Mordechai Silverstein

In Search of the Ideal Solution

From the beginning, Parshat Vayeshev casts a pall over the relationship between Yosef and his brothers. Not only was Yosef his father’s favorite child, but his pretentious behavior raised his brothers’ ire until it reached a crescendo. So, when Yaakov sent Yosef to Shechem, where his brothers were pasturing their sheep, to inquire of their wellbeing, the stage was set for a tragic confrontation. The brothers brutally attacked him with the intention to kill him. Only the intervention of the eldest brother, Reuven, saved him, by convincing them to cast him into a pit instead. While Reuven intended to later save him, the appearance of a caravan of Ishmaelites, preempted his intentions. This is where Yehuda took control of the situation, convincing his brothers to take another course of action:

And Yehudah said to his brothers: ‘What gain is there (mah betzah) if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites and our hands will not be against him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.’ And the brothers agreed. (Genesis 37:26-28)

Targum Onkelos captures the pshat or plain sense of Yehudah’s request from his brothers:

What financial gain/benefit will there be to us if we kill our brother and cover up his blood?

This interpretation reflects the biblical meaning of the word “betzah – bet tzade ayin.” What is unclear here is whether his intention was simply to talk his brothers down from murdering Yosef or whether he was trying to benefit from the opportunity being presented by the passing caravan.

In rabbinic Hebrew, the root “bet tzade ayin” took on additional meanings, namely, “to break or split” as in breaking bread and then, in consequence: “to compromise” (break down the middle). This later definition led to a very interesting reinterpretation of Yehudah’s challenge to his brothers by drawing an analogy between Yehuda’s words and an obscure verse from Psalms (9:3):

Rabbi Meir says: This text refers to none but Yehudah, for it is written: ‘And Yehudah said to his brothers, what gain (betzah) is there is there if we kill our brother?’ And whoever praises Yehudah, blasphemes, as it is written: He who praises the man who compromises (botzeah), blasphemes the Lord. (Psalms 9:3) (Sanhedrin 6b)

Rabbi Meir, a famed student of Rabbi Akiva, argued, using this story as a backdrop, that under certain circumstances compromise is inappropriate. He asserts that when Yehudah saw that he had the ear of his brothers, he should have convinced them that Yosef should be returned to his father instead of “compromising” and saving his brother by selling him to the Ishmaelites. (As understood by Rashi and Ramah)

This interpretation, along with others which accompany it in the sugya (Talmudic argument), debates the value of absolute principles versus compromise. Did Yehudah accept an achievable result because the ideal result was unreachable or did he make an inexcusable compromise? This debate encapsulates a good deal of what confronts us in our day and we are faced with no less a quandary than Rabbi Meir!

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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