We read this week the beginning of the narrative of Joseph and his brothers. The opening notes of the story are certainly sour ones, sounding out a tune of family tensions, brotherly hatred, and a shocking act of violence and betrayal. In the opening lines of our parasha, we are treated to the background of the fissures that will soon tear the family asunder.
Two causes of tension between Joseph and his brothers are well known, and they both essentially boil down to a single emotion: jealousy. The brothers are jealous of the greater love Jacob their father feels for Joseph, a love symbolized and concretized by the gift of the colored coat Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber made famous. In addition to the unfair share of their father’s love commanded by Joseph, the brothers also cast a sour eye upon the dreams Joseph insists upon relating to them, dreams which seem to portend great things for him. In relating both of these causes of family friction the Torah uses the Hebrew root shin, nun, aleph, meaning hatred, to describe the feeling the brothers have towards Joseph. The brothers, drawn together by a feeling of hate, are portrayed as one.
These two events tend to inform our view of Joseph’s brothers as a gang, a group with a common cause and common goal. But the first incident of friction, detailed in the second verse of the parasha, should give us some pause from this assessment. It seems that only some of the brothers are involved, and the event does not engender a general feeling of hatred.
Joseph, the Torah tells us, spends time as an assistant shepherd for the sons of Bilah and Zilpah. Immediately after establishing this relationship, the Torah provides a terse and somewhat mystifying nugget of narrative, “And Joseph brought bad reports of them to their father.” We are not told of the nature of the bad reports, and indeed there is some debate among the commentators as to whom, precisely is the subject Joseph’s tattling. The eleventh-century commentator Rashi believes that Joseph is reporting on the bad things done by the sons of Leah, including the fact these “legitimate” heirs of Jacob were insulting the sons of the handmaidens by calling them slaves. The context of the verse, however, seems to indicate that the bad report could just as easily be about the brother he is working with, that is, the sons of the Bilah and Zilpah. It is clear, however, that not all of the brothers are involved.
Just as we are not told whom, precisely is affected by these bad reports, we are similarly not told of a reaction among the brothers. Rashbam, a twelfth-century scholar, tries to tie this incident with the other two by commenting that the Torah, “now counts all the different issues which caused them to hate him.” Certainly he is right by proximity. But we are not told that this evil report causes hatred. The unanimity of feeling among the brothers, the hatred they all feel for Joseph, does not occur until the second incident, that of the coat. That shared feeling of enmity also marks the episode of the dream, which is the third of Rashbam’s “issues” between the brothers. In our first incident however, the brothers never appear as a single, unified actor.
It is fascinating to note that, even as all of this anger comes to a head, and the brutal attack occurs, there is no unanimity among the brothers. Some wish to kill Joseph, while others, notably Reuven and Judah, act to save his life. The lack of unity among the brothers exhibited by the first incident reappears in this critical moment. It is almost as if some of the brothers remember that they never really hated Joseph all that much, and are repelled by how far the friction between them has been allowed to progress.
But by then, it is too late. The harmony of hatred has gone on for too long, and the dissenting voices cannot save Joseph. The division among the brothers emphasized in the first incident has been replaced by a hatred around which they could all coalesce, and by the time individual conscience is regained, the deed is done. Joseph is enslaved, and soon, very soon, all the children of Israel will follow.
This then, is one lesson of Joseph’s brothers: the necessity to maintain our critical distance from any comforting consensus around issues which inflame our passions and, to invert Lincoln, strengthen the worst angels of our nature. We may find that when we do shake our individual conscience awake, and are able to view the world through our own lens again, we are too late, and the violence is done, and our brother is lost to us.
Written by Ethan Linden, Rabbinic advisor to the student Conservative minyan at Harvard-Radcliffe Hillel.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Parshat Vayeshev at MyJewishLearning.com.