“‘Fressing’ While Rome Burns”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeishev, Joseph tracks down his brothers in Dothan. When they see him from afar, they conspire to kill him. The intensity of the brothers’ hatred for Joseph is evident when they say to one to another (Genesis 37:19-20): See here comes the master of dreams. And now come, we shall kill him and throw him into one of the pits, and we shall say: A wild beast has devoured him. Then we shall see what will become of his dreams!

As the oldest brother and the one responsible for the security of the family, Reuben recognizes his brothers’ evil intentions and decides to rescue Joseph from their hands by saying (Genesis 37:22): Let us not spill blood. Let us cast him into this pit, which is the wilderness. Scripture confirms that Reuben’s intentions were to save Joseph from his brothers and to return him to his father.

When Joseph approached his brothers, they removed his coat of many colors, took him and threw him into the pit. In describing the pit, scripture says (Genesis 37:24): “V’ha’bohr rayk, ayn bo ma’yim,” and the pit was empty, there was no water in it. Rashi, citing the Talmud, Shabbat 22a, states that while there was no water in it, it was full of snakes and scorpions!

Scripture then tells us (Genesis 37:25): “Va’yaish’voo leh’eh’chohl leh’chem,” they [the brothers] sat down to eat bread.

Picture this: The brothers had just thrown their own flesh-and-blood into a pit filled with snakes and scorpions with the likelihood that Joseph would die, and they have the audacity to sit down for a meal! What kind of people are these who could be so callous? This great indifference is compounded further by what we learn from the latter part of the Joseph saga.

When the brothers come to Egypt, they are accused by Joseph of being spies. Joseph speaks to them harshly and demands that they confirm their claim of innocence by bringing their younger brother, Benjamin, down to Egypt. At that moment, thoroughly guilt-ridden, they say to one another (Genesis 42:21), “Indeed we are guilty concerning our brother, inasmuch as we saw his heartfelt anguish when he pleaded with us and we did not listen; this is why this anguish has come upon us.”

Joseph is in the pit, crying for his life, and his heartless brothers sit down to a meal!

The Pardes Yosef, cited by the Iturei Torah, asks the same question with even greater cogency: Is it possible that the children, the sons of Jacob, were such gluttons that at this critical moment, with their brother in the pit filled with snakes and scorpions, they sat down to eat? Why did the Torah share this information with us?

Trying to mitigate the evil of their deed, the Pardes Yosef suggests: The brothers were not all of one mind regarding what to do with Joseph. Some wished to kill him, while others refused to shed innocent blood. Therefore, they sat down to eat bread, to establish a meal for the sake of brotherhood and unity.

The Talmud in tractate Shabbat 89b states that, according to the normal course of events, Jacob should have been dragged down to Egypt as a prisoner, bound in iron chains. But, because of his righteousness and merits, G-d instead arranged for Jacob to come down as an honored guest to be peacefully reunited with his beloved son, Joseph. Only because this was all being orchestrated by G-d do the brothers lift their eyes and see the passing caravan of Ishmaelites to whom they sell Joseph.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch makes an astute observation about the fact that the brothers notice the passing caravan. The Bible in Genesis 37:25 states that when the brothers sat down to eat food, “Va’yis’oo ay’nay’hem va’yir’ooh, v’hee’nay or’chaht Yishm’aylim ba’ah mee’gil’ahd,” they lifted up their eyes and looked, and behold a caravan of Ishmaelites was coming from Gilead. Hirsch notes that the expression, “na’sah ay’nah’yim,” never means simply a casual looking around, but is always an intentional and purposeful looking. Apparently, the brothers felt uneasy when they sat down to eat. They therefore kept looking toward the pit.

The Ha’amek Davar explains these verses in even greater detail. He says that Scripture wishes to praise the tribes. Apparently, despite all their anger and resentment toward Joseph, the brothers were nevertheless unable to sit comfortably during the meal. Astounded by the turn of events, especially by the fact that Joseph had successfully tracked them down after they had worked so hard to elude him, they were deeply moved by compassion when they heard Joseph’s crying and pleading. That is why, when they sat down on the ground to eat food, as was the custom, where it is impossible to see what is taking place in the distance, Scripture tells us that they nevertheless lifted their eyes and saw from afar. The Ha’amek Davar explains that because of their discomfort some of them must have stood, enabling them to notice the unexpected arrival of the Ishmaelite caravan.

The May’am Lo’ez maintains that there is a direct confluence between the brothers sitting down to eat bread and what was later to happen to all the people of that generation. It is an allusion, says the May’am Loez, that goodness will emerge through this meal. In fact, due to the sale of Joseph to Egypt, much bread and nourishment will eventually come, enabling the survival of countless people who would have succumbed during the years of famine. Only because the brothers were all righteous did goodness come to the world through them, confirming again the Talmudic aphorism (Shabbat 32a): Merit evolves through those who are meritorious.

The question then remains: Were Joseph’s brothers evil gluttons who were totally indifferent to their brother’s fate, or was the Al-mighty orchestrating the events here in order to achieve a greater good?

May you be blessed.