After Yosef’s brothers threw him into a pit, it was all downhill from there. In fact, the Torah uses the language of descent as it tells both the continuation of that story (39:1–“When Joseph was taken down to Egypt”) and the narrative aside that interrupts his story (38:1–“Judah left his brothers,” or in Hebrew Vayered Yehudah).
The grammar of the verb for descent, y-r-d, is noteworthy in these two passages. In chapter 39, the Torah says VeYosef hurad–he is entirely passive. He is forcibly brought down to Egypt, having been sold into slavery. Yehudah, on the other hand, seems to have parted from his brothers on his own, since the verb form vayered is active. He moves away, perhaps to lower ground. But the midrash and traditional commentators such as Rashi see Yehudah’s descent as being more than topographical, and not entirely voluntary.
Here’s Rashi: “Why is this account placed here, interrupting the story of Joseph? It is to teach us that the brothers deposed Judah from his leadership when they saw the grief of their father. They said to Judah, ‘It is you who told us to sell him. Had you told us to bring him back home, we would have listened to you.'” And so, Yehudah’s yeridah, descent, is moral, and his estrangement is enforced.
But this explanation is unsatisfying. Even if Yehudah is the leader, is he the only one with a conscience? Why did it take their father’s grief to shake the other brothers into awareness that selling Yosef to slavery was not a brotherly act? What did any of them do to distinguish themselves while Yosef languished in the pit?
On Shabbat morning, with Hanukkah being just hours away, we’ll look at two stories of fraternal care that teach us what to do when someone else is trending downward, so that we too avoid descent.