Did the Brothers have a Right to Sell Yosef?
How could the righteous brothers of Yosef want to murder him in cold blood?
If I saw someone do something wrong, what should I do about it?
May I inform a parent that I saw his/her child do something wrong, or is this loshon hora?
By properly understanding the story of Yosef’s sale, we will be able to answer these three seemingly unrelated questions.
Who are these brothers?
When studying the events leading to the kidnap and sale of Yosef, we must remember that all twelve of Yaakov’s sons were pure, tzadikim gemurim. In light of their tremendous stature, this already incomprehensible story is that much more difficult to understand.
Had this story taken place in the most dysfunctional family imaginable, we would still be shocked by the unfolding of its events. After all, even if brothers feel that their indulged, nasty kid brother is challenging their father’s love for them, would they consider committing fratricide, or any other murder for that matter?
This would apply even to members of a poorly functioning family. How much more so when we are discussing great talmidei chachamim, who constantly evaluate the halachic ramifications of every action that they perform! How can we possibly understand what transpired? In other words, the Ten Brothers were far greater tzadikim than the Chafetz Chayim or Rav Aryeh Levin, greater talmidei chachamim than the Chazon Ish or Rav Moshe Feinstein (this comparison does not diminish the stature of any of these tzadikim; on the contrary, mentioning them in this context shows how much we venerate them). We cannot imagine any of these people hurting someone’s feelings intentionally, much less causing anyone even the slightest bodily harm. It is difficult to imagine any of these tzadikim swatting a fly! Thus, how can we imagine them swatting their brother, much less, doing anything that might cause long-term damage?
Since we cannot interpret this as an extreme case of sibling rivalry, we are left completely baffled by the actions of the ten saintly and scholarly brothers. How could these ten great tzadikim consider killing their brother? And, then, decide that selling him into slavery was more appropriate? As we see clearly, for the next twenty-two years, they assumed that their decision had been justified, although they acknowledged that they should possibly have given Yosef a “second chance.”
Yosef was in the habit of reporting to his father dibasam ra’ah (usually interpreted as slander) – actions that he interpreted as infractions. Rashi quotes the Midrash that Yosef informed his father of whatever bad actions he observed in Leah’s six sons. Specifically, Yosef reported:
(1) They were consuming meat without killing the animal properly, a sin forbidden to all descendants of Noach.
(2) They were belittling their brothers Dan, Naftali, Gad and Asher, by calling them slaves.
(3) He suspected them of violating the heinous sin of giluy arayos.
Others explain that Yosef accused the brothers of not caring properly for their father’s flock. Although Rashi makes no mention of this accusation, it is clear from his comments that, in his opinion, had Yosef suspected them of this, he would certainly have noted it to his father.
Is dibasam ra’ah equivalent to slander?
We must be careful not to define dibasam ra’ah as slander, which usually intimates malice and falsehood, and would imply that Yosef’s intentions were to harm his brothers. Without a doubt, the righteous Yosef had no such intent. It is more accurate to translate dibasam ra’ah as evil report. Yosef did share his interpretations of his brothers’ actions with his father, but they were not fabrications, and defaming them was not his goal.
Why is Yosef tattling?
Without question, Yosef’s goal was the betterment of his brothers. He acted completely lishmah, with no evil intent, just as later, in Parshas Vayigash, he holds no grudge against his brothers, despite the indescribable suffering they caused him.
Indeed, Yosef’s motivation was his sincere concern for his brothers. He knew well the halachah that if you see someone sin, you must bring it to the offender’s attention, explaining to him that he will achieve a large share in Olam Haba by doing teshuvah. A person giving tochacha must always have the interests of the sinner completely at heart, and consider how to educate the malefactor in a way that his words will be accepted.
Yosef knew, also, that whoever has the ability to protest sinful activity and fails to do so is liable for his lack of action. However, the Seforno comments that, due to Yosef’s youth, he did not realize what might result from hisreporting to his father about his brothers.
At this point, we can already answer one of the questions I raised above: If I saw someone do something wrong, what should I do about it?
Answer: I am obligated to bring to the person’s attention that it is in his or her best interest to do teshuvah and correct whatever he or she has done wrong. The admonition should be done in a gentle way, expressing concern, so that it can be received positively and thereby accomplish its purpose.
Why through Yaakov?
Without question, Yosef’s goal in sharing his concerns with his father was that his brothers correct their actions. If so, why didn’t Yosef admonish them directly?
Yosef wanted his father to take appropriate action to correct the brothers’ deeds and, thereby, bring them to do teshuvah. The halachic authorities disagree whether Yosef was guilty of speaking loshon hora by using this approach in this instance. The Chafetz Chayim contends that Yosef was guilty of speaking loshon hora, because he should have shared his concerns directly with his brothers, rather than first discussing them with his father.
Maybe his brothers are right?
