In this week’s Parashah, Parashat VaYeishev, the Torah records the sale of Yosef: “VaYomer Yehudah El Echav Mah Betza Ki Naharog Et Achinu VeChisinu Et Damo”, “And Yehudah said to his brothers, ‘What is the gain if we slay our brother and cover up his blood?’” (BeReishit 37:26).
The Gemara (Sanhedrin 6b) attempts to connect the aforementioned Pasuk to another Pasuk in Tehillim, “Ki Hileil Rasha Al Ta’avat Nafsho U’Botzei’a Beireich Ni’eitz Hashem”, “For the wicked man boasts about the desire of his soul, and the robber congratulates himself for having blasphemed the Lord” (Tehillim 10:3). Rabi Meir bases the connection on the fact that the language of “Bitzu’a” is only found throughout Tananch in these two Pesukim. “Ni’eitz Hashem”, the thief’s blasphemy of God (in Tehillim), refers to the act of selling initiated by Yehudah in this week’s Parashah. The mere suggestion to sell Yosef is considered to be a negative action on Yehuda’s account. However, others in the Gemara disagree with Rabi Meir’s connection. They explain that the Pasuk in Tehillim refers to something else entirely, and thus do not consider Yehuda’s actions to be a transgression.
What exactly lies at the heart of the Machloket within the Gemara? Rav Moshe Feinstein zt’l (Sefer Kol Ram, VaYeishev) explains that the varied opinions disagreed about the nature of Yehuda’s evaluation of his brothers. On the one hand, one could say that Yehudah didn’t think that his brothers were merciful, and thought that if he suggested that they return Yosef to Ya’akov, they would surely refuse, making it a case of Safek Pikuach Nefesh (due to the fact that there were snakes and scorpions in the pit in which they were holding Yosef; see Rashi to 37:24). Therefore, the selling of Yosef would be justifiable, as it was an attempt to save his life. However, on the other hand, one could say that Yehudah did think his brothers were Ba’alei Rachamim (merciful), but thought that selling Yosef was a better idea. According to this latter evaluation, the sale of Yosef was an error on Yehuda’s part. Therefore, we can now explain the Machloket in the Gemara: Rabi Meir thought that Yehudah evaluated his brothers in the latter way, thereby performing an act of “blasphemy”, and the other opinions thought that Yehudah evaluated his brothers the first way (i.e. his actions were justified).
However, a question still remains. According to Rav Moshe Feinstein’s interpretation of Rabi Meir’s opinion, what exactly would be the thought process of Yehudah in selling Yosef? One could not say that Yehudah sold Yosef out of a sense of anger towards him, because the Pasuk afterwards records Yehudah as saying that, “Lechu LeNimkirenu LeYishmi’eilim VeYadeinu Al Tehi Bo, Ki Achinu Vesarainu Huh, VaYishmi’u Echav”, “‘Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, but our hand shall not be upon him, for he is our brother, our flesh.’ And his brothers hearkened.” (BeReishit 37:27)
Perhaps a potential resolution can be found through an application of a general Tanach principle. The Pasuk in Mishlei states “Palgei Mayim Lev Melech BeYad Hashem, Al Kal Asher Yachpotz Yatenu”, “A king's heart is like rivulets of water in Hashem’s hand; wherever He wishes, He turns it.” Throughout Tanach, Hashem influences kings to set certain events into motion. For example, and most famously, Hashem hardened Paraoh’s heart to ensure that the 10 Makkot would have maximum effect. Less famously, Rechavam Melech Yehudah acted rather foolishly at the beginning of his Malchut (he did not listen to the complaints of the people, and listened to inexperienced advisors, among other things). Melachim 12:15 records that Rechavam did not act of his own accord: “VeLo Shama HaMelech El Ha’Am Ki Haitah Sibah Mei’im Hashem Le’Ma’an Hakim Et DeVaro Asher Diber Hashem BeYad Achiyah HaShiloni El Yeravam ben Nevat”, “The king did not listen to the people; for Hashem had brought it about in order to fulfill the promise that He had made through Achiyah HaShiloni to Yerovam ben Nevat.” As the Nevuah of the splitting of the kingdom had to come true (see Malbim on Melachim I 11:30), Hashem influenced Rechavam’s actions. Likewise, Yehuda, the genealogical origin of Malchut, was influenced by Hashem in his decision to sell Yosef. The Brit Bein HaBetarim included the Bnei Yisrael’s enslavement in Mitzraim (BeReishit 15:13, “Ki Geir Yihiyeh Zaracha Be’Eretz Lo Lahem Va’Avadum…”), and Hashem initiated this process through the sale of Yosef.