Vayeshev – Mysterious Mission
Parashat Vayeshev represents the ceremonial and tragic opening of the Joseph narrative that will carry us to the end of the book of Genesis. We learn of Jacob’s gift of a brilliant robe to Joseph, the enmity between Joseph and his brothers, Joseph’s grandiose dreams, and the simmering scheme to punish the young, egocentric sibling that would rule over the family. All of these events lead toward a curious episode in our parashah when the brothers seemingly head to Shechem. A concerned and anxious Jacob turns to his favoured son, Joseph, to check on the well-being of the other sons—declaring, “Go and see how your brothers are and how the flocks are faring, and bring me back word” (Gen. 37:14). Assuming that Jacob senses the tension between Joseph and his siblings, why would he send him on such a mission? Could he not foresee the dangers lurking around the corner? And more than that, why is Jacob so preoccupied about the sons pasturing their flocks in Shechem?
Nahum Sarna writes “in view of the relationship between Joseph and his brothers, Jacob’s action is surprising and Joseph’s ready response no less so. Clearly, the brothers had hitherto successfully disguised their true feelings and indeed, there is no record of their having uttered any threats against Joseph. Shechem had been the site of a bloody massacre carried out by the brothers, who had apparently captured the city. This incident must have occurred very recently since Dinah was about the same age as Joseph and could hardly have been younger than about fifteen at the time. Joseph is now seventeen. The danger inherent in the brothers’ presence in the vicinity of Shechem may have been the source of Jacob’s anxiety.” (Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 258)
Sarna is extremely sensitive in identifying the source of Jacob’s concern. Having just come through the very traumatic episode of the rape of Dinah and the aftermath of this devastating act (the slaughter of the town perpetrated by his sons), Jacob is rightfully fearful of some other mischief his sons may be plotting. Perhaps it is this fear and worry that overrides what he may perceive to be normal sibling rivalry. It is, ironically, the safety of and concern for the other sons that overrides care for the “favoured” son. Moreover, I would also place the onus of responsibility on the shoulders of Joseph as well. Joseph should have been self-aware enough to understand the unpredictability of his mission. And he could have expressed his anxiety to his father. Though maybe it was a desire to honour his father’s request that took precedence over a real concern for his safety. Ultimately, the episode remains shrouded in mystery—forcing the modern reader to wrestle with a cryptic episode and its consequences.
By Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, Director of Israel Programs, The Rabbinical School, JTS posted on December 5, 2012 / 21 Kislev 5773 in A Taste of Torah