By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
21 Kislev 5765 - December 3, 2004
[This the first Torah Insights
I have written since the passing of my dear father, Mr. Julius (Binyamin)
Fischer. One of the myriad ways I will feel his absence is not receiving his
feedback to these divrei Torah, of which he was a devoted reader. This year’s
Torah Insights is dedicated to his memory.]
Now is the time for the Covenant between the Pieces (Bereishit 15:9-20) to be
fulfilled. From this point until the end of the book of Bereishit, the Torah
chronicles how the seventy souls of Yaakov’s family
descend to Egypt. And this sequence of events begins with Yosef:
These are the generations of Yaakov:
Yosef, seventeen- years- old, was a shepherd (RO’EH) with (ET) his brothers with
the flock, (BA’TZON) and he was a lad (NA’AR) with the children of Bilhah and
the children of Zilpah, his father’s wives (NESHEI AVIV). And Yosef brought bad
reports about them to their father (Bereishit 37:2).
In this brief description we find the seeds of tension and discord between the
brothers, which erupts when they sell Yosef as a slave to Egypt. For now,
however, what are Yosef’s duties to the family? What are their duties towards
him? How do the various brothers feel about Yosef now, even before he tells them
In view of the fact that Yaakov has always been a shepherd (25:27, according to
Ibn Ezra and Rashbam; and 30:29-43), it is not surprising that his sons continue
in this vocation. It thus seems superfluous to state:
Yosef, seventeen- years- old, was a shepherd (RO’EH) with (ET) his brothers with
the flock (BA’TZON), especially because the text does not mention sheep herding
again until verse 12. In addition, the usual expression is either RO’EH TZON
(herder of flock: Bereishit 4:2, 46:34, 47:3) or RO’EH ET TZON (herding flock:
Bereishit 30:36, Shemot 3:1, Zechariah 11:4). But Yosef is with the flock (BA’TZON).
Possibly, RO’EH… BA’TZON is a trainee, as is suggested in Shmuel I 16:11
regarding David. Furthermore, and he was a lad (NA’AR) with the children of
Bilhah and the children of Zilpah means Yosef was a student (na’ar, cf. Mishlei
22:6); his half-brothers were assigned to the task of teaching Yosef sheep
herding (Daat Mikra). It is interesting that Ha’ketav
V’ha’kabbalah (R. Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, 1785-1865) sees the opposite
relationship; he says that Yosef taught his brothers, because he knew more than
they did! Who is teaching whom?
Saadiah Gaon (882-942), on the other hand, translates this verse:
When Yosef was seventeen- years- old he was a shepherd together with his
brothers among the flock, and he grew up with the children of Bilhah and the
children of Zilpah.
R. Avraham ben-haRambam (1186-1237) follows
this, explaining that Yosef was with them more than he was with his other
brothers because they were closer in age to him. Even Yissachar and Zevulun felt
a stronger attachment to the other children of Leah, although they were very
close in age to Yosef.
This reminds us of Rashi’s analysis of the family dynamic:
“[Yosef] remained with the children of Bilhah, since his brothers would look
down on them, while he would befriend them. …Any defect he saw in his brothers
the sons of Leah he would report to his father.”
Peh Kadosh (R. Yitchak “Reb Itzele” ben Chayyim Volozhiner, 1780-1849) says
further that Yaakov commanded the children of Bilhah and Zilpah both to train
Yosef and to watch over him. Perhaps, as Daat Mikra suggests, this attachment
was necessary after his mother’s death.
But this raises a question mentioned by
Ramban. If – because of their age, work duties and affection – Yosef was so
close to Dan, Naftali, Gad and Asher, then why did they not defend him when the
sons of Leah wanted to do him harm? Indeed, with Reuven and Yosef himself they
would have outnumbered the other 5 brothers! Therefore, Ramban holds that Yosef
was hated by all the brothers. Ramban supports the midrash (Bereishit Rabbah
84:7; Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 38) based on
And Yosef brought bad reports about them to their father, that, because he was
always around them he could – and did – report on all of them at all times.
Rashi however holds that Yosef was friendly towards the sons of Bilhah and
Zilpah; so why did they not rescue him? R. Yehoshua ibn Shuaib (14th Century),
while siding with Ramban, provides an answer for Rashi’s view: Because their
mothers were originally maidservants, the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah felt
themselves subordinate to the sons of Leah (the “chief wife”) and thus they
could not oppose them; only Reuven spoke his mind independently.
It is ironic that the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah should feel inferior, especially
since the verse calls their mothers his father’s wives (NESHEI AVIV),
which conveys a status equal to that of Rachel and Leah. In fact, Tosafot
haShalem (4, p. 9) says that Leah too had just died, and since Yaakov had sworn
to Lavan that he would not take any more wives, Bilhah and Zilpah became his
Peh Kadosh explains the feelings of the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah towards Yosef
differently. Yaakov commanded them to watch over him and, like any older
siblings entrusted with the responsibility of caring for a younger brother, they
resented it. They did not do their duty as required, and this is what Yosef
reported. When the time came, they did not stand up to protect him.
We see here one family, wracked by antagonism. Its hierarchy is based on birth
and interdependence, and opposing factions are beginning to form. A brother will
be sold into slavery by some of his brothers, while others will not come to his
aid. Eventually, all their progeny will be enslaved.
Future Jewish families, and the entire Jewish People would do well to learn the
bitter lesson of Yosef and his brothers.
"For I was kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews, and here also (in
Egypt) I did nothing to deserve being thrown into prison (Bereishit
The Chassidic Rebbe Rav Meir Yechiel of Ostrov, comments upon these
poignant words of Yosef to Pharaoh's cupbearer. He explains that one who
admits to coming from Israel merits to be buried there. One who does not
admit such origins does not merit to be buried in Israel. This is the
difference between Moshe and Yosef. Moshe, who was identified as an
Egyptian by the daughters of Yitro, does not make it to Israel. Yosef, who
clearly identifies himself as a Jew coming from the land of Israel, is
brought to his final resting place in Shechem.
But the Rebbe of Ostrov is puzzled by his own revelation. Yosef was born
in Israel, but Moshe really was born in Egypt. Moshe truly was an
Egyptian. "From this we learn," says the Rebbe of Ostrov, "that from the
time Eretz Yisrael was promised to Avraham, every Jew must see himself as
a citizen of Israel."
What can I add, dear readers? You are already citizens of Israel. That
merit and privilege is yours. As the Rebbe of Riminov says regarding the
verse at the beginning of our parsha, "Eileh toldot Yaakov, Yosef…
(37:2)." He says that a descendant of Yaakov should make every effort to
increase his level of spirituality, add (literal translation of “yosef,”)
to his level of service, and aspire to more and more in deed and thought
in the observance of Torah and Mitzvot.
Upgrade your "citizenship" status by making the decision to live your life
here. Be more than a card carrying citizen. Live the dreams of Moshe and
Yosef. It is here, in Israel, where you will truly be able to be a "Yosef"
or "Yosefa," one who will merit to observe additional mitzvot which are
connected to the land of Israel, and enjoy the added kedusha of Eretz
Citizens of Israel, wherever you are, Aloh Naaleh.
*D’var Torah from Aloh Na'aleh:
an initiative of former North
American Rabbis and laymen who successfully made Aliyah, aimed at
highlighting the centrality of Israel and promoting Aliyah. They send
emissaries – Rabbis, academicians, and others – on speaking-tours
throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Roness ,
Exec. Dir., Aloh Naaleh,
At the OU Center, 22 Keren HaYesod
Tel.(02) 566-7787 ex. 254