How much is a human life worth? It all depends on the context. If a person is asked how much he will spend on medical treatment that could save his life, the amount will be limited only by his net worth or by what he can borrow. Alternatively, the worth of a person who performs a service for someone else – the money he receives in return – is a function of the type of labour that he performs and the time required to perform said labour. What if the context is slavery? How much will a person demand in order to relinquish his freedom? While the concept of a “Hebrew slave” no longer exists, in ancient times a person would sell himself into slavery in order to pay off a debt. The time he would spend in slavery was calculated by simple division: the amount of money he owed divided by the value of his time.
Joseph’s ten brothers want to kill him. From the simple meaning of the verses in the Torah, the issue was Joseph’s use of his status as Jacob’s favourite son to get his brothers into trouble. A more esoteric explanation posits that Joseph and his brothers held diametrically opposed views as to the place of a Jew in the world. Joseph’s brothers felt that his views were so dangerous that they posed an existential threat to the nascent Jewish People and that they had no other recourse but to kill him. When Jacob sends Joseph to check in on his brothers who are tending their flocks a fair distance away, the time is right for Joseph to suffer an “unfortunate accident”. As soon as he arrives, his brothers strip him naked and throw him into a pit to die there of exposure to the elements. Suddenly, they see a caravan of Ishmaelite traders making their way to Egypt and they experience a change of heart [Bereishit 37:26-27]: “What is the gain if we slay our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites and our hand shall not be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh”. Joseph’s brothers sell him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver, little more than one month’s wage. This, apparently, was the value of Joseph’s life.
Rabbi Pinchas Wolf asks why Joseph’s brothers didn’t demand more money for their brother. After all, Joseph was a strapping handsome young lad of seventeen. He could have become a veritable cash cow, siring hundreds of slaves. Rabbi Wolf answers that Joseph’s brothers did not sell him because they needed the money. Their sole desire was to get rid of him as cleanly and as efficiently as possible. The reason they took any money at all was that had they not asked the Ishmaelites for money, the Ishmaelites might have thought that they were unloading Joseph because he was some kind of trouble-maker and might have refused the deal. A change of hands of at least a small amount of money was required and so Joseph’s brothers figured that twenty pieces of silver was sufficient.
Why did they choose specifically twenty pieces of silver? Why not fifty? Why not a multiple of eighteen (chai)? The most straightforward answer pertains to “arachin”, the amount of money that a person must donate to the Beit HaMikdash if he pledges the “value of someone’s life”. The Torah [Vayikra 27:5] teaches that in the context of pledges, the value of the life of a lad between the age of five and twenty is twenty shekels of silver. As Joseph was seventeen years old when he was sold into slavery, he was worth exactly twenty shekels. Indeed, Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, writing in the “Ba’al HaTurim”, offers this very explanation.
Perhaps there was another reason. The prophet Amos castigates the people of the northern Kingdom of Israel [Amos 2:6]: “Three sins of Israel [I will forgive] but the fourth one I will not: that they sold a righteous person for silver and a poor person for shoes”. The simple meaning of the verse, as explained by the large majority of medieval commentators, is that wealthy people would lend money to the less fortunate and when the borrower defaulted on his loan, he would be sold into slavery. While G-d could forgive the Israelites for “three sins” – identified as the three worst sins that a person can commit: idolatry, murder, and adultery – He could not forgive them for this one. A very well-known midrash goes beyond the simple meaning of the verse, identifying the “righteous person” with Joseph, and that asserting that Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery in exchange for shoes. Each of the ten brothers received two shekels of silver with which he purchased footwear.
What, precisely, is the midrash trying to teach us? Are we to believe that Joseph’s brothers all just happened to need new shoes? Were the Ishmaelites holding a Black Friday sale on footwear? And what did Joseph’s brothers tell their father when they all returned home with Joseph’s bloody coat and shiny new Nikes on their feet? Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein offers an incisive explanation. Joseph’s brothers have two plans with which to deal with Joseph: In Plan A they kill him and in Plan B they sell him into slavery. Obviously, Joseph would prefer to live, even as a slave in Egypt, than to die in a pit and so Plan B is the better option. Not so, says Rabbi Liechtenstein. He berates Joseph’s brothers for their machinations. By selling Joseph into slavery, they turned him into an object, treating him just as they would an ox or a used car. As a result, they robbed Joseph of his human dignity, his “Tzelem E-lokim”, the “Image of G-d” that elevates man above beast. It is for this reason that the Torah [Shemot 21:16] deals so harshly with a kidnapper who sells the person he kidnapped. And so while slavery seemed like the better option for Joseph, it would have been better for him to die as a human in a pit than to be stripped of his humanity as a slave. Rabbi Liechtenstein asserts that the wealthy Israelites in Amos’s time were committing the exact same crime committed by Joseph’s brothers: by selling their creditors into slavery, they were stripping them of their humanity, a crime that G-d could not forgive.
A comment by Rabbi Mordechai Yossef Lainer, better known as the “Izbitzer”, can help take this idea down a most unexpected path. Writing in “Mei Shiloach”, the Izbitzer analyses the logic of selling Joseph into slavery versus leaving him in the pit. While leaving Joseph in the pit meant certain death, selling him into slavery offered only slightly better odds. In ancient times, and even in not so ancient times, a slave did not own his life. He was subhuman. His master treated him no differently than he would treat a dog, beating or executing his slave at will while suffering no more remorse than if he killed a mosquito. The Izbitzer explained the logic of selling Joseph into slavery as follows: “Let’s see if Joseph is really an existential threat to the Jewish people. If he dies in slavery, it means that we were right, and if he lives, it means that we were wrong. Let’s let G-d have the final word.” According to many commentators, Joseph’s brothers made the same calculation when they threw Joseph into the pit. The Torah tells us [Bereishit 37:24] “The pit was empty – it did not contain water”. The midrash comments that while the pit did not contain water, it did contain snakes and scorpions. The brothers did not want actively murder Joseph. They preferred to throw him into a pit filled with lethal reptiles, figuring “Let’s see if Joseph is really an existential threat to the Jewish people. If he dies in the pit, it means that we were right, and if he lives, it means that we were wrong. Let’s let G-d have the final word.” Merging the comment of the Izbitzer with the explanation Rabbi Liechtenstein leads us to an inevitable conclusion: by leaving Joseph’s future up to G-d, Joseph’s brothers committed spiritual suicide. One of the characteristics of man’s “Tzelem E-lokim” is his freedom of choice. Man is free to choose between evil and good and his reward and punishment are determined accordingly. By “letting G-d decide”, Joseph’s brothers waived their own freedom of choice. They stole Joseph’s Image of G-d and they sacrificed their own.
If the Egyptian exile was caused by treating humans like animals, then the future redemption will be hastened treating humans like the G-dly creatures they are.
Shabbat Shalom and Chanukah Sameach,
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5779
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and Tzvi ben Shoshana.
 Rabbi Wolf was the rabbi of Cologne in the early twentieth century. He died in Petach Tikva in 1968.
 He proposes two other answers, see ad loc.
 The fact that this chapter of Amos is read as the haftarah of Parashat Vayeshev strengthens its connection with Joseph.
 Is it merely coincidental that Parashat Vayeshev is always read in close proximity to Black Friday?