Ultimate responsibility: What we can learn from Joseph and his brothers

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Guest Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23)                                                             

And there passed by Midianite merchants, and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver, and they brought Joseph down to Egypt. (Genesis 37:28)

Who bears the ultimate responsibility for a criminal act? Is it the person who plans the crime, or the one who pulls the trigger or stabs with the knife? Is it the agency that sets up the act, the terrorist inciters, the mercenary for hire, or even the disinterested parents or apathetic society that nurtured the evil intent leading to the villainous deed? An ambiguous verse in Vayeshev dealing with the sale of Joseph initiates a difference of opinion amongst biblical commentators that have relevance to this important question.

Let’s consider this scene of déjà vu. We know that Isaac was actually blind when he planned to give the blessings to his favored son, Esau, who turned out to be Jacob because of Rebecca’s planned deception. Now, we find Jacob is equally blind in his relationships with his own sons, for “Israel [ Jacob] loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age, and he made him a coat of many colors’ [Gen.  37:3]. This infuriated his brothers. ‘And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him’ [Gen37:4]. The Talmud declares:

“A parent must never favor one child among the others; because of a piece of material worth two selahs (the coat of many colors) that Jacob gave to Joseph more than his other children, his brothers became jealous of him and the matter degenerated until our forefathers were forced to descend to Egypt.”  (B.T. Shabbat 10b)

Apparently, our Sages felt that Jacob bore ‘ministerial responsibility’ for the tragedy of the brothers, although his sin was certainly inadvertent. Jacob suffers grievously for his mistake in family management, believing for twenty-two years that his beloved son is dead. But nevertheless he certainly is not the main culprit.

Joseph doesn’t do anything to assuage his brothers’ feelings: he recounts his dreams that flaunt his superiority and eventual domination over the other family members [Gen. 37:5–11]. Then, in a fateful move,the still unaware (blind) Jacob sends Joseph to Shekhem to see “whether all is well with his brothers, and well with the flock” [Gen. 37:14]. Sighting Joseph from a distance and clearly aggrieved by their father’s favoritism, Joseph’s brothers conspire in their hearts to kill him. They tear off his coat of many colors and cast him into a pit. Shortly afterwards, the brothers spy an approaching caravan, prompting Judah to suggest that since killing isn’t profitable, they should rather sell Joseph to the Ishmaelite caravan and tell their father he was devoured by a wild beast.

Undoubtedly, the moment Joseph is sold into slavery is one of the turning points in the Torah. It is considered the most heinous crime of the biblical period – the sin of sibling hatred foreshadowing the Jewish divisiveness that led to the destruction of the Second Holy Temple and its aftermath of tragic exile and persecution.

However, when we examine the verse recording the sale of Joseph, it’s hard to figure out who it was who actually sold the hapless brother, the Ishmaelites, the Midianites or the brothers who initiated the plan. (Gen 37:27,28)

Joseph himself initially considers the brothers responsible, as he said when he first reveals his true self to them, “I am Joseph your brother whom you sold to Egypt.” (Gen. 45:4)

However, the Rashbam maintains that since the brothers were not the ones who actually pulled Joseph out of the pit to sell him, they could not be considered as the only guilty party; but they must still share responsibility for the events that unfolded as a result of the sale. Their initial act of casting their brother into the pit was done with murder in their hearts. Rashbam casts guilt upon everyone who shares in unleashing the forces of evil, even those whose hands remain clean while others do the actual dirty work.

I share the view of Rashbam. One must do something – not merely think something – in order to be responsible, but the one who sets the ultimate crime in motion by his action, even though he might not have perpetrated the act of the sale itself, must nevertheless certainly take responsibility. Hateful intentions alone cannot create culpability, but placing an individual in a vulnerable position – like casting him into the pit – inciting others to participate in that hatred as well as actively aiding and abetting the perpetrators of the crime, certainly makes one a partner in crime who must assume a share of the guilt.

But there is a twist in this portion, and Joseph engages in a little historical revisionism. A much wiser and more mature Joseph twenty-two years later when Joseph was Grand Vizier of Egypt, he looks upon this incident from the perspective of Jewish history, sub specie aeternitatis, under an Eternal gaze. From his vantage point, when he stands as Master rather than hapless victims, he continues ‘But now do not be sad, and let there not be reproach in your eyes because you sold me here; it was in order that you (all) might live that God sent me [to Egypt] before you…to ensure your survival in the land and to sustain you [for a momentous deliverance].  And now, it was not you who sent me here but God…’ [Gen.  45:5–8].

Hence Joseph may very well be holding the brothers responsible for the sale even though it may have been the Midianites who actually committed the transaction – not only because it was the brothers who began the process which led to the sale, but mostly because he wishes to involve them in redemption. For Joseph, the act that began as a crime, concluded – owing to divine guidance and Joseph’s own quick-wittedness – as the salvation of the family of Israel. Joseph is anxious to restore family unity – and thus to look upon the sale from a divine perspective, which turned a tragic family transgression into a truly mighty salvation!

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the Chief Rabbi  of Efrat, Israel.

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