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In the Yom Kippur service that Ashkenazim say, for example, there are sections of there that ascribe some of the terrible suffering that occurred later on in Jewish history, specifically with 10 Martyrs that were killed by the Romans, much, much later in Jewish history than Biblical times. They ascribe that actually to, in some way, a heavenly Din, a judgment as it were, for the sale of Joseph. According to the Rashbam, does that even make sense? The brothers didn't do it, they were guiltless, but the question is were they really guiltless?
There's a fascinating statement that the Sages make in the Gemara to the effect that; Groma b'nizakein chayav b'dinei shamayim u'pator b'dinei adam - which is that there are different levels of responsibility. When I cause something directly, let's say, someone causes some kind of damage, so if they do it directly, they're Chayav b'dinei adam - which means that a human court can actually require the perpetrator to pay for the damage that he committed. But, the Gemara says, if the damage that you caused was a Groma, if it was indirect, if I didn't do it but I created the conditions that allowed someone else to do it, then; Pator b'dinei adam - then a human court actually doesn't have the ability to make the perpetrator pay anything for the crime. Then it says; Chayav b'dinei shamayim - but although you're not liable in the earthly courts, you're liable in the heavenly court. What does it mean you're liable in the heavenly court? So people often think, well it means I have some sort of moral responsibility to you. But that's actually not what the words mean. That's not what Chayav B'dinei Shamayim means, that you're liable in the heavenly court. It means from G-d's perspective, you actually have to repay the money even though a court cannot impose this upon you.
In the Rashbam's picture the brothers did exactly that, they created the conditions in the end that allowed for Joseph to be sold. They didn't actually sell him, the Midianites did that, the Ishmaelites did that, but the question is does that really lessen their responsibility? Maybe in earthly courts but not in the heavenly court. From G-d's perspective you're still responsible and to me that's a chilling thing. Here the brothers are, where they come back to their father, what they said was really kind of like a white lie. We don't know what happened to him. It's really true, they don't know what happened to him. Yes it's true they make this alibi, they put the blood on the coat, they don't know what happened to him, and yet at some deep level they're responsible for whatever happened to him. They created the conditions for this, they indirectly set in motion a chain of events. Earthly courts may not hold them liable, but G-d would.
Here's one other personal reflection I want to leave you with about the Rashbam's way of looking at things that in the end the brothers never sold Yosef. Therefore one of the questions I think that the text leaves you with is not about what happened, but about what might have happened had Yosef not in fact been found by the Midianite traders who sold him off to the Ishmaelites?
Look how many different plans there were. What was Plan A that the brothers had? Plan A was let's kill Yosef and throw his corpse into one of these pits. That's what they were saying as they saw Yosef come to them, so that was Plan A. Plan A actually never came to be in actuality. Reuven stopped Plan A, he said, we're not going to kill anybody, instead let's take him and let's throw him in the pit alive and the implication is let him just die in the pit. Reuven of course, as the text tells us, was trying to save him, but even as far as what the brothers thought Reuven was saying, it was a less extreme plan than Plan A. Plan A was let's kill him outright, Plan B is well no, let's not really do that, let's just throw him in the pit and let him expire there. Already the plan is evolving, it's becoming less severe. Then they take Yosef and they throw him in the pit and he's alive and then they're kind of thinking about it over lunch and at that point Yehuda comes up with a Plan C. The Plan C is, you know we really shouldn't let him die at all, why don't we just sell him? Get rid of the problem that way. Why don't we sell him to that band of traders over there?
But if you think about it, what is happening to create Plans A, Plan B and Plan C? Aside from the people who are creating those plans, time is creating those plans. Time is elapsing, and as time elapses you get to think about it more, you get to ruminate about it more, your initial impulse to just get rid of him gets less and less severe.
The great question is, what would have happened had the Midianite traders not gotten there before the brothers? If the brothers really did have the time, thought about it more over lunch, the Ishmaelite traders are off in the distance, they'll eventfully get here, would there have been a Plan D? What would have a Plan D been like? Would a Plan D have been that when they finally got to the pit and the Ishmaelite traders are there and the brothers are there, would they in fact have gone through with selling him? Or just as Plan A got replaced by Plan B and just as Plan B got replaced by Plan C, would Plan C have gotten replaced by Plan D? Would it have been, we'll haul Yosef out of the pit and give him a tongue-lashing and tell him, this is ridiculous what happened here, and we'd have to make sure nothing like this ever happens again? Would that have been the case and maybe there never would have been a sale of Joseph at all? But there was. Because the brothers ran out of time. But time can sometimes be your friend, especially when you're about to do something impetuous.
So what do we take out of that? What I take out of that is that you've got to be really, really careful when you're angry not to do something irrevocable. Because plans change when you're angry. The Gemara famously talks about a certain kind of Get, a bill of divorce, which would be written for a Kohein. It had to be tied up in all sorts of arcane and difficult ways, it took a long time to prepare, and the whole point of it was it needed to be very cumbersome, because a Kohein in particular, according to Torah law, can't remarry his wife once he divorces her. Other men could. A Kohein can't do anything impetuous. The Sages, in creating a special Get for the Kohein tried to engineer time into the document, give him time, because there will be a Plan B, there will be a Plan C, there will be a Plan D. The idea behind the time is that document is going to become superfluous, he'll change his mind, he won't go through with it.
The brothers also might have changed their mind, might have not gone through with it. But you don't always get the luxury of time. Sometimes life gives it to you and sometimes life doesn't give it to you. Because the Midianite traders come and they're out of your control, and at that point you're left with the bitter consequences of your decision, you just have to live with what happened; Yosef is gone, you put him in the pit, and something that the brothers can never get away from. That to me is the really chilling lesson of the Rashbam, time can heal a lot of wounds, but you don't always get time. So you've got to be really careful about what actions you're going to take in the heat of the moment, what wounds you will create, you don't always get to take them back.
1. The First of Three Mysteries
2. Where is Reuven?
3. Three Card Monte
4. Keep Your Eye on the Midianites
5. Rashi and Ramban on 'Who Sold Joseph'
6. Where is Reuven - Redux
7. The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men
8. What Does God Think of All This?
9. Is Apathy the Ultimate Evil?
10. Seven Brothers
12. Still Responsible?
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