Yosef should have considered that his attempts at tochacha might be successful. The Chafetz Chayim also sees Yosef as having neglected the mitzvah of being dan lekaf zechus, judging people favorably. Since the brothers were great tzadikim, Yosef should have realized that they had a halachic consideration to permit their actions. Had he judged them favorably, he would have considered one of three possibilities:
(1) That his brothers had done nothing wrong – but he (Yosef) had misinterpreted what he had seen them do.
(2) Alternatively, his brothers might have justified their actions, explaining them in a way that he (Yosef) might have accepted what they did as correct or, at least, permitted.
(3) That although his brothers were not right, they had based themselves on some mistaken rationale. If their rationale was mistaken, Yosef should have entertained the possibility that he might successfully have convinced them that their approach was flawed. He should have discussed the matter with them directly, and either convinced them of their folly or gained an understanding of why they considered their actions as justified.
In any case, Yosef should not have assumed that the brothers sinned intentionally.
The Malbim’s approach
The Malbim disagrees with the Chafetz Chayim’s approach, contending that Yosef felt that his rebuking his brothers would be unheeded under any circumstances and possibly even counterproductive, and only his father’s reprimand would be successful. If you are certain that the sinner will not listen to you, but may listen to someone else, you may share the information with the person you feel will be more successful at giving rebuke. Yosef felt that, although his brothers would not listen to him, their father could successfully convince them of their errors; therefore, he reported the matters to his father.
In the same vein, a student who sees classmates act inappropriately and feels that they will not listen to his/her rebuke may share the information with someone who he/she feels will be more effective in accomplishing the Torah’s goal.
We are now in a position to answer the third question I raised at the beginning:
May I inform a parent that I saw his/her child do something wrong, or is this loshon hora?
If a parent is able to do something to improve a child’s behavior, one may notify the parent of the child’s conduct. Not only is it not loshon hora¸ it is the correct approach to use. However, if the circumstances are such that the parent will be unable to do anything to improve the child’s behavior, or if one can bring about change in the child’s behavior by contacting him directly, one may not inform the parents of the child’s misbehavior.
Yaakov, or more accurately Yisrael, reacted passively to Yosef’s tale bearing on his brothers. He did not rebuke the brothers for their misbehavior, which we will soon discuss; but, he also did not reprimand Yosef for speaking loshon hora, or for neglecting to be dan lekaf zechus. Indeed, he demonstrated his greater love for Yosef than for the others by producing with his own hands a special garment for Yosef. Yaakov, an affluent sheep raiser who preferred to spend his time studying Torah, took time from his own learning to hand-weave Yosef a beautiful coat. Indeed, Yaakov felt a special kinship to Yosef for several reasons, including Yosef’s astute Torah learning. All of this makes us wonder: why did Yaakov not rebuke Yosef for reporting his brothers?
Was Yosef wrong?
Yaakov agreed with Yosef’s assessment that his reporting was not loshon hora, although this does not necessarily mean that he felt the brothers were guilty. I will shortly rally evidence that implies that Yaakov was convinced the brothers were innocent. Nevertheless, Yaakov concurred that Yosef behaved correctly in bringing the matters to his (Yaakov’s) attention, rather than dealing with the brothers himself.
Yaakov agreed that the brothers would not accept Yosef’s admonition, because they did not understand his (Yosef’s) greatness. At the same time, Yaakov realized that Yosef had leadership and scholarship skills superior to those of his brothers. Yaakov therefore gave Yosef the kesones passim, to demonstrate his appointment as leader of the household.
Why did Yaakov not admonish the brothers?
This, of course, leads to a new question. If Yaakov did not rebuke Yosef because he felt that his approach was correct, why do we find nowhere that he rebuked the brothers for their behavior? It appears that Yaakov realized that the brothers had not sinned, and that there was no reason to rebuke them. Shemiras Halashon rallies proof of this assertion, because the Torah teaches that Yaakov had a special love for Yosef only because of Yosef’s scholarship and not because of any concerns about the brothers’ behavior. (See the Sifsei Chachamim and other commentaries on Rashi, who explain why the brothers had done nothing wrong, and what Yosef misinterpreted.) Yaakov understood that the brothers had not sinned, and that Yosef had misinterpreted their actions. Apparently, Yosef was indeed guilty of not having judged them favorably (Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch).
In fact, because of his mistaken accusation of the brothers, Yosef himself was later severely punished: he was sold into slavery, and for wrongly suspecting his brothers of violating arayos, he was suspected by all Egypt of a similar transgression, as a result of Mrs. Potifar’s fraudulent allegation (Shemiras Halashon). Thus, the problem of an innocent man being tried and convicted in the media is not a modern phenomenon – Yosef was punished for a crime he had not done.
Was Yaakov correct?
Was the kesones passim an appropriate gift for Yosef? Was Yaakov wrong in giving Yosef the kesones passim?
