This morning’s Torah portion takes place in Egypt. Joseph’s brothers have returned to Egypt to buy food. This time they have brought Benjamin with them, following the instructions of the Viceroy, who happens to be their long lost brother Joseph in disguise, although they do not know it yet.
Once again, Joseph tests his brothers to determine if they have changed since they were kids. He hides a silver goblet in Benjamin’s sack of grain, accuses him of theft, and declares that he will keep him imprisoned.
As Parashat Vayigash opens, Judah steps forward to make an impassioned plea on behalf of his youngest sibling. News of Benjamin’s captivity would surely bring about their father’s death. And furthermore, Judah has pledged his own life for the lad’s. Judah begs Joseph to take him captive and release Benjamin.
Convinced that the brothers have sincerely repented, Joseph finally reveals his identity in an emotional, tearful reunion. Joseph instructs his brothers to go back to the land of Canaan, gather up their belongings, and move the entire household down to Egypt, where they will be provided for.
Then, Joseph sends them away with gifts for the journey.
(כב) לְכֻלָּ֥ם נָתַ֛ן לָאִ֖ישׁ חֲלִפ֣וֹת שְׂמָלֹ֑ת וּלְבִנְיָמִ֤ן נָתַן֙ שְׁלֹ֣שׁ מֵא֣וֹת כֶּ֔סֶף וְחָמֵ֖שׁ חֲלִפֹ֥ת שְׂמָלֹֽת׃
To all of them he gave each man changes of raiment; but to Benjamin he gave three hundred shekels of silver, and five changes of raiment. (Gen. 45:22)
What is Joseph thinking? What possible reason could he have to give Benjamin favorable treatment? Is this not the exact kind of behavior that led to so much suffering in the past?
When they were kids, Jacob favored Joseph over all of the others. He loved him more. He did not make him work out in the fields. Jacob even gave Joseph the infamous “Coat of Many Colors,” which symbolized everything that the brothers hated about him.
Joseph is now repeating the exact same provocations. Not only does Joseph favor Benjamin, he does so with clothing. That detail had to have registered with their siblings. What is going on? Is Joseph naive, or cruel?
Neither. It is another test. Joseph is not done with his brothers. So far, he has applied the pressure directly to see if the brothers will take responsibility for each other when confronted with an outside threat. They have passed this test.
Now Joseph sends them back into the wilderness, unsupervised, with a brother who has been given special treatment. It will be easy enough for Benjamin to get “lost” or “eaten by a wild animal” on the way. He has recreated the conditions under which they sinned many years earlier.
But Joseph does not want them to fail. Two verses later, he undermines the purity of his test by warning them to behave.
וַיְשַׁלַּ֥ח אֶת־אֶחָ֖יו וַיֵּלֵ֑כוּ וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֔ם אַֽל־תִּרְגְּז֖וּ בַּדָּֽרֶךְ׃
As he sent his brothers off on their way, he told them, “Do not be quarrelsome on the way.” (Gen. 45:24)
But that does not tell us why Joseph chose to favor Benjamin in this particular way. Why does Joseph favor Benjamin with these specific gifts? Why five sets of clothing and 300 shekels of silver?
The Talmud (BT Megillah 16b) asks about the clothing. “Is it possible that Joseph would stumble in the very thing that had led to his own suffering?” The Talmudic Sage Rav teaches that Joseph has a very good reason to present Benjamin with five sets of clothing. Through prophecy, Joseph knows that many generations in the future, a famous descendant of Benjamin will appear before a King wearing five articles of clothing. Do you know who it is?
וּמָרְדֳּכַי יָצָא מִלִּפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ בִּלְבוּשׁ מַלְכוּת תְּכֵלֶת וָחוּר וַעֲטֶרֶת זָהָב גְּדוֹלָה וְתַכְרִיךְ בּוּץ וְאַרְגָּמָן וְהָעִיר שׁוּשָׁן צָהֲלָה וְשָׂמֵחָה.
And Mordecai went forth from the presence of the king in royal apparel of blue (1) and white (2), and with a great crown of gold (3), and with a rob of fine linen (4) and purple (5); and the city of Shushan shouted and was glad. (Esther 8:15)
By giving him five sets of clothes, says the Talmud, Joseph offers this hint to Benjamin. Your offspring are destined for greatness.
What about the 300 shekels of silver? A medieval Spanish commentator named Rabbeinu Bahya offers a creative answer. Once again, Joseph is sending a hidden message, this time to all of his brothers. In this case, it is a message about their guilt. Bear with me, as his argument is built on several details and involves a math equation.
Here is the first detail. The Talmud (BT Gittin 44a) rules that if a Jewish slave owner sells his slave to a non-Jew, he can be forced to pay a penalty of up to ten times the price of the slave in order to redeem him, and then he must set the slave free.
Since slaves owned by Jews were obligated to observe many of the mitzvot, selling such a slave to a non-Jew who would not permit their continued observance would be particularly harsh. That is why the Rabbis of the Talmud impose such a harsh penalty. That is the first detail: a tenfold penalty for selling a slave to a Gentile.
The second detail is from the Book of Exodus.
אִם־עֶ֛בֶד יִגַּ֥ח הַשּׁ֖וֹר א֣וֹ אָמָ֑ה כֶּ֣סֶף ׀ שְׁלֹשִׁ֣ים שְׁקָלִ֗ים יִתֵּן֙ לַֽאדֹנָ֔יו וְהַשּׁ֖וֹר יִסָּקֵֽל׃
But if the ox gores a slave, male or female, he shall pay thirty shekels of silver to the master, and the ox shall be stoned. (Exodus 21:32)
This sets the value of a slave at 30 shekels of silver.
Joseph was sold into slavery by ten of his brothers. Who did they sell him to? A wandering band of Ishmaelites, i.e. non-Jews. If the value of a slave is 30 shekels of silver, and the penalty for selling a slave to a non-Jew is ten times the sale price, what is the total penalty? It is basic math. 30 x 10 = 300 shekels of silver, payable by each of the ten brothers.
Benjamin, Joseph’s younger brother, was not involved in the sale, so he has no obligation to pay the penalty. When Joseph, in his joy at being reunited with his family, decides to give gifts to all of his brothers, he settles on the convenient number of 300 shekels. This erases the ten brothers’ debt to him. Benjamin, who has no debt, winds up with 300 shekels in his pocket.
This is a creative answer to why Joseph would place such a potential stumbling block in his brothers’ path. It was no stumbling block at all.
Your explanation of the ‘10 times’ penalty begs the following question. Did that Talmudic restriction exist in the days of Joseph and the famine.
No, it certainly did not exist in the time of Genesis. It reflects (extremely) close and creative reading of the Biblical texts. Thanks for reading and commenting.