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3rd reading of Vayeishev with integrated commentary of Rashi.

by Rabbi Boruch Merkur

As Joseph approached his brothers, the air was thick with tension. They saw him from afar, his figure recognizable by the distinctive garment he wore. It was not just any tunic, but an ornamented one, rich in colors and craftsmanship. This was the very tunic that had fueled their envy, a tangible symbol of their father's unique affection for Joseph. It was more than a piece of clothing; it represented Joseph's special status in their father's eyes.

As he drew near, unaware of the storm brewing in their hearts, his brothers acted. With a swift motion born of simmering resentment, they stripped Joseph of this garment. It was his shirt, his chaluk, which their father had given him, a garment unlike those given to any of them. This act of disrobing was not just physical but symbolic, an attempt to strip away the favoritism they believed Joseph enjoyed, to remove the distinction that had set him apart in their father's eyes.

In that moment, the richly ornamented tunic, the ktonet passim, became a silent witness to a pivotal moment in their family's history. This was no ordinary garment; it was the very one their father had given Joseph, a gift that went beyond the material, hinting at deeper layers of love and preference.

After the brothers had forcefully removed Joseph's tunic, they did not stop there. Their hearts hardened by jealousy and resentment, they seized him and hurled him into a nearby pit. This pit, lying desolate in the wilderness, was a silent observer to this act of betrayal.

The text tells us, “The pit was empty; there was no water in it.” At first glance, this might seem a simple statement of fact. But, as we delve deeper, a question arises: If the text already informs us that the pit was empty, why does it feel the need to specify that there was no water in it? The answer lies in what is left unsaid, in the spaces between the words. For the pit, though void of water, was not void of danger. It contained serpents and scorpions, hidden threats lurking in its shadows. This detail, not explicitly mentioned in the text, but understood from it, adds a layer of peril to Joseph's predicament.

This pit, devoid of water, symbolizes more than just a physical space of emptiness. It represents a void of compassion and brotherly love, a place where dark intentions overshadow kinship. The absence of water, a source of life, contrasts with the presence of serpents and scorpions, symbols of danger and death. This juxtaposition paints a vivid picture of the situation Joseph finds himself in – thrown into a pit by his own brothers, surrounded not by the life-giving elements, but by threats that lurk unseen.

As Joseph lay in the dark pit, his brothers coldly turned away, settling down to eat. Their meal was interrupted by an unexpected sight: a caravan of Ishmaelites traveling from Gilead. This wasn't just a random group of travelers; it was a caravan, a term emphasizing the collective journey of these people on the road, a shared purpose binding them as they moved through the wilderness.

The caravan's camels were not just carrying ordinary goods; they were laden with gum, balm, and ladanum, valuable spices and resins. This detail isn't trivial. Typically, such caravans would carry goods like naphta and tar, known for their foul odors. However, in what could be seen as a twist of fate or divine intervention, this particular caravan carried fragrant spices. This spared Joseph the discomfort of harsh smells during his journey to Egypt. Even in this dire situation, this was a small mercy, a hint of a greater plan unfolding, suggesting that even in dark moments, there can be glimpses of grace.

Each item the caravan carried had its own story and significance. The spicery, or “nechoat” in Hebrew, was a carefully chosen assortment, each spice adding to the cargo's overall value and purpose. The balm, known as “tzori,” was a resin from the balsam tree, used in the sacred incense of the Tabernacle, symbolizing healing and sanctity. And the ladanum, “lot,” known in Mishnaic language as Lotos, is a vegetable root, known for its medicinal properties. These elements of the caravan's cargo added layers to the narrative, hinting at healing, sanctity, and the intertwining of the natural and the divine.

As the Ishmaelite caravan drew near, a pivotal moment unfolded among the brothers. Judah, stepping forward, broke the silence with a question that would change the course of their plan. “What do we gain by killing our brother and covering up his blood?” he asked. His words, heavy with implication, cut through the air, posing a moral and practical dilemma.

Judah's question, “What profit?” echoes the Targum's interpretation, questioning the value or benefit they would gain from such a heinous act. It wasn't merely about the act of murder, but about the aftermath, the consequences both moral and material.

The phrase, “and conceal his blood,” further deepened the moral quandary. It wasn't just about hiding the physical evidence of a crime, but about the deeper act of concealing the truth of his death. This was about more than just avoiding detection; it was about the moral weight of obfuscating the reality of their deed.

Judah's intervention at this moment was crucial. His words hinted at a deeper understanding of justice and morality, questioning not just the act of violence, but the very essence of their brotherhood. His plea was a call to conscience, urging his brothers to reconsider their path, to see beyond the immediate act of vengeance and to contemplate the broader implications of their actions. This moment of reflection brought a new dimension to their decision, steering them away from a path of irreversible harm and toward a decision that, though still fraught with moral complexity, offered a glimmer of hope for redemption.

As the drama unfolded by the pit, Judah, one of the brothers, stepped forward with a proposition that would alter their course. “Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites,” he suggested, “but let us not do away with him ourselves. After all, he is our brother, our own flesh. His words resonated with a sense of practicality, laced with a lingering moral consideration.

Judah's suggestion was not just a practical solution but also a moral compromise. By selling Joseph, they would avoid the direct guilt of fratricide, yet they would still rid themselves of the brother they envied. This proposal reflected a complex interplay of guilt, pragmatism, and lingering familial bonds. Judah's emphasis on Joseph being their brother, “our own flesh,” was a reminder of their shared blood, a bond that, despite their envy and anger, could not be entirely ignored.

The phrase, “And they hearkened,” implies acceptance, agreement to the proposed plan. This wasn't merely a case of hearing Judah's words; it was an active decision to comply, to adopt his plan as their own. This understanding of the term aligns with the Targum's interpretation, which translates such instances of hearing as “accepting” or “agreeing.”

As Joseph remained trapped in the pit, a new turn of events unfolded. A group of Midianite traders happened to pass by, marking a significant shift in his fate. These Midianites were not the same Ishmaelites that the brothers had originally seen. This distinction reveals that Joseph's journey from the pit to Egypt was more complex, involving multiple transactions. He was not simply sold once, but passed through various hands, each exchange pushing him further from his past and closer to his uncertain future.

The narrative tells us that these Midianite traders, a separate group from the Ishmaelites, played a pivotal role in this part of Joseph's story. Their arrival introduces an unexpected element into the unfolding events, showing that Joseph's path was marked by unforeseen twists and turns.

The act of rescuing Joseph from the pit was initiated by his own brothers. It was they who first pulled him out, setting off a chain of sales that would eventually lead him to Egypt. Initially, they sold him to the Ishmaelites, who subsequently sold him to the Midianites.

Therefore, Joseph's journey from the pit to Egypt was not straightforward. It was a series of handovers, each marking a further descent into his trials. These exchanges were not mere commercial transactions; they were critical moments that shaped the trajectory of Joseph's life, leading him away from his family and towards a future of both challenges and triumphs. This journey, intertwined with betrayal and uncertainty, was also one of transformation, setting the stage for Joseph's eventual rise in a land far from home.

When Reuben, one of Joseph's brothers, returned to the pit where Joseph had been cast, he was met with a startling and distressing revelation. Joseph was no longer there. In a moment of profound anguish, Reuben tore his clothes, a traditional expression of deep grief and despair in their culture. This act of tearing his garments symbolized the tearing of his heart, the shattering of his hopes to rescue his younger brother.

Reuben's absence during the sale of Joseph to the caravan is a critical detail. He had not been there when Joseph was sold, for it was his turn to attend to their father, Jacob. This responsibility indicated the rotational duties the brothers shared in caring for their father, reflecting the familial structures and values of their time. However, there is another layer to Reuben's absence. It's explained that Reuben was not with his brothers during their meal because he was engaged in acts of penance – wearing sackcloth and fasting – as atonement for his previous misdeed of disturbing his father’s marital bed. This act of penance highlights the complex interplay of personal guilt, responsibility, and the quest for redemption within the family dynamics.

Reuben’s reaction upon discovering the empty pit was not just about the loss of his brother; it was also intertwined with his own quest for personal redemption. His plan to save Joseph was not merely an act of brotherly concern but also a step towards his own redemption, an attempt to make amends for his past actions. The empty pit, therefore, represented a double loss for Reuben – the loss of his brother and the loss of his chance at personal redemption.

Reuben, overwhelmed by the discovery that Joseph was not in the pit, hurried back to his brothers. His distress was palpable as he exclaimed, “The boy is gone! Now, what am I to do?” This exclamation was not just a question of what physical actions to take next; it was a deeper expression of his emotional and moral turmoil.

Reuben's words, “Now, what am I to do?” reflect a profound sense of despair and confusion. He was not only grappling with the immediate problem of Joseph's disappearance but also with the broader implications of his absence. The phrase “Whither shall I go?” reveals his inner conflict. He was contemplating not just his physical direction, but also his moral and emotional course. Reuben was essentially asking, “How can I escape the profound grief this will bring to our father?”

This moment was critical for Reuben. His reaction was not only about the fear of their father's sorrow but also about his own sense of responsibility and guilt. As the eldest, he might have felt a heightened sense of duty to protect his younger brother, and Joseph's disappearance represented a personal failure. Furthermore, given his recent acts of penance for his previous misdeeds, this incident compounded his feelings of guilt and his need for redemption.

Reuben's question to his brothers, laden with despair and helplessness, was emblematic of the broader rupture in the family dynamics. It signified the gravity of their actions and foreshadowed the profound impact Joseph's absence would have on their father and on the family as a whole.

In a calculated act of deception, Joseph's brothers executed a plan that would forever alter the course of their family's history. They took Joseph's tunic, the very garment that symbolized their father's special favor for him, and transformed it into a tool of their deceit. To fabricate evidence of a tragic fate that had supposedly befallen their brother, they chose to use a kid of the goats, specifically because its blood closely resembled that of a human. This choice was not incidental but a deliberate part of their scheme to make the deception more convincing.

As they dipped Joseph's tunic in the goat's blood, the garment changed from a symbol of dreams and favoritism to one of sorrow and betrayal. The act of dipping the tunic in blood was symbolic, representing not just a physical action, but a deeper betrayal of family bonds and truth. The brothers, driven by jealousy and resentment, were willing to go to great lengths to mask their wrongdoing.

This narrative moment is critical, not just for its immediate impact but for the layers of meaning it adds to the story. The tunic, referred to simply as “the coat” in its absolute state, becomes a central element in the tale when it is associated with Joseph - “Joseph's coat”, “the coat of many colors”, “the coat of linen”.

They had the ornamented tunic taken to their father, and they said, We found this. Please examine it; is it your son’s tunic or not?

Jacob, upon seeing the bloodied tunic of his beloved son Joseph, was overcome with a deep and piercing grief. His recognition was instant – “My son’s tunic!” he exclaimed in a voice laden with despair. The sight of the familiar garment, now stained with what he believed to be the blood of his son, led him to a heart-wrenching conclusion: “A savage beast devoured him! Joseph was torn by a beast!”

The words Jacob uttered in his anguish were more than an expression of grief; they carried a deeper, prophetic undertone. When he spoke of an “evil beast,” it was not just about a physical creature. This phrase hinted at a future adversary of Joseph, Potiphar's wife, whose false accusations would pose a significant challenge to him. This interpretation suggests that Jacob's words, while spoken in a moment of sorrow, had a prophetic quality, foretelling the trials Joseph would face.

However, a question arises: Why was Jacob not made aware by divine intervention that Joseph was still alive? The answer lies in the collective oath and curse the brothers placed upon anyone who would reveal the truth, even including the Divine in their pact. This deepened the tragedy of Jacob's ignorance, as it was not only the deceit of his sons but also this solemn pact that kept him in the dark.

Interestingly, Isaac, Joseph's grandfather, was aware that Joseph was still alive. However, he chose to remain silent, respecting the divine will that the truth should not yet be revealed. This aspect of the narrative introduces a complex interplay of human decisions, divine will, and the unfolding of destiny. It illustrates how different perspectives and choices can intertwine in the unfolding of a family's story, each decision carrying weight and consequence.

Jacob's response to the sight of Joseph's blood-stained tunic was one of profound and enduring sorrow. He rent his clothes, an ancient gesture of mourning and despair, and clothed himself in sackcloth, a symbol of deep grief and penance. The mourning of Jacob was not a fleeting moment of sadness; it was an extended period of profound grief that lasted many days.

The term “many days” in this context is significant and carries a deeper chronological meaning. It refers to a period of twenty-two years, the time that elapsed from Joseph's disappearance to the moment Jacob descended into Egypt. This time frame is not arbitrary; it mirrors the twenty-two years during which Jacob himself had not fulfilled the duty of honoring his parents. This period included the twenty years Jacob spent in Laban's house and the additional two years on his journey back, including his time in Succoth and Bethel. This parallel between Jacob's absence from his parents and his mourning for Joseph is seen as more than coincidence; it is viewed as a form of divine retribution or balance for his earlier actions.

Jacob's grief, therefore, is interwoven with themes of divine justice and the consequences of one's actions. His prolonged mourning was not only due to the loss of his beloved son but also reflected a deeper recognition of the cycles of absence and presence, of actions and their repercussions in human relationships. The narrative suggests that Jacob's mourning was not only a response to his immediate loss but also a reflection on his own life journey, marked by separation from loved ones and the responsibilities he bore.

Jacob's grief over the loss of Joseph was profound and unrelenting. When all his sons and daughters, including his daughters-in-law, whom he regarded as his own children, gathered to comfort him, he refused to be consoled. In his heart, Jacob was resolute: “No, I will go down mourning to my son in Sheol.” This statement was not just an expression of grief; it was laden with meaning and foresight.

The term “Sheol” here, while literally referring to the grave, carried a deeper significance. Jacob's resolve to mourn until his own death, believing he would join Joseph in the grave, was a reflection of his deep love and unending sorrow. However, there was also a Midrashic interpretation that saw “Sheol” as symbolizing Gehinnom, Purgatory. Jacob had received a divine omen: if none of his sons died in his lifetime, he would be spared the sight of Gehinnom. This belief added a layer of hope and faith to his enduring grief.

Meanwhile, Isaac, Joseph's grandfather, was also deeply affected by the situation. He wept for Jacob's immense sorrow, but he did not mourn as Jacob did. Isaac knew something that Jacob did not – that Joseph was still alive. This knowledge kept Isaac's grief in check, even as he empathized with Jacob's profound loss.

As Joseph's story continued to unfold, the threads of destiny carried him further from his past and into a future filled with uncertainty. The Midianites, who had become his captors, sold him in Egypt. His new master was Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt. Potiphar was not just any official; he was the captain of the guard, a position of significant influence and authority in the Egyptian court.

The term “captain of the guard,” or “ha'tabachim” in the original text, is intriguing. It implies more than just a military role; it refers to those responsible for slaughtering the king's animals. This detail, while seemingly minor, provides a glimpse into the complex and hierarchical nature of the Egyptian court and the roles within it. Potiphar's position, therefore, was one that combined both military duties and responsibilities within the royal household, indicating his high status and power.

Joseph's sale to Potiphar marked a significant turning point in his life. He was no longer just a Hebrew youth sold by his brothers; he had become a slave in a foreign land, serving in the house of a powerful Egyptian official. This transition from a favored son to a servant in Egypt was not just a change in circumstance; it was a dramatic shift in identity and destiny.

This moment in the narrative sets the stage for the next phase of Joseph's journey. It was in Potiphar's house that Joseph's character, faith, and abilities would be tested and refined. The path he was set upon was fraught with challenges, but it was also one that would reveal his resilience, wisdom, and the unfolding of a greater plan that was yet to be seen.

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