(The following was originally posted in Nishma)
The behavior of the sons of Yaakov Avinu in the concluding parshiot [sections] of Sefer Bereishit raises many questions. We expect stories regarding great people to be inspirational, their conduct not only to be exemplary but clearly so. Many of the events reported in the Torah concerning the actions of these brothers, though, would seem to challenge this assumption. We are left with a dilemma; these are all great men — the progenitors of Am Yisrael [the nation of Israel] — yet their actions often mystify us. How could they act as they did? More significantly, how could they continue to be seen by us as we do, in fact, see them – models of humanity to be emulated?1 Even at the conclusion of Sefer Bereishit, with the reconciliation of the brothers, the problems are not all answered.
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Throughout the entire process of what occurs in these sections of Bereishit, the brothers are still always who they are. The transformation that occurs, culminating in the reconciliation, is not as earth-shattering as we would expect and, even, perhaps, want to see. They, indeed, continue to be who they always were – but perhaps, correctly understood, this is, in fact, their most significant lesson to us.
Rashi, Bereishit 31:2 states that one of the negative reports which Yosef conveyed to his father concerned how the sons of Leah would treat the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, the handmaidens, improperly.2 In response, as Rashi understands the verse, Yosef specifically befriended them. Ramban raises an objection for if this was so, would not the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah have sided with Yosef when the other brothers attacked him? In fact, given that Ruvain was against attacking Yosef and these four brothers should also have been (pursuant to Rashi’s perspective), if you then also include Yosef himself, in any skirmish between the brothers, the odds would have favoured Yosef.3 In any event, Ramban thinks it would also have been highly unlikely for the five other sons of Leah to have fought with their other brothers over this.
It must have, thus, been that all the brothers4 shared in the negative view of Yosef, and this is clearly what is further implied in the verses regarding what happened. Ramban thus concludes that, rather than befriending them, the verse is actually informing us that Yosef’s negative reports to his father were specifically about the four sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, with whom Yosef spent much time. It seems that the sons of Leah were directly upset about the favoritism shown Yosef. The sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, Ramban maintains, could have lived with this, though, because of their status as the sons of handmaidens. They were still infuriated over these negative reports from Yosef. The brothers were thus united, for different reasons, in their attitude towards Yosef.
This, though, brings us back to Rashi for, if Yosef befriended the sons of the handmaidens as Rashi contends, why indeed did they not act to defend him? Furthermore, why would they have joined in the plot against him? Mizrachi responds that it was not just one item which resulted in the negative feelings towards Yosef. Even though Yosef could have treated them better than the other brothers in certain respects, the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah could have still responded negatively to Yosef’s dreams, which implied authority over them, and/or the favoritism of the Coat of Many Colours.
Life is not linear. The human condition is multi-faceted. There are obviously many dynamics involved in any relationships amongst people and this was clearly also the case with the family of Yaakov. At the same time that we are told that there may have been friction within the family regarding the treatment of the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah — with Ramban contending that these sons would, though, still have unwaveringly accepted their secondary status – Rashi, Bereishit 35:22 informs us that Yaakov, upon the death of Rochel Imeinu, treated Bilhah in a special manner. Of course, Ruvain responded to the insult that he felt was thereby given to his mother, but would not the sons of Bilhah — Dan and Naftali — have felt some sense of pride? Beginning with Yaakov himself, the family is not guided by some generic definition of human psychology. They were personalities; each one unique.
There is an assumption by many that ethics is generic with a resulting corollary that righteous individuals would be effectively similar. This assumption is fully challenged as we read of Yaakov’s family. When we read of Yaakov’s relationships with his wives, we clearly are not reading a generic tale of husband and wives informing us of how a righteous individual connects with his family. There was a special love bond between Yaakov and Rochel and this permeates the entire episode. The events are personal. They concern specific individuals and not generic examples of propriety. This then extends to the entire family including the brothers – and it is within this context that we are to understand them as models for us.
This is not to say that the behavior throughout the story was without blemish – it, obviously, was not – but we do have to recognize that their struggles still were all individualistic and personal. Ethics has to connect to the personality; what is the proper behavior for one person may be totally inapplicable for another. This is not to say that righteousness inherently flows from one simply being in touch with his/her personality but however we define what is proper behavior for an individual, it does have to tie into the personality. Righteousness is not above the human condition but inherently connects with it. What we see in the story of the brothers is this struggle of ethics and personality. How to determine what is right for the individual?
This demands a knowledge of and commitment to ethics. This also demands a knowledge of and commitment to the personality. This is what we see in the individual episodes that come together in this greater narrative.
We can now truly understand the growth of the brothers described in the narrative. We do seem to expect, in the movement towards righteousness, a transformation of a person that is so noticeable that the we can hardly identify the resultant individual with the original person.5 This, however, is not the transformation of which we are reading in these parshiot.
The brothers grow as ethical people through the occurrences of their lives but the basic elements of personality are always the same. This is also the human condition. We are indeed called upon to be righteous individuals but a key factor includes our unique individuality. The transformation of growth is thus subtler than we may even like.6 This is the lesson of the brothers.
1 See, however, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Bereishit 37:1, 2.
2 With reference to them being the children of slaves.
3 It would be six against five.
4 Except, it would seem, Ruvain, and, of course, Binyamin.
5 The biography of St. Augustine immediately comes to mind and that, indeed, reflects what I would describe as a Christian view of this matter.
6 This is actually a more complex issue than as expressed here. See, further, Rabbi Yaakov Feldman, Tshuvah