Vayeshev – Blocked From the Obvious

This week’s Torah portion of Vayeshev begins by recounting the drama that takes place between Yosef and his brothers, which ultimately lasts until the end of  Sefer Breishis.
Yosef’s brothers threw him into a pit which, while devoid of water, contained poisonous  snakes and scorpions. Even though the brothers convened a court and in their eyes legitimately found Yosef guilty of trying to kill them in both this world and the Next (which would give them the right to kill him before that happened), the brothers did not want blood on their hands. They therefore threw him into the pit, so that he might die in a back-handed manner. Instead,  Hashem made a miracle that the snakes and scorpions did not touch Yosef.

In the meantime the brothers “sat down to eat a meal, and they lifted their eyes and saw, and behold, a caravan of Yishmaelites were coming from Gilad, and their camels were carrying spices, balm, and lotus, they were going down to Egypt.  Yehuda said to his brothers, ‘What is the gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let’s sell him to the Yishmaelites, and our hands shall not be upon him, for he is our brother, our flesh.’ His brothers listened to him. Then Midianite men, merchants, passed by, and they pulled and lifted Yosef from the pit, and they sold Yosef to the Yishmaelites for twenty silver coins, and they brought Yosef to Egypt. Reuvain returned to the pit, and behold, Yosef was not in the pit; so he tore his garments. He returned to his brothers and said, ‘The boy is gone! And I, where will I go?’ They took Yosef’s coat, and they slaughtered a goat, and they dipped the coat in the blood. They sent the fine woolen coat, and they brought it to their father, and they said, ‘We have found this; please recognize if this is your son’s coat or not’” (Breishis 37:25-32).

The Chizkuni (based on the interpretation of events according to theRashbam) explains that after the brothers threw Yosef into the pit they sat far away to eat some bread so that they wouldn’t hear his cries for help. The brothers saw the Yishmaelite merchants coming their way but the Midianite merchants happened to be passing by the pit and heard Yosef screaming and crying. The Midianites took Yosef out of the pit and sold him to the Yishmaelites. The Yishmaelites then gave him back to the Midianites as a deposit for the sale and both of them sold Yosef to Potiphar in Egypt. This makes sense of the verses: “And the Midianites sold him in Egypt to Potiphar” (verse 36). Later the Torah says: “Potiphar bought him from the Yishmaelites” (39:1). And another verse states, when Yosef revealed himself to his brothers: “When you sold me to Egypt,” meaning all this was caused through their actions (45:4).

The brothers did not know what had happened, and when Reuvain went to the pit and did not find Yosef, they all thought a wild animal must have devoured him. They weren’t even lying to their father, for if they would have sold him to anyone there would not have been a nation or kingdom on earth where they would not have inquired about their brother, until they were able to ascertain whether he was dead or alive. Furthermore, if they had actually been unsure whether he was alive or dead, would they not have recognized his features or the way he spoke [when they were in Egypt]? Indeed, Yosef also dropped three hints for them, beginning when he told Binyamin: “May G-D favor you my son” (43:29), then when he gave him five times the amount of goods to take home (verse 34), and finally when he sat the brothers in order of oldest to youngest. They should have been quite suspicious. Rather it must be as was explained [that they thought surely a wild animal consumed Yosef]. (Click here for Hebrew text.)

At the time of the confrontation between Yosef and his brothers in Egypt everyone was much older and wiser. Furthermore they were Yaakov’s sons; they were not naïve at all. Finally, there was no clue whatsoever that he was actually eaten up by a wild animal. They dipped Yosef’s coat in blood as a sign of what they thought happened and sent the coat through messengers because they couldn’t face their father and see his reaction. Yaakov made the logical conclusion from what he saw with his own eyes. So how could the brothers have been so convinced he was dead to the extent that they would be able to ignore all the signs pointing to the fact he is alive? How could they have totally missed the boat, with the facts literally going right over their heads?!

It must be that once someone makes up their mind about something it is extremely hard to change it. Even if all the evidence seems to indicate the opposite, the person will be unable to pick up on it because he or she is stuck in their own reality. That is why the brothers never suspected that the Egyptian viceroy was Yosef before he revealed himself, and, really, even after he revealed himself, it took time to digest.