to our theory) Yosef was seeking his brothers when the man appeared to him, that he eventually merited to be buried some two hundred and fifty years later:

"The bones of Yosef, which Bnei Yisrael had brought up from Egypt, they buried in Shekhem, in the portion of the field that Yaakov had purchased from the children of Chamor, father of Shekhem, for a hundred 'kesita,' and they became the inheritance of the children of Yosef." (Yehoshua 24:32)

If the generally accepted assumption concerning Yosef's burial plot next to Shekhem is accurate, then perhaps we also know the place where Yosef wandered, and where the man-angel appeared to him.


At first glance, it would seem that the Torah elaborates at greater length than necessary on the fact that Yaakov and Yosef believed that the brothers should be sought in Shekhem, while in fact they were in the valley of Dotan. Perhaps the Torah emphasizes the move from Shekhem to Dotan because a caravan of merchants moving from the Gilad to Egypt could have passed through the Dotan valley, but could never have passed through Shekhem. The Dotan valley is situated at the center of one of the latitudinal (east-west) roads connecting the two main longitudinal (north-south) routes - the "Kings' Highway," passing through Ramat ha-Gil'ad and Ramat Moav and connecting Aram with the Red Sea, and the "Route of the Land of the Philistines," which is much the same as the coastal road of today. The caravan of Ishmaelites and Midianites passed through the Land of Canaan cross-wise on its way to Egypt, and Yaakov - who, like Yosef, believed that his sons were shepherding in the portion of land that he had bought near Shekhem - never imagined that Yosef had gone all the way to the valley of Dotan. For this reason, Yaakov made no enquiries there, he did not question anyone there about having seen him, nor did he interrogate the Canaan on the way to Egypt.

We shall address the valley of Dotan and what occurred there from two midrashic perspectives.

a. Wily Legalities

"'The man said: They have journeyed from here, for I heard them say, Let us go to Dotan (Nelkha Dotayna)' - They have removed themselves from brotherly love, to seek out wily legalities (nikhlei datot) with which to kill you." (Bereishit Rabba 84; Rashi 37:17)

It seems that the midrash is not answering a difficulty in the verse; it is rather expressing an idea and using the words of the verse as support.

The commentators have two principal ways of explaining the sin of the brothers in particular, and the sin of the leaders of Israel in Tanakh in general. One way involves strict adherence to the literal text, with a willingness to compromise on the greatness of biblical figures - including Yaakov's sons, viewing them as being driven at times by dark desires - "For there is no man in the world who is completely righteous, doing only good and never sinning" (Kohelet 7). The second approach seeks ideological justification for every perceived misdeed of the great biblical figures, to the point of identification with the sin and an attempt to present it as innocuously as possible. In our case, this second approach would claim that Yosef was judged by his brothers for making himself a god - thinking that the sun and moon would bow to him; he was also judged a "pursuer" because of the evil reports about them that he gave to their father, etc.

But any ideological justification of this sin (and, in my view, of all the other sins by the great personalities of the Tanakh) does an injustice to the truth, to morality and to the literal text - unless we assume that its purpose is not to justify the deed, but rather to try to understand the sinner's justification in his own mind.

In any event, I reject any attempt at explaining the brothers' sin because of the fact that they accept money for his sale, and because of the equanimity with which they sit down to dine while Yosef cries out from inside the pit.

There are two possible ways of explaining the supposed justification that would allow the brothers to carry out their plan. One was mentioned above - the attempt to portray him as deserving of the death penalty because of his actions. The second derives more straightforwardly from the verses and the midrash; we shall now discuss this view.

"'They plotted against him to kill him' - They said: Let us set the dogs on him." (Bereishit Rabba 84)

The starting point of the midrash - even before Reuven and Yehuda moderate the brothers' plan - is that the brothers did not want to kill Yosef with their own hands, but rather through the principle of "gerama" (indirect causality), by means of their dogs. The Midrash Sekhel Tov comments: "This teaches that they did not plan to kill him with their hands, but rather to cause his death by the shepherd dogs."

