From the Depths of Hebron: Vayeshev 5778

One wonders what Jacob really knew about the relationship between his sons, just as we wonder about how attentive Isaac had been to his battling boys. Jacob does seems to be on to something once Joseph starts sharing his dreams, and “his father guarded the matter.” Did he, though? In Chapter 37:11, Jacob says to Joseph, “Go and see how your brothers are and how the flocks are faring, and bring me back word.” The verse ends, “So, he sent him from the valley of Hebron.” This verse includes the root SHLM twice—implying the father’s yearning that his favorite son would encounter “peace” with his brothers. How likely was that? Perhaps he was trying to reassure Joseph, who must have been anxious, or perhaps Jacob was deluding himself.

Or perhaps not. There is a dark and fascinating midrash found in Bavli Sotah 11a. Rabbi Hanina b. Pappa plays on the word for valley, עמק, which also means “depth” and considers what, or who, is located beneath Hebron. Rashi on the verse points out that Hebron is in the hill territory—there is no valley there—so what could the “depth of Hebron” mean? The rabbinic answer is that Jacob’s grandparents and parents were buried “deep in Hebron.” In this Midrash, Rabbi Hanina takes the drash a second step and says that Jacob was inspired by the “deep counsel” of the saint buried in Hebron—Abraham—to send Joseph to seek his brothers. Huh? What does Abraham have to do with the conflict between his great-grandsons?

Recall the covenant between the parts. In Genesis 15:13 God informs Abraham that, “your descendants will be strangers.” According to this rabbinic reading, Jacob was concerned not primarily with the safety of Joseph, but with the fulfillment of his grandfather’s prophecy. He anticipated the entire story—that Joseph would be his usual insufferable self, and that his brothers would do the predictable thing—sell him into slavery in Egypt—and that this would set the entire painful but necessary chain of events leading to Egyptian enslavement into action.

No one would call this Midrash p’shat, or contextual reading. Not many of us would even want to claim this d’rash for ourselves. It makes Jacob into a bit of a monster, intentionally setting his sons against each other in order to guarantee that his family ends up as strangers and then slaves in Israel. What zayde would want that? In defense of Jacob, this drashah assumes that he too is a prophet, and that he knows that the suffering is a necessary stage that will transform is family into a nation, and not only a nation, but a covenanted nation with a message of redemption for themselves and the entire world. This rabbinic midrash accepts the utility and even the necessity of suffering. We moderns have witnessed suffering on such a vast scale that it is no longer palatable to view it as redemptive. Yet our ancestors also knew a world of sorrow, perhaps in excess of ours, and they believed that it was all for a reason, that it was necessary, and that it was worthwhile for the sake of a larger national goal.

Ultimately the Hannukah story is about the willingness to suffer for the sake of better for future. We zoom to the happy ending, the rededicated Temple and the sufganiyot. But before that there were months of hiding and fighting, of resisting and risking everything for the sake of a different reality. It is that legacy of vision and determination and courage and sacrifice that is the ultimate inspiration. May we be spared such suffering, and yet find the clarity, conviction and courage to change our own reality from darkness to light, from oppression to freedom, from sorrow to joy.


פרשת וישב

פרק לז (יג) וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל אֶל־יוֹסֵ֗ף הֲל֤וֹא אַחֶ֙יךָ֙ רֹעִ֣ים בִּשְׁכֶ֔ם לְכָ֖ה וְאֶשְׁלָחֲךָ֣ אֲלֵיהֶ֑ם וַיֹּ֥אמֶר ל֖וֹ הִנֵּֽנִי: (יד) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ל֗וֹ לֶךְ־נָ֨א רְאֵ֜ה אֶת־שְׁל֤וֹם אַחֶ֙יךָ֙ וְאֶת־שְׁל֣וֹם הַצֹּ֔אן וַהֲשִׁבֵ֖נִי דָּבָ֑ר וַיִּשְׁלָחֵ֙הוּ֙ מֵעֵ֣מֶק חֶבְר֔וֹן וַיָּבֹ֖א שְׁכֶֽמָה:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת סוטה דף יא עמוד א

וישלחהו מעמק חברון – א”ר חנינא בר פפא: בעצה עמוקה של אותו צדיק שקבור בחברון, דכתיב: ידוע תדע כי גר יהיה זרעך.

רש”י בראשית פרק לז פסוק יד

(יד) מעמק חברון – והלא חברון בהר, שנאמר (במדבר יג כב) ויעלו בנגב ויבא עד חברון, אלא מעצה עמוקה של [אותו] צדיק הקבור בחברון, לקיים מה שנאמר לאברהם בין הבתרים (לעיל טו יג) כי גר יהיה זרעך:

בראשית פרק טו פסוק יג

וַיֹּא֣מֶר לְאַבְרָ֗ם יָדֹ֨עַ תֵּדַ֜ע כִּי־גֵ֣ר׀ יִהְיֶ֣ה זַרְעֲךָ֗ בְּאֶ֙רֶץ֙ לֹ֣א לָהֶ֔ם וַעֲבָד֖וּם וְעִנּ֣וּ אֹתָ֑ם אַרְבַּ֥ע מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָֽה: