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Purim and the Sale of Yosef

The Midrash (Ester Rabba 7:13) draws a connection between the Purim story and the story of Mechirat Yosef – the sale of Yosef as a slave by his brothers. After the brothers cast Yosef into a pit, the Torah relates (Bereshit 37:25), they sat down to eat a meal, and the Midrash comments that in response, Hashem announced, "You sold your brother amid eating and drink – so will I do to you!" This refers to Haman’s decree to annihilate the Jews, as immediately after issuing the decree, the Megilla tells, "The king and Haman sat down to drink" (3:15). Just as Yosef’s brothers condemned their brother to suffering and then sat down to eat and drink, so did Ahashverosh and Haman condemn the Jewish People to annihilation and then sit down to a feast.

The Midrash here teaches us that the root of Haman’s decree can be found in the story of Mechirat Yosef. Later commentators explain that the sale of Yosef introduced the ill of Sin’at Hinam – baseless hatred and strife among Jews – into the fabric of our nation, a "disease" that flares up, so-to-speak, when we fall into internecine fighting. Haman described the Jews of his time as "Mefuzar U’meforad" – "scattered and separated" (Ester 3:8), which, on one level, refers to their dispersion throughout the Persian Empire, but, in addition, denotes divisiveness. The Jews were divided into different factions and plagued by disunity, and this is what brought Haman’s decree. This is why Ester instructed Mordechai, "Lech Kenos Et Kol Ha’yehudim" – "Go assemble all the Jews" (4:16) and observe a three-day fast. The commentators explain that more important than the fast which the Jews observed was the "assembly," the effort to come together, to transcend differences, and join in peace and harmony.

This also explains why the salvation was brought about specifically by Mordechai, who, as the Megilla emphasizes, was an "Ish Yemini" – a member of the tribe of Binyamin (2:5). Binyamin was the only one of Yosef’s brothers who did not participate in Mechirat Yosef. