Parshat Vayeishev: Why did they eat?

“They took him and threw him into the pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it. They then sat down to eat bread, and they lifted their eyes and saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, their camels carrying wax, balsam and resin to take down to Egypt.” (Beresheit 37:24-25)

Our parasha discusses the conflict that developed between Yosef and his brothers. Ultimately, this conflict led the brothers to sell Yosef into slavery in Egypt. The parasha begins by describing the tension that existed among the brothers. Yosef believed that he would be the future leader of the family. The brothers distrusted Yosef’s motives and resented his aspirations. When the brothers were presented with the opportunity to eliminate Yosef as a threat, they took advantage of it. How did this opportunity arise?

Yosef and his brothers were shepherds. On this occasion, the brothers were shepherding Yaakov’s flocks in the vicinity of Shechem. Yaakov had some concern regarding their welfare and sent Yosef to Shechem to check on the brothers and to report back.

Yosef found his brothers. At first, they considered killing Yosef. However, Reuven suggested a more indirect approach. He advised the brothers to place Yosef in a pit from which he would not be able to escape. As they were eating, they saw a caravan. Yehuda suggested that rather than letting Yosef die, they should sell him to the merchants. His advice was accepted by his brothers. Eventually, the merchants brought Yosef to Egypt.

Our pasuk tells us that while their brother was imprisoned, they sat down to eat a meal. What is the significance of this detail?

Netziv suggests that this pasuk reflect the righteousness of the brothers. They were not at ease with their decision to kill Yosef or allow him to die in the pit. They were sitting on the ground and eating a meal. From their position, it should have been difficult for them to see very far. Yet, they observed a caravan approaching. This suggests that they were looking around and seeking an alternative course of action. When the caravan appeared they seized the opportunity and formulated a less drastic solution to their problem.[1]

However, Sforno suggest that in order to answer this question, we must consider two issues. First, the brothers were willing to adopt extreme measures to rid themselves of Yosef. Initially, they considered killing him. They spared his life because they felt that selling him into bondage would eliminate him as a threat. What was their fear and how did they justify the actions that they took against their brother?

Sforno writes that Yosef’s brothers did not sin in the actions that they took against him. They looked upon Yosef as a devious, egotistical foe, determined to destroy them. He had admitted to dreams of grandeur and rulership. On numerous occasions he had attempted to undermine their position with their father. Yosef used his relationship with Yaakov to accuse his brothers of wrongdoing. The brothers saw in these actions and fantasies a consistent and determined plan to destroy them. The Torah tells us that if one is accosted by someone who wishes to take his life, then the threatened person may take the life of his pursuer. In capturing Yosef and ridding themselves of their enemy, they acted to protect themselves.[2]

But were the brothers correct in their conclusions or were they deceived by their own jealousy into thinking the worst of Yosef? Sforno points out that it seems that even years latter – after the brothers had ample time to reconsider their actions toward Yosef – they still believed that they had made the proper decision. Years latter, the brothers did conclude that they had acted improperly. However, they did not conclude that their analysis of the danger posed by Yosef was incorrect. Neither did they conclude that the action that they had taken against Yosef was improper. Instead, they were critical of themselves for being callous towards Yosef.[3],[4]

This leads to the second issue we must consider. The reaction of the brothers is difficult to understand. In what way were the brothers insensitive? What did they do that indicated this insensitivity? Sforno explains that our pasuk provides the answer to this question. The brothers sat down to eat a meal while they were contemplating and planning the destruction of their brother.[5]

However, Sforno recognizes that this explanation presents a second, more difficult problem. The brothers remained convinced that their analysis of Yosef was justified. If this is the case, why was their eating a meal an act of insensitivity? They had no reason to question their decision. They were confident that they were acting properly. Why should they have refrained from eating?

“And his sons and daughters rose up to comfort him. And he refused to be comforted. And he said, “I will go to my grave mourning my son.” And his father cried for him.” (Bereshiet 37:35)

Sforno suggests that the answer lies in appreciating another incident in our parasha. The brothers deceive their father into believing that Yosef was killed by a wild animal. Yaakov refuses to be comforted. He declares that he will mourn Yosef for the remained of his life.

It seems that Yaakov’s reaction was unreasonable. We are required to mourn the loss of a relative. But we are also required to limit our mourning to appropriate boundaries. Why did Yaakov insist that these boundaries did not apply to him?

Rashi seems to suggest that Yaakov was not completely convinced that Yosef was dead. When we know we have lost a loved one, we mourn the person and eventually come to terms with our loss. However in order for this process to take place, we must be certain that the person has been taken from us. If we merely conclude that his death is likely – but remain unsure, it is difficult to move on. We cannot completely abandon hope. And with this lingering hope comes the continue pain of separation.[6]

Rashi’s explanation is somewhat difficult to reconcile with the actual wording of the passage. Yaakov seems to say that he is justified in mourning Yosef for the rest of his life. He does not allude to any doubt as a justification. Instead, he seems to assert that his attitude is justified by the gravity of the tragedy. But it is difficult to understand this justification. Of course, the loss of a son is a terrible tragedy. But are we not required to eventually end our mourning and move on?

Sforno suggests that Yaakov was deeply bothered by his role in this tragedy. He had instructed Yosef to travel to his brothers. He believed that Yosef had been killed by a beast while fulfilling these instructions. In other words, he had – to some extent – played a role in Yosef’s death. Sforno explains that although tragedies do occur, the righteous do not want to be the cause of these tragedies. Ideally, Hashem’s providence protects the righteous from such roles. Yaakov concluded that his role in this tragedy was a reflection on his own shortcomings. He had not received the benefit of Hashem’s providence in this instance. He had not been spared playing a role in this disaster.[7]

Sforno contrasts Yaakov’s reaction to the attitude of the brothers. He explains that the sin of the brothers was that they did not realize the tragedy of these events. They may have felt compelled to sell Yosef into slavery, but they did not grasp that this act of violence against their brother should be a source of sorrow and mourning. Rather than bemoaning the tragedy that had befallen them, the brothers indulged in their afternoon meal.

The brothers should have recognized that G-d’s displeasure with them was implicit in their situation. How could the Almighty allow the children of Israel to destroy one of their brothers? How could He allow fraternal strife among Yaakov’s children? Certainly the Almighty had turned his back upon them, and was punishing them for some sin. Yet, the brothers showed no introspection or regret.[8]

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[1] Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (Netziv), Commentary Hamek Davar on Sefer Beresheit 37:25.

[2] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 37:18.

[3] Sefer Beresheit 42:21.

[4] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 37:18.

[5] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 37:24.

[6] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 37:35.

[7] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 37:35.

[8] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 37:25.