December 3, 2015
In this week’s sedra Abarbanel tackles the problem of the apparent favouritism shown by Yaakov to Yosef. How could he repeat the same mistake of the previous generation?
“And Yaakov loved Yosef more than all his children” (Gen 37:13).
Yaakov’s greater love is difficult to understand. It is unnatural for a father to discriminate between his children thus, but especially in view of Yaakov’s own experience with the relationship between Yitzchak and Eisav and the resultant enmity between them. However, he saw in Yosef the most outstanding of his sons as shown by his wisdom, intellect and understanding; truly a ben zekunim- zaken is one who has acquired or possesses wisdom. He possessed the wisdom to be able at once to behave towards his older brothers with respect as a naar-youth while at the same time being a zaken towards his father; this ability to handle the often contradictory currents in ones life through judgment and intelligently rather than in haste and emotionally, is the true mark of wisdom.
Therefore, Yaakov made him a special embroidered cloak, a garment that befits a sage; “A sage should always see that his garments are neat and special and one who wears soiled or torn ones, is liable to the death penalty”. The brothers did not hate Yosef because of their father’s love nor were they envious of him because of that. They explained the love as resulting from Yosef’s tale bearing whereas the hatred flowed from the recognition of his wisdom. They suspected there would be, in view of his superior wisdom, a repetition of the Ishmael-Eisav scenario whereby they would be shunted aside and cast off while Yosef alone inherited the Abrahamic blessings, and therefore after his second dream were jealous of him in addition to the hatred.
We can see a reflection of this cause of their hate and jealousy in their reception of his dreams and their discussion as to his fate. While it was obvious that the dreams pointed to Yosef’s future as the leader of the tribes in their fulfillment of the blessings, they saw the dreams not as a divine revelation as their father did, but rather as the products of his own arrogance, daydreams or self delusion and wishful thinking. Therefore, they decided to leave the fulfillment of the dreams and the decision as to their validity to Divine Judgment; concerning the method of the testing, the brothers were divided.
“We shall kill him ..then we shall see what will become of his dreams” (Gen.37:20).
Shimon and Levi were the authors of that test because they saw that the other two eldest brothers, Reuven and Yehudah, satisfied themselves with constant talk but no action, leaving the decisions solely to them as all the other brothers were too young to matter. Furthermore, because they were in Shechem, such action seemed appropriate at the scene of their killing of the townspeople, after the rape of Dinah. The reason people kill others is either because they caused them damage or losses, or because such killing will bring them status and honor. None of theses reasons applied here; Yosef had done them no harm, was their own brother and they could hardly advertise their act and intended to tell Yaakov that a wild animal had killed him. So Reuven suggested that they throw him in a dry pit as a test and let G-d decide his fate. That was also the reasoning of Yehudah in suggesting the sale to the Midianim also considered by the text as Ishmaelim since they dwelt in their midst and were integrated with the latter.
In his commentary on the Haggadah, Abarbanel sought out the connection between Lavan and Israel’s going down to Egypt shown in the text ‘Arami oved avi vayeireid mitzraima’. In what way was Lavan Harami responsible for our galut in Egypt? The brit bein habetarim makes no mention of the country of the galut, only that there would be one, the destination was left to human free will; the sale of Yosef by his brothers and the consequent going down to Egypt. From where did the brothers inherit the trait of hatred that made that sale possible? From the house of Lavan as it is written: “He [Yitzchak] took Rivkah, the daughter of Betuel the Arami, the sister of Lavan the Arami, to be his wife”(Ber.25: 20)].
This story comes to interrupt the story of what happened to Yosef after he was brought down to Egypt for three reasons:
1. To demonstrate that there were two beginnings of kingship in Judah and Israel. The one was rooted in the two sons of Yosef, Ephraim and Menashe, who born were to him by the Egyptian woman so they were from a foreign source. [Perhaps referring to “A king from amongst your brethren; You shall not appoint a foreigner over you” (Devarim, 17: 15)]. Therefore their kingship could not be well established and of right but was only temporary.
However, Tamar was righteous and perfect, as befits the daughter of Shem as our sages tell us. Yehudah himself bears witness to this when he says: “She is more righteous than I, insomuch that I did not give her Shelah my son “(Ber. 38: 26). He had withheld Shelah thinking that she, not their own sins, had been the cause of their deaths. She, however, like Ruth who went to Boaz in the granary at night, had only acted for the sake of Heaven, when, in order to carry the seed of Holy Royalty and Kingship in Israel, she had placed herself in moral and social danger. So she was an appropriate Mother for holy and saintly kings. Therefore the kingship that flowed from the sons that were born to Yehudah by her and their descendants were from G-d and were destined to be the eternal kings even including the King Messiah.
2. To demonstrate the righteousness of Yehudah who separated himself from his brothers when he witnessed their cruelty and had to convince them not to kill Yosef. In addition he could not bear to witness the suffering and sorrow of his father at the loss of his favorite son. Nevertheless, he did not completely leave his father but repeatedly would return to serve Yaakov as befits kibud av; Parshat Miketz is evidence thereof.
3. To tell us that none of the brothers or their descendants died as punishments but all lived out their normal lifespan. The two sons, Er and Onan that died unnatural deaths did so purely as a result of their own sins as we learn at length from our parshah, but not as a result of the sale of Yosef. This is also evidenced by the gift of the righteous twins that was given to him after their deaths.