This hypothesis has the advantage of similarity to what they intended to tell their father - that a wild animal had devoured Yosef. But from the brothers' point of view, it had an additional advantage: it did not involve them actually laying their hands on him. In light of this midrash, Reuven's suggestion may be interpreted as a direct continuation of the brothers' desire for some justification that would serve to keep their conscience clear:

"Reuven said to them: Do not spill blood; cast him into this pit that is in the desert, and do not harm him." (37:22)

Reuven (whose aim was truly to save Yosef, as stated explicitly in the text) tells the brothers (according to the above midrash) that setting dogs upon him is tantamount to murder, and that he should rather be left to his fate in the pit - to die of hunger, thirst or cold. He defines this as death without "laying their hands upon him" and without spilling blood. Yeduda speaks up next, insisting that this, too, is manslaughter:

"Yehuda said to his brothers: What benefit is there if we kill our brother and cover his blood?" (37:26)

From the continuation of his speech, "Our hand shall not be upon him," and from his words to Yosef many years later, "our brother died" (46:20), we understand that his chances of being alive many years after being sold were slim. Yehuda, aware of this, wanted only that the deed would not be done by himself and his brothers. The list of all the supposed justifications that appear in the commentaries, the midrashim and the verses for the terrible crime that was about to be perpetrated against Yosef, are concentrated in the midrash into a single sentence: "'Let us go to Dotan' - to seek out wily legalities with which to kill you." (Bereishit Rabba 84), i.e. to seek out legal cover for the act of selling Yosef.

The authors of the midrash perceived the gradual progression in the debate among the brothers and Reuven, and between them and Yehuda, their desire to escape directly responsibility for their act by means of a legal justification. The midrash attaches this interpretation to the name of the city - Dotan.

The word "dat" in the sense of "law" (as opposed to the misleading expression prevalent today, identifying "dat" as religion) did not exist at all in the Hebrew of that period; it is found in Tanakh only in the Books from the Babylonian and Persian exiles: Daniel, Ezra, and - particularly - in the Book of Esther.

Perhaps, then, the "wily legalities" of the brothers are somehow related to the law ("dat") promulgated by the wicked Haman in the capital of Shushan: i.e., in the legal cover that he seeks in order to annihilate Mordekhai and his nation. Indeed, there is some similarity between the situations:

"The law ('dat') was promulgated in Shushan, the capital. And the king and Haman sat down to drink, while the city of Shushan was perplexed." (Esther 3:15)

Just as the brothers sit down to eat bread after deciding his fate the first time, and again at the moment that they are deciding it a second time (to sell him to the Yishmaelim), so the king and Haman calmly drink against the anguished background of Mordekhai, who dons sackcloth and cries and beseeches. The Midrash teaches:

"God said to the tribes: You sold in the midst of feasting and drinking... Your children will be sold in Shushan in the midst of feasting and drinking, as it is written: 'The king and Haman sat down to drink.'" (Midrash Shocher Tov, mizmor 10)

The legal cover for the act allows the sinner to eat and drink with equanimity at the time of his sin, since his conscience is (supposedly) clear - after all, he has not transgressed the law. It is the brothers' journey from Chevron, the source of righteousness and judgment (see 18:19) to Dotan - the source of judgment without righteousness in the sale of Yosef - that Chazal's mention of "wily legalities" or "evil justifications" comes to teach us.

b. Reuven's Act of Salvation

The Midrash and the commentaries ask, where was Reuven at the time of Yosef's sale to the Yishmaelim? There is no mention of him having separated from his brothers after Yosef was cast into the pit. We may explain his absence in terms of the occupation of shepherding: perhaps he left the main tent for some purpose related to the flocks. The Midrash adopts a different approach, but one that is not necessarily any less realistic:

"'Reuven returned to the pit' - Where had he been? R. Eliezer says, Engaged in sackcloth and fasting." (Bereishit Rabba 84, 19)

From the continuation of the midrash, it turns out that Reuven was engaged in repentance over his act concerning Bilha, his father's concubine. It seems that the midrash deduces this from the verse that conclusively nullifies any moral basis for what the brothers have done:

"They sat down to eat bread." (37:25)

The brothers cast Yosef into the pit and then enjoy a meal. Reuven's noble effort to protect Yosef begins with him not participating in the brothers' meal. Chazal relate this to his repentance over his act with Bilha, and for this reason he was fasting.

We find, then, that the mitzva that Reuven performed drew other mitzvot after it. Reuven was engaged in repentance over what he had done with Bilha and over his attempt to forcefully takover the birthright by moving his father's bed into the tent of Leah, his mother; he went on to save Yosef, the firstborn of Rachel, even though this decisively cut him off from the birthright. Many years later, Reuven was to receive a reward from God for the two mitzvot that he fulfilled:

"God said to him: You were the first to save a life; by your life, the first cities to be set aside as cities of refuge will be in your boundaries, as it is written, 'Betzer in the desert.'" (Bereishit Rabba 84:15)

The relationship between Betzer, the first city of refuge, and what took place in the valley of Dotan, is based on the relationship between the two verses: "Betzer in the desert, on the flatlands, for Reuven" (Devarim 4:43), and "Cast him into the pit that is in the desert" (37:22), in the valley of Dotan. But more important is the actual connection between Reuven's act of salvation and the subject of the cities of refuge in general. The Torah testifies concerning Reuven:

"[He suggested throwing Yosef into the pit] in order to save him from their hands and to return him to his father." (37:22)

Concerning a city of refuge, we read:

"The congregation shall save the murderer from the hand of the avenger of the blood, and the congregation shall return him to the city of his refuge." (Bamidbar 35:25)

For his sackcloth and fasting, and the repentance that he took upon himself, Reuven also received reward:

"God said to him... Since you were the first to introduce repentance, by your life - one of your descendants will introduce his words with repentance. Who was this? Hoshea, as it is written: Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God." (Bereishit Rabba 84:19)

We shall not delve here into the proofs that Hoshea was a descendant of Reuven. Let us merely note that all of Hoshea's prophecies were addressed to Efraim, prior to the destruction of Shomron. In these prophecies, Hoshea the Reuvenite attempts to prevent the destruction of Shomron, city of Yosef's kingdom, and Efraim's plunge into the impending Assyrian exile. Hoshea tries to do for Shomron, close to the valley of Dotan, what Reuven tried to do for Yosef in the valley: to save him from disaster.

Neither Reuven nor Hoshea was successful in preventing Yosef's exile, but the repentance that both introduced will remain for all generations!


I have attempted here to steer clear of etymological and symbolic explanations of the midrash, which sever the action from the reality of time and space, focusing on the rarified ideal. I have attempted to show that Chazal's approaches to this story were variegated and diverse. The geography and topography of Eretz Yisrael were familiar to the Sages of the Midrash, who lived in Eretz Yisrael, and they used this reality to connect historical phenomena that happened in different places. They did not ignore the political problems that embroiled Yaakov's sons; they related them logically to similar problems that existed during other periods. They knew what the lives of farmers and shepherds were like, and their realistic insights are sprinkled throughout their midrashim.

The Sages of the Midrash plumbed the psychological depths of the relationships between adult children and their father, between brothers within a family, between sinners and their inclinations. At the same time, they interwove verses from varied sources, viewing different periods and different personalities against the background of their parallels from other times. Scope, imagination, precision and creativity combine to create the Midrash's vibrant and colorful picture of those distant yet close events - events that took place in those days, at this place.


[1] Apparently at Tel-Romeida, the south-eastern part of the modern city of Chevron. This neighborhood, known by the Arabs as "Dir Al-Arba'in," appears to preserve the name "Kiryat Arba."

[2] This wadi is also known as Wadi Ein-Sadeh, or Wadi Chevron. Today it passes through the market of Chevron and the Jewish quarter, continues to the sheep market, and on southward to Zif, flowing into Nahal Be'er Sheva.

[3] Grintz, Motza'ei Dorot, ha-Kibbutz ha-Meuchad, 5729, p. 328.

[4] This refers to Ramat Al-Halil north of Chevron, about 300 meters east of today's "Glass Junction" (Tzomet Ha-zekhukhit), on the northern side of the road leading to Kiryat Arba. The neighborhood of Mamrei (Nimra) to the south of the site preserves the name.

Translated by Kaeren Fish

This shiur is abridged from the Hebrew original. The full shiur can be accessed in the original at: