In Parshat Vayeshev, Yosef and his brothers begin a conflict that will not be fully resolved until the end of Parshat Vayechi. While this struggle is fascinating when viewed independently, it gains additional significance when viewed within the broader context of two other sibling rivalries presented in the book of Bereshit.
The first two brothers we meet in this sefer are Kayin and Hevel. The Torah does not tell us a great deal about either of these or about the factors that led to their conflict. What we are told is that they had very different occupations – Hevel was a shepherd, and Kayin a farmer. They each brought sacrifices, and Hevel’s was more eagerly received. Thereupon, Kayin murdered Hevel.
What is the connection between the occupations and the sacrifices? Each brother sacrificed from that which he worked to create – Kayin, from his fruits, and Hevel, from his animals. Each was submitting the sum total of his efforts for Hashem’s approval. By accepting Hevel’s sacrifice, then, Hashem may have been validating his whole lifestyle and dismissing Kayin’s. Hevel and his approach may have been “chosen” over Kayin in a sweeping way. Among other things, this might have had ramifications as to who was the true successor to Adam. Kayin’s violent response is somewhat easier to understand if we assume that he was not merely snubbed on an isolated occasion but demoted at a moment of truth that defined his whole identity. Another pair of brothers who bear a marked significance to Kayin and Hevel is Yaakov and Esav. As in the case of Kayin and Hevel, the Torah notes that Yaakov and Esav had different professions – Esav was a hunter, and Yaakov was “Ish Tam Yoshev Ohalim,” a simple man who dwelled in tents. While many of us are familiar with the midrashic association of Yoshev Ohalim with Torah study, one might suggest another interpretation based on a parallel usage of this phrase. In Parshat Bereshit (4:20), we are told that Yaval was “Avi Yoshev Ohel Umikneh,” the father of all who dwelled in tents and with flocks. Yoshev Ohalim, then, may simply refer to a shepherd. This certainly fits in the context of Yaakov and Esav – it makes sense for the Torah to tell us Yaakov’s profession in the same verse as we are told Esav’s. Based on this interpretation, we have in Yaakov and Esav a second pair of brothers with different professions. Like Kayin and Hevel, they collide over an issue of Divine recognition; it is the theft of Yitzchak’s blessing that ultimately brings Esav’s fury to a head. As in Kayin and Hevel’s story, the blessing is linked to the profession; the Torah tells us that Yitzchak loved Esav and intended to bless him “Ki Tzayid Befiv,” because he was a hunter. This theme is reiterated later when Yitzchak insists that Esav must hunt for him and bring him food in order to receive the blessing. The story thus interpreted is in some sense a rerun of Kayin and Hevel, wherein the issue of whose life path will be chosen brings about another potentially lethal confrontation. However, this time the ending is somewhat different. Yaakov flees, and the impending disaster is averted. Still, The descendants of Yaakov and Esav remain bitter opponents throughout history.
Finally, when we consider Yosef and his brothers, we find a third story that follows a very similar pattern. Yosef’s brothers are shepherds; they tend to his father’s sheep in Dotan. He apparently is not a shepherd, as he is not with them at the time. In his presentation of a dream involving sheaves, he intimates that he is or plans to be a farmer, deviating from the
profession of the rest of his brothers. His prophetic dreams seem to imply some sort of Divine recognition of his special status, of a distinction between him and his brothers. In the wake of this, his brothers plot to kill him, hoping to prevent his dreams of being chosen over them from being realized, “Venir'eh Ma Yihyu Chalomotav”. Here, as in the Yaakov and Esav story, the murder is not ultimately carried out, and the tragedy is averted at the last minute. However, Yosef and his brothers achieve a further level of conciliation that eludes not only Kayin and Hevel, but Yaakov and Esav as well. Rather than remaining eternal adversaries, Yosef and his brothers become allies. This does not become completely clear until the very end of the book of Bereshit. Two events at the end of Yosef’s life underscore the extent of the peacemaking. First, Yosef is adamant that he bears no malice against his brothers; though he is now a very powerful man, he promises that he will not take any action against them despite what they did to him. Second, he requests that their descendants take his bones to be buried with them in Israel, that they include him as a member of their people. Yosef and his brothers, then, represent the final resolution of this ongoing conflict, in which the rival brothers ultimately unite to form one nation. What is most interesting about these stories is that although each can be taken alone, we cannot appreciate any of them fully without viewing them as a single ongoing story. It is only when they are taken together that we get a sense of the progress that is made from the time of Kayin and Hevel to the time of Yosef and his brothers. The message seems to be that tension between brothers will always exist-the question is how we will handle it. Very often, we expect growth to be simple and achievements to happen immediately. We live in a time of short attention spans, fast food, and sound bites. This orientation also underlies an impatient spiritual climate, where we expect an Israel Experience to change us instantly and permanently, where everything must materialize bimhera biyamenu and Mashiach must come Now. One lesson we can take from Sefer Breshit is that reality is more complicated than that. Rarely do we get a full sense of growth without looking at a large increment of time, at a span of several time periods and generations. Substantive progress is rarely achieved in a matter of days. It is only through revisiting the same challenge time after time that we ultimately achieve success.
As Kol Torah celebrates its Bar Mitzvah issue, this message seems appropriate. When my friends and I took over the Kol Torah editorship more than 10 years ago, we had no notion of where Kol Torah would go or where it would take us. Looking back after many years, I can say that many wonderful and unforeseeable developments have ensued. I am grateful to TABC and Kol Torah for teaching me to learn and write about the Parshat HaShavua, something that I continue to do regularly. I have also retained many of the friends that I made working on Kol Torah, and I am very thankful for that as well.
Since my departure, Kol Torah seems to have flourished under several generations of TABC students and staff. Of course, each Devar Torah and each issue is wonderful when read in its own right, but it is only when we look at all of these generations, what they gave to Kol Torah and what they took from it and how they (and it) progressed, that we can fully appreciate the contribution that it has made to students and to the community. I wish Kol Torah many more years of continued growth and success.