This D’var Torah is in Z’chus L’Ilui Nishmas my sister Kayla Rus Bas Bunim Tuvia A”H & my grandfather Dovid Tzvi Ben Yosef Yochanan A”H & in Z’chus L’Refuah Shileimah for:
-My father Bunim Tuvia Ben Channa Freidel
-My grandmother Channah Freidel Bas Sarah
-My great aunt Rivkah Bas Etta
-Miriam Liba Bas Devora
-Aviva Malka Bas Leah
-And all of the Cholei Yisrael
-It should also be a Z’chus for an Aliyah of the holy Neshamah of Dovid Avraham Ben Chiya Kehas—R’ Dovid Winiarz ZT”L as well as the Neshamos of those whose lives were taken in terror attacks (Hashem Yikom Damam), and a Z’chus for success for Tzaha”l as well as the rest of Am Yisrael, in Eretz Yisrael and in the Galus.
וַיֵּשֶׁב ~ Vayeishev
“And They Threw Him”
Undoubtedly, the actions taken by all the players in Parshas Vayeishev are fraught with moral and logical difficulty, from Yaakov Avinu’s apparent favoritism, to Yosef HaTzadik’s “evil” reports, to his announcements of his “conceited” dreams, to the brothers’ attempted murder and subsequent sale of Yosef. Certainly, the disturbing material in the global scheme of this Sidrah has kept Chazzal and the M’forshim (commentators) of all generations wondering and writing. However, we’re going to focus on a more technical and logistical issue in the Sidrah.
The issue in question regards the infamous scene in which Yosef’s brothers cast him into a pit. The Torah tells us that the brothers originally intended to kill him, but upon the firstborn Reuvein’s counsel, they temporarily reasoned that it would be better to trap him in a pit instead so that they wouldn’t bear the guilt and accountability of directly murdering him [37:18-24]. Now, when the Torah describes this pit, it tells us [37:24], “…V’HaBor Reik Ein Bo Mayim”-“…and the pit was empty; there was no water.” The obvious question addressed by Chazzal is that if the Torah already mentioned that the pit was empty, it is self-evident that there was no water in it. Rashi, citing Chazzal [Shabbos 22A, Chaggigah 3A], suggests that the Torah meant to intimate that the pit was only “empty” insofar as it had “no water” in the pit; however, it did have deathly snakes and scorpions. Here, the extra comment “there is no water” was coming to modify what the Torah meant when it said that the pit was “empty.” If all of the above is true, then why did the Torah tell us that the pit was empty at all if, indeed, it wasn’t actually empty? Moreover, why do we care that there was no water in the pit?
Concerning the second issue, why we care that the pit was waterless, we could suggest, in line with the brothers’ thought process, that since the brothers were trying to basically kill him without killing him directly, they perhaps wanted a pit that had no water in it, either because (1) if they’d drown him, that would be direct murder (this option is suggested by the Rashbam), or (2) if there would be water for him to drink, he could potentially survive.
There’s another problem though. Even if this pit had no water in it, as far as Chazzal are concerned, it did have snakes and scorpions. Accordingly, the Vilna Ga’on, the Torah Temimah, and others point out that the Gemara in Brachos [33A] states that if one sees a person such as fall into a pit of snakes and scorpions, one may testify that the person is dead! In fact, the Midrash [Bereishis Rabbah 100:8] implies that later in his life, Yosef returned to the pit to recall the miracle Hashem did for him, saving him from the apparent danger of snakes and scorpions. So, asks the Vilna Ga’on among others: How could it be that Yosef’s brothers threw him into a pit in which they intended not to kill him directly if it had snakes and scorpions in it? Even more, considering that Reuvein secretly planned to return and save Yosef, how could he suggest that they throw Yosef into a pit with snakes and scorpions which should presumably kill him? As far as the Gemara is concerned, throwing a person into such a pit should be direct enough to be considered manslaughter!
