From Clan to Nation

And Yosef said unto his brothers: I die; but G-d will surely remember you, and bring you up out of this land unto the land which He swore to Avraham, to Yitzchak, and to Yaakov. And Yosef took an oath of the Bnai Yisrael, saying: G-d will surely remember you, and you shall carry up my bones from here. So Yosef died, being a hundred and ten years old. And they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt. (Sefer Beresheit 50:24-26)

1. The transition from one patriarch to the next
Parshat VaYeche closes the Torah’s account of the lives of the patriarchs and the twelve sons of Yaakov. It is notable that the Torah’s discussion of Yaakov differs greatly from its treatment of the other patriarchs. The Torah takes care to discuss each generation’s patriarch with minimal reference to his predecessor or successor. The Torah’s discussion of Avraham only makes reference to his son, Yitzchak, when the narrative demands his mention. Similarly, when the Torah takes up its narrative of Yaakov’s life, it sharply curtails further discussion of Yitzchak. However, when the Torah moves its focus to the sons of Yaakov, Yaakov remains a recurrent character in the narrative. In Parshat VaYeche, Yaakov again becomes the central figure of the narrative when he delivers his final blessings to his sons. Why does the Torah treat Yaakov differently than the other patriarchs?

And it came to pass, when Yosef came to his brothers, that they stripped Yosef of his coat, the coat of many colors that was on him. And they took him, and cast him into the pit – and the pit was empty, there was no water in it. And they sat down to eat bread. And they lifted up their eyes and looked, and, behold, a caravan of Ishmaelites came from Gilad, with their camels bearing spices and balm and ladanum, going to carry it down to Egypt. (Sefer Beresheit 37:23-25)

2. The brothers fail to see the tragedy in their actions
Before addressing this question, it will be helpful to consider a related issue. A central theme of the final chapters of Sefer Beresheit is the emergence of leaders within the family of Yaakov. Reuven, Yaakov’s oldest son is never a real contender for this position. Instead, Yosef ultimately emerges as the leader of the family. However, another brother – Yehudah – also becomes a leader among his brothers. Why does this issue of leadership deserve to be a central theme in the story of Yosef and his brothers? Furthermore, why did Yosef earn the role as the leader of the family?

From his youth, Yosef aspired to become his brothers’ leader. His father encouraged his ambitions and Yosef’s aspirations occupied his dreams. His brothers resented Yosef’s ambitions and his favored status in the family. Although dismissive of Yosef’s dreams, the brothers also apparently felt threatened by Yosef. They feared that he might succeed in somehow asserting control over them and they acted to prevent this outcome. They sold him not servitude.

In its narrative of the brothers’ actions against Yosef, the Torah describes the brothers seizing Yosef and throwing him in a barren pit. The Torah then adds an odd detail. The brothers settled themselves down to eat. What is the message communicated by this detail?

Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno explains that this detail adds an important element to the Torah’s narrative. No doubt the brothers felt fully justified in taking action against Yosef.[1] Their conviction that their actions were necessary moderates the severity of their wrongdoing. However, that they then sat down to share a meal indicates that the brothers were not bothered by the tragedy of their situation. They failed to perceive the tragic implicates of their actions. Brothers had acted against brother. Even if their actions were necessary and justified, they certainly were tragic. That Yosef’s brothers sat down to eat a meal while he languished in a pit demonstrated their insensitivity to the tragedy of their situation.[2]

And Yosef said unto them: Fear not; for am I in the place of G-d? And as for you, you meant evil against me; but G-d meant it for good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to establish a large nation. (Sefer Beresheit 50:19-20)

3. Yosef refers to the family as the beginnings of a nation
Parshat VaYeche describes events that took place subsequent to Yaakov’s death. Yosef’s brothers fear that with the death of their father, Yosef will give expression to his long suppressed anger toward them. They attempt to save themselves by inventing a story that they relate to Yosef. They tell Yosef that before his death, Yaakov entrusted the brothers with a message for Yosef. In this message, Yaakov asked Yosef to forgive his brothers for the evil that they had done to him.

Yosef responds. He repeats the substance of a message he delivered to them many years before when he first revealed himself to his brothers. Then too, his brothers had feared that Yosef would punish them for the actions they had taken against him. He assured them that he did not have ill feelings toward them. He recognized that they had only been actors in a drama directed by Hashem. Hashem’s plan dictated that Yosef endure years of loneliness and torment so that he might rise to power and be in a position to rescue his family from destruction. Now, Yosef repeats this message. He tells his brothers that Hashem had sent him into exile in Egypt so that he would have the opportunity to sustain and nurture the development of a great nation.

However, Yosef’s response contains an element that is novel. He refers to himself, his brothers, and their families as the beginnings of a great nation. The brothers did not refer to their clan as a nation or make reference to its destiny.

This is perhaps one of Yosef’s characteristics that differentiated him from his brothers and contributed to his selection as the leader of the family. Yosef, alone among his brothers, saw into the future. He saw his family not as a small clan but as a nascent nation.

The contrasting perceptions of Yosef and his brothers are reflected in their respective attitudes toward each other. Yosef could not abandon or resent his brothers despite their actions against him. He understood that he and his brothers were the beginnings of a nation and that he had been assigned the responsibility of nurturing that nation. His brothers did not demonstrate this sense of destiny nor did they clearly and consistently perceive their group as the seed of a nation. They did not identify with the young Yosef and did not appreciate the tragedy in selling him into servitude.

The evolution of the family into a nation required leadership. The account of the twelve sons of Yaakov is the story of the emergence of a nation. For this reason, the narrative focuses upon the emergence of a leader among the brothers, a shepherd who would guide his flock through difficult challenges and times.

And Yaakov called unto his sons, and said: Gather yourselves together, that I may tell you that which shall befall you in the end of days. Assemble yourselves, and hear, you sons of Yaakov; and hearken unto Yisrael your father. (Sefer Beresheit 49:1-2)

4. Yaakov confers nationhood upon his sons
It is in the final chapters of Sefer Beresheit that the transition from family to nascent nation takes place. Yaakov re-enters the narrative and he blesses each of his sons. An even cursory review of his blessings reveals that they are the description of each son as the progenitor of a tribe – a shevet – within a nation. Yaakov, through his blessings, conferred nationhood upon his sons.

The Torah refers to the Jewish people as Bnai Yisrael – the Children of Yisrael or Yaakov. Why is this name given by the Torah to the Jewish people? Perhaps, this name is appropriate because it is Yaakov who conferred nationhood upon his sons.

Now, the reemergence of Yaakov into the narrative is fully understood. Yaakov’s role differed from the roles of Avraham and Yitzchak. Each fulfilled his mission, and with completion of his mission, he retired from the narrative to be replaced by his son. Yaakov’s role was not completed with the birth of his sons. His sons were not a succeeding generation of patriarchs. They were the beginnings and the roots of the Jewish nation. Yaakov’s role was only completed when Bnai Yisrael – the Jewish nation – emerged to carry on the mission to which he had dedicated his life. Yosef developed into the leader who forged his brothers into a nation. He preserved and nurtured the seed of nationhood through its earliest challenges. Yaakov completed Yosef’s work by conferring nationhood upon his children.

1. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 37:18.
2. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 37:25.