Parshat Vayeishev 5783: Who Sold Yosef, and How Many Times Was He Sold?

Shalom Friends;

This week, our Parshat HaShevua Vayeishev is being sponsored by Moshe and Lauren Pitzele and family of Ramat Beit Shemesh in in honor of their son Yosef Shalom’s tenth birthday on 25 Kislev, the first night of Chanukah.. To the Pitzele family, many thanks for your sponsorship and your continued kindnesses.

Friends, you can celebrate a Simcha — a birth, a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, a Chassuna or other Simcha event in your life, or commemorate a Yahrtzeit of a loved one, or for whatever other reason by sponsoring a Parshat HaShevua.

Please forward to your relatives and friends and encourage them to sponsor a Parshat HaShevua. And please be in contact with me with any questions, or for further details.

Best Regards,

Moshe Burt
skype: mark.burt3

Parshat Vayeishev 5783: Who Sold Yosef, and How Many Times Was He Sold?

by Moshe Burt

Our vort begins by with an early citing from Parshat Vayeishev:

“And he [Yisrael/Yaakov] said to him [Yosef], ‘Go now, look into the welfare of your brothers…, and bring me back word.’ So he [Yaakov] sent him [Yosef] from the valley of Hevron, and he arrived in Shechem.” (Sefer Breish’t, Perek 37, posuk 14, as rendered to English in The Sapirstein Edition, “The Torah: with Rashi’s Commentary”)

Our Parsha relates how Yosef, born to Rachel, was Yaakov’s favored son — his “Ben Z’kunim” (son of old age) to whom he bestowed a multi-colored coat which sources indicate could have been the coat of Eisev which was worn by Yaakov in receiving the B’rachot from Yitzchak. Yosef’s favored son status aroused jealousy amongst his brothers. Yosef’s tale-bearing about his brothers, as well as his dream-telling aroused anger and hatred of him in the brothers.

They saw Yosef’s tale-telling — often without knowing all of the facts and his pronouncement of his dreams, as fostering their perception that he sought to rule over them, that he sought their subservience to him. His brothers also envied their Father’s preference for him.

Yosef’s brothers, while acting inappropriately out of jealousy, perceived Yosef as a threat to the future nation that was to grow from them as the offspring of Yaakov.

When Yosef came searching out his brothers in the fields, the brothers saw him “from afar… and they conspired toward him to kill him.” (Sefer Breish’t, Perek 37, posuk 18)

For Background, The Artscroll Stone Chumash provides a commentary (page 202):

…They [the brothers] felt that Yosef was a threat not so much to them as to the family’s destiny. They knew that the weeding out process that banished Yishma’el and Eisev from the closeness to Yisrael was to be over in their generation. Yaakov’s offspring had to be perfect — all of them — so that the mission of the Patriachs could go forward with them. But if Yosef were to bring dissension into the family, he would destroy this potential with untold consequences. If so, he had to be judged as a traitor and a danger to them all.

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin summarizes the events leading to Yosef’s sale and subsequent transport to Mitzrayim (Egypt) in his sefer “Unlocking The Torah Text” (Sefer Breish’t, Parshat Vayeishev, page 201):

Reuven, the eldest, objects and convinces the others to thrust Yosef into the pit alive, rather than murder him… Reuven fully intends to return later, release Yosef and bring him safely back to their father.

Yosef arrives [to his brothers’ location]. The brothers rip off his cloak and throw him into the pit.

But it seems that Reuven left the company of his brothers at that point. This author has yet to see a definitive, unequivocal explanation of why Reuven left, but some say that he went to serve his father. (“The Midrash Says”, by Rabbi Moshe Weissman on our Parshat page 354)

Rav Goldin’s summary continues (ibid):

When… the brothers observe an approaching caravan, Yehudah convinces his siblings of the benefit of selling Yosef as a slave rather than allowing him to die in the pit.

As the caravan passes, Yosef is pulled from the pit and sold into bondage for twenty pieces of silver. Reuven returns, finds the pit empty and bemoans the loss of Yosef. The brothers return to their father and lead him to believe that Yosef has been killed by a wild beast.

