Who is Good or Evil?

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

Seeing Joseph approaching from a distance, the brothers said, “Here comes the dreamer. Come now, let us kill Joseph and throw him into one of the pits; and we can say, ‘A savage beast devoured him.’ We shall then see what comes of his dreams!” But when Reuben heard it, he tried to save him from them. He said, “Let us not take his life.” And Reuben went on, “Shed no blood! Cast him into that pit out in the wilderness, but do not touch him yourselves”—intending to save him from them and restore him to his father. When Joseph approached to his brothers, they stripped Joseph of his coat, the ornamented tunic that he was wearing, and took him and cast him into the pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it. Then they sat down and ate bread… (Gen. 37:20-25)

Friend: By all measures, murder is an abhorrent, extreme act and fratricide is even more so. The Torah's depiction above is so callous and numb, to the point that the characters are dehumanized and lack any emotion (other than jealousy). And yet, these are our "righteous" forebears?! We name our children after the shevatim?! We callously gloss over the attempted murder when we teach this story in schools?! We, ourselves, lose some of our humanity if we are not bothered by this.

Rabbi: No Torah account should ever be glossed over, but should be taught to age-appropriate students. 

You question morality: How are right and wrong determined? If you created a painting, you alone determine how it should look, what colors are to be used, and the objects pictured in the painting. As it is your creation, no one can tell you that you painted “incorrectly.” As God created life, He too alone determines when it is to be created, sustained or terminated. His terms are the authoritative voice of “morality.” If we disagree with God’s terms, it is not He or His Torah that is at fault, but it is our corrupt thinking, for we cannot determine morality for lives we did not create. This explains why people argue if abortion is immoral, if we should kill murderers, and other moral questions. Morality is Divinely authoritative and objective, but people follow subjective baseless feelings instead. That’s why they lock horns.

God commanded Moses to kill men, women and children of the 7 Nations when entering Israel. Those nations were so deviant, all remnants must be killed so as not to steer others to sin like them. God flooded Noah’s generation including men, women, children and animal life, and He also annihilated Sodomites. God determined certain lives are beyond repair: “There are things so twisted that they are beyond remedy” (Koheles 1:15). God made life, so He alone determines when it is appropriate to kill a life. But He graciously records all this in Torah for our edification about morality. 

Sforno teaches the brothers viewed Joseph as a “rodaif”—one who threatens others. That is why they were able to “sit and eat bread” after placing Joseph in the pit…Torah intentionally underscores their guiltless state of mind with these words. Their consciences were without guilt as they saw Joseph as dangerous:

They sat to eat bread: to demonstrate that what they had done was no crime in their eyes, or that the incident was not something that should interfere with their regular meal. When righteous people become aware of having inadvertently committed a sin, they not only do not celebrate it by eating, but they impose a fast day or more upon themselves.

If the brothers sat down to eat immediately after throwing Joseph into the pit, this is clear evidence that in their minds they had certainly not committed any wrong. We, who were not part of Yaakov’s household, and who know that these brothers were unanimously elevated to become the founding fathers of the Jewish nation, must therefore accept the premise underlying their actions as being that they had truly felt themselves personally threatened by Joseph, someone who was considered so mature that his own father had appointed him as manager over his senior brothers. The brothers had made strenuous efforts to put physical distance between themselves and Joseph in order to avoid any altercation. When Joseph had sought them out in spite of their having signaled clearly that they wanted to avoid him, they felt understandably very threatened. (Sforno, Gen. 37:25)

God displayed that life is contingent upon following Torah’s code of ethics. God did not suggest that killing is to always be avoided, or abhorrent. Any father would certainly kill a person seeking to kill his children. Throughout Torah, the rabbis say, “One who comes to kill you, rise early and kill him first.” 

The brothers viewed Joseph as a threat. Sforno on Gen. 37:18 writes:

We must therefore endeavor to understand the collective feelings of the brothers as being that they actually felt themselves threatened by Joseph’s aspirations and they were convinced that when one feels threatened, one is entitled or even obliged to take measures to neutralize the source of the danger. This is even a halachic principle clearly spelled out in Sanhedrin 72. If we needed any proof for the truth of the brothers’ feelings, it is best provided by their conversation among themselves while in jail (42:21) when they felt that God had repaid them for their misdeeds. They did not regret selling Joseph, nor even having planned to kill him; the only thing they regretted and considered themselves guilty of was that they had not responded to Joseph’s pleas for mercy. In other words, even over 20 years after the event they were still convinced that Joseph had posed the sort of threat to their existence which entitled them to take extreme defensive action against him.

Thus, as Sforno teaches, the brothers felt they were operating with proper precaution. Sforno says, “the only thing they regretted and considered themselves guilty of was that they had not responded to Joseph’s pleas for mercy.”

Joseph saw their callous treatment of himself as wrong, and devised a scheme to force them to repent by undergoing the duplicate situation with Benjamin. The brothers admitted they were callous, “We are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us. That is why this distress has come upon us” (Gen. 42:21). But they repented, and that’s their greatness. Judah exemplified even greater perfection by offering to accept life imprisonment. Judah made a promise to his father that Benjamin would return. He also did not feel Benjamin stole the goblet. Judah sacrificed his life to spare his father losing Benjamin. The fact that Judah knew Benjamin was not guilty, and yet he offered life imprisonment, increases Judah’s greatness. Who today would do such a thing? Judah was a great man. His brothers repented as well. 

Torah teaches fact: God and many men killed. Torah reveals which cases were just and which were sinful. Our society distorts God’s morality; we are wrongly influenced, and we must update our sense of morality to match God’s terms. Just like the brothers sinned with their callousness, we too err by defending our subjective and wrong sense of morality adopted from our culture. We must replace our false values with those God depicts in his Torah. At times we find it difficult to abandon a long-held value. But we must select our values not based on how comfortable they are, but on whether they are God’s values. 

God depicts Moses, David and others as great individuals, despite their flaws. If God forgives even grievous sins, then we too cannot eternally condemn others. We also cannot render a summation of one’s character based on isolated events, despite their severity in our eyes. “You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land” (Deut. 23:8). Rashi writes: 

THOU SHALT NOT ABHOR AN EGYPTIAN all-in-all (utterly), although they cast your male children into the river. And what is the reason that you should not abhor him utterly? Because they were your hosts in time of need (during Joseph’s reign when the neighboring countries suffered from famine); therefore although they sinned against you, do not utterly abhor them.”

Torah teaches a unique type of morality: People like Egyptians can sin, yet still deserve recognition for their good actions. The brothers sinned, but they are not summarily disqualified due to that sin. In fact, it was not until all 12 brothers passed away that the Jews in Egypt succumbed to idolatry. Thus, the brothers provided great strength to Israel. Long after they died, God commanded their names be eternally inscribed on the High Priest’s breastplate, and on his Ephod’s onyx shoulder stones. This must make us question any attacks on their perfection. 

God does not sentence a person based on a single sin. God weighs all man’s actions before any sentence:

Each and every one of the sons of man has virtues and vices. He whose virtues exceed his vices is a just man, and he whose vices exceed his virtues is an evildoer; if both are evenly balanced, he is mediocre. Even so is a state. If the virtues of all of its inhabitants exceeded their vices, it is, indeed, a just state; but if their vices exceeded, it is, indeed, a wicked state. Even such is a standard for the whole world. (Maimonides, Laws of Repentance 3:1)