The conflict between Yosef and his brothers is one of the
most difficult parashos in the Torah. In order to understand it, we first
have to understand the very different perspectives that they had on their own
roles in the formation of the Jewish people.
Yosef had a unique role to play. He was the mekasher,
the link between the Avos and the Shevatim. On the one hand, he
was a son of Yaakov, and therefore a Shevet, just like his brothers. Yet,
he resembled an Av insofar as his children were counted among the Shevatim.
Furthermore, he looked like Yaakov Avinu. This means that he embodied all the
characteristics of Yaakov, albeit on a smaller scale. As such, he was the one
who trained his brothers and prepared the way for them. He laid the foundations
for them in Mitzraim; as the ancestor of Yehoshua, he prepared the way to
Eretz Yisroel; and in the future, Mashiach ben Yosef will prepare the way for
Mashiach ben Dovid.
Yosef believed that they were living in a transitional time
in history, in which the nation of Israel was as yet in a formative stage. As
such, they retained the status of Bnei Noach, with all the halachic
implications. He understood that it was his responsibility to train his brothers
for their roles in founding the nation-to-be.
It was the opinion of the brothers, however, that they
already constituted the nation Israel. As such, they had the full halachic
status of Jews. This difference of opinion provides a key to resolving many of
the difficulties in the parsha.
Yaakov seems to have singled out Yosef as his favorite,
something that was destined to cause jealousy and conflict among his sons. For
example, Yosef was called the ben zekunim, the wise son of Yaakov,
to whom he gave over all the Torah that he learned from Shem and Ever. But
didn’t Yaakov learn with his other children? Why did he only give over his Torah
to Yosef? Didn’t he realize that such favoritism would cause trouble?
The answer is that Shem and Ever taught the Torah of Bnei
Noach, since, after all, that is literally what they were. The brothers
weren’t so interested in learning those aspects of Torah because they perceived
themselves as Benei Yisrael. The laws of Bnei Noach were no
longer relevant to them. But for Yosef it was still of primary importance
because he held that they still had the status of Bnei Noach.
The Baal HaTurim comments that “ben zekunim” is an
acronym for Zerayim, Kodshim, Nashim, Yeshuos
and Moed. (Yeshuos refers to Nezikin.) Only five of the
six orders of the Mishna are accounted for. The Baal HaTurim omits Taharos.
Why? Because that’s the only thing that’s not relevant to a Ben Noach
is taharos. The laws of tumah and tahara do not apply to
non-Jews. Yosef’s self-perceived status as a Ben Noach would explain very
well why taharos was omitted from the Torah he learned.
Yosef brought bad reports about his brothers to their father.
Rashi says he told Yaakov that they were degrading the benei shefachos by
calling them avadim; that they were eating ever min hachay; and
that they were acting immodestly with women. If these things were true, how
could Yaakov not castigate his sons? And if untrue, how could Yosef tell such
The Maharal and others explain that it depends on the
perception of their status. The example they focus on is ever min hachay.
Since Yosef considered them Bnei Noach, and the halacha says that
the flesh of an animal can only be eaten after death, i.e., after cessation of
motion. During the death throes, the animal is forbidden for the non-Jew.
Whereas, for the Jew, shechitah, not death, makes the animal permitted.
So, even if it’s still moving, meaning that it’s not dead, it’s permitted for
the Jew because it’s been slaughtered. The brothers would shecht, and
immediately begin cutting it up, before it stopped moving, since they considered
themselves Bnei Yisrael, not Bnei Noach.
In Yosef’s view, it was his responsibility as shepherd and
trainer of the future Klal Yisrael to report such things to their father.
But his reports were not just recitations of fact; they were interpretations.
Rather than explaining that, according to his opinion, the brothers as Bnei
Noach were transgressing the prohibition, he simply accused them of
eating ever min hachay. Yaakov did not accept the reports at face value.
He would question him and discover that it was a matter of interpretation. But
the damage was done. For the initial impression given by Yosef was that the
brothers were guilty of wrongdoing.
Yosef’s method of reporting was a function of a certain
immaturity. That is why, says the Sforno, the Torah calls him na’ar. Like
a na’ar, a youth, he reacted to the present situation, failing to foresee
the repercussions of his actions.
But once again we can see how the underlying dispute over
their historical-halachic status is the key to understanding the parsha
of Yosef and his brothers.