Even asking this question places us in an uncomfortable position: it implies that we might lay blame on the educational practices of one of our Avos. Notwithstanding our awesome appreciation of the greatness of Yaakov Avinu, the Gemara criticizes Yaakov’s deed: “A person should never treat one son differently from the others, for, because of two sela’im worth of fancy wool that Yaakov gave Yosef, favoring him over his brothers, the brothers were jealous of him, and the end result was that our forefathers descended to Egypt.”
Yaakov did not act without calculation. Presumably, seeing Yosef’s high standard of learning, his refined personal attributes, and his concern for others’ behavior, Yaakov felt it important to demonstrate that Yosef was the most skilled of a very impressive group of sons. Yet Chazal tell us that this is an error. One should never demonstrate favoritism among one’s sons, even when there appears to be appropriate reason for doing so.
Were the brothers justified?
At this point, we have presented Yaakov and Yosef’s positions on what happened, but we still do not know why the brothers wanted to kill Yosef.
Remember that the brothers were both righteous and talented talmidei chachamim. Clearly, they must have held that Yosef was a rodef, someone pursuing and attempting to bring bodily harm to another. No other halachic justification would permit their subsequent actions.
Seforno and others note that the brothers interpreted Yosef’s actions as a plot against them, to deprive them of being Yaakov’s descendants. Rav Hirsch demonstrates that the pasuk, vayisnaklu oso lehamiso, means they imagined him as one plotting against them – so that he was deserving of death. The brothers assumed that Yosef’s goal was to vilify them in their father’s eyes, so that Yaakov would reject them – just as Yitzchak had rejected Eisav and Avraham had rejected Yishmael and the sons of Keturah (Malbim). After all, Yosef was falsely accusing them of highly serious misbehavior. The brothers interpreted Yaakov’s gift of the kesones passim to Yosef as proof that Yaakov had accepted Yosef’s loshon hora against them (Shemiras Halashon). The brothers needed to act quickly before he destroyed them; they were concerned that Yaakov would accept Yosef’s plot to discredit them and to rule over them. Therefore, they seized and imprisoned Yosef, and then sat down to eat a meal, while they were deciding what to do with him.
Not a free lunch
The brothers are strongly criticized for sitting down to eat a meal. Assuming that they were justified in killing Yosef, they should have spent an entire night debating their judgment. After all, when a beis din decides on capital matters, they postpone their decision until the next day, and spend the entire night debating the halachah in small groups, eating only a little while deliberating the serious matter. Certainly, the brothers’ sitting down to eat immediately after incarcerating Yosef was wrong, and for this sin they were subsequently punished (Shemiras Halashon).
The brothers then realized that selling Yosef as a slave would accomplish what they needed, without bloodshed.
Later, in Egypt, they recognized that they should not have been so hard-hearted as to sell him – perhaps, his experience in the pit had taught him a sufficient lesson, and he was no longer a danger. Not until Yosef presented himself to them in Mitzrayim did they realize that Yosef was correct all along — he would indeed rule over them, and he had not intended to harm them.
1. When you see someone doing something that appears wrong, figure out a positive way to tell the person what he or she can accomplish by doing teshuvah properly.
2. If you are convinced that you are unable to influence the wrongdoer, while someone else may be more successful, you may share the information with the person who might be able to deliver discreet and gentle admonishment.
3. The information should be shared with no one else, unless, otherwise, someone could get hurt.
4. Always figure out how to judge the person favorably. The entire sale of Yosef occurred because neither side judged the other favorably. Also, bear in mind that we are often highly biased in our evaluation, making it difficult for us to judge.
5. Do not demonstrate favoritism among children, even when there appear to be excellent reasons for doing so.
Concluding the story
To quote the Midrash: Prior to Yosef’s revealing himself in Mitzrayim, he asked them, “The brother whom you claim is dead is very much alive; I will call him.” Yosef then called out, “Yosef ben Yaakov, come here. Yosef ben Yaakov, come here.” The brothers searched under the furniture and checked all the corners of the room to see where Yosef was hiding.
By this time, Yosef had already revealed that he knew the intimate details of their household. They knew that Yosef had been taken to Mitzrayim. They now have someone telling them that he knows that Yosef is in the same room, and there is no one in the room save themselves and Yosef. Nonetheless, they cannot accept that the man that they are facing is Yosef!
Contemplate how these giants of spirit were blinded by their own interests! Is it not sobering how convinced a person can be, despite facts to the contrary, that he is entirely right? We can stare truth in the face, and still not realize that it is Yosef standing before us.
 Ramban, Iggeres HaKodesh, Chapter 5
 Rambam, Hilchos Dei’yos 6:7
 Shemiras HaLashon Volume 2, Chapter 11 [Parshas Vayeisheiv]
 Shabbos 10b
 Rambam, Hilchos Sanhedrin 12:3
 Bereishis Rabbah; Yalkut Shimoni