This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Dina Kritz
The heartbreaking piyyut Eileh Ezkerah, which we recite on Mussaf of Yom Kippur, tells us that a Roman emperor used the sale of Yosef as a halakhic rationale for executing the Ten Martyrs. After filling his palace with shoes, the emperor gathered the Rabbis, discussed the punishment for kidnapping with them, and then asked, “Then what of your ancestors who sold their brother…and gave him away for a pair of shoes?” [translation taken from the Artscroll Yom Kippur Machzor].
Shoes? Where do we find that Yaakov’s sons sold their brother for shoes? According to a number of midrashim, the answer is at the very beginning of this week’s haftarah, taken from Sefer Amos. G-d declares that He cannot forgive the kingdom of Yisrael for a sin they’ve committed: “על מכרם בכסף צדיק ואביון בעבור נעלים,” they have sold the righteous for silver and the destitute for a pair of shoes (2:6). Chazal suggest that the “righteous” who was sold, is in fact Yosef HaTzaddik. The rebuke to המשפחה אשר העליתי מארץ מצרים, the family I have delivered from the land of Egypt (3:1), is directed toward the nuclear family who went down to Egypt.
In her book Waiting for Rain: Reflections at the Turning of the Year, my teacher Dr. Bryna Jocheved Levy suggests that there is a link between the actions of Parshat Vayeshev and crimes committed by later generations of Jews:
The Rabbis highlighted the repercussions of the sale of Joseph in order to educate their constituency regarding the dangers of brotherly discord…Amos’s exhortation was directed toward man’s inhumanity to man in his day…These commentaries established the brothers’ criminal offense as a precedent whose impact was felt throughout the ages (161).
As familiar as I am with the story of Yosef and his brothers, I can’t help feeling somewhat baffled by the brothers’ actions. Only last week, when their sister Dina was kidnapped and raped, the brothers mourned that a member of their family had been violated, and Shimon and Levi went so far as to stage a combined rescue mission and massacre of the city of Shekhem. This week, however, their jealousy leads them to attempt to kill their own brother, and several weeks from now, if we look at Rashi while studying Parshat Vayechi (49:5), we’ll even find a theory that Shimon and Levi were once again the instigators!
Shimon and Levi, along with the rest of their brothers, allowed their fury and jealousy to cloud their feelings toward Yosef and to hurt their overall family. They hurt their brother, lied to their father, and eventually forced Yaakov essentially to choose between Binyamin’s safety and Shimon’s. Their negative feelings and cruel actions hurt the very roots of their family.
Similarly, the idolatry and cruel actions of Amos’s audience would ultimately destroy the very roots of the kingdom of Yisrael. Like Yaakov and his sons, they eventually go into exile, but unlike Yaakov and his sons, they never return as the “family” Amos speaks of.
In fact, as Eileh Ezkerah teaches us, it is possible to sense Yaakov’s sons’ actions throughout Jewish history. When we are faced with the story of mekhirat Yosef, whether in Sefer Bereishit, in references throughout Tanach and Jewish liturgy, or in our own lives, we must choose whether to abandon our brother for a pair of shoes or a striped coat, or whether to see him even through our differences.
Dina Kritz (SBM ’15) teaches 5th grade at Yeshivat He’Atid in Teaneck, NJ.