From Parashat Vayeshev
This parasha is the first of four parshiyot that deal with one of Tanach’s most protracted scandals: The Selling of Yosef by his brothers into Slavery. That single topic is at the very heart of these chapters. At root, perhaps one question towers above the rest. It is this.
If Yosef’s brothers’ deed ranks as egregious as it appears, then why doesn’t the Torah record their just deserts and punishment? Can there be grave sin without grave consequence?
Readers need look no further than sefer Bereshit to determine that, in fact, each time someone sins the Torah publicly proclaims their punishment. Take for example when Adam and Chava ate forbidden fruit in Gan Eden. Exile followed. Or to bring another example, as a result of Kayin’s murder of his brother Hevel, he was forced to become a homeless wanderer until his last, dying day.
Yet here that familiar pattern seems to get disrupted. Or maybe something else is at play. Let us reassess and refine our definition of sin in order to better understand the brothers’ behavior?
Briefly, the Torah distinguishes between a man’s intent to transgress versus his actual performance of a transgression. To illustrate, take a case of a man shoving another man into a pit. As the victim dusts himself off, he notices a treasure chest – an abandoned treasure trove worth millions. That “victim” would have a difficult time in court proving damages. Oddly, it appears that the tussle enriched him.
Now let us return to the case of Yosef being sold by his brothers. Though the matter is infinitely more complex than the example cited above, there is some commonality. Did Yosef not rise to become viceroy to Egypt? Had Yosef’s political connections not thrown a lifeline to the family experiencing famine in Canaan?
Let us quote from Yosef’s own words. After he reveals himself to his brothers, he says and reiterates this sentiment to them: “You thought to do evil towards me but God intended it for good.”
Getting to the heart of the matter, the fact is that Yosef’s brothers intended to do Yosef harm. However, outside factors (read: Divine Providence!) foiled and frustrated their will – as sinister as it was.
Answering the question posed, we can suggest that the reason why the Torah does not proclaim the brothers’ punishment is because intent to transgress is not as egregious as performance of transgression which leads directly to palpable or concrete damages.