Vayeshev/Miketz & Chanukah

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Yosef and His Brothers – a Lesson in Spiritual Tolerance

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

“…and Yosef brought evil tales about them to their father. And Yisrael (Yaakov) loved Yosef more than all his sons, because he was a son of his old age; and he made him a fine woolen coat.” (Genesis 37:2-3)

Rashi, quoting a midrash, explains what these evil tales were that Yosef brought to his father. Yosef told his father that his brothers were: 1) eating the limbs removed from animals before they were slaughtered (the prohibition of ever min hachai), 2) involved in sexual impropriety, and 3) referring to the children of Bilhah and Zilpah as slaves. Yosef was punished measure for measure—his brothers slaughtered a goat, dipped his coat in its blood, and sold him as a slave, then Yosef was accused of sexual immorality with Potiphar’s wife.

This midrash is perplexing. Yosef’s brothers were the righteous children of Yaakov. How is it possible that they would behave so badly? And if Yosef’s brothers were indeed involved in these behaviors, then surely it would have been appropriate for Yosef to inform his father? The Maharal of Prague suggests the following: Yosef was on a much higher spiritual level than his brothers (there are many pieces of evidence for this assertion, see Ramban). For this reason, Yaakov favored him. Yosef was a great and holy Tzadik. Although Yosef’s brothers instructed their servants to slaughter their animals appropriately, Yosef felt his brothers should have been stricter in their conduct, overseeing the slaughtering of the animals. Yosef’s brothers conducted business with the neighboring people and with women, which Yosef felt was inappropriate and may lead to sexual impropriety. The Maharal explains that Yosef felt that his brothers distanced themselves from the children of Bilhah and Zilpah, but did not actually call them slaves. Slaves are somewhat distant, and in that sense, it was as if Yosef’s brothers (in Yosef’s eyes) called the children slaves.

Although Yosef’s brothers did not legally transgress any law, Yosef felt that their behavior was inappropriate and that they should have adhered to a higher standard. Yosef, on the other hand, sinned because he should have judged his brothers more favorably and should not have expected/required them to uphold his lofty standards (which were way above the letter of the law). Due to these sins and the evil tales brought before his father, Yosef was punished. Yosef’s brothers were also guilty. I would suggest that they could not stomach the fact that he was spiritually more elevated than they were (as his dreams suggested) and, therefore, despised him for his piety.

The message is a simple one—tolerance. We need to be tolerant and judge individuals favorably who we perceive to be on a lower spiritual level than our own. Also,  we need to be respectful and tolerant of those we perceive to be conducting themselves in accordance with a higher spiritual level than our own.