When reading the stories in the book of Genesis, one is usually left in a cloudy confusion. Perplexing and contradicting, wild and sometimes mad. Scenes of floods and famine, destruction and battle, blood and fire. And almost simultaneously we experience kindness and compassion, love and faith, joy and courage. All stories but one; the infamous affair of Joseph and his brothers. Unlike the intensity of the Akeida, which while bizarre we are still touched by Abraham’s faith and Issac’s courage. Unlike Jacob’s struggle with the unknown Angel, while mysterious we are stronger through his bravery. This tale doesn’t amaze us for its spiritual richness or anecdotal beauty, rather the contrary. Beginning with jealousy and greed, ending with murder and betrayal. It’s a story the saddens us.
We all attempt to make sense of it in one way or another. But most of the explanations don’t suffice and hardly convince even the very apologist himself. But it’s history, so I made peace with it. Until I learned the Midrash. The Midrash informs us that the brothers bought shoes with the profit they made by trading Joseph. What? Shoes? We don’t know if we should laugh or cry. Why shoes? They were rich from inheritance and not less from their own businesses. And besides that great warriors make great booty. They were very wealthy, did they really need these few silver coins to buy shoes? Did they find it humorous to buy shoes with their poor orphaned baby brother’s blood? Fifteen hundred years later, we witness the prophet rebuke the House of Israel: For three transgressions of Israel… I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because they sold… and the poor for a pair of shoes (Amos 2:6).
Let’s examine the merchandise they traded, maybe we’ll gain some clarity. What are shoes in essence? What do we know about shoes?
Mourners shed their footwear as a sign of bereavement, like we see from God’s command to Ezekiel: Forbear to cry, make no mourning for the dead… and put on thy shoes upon thy feet (24:17). In that sense shoes symbolizes life, for the deceased don’t need shoes anymore; one doesn’t need shoes to stand on one place rather to travel and to climb. The dead -like angels are called “those who stand by” (see Zechariah 3:7) because their journey is over, their mission is complete, time’s up. No more ups and downs, no more good and evil. While live people climb and fall, become happy and sad, sick and healthy, warm and cold; the dead just stand by, they don’t move, no action at all (and the same is with angels). Thus, shoes are unique for the alive. Hence the blessing one makes everyday on footwear is very general “for He provided me all my needs”, because it’s a testimony to life itself. And the mourners when lamenting the loss of life participate with the departed’s fate by shedding their own shoes.
Moses while visualizing the burning bush on Mount Horeb is warned by God: Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground (Exodus 3:5). And so it is the Law that priests and worshipers removed their shoes upon entering Temple Mount. Why? Let’s think about the reason Moses is given, “for the ground you’re standing on is holy”. What’s the problem with shoes on holy ground?
Man, the highest among species, the king of the universe. He has wisdom and speech, power and glory. And from far one sees him standing tall and strong. Under his feet, which are the base of his royal figure – is his origin and destiny: the earth. Nothing more lifeless, nothing more devoid of spirit; simple dirt, sand and rocks-in short, dead earth. What separates between highest element of creation and the lowest? Shoes.
Now let’s contemplate the ground of the Temple. Our sages teach us that the dust God used to form man was from Temple Mount. The Talmud states that according to the measurements of the ark of covenant (1 Kings 6:24) and the blueprint we’re given of the holy of holies (Ezekiel 41:4), the magnitude of the ark and the cherubs exceeded the capacity of its shrine. So how did they coexist? “We have a tradition from our ancestors, says the Talmud, that the place of the ark isn’t bound to the laws of physics”. The Temple as a whole and especially the holy of holies are the threshold of the physical and spiritual worlds, its ground (man’s ultimate origin) isn’t just dead soil, it’s sacred and alive. Thus, when man comes to a place of such holiness, so elevated and pure, there’s no need for separation between man and the soil, to the contrary the earthiness of shoes is a desecration and violation to such earth.
When the high priest entered the holy of holies on the Day of Atonement, all of Israel shed their shoes, for it’s a day that man and his origin unite intimately. Footwear would just separate the indivisible harmony of man and the spirit of the earth. And the day marking the destruction of the temple, Israel doesn’t wear shoes for it feels that we are no higher and better than lifeless dirt, as Jeremiah wails: The elders of the daughter of Zion sit upon the ground… they have cast up dust upon their heads… the virgins of Jerusalem hang down their heads to the ground (Lamentations 2:10).
Joseph is called the righteous, and rightfully so, for there are no recorded transgressions attributed to him in the Bible (a rarity for someone that’s chronicled extensively in the Bible). He was so elevated and above sin that he couldn’t handle any errors, he didn’t comprehend how someone can offend the Word of God. When he saw his brothers fail occasionally it consumed him to the extent that he ran to tattle to his father all their wrongdoings (Genesis 37:2). The brothers on the other hand, felt that as long as Joseph dwells in Jacob’s home, a haven of angels, unadulterated territory, he won’t understand them and the vast majority of mankind. For most of people are destined inevitably to sin as the wise king wrote: For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not (Ecclesiastes 7:20). Thus, Joseph’s sainthood would cause great destruction. So they sold him to the Egyptian Empire, sin center of the time, “the nakedness of the land” (Genesis 42:9). As if to say, it’s no big deal to be pure and clean in Jacob’s home. Rather go to the land of iniquity and stay uncontaminated there.
Judah, the architect of the trading plan, is recorded in the Bible committing a capital sin. But he didn’t give up. He didn’t yield. He stood up, repented and returned. We are called Jews in Judah’s name, for we like him, err, fall from great hights, but ultimately come back home. This is the reason for what our sages teach us that Saul’s kingdom was ripped away from him because he partly disobeyed an order (1 Samuel 15:23), and David, who by his own admission was guilty of murder and adultery, and was even sentenced to death- repented, was forgiven and retained his kingdom (2 Samuel 12:13). Why the discrimination? For Saul, descendant of Rachel, was sitting on Joseph’s throne, the position of a flawless righteous leader, therefore a mistake is fatal. But David from the lineage of Judah, to slip twice or even more is natural. While Joseph shines a beam of holiness into the world, Judah participates in our day-to-day conflict and illuminates the path of repentance, and empowers us with courage to return.
The brothers purchased shoes with the money, to symbolize the motive behind the trade, as if they were saying: We can’t survive without a righteous man unaffected by the filth and pollution that fills the atmosphere, and serves as a beacon of truth to the hearts and souls of the nation. But it’s crucial that he appreciate us, he feels our struggle and that he can walk on grounds that call for shoes.
If this were their intention, why was selling Joseph considered a sin? As we began, we can’t really fathom the depth of this story…