By Rabbi Yitzchok D. Frankel
Agudath Israel of the Five Towns
And his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock [or: to pasture themselves] in Shechem.
Our verse describes the intentions of Yosef’s brothers on two levels. Why did they go to Shechem? Ostensibly to pasture their father’s flock. Yet, Rashi (ad loc.) notes that in the sefer Torah, there are dots on top of the word es. These dots point to another meaning: The brothers’ intention in going to Shechem was to “pasture themselves.”
This explanation is bewildering. How does a person “pasture himself,” and was this really their intention?
The Rosh’s commentary on the Torah sheds light on this. He explains that when Yosef’s brothers cast him into the pit in Shechem, this set in motion a sequence of events that resulted in the brothers’ being provided with sustenance in Egypt during the years of famine, as it is written, “Yosef leads them like a flock” (Tehillim 80:2). When our verse says, “their father’s flock,” this refers figuratively to “their father’s children,” i.e., themselves. Thus, the ultimate result of their actions was that they benefited and “pastured” themselves when they went down to Egypt. So explains the Rosh, and a similar explanation is found in Sefer Oheiv Yisrael.
Thus, when they thought they were going to pasture their father’s flock, they ended up taking care of themselves and supporting themselves during the years of famine.
However, in Tanach, we find that the term “lir‘os es atzman,” “to pasture themselves,” is quite a negative description. In Sefer Yechezkel, we find the leaders (the “shepherds”) of the people accused of doing this: “Woe, O shepherds of Israel, who would pasture themselves . . .” (Yechezkel 34:1). “They would pamper themselves with the money of their fellows who were under them . . . , whereas the role of the ‘shepherds’ is to pasture the flock and not to pasture themselves” (Rashi, ad loc.).
This passage makes quite a strident criticism of the leaders, the Metzudas Dovid (ad loc.) adding that these leaders were pasturing themselves “to fatten their flesh.” Thus, we may conclude that such a term is a negative one in the lexicon of Tanach.
Perhaps this term was chosen to describe Yosef’s brothers in our parashah in order to emphasize that which was to befall Klal Yisrael due to their unfortunate actions. The machlokes that developed between Yosef and his brothers planted the seed from which grew all the future instances of machlokes in the people of Israel, leading to the cheit hameraglim, and later to the sinas chinam that destroyed the Second Temple. This was the ultimate source of all machlokes among Jews.
The Torah thus hints to us that the actions of Yosef’s brothers ultimately led to the leaders of the Jewish people pasturing themselves and “fattening their flesh” at the expense of their brethren whom they were supposed to be caring for, in the days of Yechezkel. Yosef’s brothers themselves did not act in such a way, but the end result was such.
We could offer another explanation of Yosef’s brothers pasturing themselves. Simply put, the brothers originally went to Shechem in order to serve their father by tending to his flock. However, when it came to the crucial decision of what to do with their troublesome younger brother, Yosef, who showed up just then and there, they acted in a self-serving fashion. They surely did not have their father Yaakov’s best interests in mind when they decided to sell Yosef. They thought only of themselves, seeking to solve their personal quandary in a way that seemed right and appropriate to them. As Tanach puts it, they “pastured themselves.”
Rabbi Frankel can be reached at email@example.com. At local stores: Machat shel Yad Bereishis.