The Brothers’ Jealousy of Joseph

Rabbi Israel Chait

Dec. 24, 2018 — Written by a student

Subsequent to hearing Joseph’s dreams of dominion over themselves and their father, the brothers reacted:

“So his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind. And the brothers went to herd their father’s sheep in Shechem” (Gen. 37:11,12).

Rashi cites a midrash: “The brothers went to Shechem to shepherd themselves” [not the sheep]. Shepherding refers to addressing the needs of sheep, but here, Rashi teaches they were tending to themselves. What does he mean? Additionally, why did the brothers follow their jealousy with shepherding themselves in Shechem? Why Shechem; why this place?

Jacob then asked Joseph to bring back word of how the brothers were doing in Shechem. Joseph left, but was lost (Ibid. 37:15) until he met a man (Chazal say an “angel”: a person instrumental in carrying out God’s will). The man said:

“They [your brothers] have gone from here, for I heard them say: ‘Let us go to Dothan’” (Ibid 37:17).

Why was Joseph lost or wandering without clear direction? And Rashi again comments: “The brothers went to Dothan to find legal pretext to murder Joseph.” Why couldn’t they do this in Shechem?

Rashi on Gen. 42:24 and 49:5 states that Shimon and Levi were the instigators against Joseph.  A picture starts to emerge providing a profound insight into human nature…

Due to Joseph’s  dreams, the brothers grew jealous of Joseph. How did they deal with that jealousy? The Torah says in the next verse that they left to Shechem. Why? They needed to escape from Joseph’s and Jacob’s presence; for Jacob favored Joseph, and Joseph claimed superiority over the brothers. The brothers went to Shechem to ruminate. 

The primary lesson is that the tribes were not average people; they didn’t react impetuously to Joseph’s claims to fame with a sudden plot to murder him. They first ruminated on the matter. This is Rashi’s meaning that they went “to shepherd themselves.” They chose Shechem at Shimon and Levi’s suggestion, as these two brothers found solace in a location in which they were victors. Shimon and Levi killed all males in Shechem as retribution for raping their sister Dinah. To Shimon and Levi, Shechem represented their righteousness; a place in which they might identify with their previous success, and replenish their dignity that was somewhat vanquished through Joseph’s dreams of grandeur. But this did not work; Shechem did not quell their jealousy. Therefore, they needed to leave, for it is human nature that when man fails, he leaves his failures behind and the place of his failure. They went elsewhere, to Dothan. There, the brothers began seeking legal pretext to murder Joseph.  The brothers acted in a two-step fashion, not with impetuous rage against Joseph, as average people would act. (We also understand that Joseph was lost, as he knew of his brothers jealousy and this caused a resistance to confront them. Thus, getting lost was an expression of his conflict to find his brothers.)

The midrash opens up keen insight into the brothers’ behavior, and into human psychology in general. It is a marvelous midrash. We learn that the brothers acted with restraint and on a higher level than others might have acted in their situation.