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Vayeshev | To Whom Was the Birthright Given?

Rav Meir Shpiegelman


Dedicated in memory of Israel Koschitzky z"l,
whose yahrzeit falls on the 19th of Kislev.
May the world-wide dissemination of Torah through the VBM
be a fitting tribute to a man whose lifetime achievements exemplified
the love of Eretz Yisrael and Torat Yisrael.


In loving memory of my parents Shmuel Binyamin (Samuel)
and Esther Rivka (Elizabeth) Lowinger z"l - Benzion Lowinger


Dedicated in memory of my father,
Hillel ben Yechiel (Herman) Reiter, of Debrecen, Hungary,
whose yahrzeit falls on the 24th day of Kislev.
May his soul be among the Righteous in Gan Eden



And the sons of Reuven, the firstborn of Israel – for he was the firstborn, but when he defiled his father's couch, his birthright was given to the sons of Yosef the son of Israel, yet not so that he was to be reckoned in the genealogy as firstborn. For Yehuda prevailed above his brothers, and he that is the prince came from him; but the birthright was Yosef's – the sons of Reuven, the firstborn of Israel: Chanokh and Palu, Hetzron and Karmi. (Divrei ha-Yamim I 5:1-3)

As these verses indicate, Yaakov divided the birthright between three of his sons: Reuven remained the eldest of the brothers ("Reuven, the firstborn of Israel"), Yosef received the actual birthright ("but the birthright was Yosef's"), and Yehuda received the leadership ("for Yehuda prevailed above his brothers, and he that is the prince came from him"). As we shall see below, it is not by chance that the birthright was divided specifically between these three brothers. The three of them, as we shall see, represent three different types of leadership: Reuven, as the oldest brother, assumes responsibility for various situations and tries to deal with them; Yehuda is the leader; and Yosef, as is clear from our parasha, is the visionary.

Yosef the Dreamer

Our first encounter with Yosef's vision is when he has his own dreams. Later, we find Yosef interpreting the dreams of Pharaoh and his servants, and he even manages – as a result of his wise interpretation – to successfully prepare for the years of famine.

As history has often shown, the ability to predict the future causes problems in the present. A man who sees into the future and awaits an ideal era finds it difficult to live in the present and to experience the hardships of his time. It is perhaps for this reason that Yosef is insensitive to the distress around him. While still a teenager, he brings an evil report of his brothers to their father. Afterwards, he tells them his dreams, though he could have foreseen the negative impact this would have on them.[1] When Yaakov sends him to check on his brothers' welfare, Yosef goes to them without any means of protection, even though he knows they hate him. We also see that Yosef does not know how to solicit help from others. When Yaakov arrives in Charan, he goes to the well and asks the people if they know Lavan’s family. Yosef, in contrast, loses his way in the field but does not approach other people to ask where he might find his brothers. Only when another person approaches and asks him what he is looking for, does Yosef seek assistance and ask him whether he has seen his brothers.[2]

Yosef's difficulty with interpersonal relations is also evident from his attitude toward his father. Why doesn't Yosef send messengers to tell his father that he is alive? Much ink has been spilled on the answer to this question,[3] but beyond the many answers that have been given, it is clear that Yosef's conduct attests to a certain rigidity. Further evidence of this rigidity can be found in the words of Chazal (Tanchuma Vayeshev 8), who criticize Yosef for curling his hair while his father was mourning over him. Even at the end of his life, when Yaakov's sons return from burying their father and ask Yosef to forgive them, Yosef tells them that in the end their actions had a positive result, but he does not say he forgives them. It does not appear that Yosef, immediately after his father's death, wished to be cruel to his brothers. Yosef lived in historical processes, immersed in his visions about the future, and does not assign much importance to the present. He sees no need to say to his brothers that he forgives them, for he explained to them that the process that they started was a positive one. The brothers, in contrast, do not live in the future. The historical process does not interest them so much, and all they want is to feel that Yosef has forgiven them for the injustice they caused him.

This may be the reason why Yosef became a slave – to teach him to relate to others. After Yosef continued to curl his hair in the house of Potiphar (see Rashi on Bereishit 39:6), God caused him to be thrown into jail. And, indeed, when Yosef sees that the king's chief butler and baker are sad, he takes an interest in their situation and asks them what is wrong.

The highpoint of Yosef's actions as ruler of Egypt is the transformation of all of the Egyptians into Pharaoh's slaves, and spreading them out throughout the land of Egypt. The Torah does not offer a reason for this drastic step, but Chazal explain that Yosef wished to turn all of the Egyptians into strangers, so they would not relate to the family of Yaakov as exiles. In the end, Yosef's action had the precisely opposite effect. It is reasonable to assume that after the years of famine had passed, the Egyptians forgot that Yosef had saved them from starvation and remembered only that he had exiled them and turned them into Pharaoh's slaves. From here, it was only a short step (with the help of the new king who arose over Egypt) to the subjugation of Israel, in the sense of "measure for measure" for the members of Yosef's family. From a broad historical perspective, turning all of the Egyptians into slaves, and leaving the people of Israel as the only freemen in the country (for Yosef fed his brothers during all the years of the famine), stoked the hatred that was directed at the children of Israel until it erupted into cruel enslavement.[4]

“The Firstborn of Yaakov – Reuven”

As stated in the book of Divrei ha-Yamim, Reuven was the eldest brother. It was he who would assume responsibility and determine the right thing to do. When Yosef comes to his brothers, and they want to kill him, it is Reuven who says: "Let us not take his life" (Bereishit 37:21). Earlier, he had slept with Bilha, his father's concubine, so that Yaakov would return his bed to Lea (ibid. 35:22; see Rashi). Reuven is the first to realize that there is no alternative but to bring Binyamin down to Egypt, and he offers Yaakov: ''You shall slay my two sons, if I do not bring him to you" (ibid. 42:37).

All this notwithstanding, Reuven is not the ideal leader. While he takes the initiative, he does not know how to persuade others to join him. When he wants to save Yosef, he cannot convince his brothers to release him, and is forced to take a deceptive path and suggest throwing him into the pit.[5] Even when he proposes that Yaakov send Benyamin with him, he makes him a strange offer:  ''You shall slay my two sons, if I do not bring him to you," and Chazal attribute shock to Yaakov at this proposal: "Fool, are your sons not my sons?" (Bereishit Rabba 91,9). In both cases, Reuven is the first to recognize the proper way to act – but in the end, it is not his proposal that is accepted but rather than of Yehuda.

“For Yehuda Prevailed Above His Brothers and He That is the Prince Came from Him”

Yehuda is gifted with the ability to lead. His suggestions are always accepted, whether they are right or wrong. This was the case regarding the sale of Yosef ("Come, and let us sell him to the Yishmaelites," Bereishit 37:27) and regarding bringing Binyamin to Egypt ("I will be surety for him; of my hand shall you require him," ibid. 43:9). When he speaks before Yosef, he manages to break him and bring him to make himself known to his brothers. Even Yehuda's mistakes – such as his proposal to sell Yosef to the Yishmaelites – lead to positive results in the end. Therefore, it is Yehuda who is sent before Yaakov to prepare the land of Goshen for him, and it is he who merits the crown of leadership in the blessings given to him by his father. 

The Difference Between Yehuda and Reuven

          We can learn about the essential difference between Reuven and Yehuda if we examine the story of the sale of Yosef. There is no doubt that the brothers threw Yosef into the pit to die there. It is not for nothing that Chazal determined there were snakes and scorpions in the pit, for Yehuda tells the brothers to remove Yosef from the pit and explains: "What profit is it if we slay our brother?" (Bereishit 37:26). The only one who tries to save Yosef is Reuven, as the Torah testifies: "That he might deliver him out of their hand, to restore him to his father" (ibid. 22). As was already noted, it was Yehuda's proposal that was accepted, and not that of Reuven. What is more, the brothers seem to have forgotten that Reuven sought to save Yosef, and Reuven has to remind them of this fact when they later discuss the sale.

In fact, Reuven's response to his brothers when they repent their sin – "Did I not speak to you, saying: Do not sin against the child, and you would not hear" (ibid. 42:22) – is not the response of a leader. A leader does not say "I told you so" to his people when it turns out that his way is the right way. When the people get into trouble, it is a leader's job to remove them from their straits, not to prove that he was right in the first place.

Yehuda, on the other hand, we find in a severe crisis with his brothers immediately after the sale of Yosef. He leaves them ("And Yehuda went down from his brothers," Bereishit 38:1), and in a certain sense he leaves the house of Yaakov. He marries a Canaanite woman – a woman from the nation to whom Avraham and Yitzchak were careful not to marry off their children, this being more than a hint of the disconnect created between Yehuda and Avraham's legacy. Indeed, unsurprisingly, the son born to Yehuda and the daughter of Shua is evil in the eyes of God, and God kills him. The Torah refers here not only to the personal wickedness of Er, but to the deeper problem – Er's origins in an improper marriage.[6]

However, there is another reason for the deaths of Yehuda's children. As the one holding the scepter of leadership, Yehuda should have prevented the sale of Yosef. Yehuda's punishment for initiating the sale is the killing of his children. To allude to this, the Torah sets the story of Yehuda adjacent to the story of the sale of Yosef.

Now we can understand Reuven's words to Yaakov, when he asks him to allow Binyamin to go down to Egypt: ''You shall slay my two sons, if I do not bring him to you." There is no doubt that when Reuven spoke these words, all those present noted the comparison to Yehuda, who caused the sale of Yosef and was punished with the deaths of his two sons. Just as Yehuda failed to restore Yosef and his two sons died, so too Reuven says to Yaakov – you shall slay my two sons if I do not bring Binyamin back to you.

What is Yehuda's response to Reuven's accusation? He assumes responsibility, agrees to serve as surety for Binyamin in order to bring him down to Egypt, and in the end is the direct cause of Yosef and Binyamin returning to their family. Just as he came through the incident with Tamar and said: "She is more righteous than I" (Bereishit 38:26) despite the personal price he paid for his admission, so he accepts the blame in this case as well, assuming responsibility and correcting his ways. Indeed, when Yaakov blesses Yehuda before he dies, he does not say he was not a partner in the sale of Yosef; rather, "From the prey, my son, you have gone up" (ibid. 49:9) – that is to say, you were a partner to the sale, but through your actions you have successfully cleansed yourself of that heinous act.

