Parashas Vayeishev

This week’s parashah describes the conflict between Yosef and his brothers. The conflict reaches a climax when Yosef goes out, at Yaakov’s request, to check on his brothers as they tended the flock. The brothers see him from a distance and say to each other (Bereishis 37:19): “Look, that dreamer is coming! So now, come and let us kill him ….” As Yosef reaches the brothers, they strip him of his special tunic and throw him into a pit. Then a Yishmaelite caravan approaches, and Yehudah says (ibid. 37:26): “What gain will there be if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Yishmaelites, but let our hand not be upon him ….” The Maggid notes that Yehudah’s question is peculiar, especially in view of Onkelos’s rendering of the question: “What monetary benefit will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood?” Did the brothers intend to achieve a monetary gain by killing Yosef? Also, it is puzzling that Yehudah mentions the covering up of Yosef’s blood; seemingly this detail is inconsequential.
In developing an explanation of Yehudah’s question, the Maggid starts by examining the Torah’s statement that a person who injures his fellow man must be punished measure for measure (Vayikra 24:20): “A break for a break, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth – just as he will have inflicted [literally, will give] an injury on a person, so shall be inflicted on him.” The Gemara in Bava Kamma 83b-84b explains that the Torah is calling for monetary compensation: from the Torah’s use of the term “giving,” the Gemara concludes that the Torah is calling for a punishment involving giving, namely a monetary penalty.
The Maggid notes that we can conceive of two possible reasons behind the Torah’s directive. The purpose could be to avenge the wrong done and give the victim satisfaction over the revenge exacted for the assault against him. Alternatively, the purpose could be to deter the offender, as well as others, from committing such an offence in the future, along the lines of a statement the Torah makes in a similar context (Devarim 17:13): “And all the people will hear and be struck with fear, and they will not commit willful wrong anymore.” A verse in Tehillim indicates the true purpose. David HaMelech declares (Tehillim 19:10): “The judgments of Hashem are true, altogether just.” David’s intent is to say that the purpose behind Hashem’s judgments is to promote truth and justice – to admonish the masses and keep them, along with the person being punished, from committing similar wrongs in the future. In this vein, the Gemara in Sanhedrin 43a states that when someone was taken out to be stoned to death, an announcement would be made: “So-and-so is being taken out to be stoned for committing such-and-such a sin.” Furthermore, the stoning would be carried out in public. This shows that the main purpose of the punishment is not to take revenge (for there is no real benefit to this), but rather to deter others from committing a similar wrong.
Since the purpose of punishment is deterrence, we can understand well the Gemara’s explanation of the verse in Vayikra, for a monetary penalty is usually an adequate deterrent. In addition, we can appreciate the Torah’s choice of words in saying that just as the offender “will give” an injury to his fellow, so will be given to him. On a simple level it would have made more sense for the Torah to say “just as he gave an injury to his fellow, so will be given to him.” But in light of our discussion, we can see that the Torah is saying that the punishment the offender is given parallels the wrong that he might commit in the future, to keep him from committing it.
We can now turn to Yehudah’s question. As we consider the brothers’ plan to kill Yosef, far be it from us to imagine that they were going to commit murder, spilling an innocent man’s blood. Surely they must have judged Yosef as deserving the death penalty under Torah law, and indeed various statements of our Sages indicate explicitly that they made such a judgment. Nonetheless, Yehudah advised the brothers that they ought not kill Yosef. He argued as follows: “It is true, as you say, that under Torah law Yosef deserves the death penalty. But let us consider the matter carefully. The Torah’s purpose in imposing punishment is not for revenge, but rather to deter the public from committing similar crimes. Killing Yosef now will not serve this purpose. You will be forced to cover up Yosef’s blood so that no one will know what happened. And thus we will not achieve the benefit usually gained from the monetary and other punishments that the Torah imposes. This being so, let our hand not be upon him.”
David Zucker, Site Administrator

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