“Joseph Takes His Brother Simeon Hostage”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Mikeitz, is an emotional roller coaster, stocked with abundant moments of triumph and trauma.

Joseph, who is now the viceroy of Egypt, saves Egypt from famine by collecting and storing grain during the seven years of plenty. People from all over the ancient Near East come to Egypt to buy food from Joseph, a very hands-on distributor.

Ten of Joseph’s brothers come down to Egypt to buy food for their families. When Joseph (whom they do not recognize as their long-lost brother) accuses them of spying, they categorically deny the charges.

In Genesis 42:15, Joseph insists that his brothers prove their innocence by bringing their youngest brother, Benjamin, to Egypt. Joseph’s original intention was to arrest all the brothers, allow one brother to return to Canaan to bring Benjamin, and if he does not, he would know that they are spies.

Joseph herds his brothers into prison for three days, after which he announces a revised plan. Joseph suggests that only one brother remain in prison as a hostage, so that the others could all return to Canaan to bring provisions for their starving families. But, he warns them, they must return with Benjamin.

Shocked by the rapid developments, the brothers privately deliberate and conclude that they are being punished by G-d for their cruel treatment of Joseph. When Joseph overhears his brothers’ expressions of regret, he turns from them and cries.

Scripture then tells us, Genesis 42:24, “Va’yah’shawv ah’lay’hem, va’y’dah’behr ah’lay’hem, va’yee’kahch may’ee’tahm et Shimon, va’yeh’eh’sohr oh’toh l’ay’nay’hem,” Joseph returned to them, and spoke to them; he took Simeon from them and imprisoned him before their eyes.

The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Yehudah Leibish Malbim, 1809-1879, leading Torah scholar in Germany, Romania and Russia) questions the meaning of the expression, “Va’y’dah’behr ah’lay’hem,” that he [Joseph] spoke to them, since Scripture doesn’t record any conversation between Joseph and his brothers. The Malbim suggests that Joseph asked his brothers to single out one brother who would remain imprisoned until the others return. But, the brothers refused, because according to Jewish law, it is forbidden for them to hand over one of their brothers, unless he had been specified by name.

The Tosephta Trumot 7:23 states: If a heathen said to a company of men: “Give us one of you whom we will kill, or else we will kill all of you,” they should all allow themselves to be killed, rather than deliver any one of the group. But if they specified a certain person, as Sheba, the son of Bichri was specified (II Samuel 20:1-22), they should not allow themselves to be killed, and should hand him over.

The Tosephta teaches that handing over a person to be killed, who has not been specified, is tantamount to murder. Jewish law declares that there are three Biblical commandments for which one must be prepared to give one’s life rather than transgress: idolatry, adultery and murder.

However, if a hostage is specified from among the group, the group members are permitted to hand over the specified person, since otherwise the entire group would be killed.

The Malbim argues that, apparently, Joseph specified Simeon to be his prisoner, as implied by the language of the verse that says, “Va’yee’kahch may’ee’tahm et Shimon,” and he took Simeon from among them.

Why did Joseph single out Simeon? Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) offers two reasons. It was Simeon who actually threw Joseph into the pit. It was also Simeon who said to his brother, Levi (Genesis 37:19), “Here comes the dreamer,” and incited the brothers’ jealousy and hatred upon Joseph. Rashi alternatively suggests that it was Joseph’s intent to separate Simeon from Levi for his own security, since together they were violent and deadly partners, having murdered all the men in the town of Shechem after the rape of Dina.

Ibn Ezra (1098-c.1164, Spanish Bible commentator) suggests that Reuben rather than Simeon should have been selected as the hostage because, as the eldest brother, Reuben was accountable for the deeds of his younger siblings. But since Joseph knew that Reuben had tried to protect him while his other brothers wanted to kill him, he spared Reuben and selected Simeon, who was next in seniority.

