Commentary for Vayeishev

6 Dec

This week’s parshah contains the beginning of the story of Joseph. The Torah wastes little time establishing the important relationships in the story. “Joseph, at the age of seventeen, was the supervisor of his brothers at the flock, and he was a youth compared to the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives, and Joseph would bring negative reports about them to their father. And Israel loved Joseph most of all of his sons since he was a son of maturity, and he made him a fancy tunic. His brothers saw it was he whom their father loved most out of all of his brothers and so they hated him and they could not speak to him peaceably (Gen. 37:2-4).”

On occasion, the Torah will omit a letter from a word. These letters are almost always supporting letters that are almost like an extraneous part of the vowel connected to the previous letter, so removing them does not change the meaning or pronunciation of a word, but rather the departure from the usual spelling is used to teach us something. The word “peaceably-l’shalom” in 37:4 is one such situation.

When we are told that Joseph’s brothers could not speak to him “l’shalom” the letter vav normally found in the word shalom is missing. In fact, this is the only such spelling in any variant of the word shalom anywhere in the Torah. We often teach our children that “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” While this is a wonderful rule for the purposes of teaching politeness and preventing problems before they start, it falls short in situations where issues already exist, especially if one side does not recognize them. It can stop things from becoming worse, but it cannot make them better.

Sforno comments that while the brothers avoided Joseph when possible, when it came to matters of business or the household where they could not avoid speaking to him, they would skip the usual exchange of pleasantries and talk only business.  Interestingly, a more mechanical reading of the Hebrew renders the end of 37:4 as, “they could not speak to him for [the reasons of] peace.” When lined up with Sforno’s commentary, we now have a situation where the brothers were able to be civil with Joseph when they absolutely had to talk to him, but avoided him at all costs otherwise because they didn’t want to say anything that would cause strife within their household (an important Jewish principle known as shalom bayit-“ peace of the household”).

While this strategy allowed them to speak civilly to Joseph for the good of the family, civility, while admirable, should not be confused with true peace. It did nothing to resolve the underlying issues between them, and tensions would continue to escalate until the brothers finally sold Joseph into slavery in order to be rid of him. The brothers’ plan to keep the “peace” ultimately failed miserably.

The Torah omits the letter vav from the word “shalom” in 37:4 order to teach us that just like the word “shalom” is not full in this verse, the shalom that the brothers thought they were working towards was destined to be incomplete as well. In order to truly resolve our issues, we need to talk them out. The brothers could not work towards peace between themselves and Joseph because they were unwilling to express their true feelings to him; or, as another possible reading of the phrase states, “they could not speak to him towards [the end of making] peace.”

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