In the Torah portion of Miketz
we read how Yosef revealed his true identity to his brothers. When he did so, he stressed to them not to agonize over the fact that they had sold him because it was G-d’s will and it was for the best as it allowed Yosef to feed his family (and many other people) during the years of the famine. As Yosef said (Gen. 44:5
), “But now do not be sad, and let it not trouble you that you sold me here, for it was to preserve life that G-d sent me before you.”
He repeated that thought when they approached him for forgiveness after Yaakov passed away. At that time, he said (ibid 50:20
), “Indeed, you intended evil against me, but G-d designed it for good, in order to… keep a great populace alive.”
The Ohr Hachaim (Gen. 45:8
) explains that, although at first Yosef was upset at his brothers for how they treated him, he later realized that Hashem had planned it precisely, and so he no longer felt any anger towards them.
Despite the fact that this sale was G-d’s will, the brothers are still faulted for causing great suffering to their brother and to their father. This is why we find various punishments that the brothers and the Jewish people suffered over the course of our history in order to atone for this sin.
(The brothers suffered by being imprisoned by Yosef [Gen. 42:17
] and when Binyamin was accused of stealing [Gen. 44
].) In addition, there are various mitzvot that we do in order to atone for this sin. These will be discussed in this article.
The Exile in Egypt
According to the Zohar Chadash (36b, beginning of Parshat Vayeshev
), the Jewish people’s exile in Egypt was a punishment for having sold Yosef. Specifically, there were 10 brothers involved in the sale which kept Yosef away from his father for 22 years.
So they deserved to have exile for 220 years (22 times 10). But because the 10 brothers passed away in the Egyptian exile, that atoned for 10 of the years and the Jewish people only needed to be in Egypt for 210 years.
The commentaries question this explanation since G-d had already informed Avraham of the Egyptian exile many years before Yosef was sold (see Gen. 15:13
). They explain that G-d, in His kindness, counted the exile as a punishment (an atonement) for both sins (see Nedarim 32a
as to how Avraham sinned).
In addition, Yitzchak succeeded through his prayers in minimizing the time in Egypt to 190 years, but after the sale of Yosef, the exile reverted back to 210 years (the Chidah in Chomat Anach, quoted in Matok MiDvash on the Zohar Chadash, ibid).
It is noteworthy that this opinion differs from the commonly held view that the sale of Yosef was G-d’s way of arranging for the Jewish people to go down to Egypt rather than the descent being a punishment for the sale (see Shabbat 89b
The Decree of Haman
The Midrash (Esther Rabbah 7:25
) says that just as the ten tribes sold Yosef deliberately while eating a meal, so too the Jewish people were punished by Achashverosh’ “selling” the Jews to Haman during a meal and permitted him to kill them.
The Midrash points out that G-d delayed punishing them for so many years, yet in the end they got a decree that they deserved. Rabbi Yissachar of Kfar Mandi adds that the punishment was so severe even though Yosef forgave his brothers, how much more severe is the punishment for one who hurts his fellow and does not receive forgiveness.
The commentaries explain that all of the Jewish people were included in the decree although Reuven, Yosef, and Binyamin were not guilty in the sale of Yosef, because of the concept of all Jews being responsible for the sins of the others (כל ישראל ערבין זה בזה) [Yefeh Anaf
Why indeed did G-d wait until the time of Mordechai and Esther to punish the Jewish people for this sin? Rabbi Azaryah Chaim Sangvinity (of 18th-century Italy) explains (in Olah Chadasha end of Parshat Pikudei) that G-d was “reminded” of the sin of selling Yosef which was triggered by the Jews’ feasting in a gluttonous manner (see Gen. 37:25) when they participated in the feast of Achashverosh (see Esther, chapter 1).
When the decree was issued, Mordechai and Esther called for a three-day fast in order to atone for the sin of gluttonous eating that had precipitated the Divine decree.
The Ten Tzadikim Killed by the Roman Government
According to the Tikunei Zohar (110b
), the execution of the ten sages
by the Romans during during the time of the destruction of the Bait HaMikdash and the fall of Beitarwas a punishment for the 10 brothers who sold Yosef. This is also found in the repetition of the Musaf Amidah of Yom Kippur. (We also discuss this in the Kinot of Tisha Be’Av but the sale of Yosef is not mentioned there.)
The Sefer Shalsheles HaKaballah by Rabbi Gedaliah ibn Yichye (of 16th-century Italy, page 66 in the Jerusalem edition of 1962) explains that the 10 sages were reincarnations of the ten tribes. And that they had very small sins which were comparable (on a minor scale) to the sin of selling Yosef. (e.g., slight haughtiness and some arguments between the sages.)
(But see the introduction to Seder HaDorot by Rabbi Yechiel Halperin that the Sefer Shalshelet Hakabalah is full of falsehoods. See also Igrot Kodesh of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, vol. 9, pg. 65.)
Specifically, he suggests that the following sages were reincarnations of the following tribes. (For some reason the tribe of Yehudah is not given here.)
- Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef was a reincarnation of Yosef. (Yosef is considered to be [somewhat guilty in the sale since he had slandered his brothers to their father.)
- Rabbi Eliezer ben Shamua was a reincarnation of Shimon (as the word Shamua is similar to Shimon).
- Rabbi Yishmael Kohen Gadol (who was from the tribe of Levi) was a reincarnation of the tribe of Levi.
- Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel was a reincarnation of the tribe of Yehudah since he was a descendant of that tribe.
- Chutzpit HaMeturgeman חוצפית המתורגמן was a reincarnation of the tribe of Yissachar since the letters of his name have the letters of חמור גרם which is said about Yissachar (Gen. 49:14). (In the Shalshelet Hakabalah it says “Yehuda” for Chutzpit. This seems to be a mistake).
- Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon was a reincarnation of the tribe of Dan (as the letters of Dan are found in Tradyon).
- Rabbi Yehudah ben Teima was a reincarnation of the tribe of Zevulun as the gematriya of Zevulun /זבולון (in mispar kattan) is 29 and counting the word as 1 equals 30. Yehudah/יהודה, too has a gematriyah of 30.
- Rabbi Yesheivav HaSofer was a reincarnation of Gad. As the gematriyah of ישבב (in mispar kattan) is 8 which is the same as Gad/גד which is also the gematriyah of 8 (when counting the word itself as one).
- Rabbi Yehudah ben Bava was a reincarnation of Naftali as the gematriya of נפתלי (in mispar kattan) is 21. This is the same gematriyah as יהודה in mispar kattan.
- Rabbi Chananyah ben Chachinai חכינאי was a reincarnation of Asher, as the verse in Daniel (12:2) says, אַשְׁרֵי הַמְחַכֶּה. This indicates a correlation between Asher (אַשְׁרֵי) and חכינאי (similar letters to הַמְחַכֶּה).
The Benei Yissachar (Maamar Chodesh Tishrei 12:1) says that Eliezer ben Hurkanus was a reincarnation of Reuven. This is alluded to by the fact that he was called Rabbi Eliezer HaGadol – “רבי אליעזר הגדול – the great Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkanus” (see Brachot 32a
and in many places) like Reuven who was the גדול (oldest).
And since Reuven saved Yosef and instead had him thrown into a pit, Rabbi Eliezer was saved from the decree of being killed by the Romans. (See Avodah Zarah 16b
that he was nearly killed.) His connection to Reuven (who had Yosef thrown into the pit) is alluded to by the fact that his teacher (Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai) referred to him as “בּוֹר סוּד שֶׁאֵינוֹ מְאַבֵּד טִפָּה – a cemented cistern [pit] that does not lose a drop (Avot 2:
The Shalshelet Hakaballah quotes earlier sources that the total gematriyah of all of the ten martyrs is the same as the total gematryiah of all of the Shevatim – 2858. He points out that this only works if Zevulun (זבולן) is spelled with one vav and Chananya is spelled with two yuds (חננייא).
In addition, he writes that there are 10 Jews in every generation who die sanctifying G-d’s name as a continued atonement for the sin of selling Yosef.
Pidyon HaBen and the Half Shekel
The Jerusalem Talmud (Shekalim 2:3
) says that because we (the tribes) sold the first born of Rachel, we must redeem our first-born sons. The five sela’im used for the Pidyon HaBen (redemption of the first born, see Exodus 13:2 and 12
) is the same amount of silver for which the brothers sold Yosef. (Five sela is the same as 20 silver dinars. See here
In addition, the Jerusalem Talmud states that since each brother received two dinars as his portion of the sale, we must atone for that by giving a half-sela coin every year which is equal to two dinars (Machatzit Hashekel, see Exodus 30:11 – 16
)). The Midrash Rabbah (Gen. Rabbah 84:18
) echoes this thought.
The commentaries (Yefeh Toar)
explain that there are other reasons for these mitzvot (for the Pidyon HaBen, such as the fact that the firstborn were saved in Egypt and for the Machatzit HaShekel that it atones for the sin of the Golden Calf) but the specific amount that is given is based on the sale of Yosef (and it atones for it).
The commentaries (Yefeh Toar on the Midrash and Taklin Chatadtin on the Jerusalem Talmud) discuss why the money was divided among 10 brothers since Reuven was not present at the time of the sale (see Gen. 37:29
They explain that the brothers designated money for Reuven even though he wasn’t present and that when he returned and found out about the sale he was silent and did not protest. Alternately, Yosef is counted as the 10th brother involved in the sale since he stirred up their hatred in the first place. (Although he did not actually receive any coins from the sale.)
The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that it was necessary for 10 brothers to be involved in the sale as this represents the power of a minyan (a quorum of ten Jewish men). According to the Zohar (Parshat Vayeshev, 184a
), it was important for Yosef to be kidnapped by his brothers before he went down to Egypt. Because by being subservient to his (Jewish) brothers who lived in the Holy land he would have the strength to overcome the spiritual challenges that awaited him in Egypt.
In addition, when Yosef bought all of the Egyptians as slaves (Gen. 47:19-23
), they became, by extension, slaves of all of the Jewish people, since Yosef had been “acqired” by the brothers. Having a minyan involved in the sale represents a G-dly revelation that is beyond this world that would give Yosef (and all of the Jewish people) the necessary strength to remain “above” the constraints of Egypt.
This explains a deeper connection between the sale of Yosef and the mitzvah of Pidyon HaBen. Just as Yosef was “sanctified” through his abduction, so too every firstborn son is sanctified to G-d and must therefore be redeemed (Likutei Sichot vol. 20, Sichah for Parshat VaYeshev, page 185 and on).
May we soon be redeemed by G-d from this exile!
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom UMevorach!