The Malbim suggests that there were other reasons why Joseph singled out Simeon. Apparently, Joseph wanted to punish his brothers “measure for measure,” and subject them to the same pain that he had been subjected to when he was thrown into the pit.  He therefore arranged to have the brothers experience what he himself had experienced.

Says the Malbim, the brothers who had accused Joseph of spying on them and bringing unfavorable tales to their father, were now themselves accused of spying. Furthermore, just as Simeon threw Joseph into the pit, he now threw them all in to prison for three days, and then specifically kept Simeon hostage. Just as they sold Joseph for twenty silver pieces, Joseph now instilled great fear in their hearts when they discovered that their money had been restored to their bags. And just as they sold Joseph to be a slave, Joseph created a scenario where all the brothers would announce (Genesis 50:18), “Behold, we are your slaves,” and Judah would be forced to plead with Joseph that he should serve as a slave in place of Benjamin.

The Ha’amek Davar (The Netziv, R’ Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, author of Haamek Davar, 1817-1893) suggests that when Simeon cruelly threw Joseph into the pit, the brothers watched, and did not protest, even though they were mortified by what Simeon had done. Now the brothers had to watch as Simeon was arrested, and were unable to protest. How did Joseph know that Simeon was the ringleader? Because he understood their whispering in Hebrew to one another when they expressed their guilt, and overheard the role that Simeon had played when Joseph was thrown into the pit.

Rashi deduces from the wording of the Biblical verse that Simeon was kept in prison only as long as the brothers were in Egypt. Since the verse states that Joseph took Simeon from them and imprisoned him “before their eyes,” Rashi concludes that once the brothers left Egypt, Joseph released Simeon allowing him to walk around freely.

The May’am Lo’ez (an extensive Ladino commentary on the entire Hebrew Bible, 17-18th century) however, cites an alternate scenario based on a most dramatic Midrash. The May’am Lo’ez maintains that Joseph turned from his brothers and cried, because he saw how remorseful they were. Although Joseph separated Simeon because he had been the ringleader and because he knew he had to separate him from Levi, the Midrash depicts Simeon crying out to his brothers, “Look, the viceroy of Egypt is trying to do to me exactly what you did to Joseph. After all, you, not I, were really responsible for our brother Joseph being sold as a slave. You listened to the voice of Judah, who said (Genesis 37:26), ‘Let us not kill our brother…Let us sell him.’ If it were up to me, I would have killed him, because kidnaping and slavery are worse than death. And, furthermore, how is it that you are now so remorseful for what happened with Joseph, but so thoroughly indifferent to my plight, leaving me imprisoned here in the hands of the king, while you all return home?”

The brothers responded, “What do you expect of us? Should we allow our families to perish from famine? Were it not for the fact that innocent people will die, we would have surely been prepared to give our lives for you.”

Simeon then agreed. “Go, and do as you must. But I would like to see who will be able to throw me into the pit.”

The dramatic Midrash continues. At that moment, Joseph requested that Pharaoh’s court immediately dispatch seventy of the strongest and most heroic members of Pharaoh’s guard to arrest Simeon. When they arrived at Joseph’s chambers, he ordered the guards to seize Simeon and place him in prison. As they approached, Simeon let out a most ferocious howl, scaring all the soldiers into thinking that they were being attacked by a wild lion. Joseph then ordered his son Menashe to arise and arrest Simeon. Menashe proceeded to hit Simeon directly on his head and dragged him to prison in chains. When Menashe subdued Simeon with a single blow, Simeon recognized that such an unusually powerful blow could surely come only from a person who was related to Jacob’s household.

Joseph then announced to his brothers, “This man must remain in prison until you return, and prove that you are speaking the truth.”

The dramatic story continues.

May you be blessed.

The festival of Chanukah begins on Tuesday night, December 20th, 2011 and continues for eight days, through Wednesday, December 28th, 2011.

Wishing you all a very Happy Chanukah!