The family life of the patriarchs and matriarchs was anything but simple and, in particular, the interaction between siblings in each of the original families of the Jewish tradition was not what sensitive parents might hope for. Clearly, Jacob’s show of favoritism towards Joseph, the son of his preferred spouse, Rachel, was bound to raise the ire of Joseph’s brothers. Joseph’s air of superiority was also likely to exacerbate ill feelings on the part of the brothers. Still, no one would ever have expected that these behaviors, no matter how excessive, would have prompted such an extreme reaction on the part of Joseph’s brothers.
When Jacob sent Joseph to search out his brothers and report on their wellbeing, it set off a chain of events fraught with tribulation. On Joseph’s approach, his brothers set about plotting his demise to save themselves from his overbearing presence. Joseph was only saved from being murdered by the quick intercession of his eldest brother, Reuven, who had him cast into a pit instead. Before Reuven could save him and return him to his father, the brothers, at Judah’s behest, had Joseph sold into slavery, forever shaping the nation’s future: “And Judah said to his brother, ‘What gain is there if we kill our brother and cover up the blood? Come let us sell him to the Ishmaelites and our hand will not be against him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” (Genesis 37:26-27)
The welled-up animosity of the brothers towards Joseph led them to act capriciously and, while, in the end, they refrained from murdering Joseph, their act of fraternal violence was unconscionable. A number of rabbinic sages captured the seriousness of this action and its consequences in this extraordinary claim: “Said Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, ‘The ten martyrs were not seized except for the sin of selling Joseph. Rabbi Avin used to say that ten martyrs in every generation can still be attributed to this very sin.’” (Midrash Mishlei 1:13, Visotzky ed. p.18) The ten martyrs mentioned here are ten sages from the period of the Mishnah who were martyred by the Romans during the Bar Kokhba rebellion. (The story of the Ten Martyrs is known from the poem “Eleh Ezkara” of Yom Kippur in the Yom Kippur liturgy.)
Obviously, there is no direct correlation between the betrayal of Joseph by his brothers, so what then should we suppose was the intent of these sages in making such a linkage? (One should take note that the sages frequently make similar connections.) It seems to me that these sages want to teach that us that we should not think that what we do has merely a limited and immediate effect. All of our actions should reflect an understanding that what we do will reverberate through the ages and will be consequential in ways we cannot possibly imagine. The good that we do will resonate well beyond us and the wrong we do will ultimately haunt the future.
Joseph’s brother could not have known this. We who read their story know better. The question is whether we will take it to heart.