Finding the Good in Yosef’s Brothers

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Akedat Yitzhak, Sha’ar Twenty-Eight, Final Part

Potiphar’s Wife and Jewish History

In the name of space, I have skipped many examples of how R. Arama sees the Yosef story as a first version of later Jewish history. The incident with Potiphar’s wife can exemplify the rest. He says it shows how even after the harshest exile ends, other enemies will arise, who will try to lure us to their experience/view of the world, at the cost of forfeiting our connection to what is most central.

He mentions Haman and the Greeks, the latter of whom wanted to stop Jews from circumcising their sons–remember, for R. Arama, physical circumcision was essential to readying people for any faith commitments—wanted Jews to cease observance of Shabbat and holidays, all necessary for a life of faith in and service of Gd.

Like Yosef, Jewish leaders have always resisted, regardless of the blandishments or coercions [I suspect he would have included the Expulsion as another example of where a comfortable and successful Jewish life in a non-Jewish society ended with being called/lured/forced to abandon faith as a condition of continued residence and participation in the society.]

Yosef gets thrown in jail, a symbol of the long exile suppressing hope, for Yosef and for R. Arama’s audience. But, as for Yosef, and as Yeshayahu 60;22 says, the redemption can come in an unexpected moment, going straight from prison to prime ministership, embarrassment, famine, and any other problems gone in an instant, as that future time will be a world of plenty, both in terms of food and knowledge of Gd.

Defending the Brothers

R. Arama now returns to his opening point. All the stories, Yosef and his brothers, Jews and their history, show how freewill does not contradict the idea of a Divine plan. Eacb person has his/her own motives, thinks s/he is doing whatever seems best from his or her subjective perspective, and Hashem works it all out in the direction Hashem wants.

As for the brothers, R. Aram thinks they didn’t hate Yosef for the gossip he passed along to their father (R. Arama’s line by line reading—the part of the work I represent least well here, because we do not have space for it— held the gossip about the brothers was manufactured by the locals among whom they lived. They were worried these attractive young men would take their wives or women. [His thinking of this option suggests it was an issue in his time, concern over “others” taking “our” women leading people to immoral conduct, such as fabricating and spreading lies.]

Gossip-mongering he would outgrow, the brothers would have assumed and therefore ignored it. They felt they had to react to Ya’akov’s singling out of Yosef, giving him a special garment, taking in his dreams as if they were a possibility, because it looked like Ya’akov had decided to pass the entirety of membership in the Jewish people through Yosef (as Avraham had done with Yitzhak, to the exclusion of Yishma’el, as Ya’akov and Rivka had fought to be sure Yitzhak did, to the exclusion of Esav).

Had they been correct about Ya’akov’s intentions, R. Arama thinks they would have been right to protect the future [notice again his comfort with suprising means if the end matters enough.] Later in the shaar, he says some brothers worried about Ya’akov’s wrath, some worried Hashem agreed with Ya’akov that Yosef should be the sole bearer of the Jewish future, and some worried about both. Later than that, he says the brothers were never thought of as guilty, because all their actions were intended only to further and protect Hashem’s plan for the world, as they saw it [a very challenging idea, room for people to convince themselves they are right, act accordingly, and expect to be absolved for whatever they do even if they’re wrong. For another time.]

They planned to kill him (until Reuven and then Yehuda dissuaded them) and dispose of his body in a way Ya’akov would attribute to an animal (short-circuiting his search for the guilty party). They did not worry they were going against Hashem’s Plan, because they knew Hashem would save Yosef should his dreams be truly from Hashem—the meaning of “we’ll see what happens with his dreams.”

[I’m not convinced of the logic, especially if Hashem has many ways to bring a desired future. The dreams could have been valid, could have said Hashem planned a certain path, but could switch to a different one if it was foiled. They would have to be sure the dreams said Hashem was determined this was the sole way to the future before R. Arama’s idea would work, that the brothers assumed Hashem would step in if the dreams were real.]

One of many side points: he suggests Yosef saw the brothers bowing to his sheaves in the first dream, rather than to him, to symbolize their ignorance of before whom they were bowing.

Hashem Helps People Help Hashem

R. Arama thinks Shekhem was far from where Ya’akov was living; the brothers had been tending their flocks close to home, the reason Yosef could join them. When they went further, they knew Ya’akov would send Yosef, and the distance would give them cover to dispose of him. [The verses, to me, make it seem like they only came to that idea when they saw him from afar; R. Arama is saying the idea itself was the reason they shepherded the flock there.]

Yosef gets lost, and a man—Rashi says it was an angel—tells him where to go. To R. Arama, it shows Hashem was helping matters progress, a demonstration of the futility of people trying to avoid the future Hashem has determined.  [R. Arama also held the brothers’ sale of Yosef was a matter of freewill. To see Hashem as helping suggests that once people make a negative move, Hashem does not protect them from themselves. Had Yosef not found the brothers, after all, they would not have sold him. R. Arama would seem to have to say their plan already put them on a path. Hashem helped the path continue, challenging them to stop themselves, made sure circumstances did not save them, did not foil their attempt to act evilly].

Then they put him out of their minds, he thinks, so fully they didn’t even think of him when life forced them to go down to Egupt. The silence in the intervening years told them the merchants had sold Yosef to a more distant land.

Base Motives Produce Base Results

I am trying to bring this to a close, but R. Arama keeps throwing in ideas too interesting to let go. Yehuda leaves the family after the sale, R. Arama thinks, because he was unable to bear his father’s extended grief. His marriage eventually brought Tamar into his life, with whom he had the children who became his posterity, all part of Hashem’s plan.

Hashem therefore helped him find his way to his wife, although R. Arama assumes Yehuda thought he was marrying her for her beauty and wealth. Those unfortunate motives produced sons who were sinners, who died for their bad behavior in their marriage, their refusal to impregnate Tamar. As one of the seven Noahide laws, R. Arama identifies disinterest in child-bearing as a capital crime for a non-Jew.

[All right, I’m stopping, but let’s pay attention to two remarkable aspects of what he has just said. First, he clearly had a problem with marriage for beauty and wealth, because he reads it into Yehuda’s marriage where the verse—or Midrash, as far as I know—does not include it. He seems to object to such motives even if the woman is otherwise a good choice. Second, his perspective of the non-Jewish obligation to have children has overtones for our times, when many people take parenthood to be a matter of personal choice. R. Arama reminds us the Jewish perspective sees it as an obligation on all men, not just Jews, and should impact how we experience those who choose childlessness.]

My skipping parts of his presentation mean our ending cannot bring it all together neatly. Mostly, this shaar was about the course of history, how people can affect it, how Hashem extends freewill, limited by the overall plan, the eventual goals, which Hashem ensures will always come to be.

About Gidon Rothstein

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