Rav Kook Torah

Vayeishev: The Conflict between Joseph and Judah


Having overcome the difficult challenges posed by Esau and Laban, Jacob looked forward to more peaceful times. But intense resentment among his sons shattered these wishful hopes, and led to the sale of his favorite son, Joseph, as a slave in Egypt.

How could the brothers sell Joseph, and even consider killing him? Is it possible that they were motivated by petty jealousy over a colorful coat?

Also, is there a connection between the story of Joseph and the holiday that falls out this time of the year — Chanukah?

Integration versus Separation

The root of the disagreement among the brothers was in fact ideological. There were two schools of thought in Jacob’s family, one championed by Joseph, the other by Judah. Joseph stressed the mission of the Jewish people as “a light unto the nations.” In order to fulfill this goal, Joseph felt that we must interact with the nations of the world and expose them to the monotheistic teachings of Judaism.

Judah, on the other hand, was concerned about the negative influences when intermingling with pagan cultures. He emphasized the separate sanctity of the Jewish people, “a nation that dwells alone” (Num. 23:9). Judah feared that Joseph’s philosophy of openness and integration would endanger the future of the Jewish people. But how to safely neutralize this threat?

Simon and Levy, who had already fought against assimilation when they decimated the city of Shechem for kidnapping Dina, planned to simply kill Joseph. Judah objected, “What profit is there if we kill our brother?” (Gen. 37:26). The true danger is not Joseph, but his school of thought. Let us put his theories to the test. We will sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites, and let him assimilate among the nations. Then all will see where his ideas lead to.

The Tabernacle and the Temple

These conflicting views are reflected by the contrast between the Mishkan (Tabernacle) in Shiloh and the Temple in Jerusalem. In Shiloh, offerings could be eaten outside the walls, as long as the city of Shiloh was in sight. Temple offerings, on the other hand, could only be eaten within the Temple walls. Why this difference?

For Joseph, the primary mission was to publicly demonstrate the sanctity of Israel and educate the nations. Thus, the holiness of the Shiloh Tabernacle — in Joseph’s portion — spread beyond its walls. The Temple in Jerusalem, however, was located in the land of Judah and followed his view. It is necessary to build walls and restrict the dissemination of Torah, in order to protect the sanctity of the Jewish people.

The Hellenists versus the Hasmonean Priests

The holiday of Chanukah commemorates a similar struggle, the conflict between those seeking integration with the rest of the world, and those striving to preserve the distinct sanctity of the Jewish people. The Hellenistic Jews demanded adoption of Greek customs, the prevalent culture of the day. They claimed to be following Joseph’s path of openness. Their slogan was, “Write on the ox horn that you have no share in the God of Israel” (Vayikra Rabbah 13:5). Why an ox horn? This is an allusion to Joseph, who was compared to a powerful ox (Deut. 33:17).

The Hellenists called for the people to continue in Joseph’s path of openness and assimilation.

However, they ignored Joseph’s underlying goal, to educate the nations. The Hellenists “broke down the walls of my towers.” They breached the walls protecting Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, and allowed the idolatrous nations to defile the holy Temple.

The Hasmonean priests, kohanim from the tribe of Levy, naturally followed the path of Judah and Levy, that of separation. As kohanim, they benefited from the special sanctity of priesthood separating them from the rest of the Jewish people. The ultimate victory for the Hasmoneans was the discovery of a ritually clean jar of oil, with the seal of the High Priest intact. This jar of pure oil was a sign that the inner sanctity of Israel remained undefiled by pagan contact.

In the future, the nations will recognize the necessity for the walls of the House of Jacob that separate the Jewish people from the other nations. The nations will accept upon themselves the mitzvot of the Torah, while the entire Jewish people will be elevated to the level of kohanim. Then the Jewish people will relate to the nations of the world in a fashion analogous to the current connection of kohanim to the rest of the Jewish people.

(Gold from the Land of Israel. Adapted from Shemuot HaRe’iyah 10, 5630 (1929))

Illustration image: ‘Joseph relating his dreams to his parents and brothers,’ Rembrandt (1633)