Who Was Given the Birthright?

When he examines his sons and considers to whom to give the birthright, Yaakov decides to divide it into three parts.

Reuven remains the eldest brother, but because of his recklessness, he is not given leadership rights. For this reason, he does not receive any special blessing, but suffices with being defined as "Reuven, you are my firstborn" (Bereishit 49:3).

Yehuda receives in his blessing the blessings that Yitzchak planned to give to Esav, the firstborn of his sons: "Be lord over your brothers" (27:29) corresponds to "The scepter shall not depart from Yehuda" (49:10); and "Let your mother's sons bow down to you" (27:29) corresponds to "Your father's sons shall bow down before you" (49:8). Rule and leadership were given to Yehuda explicitly, and he was even assured that they would not be removed from his descendants.

Yosef – the third contender for the birthright – did not receive leadership and authority. He received the blessing of God ("From the God of your father, Who shall help you," 49:25),[7] and the blessings of the Patriarchs ("The blessings of your father are mighty beyond the blessings of my progenitors," ibid. 26). Just as Yitzchak chose Yaakov to be his successor, so Yaakov chose Yosef, and he gives him two parts in the inheritance (two tribes) like a firstborn.

What we have here is the continuation of an ancient struggle. Yaakov and Esav, in their day, engaged in a twofold struggle: On the one hand, who would merit being the firstborn, and on the other hand, who would receive Yitzchak’s blessings. In the first struggle, Yaakov grabs onto the heel of Esav and tries to stop him from emerging first from their mother's womb, and in the end purchases the birthright for a pot of lentils. In the second struggle, Yaakov masquerades as Esav and receives the blessings from Yitzchak through deception.

In the next generation, two pairs of sons compete for the birthright: Yosef had two sons in Egypt, and Yehuda had twins from Tamar. A "struggle" over the birthright takes place between the two sons of Yosef and the two sons of Yehuda. Yaakov chooses Yosef's younger son, and he receives a greater blessing than the older son. Yehuda's two sons fight for the right to go out first, and after Zerach emerges and a scarlet thread is bound upon his hand, Peretz pushes him aside, comes out first, and earns the birthright. It is possible that this is a repair of the stealing of the blessings: Yehuda's sons also struggle over the leadership, but the son who would have been younger emerges first and merits the birthright.

Indeed, hundreds of years later, the firstborn Yosef merits having one of his descendants, Yerovam, rise up as the first king of the kingdom of Israel. When Yehuda fails to merit full monarchy, the other part passes to Yosef. Therefore, the tribes who detach themselves from Yehuda move over to Yosef, in a process similar to the struggle between Yaakov and Esav: "And it shall come to pass when you shall break loose, that you shall shake his yoke from off your neck" (Bereishit 27:40).

Yehuda and Efrayim rule together, each over a different part of the people. Two kingdoms are created, which will be united only in the future (Yechezkel 37).[8]

          In this way expression is given to the birthright of Yosef, who was chosen by Yaakov as his successor. Eternal leadership was not given to him, but he merits temporary kingdom.[9]

(Translated by David Strauss)



[1] Yosef should certainly not have told his brothers about the second dream, after seeing their reaction to his first dream.

[2] It should also be noted that Yosef does not speak clearly to the man. He does not say that he is looking for the sons of Yaakov, but for his brothers, as if the man was supposed to know who Yosef was and who his brothers were. Whether Yosef spoke to the man in a clearer manner, or whether he did not, the Torah chooses to present Yosef's appeal to the man in an unclear manner, as if to allude to Yosef's difficulty with accepting the help of another person.

[3] See the articles of Rav Yoel Bin-Nun and Rav Yaakov Medan in the first issues of Megadim.

[4] Why, indeed, did Yosef act in this manner? Two explanations may be suggested: First, as was noted above, Yosef did not always know how to properly assess the way other people would respond to his actions. Second, it is reasonable to assume that Yosef was committed to Pharaoh, who had rescued him from jail. Yosef acted, then, in accordance with his loyalty to Pharaoh, despite the fact that this was liable to bring harm to him and to his family.

[5] As the Torah attests: "And Reuven said to them: Shed no blood; cast him into this pit that is in the wilderness, but lay no hand upon him – that he might deliver him out of their hand, to restore him to his father" (Bereishit 37:22).

[6] So too in the case of King David, a descendant of Yehuda, we find that for marrying an inappropriate wife, he was punished with the death of his son.  

[7] It is possible that this blessing is one of the blessings of Yitzchak to his firstborn son that was not given to Yehuda.  

[8] It is not by chance that David is called "Efrati," and also Yerovam is called "Efrati." The third person called "Efrati" is Shemuel, and so too Yehoshua bin Nun, the two of them being quasi-kings.

[9] Perhaps Yosef as well merits eternal monarchy, for God is prepared to go with David and Yerovam (Sanhedrin 102a).

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