Ya'akov's Anguish: The Ramifications of Fraternal Strife

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

Translated by David Silverberg


Parashat Vayigash opens with the dramatic confrontation between Yosef and Yehuda. Yosef, the Egyptian viceroy, sits motionless throughout Yehuda's monologue, until the very end. Finally, Yosef breaks down, no longer able to control his emotions, and reveals his identity to his brothers. At what point in Yehuda's speech does this occur? When Yehuda declares, "For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father" (Bereishit 44:34). The moment he hears of his father's pain, Yosef breaks down. When Yosef sees Binyamin for the first time, he cries, but not in the presence of his brothers (43:30). The pain of his brothers did not affect him to the point where he needed to identify himself to them. Here, too, as Yehuda (the initiator of Yosef's sale) speaks of his own crisis, Yosef is unmoved. But once Yosef hears of his father's agony - "Yosef could no longer contain himself" (45:1).

Commentaries throughout the centuries have struggled with the obvious question: if Ya'akov's suffering pained Yosef to such an extent, why did he prolong his father's agony until this point? Why did he keep his identity concealed and insist that Binyamin join his brothers in Egypt, adding further to his father's grief?

The key to the solution lies in the verse, "He [Yosef] recalled the dreams which he had dreamt about them" (42:9). Yosef remembered not the brothers' hatred and hostility, but rather the dreams about his attainment of superiority over them. The Ramban thus explains that Yosef needed to bring about the fulfillment of his prophecy, the eleven stars prostrating before him. In the absence of Binyamin, only ten "stars" were present. Yosef therefore arranged that the brothers would have to bring Binyamin, so that the prophetic dream would see its realization.

Many later commentators found the Ramban's explanation troubling. If, indeed, Yosef's dreams constituted prophecy, then it was God's responsibility, as it were, to ensure their fulfillment. Yosef's responsibility was to treat his father respectfully and let the Almighty decide how to fulfill Yosef's prophecies. The Abarbanel therefore suggests an alternative explanation, that Yosef wished to punish his brothers for their cruelty towards him. But this answer, too, seems difficult. Why would Yosef include Binyamin in this punishment, if Binyamin had nothing to do with the other brothers' mistreatment of Yosef? Moreover, why would Yosef cause his father such emotional turmoil just so that he could punish his brothers?

The answer to this problem requires that we reexamine the narrative of the sale of Yosef and the events preceding it. How could the brothers - the offspring of Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'akov - not take into account the anguish they caused to their elderly father?

We have no choice but to turn back the pages of the Chumash to the birth of Ya'akov's sons. "God saw that Leah was unloved and He opened her womb... She declared, 'This time I will praise God!' She therefore named him Yehuda" (29:31). Leah saw her first three sons as compensation for her having been disliked by her husband. Only upon the birth of her fourth child did Leah realize that the birthright had been transferred to her children, and that she had been granted more than mere recompense for her distress. Rachel, apparently, also recognized this, and thus, upon the birth of Leah's fourth son, "Rachel saw that she had borne Ya'akov no children, and she became envious of her sister..."

Leah's children were convinced that this was, in fact, the divine will, a conviction reinforced by Rachel's premature death. Ya'akov, however, was not convinced. Though Leah's children presumed that upon Rachel's passing Ya'akov would establish his permanent residence with Leah, their father moved in with Bilha, Rachel's handmaid. The oldest of Leah's sons, Reuven, assumed the responsibility to react: "Reuven went and slept with Bilha, his father's concubine." Whether we understand this verse according to its simple reading, or if we accept the Midrash's clarification that Reuven moved his father's bed from Bilha's tent to Leah's, Reuven's involvement in his father's marital life underscores the sentiment that Ya'akov's erred in his decision.

Similarly, when Ya'akov began treating Yosef as the favorite and made him a special cloak - "as a sign that he is destined to rule" (Seforno) - the brothers were confident once again that their elderly father was severely mistaken, as his father had been before him. Their keen historical awareness led them to believe that the fulfillment of the promise to the Patriarchs would emerge specifically through their side of the family. They cast their younger brother into the pit under the assumption that they acted in accordance with the divine will, that the birthright had been transferred from the children of Rachel to the descendants of Leah. Rashi (verse 33) notes that they "included the Almighty in their oath," indicating their confident conviction that Providence offered its stamp of approval to Yosef's sale. They understood the emotional distress they would undoubtedly cause their father. They reasoned, though, that Ya'akov was bound to eventually come to the realization that he had been mistaken all along. However, this never happened: "He refused to be comforted, saying, 'No, I will go down mourning to my son in Sheol.'"

