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Thursday, December 02, 2004

VaYeshev - The Rule of One

ויאמרו לו אחיו: המלך תמלך אלינו, אם משל תמשל בנו; ויוספו עוד שנא אתו על חלמתיו ועל דבריו

(בראשית ל"ז, ח')

In parashat VaYeshev, we begin reading the story of Yossef, the preferred son of Ya'akov. His dreams contain visions of a grand future, of him ruling over his brothers and family. To the reader, this might seem like a natural development; Yossef is the firstborn son of Rachel, Ya'akov's favourite wife, and his father loves him more than all his other children. But we see that Yossef's brothers hate him for his dreams, and specifically for his intentions to rule over them, to be melekh (king, ruler):

And his brethren said to him, Shalt thou indeed reign over us? or shalt thou indeed have dominion over us? And they hated him yet the more for his dreams, and for his words. (Genesis 37, 8; KJV)

We ask ourselves, why do the brother hate Yossef specifically for his visions of ruling over them as king? To understand this we need the examine the attitude of the Torah to a Jewish king. Here are some examples:

  • Later in our parasha we read the story of Yehuda and Tamar: Yehuda sleeps with his daugher-in-law Tamar (unknowingly, thinking she is a prostitute) and out of this relationship, eventually, King David is born. Not only is David born out of a dubious relationship, but we are also promised that the Messiah to come will be a descendant of David!
  • The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni 41) tells us that David was supposed to live only for three hours but lived for 70 years because Adam, the first human, "donated" 70 years of his life to him. It seems David lived on "borrowed time", hardly fitting a king.
  • After the Jews established themselves in Canaan, we read about God's response to their wish to appoint a king "like all the nations". He sends the prophet Shmu'el to try to dissuade them, by telling them all the terrible things a typical king does to his people.

Adam has to give a "donation" for King David to exist; David himself descends from a forbidden liaison; and God himself tries to persuade Israel to give up the idea of a king. All of this points to one conclusion: a Jewish king is an aberration. It is not natural for one Jew to rule over another Jew. The rule of a single monarch is not the ideal form of government according to the Torah. Even Moshe finds it hard to rule single-handedly and needs the guidance of his father-in-law, Yitro, to set up a legal and administrative system. It would seem that in order to appoint a king over themselves, Jews need to "import" both the king and the rules from other nations.

Perhaps this is what bothered the brothers of Yossef. It was not so much the idea of being ruled. It was the idea of being ruled by a single person, a brother, another Jew, that made them hate Yossef for his dreams.

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