So, these M’forshim famously and brilliantly answer the question by looking back at the original source of the statement in Chazzal concerning the contents of this pit, as it is presented in the Gemara in Shabbos [22A]. There, immediately before describing Yosef’s pit, the Gemara rules that a Menorah, or Neir Chanukah (lit., Light of Chanukah), that is over the height of twenty Amos (cubits; around forty feet) is invalid (similar to ruling concerning Succah), the logic being that items positioned at such a height difference are not readily visible to the average human eye, and as such, people would not be able to see the Menorah; as a result, the Pirsum HaNeis (publicity of the miracle) will therefore not be fulfilled through such a Menorah (See Rashi there).
The M’forshim, using this Menorah-pit juxtaposition in Shabbos [22A], suggests that the pit in our narrative must’ve been at least twenty Amos deep so that none of Yosef’s brothers were actually able to see the bottom, gleaning further support for this conclusion from Chazzal’s ruling in Tamid [28B, See Vayikra 1:16] which implies that the act of “Hashlachah”-“casting” [השלכה], from the root “Shalach” [שלך], when used in Scripture, refers to a twenty cubit span. (This root verb is not to be mistaken for the similar sounding root verb, “Shalach,” [שלח] which means to send.) Pulling all of the above together, they suggest that since, in our verse, when the Torah says that they “cast” him into the pit (“…Vayashlichu Oso HaBorah…”-“…and they cqast him to the pit…” [37:24]), they must’ve cast him at least twenty Amos downward. Accordingly, assuming that the brothers could not even see the bottom of the pit, they surely didn’t know about the snakes and scorpions! In other words, they thought the pit was intrinsically harmless.
This suggestion might help answer the earlier question as to why the Torah describes the pit as being “empty,” for perhaps, as far as the brothers were concerned, the pit was empty. In reality though, it merely had no water. But again, for what they knew, this pit would not directly kill Yosef.
Now, it all makes sense, right? Not, really. There’s a new, glaring problem: Maybe, the brothers did not know about the apparent snakes and scorpions in the pit. But, presumably, they had to know that the pit was pretty deep, assuming that they could not even see what was at the bottom. So, if they actually threw him into a pit of twenty Amos (cubits), how could it be that they thought that such a drop wouldn’t kill him? The Gemara in Bava Kama [3A] says that just falling into a pit of even ten Tefachim (handbreadths), around three feet, can kill. And surely, the brothers had to know that this pit was deeper than ten Tefachim because, first of all, all they would have to do is just glance at the pit to notice, and second of all, if the pit was only ten Tefachim deep, Yosef could easily have climbed out! So, how in the world could Yosef’s brothers have thrown him into a pit of at least the depth of twenty Amos and not expect him to die from that?
The answer to this question might be that maybe, when the Torah uses the expression of “Hashlachah” in our context, although it may refer to a span of twenty Amos, it may not mean that they literally hurled his body that far. Maybe, in reality, they manually lowered his body, perhaps using ropes, twenty Amos downward. But, doesn’t it say that they “cast” him? Isn’t the simple meaning, then, that they threw his body? How can it mean anything else?
Now, while the simple connotation of “Hashlachah” is one of “throwing,” perhaps it’s not certain that that this expression be meant this way always. Take Hagar’s “casting” of Yishmael, for example [Bereishis 21:15]. Earlier in the Torah, when Hagar’s son was about to die of thirst, the Torah says that Hagar “cast” near one of the trees or bushes (“…Vatashleich Es HaYeled…”-“…and she cast the lad…”). Now, from the context of the story, she was afraid of seeing her child die, so she distanced herself from him. However, is it plausible that she would actually throw her thirsty, dying son? It certainly doesn’t seem plausible that she would throw him twenty Amos! In all likelihood, she carefully placed him down and then walked away. But, now you’ll argue: “Okay, maybe Hagar didn’t have the strength to throw her son twenty Amos away, but Yosef’s brothers certainly could have dropped him twenty Amos downward into a twenty cubit deep pit using the forces of gravity.”
