“Deferred Punishment for the Sale of Joseph”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayigash, Joseph dramatically reveals himself to his brothers and reconciles with them. The Torah describes the emotional scene (Genesis 45:1): “V’lo yachol Yosef l’hit’ah’payk l’chol ha’nee’tza’vim ah’lahv,”And Joseph could no longer restrain himself in the presence of all those who stood before him and announced, “Remove everyone from before me!” Thus no one remained with him, when Joseph made himself known to his brothers.

Joseph cries out to his brothers, “I am Joseph!” His brothers, who were thoroughly stunned, could not respond. Joseph then asks his brothers to come close, and says (Genesis 45:4), “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.”

The Midrash and the Zohar (the basic work of Jewish mysticism, attributed to the 2nd century sage, R. Simon bar Yochai and his disciples) maintain that when Judah approached Joseph to plead on behalf of Benjamin, he was actually vying with Joseph to be designated the future king of Israel. The rabbis note that both Joseph and Judah became furious with each other. The fury of Judah seems reasonable since he suspected that Joseph’s motives were hostile. But Joseph surely was aware that Judah’s intentions were to save his brother Benjamin. Why then did he become infuriated at this point?

Furthermore, our rabbis maintain that only after the destruction of the Second Temple was the sin of the sale of Joseph finally avenged. The bitter price that was paid at that time was the deaths of ten extraordinarily holy scholars about whom we read in the Mussaf Amidah of Yom Kippur, in the poem “Ay’leh ez’k’rah (These I Remember).

The poem attributes their martyrdom to violating Hadrian’s imperial edict forbidding the founding of schools for the study of Torah. However, according to the Midrash, the ten sages of Israel were slaughtered not just for teaching Torah, but also as a punishment for the ancient sin committed by the ten sons of Jacob, who sold their brother into slavery.

Hadrian reputedly learned from the sages how to interpret the written law (the Torah) and maliciously turned to the scriptural passage (Exodus 21:16) forbidding kidnaping. Hadrian commanded to fill his palace with shoes and arrogantly summoned the ten great sages. He said to them: “Judge this matter objectively, pervert it not with falsehood, but pass on it truthfully: If a man is caught kidnaping one of his brothers of the children of Israel, treating him as a slave and selling him [what shall be his punishment?]”They answered: “That thief shall die.”

Hadrian then exclaimed: “Where are your fathers who sold your brother [Joseph] to a caravan of Ishmaelites and bartered him for shoes?! You must submit to the judgment of Heaven, for since the days of your fathers there has been none like you. If they were alive, I would convict them in your presence; but now it is you who must atone for the iniquity of your fathers!”

After asking for three days to ascertain whether the decree had been ordained from Heaven, Rabbi Ishmael, the High Priest, declared that Heaven had determined that the beloved scholars must submit to the harsh sentence.

Struggling to comprehend the horrific punishment visited upon the ten great martyrs, our rabbis offer several elucidations.

Eliyahu KiTov (1912-1976, one of Israel’s most acclaimed religious writers) cites the Shaim Me’Shmuel, in the name of his father the Avnei Naizer, who addresses many of these questions. The fact that the prosecution for the sin of the sale of Joseph was delayed until after the destruction of the second Temple, was due to the fact that for outsiders [non-Jews] looking in it seems as if Joseph is taking revenge on his brothers by arresting them and then testing them so strenuously. Had Joseph himself punished his brothers, they would no longer have been subject to the judgment of Heaven. But surely Joseph did not have revenge in his heart. To the contrary, Joseph, had great compassion on his brothers, wanting them to be cleansed of sin and spared of punishment. However, since Joseph never avenged his brothers, the prosecution still remained viable.

Although KiTov praises the interpretation of the Avnei Nayzer, he himself, offers an alternative approach. The fact is, says KiTov, that the tribes did repent for selling their brother. Judah even accepted upon himself to serve as a slave forever for the misdeed. But there are secrets of the heart, that no human can fathom, that only the Al-mighty can comprehend. So even though the tribes ostensibly repented, by Heavenly standards it was not considered a full repentance and hence the sin was not fully forgiven. Because of this, their descendants were later punished. The reason for the delay in the punishment was due to the fact that it was only with the destruction of the Second Temple that new prosecutors, Hadrian and the Romans, realized that the brothers had not fully repented.

The reason that Joseph himself was filled with anger, maintains KiTov, was because he had prophesied through the Divine spirit that the brothers’ repentance was not complete, which would result in the martyrdom of the ten saintly teachers. Why do the brothers still harbor enmity in their hearts and why is their repentance not complete? Had Judah remained silent and accepted upon himself the judgment of Heaven, even though it seemed hopeless, he would have completely cleansed the sins of the brothers, and there would have been no need for the martyrdom of the ten righteous leaders.

A third approach is suggested by Rabbi Ben-Zion Firer. Rabbi Firer suggests that before the generation of Akiva the son of Joseph [one of the ten martyrs] it was difficult to understand why Joseph, before identifying himself to his brothers, demanded that all those standing around him must leave. However, the generation of Akiva knew the reason well. Joseph refused to reveal himself before strangers in order to prevent the evil forces from attacking in the future. Joseph knew full well that the strangers, who have no abiding love for the people of Israel, but rather hate them, would find in this a reason to attack the Jews. And that is exactly what happened in the time of Hadrian.

Although Joseph was able to temporarily suppress what he had said privately to his brothers, once the Torah was written the representative of Esau could simply look into Scripture and demand punishment from the ten great scholars. The representative of Esau does not study Torah in order to find the light in it, but rather to uncover the blemishes of Israel. He not only finds blemishes in the people, but also in the Torah itself. He concocts things that are not in it, and determines that the Torah itself deserves to be burned, which is the reason why the scholars of Israel were burned while wrapped in Torah scrolls.

But how is it that the wicked representatives of Esau, who stood in judgment of the ten great scholars never noted that Joseph himself never exacted revenge on his brothers, or even reminded his brothers of their sins against him, though he had ample opportunity to do so. To the contrary, Joseph spoke forgivingly to them, comforting them as they stood fearfully when he revealed himself. Says Joseph (Genesis 35:5): And now, be not distressed, nor reproach yourselves for having sold me here. For it was to be a provider that G-d sent me ahead of you.

Among the leaders of Esau is there not a single righteous one who measures up to Joseph?

Furthermore, not all the brothers were guilty of selling Joseph. Reuben certainly wanted to save Joseph, and came back only to find the pit empty (Genesis 37:29-30). Judah said: Let our hands not be against our brother because he is our flesh and blood–let us sell him to Ishmaelites (Genesis 37:27) intending to save Joseph from his more extreme brothers. In fact, it could be easily argued that there were only two guilty brothers, only Simeon and Levi. They were the ones who said, “Here comes the master of dreams, and now let us kill him” (Genesis 37:19-20). Furthermore, the last will and testament of Jacob, indicates that it is only Simeon and Levi whom Jacob singles out in anger, accusing them of possibly attacking Joseph (Genesis 49:6, They uprooted the ox [Joseph]).

This is precisely the point, argues Rabbi Firer. The representative of Esau never looks for the righteousness or for the benefit of Israel, only for their guilt. Every Jew, in every generation is regarded as a partner with Simeon and Levi–never as a partner with the righteous Joseph. Alas, the fact that Joseph sought to silence all prosecutors by removing everyone from the room was of no avail, and future generations may still be paying for the sale of Joseph.

May you be blessed.