The Mystical Aspects of the Sale of Joseph

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeishev, we read of the sale of Joseph by his brothers, which resulted in Joseph being sold to Egypt to serve as a slave in Potiphar’s house. This sale, of course, changed the course of Jewish history.

In his fascinating book, Outlooks and Insights on the Weekly Torah Portion, Rabbi Zev Leff, presents an intriguing, and somewhat mystical, interpretation of the sale of Joseph. While the full scheme of the sale of Joseph is quite complex, I will attempt to share with you some highlights of Rabbi Leff’s cogent analysis.

Jacob, whose name was changed to Yisrael, emerges as the father of the Children of Israel and the Jewish people. Each one of Jacob’s 12 talented sons embodied a specific quality that would be needed by their descendants, the 12 Tribes, to create the Jewish people. At that time, only one person, Jacob himself, embodied all 12 traits.

Since Jacob’s intent had been to marry Rachel, but was deceived by Laban into marrying Leah, Jacob’s true firstborn was his son Joseph. That is confirmed as well, when, at the end of his life, Jacob blesses his children (Genesis 48:5), and turns the tribe of Joseph into two tribes, Ephraim and Menasseh, giving Joseph the double portion that rightfully belongs to the firstborn child.

Tradition teaches that Joseph was a replica of his father, Jacob, both physically and spiritually, and actually possessed all of the traits that Jacob possessed that were needed to build the Jewish people.

Rabbi Leff maintains that Joseph’s role was to serve as a facilitator to the other tribes–to help them develop their own unique qualities, and enable them to make their contributions to further Jewish posterity.

For this to happen, it was necessary for Joseph to go down to Egypt to make preparations for his brothers’ eventual arrival there. In Egypt, under Joseph’s influence, the brothers began to develop their special skills. The next step was for the 12 Tribes to develop even further in the land of Canaan. It was Joseph’s descendant, Joshua, the son of Nun, who led the army that conquered the land, so that the tribes could evolve even further. Ultimately, it will be Mashiach, the son of Joseph, who will serve as the forerunner to prepare the way for Mashiach, the son of David, the ultimate Messiah.

The birth of the 12 sons of Jacob, served to mark a change of eras from that of the forefathers to the that of the tribes.

The fundamental question, notes Rabbi Leff, is whether the 12 brothers represent the start of incipient Klal Yisrael, the People of Israel, or do they represent an earlier incarnation. That question hinges on their spiritual status–were they full Jews or were they Noahides?

The brothers themselves identified as full Jews, at least in an early form, and felt that it was time for them to fulfill their individual roles to begin shaping the destiny of the People of Israel. Joseph, however, disagreed, viewing them as precursors to the nation, but not yet fully formed. Joseph saw himself as the person responsible for steering and leading his brothers, to help them become fully ready for their future roles.

Joseph watched his brothers vigilantly, to help guide them and enable them to fulfill their destined roles. The fact that the Torah (Genesis 37:2) describes Joseph as וְהוּא נַעַר , that he was “a youth,” suggests that his role was to “arouse” their talents and help them blossom.

The Torah, in Genesis 37:2, reports, וַיָּבֵא יוֹסֵף אֶת דִּבָּתָם רָעָה , that Joseph, as part of his role to guide his brothers and help them develop, would bring evil reports about them to their father. However, instead of just reporting his brother’s behavior to his father and allowing Jacob to decide whether there was guilt in his brothers’ actions, Joseph concluded that his brothers were sinners, which aroused great hatred on the part of his siblings.

When the Torah reports, in Genesis 37:3, וְיִשְׂרָאֵל אָהַב אֶת יוֹסֵף מִכָּל בָּנָיו , that Israel loved Joseph more than all of his sons, it literally means “from all his sons.” Jacob’s love for Joseph was an outgrowth of love of all his children, because he viewed Joseph as their embodiment, who would shepherd them into their roles in Jewish life.

Rabbi Leff writes,

The brothers viewed Joseph as a threat to the nation, which in their view had already come into being…They viewed their father’s love for Joseph as coming at their expense, and thus estranged themselves from him, and could not find the ability to speak of him in a friendly manner. In their view, Joseph was a threat to the ultimate harmonious perfection that had to be reached through the unity of each Tribe contributing its unique portion, and not usurping the role of another Tribe.

Joseph’s brothers eventually deemed Joseph to be a רוֹדֵףrodef, a pursuer, who presented a threat to them, both in terms of their physical being, and also in terms of their destiny as the founders of the People of Israel. They, therefore, concluded that Joseph was worthy of death. Eventually, they gave in to Reuben, who pleaded with them not to kill their brother, and agreed with Judah to sell Joseph as a slave.

Rabbi Leff maintains that the brothers felt certain that they acted with proper intentions, and therefore did not regret the sale. The only regret that they later expressed (Genesis 42:21), was that they felt that they could have demonstrated more mercy when they heard Joseph’s cries.

Our Rabbis say that while the brothers felt certain that they were innocent, and that their actions would save the Jewish people, they were nevertheless punished because their judgment was tinged by jealousy. As a result of their jealousy, they, and those who came after them, had to suffer dire consequences. The baseless hatred for which the Second Temple was destroyed, mirrors the hatred of Joseph’s brothers for Joseph.

The tragedy of Joseph and his brothers continues to haunt the Jewish people to this very day. Our failure to identify and comprehend our own true intentions, let alone the intentions of others, is a source of great misunderstanding within ourselves and interferes with our interpersonal relationships. We are, very often, quick to judge others, and even, at times, too quick to judge ourselves. We need to look inside ourselves to question our own motivations.

In the spiritual world, no deeds go unaccounted. Whether we must ultimately pay for them, or are rewarded for them immediately, is impossible to know. Yet, we can certainly learn from the story of Jacob, Joseph, and the brothers, that every deed needs to be carefully considered, because of its broad implications on Jewish posterity.

May you be blessed.

The festival of Chanukah begins on Sunday night, December 2nd, 2018 and continues through Monday night, December 10, 2018.

Wishing all a happy Chanukah festival.