This week’s Haftarah opens with the prophet Amos speaking to the Jewish people. “Three crimes did Israel commit but the fourth I cannot forgive, that they sold a righteous and poor person for money in order to [buy] shoes”
The commentators on the verse in Amos explain the three sins that Israel committed were the three cardinal sins; idolatry, bloodshed and sexual immorality. (See e.g. Radak ad loc.) The fourth misdemeanor was corrupting justice. The judges took bribes and decided law accordingly. They were even willing to do so for a pittance just enough to buy shoes. They sold righteous people to purchase shoes.
However, the Midrash explains that this refers to another crime entirely. When Yosef’s brothers threw him onto the pit they sat down to eat. (See BeReishit 37:25). On spying a group of travelling Yishmaelites they decided to sell Yosef as a slave. “They sold him for twenty pieces of silver and each brother took two pieces of silver (there were ten brothers) to buy shoes for their feet. As it says ‘They sold a righteous and poor person for money in order to [buy] shoes’” (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 38).
The message of this Midrash appears elsewhere. On two occasions in the year we mention in our prayers the killing of the Ten Martyrs, on Tisha B’Av and on Yom Kippur. These were ten great sages who were all killed; Rabbi Yishmael the Cohen Gadol, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Chananyah ben Tradiyon, Rabbi Chutzpit, Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua, Rabbi Chanina ben Chachinai, Rabbi Yeshayvav, Rabbi Yehudah ben Damah and Rabbi Yehudah ben Bava. Even though they were not all killed together and indeed lived in different generations, they are seen as one group. Their being killed is viewed as the end of the Jewish rule in Israel and a terrible calamity to the Jewish people.
On Tisha B’Av we read many prayers and poems of lamentations. We cry over the destruction of the first and second Beit Hamikdash. In addition other tragedies are recalled. Among these we read “Arzei haLevanon” that describes the deaths of the ten martyrs.
However we read a similar poem on Yom Kippur, “Eleh Ezkerah”. This describes the deaths of the ten martyrs but appears to be inappropriate to Yom Kippur. There are differences between these two prayers on these different days. Whereas on Tisha B’Av the deaths are related, on Yom Kippur the prayer opens with a midrashic conversation between the rabbis and the Roman ruler.
“He [the ruler] studied a book and understood the laws. He opened to ‘These are the laws’ and devised a plot around ‘If someone kidnaps a person and sells him if he is guilty he shall be put to death’ (Shemot 21:16).
He ordered that the palace be filled with shoes and called to ten great sages.
‘Judge this case authentically and do not pervert justice, what is the law of one who ‘Kidnaps a man from his fellow Jews and sold him’ (Devarim 24:7)?’
They replied that he should be put to death.
‘Then where are your forefathers who sold their brother to a band of Yishmaelites for shoes they gave him away?
You accept on yourselves to judgement of heaven, since the times of your forefathers there have been none like you.
If they were alive I would judge them before you, but you will bear the sins of your fathers.’”
The poet clearly states here that the ten sages were killed due the Yosef’s brothers selling him to slavery. This is also written in the Midrash that the ten martyrs died because the brothers sold Yosef. (See Midrash Mishlei 1:13)
Why does the prayer on Yom Kippur mention this and why is it omitted on Tisha B’Av?
The brothers did not only despise Yosef because of the dreams. The truth is that they had a deep ideological disagreement with their brother. Yosef believed that the Torah and the message of Judaism should be spread throughout the world. The brothers were of the opinion that it should be reserved primarily for Ya’akov’s household and their descendants. For example, “He [Yosef] befriended the children of Bilha and the children of Zilpa, his father’s wives” (BeReishit 31:2). Rashi explains this to mean that even though the other brothers despised them, he drew them near. (See Rashi ad loc.)
Yosef wanted to spread the Torah out to more than just the inner core of Ya’akov’s sons. The other brothers rejected him because of this and even sold him down to Egypt. Interestingly enough, it is in Egypt that Yosef flourishes and his dreams of grandeur are realized.
Yosef was sold for shoes. The Targum on Amos translates the word “shoes” as “his connection”. Yosef was sold due to his way of life, due to his connection to the path of spreading the Torah throughout the world.
However, if this is the case there is one passage in the Parshah that is difficult to understand. The Torah records how Ya’akov sent his beloved son Yosef to bring back word from his brothers in Shchem. Yosef is happy to fulfil his father’s wish and leaves immediately.
“A man found and he was lost in the field. And the man asked him ‘What do you want?’ He said ‘I am looking for my brothers, tell me where they are grazing the flocks.’ ‘They have left and I heard that they went to Dotan’ said the man. Yosef went after his brothers and found them in Dotan” (BeReishit 37:15-17).
This chance meeting is very significant. Yosef was lost and did not know that his brothers had moved on from Shchem to another place, to Dotan. A man discovers that he is lost and points him in the right direction. He manages to find his brothers in Dotan and they fall on him and sell him to Egypt.
If the man had not found Yosef the story may have turned out very differently. Yosef may have returned home and explained to his father that he simply could not locate his brothers anywhere. The brothers would not have had the opportunity to attack him and sell him to Egypt. Yosef would have remained in Ya’akov’s house and the Jewish people would never have gone down to Egypt. If they did not go down to Egypt they could not have come out of Egypt and so we would have no Pesach and no Succot.
Jewish history would have been completely different. And this all hinged around one man who chanced upon a lost youth in Shchem!
The Midrash explains that this “man” was none other than the angel Gavriel. (Tanchuma, Vayeshev 2) This was no chance meeting but God sent an angel to guide Yosef. Thus God orchestrated the meeting between Yosef and his brothers. Yosef was meant to be sold to Egypt and the rest of Jewish history was bound to follow.
The Torah teaches us that God controls the world. Even if we assume that we can change the Divine plan this is not the case. Yosef gets lost, God brings him back to the right path to find his brothers. His brothers sell him to Egypt and thus hope to get rid of him. He becomes Prime Minister of Egypt and decides whether they will get food or not.
God has a master plan for the world and it will be realized whether we like it or not. The most that Man can do is to contribute his most to the realization of God’s plan. One needs to be dedicated to fulfilling his own role in that plan. If he sins or stumbles he needs to come back to the right path. Even if he does not the plan will continue without him and even his best efforts will not thwart God’s design for the world.
This is the message of Yom Kippur as well. We need to return to God to be meaningful players in His world. If we do not we gain nothing, just like the brothers who sold Yosef and lost out for it. Maybe this is why we read that passage on Yom Kippur. God will always find a way of fulfilling the plan. Those who contribute will be rewarded, those that do not will be punished, even if the punishment will only be effected generations later.
God could forgive the sins of the Jewish people, even if they were very grave. But He would not forgive them for trying to change His plan. This is the message of the prophet Amos and the message of the Haftarah and the passage in the Torah.