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Shabbat Parashat Vayeishev | 5770

Parashat Hashavuah: What Was He Thinking?!

“He [Yaakov] said to him [Yosef]: Go now and observe the welfare of your brothers and the welfare of the flock, and return me davar (a report), and he sent him from the valley of Chevron, and he came to Shechem” (Bereishit 37:14). Yaakov’s use of Yosef as a messenger service was strange considering not only the hatred Yosef’s brothers had for him but also the hatred for the family in the Shechem area, where Shimon and Levi had carried out a slaughter. This, says the Malbim, is what Chazal meant when they sent that Yaakov sent him not geographically from the valley of Chevron but from the deep idea related to Avraham, who was buried in Chevron, to whom it was decreed that his descendants would have to go into exile. He reasons that Yaakov’s judgment was so poor that it could only have been a miracle that he sent Yosef.

While accepting fully the Divine Providence involved in Yaakov’s decision, perhaps we could find at least a hava amina - some answer to the question: what was he thinking?! As modern yet traditional students of Tanach like to do, let us look for a word or root that repeats itself in our story and identify a recurring theme that teaches us about the episode. The word that sticks out is davar, which usually means “a thing” or “matter” but also means “the thing he said.” The brothers hated Yosef “for his dreams and (devarav) his sayings” (ibid.:8), in other words, the content of the dreams and the way he related the dreams to them. After involving his father in the telling of his offensive dreams, we are told that Yaakov scolded him and characterized the dreams, including the allusion to Yosef’s father and mother bowing down to him, as bizarre. Then it says that “Yosef’s brothers were jealous of him, and his father watched over the matter (davar)” (ibid.:11). Finally, Yaakov asks Yosef to return a report (davar) (ibid.:14). The different uses of the word must be more than a coincidence.

Let us suggest the following. The brothers blamed Yosef for the dreams themselves, which they attributed to Yosef’s aspirations, not a Divine revelation. That’s why they call him the “ba’al hachalomot” (lit., owner of the dreams), not their recipient (ibid. 19). On the other hand, Yaakov was upset with Yosef for sharing them as he had (davar), which was insensitive to his brothers. Yaakov wanted Yosef to act in a caring manner toward his brothers, to change the way each side looked at the other. Let him see their welfare (sh’lom, which can also mean, peace). He was willing for Yosef to do something somewhat dangerous to show them that he cared and was willing to do his part for the family. In this way, he would “return” the davar that had gone wrong. This was a risky but an understandable plan. He was unaware that, due to the intervention of the G-d of Avraham, the brothers were headed toward escalated conflict, while the outcome of unity would arrive 22 years and “two parshiyot later.

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