The title of our essay for Parashat Vayeshev 5765 was “The Akeidah (Binding) of Joseph”. In that essay, we compared Jacob’s sending Joseph to check on his brothers with Abraham taking Isaac to Mount Moriah to sacrifice him. While preparing this week’s essay, I noticed additional similarities between the two episodes and so this year we will present an updated version of that essay.
A cursory reading of the Portion of Vayeshev inexorably leads to the conclusion that Jacob was either naïve or mad. Everything he does leads to a foreseeable and completely undesired endgame, yet when the obvious eventually transpires, he is dumbstruck.
At the beginning of the portion, we are introduced to Joseph, a seventeen-year-old [Bereishit 37:2] “youth”. We learn that Joseph tattled on his brothers. According to our Sages in the Midrash, he told Jacob that his brothers were eating non-Kosher food and carrying on scandalously with the local women. Nonetheless, Jacob loved Joseph more than the rest of his sons. Jacob favoured Joseph because Joseph was his [Bereishit 37:3] “ben zekunim (son of his old age)” – the baby of the family. Jacob overtly professes his love for Joseph by making him a “coat of many colours”. Joseph’s brothers, outraged by Jacob’s prejudice, cannot even speak to Joseph. Who could blame them? Their father can think only of this tale-bearing adolescent. This leads to an obvious question: Why did Jacob give Joseph the coat of many colours? The Talmud in Tractate Shabbat [10b] teaches that a parent must never show favour to one child over the others, using Jacob and his coat as their example. “Because of one roll of cloth, our ancestors ended up being exiled in Egypt”. What was Jacob thinking?
Joseph’s brothers go to Shechem to tend their sheep. According to many commentators, the brothers used their flocks as an excuse to run away from home. Jacob, apparently unaware of Joseph’s brothers’ hatred, sends Joseph to “check up on them”. Joseph’s brothers are delighted with their luck. Joseph, far away from his father, is helpless. His brothers throw him in a pit and then sell him into slavery in Egypt. Yet when Joseph does not return home from this minefield, Jacob [Bereishit 37:33] believes his sons’ cover-up story that Joseph was killed by a wild animal and is inconsolable. Did he really believe that his sons were innocent, and that Joseph just happened to be attacked by a passing lion?
Jacob’s actions are incompatible with the cunning Jacob that we have grown to recognize. This is the same Jacob that sweet-talked Esau out of his birthright, stole his blessings, lived with Laban the Liar for twenty years, successfully swindled him out of his life’s earnings, fought and defeated an angel, and then bravely stood up to Esau and an army of four hundred men. How could he be so gullible when it came to his own family?
I suggest that Jacob was anything but gullible. He knew exactly what he was doing. He was offering Joseph on the altar the same way that Abraham offered Isaac. Let me explain. At the “Covenant of the Parts (Brit Bein Ha’Betarim)”, G-d foretold to Abraham that his descendants would one day inherit the Land of Israel but that as a precondition [Bereishit 15:13] “[They] shall be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years.” Divine Logic dictated that exile was a must.
The Rogochover, writing in the “Tzofe’nat Pa’aneach”, says something absolutely shocking. He notes that while the Portion of Vayeshev begins by referring to Jacob by his name “Yaakov”, it always refers to him as “Yisrael” whenever it is in the context of his relationship with Joseph. He explains that “Yisrael” is referring to Jacob not only on a personal level, but to the Jewish People – Am Yisrael – on a national level, as if to say that what was about to transpire would affect all of his descendants. The Rogochover asserts that Jacob took upon himself the exile predicted in the “Covenant of the Parts” when he fled to Laban’s home for twenty years. When he understood that his own affliction could not pay the bill, he chose Joseph to lead the Jewish People into a longer and more painful exile.
Why did he choose Joseph? Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrachi explains that had Laban not switched Leah for Rachel, not only would Joseph have been Jacob’s first-born, but none of his brothers would have ever been born. Jacob’s marriage to Leah was unintentional. Were it not for Laban’s trickery, he would have married only Rachel, and Joseph was her first-born son. The only reason that Jacob married Bilhah was because Rachel was jealous of Leah. The only reason that he married Zilpah was because Leah was jealous of Rachel. Jacob chose Joseph because Joseph was his eventual first-born son – his “ben zekunim”.
To ensure that Joseph would complete his mission, Jacob created an environment where Joseph could not remain with his family. He showed Joseph unconcealed favouritism. He listened intently to Joseph’s tales and then reprimanded his other sons. He gave Joseph the coat of many colours. Our Sages in the Midrash comment that Jacob loved Joseph because the two men were so similar. They were both hated by their brothers, their brothers tried to kill them, and they were both sent into exile. But these similarities existed to a great extent only because Jacob willed them. He created the situation because he desired the result. When Jacob sends Joseph to Shechem, he is fully aware of what might befall him and that he may never see him again. Rashi, commenting on the verse [Bereishit 17:14] “He sent him out of the valley of Hebron”, notes that Hebron is on a mountain, and not in a valley. He explains that Jacob sent Joseph from the “profound intention (etza amukah)” of Abraham, who was buried in Hebron, to fulfill the prophecy that his descendants would be exiled. Rashi is explicitly telling us that the reason that Jacob sent Joseph to his brothers was to begin the exile. The time had come. With tears in his eyes, Jacob, acting not as the father of his children but as the father of a nation, sacrifices his beloved son. The reason that Jacob refuses to be consoled when he is told that Joseph’s bloody coat had been found is because he knows that Joseph is not dead.
Several similarities in scripture bolster this hypothesis.
- Before G-d orders Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, he calls to him [Bereishit 22:1]: “Abraham, Abraham”. He answers, “Here I am (Hineni)” and then G-d tells him to go sacrifice Isaac. Rashi explains that G-d called to him first so as not to surprise him with a “big ask”. Jacob answers “Hineni”, which Rashi calls “an expression of humility and of readiness”.
- Before Jacob orders Joseph to go to Shechem, he tells him [Bereishit 37:13] “Are your brothers not pasturing in Shechem? Come, I will send you to them”. Joseph answers, “Here I am (Hineni)” and then Jacob tells him to go check on his brothers. The Malbim explains that Jacob’s first request is hypothetical – “Were I to ask you to check on your brothers, would you be OK with that?” It prepares Joseph for the “big ask” that comes next. As for Joseph’s answer of “Hineni”, Rashi explains that it was “an expression of modesty and eagerness. [Joseph] went with alacrity to fulfill his father’s command although he knew that his brothers hated him.” He knew he was not coming back.
- In both instances, the “big ask” is preceded by the word “please (na)”: Please take your son and sacrifice him. Please go see how your brothers are doing. Please forfeit what you hold dear for the good of a nation that does not yet exist.
Jacob was neither naïve or mad, nor was he gullible. He was following a path blazed by his grandfather, surrendering that which was dearest, trusting in G-d to forge the People of Israel.
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5784
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Sheindel Devorah bat Rina, Hila bat Miriam, Rina bat Hassida, Pinchas David ben Gittel and Esther Sharon bat Chana Raizel.
 Rabbi Joseph Rosen, known as the Rogatchover Gaon, lived in Latvia, at the turn of the 20th century.
 Rabbi Mizrachi lived in Turkey at the turn of the 16th century. He wrote a supercommentary on Rashi.
 Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known by his acronym “Rashi”, was the most eminent of the medieval commentators. He lived in northern France in the eleventh century.
 Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel Wisser, known as the Malbim, lived in the Ukraine in the 19th century.