Midrash Tanchuma Vayeshev – Does God stress test our moral weaknesses

In retelling the story of Yoseph and his brothers, Midrash Tanchuma seems to shift the blame to God. It’s all quite simple, God caused the sale of Yoseph in order to bring Yaakov and his family down to Egypt. 

Does this mean that the brothers were supposed to sell Yoseph and they had no free will to do otherwise? What of the many other Torah sources in which the sale of Yoseph was considered an act of great cruelty? A tragic breach of unity within the fledgling Jewish nation. 

To make things even more theologically challenging, the  Midrash describes God’s involvement in the sale of Yoseph as an עֲלִילָה “Alilah” – which means trickery or manipulation:

וְהֵבִיא עֲלִילָה לְכָל דְּבָרִים אֵלּוּ, כְּדֵי שֶׁיֶּאֱהַב יַעֲקֹב אֶת יוֹסֵף וְיִשְׂנְאוּהוּ אֶחָיו וְיִמְכְּרוּ אוֹתוֹ לַיִּשְׁמְעֵאלִים וְיוֹרִידוּהוּ לְמִצְרַיִם וְיִשְׁמַע יַעֲקֹב שֶׁיּוֹסֵף חַי בְּמִצְרַיִם וְיֵרֵד עִם הַשְּׁבָטִים    וְיִשְׁתַּעְבְּדוּ שָׁם. הֱוֵי, וְיוֹסֵף הוּרַד מִצְרָיְמָה, אַל תִּקְרֵי הוּרַד אֶלָּא הוֹרִיד אֶת אָבִיו וְהַשְּׁבָטִים.


…”and He (God) resorted to a form of subterfuge in making sure that Yaakov loved Yoseph, so that his brothers will hate him (Joseph), and sell him to the Ishmaelites, who will bring him to Egypt. (So that) when Yaakov  hears that Yoseph is alive in Egypt, he’ll descend with the (future) tribes (of Israel) to Egypt to be enslaved there. Don’t read the verse as ‘Yoseph was brought down to Egypt’ rather, Yoseph (came to Egypt in order to) draw his father and the other tribes to Egypt…”

In an effort to decipher what is surely a critical but elusive message, I looked for another midrash which used the same term,  עֲלִילָה “Alilah.”

A letter justifying genocide of the Jewish People

The same word, עֲלִילָה “Alilah” appears in the Midrash Rabbah on the Book of Esther (Esther Rabbah 7). This time it’s used by someone no less nefarious than Haman. The Midrash portrays Haman’s efforts to enact his decree against the Jews. Both King Achashveirosh and the חֲכָמִים וּבַחַרְטֻמִּים “wise men and magicians” that the king brought in, voiced grave objections to Haman’s plan out of fear of God’s retribution.

Haman the spin doctor

Haman, however, claimed that whatever power god displayed in the past is no longer relevant. The fact that Nebuchadnezzar was able to destroy the Temple and exile the Jews proves that god is now elderly and powerless. This argument won the day and, together, they composed a letter to all the nations of the kingdom explaining why the Jews must be destroyed. 

The centerpiece of the letter was a description of the deceitful way the Jews treated the wonderful Egyptian people and their kind and generous host – Pharaoh. After all, Pharaoh took the Jews in, settled them in the best lands of Egypt and sustained them during a famine. Instead of showing gratitude, the Jews used עֲלִילָה, “Alilah” trickery or manipulation – the same word as in our Midrash. One day the Jews claimed they were going to worship their God for 3 days in the desert and return. They asked the unsuspecting Egyptians for gold, silver, fine clothing and donkeys. It turns out the Jews had no intention of returning, rather it was a ploy to embezzle the innocent people of Egypt. Naturally, Pharaoh had to chase after them to retrieve the stolen goods but Moshe used witchcraft to drown Pharaoh and his army.  The letter goes on and on describing how, throughout the years, the Jews mercilessly slaughtered the innocent and completely virtuous Amalekites.  In this Midrash עֲלִילָה, “Alilah” is again used to connote trickery or manipulation. However the charge of manipulation is, in itself, a manipulation. Haman conveniently left out a few facts. Yosef brought his family to Egypt. Yosef saved Egypt and the world from starvation. The valuables taken from Egyptians can be seen as partial payment for many years of slave labor.

Why, in fact, did the Jews falsely claim to be leaving for a 3-day holiday? 

Despite the justification for taking valuables from the Egyptians, Haman’s false accusation made me wonder why Pharaoh was told something that was not true.  The great 18th century North African Torah commentator and Kabbalist, Or Hachayim, addresses this question. He says that it is precisely because the Egyptians enslaved the Jews through trickery and deceit, that God used trickery to punish them. God’s punishments are always מדה כנגד מדה “measure for measure” so every person has a chance to learn and grow from their misdeeds. In fact, Midrash Tanchuma on Parshat Bo shows how each of  the ten plagues were designed to show the Egyptians a specific moral failing in order to to promote their spiritual growth. 

This insight help unlock the meaning of our Midrash.

Moral failings and opportunities for growth

If we analyze the sale of Yoseph in terms of moral failings, we see many. The brothers could have dismissed Yoseph’s dreams as that of a young man, prone to boastfulness, with an overactive imagination. But their jealousy proved too powerful a foe. As we say in Pirkei Avot:

רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר הַקַּפָּר אוֹמֵר, הַקִּנְאָה וְהַתַּאֲוָה וְהַכָּבוֹד, מוֹצִיאִין אֶת הָאָדָם מִן הָעוֹלָם: 

Rabbi Elazar Ha-kappar said: jealousy, lust and [the desire for] honor can destroy a man.” (Pirkei Avot 4:21)

As the story unfolds we see how the brothers were punished in perfect מדה כנגד מדה “measure for measure”:  They were enraged by the notion of bowing down to Yoseph. They indeed bowed down to him. They did not protest as Shimon threw Yoseph in the pit. They watched helplessly as Yoseph threw Shimon in jail.

Yoseph too was being tested. God granted him a gift of interpreting dreams. It was a gift that would catapult him from a powerless prisoner to the second most powerful position in Egypt.  But the gift came with responsibility. He could have told his father, “I had this dream, but I don’t want my brothers to know about it because it will upset them.” Instead he tells his brothers about his dream where they will bow down to him. His boastfulness landed him in the most humiliating places – a pit and ultimately in jail.  

Our assets are our liabilities

The Midrash sums up Yoseph’s test by describing God as being able to cure someone by the very means in which he afflicts them. 

יוֹסֵף לֹא נִמְכַּר אֶלָּא עַל יְדֵי חֲלוֹם, …. וְלֹא מָלַךְ אֶלָּא עַל יְדֵי חֲלוֹם

Yoseph was sold (into slavery) by means of his ability to interpret dreams, and he became a ruler (in Egypt) by way of his ability to interpret dreams.

God’s attribute of “measure for measure” brought repentance and growth

Yoseph ended up with no hatred in his heart for being sold into slavery. Joseph saw the bigger picture and grew into his epic role of saving the world from famine. He protected and sustained his family as their destiny unfolded into slavery and eventual freedom. Joseph reassured his brothers that everything happened for a reason:

עַתָּ֣ה ׀ אַל־תֵּעָ֣צְב֗וּ וְאַל־יִ֙חַר֙ בְּעֵ֣ינֵיכֶ֔ם כִּֽי־מְכַרְתֶּ֥ם אֹתִ֖י הֵ֑נָּה כִּ֣י לְמִֽחְיָ֔ה שְׁלָחַ֥נִי אֱלֹהִ֖ים לִפְנֵיכֶֽם׃ 

Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me; it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.”(Genesis 45:5)

The brothers also came to realize the gravity of what they did. They too saw God’s hand in history and were able to repent and grow from the experience. 

וַיֹּאמְר֞וּ אִ֣ישׁ אֶל־אָחִ֗יו אֲבָל֮ אֲשֵׁמִ֣ים ׀ אֲנַחְנוּ֮ עַל־אָחִינוּ֒ אֲשֶׁ֨ר רָאִ֜ינוּ צָרַ֥ת נַפְשׁ֛וֹ בְּהִתְחַֽנְנ֥וֹ אֵלֵ֖ינוּ וְלֹ֣א שָׁמָ֑עְנוּ עַל־כֵּן֙ בָּ֣אָה אֵלֵ֔ינוּ הַצָּרָ֖ה הַזֹּֽאת׃ 

“They said to one another, ‘we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us. That is why this distress has come upon us.” (Genesis 42:21)

Why it appears that God is manipulating Joseph and his brothers

Perhaps now we can understand why the Midrash used the term עֲלִילָה “Alilah” to describe God’s actions.” It represents our limitations in understanding events in our own lives. What seems like God interfering in the affairs of mankind was actually God nudging Jewish destiny forward. At the very same time, God was stress testing the moral weakness of Yoseph and his brothers.

What seems like trickery and manipulation is actually God choreographing opportunities for personal growth and development.

The story of Joseph and his brothers is the story of each one of us. God stress tests our moral failings in order to give us the opportunity to learn and grow from our mistakes.

About the Author
After college and Semicha at Yeshiva University my first pulpit was Ogilvy where I wrote TV commercials for brands like American Express, Huggies and Duracell. My passion is Midrash Tanchuma. I am an Architect of Elegant Marketing Solutions at www.mindprintmarketing.com. We are living in (where else) the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.
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