Vayeishev 5778-2017

“The Jealousy Between Brothers”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


In parashat Vayeishev we read of the powerful forces of jealousy and enmity that rip apart the family of Jacob and his twelve sons.

Already in the opening verses of Vayeishev, we learn of a number of reasons for Joseph’s brothers’ formidable resentment of him. The Torah tells us, in Genesis 37:2, וְהוּא נַעַר , that Joseph was a lad, perhaps implying that Joseph was immature. It further informs us: וַיָּבֵא יוֹסֵף אֶת דִּבָּתָם רָעָה אֶל אֲבִיהֶם , [Joseph] hung out with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah (originally handmaidens, now Jacob’s wives) and brought back evil reports about them to Jacob their father.

The Torah continues to build the case for the brothers’ jealousy of Joseph. Genesis 37:3, וְיִשְׂרָאֵל אָהַב אֶת יוֹסֵף מִכָּל בָּנָיו כִּי בֶן זְקֻנִים הוּא לוֹ, וְעָשָׂה לוֹ כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּים , Now Israel [Jacob] loved Joseph more than all of his sons, since he was the child of his old age, and he made him a coat of many colors. Clearly, Jacob’s favoring of Joseph led to the brothers’ resentment!

The saga of Joseph continues with Joseph relating his provocative dreams to his brothers, implying that he is going to lord over them. In Genesis 37:4 the Torah tells us that when the brothers saw the coat of many colors, and recognized the fact that Jacob loved Joseph more than all his brothers, וַיִּשְׂנְאוּ אֹתוֹ, וְלֹא יָכְלוּ דַּבְּרוֹ לְשָׁלֹם , they hated him and could not speak to him peaceably. When Joseph tells the second dream to his brothers, the Torah reports, Genesis 37:5, וַיּוֹסִפוּ עוֹד שְׂנֹא אֹתוֹ , they hated Joseph even more.

Even when Joseph relates his dreams to his love-struck father, Jacob recoils and says, “What is this dream that you have dreamt? Are we to come–-I and your mother and your brothers–-to bow down to you to the ground?” The Torah once again records the brothers’ reaction, in Genesis 37:11, וַיְקַנְאוּ בוֹ אֶחָיו , his brothers were jealous of him. Now an element of jealousy has been added to the previous feelings of hatred.

In a keen analysis of this episode, Rabbi Ben-Zion Firer in his Hegyonah Shel Torah on Genesis, asks a number of pointed questions. If the reason that Jacob loved Joseph was because Joseph was the child of his old age, then shouldn’t Jacob have loved Joseph’s younger brother, Benjamin, even more, or at least as much as Joseph? Why did he not give a colored coat to Benjamin?

Rabbi Firer suggests that Jacob’s love for Joseph was not so much due to his special feelings for Joseph, but because of Jacob’s great love and special feelings for Rachel. Rachel’s love for her son, Joseph, penetrated the heart of Jacob, so that he too fawned over and loved Joseph. As scripture states, Genesis 29:18, וַיֶּאֱהַב יַעֲקֹב אֶת רָחֵל , and Jacob loved Rachel. Whomever Rachel loves is loved by Jacob. But Benjamin never merited to be loved by his mother because she died in childbirth. While Benjamin was also a child of Jacob’s old age (Joseph and Benjamin were the last children born to Jacob), the reason that Joseph is singled out for special love was because of his mother’s love for him, and his father’s love for Rachel.

Rabbi Firer points out, insightfully, that despite Jacob’s favoring Joseph, and despite Joseph’s heady dreams, the real reason for the brothers’ jealousy toward Joseph was because they were concerned for the honor of their mother, Leah. They saw Jacob’s special love for Joseph as an affront to Leah. Clearly, their mother Leah was not as loved by her husband as was her sister Rachel. It was not because of their own honor that they resented Joseph, but rather for the honor of their mother, Leah.

Rabbi Firer continues and asks why it was necessary to bring Benjamin down to Egypt? After all, now that the ten brothers were in Egypt, Jacob would have to come down to Egypt fulfilling the promise of the Covenant Between the Pieces (Genesis 15:13). In this covenant, G-d promised Abraham that he shall surely know that his children will be strangers in the land that is not theirs, and that they will be enslaved and persecuted for 400 years. Now that the mission was complete, Joseph could have revealed himself to his brothers and Jacob would certainly come. What does bringing Benjamin down to Egypt add to the saga?

Rabbi Firer maintains that for the sake of Jewish posterity and because of the damage the resentment could cause in the future, it was necessary to uproot the jealousy from the hearts of the sons of Leah toward their brothers, the sons of Rachel.

When Jacob sends his ten sons down to Egypt, Genesis 42:4, to buy food, the Torah says, וְאֶת בִּנְיָמִין אֲחִי יוֹסֵף לֹא שָׁלַח יַעֲקֹב אֶת אֶחָיו, כִּי אָמַר, פֶּן יִקְרָאֶנּוּ אָסוֹן , Jacob did not send Benjamin down because he was afraid that there would be an accident or a tragedy. The fact that the sons of Leah, along with Bilhah and Zilpah are sent down to Egypt and subjected to the dangers, but not Benjamin, would arouse jealousy among the brothers who would see it as another affront to mother Leah. In order to uproot this jealousy from their hearts, it was necessary to subject Benjamin as well to danger by sending him to Egypt. This demonstrates that it was not because of Jacob’s impassioned love for Benjamin that he did not send him down to Egypt, but rather due to Benjamin’s tender age.

Only after Jacob finally sends Benjamin down to Egypt together with all his brothers, does the jealousy cease, and is uprooted from the hearts of the brothers, allowing the family to continue on the path to fulfill the intended destiny of the Children of Israel.

May you be blessed.