“Surprises from Down Under” Parashat Vayeshev 5777

The complex relationship between Joseph and his brothers, culminating in their selling him into slavery in Egypt, is possibly the greatest example in the Torah of a family feud gone horribly wrong. It seems that even the best people are still, well, people, each with their weaknesses and foibles. This week I’d like to show how if we open the aperture, the Hand of Hashem can be clearly seen throughout this story, moving human pieces exactly where they need to be in order for the Divine Plan to come to fruition. Excuse me? Didn’t Hashem create humans with free choice? How can He force humans to do good or evil? We’re going to see how even when Hashem hands over the reins to mortal man He still maintains enough control to ensure that things happen exactly the way He wants them to turn out.

It begins at the Covenant of the Pieces, in which Hashem promises Avraham [Bereishit 15:13] “Know that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs and they will enslave them and oppress them for four hundred years”. This period was a critical phase of the transformation of the Avraham’s descendants from a family of monotheists to a nation who would be ready to receive the Torah. It was an axiom that the slavery had to occur. The question was how to get Am Yisrael to leave the Land of Israel for “a land that is not theirs”. No-one would voluntarily want to enter four-hundred years of slavery. The exile could only transpire via force, enticement, or trickery.

One hundred years after the Covenant of the Pieces, Joseph and his brothers come onto the scene. A deep animosity develops and Joseph does not help things by telling his bothers his dreams that they rightly interpret as delusions of grandeur. One day Joseph’s brothers go to Shechem to tend their flocks and the scene is set. Before we continue, we turn our attention to two “key words”, words that appear abnormally often during the course of a story. Rav Elchanan Samet leads a school of thought that leverages key words in order to interpret a story. A cursory reading of our story readily shows that the key words are “hineh” – “behold” – and “bor” – “pit”. Let’s begin with “behold”. The Rashbam writes that the word “behold” always indicates that something surprising and unexpected has happened. Let’s look at the instances that “behold” appears in our story: Yaakov tells Joseph [Bereishit 37:13] “‘Aren’t your brothers tending their flocks in Shechem? Come, and I will send you to them.’ [Joseph] said to him, ‘Hineni (Here I am.)’”. Notice that Joseph’s response, “hineni”, is based on the word “hineh”, as if to say “Behold, I am here”. Yaakov’s command makes no sense at all. He knows that Joseph’s brothers hate him. Why in the world would he send Joseph into the jaws of the lion far away from his watchful eyes?[1] Joseph answers in one word: Hineni. The Netziv of Volozhn explains that Joseph knew in his belly that something extraordinary was afoot, but he still went along out of respect for his father.

Joseph tries to locate his brothers but he is unsuccessful. He runs into a stranger a [Bereishit 37:15] “and behold [Joseph] was straying in the field”. The stranger tells him that his brothers have moved on to Dothan. Coincidence [1]: Had Joseph not met the stranger he would have returned to his father empty-handed, but safe.

Joseph continues on to Dothan to carry out his father’s orders. The topography of Dothan is such that his brothers see him from afar. They appraise the situation, saying [Bereishit 37:19] “Behold, the dreamer approaches. Now let’s kill him…” Coincidence [2]: Had Joseph just “popped in” on his brothers, they would have had no time to plan his murder-cum-sale, nor to argue its ethical ramifications, and, again, Joseph returns to his father.

Joseph reaches his brothers and they immediately strip him and throw him into a pit to die. Tired and hungry from the whole affair, they sit down for a bite to eat. Suddenly [Bereishit 37:25] , “Behold, a caravan of Ishmaelites was coming from Gilead, and their camels were carrying spices, balm, and lotus, going to take [it] down to Egypt”. Joseph’s brothers decide not to kill him after all, but, rather, to sell him into slavery. Coincidence [3]: Had the caravan not passed by at that very moment, Joseph would have been left to die. Coincidence [4]: Had the brothers stayed in Shechem and not moved on to Dothan, they probably would have missed the caravan altogether.[2]

The last instance of “behold” is actually an instance of where the word should have been used but was not. Joseph’s brothers take his amazing technicolour dream-coat, drench it in blood, send it to Yaakov and tell him [Bereishit 37:32] “[Hey,] we found this [lying around]. Take a look – is it Joseph’s?” Yaakov [Bereishit 37:33] “recognized it and said ‘[It is] my son’s coat; a wild beast has devoured him; Joseph has surely been torn up’”. How can Joseph’s brothers act so nonchalantly? They should have told Yaakov “Behold! OMG! See what we found!” They don’t even tell Yaakov to his face what happened – they send a messenger. When Yaakov “recognizes it”, he does not recognize the coat – he recognizes the indifference of his sons. He knows that “Joseph has surely been torn up”.

The second key word is “pit”. The first instance of the word “pit” is actually “valley” [Bereishit 37:14]: “[Yaakov] sent [Joseph] from the valley of Hebron”. Rashi comments “Isn’t Hebron on a mountain? …Rather, [it is to be understood that he sent him] from the deep counsel of the righteous man buried in Hebron (i.e., Avraham), to fulfil what was said at the Covenant of the Parts.” Something deep was afoot. It could be felt but not yet clearly understood. Hashem remains hidden below the surface – His name is not mentioned even once in the entire chapter – ensuring that His Divine Plan comes to fruition, not in spite of the decisions of human beings but because of them.

As Joseph approaches his bothers they conspire to kill him. Reuven, the oldest brother, tries to be the mature adult [Bereishit 37:22]: “Cast him into this pit, which is in the desert, but do not lay a hand upon him”. Throw him into the depths, and let Hashem, who also resides in the depths, decide what will happen. Reuven’s plan is accepted [Bereishit 37:24] “They took him and cast him into the pit; the pit was empty there was no water in it”. Rashi, quoting from the Talmud in Tractate Shabbat [22a], writes “Since it says: ‘the pit was empty’ do I not know that there was no water in it? This informs us that there was no water in it but there were snakes and scorpions in it”. Just because we cannot see what is going on below the surface does not mean that the depths are empty.

Finally, our scene reaches its climax. All of the forces that have been set into motion culminate in one verse [Bereishit 37:28]: “Then Midianite men, merchants, passed by, and they pulled and lifted Joseph from the pit, and they sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty silver [pieces], and they brought Joseph to Egypt.” Joseph’s sale marked the beginning of a long, painful, but vital exile in Egypt. All of the coincidences that were set in motion by Yaakov’s strange request from Joseph to go to Shechem came together to cause what needed to happen – what was destined to happen – to actually transpire. There was no coercion and no trickery. Human beings with human emotions had made what they considered to be reasonable decisions. And yet, the line between random luck and destiny, between force and choice, had been, as it always has been, blurred.

I come from a Land Down-Under…

Can’t you hear, can’t you hear the thunder?

You better run, you better take cover.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5777

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka and Yechiel ben Shprintza.

[1] We have written in the past that Yaakov’s actions make Joseph suspicious enough of Yaakov’s involvement in his sale that he refuses to contact him even after he has been made Grand Vizier of Egypt.

[2] The caravan most probably took the Via Maris (or the “International Trunk Road”), which passed through Dothan but did not pass through Shechem.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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