So, while that may be a more plausible reading, it certainly doesn’t fit the approach that they were trying not to kill him directly. And if Hagar’s casting of Yishmael is not convincing enough, take the less familiar, but more closely relevant example from the Navi, Yirmiyahu. Yirmiyahu, just like Yosef, was cast into a pit (or dungeon) by his brethren who did not approve of the matters he was prophesying about them [Yirmiyah 38:6]. And in that very verse, the Navi writes explicitly that they “cast” Yirmiyahu into the pit (“…Vayashlichu [וישלכו] Oso El HaBor…”-“and they cast him to the pit…”), and yet, it says as well that they lowered him using ropes (“…Vayishalchu [וישלחו] Es Yirmiyahu Bachavalim…”-“…and they sent Yirmiyahu with ropes…”)! So, which one is it? Did they “cast” him or lower him safely? Can it possibly be both?
It could mean both if we assume that when the Navi says that they “cast” him, it doesn’t mean that they necessarily “threw” him. “Casting,” in these contexts, is a general word, but lowering with ropes, in Yirmiyahu’s case for example, is quite specific. It could then be that in Yosef’s case as well, he was not literally thrown forty feet downward into the ground to his theoretical death, but he was lowered.
The question then is why Scripture would even bother using this seemingly exaggerated expression of “casting” when in all likelihood, none of the individuals we described were actually “thrown” anywhere. What is the Torah trying to tell us?
So, for this issue, it could be that the Torah is trying to teach something essential about each of these circumstances and how the “players” dealt with them. In all of the above cases that we’ve mentioned, a person is being “cast” somewhere, possibly a distance of twenty Amos, away from sight. That is not all that the above cases have in common. In all of the above cases, the “casted” individual was on the brink of death, and the “caster” was leaving the individual there to die “by himself.” In fact, in all of the cases, the expected, imminent death was by way of thirsting, as in each case—Yishmael, Yosef, and Yirmiyahu—Scripture tells us explicitly that there was no water! We could say that these individuals were left high and dry (pun intended). Even in the extremely parallel situation of Yirmiyahu’s, the context of the Navi implies that Yirmiyahu almost died of starvation. And what was the role of the “caster” in each situation? As they each assumed that the “victim” would die (whether the “caster” desired it or not), they wanted the victim to die where they, the “caster” would not have to be a direct part of it. Hagar wanted not to see Yishmael die, so she distanced herself, leaving her son alone. Both Yosef and Yirmiyahu were left in some form of dungeon where their brethren would accomplish the goal of killing them, just not directly. In all of these cases, the “casters” attempted to run away from their problems, just far enough so that they could no longer see the problems—so that they could make believe that they were not part of it. “No, we didn’t throw Yosef,” his brothers might argue. “We didn’t want to kill anyone! We’re not murderers! We lowered him in safely!” However, the Torah says that they “cast” him, because indeed, even if not literally, they were “casting” him away, throwing him conceptually. And just because they might not have seen what was at the bottom of the pit—just because they wouldn’t see Yosef die (had that happened)—does not mean that they would have been free of their problems!
As far as the Torah was concerned, Yosef’s brothers threw him away to his presumed death and tried to cover it up, and that is no way to deal with the problem, no way to deal with people we think we have problems with. We can’t just “throw people away.” The brothers learn this lesson the hard way when Hashem ultimately protects Yosef and brings him back into their lives in a major way, a few years down the line. The rest of our nation learned it the hard way when we were sent to exile as a result of the brothers’ actions.
At the end of the day, we can’t just throw our problems into pits and make believe that they do not exist. We must not fool ourselves. Rather, we have to take responsibility and confront our problems properly, and we will be able to successfully handle them in the best way possible.
May we all be Zocheh to acknowledge the realities before us, acknowledge each other as humans, confront our problems whether spiritual or interpersonal, and we should be able to resolve all problems in an intellectual honest and peaceable fashion with Hashem’s help so that we can merit the Geulah and the coming of Moshiach, Bimheirah Biyomeinu! Have a Great Shabbos & a Freilichin Chanukah!
-Josh, Yehoshua Shmuel Eisenberg 🙂