The story of Yosef’s sale is enigmatic. While the main characters in this drama are clear, the supporting actors are ambiguous and their precise actions are vague. Who sold Yosef and brought him down to Egypt? This summary and commentary is adapted from R. Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into the Weekly Parsha on Bereishis:
Approaches (in my summary):
- Rashi holds that the brothers sold Yosef to the Ishmaelites, who sold him to the Midianites, who sold him to Potiphar in Egypt [Medanites = Midianites].
- Ramban and Sforno hold that the Ishmaelites and Midianites were working together. The brothers sold Yosef to them, and they sold him to Potiphar in Egypt. Ibn Ezra says that the Ishmaelites and Midianites were the same people. Chizkuni says that the brothers sold Yosef to the Midianites, who sold him to the Ishmaelites, who sold him to the Medanites, who sold him to Potiphar in Egypt.
- Rashbam, Rabbenu Bachya, R. Samson Raphael Hirsch and Malbim say that the brothers didn’t sell Yosef. Rather, the Midianites took him out of the pit, sold him to the Ishmaelites, who sold him to Potiphar in Egypt. R. Goldin suggests that this represents a closer textual reading than the approaches in B.
And then D (p. 213):
The most important question, however, yet remains. Why is the Torah, at this critical and dramatic moment in the story of our people, so deliberately vague? Why doesn’t the text tell us clearly whether or not Yosef’s brothers were actively involved in his sale? Why allow for conflicting interpretations?
Perhaps the text is deliberately vague to teach us that it really doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter whether the brothers actually pulled Yosef out of the pit and sold him or whether they simply set the stage for others to do so. Their guilt, in either case, remains constant.
Centuries later the Torah text will proclaim: “Do not stand idly by the blood of your friend” (Lev. 19:16) — If you witness danger to another, you are obligated to act.
We are responsible for the pain we cause or allow to occur to others even when it is not inflicted directly by our hands.
(Adapted from a post two years ago)