In this week's Parsha there is a major breakdown of Ya'akov's family unit. While the more serious crime of fratricide is avoided, the sale of Yosef which takes its place is a shocking act of perfidy. The parsha begins by telling us that Yosef is his father's favorite: Ya'akov goes so far as to give Yosef a coat of many colors. Yosef exacerbates the situation by mistreating his brothers, infuriating them by tattling to their father, and telling them all of his dreams, in which his brothers and even his father prostrate themselves before him.
The Yosef we meet seems self-absorbed and spoiled, yet Scripture describes him as righteous and wise. In the beginning of the haftorah there is a reference ascribed to Yosef:
So said Hashem - For three rebellious sins of Israel -- but should I not exact retribution for the fourth -- for their having sold a righteous man for silver, and a destitute one for the sake of a pair of shoes? (Amos 2:6)
When Yosef interprets Paroh's dream, Paroh declares:
Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, "Since God has informed you of all this, there can be no one so discerning and wise as you."(Genesis 41:39)
Yosef's wisdom is implied in another verse in the beginning of our parsha: Ya'akov loved Joseph more than all his sons because he was his ben z'kunim(Genesis 37:3). This phrase is commonly translated as 'the child of his [i.e., Ya'akov's] old age'. However, Yosef was not technically the child of Ya'akov's old age; Binyamin was. Moreover, the age difference between Yosef and his brothers was actually very small. Onkolus offers the much more logical translation of z'kunim as chakim; according to this opinion, Ya'akov loved Yosef for his wisdom.1
If Yosef is so wise and so righteous, how did he allow the relationship with his brothers to spiral into a situation in which he is despised and eventually cast out? His wisdom should have saved him from this type of behavior. His righteousness should have protected him from the pitfalls into which he stumbled.
If we reconsider the text, this time assuming that Yosef is both wise and just – we will find that Yosef had a plan. When his behavior is measured against this plan, Yosef's wisdom is dazzling, and his behavior impeccable.
The Torah begins to outline the situation with the following description:
These are the chronicles of Jacob - Joseph, at the age of seventeen, was a shepherd with his brothers by the flock, but he was a youth with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father's wives; and Joseph would bring evil reports about them to their father.
This verse tells us three things:
- Yosef was a shepherd with his brothers (or of his brothers).
- Yosef was na'ar – "a youth"- with his brothers, the sons of the concubines Bilah and Zilpah.
- Yosef would report certain things to his father.2
The language of the first phrase is difficult: Does it suggest that Yosef tended the flocks with his brothers, or does it suggest that he "shepherded" his brothers? We note that a distinction is drawn between "his brothers" in the first section of the verse and the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah in the second section. It is unclear who the third section of the verse refers to: When Yosef reports to his father, is his subject the sons of "Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah", or "his brothers"? While these distinctions may seem petty, they are, in fact, the key to the entire Parsha.
Rashi is sensitive to the distinctions in this introductory verse, and tells us that Yosef's treatment of the sons of the concubines was a deliberate response to the condescending behavior of the sons of Leah:
With the sons of Bilhah - meaning that he made it his custom to associate with the sons of Bilhah because his brothers slighted them as being sons of a handmaid; therefore he fraternized with them.
Yosef employs a type of affirmative action, trying to correct what he perceives as a social injustice. Yosef goes out of his way to associate himself with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah because of the second-class status the other brothers assign them. Furthermore, according to Rashi the subject of Yosef's report to his father was this insulting treatment suffered by the sons of the concubines.
Their evil report - Whatever he saw wrong in his brothers, the sons of Leah, he reported to his father; that they used to eat flesh cut off from a living animal, that they treated the sons of the handmaids with contempt, calling them slaves, and that they were suspected of living in an immoral manner.
When we consider the makeup of the family we can see where and how the problems began. There are four wives, but Rachel is loved above all; she is the one Ya'akov wanted. The others joined Ya'akov due to the conniving of Lavan (Leah) or the pleading of Rachel (Bilhah) or Leah (Zilpah).