Torah relates Yehudah telling his brothers ( As rendered to English in The Stone Edition Chumash, Sefer Breish’t, Perek 37, posukim 26-28):

“… ‘What gain will there be if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come let us sell him to the Ishmaelites — but let our hand not be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.’ And his brothers listened. Midianite men, traders, passed by; they pulled and brought Yosef up from the pit and sold Yosef to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver; then they brought Yosef to Mitzrayim.”

So, the question is now: Who sold Yosef, and how many times was he sold? Rabbi Goldin relates the following scenario from Torah regarding the sale. (pages 210):

“And Midianite men passed by, merchants and they drew Yosef up out of the pit; and they sold Yosef to the Yishma’elim for 20 pieces of silver and they brought Yosef to Egypt.” (Rabbi Goldin rendering to English Sefer Breish’t. Perek 37, posuk 28)

Later, the Torah relates: “And the Medanim sold him (Yosef) to Egypt, to Potiphar, a court official of Pharaoh…” (Rabbi Goldin rendering to English Sefer Breish’t. Perek 37, posuk 36)

Finally, even later, the text says: “And Potiphar… bought him from the hand of the Yishma’elim wh had brought him there.” (Rabbi Goldin rendering to English Sefer Breish’t. Perek 39, posuk 1)

Rabbi Goldin now asks questions and offers various understandings regarding Yosef’s sale (pages 210-213):

Who are the Midianim who suddenly appear… and what is their relationship, if any, to the caravan of Yishma’elim?

Who actually pulled Yosef out of the pit and sold him to the Yishma’elim: his brothers or the Midianim??

If Yosef was sold to the Yishma’elim why does Torah state that the Medanim “sold him to Egypt, to Potiphar”? (Rabbi Goldin asking on Sefer Breish’t. Perek 37, posuk 36)

Why does Torah seem to contradict itself again with the statement “and Potiphar… bought him from the hand of the Yishma’elim who had brought him there”? (Rabbi Goldin asking on Sefer Breish’t. Perek 39, posuk 1)

Finally, why is Torah so deliberately vague at this critical juncture in the story of our people?

Rashi maintains the classical position that Yosef’s brothers actively sold him into slavery [and] simply states, “The sons of Yaakov (drew) Yosef from the pit.” (Rabbi Goldin again citing Sefer Breish’t. Perek 37, posuk 28) Rashi identifies the Medanim… with the Midianim. Rashi fails to explain the final statement which declares that Potiphar bought Yosef from the Yishma’elim.

The Ramban and the Sforno both… suggest that the Yishma’elim and Midianim were operating in partnership within one caravan with the Yishma’elim serving as camel drivers for the Midianim merchants. (Rabbi Goldin citing Ramban on Sefer Breish’t, Perek 37, posuk 25, Sforno on Sefer Breish’t, Perek 37, posuk 28) Yosef was, therefore, only sold twice: first by the brothers to the passing caravan and then by the merchants of the caravan to Potiphar. The Ramban further explains that… the Yishma’elim [were] the ones who physically brought Yosef to Egypt, while the Midianim… [were] the ones who actually bought and sold him. The Sforno… suggests that the brothers were unwilling to speak directly to the Midianim for fear that they might be recognized. (Rabbi Goldin again citing Sforno on Sefer Breish’t, Perek 37, posuk 28)

The Ibn Ezra goes a step further and claims that there was only one group of merchants, at times referred to by the text as Yishma’elim and at other times as Midianim. (Rabbi Goldin citing Ibn Ezra on Sefer Breish’t, Perek 37, posuk 28) To prove his position he quotes from the book of Shoftim which identifies Kings of Midianim as Yishma’elim. (Rabbi Goldin citing Ibn Ezra on Shoftim, Perek 8, posuk 24)

