Parashat Vayehi

December 25, 2015 | Filed in: Bereshit, Divrei Torah, Uncategorized

by Rabbi Isaac Mann

Did Jacob ever find out that Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers and that they deceived him into thinking that he was killed by a wild animal?

The Torah never directly addresses this issue, but according to one popular interpretation of the “blessing” that Jacob gave Simeon and Levi, it would appear that he did know that the brothers, in particular those two, were instrumental in Joseph’s kidnapping. Thus, his parting words to them — “Let my soul not come into their council; unto their assembly let my glory not be united; for in their anger they slew men, and in their self-will they hamstrung oxen” (Gen. 49:6). The last phrase of this verse reads “u-virtzonam ikru shor,” which can be translated, as does the Midrash, “willingly they uprooted (in the sense of harmed) the ox.” Who is the “ox” that the two brothers uprooted or intended to uproot? Joseph! He is referred to as an ox in the final blessing of Moses (Deut. 33:17). Rashi cites the Midrashic interpretation as the plain meaning of the text.

Accordingly, Jacob must have known the role that Simeon and Levi played in the story of Joseph’s disappearance and presumably the conspiracy of the others as well.

However, other commentators (e.g. Ibn Ezra and the Kli Yakar, following in the footsteps of Targum Onkelos) interpret the above verse as referring entirely to the two brothers’ killing of the inhabitants of Shechem and despoiling the city. Jacob’s ire was directed at their disregard for the consequences of their action, especially the desecration of G-d’s Name that ensued and the physical danger it brought to the family. According to this reading of the verse, there is no reference to Joseph and thus no way to know for sure whether Jacob knew the entire story.

What we can say with certainty is that the Torah nowhere suggests that Jacob inquired about the “missing years” of Joseph’s life. One might have thought that he would want to know how he could have turned up in Egypt when a wild animal presumably slaughtered him. This and similar questions are absent from any dialogue involving Jacob. We can speculate and interpolate what we wish to fill in the lacuna in the story, but significantly the Torah remains silent.

Perhaps there is a lesson in this silence. The Torah is indicating to us by leaving out any questions that Jacob may have had that there is a time when not asking — and perhaps not knowing all the details — is the preferred course of action. Often inquiry into details is just an exercise in curiosity and serves no long-term purpose. And sometimes revealing every particular of an event can even be harmful.

Had Jacob inquired and found out every detail in the saga of Joseph would he have been able to relate to his sons as a loving father? Would he have been able to forgive them for the sorrow and grief that they brought upon him? Would he have been able to bless them? These are questions to ponder over. And so too for each one of us when we ask our spouse or child or friend for all the particulars, do we really need to know them and is it helpful for the relationship? The Torah through its silence tells us that sometimes the answer is “no.”

Have a Shabbat Shalom!


Rabbi Isaac Mann is on the rabbinic faculty of AJR. He is the rabbi of the Austrian Shul on the Upper West Side and serves as chaplain at Metropolitan Hospital and Bronx-Lebanon Hospital.