There is trouble in Jacob’s family, and we read about it this week in Parasha Vayeishev.
Jacob’s 12 sons work in the family business – raising sheep – except for Joseph, who is 17, and Benjamin, who is just a child. Joseph is Jacob’s favorite, and the other sons sense this. Jacob even gives Joseph a beautiful and expensive coat.
Joseph doesn’t help himself win his brothers’ affection. When they do something wrong, he tells their father about it. And he boasts of his dreams, in which his brothers and even his parents recognize him as superior. In one dream, the brothers are tying together sheaves of wheat, and their sheaves bow down to Joseph’s sheaf. In another dream, the Sun and the Moon (Jacob and Rachel) and 11 stars (the other brothers) bow down to him.
One day Jacob sends Joseph to check on the other brothers, and they conspire against him. At first they plan to kill him, but then decide to throw him into a pit, and later sell him to a caravan of Ishmaelites. The Ishmaelites sell him again, and finally he is taken to Egypt where he is sold to a high official in Pharaoh’s court. Meanwhile, the brothers have taken Joseph’s fancy coat, stained it with animal blood, and tell their father that Joseph has been killed by a wild beast. Jacob is devastated by this news.
This is pretty terrible stuff. Ten men want to kill their brother. Reuben, the eldest, talks them out of it; he has them throw Joseph in a pit, with the idea that he will come back later and save Joseph. As the caravan approaches, Judah (not knowing Reuben’s plan) thinks he can save Joseph’s life by suggesting the brothers sell Joseph into slavery.
This shows how the worst part of group action can take hold of people. No one accepted responsibility to do the right thing, and the group collectively felt justified in hurting someone. It often starts with just one person’s casual rem. This incident began when Simeon saw Joseph at a distance, coming toward them, and said disdainfully, “Look! That dreamer is coming!” and they all began saying it to each other. (Genesis 37:19; Rashi to Genesis 42:24) Had one of the brothers stood up to the rest of them and told them they were wrong, perhaps it would have shocked some sense into the others.
Next week, we will celebrate the other extreme of group action – how a few members of the Maccabee family of priests saved the Jewish nation from defeat by calling on every person to Do Your Best. And we will read of how Joseph rises from slavery to power.
Shabbat shalom, and happy Hanukkah!