Who Sold Yosef? It Doesn’t Matter

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In last week’s Torah in Motion class (available for download here: link), I described R. Hayyim Angel as a faithful student of Prof. Nechama Leibowitz. He consistently surveys various views with the commentators, discusses the textual bases for their comments, adds his own thoughts to the conversation, and generally keeps things in an ethical and theological perspective.

I have since discovered another writer who I think is stylistically much closer to Nechama (without, of course, detracting from R. Angel’s unique style). A week or two ago I had a chance to look at the review copy I received of R. Shmuel Goldin’s two volumes of Unlocking the Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into the Weekly Parsha on Bereishis. It seems to me that R. Goldin follows Nechama’s approach fairly closely, albeit making his steps more obvious and therefore his methodology more transparent.

In each of the several essays per Torah portion, R. Goldin briefly describe the context of the narrative, proceeds to a number of questions on the text, and then offers multiple approaches (sometimes as many as seven) to resolving these problems. Generally, each approach is based on at least one commentator and R. Goldin shows how the commentator(s) react to the text in formulating his explanation. Occasionally, R. Goldin will offer his own original approach. Finally, very often he concludes an essay with a section called “Points to Ponder,” where the educator in him tries to help readers think about the contemporary relevance of the text and commentaries.

I call this style “Nechama Leibowitz made accessible” because it accomplishes everything she tried to do with her published studies but in a more transparent and easy-to-use way. R. Goldin’s language is also more exciting than that of the translator of Nechama’s studies. Less academic and more telling the story of the text and commentaries.

I remember learning the story of the brothers selling Yosef when I was in R. Yitzchak Goodman‘s ninth grade class. To this day, I think back to his class when I review Parashas Vayeshev. He explained the different approaches of the commentaries so well that I had forgotten who said what but remembered the different reasons each said his view. In R. Goldin’s treatment of this subject, he offers the Context: Ishmaelites, Midianites, Medanites — all somehow involved in the sale and transfer of Yosef. Questions: Who pulled Yosef out of the pit? Who sold him to Egypt? Etc.

Approaches (in my summary):

  1. 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].
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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