A different, revolutionary approach to the sale of Yosef is first suggested by the Rashbam and then echoed by… subsequent commentaries including Rabbeinu Bachya (Rabbi Goldin citing Rabbeinu Bachya on Sefer Breish’t, Perek 37, posuk 28), Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch (Rabbi Goldin citing Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch on Sefer Breish’t, Perek 37, posuk 25) and the Malbim. (Rabbi Goldin citing Malbim on Sefer Breish’t, Perek 37, posuk 28) The Rashbam maintains that Yosef’s brothers were not actually involved in Yosef’s sale. He literally interprets the passage “and the Midianim passed by, merchants, and they drew Yosef out of the pit, and they sold Yosef to the Yishma’elim for 20 pieces of silver,” (Rabbi Goldin citing Sefer Breish’t, Perek 37, posuk 28) as follows:

The brothers were eating at a distance from the pit… and waiting for the arrival of the Yishma’elim whom they had observed approaching. Before the Yishma’elim arrived, however, others, Midianim, passed by, saw [Yosef] in the pit, drew him out of the pit — and the Midianim sold him to the Yishma’elim. It’s even possible that the brothers were unaware of these events. (Rabbi Goldin citing Rambam on Sefer Breish’t, Perek 37, posuk 28)

This [latter] approach, closer to the text, changes our entire conception of the events surrounding Yosef’s sale: Yosef’s brothers fully intended to sell him but never actually got the chance to carry out their plans.

Rabbi Goldin concludes (ibid, page 213):

The most important question, however, remains [unanswered]. Why is the Torah, at this critical and dramatic moment…, so deliberately vague?

Perhaps the text is deliberately vague to teach us that it really doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter whether the brothers actually pulled Yosef out of the pit and sold him or whether they simply set the stage for others to do so. Their guilt, in either case, remains constant.

Centuries later the Torah text will proclaim: “Do not stand idly by the blood of your friend” (Rabbi Goldin citing Sefer Vayikra, Perek 19, posuk 16) — If you witness danger to another, you are obligated to act. (Rabbi Goldin citing Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 73a)

We are responsible for the pain we cause or allow to occur to others even when it is not inflicted by our own hands.

As we watch events evolve here in Israel with the changing government, it seems important to keep Rabbi Goldin’s concluding comments in mind in terms of military firing protocols when facing terror threats, as well as in our everyday lives, here in Israel, and worldwide.

May we, the B’nei Yisrael be zocha that our brethren — the refugee families from Gush Katif be permanently settled and be made totally whole — be totally restituted for all that was stolen from them, that the thrice expelled families of Amona be restored to their rebuilt homes and the oft-destroyed Yeshiva buildings in Homesh be rebuilt, all at total government expense; due to alt-leftist-agendized, supreme court legalized Yassamnik gunpoint. Baruch Hashem that our dear brother Jonathan Pollard is now in his second year at home in Eretz Yisrael and embarking on a new chapter in his life. May Esther Yocheved bat Yechiel Avraham have an aliyah in Shemayim and may her spirit and memory continue to lift Jonathan to at least 120 years. May the MIAs be liberated alive and returned to us in ways befitting Al Kiddush Hashem — as with the return in April, 2019, via Russia, of the remains of Zachariah Baumel, as should the remains of the two chayalim from the Gaza War of eight years ago. May we have the courage and strength to stand up and physically prevent the possibility of Chas V’Challila any future eviction of Jews from their homes and prevent Chas V’Challila the handing of Jewish land over to anyone, let alone to enemies sworn to Israel’s and Judaism’s destruction and eradication. And may we soon and finally see the total end to the Communist Chinese corona virus pandemic and all like viruses. May we fulfill Hashem’s blueprint of B’nei Yisrael as a Unique people — an Am Segula, not to be reckoned with as with “the nations” and may we be zocha to see the Moshiach, the Ge’ula Shlaima, as Dov Shurin sings; “Ki Karov Yom Hashem Al’Kol HaGoyim”, the Ultimate Redemption, bimhayrah b’yamainu — speedily, in our time”, — Achshav, Chik Chuk, Miyad, Etmol!!!

Good Shabbos amd Chanukah Same’ach!
Moshe Burt, an Oleh, is a commentator on news and events in Israel and Founder and Director of The Sefer Torah Recycling Network. He lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh.