The Children of Jacob were Conceived in Complete Purity
“Their father Jacob said to them, ‘I am the one whom you bereaved! Joseph is gone, Simeon is gone, and now you would take away Benjamin?’” (Gen 42:36). Rashi cites the Midrash: “He suspected them of wanting to kill or sell Benjamin, just as they had sold Joseph” (Bereshith Rabba 91:9).
The sale and story of the bloodstained tunic that Jacob was alluding to indicates to us that he suspected them, which is something new. One must ask why he didn’t believe their story.
Let us first cite some verses that deal with this subject. This will allow us to clearly understand the entire episode.
It is written, “He recognized it and he said, ‘My son’s tunic! A savage beast devoured him! Joseph has surely been torn to bits!’ … But he refused to comfort himself and said, ‘For I will go down to the grave mourning for my son.’ And his father bewailed him” (Gen 37:33,35). Afterwards, when they went to Egypt to buy grain, it is written: “Behold, I have heard that there are provisions in Egypt. Go down there and purchase for us from there, that we may live and not die” (Gen 42:2). And so upon their father’s request (v.3), the ten sons of Jacob went down to Egypt to buy things to eat.
In the verses that relate the sale of Joseph and the subsequent pain of Jacob, that which is not stated is by far more than that which is. Based on this, we may ask the following questions:
1. Why was Jacob’s mourning so great? He had faith in G-d, and he knew that everything that happened came from Him. What was he afraid of then?
2. How is it that he suspected the brothers? Did he not know that “the one who suspects the innocent is punished for it” (Shabbat 97a)? He was certain that the brothers, “heads of the tribes of Israel” (Ps 122:4), were men without fault, upright and just (Shabbat 146a). Why then did he suspect them without proof or reason? Moreover, after the sale of Joseph, Jacob lost Divine inspiration (Tanhuma Vayeishev 2). How then was he able to know that his sons were guilty (since G-d didn’t reveal it to him)?
3. How does one explain that all of Joseph’s ten brothers went down to Egypt to buy grain? One or two would have sufficed to accomplish that task.
The Sages tell us, “Jacob should have gone down to Egypt in chains, but his merit protected him” (Shabbat 89b).
For his part, Jacob would certainly have preferred to go down to Egypt in chains, and to make the prophecy given to Abraham come true, rather than to suffer the pain of Joseph’s sale and the loss of Divine inspiration (Tanhuma Vayeishev 2). The prophecy to Abraham stipulated: “Your offspring shall be aliens in a land not their own – and they will serve them, and they will oppress them – four hundred years” (Gen 15:13).
From the time that Jacob was told that Joseph was dead, Jacob served G-d in pain. He refused to let himself be consoled, and he feared that a lack of perfection (Pesachim 56a) prevented him from becoming “a receptacle for the Divine Presence” (Bereshith Rabba 47:8). Since he felt that he was missing such perfection, it meant that the fault lay in him, to the extent that he cried, “I will joint my son in the grave,” so great was his pain and grief at the thought that he himself was the cause.
Concerning the verse that states, “he has surely [+!] been torn to pieces” (Gen 44:28), we may add that the word +! always expresses a limit (Pesachim 5a). This indicates to us that Jacob wasn’t sure that a wild animal had devoured his son, and that’s the reason why he refused all consolation. The Sages even said, “A law desires that the deceased be forgotten, since one doesn’t accept consolation over a person who is still alive” (Bereshith Rabba 84:21). As such, Joseph would still have been alive in Jacob’s mind, and Jacob would have continued to pray to G-d, asking Him in His mercy to allow him to find his son. Jacob would have thereby known that his seed was perfect. Thus Jacob never lost hope of finding his son Joseph alive.
We can understand why Jacob hesitated so much to send his son Benjamin to Egypt, as it is said, “You will take Benjamin away!” (Gen 42:36). It is because “all roads are dangerous” (Yerushalmi Berachot 4:4) and “the Satan appears only at a time of danger” (Yerushalmi Shabbat 2:6). Jacob feared that “should trouble befall him on the journey which you shall take, then you will have brought down my gray hair in sorrow to the grave” (Gen 42:38). If Benjamin were to die, it would be because the children of Jacob were not perfect. We see in this just how much suffering a man is prepared to accept, just as long as the Divine Presence doesn’t leave him.
It’s a known fact that there are some Jews that proclaim to be Jewish, yet don’t at all hesitate to marry non-Jewish women. They should realize that not only does the Divine Presence abandon them when they distance themselves from the G-d of Israel, but that they also create enormous danger for the Jewish people as a whole. They especially cause their parents great suffering when they see their children leaving their people “to go feed in foreign pastures.” Parents such as these prefer to die rather than to see their children assimilated among foreign peoples. Children such as these are guilty of selfishness, having acted this way only to satisfy their own desires, without thinking of the pain and suffering that they’ve caused.
When G-d saw the pain of Jacob, a man who longed for perfection, in His great goodness He restored to him a little Divine inspiration, as it is said, “Jacob saw that there was grain in Egypt” (Gen 42:1). On this the Sages remarked: “By Divine inspiration, he saw that there was some hope by way of Egypt” (Bereshith Rabba 91:6).
In learning that his son Joseph was alive and that he was the governor of the entire country (Gen 42:6), life came back to the heart of Jacob (Gen 45:27). Rashi explains as follows: The Divine inspiration that previously left him now came back (Tanhuma Vayeishev 2). Jacob feared that his offspring lacked purity, this being the reason for why the Divine Presence abandoned him. But then, upon learning that Joseph was the governor of Egypt and that he had remained a righteous man, Jacob understood that such was not the case. What’s more, Divine inspiration was restored to him.
When Divine inspiration came back to him, he also knew that his sons, those who had sold Joseph, had prepared the journey down to Egypt, and that their intentions had been pure, since G-d Himself took part in the oath not to reveal the truth to Jacob (Tanhuma Vayeishev 2). For what reason, therefore, did Jacob suspect his sons up to that point?
Everyone knows that the kindness that we experience in this world comes only because of the righteous, and that the entire world enjoys prosperity because of them, as it is written: “The whole world is fed thanks only to the merit of my son Hanania” (Taanith 24b). Actually, Jacob at first thought that his son was dead, and he was in mourning. Yet afterwards, upon seeing that Egypt was enjoying material and spiritual prosperity, he understood that this was thanks to Joseph. Jacob had no further doubts that his son was alive and that he had remained righteous, as the Sages testify (Vayikra Rabba 32:5), and he therefore had no further reason to suspect his sons in the sale of Joseph. He understood that everything had been motivated by pure intentions so that the Children of Israel could prepare for the descent into Egypt.
Now we can explain why Jacob sent his ten sons (except Benjamin) to Egypt. The elation felt in Jacob’s home was great when they said that grain was for sale in Egypt. The reason for this joy was not because they had lacked food (since we know that some of the harvest still remained [Taanith 10b]), but rather because Divine inspiration had been restored to Jacob, and he was preparing himself to meet Joseph. He therefore sent all his sons to make peace with Joseph and to ask for his forgiveness. Finally, he also sent Benjamin so that the brothers could be reunited.
If there had not been a famine in the land of Canaan, the sons of Jacob would not have been able to descend into Egypt to find Joseph without awakening the suspicions of their father. The famine forced the brothers to descend into Egypt, which then gave them a pretext to look for Joseph without raising their father’s suspicions.