The Original Plan of Yosef's Brothers

  • Rav Zeev Weitman
In loving memory of my parents
Shmuel Binyamin (Samuel) and Esther Rivka (Elizabeth) Lowinger z"l
- Benzion Lowinger
Dedicated in memory of my father, Hillel ben Yechiel (Herman) Reiter,
of Zsaka/Debrecen, Hungary, 
whose yahrzeit falls on the 24th day of Kislev.  
May his soul be among the righteous in Gan Eden.




The original plan of Yosef's brothers was not to cast him live into a pit, as they eventually did, but rather to cast his body there after they had killed him:


And they saw him from afar, before he drew close to them, and they conspired against him to kill him. And they said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. Now, let us kill him and cast him into one of the pits, and we shall say, ‘An evil beast devoured him.’ And we shall see what becomes of his dreams. (Bereishit 37:18-20)


The Torah introduces the story by presenting three main reasons why the brothers felt such fierce hatred towards Yosef that they decided to kill him:


1.   Yosef speaks badly about his brothers (perhaps just some of them) to their father.


2.   Yaakov loves Yosef more than all his other children and makes him a special coat, expressing his special status.[1]


3.   Yosef tells his brothers about his dreams – the dream of the sheaves and the dream of the sun, moon and stars – both clearly indicating that Yosef aspires and plans to rule over his brothers and the rest of the family and to behave like a king before whom everyone else must bow.


Two of these three reasons for the brothers' hatred are related to Yosef's own actions, while the third is related to Yaakov’s behavior. The brothers, of course, are punished for what they do to Yosef, but perhaps some of the responsibility for what happens to him rests with Yosef himself, and perhaps with Yaakov, as well. Perhaps they are both punished, in some measure, for their mistakes.


Yosef speaks badly about his brothers to their father, and ultimately Potifar's wife slanders him and he is thrown into prison. Yosef, who tells his brothers of his dreams in which he sees himself ruling over them, is ultimately forced to hear and interpret dreams as a servant in prison. Yaakov, who had made a special coat for Yosef, is presented with that same coat when his sons give their horrifying report as to what happened to him.




Changes in the Brothers' Plans


The original plan to kill Yosef is changed thanks to Reuven, who wants to save his life:


And Reuven heard it and he saved him from their hands, and said, “Let us not kill him.” And Reuven said to them, “Do not shed blood; cast him into this pit which is in the wilderness, and do not lay a hand on him” – in order that he might save him from their hand, to bring him back to his father. (37:21-22)


The fact that the Torah records two separate utterances by Reuven – "And he said, 'Let us not kill him.' And Reuven said to them, 'Do not…' – perhaps indicates that at first, Reuven opposes the idea of killing Yosef (“Let us not kill him”), but after encountering their resistance, he proposes a compromise. According to this plan, they will not actively kill him (“Do not shed blood”), but rather cause his death by casting him into a pit, where he will die.


Although this is a longer and more painful death than direct killing from the victim’s point of view, it is a "cleaner" form of murder in the sense that the brothers' hands are innocent of bloodshed. In this way, Reuven manages to persuade his brothers. In fact – as the Torah testifies – this is all a trick, since Reuven intends to save Yosef by removing him from the pit – "in order that he might save him from their hand, to bring him back to this father."


The brothers adopt Reuven's suggestions:


And it was, when Yosef came to his brothers, they stripped him of his coat, the striped coat that was upon him. And they took him and cast him into the pit, and the pit was empty, there was no water in it.


At this point, the whole plan is changed in the wake of a new initiative introduced by Yehuda. He raises his proposition while the brothers are sitting and eating and they notice a company of Yishmaelim approaching from a distance. Yehuda's suggestion seems to be aimed at saving Yosef from death, sufficing with selling him into slavery, but since Yehuda is ignorant of Reuven's plan to save Yosef and take him back to his father, his proposal actually presents a significant setback in Yosef's situation:


And Yehuda said to his brothers: “What profit is there in killing our brother and hiding his blood? Let us sell him to the Yishmaelim, and let our hand not be upon him, for he is our brother, our flesh.” And his brothers heard him.


Yehuda succeeds in persuading the brothers and they decide not to kill Yosef, but rather to sell him.




Did the Brothers Sell Yosef?


Here we encounter a verse that is very difficult to understand:


Reuven returned to the pit, and behold – Yosef was not in the pit; and he tore his garments. And he returned to his brothers and said, “The boy is gone, and I – where shall I go."


The narrative seems to indicate that the brothers had been together all this time, and it is therefore unclear how Reuven suddenly reappears and cries out in anguish. We must conclude that for some reason, Reuven was not with the brothers at the time of the sale of Yosef, nor prior to that, when they sat together and decided, at Yehuda's suggestion, to change the original plan. Indeed, Rashi explains that it was Reuven's turn to go and serve his father, or that he was engaged in fasting and repentance for having interfered in his father's bed arrangements, and he was therefore at a distance from them while they ate. Still, it is difficult to understand why now, when he cries out over Yosef's disappearance – "The boy is gone, and I – where shall I go?" – the brothers do not update him: "We just sold him, a short while ago, to a company of Yishmaelim who were passing by". Had they mentioned this, then instead of crying out and tearing his garments, Reuven could have hurried after the company making its way down to Egypt and try to redeem Yosef.


These questions bolster the view of the commentators who propose that the brothers did not sell Yosef at all. What happened was that Reuven, who heard Yehuda's suggestion and feared that it would thwart his plan to save Yosef and take him back to Yaakov, volunteered to run to the pit, pretending to carry out the brothers' decision to take Yosef and sell him to the Yishmaelim, while in fact his intention was to take him out of the pit and release him. But when he reached the pit, he was devastated to discover that Yosef was gone, and he returned, shocked and grief-stricken, to his brothers.


Where did Yosef disappear to? Apparently, someone else who passed by the pit and heard his cries took him out and sold him to the same company of Yishmaelim whom the brothers had seen from afar – without the brothers having any idea that this was going on. This explains the verse:


And Midianite merchants passed by and they drew and lifted Yosef out of the pit, and they sold Yosef to the Yishmaelim for twenty pieces of silver. (37:28)


This is exactly how Rashbam explains the episode:


They were sitting and eating at some distance from the pit – so as not to eat in full view of the place where they had cast Yosef – and waiting for the Yishmaelim whom they had seen. But before the Yishmaelim arrived, some Midianites passed by, and they saw Yosef in the pit and drew him out, and these Midianites sold him to the Yishmaelim, and we must conclude that the brothers were not aware of this.


Rabbenu Bechayei offers a similar explanation.




Is Everything Directed by God?


Abravanel offers an interesting and original interpretation of the proposals by Reuven and Yehuda that led to the change of plans concerning Yosef. In his view, Reuven raises the possibility that perhaps Yosef had indeed dreamed the dreams that he recounted to his brothers, such that killing him would be an act that went against God's will and His plans, and the brothers would later be punished for this. He therefore proposes that they cast him into a pit, so that they do not actually kill him themselves, but rather leave his fate in God's hands. If his dreams really do express God's plans and His will, then God will surely protect him and save him.


The Or Ha-Chaim adopts Abravanel's interpretation and arrives at a far-reaching theological conclusion. Since man has free choice, he has the power to kill someone who is not deserving of death in God's eyes, someone who is not supposed to die according to the Divine plan. This is what Reuven is actually saying to his brothers: "You say, 'We shall see what becomes of his dreams.' It may be that his dreams are true and that God wanted to raise him to greatness and to make him rule over us, but we, as free agents, could kill Yosef even though God wants him to live and to rule over us. Therefore, if you really wish to test the matter and to know what will become of his dreams – to see whether they are lies that Yosef has invented in an attempt to raise himself above us or whether they are true dreams that express God's will and His plan – then do not kill Yosef right now. Hand his fate over to God and see what happens." This is a surprising and audacious view – that a person has the power to change God's plans and to kill people whom God had intended to raise to greatness.


In Abravanel's view, Yehuda goes a step further, arguing that casting Yosef into the pit cannot be considered an act that turns his fate over to God, since saving him from this situation would require a great and overt miracle – and God does not usually run the world by means of miracles. He suggests that there is therefore no significant difference between killing him directly and casting him into a pit; in both instances, Yosef would be considered to have been killed at the hands of his brothers:


"Once we cast Yosef into the pit, he is as good as dead, for although God certainly sees what happens in the world, how would He get him out of there? And there is no appropriate method for Reuven's test to be fulfilled."


 Therefore, argues Yehuda, if we really want to leave his fate in God's hands and see what becomes of his dreams, the way to do this is to sell him to the Yishmaelim and see what happens. Will he experience deliverance and salvation – in which case it will be clear that it was all from God, and his dreams were true – or will he end up a lowly slave, thereby demonstrating that his dreams were nothing but flights of his own imagination and delusions of grandeur?


In other words, even when a person enters a dangerous situation, whether at his own initiative or as the result of actions by others, if something happens to him, it cannot be attributed to God. Although God might not have decided or wanted something to happen to that person, He will not perform a miracle to save him, since this goes against His will that the world operate according to natural laws.


This approach of Abravanel and Or Ha-Chaim is very significant in the context of instances in which a person causes harm to someone else. Do we attribute the harm to a Divine decision and recite the blessing that praises God as the "true Judge"? Do we speak of an instance of murder with the words, "the fire which God has burned" – an expression originally relating to a miraculous death decreed by God? Or do we conclude – as Abravanel and Or Ha-Chaim do – that although God may have had other plans for the person who was harmed, since He operates the world on the basis of human free choice, every person has the possibility of killing his friend, even if God had intended for that person to live? If this is the case, then we should not attribute what happens to God's will and His decision; our response, instead, should be, "May God avenge his blood;" "Let there be known among the nations, before our eyes, revenge for the spilled blood of Your servants." The blessing "the true Judge" then becomes a prayer that God, who is the true Judge, should punish the criminal who acted contrary to God's will and shed innocent blood.




"The Decree is True and Human Effort is False"?


Does the view expressed by Abravanel and Or Ha-Chaim concerning man's ability to act contrary to God's plan and His decision contradict the view expressed by Ramban in our parsha?


We refer here to Ramban's interpretation of the words, "And a man found him." When Yosef arrives in Shekhem, sent by his father to see how his brothers are doing, he meets a man in the field who tells him that he overheard the brothers mentioning that they were going to Dotan. As a result of this encounter with the man, Yosef heads for Dotan.


Ramban maintains that the story of this encounter teaches us about Yosef's adherence to his father's instructions. Having journeyed to Shekhem and having discovered that his brothers were not there, he has a good excuse to return home without carrying out his mission. Nevertheless, he makes a special effort to carry out his father's wishes. Ramban then goes on to argue that in this episode, the Torah teaches us that everything that happens to Yosef comes about by Divine decree, and no human force can change it. In the natural course of events, Yosef would not have found his brothers, since they were not at the place where they were supposed to be, and he would have returned safely home. But God placed a man there who directed him to his brothers' location so that God's decree for Yosef's sale and his descent to Egypt could be carried out.


Ramban creates an idiom expressing the idea of Divine Providence in the world: "For [God's] decree is truth, while human effort is false." I

n other words, God's decree is ultimately what happens, and man's efforts and actions have no power to obstruct or change it. In our case, God ensures that someone is in the right place at the right time to guide Yosef to his brothers – all in order "to teach us that 'God's counsel is what prevails.'"


Ramban's view, then, is that man's efforts are in vain; he has no power to change God's decree. This would seem to suggest that since God had decreed that Yosef would end up in Egypt, the brothers are unable to do anything that goes against this decree. It would therefore seem that the brothers did not have the power to kill Yosef, as per their original plan. In this regard, Ramban disagrees with Abravanel and Or Ha-Chaim.


However, Ramban is speaking only of a case in which there is a specific Divine decree. He agrees that in general, God makes no particular decisions about what happens to each individual; not everything that happens to a person is necessarily a Divine decree. Much of what happens to him occurs by chance, as a result of the actions of the person himself, or as a result of others around him; not everything can be attributed to Divine decree.


In Parashat Vayera, God declares:


"And Avraham will surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the land shall be blessed through him. For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they will observe the way of God, to perform righteousness and justice."


Commenting on the words, "For I know him," Ramban cites three different interpretations and then arrives at what he believes to be the most accurate and appropriate explanation:


I believe that this refers to actual knowledge. It alludes to the fact that God's knowledge, which is His guidance of this lowly world, is the observance of general rules. And mortals, too, are guided thus through events until the time comes for them to die. But where His righteous ones are concerned, God pays close attention to know them individually, such that His protection may adhere to them at all times. His knowledge and remembrance of them never waver.


In other words, according to Ramban, people encounter and experience all sorts of incidents and phenomena in the world. It is only the especially righteous individuals who are granted close, ongoing, private protection.


            Rambam (Guide of the Perplexed III:18) concurs. He states that the level of Divine Providence that a person enjoys depends on his spiritual level and degree of closeness to God. Those who are furthest from Him have a degree of Divine Providence that is close to that of animals, whereby God does not watch over individuals, but only over the species as a whole.


 The idea that man is subject to coincidence and the consequences of regular, this-worldly events would seem to apply not only when a person is killed by someone else (whether intentionally or unintentionally), but also when someone dies in a natural disaster or of disease. The death is not necessarily an expression of God's decision that this person should die. Rather, it may be something that simply happened – because most people are subject to things happening to them.


R. Shelomo ben R. Shimon Duran maintains that if God has decreed that a certain person will live, He will be sure to save him from any chance events and any dangerous situations, even without the person exerting any effort. However, most people are not judged on Rosh Hashana either for life or for death; they remain with their original potential for life. Such people are subject to having things happen to them. Concerning this majority, "human effort is true" – and therefore it is appropriate that there are commandments to take care of oneself, to avoid danger, etc.


Further support for this view is found, once again, in the Rambam's Guide of the Perplexed (III:12). The Rambam states that the source of most bad things in the world is not Divine decree, but rather nature and chance or man's harmful behavior towards himself or others. Such harm should not be attributed to God and His decisions.


This being so, the conclusion, according to Ramban and others, is that if there is some Divine decision or decree, man is powerless to stop it from being fulfilled. However, in most cases, there is no specific decree as to what will happen, and God operates the world through natural means, without His direct intervention. Therefore, not everything that happens to a person is a Divine decree and expression of His will. Rather, events as they happen are usually the result of God's decision not to interfere and to allow the world to conduct itself naturally, with man subject to all that happens in it.




Translated by Kaeren Fish







[1] The only other person in Tanakh who wears a "ketonet passim" (striped or long-sleeved coat) is Tamar, daughter of King David (Shemuel II), and there the text states explicitly that this is royal garb.