Who Sold Yosef? by Nachum Fisch


In Parashat VaYechi, Ya’akov blesses his children, or, at the very least, some of them. After blessing Reuven he explicitly rebukes two of his sons, Shim’on and Leivi, for having slaughtered the men of Shechem. This causes us to ask a simple, yet much overlooked, question: Why doesn’t Ya’akov rebuke the brothers for selling Yosef,  arguably their greatest sin of all?

There are two possible answers to this question. The first is brought by the Chafetz Chaim, who says that the brothers realize when Yosef reveals himself to them that everything that had happened over the past 22 years – the sale, the famine, the bringing of Binyamin – were all just parts of Hashem’s master plan to save Ya’akov’s family. Ya’akov also understands this, and therefore does not rebuke his sons for their actions.

The other possibility is an approach from a completely different direction. When the Torah tells us about the initial sale of Yosef (BeReishit 37:28), it states, “VaYa’avru Anashim Midyanim Socharim VaYimshechu VaYa’alu Et Yosef Min HaBor VaYimkeru Et Yosef LaYishme’eilim,” “And Midyanite men, traders, passed by; and they raised Yosef from the pit and sold him to the Ishmaelites.” Rashi (ad loc. s.v. LaYishme’eilim) explains that Yosef is sold by the brothers to the Midyanim, who in turn sell him to the Yishme’eilim. However, throughout this whole passage, the Torah never indicates explicitly who lifts Yosef out of the pit and sells him. Students in school are taught according to Rashi’s opinion, but what if it is really the Midyanim who take Yosef out of the pit and sold him? This would throw the entire story into a different perspective!

Once Reuven comes back to the pit, he laments that Yosef is gone, but what if his intentions aren’t so noble? While it is stated (37:32) that he wants to save Yosef from the rest of the brothers, the idea of the sale might not sound too bad, as it would teach Yosef a lesson without hurting him. After throwing him into the pit, Yosef’s brothers sit some distance away from the pit with the commonly-interpreted purpose of not wanting to hear Yosef’s cries. Therefore, they might not notice the Midyanim taking him out of the pit if they are so fixated on the Yishme’eilim that they see in the distance. In that case, we can understand that Reuven might go over to remove Yosef and preside over the sale as the eldest brother. In this case, Reuven tears his clothing and the brothers are now faced with a predicament. Because they no longer know what happened to Yosef, what can they say to their father? Instead, they make an excuse, wondering if, in fact, this excuse may really be the truth. They can’t find a body, which leads them to assume that he really may have been carried off by a wild animal. As a result, they dip his coat in blood and bring it back to Ya’akov. In this way they are giving Ya’akov as much information as they have, because they don’t know if Yosef is alive or dead.

Once Yosef reveals himself to his brothers, they are initially relieved, having thought he was dead for so many years. When they relay this message to Ya’akov, they tell him the full story of the day of the sale, how they didn’t see his capture. Ya’akov is able to see that they aren’t guilty of anything more than throwing their brother into a pit and covering for themselves with a story that they really thought may be true. As such, he doesn’t blame them for their error.

Yosef’s brothers are guilty of their intentions, but the consequence comes out of apathy to their brother’s predicament. Shim’on and Levi, to contrast, intentionally destroy an entire city’s population. Ya’akov’s Berachot show us that as bad as consequential inaction may be, any evil deed executed on purpose is far worse.

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