Behind the Scenes

“And Midianite merchants passed and they drew Yosef and raised him out of the pit and they sold Yosef to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver.” (Beresheet 37:28)

There was once a simple G-d-fearing woman who went to the neighborhood synagogue every Shabbat morning to hear the public reading of the weekly Torah portion. On the Shabbat when the story of Yosef and his brothers was read, she burst into tears as the reader read about Yosef being sold to the Ishmaelites. “Cruel, wicked brothers!” she cried out. The next year when the reader read the portion dealing with the sale, rather than cry and mourn, she sighed in an understanding tone. “He deserves it,” she murmured. When questioned about her change of heart, she replied, “It is Yosef’s fault! Last year he told them his dreams and they sold him because he made them so angry. He should have known better this year and yet he still told them the dreams again!”

There are many people who laugh at this woman, but who themselves still take the liberty to judge the behavior of the brothers and Yosef. They analyze and criticize the behavior of these holy people without really understanding the dynamics of the situation. One must know and accept that there was a plan decreed by
G-d in Heaven as to how to bring to fruition His promises to Avraham Avinu in the Bris bein Habesarim (Covenant between the Parts). Hashem Himself pulled the strings and it was His plan that required that the journey by Yaakov and the tribes down to Egypt should be a result of the spiritual jealousies that we see in the famous tale of Yosef and his brothers. It is forbidden, therefore, to place blame or guilt on the brothers. As King Solomon said in Proverbs, “There is neither wisdom nor understanding nor counsel against Hashem”(Mishlei 21:30).

There was once a dispute as to who should be appointed Rosh Yeshivah in the citadel of Torah learning called Volozhin. Some felt that the head should be Harav Naftali Tzvi Berlin (the Netziv), while others felt strongly that Harav Yosef Soloveitchik was the most suited for the position. Among the leaders chosen to make the final decision was Rabbi Ze’ev, the Maggid of Volozhin. He stood up before the esteemed assemblage of Torah scholars and said: “I am known for the weekly dissertation that I deliver to the public. When we read the Book of Beresheet, I stress the battle between the forces of good and evil. In Beresheet it is Adam and Chavah vs. the evil snake. In Noach, the tzaddik is pitted against his evil generations. In Lech Lecha, Avraham combats the greed of Lot, the wickedness of Pharaoh and the kings who kidnap his nephew. Then we learn about the people of Sodom, and Yishmael and Yitzchak, Yaakov and Esav. But when I get to the story of Yosef and his brothers, I cannot be a judge of good and evil because they are all holy and righteous.

“We have been asked to choose between these great scholars, but I cannot choose as I must admit that they are so far beyond what my simple mind can comprehend in wisdom and righteousness.”

After a long debate and great deliberation, the council of Sages chose the Netziv as the Rosh Yeshivah of Volozhin.

The lesson is clear. We are not capable of judging the brothers in their dealing with Yosef. The people involved are so far from us in righteousness and wisdom and in their level of spirituality that one would be foolish to try and guess what really was on their minds and what motivated each one of them. Add to that, that all that transpired was orchestrated by G-d to bring into fruition His plan for the children of Avraham, and one should be humbled into submitting to the thought that “there is [no] … counsel against Hashem.”

We should all tread carefully through the “story” portions of the Torah in order to learn from our holy predecessors the lessons of life revealed to us in Hashem’s holy book. We may evaluate to educate but not to criticize or judge.

Shabbat Shalom.


Rabbi Raymond Beyda serves in the Sephardic Community in Brooklyn, N.Y. He lectures to audiences all over the world. He has distributed over 500,000 recorded lessons free of charge. He is author of the book 1 Minute With Yourself: A Minute a Day to Self-Improvement, Sephardic Press, 2008.