The weekly Torah portion and its lessons for all people

VAYEISHEV, Genesis 37:1-40:23

by Avraham ben Yaakov

Our present portion and the three portions that follow it until the conclusion of the book of Genesis tell the dramatic story of the feud between Joseph and his brothers with its many twists and turns until it is finally resolved.

The story of this feud between brothers and its eventual resolution is of deep significance to all mankind since we are all brothers and sisters, children of Noah and descendants of his three sons, Shem Ham and Japeth. We surely yearn for peace, yet almost all human history has been wracked by prolonged feuds between and within peoples, nations, clans and families... Yet God's plan is for all humanity to unite "with one accord" [Hebrew: SHECHEM] in the service of the One God (Zephaniah 3:9). A study of strife among brothers in the Torah may offer clues to how the unification of our hearts might be possible.

Brotherly strife in the Torah

The first two brothers in the world, Cain and Abel, struggled with one another for world dominion. Cain was the older of the two, yet God favored Abel, arousing Cain's envy and hatred to the point where he shed his own brother's blood (Genesis 4:3-8). We see that hatred is rooted in jealousy and can lead to literal murder.

Noah's sons were a trio - Shem, Ham and Japheth. After the flood, when Noah planted a vineyard and became drunk, Ham showed himself the "bad apple" when he his father's nakedness and went and publicized the fact to his brothers. Yet this lowly behavior evoked a beautiful display of brotherly cooperation by Shem and Japheth, who walked backwards into Noah's tent with a garment on their shoulders [Hebrew: SHECHEM] to cover him, modestly averting their faces so as not to see him in his degradation (Gen. 9:23).

Noah cursed Ham's offspring to be "servant of servants" to their brothers, while he blessed Shem and Japheth with the blessing of brotherly cooperation: "God will make Japheth beautiful and he will dwell in the tents of Shem" (Genesis 9:27). Humanity needs wise leadership, and those who are truly fit to give this must hold sway while all the rest of the people must defer to them. Japheth was in fact Noah's firstborn (Rashi on Genesis 10:21), yet he was to seek spiritual leadership "in the tents" of his younger brother, Shem.

Thus it was the offspring of Abraham the "Shem-ite", or Semite, who inherited the mission of giving spiritual leadership to the whole world. Yet even among those offspring, feuds between brothers started immediately when Ishmael rose up against Isaac (Genesis 21:9). Ishmael was firstborn to his mother Hagar and thirteen years older than Isaac, who was Sarah's firstborn. Under the Torah law of inheritance, it is the firstborn of a man's first wife, even if she is hated, who receives the firstborn's double portion of his estate (Deut. 21:16-17). Yet God Himself said that Abraham's line would pass through Isaac (Gen. 21:12).

Isaac's sons Esau and Jacob were twins from the same mother. Esau came first out of the womb, yet the birthright and the blessings were acquired by "little" Jacob, later named Israel, whom God chose as His firstborn (Exodus 4:22). There are numerous other cases in the Bible where a younger brother is given prominence, as when Jacob gave seniority to Ephraim over Joseph's firstborn Manasseh (Genesis 48:14) and when God chose Moses over his older brother Aaron (as discussed below) and chose David, the messianic king and redeemer, over all of his older brothers (I Samuel 16:11).

What made Joseph's brother's hate him?

Jacob's first love had been Rachel, but she gave birth to her own firstborn Joseph only after Jacob already had ten sons, six from his first wife, Leah and another four from the handmaidens Bilhah and Zilpah. The birthright should have gone to Leah's firstborn Reuben but was taken from him for wrongdoing (Genesis 35:22). Leah's next two sons, Shimon and Levy, had invoked Jacob's wrath for their sack of the city of Shechem (Genesis 34:30), so next in line stood Judah, from whom in fact the royal line of David went forth (Genesis 38:29 and 49:8-12; Ruth 4:18-22).

The argument over who should hold sway over the Children of Israel was essentially between Joseph (Rachel's firstborn) and Judah (Leah's fourth son; see Genesis 44:18). Joseph's older brothers were already jealous of him because of the favoritism showed him by Jacob: it is natural in families that when a new baby arrives and seemingly receives all the love and attention, the supplanted older siblings can become very jealous, spiteful and vengeful.

When Joseph told his brothers his first dream about the sheaves of corn, they asked him in shock: "Will you surely rule over us, will you surely govern us?" (Genesis 36:8). The idea that their spoiled little brother would be king over them made them hate him even more. People who are filled with feelings of their own importance detest the very thought of being subordinate to those they despise. Joseph's brother's hatred made them want to purge him from the world, but a measure of brotherly instinct prevailed when instead they sold him into exile and slavery (37:26-27).

It is in the ensuing Torah portions that the gripping story unfolds of how Joseph attains greatness in Egypt and eventually uses his consummate skill and wisdom to manipulate his brothers into seeing the evil of their deed until they repent completely. In the end Jacob gave Joseph one extra "portion" over his brothers (Gen. 48:22; Hebrew: SHECHEM). The final resolution of their feud comes only in the closing chapter of Genesis (50:15ff). The story indeed continues to unfold until today, because the Ten Lost Tribes under the leadership of Ephraim have still not been reconciled with the Jewish People under the leadership of Judah and the House of David (see Ezekiel 37:16-28).


The most perfect Biblical story of brotherly love and cooperation is that of Moses and Aaron. Again, Aaron was the older of the two brothers, yet when God chose Moses for the mission of redeeming Israel from their exile, Aaron rejoiced (Exodus 4:14).

Moses became the Law Giver (teacher of Torah, God's revelation to us) while Aaron became the Priest (Temple service, prayer). Each of the two brothers knew their own role and mission and had no envy for the other. Moses and Aaron - the teacher and the priest - were perfect examples of humility, mutual respect and love. Each was what he was while deferring to the other in the other's unique sphere.

People wage wars against one another because they do not want to be subordinate to those whom they perceive as being unworthy of holding sway. Indeed in today's world many of the rulers, legislators and judges etc. are obviously quite corrupt and unworthy. Yet throughout history it has been seen that those who are truly worthy to rule have at first been oppressed and persecuted. This in itself engenders humility in the true ruler, but the people too must have the humility to recognize when their perceptions have been in error so as to submit themselves to the true ruler. The demonized Joseph as he appeared in the eyes of his brothers may indeed have been a detestable figure, but this was not the true Joseph. That was what the brothers had to come to understand.

"How good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell in unity. It is like the precious oil upon the head, coming down upon the beard, even Aaron's beard." (Psalms 133:1-2).




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