The status of each of these women is complex, and the complexity carries over to the next generation. In last week's parsha there is a clear indication of how Reuven felt about Bilhah:
And it came to pass, while Israel dwelt in that land, that Reuven went and lay with Bilhah, his father's concubine, and Israel heard.(Genesis 35:22)
The woman with whom Reuven was intimate was, at least in his mind, not his father's wife but merely a concubine. She was of inferior status, having originally been a maidservant to his father's wife Rachel. Despite her producing children for Ya'akov, Reuven apparently still sees her as a servant, and, therefore, her children as servants. In contrast, when the Torah records Yosef's treatment of the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, they are specifically and demonstrably called wives: "But he was a youth with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father's wives."3
It is interesting that while the Torah stated that Yosef fraternized with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, Rashi stresses Yosef's behavior with the son's of Bilhah; perhaps due to Reuven's earlier slight they were most vulnerable to this type of insult. With Reuven leading the way, the sons of Leah, who themselves are of a status inferior to the sons of Rachel, abuse the sons of the maidservants, in order to separate themselves from those children who are unequal and unworthy, setting themselves apart and above them.
Yosef, as oldest son of the beloved wife, enjoys the highest status of all. He is uniquely positioned to correct the situation. The Torah describes his actions with a peculiar phrase: "was a youth with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah". The Netziv translates the word na'ar along the same lines as the term used to describe the relationship between Moshe and Yehoshua.
And the Lord spoke to Moshe face to face, as a man speaks to his friend ... but his servant Yehoshua, the son of Nun na'ar, departed not from the Tent. (Exodus 33:11)
Translating the word naar as "young man" in this context would be difficult: Yehoshua was not all that young at the time. He was a seasoned leader by that time, having already led the Jewish people in battle against Amalek. The Netziv explains that the term is used to indicate subservience: Yehoshua was Moshe's servant, always available for whatever task was needed. The Netziv further opines that the term na'ar has the same meaning here: Yosef served the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, and they served him. While this explains the term na'ar,and the introductory verse of our Parsha, we no longer understand the family dynamics in play. What was going on in this family? Why would Yosef serve them; why would they serve him?
When we recall that Bilhah was the servant of Yosef's mother, we can understand why her children felt they, too, must serve Yosef. Yosef was unable to talk them out of this arrangement, to convince them of their equal status, so he decided to reciprocate: As they served him, he would serve them. His motivation is diametrically opposed to that of the children of Leah, who sought to establish the status of the children of the maidservants as slaves. Yosef, the chosen child, serves these servants, effectively counteracting the abusive behavior of the sons of Leah. According to Rashbam, this is the reason the children of Leah began to hate Yosef: He was "too friendly" with the children of Bilhah and Zilpah, granting them equal status, status which the sons of Leah hoped to make exclusively their own.
This explanation leads us to a second, related point. When we are told that Yosef brings reports to his father, it is unclear who the subjects of the reports are--– the sons of Leah or the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah? As we saw above, Rashi is of the opinion that Yosef speaks about the sons of Leah. The difficulty with this interpretation is the order of the verse:
These are the chronicles of Ya'akov - Yoseph, at the age of seventeen, was a shepherd with his brothers by the flock, but he was a youth with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father's wives; and Yoseph would bring evil reports about them to their father.
The section of the verse which immediately precedes Yosef's evil reports mentions the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah. When the verse says that Yosef would bring evil reports about "them" it would most logically be a reference to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah. If Yosef were trying to improve their status why would he bring evil reports about them to his father?
Perhaps the insults and the abuse by the sons of Leah had an impact on the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah: Being told repeatedly that they were inferior caused them to finally believe it. They bought into the lie; they internalized the image created by the sons of Leah. They believed they were of inferior status, and that they must serve Yosef. Therefore, Yosef served them, treating them like real brothers. When they misbehaved, he reported them to their father, as he would have reported any of his other brothers. He treated them as equals, who were to be chastised when at fault. He treated them not as sons of slaves, but as sons of Ya'akov. Like his father Ya'akov, Yosef was acutely aware that all twelve sons together, as a unit, comprised the nascent Jewish People, and the nation would be incomplete if there were distinctions or barriers created at this time. Like his father, Yosef concerned himself with the perfection, the completion, the realization of the promise of the twelve tribes.
For his part, Yosef, despite his favorite-son status, shepherds with his brothers. Nonetheless, the class distinctions are not erased by Yosef's "affirmative action". Yosef realizes that he must take another tack if he is to eradicate the differences between the brothers. Yosef the visionary adopts a different plan of action: He reveals his dreams to his brothers. Yosef's dreams have dual significance. The dreams clearly outline Yosef's own superior status, but they also reveal something else - the equality of all the other brothers.
The two dreams seem to have two different objectives. The first states:
Behold! -- We were binding sheaves in the middle of the field, when, behold! -- my sheaf arose and remained standing; then behold! -- your sheaves gathered around and bowed down to my sheaf."
We should note that in his dream, they are all working together. There are no servants, no superiors, no differences between them. All of them are working together. But the conclusion indicates that if anyone is indeed superior, it is Yosef. This dream seems directed to the sons of Leah, disabusing them of their illusions of superiority. All are equal, but if there is anyone superior, it is he, not them. This first dream, then, bears a clear message: start treating the sons of Bilhah as equals.
The second dream differs in content and message:
He dreamt another dream, and related it to his brothers. And he said, "Look, I dreamt another dream - Behold! the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me."
Here he describes all the sons of Ya'akov as stars. This dream seems to be addressed to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, letting them know that the promise to Avraham that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars will be fulfilled in them as well. Again, it speaks of equality, with one caveat. Again, he says, "If anyone will be superior it is me".
Rashi brings up a subtext to this dream, which may sharpen the point: When Yosef speaks of the sun and moon, Ya'akov interprets it as a reference to himself and Rachel. He writes the dream off as an absurdity, because Rachel is dead.
"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?" (Genesis 37:10)
Shall we indeed come. Is not your mother long since dead?" He did not, however, understand that the statement really alluded to Bilhah who had brought him up as though she were his own mother (Bereishit Rabba 84); Our Rabbis inferred from here that there is no dream but has some absurd incidents (Brachot 55b). Ya'akov's intention in pointing out the absurdity of Yosef's mother, who was dead, bowing down to him was to make his sons forget the whole matter so that they should not envy him, and on this account he said to him, "Shall we indeed come etc" meaning, just as it is impossible in the case of your mother so the remainder of the dream is absurd.
Yosef considers Bilhah his mother, not merely a surrogate parent, and he considers her children full-fledged brothers.
In the final analysis, Yosef's plan is partially successful: He succeeds in galvanizing the brothers, but the problem is that they unite against him. Hereafter, we never again hear recriminations regarding different mothers; the brothers do become one family. We do not know what brought them together: Was it the horror of their father's grief after Yosef's disappearance? Perhaps the turning point was many years later, when they unknowingly meet up with Yosef and he attempts to separate Shimon from the others to see how they will respond. When he attempts to separate Binyomin from the others, they won't allow it. The lesson has been learned. They are one family.
Yosef apparently had no idea how much enmity his actions would cause. To protect the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah from the vicious behavior of the sons of Leah, he decides to bring the focus on himself instead. He sees disunity and disharmony and he uses his wisdom to solve the problem. His righteousness leads him to correct the wrongs he sees around him, even in his own family. The Seforno writes that Yosef's one flaw was immaturity: He seeks to fix the world, and thinks that he is capable of withstanding his brothers' attacks. Ultimately he seems to want only one thing, and he says as much when he is wandering in Shechem:
"My brothers do I seek; tell me, please, where they are..."(Genesis 37:16)
His words haunt us to this very day – all he wanted was his brothers. He sought their welfare and wanted above all to be one with them.
1. The Rashbam was also bothered by this question. The explanation he offers is that Yosef was the youngest in the family for a long time, and even after Binyamin was born he retained that status in his father's eyes. (return to text)
2. It is interesting that Ya'akov actually asks for these reports: Ya'akov sends Yosef to see how the brothers are doing. And he said to him, "Go now, look into the welfare of your brothers and the welfare of the flock, and bring me back word. (Genesis 37:14) (return to text)
3. See comments of the Ramban, who suggests that at some later date, Ya'akov married Bilhah and Zilpah. This would explain the change in appellation. (return to text)