The role of a leader is to make decisions, usually under uncertainty. Sometimes history vindicates these decisions, other times it does not. Certain decisions seemed to be the right move at the time but when viewed in retrospect, they were horribly wrong. Others were just bad moves from step one. One such example appears in Parashat Vayeshev.
Joseph seems to be doing everything he can to infuriate his brothers. He parades around in front of them in a lavish coat of many colours especially made for him by his doting father, Jacob. He tattles to his father about his brothers’ misdeeds. He dreams a vivid dream in which his brothers’ sheaves of wheat bow down to his. Instead of keeping it to himself, he openly describes his dream to his brothers in exquisite detail. They are incredulous: Is he really that big of a megalomaniac that he cannot see how his delusions of grandeur are tearing a gaping hole in their family? Joseph answers this question in the affirmative by describing to them yet another dream he has in which the sun, the moon, and eleven stars all bow down to him. They are angry enough to murder him [Bereishit 37:11]: “His brothers envied him, but his father awaited the matter”.
Jacob doesn’t “await the matter” for very long. Joseph’s brothers travel to Shechem to tend their flocks. Shechem, located about eighty kilometres from their home in Hebron – about a three-day hike – was, at the time, a very dangerous place. Not long before, Jacob’s sons, Shimon and Levi, had murdered the entire male population after the son of local chieftain had kidnapped and raped their sister, Dinah. Nothing less than Divine Assistance was necessary to protect Jacob’s family from the angry mobs in neighbouring towns. What, then, were Joseph’s brothers doing tending their flocks in Shechem? Rabbi Asher Wasserteil, who lived in Israel in the previous century, notes in “Birkat Asher” that Jacob had purchased land near Shechem and that his sons were purposely tending their sheep in that location in order to publicize their claim to the land, to fly the flag, if you will. Whatever the case may be, Jacob, concerned for his sons’ well-being, sends Joseph to Shechem to check up on his brothers and to report back to him [Bereishit 37:14]: “Go and see how your brothers are and how the flocks are faring, and bring me back word”. With all due respect, Jacob’s decision to send Joseph to Shechem seems completely irresponsible. Assuming that Jacob’s sons were in some kind of mortal danger, what would Joseph’s presence have contributed? He would have been killed along with the rest of his brothers. Worse, sending Joseph to Shechem meant sending him directly into the lion’s den. Jacob knew how livid Joseph’s brothers were with him and yet he sends Joseph to spend some “quality time” with them, alone, 80 kilometres away from home. This could be one reason why Joseph does not re-establish contact with Jacob after he is instated as the Grand Vizier of Egypt. Perhaps Joseph suspected that his father was part of the conspiracy to kill him.
Many commentators suggest that Jacob knew full well of the great danger in which he was placing Joseph. To ward off the danger, Jacob used a sort of magic charm. The Talmud in Tractate Pesachim [8a] states that a person on his way to perform a mitzvah (shaliach mitzvah) is not susceptible to harm throughout the entire process of performing the mitzvah. To fully cover Joseph under this warranty, Jacob expressly tells him to “bring me back word”, protecting him for the full duration of his round-trip journey. Except that for some reason, the charm malfunctions and Joseph, while not physically harmed, is sold into slavery in Egypt.
Jacob’s behaviour can be seen in a very different light if we recognize that the stories in the Book of Bereishit have eternal relevance. The Ramban, who lived in Spain and in Israel in the thirteenth century, espouses the principle of “Actions of the forefathers are signposts for their sons”, meaning that we, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, can learn perpetually relevant lessons from their behaviour as described in these stories. From Abraham’s treatment of his guests, we can learn how to treat our own guests. From Jacob’s preparations before his meeting with his brother, Esav, we can learn how to navigate our own world politics. We can take the Ramban’s thesis even further: The stories in the Book of Bereishit are not only examples of exemplary behaviour for our emulation – the actions of our forefathers have a direct and tangible effect on our own lives.
With this in mind, let us revisit Jacob’s sending of Joseph to Shechem. In this episode, the names of places abound. When Joseph reaches Shechem, he is told that his brothers have moved to Dothan, where he finds them. Hebron also makes an appearance [Bereishit 37:14]: “[Jacob] sent [Joseph] from the Valley of Hebron, and he reached Shechem”. We learned in an earlier essay that when the Torah lists the names of places, it is not merely giving us a lesson in geography. Rashi, the most eminent of the medieval commentators, who lived in France in the eleventh century, noting that Hebron lies not in a valley (emek), but, rather, on a mountain top, makes the following comment: “Jacob sent [Joseph to his brothers] as a result of the profound (amuka) thought of the righteous [Abraham] who was buried in Hebron in order to fulfill that which was spoken to Abraham ‘Your descendants shall be a stranger…’” G-d had told Jacob that his descendants would be exiled from their land and would be enslaved for four hundred years. When Jacob sent Joseph to his brothers, he knew that Joseph would not be returning. Jacob had made a conscientious decision that now was the optimal time to begin their exile. But if he foresaw that Joseph was on a one-way ticket, of what use was making him a shaliach mitzvah for the round trip?
In November, 1942, the Allies and the Axis fought the Second Battle of El Alamein in which General Bernard Montgomery led the British Eighth Army to a convincing victory over the Italians and the Germans, led by Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, the “Desert Fox”. The battle, which took place in northern Egypt, one hundred kilometers west of Alexandria, stopped the Axis advance and eliminated the threat to Egypt, the Suez Canal and the Middle Eastern and Persian oil fields. Had the Axis been victorious at Al Alamein, their next stop would have been Palestine, which was then home for over 400,000 Jews. For half a year, in what has become known as the “200 days of dread”, the Jews living in Palestine prepared for a German invasion. In a plan called “Massadah on the Carmel”, fighters hid out in the Carmel mountains waiting for an invasion that thankfully never occurred. Historians have contemplated what the Nazis would have done with the Jewish inhabitants had they succeeded in capturing Palestine. Recently, data has come to light showing how the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al Husseini, in his meetings with Hitler in Berlin, had devised a plan to exterminate the Jews of Palestine, solving the Jewish Problem once and for all. They would construct crematoria similar to the ones in European concentration camps. These crematoria would be located in the Dothan Valley, the same place in which Joseph was sold by his brothers.
With all the pieces of the puzzle in hand, we can begin to assemble them. From a mountain top in Hebron, Jacob sent his children into exile. This exile was an archetype of countless subsequent exiles, deportations, and persecutions that, like Shechem, would be fraught with existential danger, culminating in extermination camps in the Dothan Valley. By sending his descendants into exile, Jacob turned each and every one of us into a shaliach mitzvah, ensuring that Dothan would become not a graveyard but, rather, a town in the modern State of Israel, a home to which Jacob’s descendants have finally safely returned.
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5782
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, and Geisha bat Sara.
 Shechem, also known as Nablus (from the Roman “Naples”), is still not the safest place on the planet.
 Lech Lecha 5782
 Hebron is 930 [m] above sea level, nearly 200 meters higher than Jerusalem.
 After Al Alamein, the Axis retreated but remained in Northern Africa until May, 1943.
 Full disclosure: Many historians believe that even had the Axis defeated the Allies at Al Alamein, their supply chain would have been unable to support a further push eastward. We will never know.