Last year, my class had to write a seven to ten page paper on a topic that mattered to us. I chose women in the IDF. Halfway into gathering information, I decided to switch topics. I’m not sure why I chose to, seeing that it was the last minute and there was no apparent reason. My new topic was Pidyon Shvuyim, freeing captives. I spent months researching cases of people being captured and ransomed, from the Maharam of Rothenburg in the 1300s, to Gilad Shalit a decade ago. I researched Israel's protocol, past decisions they made, and looked into the halachic side of the topic. Although there have been recent cases of captures, I thought of the topic as in the past, no more recent than 10 or so years ago. I never would have guessed how prominent it would become in my lifetime.
I’d like to share a few things from the parsha. From the beginning of Vayeshev, the relationship between Yosef and his brothers is tense. We first see this in Perek לז, pasuk ג, where it says,
וְיִשְׂרָאֵל אָהַב אֶת־יוֹסֵף מִכׇּל־בָּנָיו כִּי־בֶן־זְקֻנִים הוּא לוֹ וְעָשָׂה לוֹ כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּים׃
Now Israel loved Yosef best of all his sons—he was his “child of old age”; and he made him a ketonet passim. Immediately after this, the Torah states: וַיִּשְׂנְאוּ אֹתוֹ - and the brothers hated him. The Torah says this on two subsequent occasions leading Rashi to suggest that the brothers hated Yosef not because of the coat, but because of the דבה רעה (lashon hara) that Yosef spoke about them.
The brothers decide to take action. While they herd sheep in Dotan, they see Yosef coming to find them and they plot to kill him - וַיִּתְנַכְּלוּ אֹתוֹ לַהֲמִיתוֹ. This prompts Seforno to ask: If the brothers were such tzadikim, how could they do such a thing?! Rashi says that the brothers weren’t just going to kill Yosef without a reason. Rather, when the Torah says they were shepherding in Dotan, it is really referring to them looking for נִכְלֵי דָתוֹת (legal reasons) to kill Yosef.
Now that we know that they were planning on killing him entirely according to halacha, we have to take a step back and look at the three groups they had to consider when making this major decision.
The first group they had to consider was themselves. According to Seforno, the shevatim thought that Yosef was a רודף - someone actively trying to kill them. Therefore, according to halacha, they were obligated to kill him in order to save their own lives. From the brothers’ perspective, it was absolutely halachically permissible to kill him.
The second group they had to consider was their father Yaakov. Yosef was Yaakov’s favorite, and if they killed him, their father would be unhappy. We see this explicitly in the text when Reuven discovers that the rest of the shvatim had gotten rid of Yosef when he wasn’t there. He returns, and exclaims, ואני אנה אני בא, Now, what am I to do? Rashi says that what he means is אָנָה אֶבְרַח מִצַּעְרוֹ שֶׁל אַבָּא, How will I escape the sadness of my father? As the oldest, Reuven knows that most of the blame will fall on him, and that his father will be saddened beyond belief. (As an oldest sibling, I can certainly relate!)
The final and possibly most important consideration for the brothers is what to do with Yosef himself. According to Seforno, the shevatim know that if they kill him, יכאב לבנו על מיתתו, they will feel sad about his death. We see that this isn’t a one-way street for the shevatim’s feelings either.
Now that they have considered everything, they must choose the lesser of two evils.
Does anyone else see a parallel to Israel? I do. Both the Shevatim and the Israeli government have similar analytical processes. In my opinion, there are three obvious groups that the Israeli government has to consider in hostage deals: Current captives, Israeli civilians, and people who suffered at the hands of the terrorists that might be released.
The first group to consider are the captives. Harav Ovadia Yosef says that halachically, we are obligated to do whatever we can, even if it means releasing lots of prisoners, in order to get the hostages back. We must focus on the imminent danger, rather than the possible future danger of releasing prisoners. In addition, the Israeli government has a policy that they will do whatever possible to get back anyone being held hostage.
The second group they must consider are the Israeli civilians. The Mishnah in tractate Gittin states that we can’t let go of all of the prisoners because of tikkun olam (repairing the world). There are two reasons for this. First, if we release many prisoners to redeem a hostage, our enemies will take more hostages to gain the release of more prisoners. Second, any release of enemy prisoners will generate fear throughout the community. In any case, freeing the hostages is an incentive for enemies to take more hostages.
Less often considered and equally important are the people who suffered physically or emotionally at the hands of the terrorists whom the Israeli government might release. According to Rabbi Professor David Golinkin, releasing prisoners can cause emotional trauma and PTSD, and erase the closure people felt when the government imprisoned their family’s murderers.
Throughout history, we see B'nai Israel in awful situations, having to choose the lesser of two evils. From parashat Vayeshev, with the shvatim and Yosef, to the story of Channuka, when the Jews had to abandon Judaism or risk their lives, to today, when the Israeli government is under pressure to make the best decision in these difficult circumstances.
May we never have reason to add another stanza to the chain of enemies we sing about in Maoz Tzur, and may we only have reason to sing Al HaNissim.