From the Sale of Yosef to the Egyptian Exile – Teachings and Resolutions
-Rabbi Avichai Katzin-
It is correct, and also imperative, to examine the development of Yosef’s relationship with his brothers from a two-tiered perspective. The first tier is the personal, the human tier. The Torah teaches us of the potential result of a relationship founded on hatred: “and they could not speak with him peacefully.” This is the type of hatred that leads brothers to sell one of their own. This is a sale that leads to an extended exile in Egypt. The second tier, of course, is that these events are part of a pre-ordained divine plan laid out by the orchestrator of all things.
Ya’acov, who sends Yosef to Shechem from the valley of Hebron, does so “from the deep counsel of the righteous man who is buried in Hebron” (i.e., Avraham) (Rashi, Genesis 37:14). Or, in the words of Nahmanides on our parasha (Genesis 37:15), in explanation of the Torah’s lengthy account of Yosef’s encounter in a field with a man who directs him in the direction of his brothers: “to further explain to us that decree is truth and industry is falsehood, as the Almighty blessed be he orchestrated him a guide unbeknownst to him to deliver him into their hands.” Yosef’s mission is orchestrated by divine decree, and Hashem arranges for the intercession of the appropriate emissaries who are charged with directing him to his brothers.
We must also utilize this two-tiered viewpoint when examining the significance of the Egyptian exile, which in effect begins in our parasha.
Here too, we must attempt to discover the underlying meaning on both levels. From a human perspective, we must ask ourselves: why? Or, in other words, what must we learn from the circumstances that led to the exile to Egypt?
When examining the divine plan, we must ask ourselves: for what? In other words, why did the Almighty ordain that the people of Israel must be born in exile and slavery?
I suggest that the answers to both questions can be found within the framework of social justice. The Talmud in tractate Shabbat (10b) teaches us what we may derive (or, at least what, among other things, we may derive) from the story of Yosef and his brothers: “Raba bar Mehasia also said in the name of Rab Hama bar Goria in Rab's name: A man should never single out one son among his other sons, for on account of the two sela's weight of silk, which Ya’acov gave Yosef in excess of his other sons, his brothers became jealous of him and the matter resulted in our forefathers' descent into Egypt.” The inequality with which Ya’acov treated his sons, exemplified by his present of a woolen coat to his favorite son, resulted in jealousy and hatred that ultimately caused the exile.
The value of equality, which we hope becomes integral to our society, must be instilled inside the home. The Rabbis of course recognized that it is unfathomable that we should treat one of our children differently from the rest. Each child is a world unto themselves, with their own needs, and these needs must be met so that each child receives everything they require. On the other hand, differentiating between the children, or providing one with things that are inherently different from those that are given to the others, may cause tension within the family. This tension may have disastrous results, as is evidenced by the case of Yosef and his brothers.
This is an extremely important lesson for Am Israel at its very beginning, teaching us to be very diligent in this regard when we become a nation and later establish an independent state in our own land.
From this perspective, it seems that we may also glean insight into the overall divine plan, a part of which entails Am Israel embarking on its historic journey from a state of exile and slavery.
The Torah calls the Egyptian exile a melting pot. “But Hashem took you and brought you out of the iron crucible, out of Egypt, to be a people of his possession, as of this day.” Rashi on this verse explains the term “iron crucible” as “a vessel in which gold is refined.” Thus it is clear that the purpose of the Egyptian exile was to refine us. In what way does exile serve as a tool of refinery? Often, when the Torah commands us to be socially sensitive it reminds us of our history as slaves in Egypt. This past experience emphasizes the obligation to be sensitive to the less fortunate elements of society. For example, “And you shall not mistreat a stranger, nor shall you oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”, “And you shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, since you were strangers in the land of Egypt”, “But the seventh day is a Sabbath to Hashem your God; you shall perform no labor, neither you, your son, your daughter, your manservant, your maidservant, your ox, your donkey, any of your livestock, nor the stranger who is within your cities, in order that your manservant and your maidservant may rest like you. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and that Hashem your God took you out from there with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm; therefore, Hashem, your God, commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.”
The orchestrator of all things specifically desired that we begin our historical journey on the less fortunate side of society. This was so that we would have that particular sensitivity to the weaker elements in society embedded in our national DNA, regardless of whether we are on the stronger or weaker side of the social divide. The course of our descent to Egypt, beginning with the circumstances that led to it on a personal and human level, i.e. the fraternal relationship within the inner family circle, through the actual descent to Egypt, taught us what it feels like to be socially downtrodden, and teaches us the immense value and importance of social justice as a foundational element in the birth and development of Am Israel.
Rabbi Avichai Katzin, a Tzohar Rabbi, is the head of the beit midrash at Sha’arei Mishpat College and the community rabbi of Adat Bnei Israel in Ra’anana.