Ya'akov's children thus possessed a deep sense of historical awareness and a consciousness of destiny that they inherited from their great-grandfather, Avraham; they knew that they constituted the fulfillment of the divine promise, "I will make you into a great nation." They lacked, however, a sense of historical RESPONSIBILITY. They overlooked the fact that, by their actions, they were determining the future character of that great nation, Benei Yisrael. Therein lies the true meaning of the celebrated expression, "Ma'aseh avot siman la-banim," the actions of the forefathers foreshadow those of their children. Only Ya'akov realized this.

As Rachel's firstborn, Yosef was infused with this unique sense of responsibility, continuing the tradition of the Matriarchs' active concern for ensuring the singular character of the Nation of Israel. Sarah demands the banishment of Yishmael from her home, "for the son of this maidservant will not inherit together with my son, Yitzchak." Likewise, Rivka ensured that Avraham's blessing be passed to Ya'akov, rather than Esav.

With the emergence of the twelve tribes, the process of choosing and discarding came to an end. They all combined to form the composite whole of Kenesset Yisrael. Yosef, however, was convinced that were Rachel alive, she, like her predecessors, would have concerned herself with the moral and spiritual image of the nation. To this end, she would have undoubtedly seen to it that one of the brothers would bear the historical responsibility of ensuring that the character of Kenesset Yisrael would not be adulterated by the behavior of Ya'akov's children. The actions of the forefathers foreshadow those of their children, and thus the behavior of the twelve sons would determine the image and specific quality of the Jewish People for all time.

Aware of the critical nature of this historic task, Ya'akov encourages Yosef by making him the special cloak, "as a sign that he is destined to rule." And, indeed, indications of this awareness of Yosef's part can be detected in his behavior. "Yosef brought bad reports of them to his father" (37:2). Yosef concerns himself with his brothers' moral sensitivities, and thus informs his father of their violations with regard to the consumption of limbs of live animals and their mistreatment of the of the handmaids, which threatened family unity. Out of his extreme sensitivity to modesty, he suspected his brothers of sexual misconduct (Rashi, citing the Midrash). Not only does Ya'akov not restrain Yosef's initiatives, but, specifically in the aftermath of Yosef's negative report, Ya'akov gives him the special cloak. It almost seems that Ya'akov knowingly charges Yosef with the historical responsibility of supervising the brothers' behavior. The brothers, however, responded with scorn and rejection. Yosef understands his dreams as signifying divine approval of his appointment by his father. Whereas the brothers again react with intense hatred and hostility, "his father kept the matter in mind."

Ya'akov later summons Yosef to observe "how your brothers are and how the flocks are faring." Although Ya'akov had many servants whom he could have sent and although he was keenly aware of the animosity between Yosef and his other sons, he nevertheless insists that Yosef continue to monitor his brothers' behavior and oversee their moral and spiritual conduct.

So strong is Yosef's sense of historical mission, that even when he finally reveals his identity to his brothers, he adds, "Do not be distressed… It was not you who sent me here, but God..." (45:5-8). However, his mission as guardian of family morality had been cut short when he was sold into slavery. Thus, when Yosef sees his brothers in Egypt, he once again faces an opportunity to continue his historical mission, to ensure the proper character of Kenesset Yisrael: "Yosef remembered the dreams he had dreamt about them" (42:9). Yosef recalls his special historical duty, which had been expressed through his dreams. This duty guides Yosef's treatment of the brothers from this point on.

Significantly, the narrative never mentions Yosef's anguish throughout the entire drama. We know of this only through the brothers' own confession: "Alas, we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us" (42:21). The text describes only the anguish of Ya'akov. The Torah thus teaches us that the fundamental problem of fraternal hatred and mutual animosity relates not to the suffering of one part of the nation or another, but rather to the pain and anguish of "Ya'akov." In other words, the greatest tragedy of internal strife lies in the consequent damage to "Kenesset Yisrael" as a whole. The entire nation suffers, not just one segment or another.

Out of his historical responsibility, Yosef recognizes the need for his brothers to internalize this notion - that beyond the personal suffering they caused him, ignoring his cries of pain, the real crime was committed against their father, Ya'akov, the eternal symbol of the nation as a whole.

When the eternal character of Kenesset Yisrael was at stake, it was clear to Yosef that even with all the distress he caused his father, he was operating as his agent. He therefore arranged that the brothers would once again face the same situation, only this time with Binyamin. They again had to face the possibility of hurting their father - "For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father!" The internalization of this message, that fraternal hatred damages Kenesset Yisrael as a whole, constitutes a critical prerequisite for the establishment of the character of the nation. Clearly, this eternal lesson could not prevent occasional flares of hatred throughout our history, but at every such moment this warning accompanies us like a torch, a torch with the capability to illuminate our history, to guide and enlighten, but also, Heaven forbid, to burn and destroy.


(This sicha was originally delivered on Leil Shabbat, Parashat Vayigash 5759 [1998].)




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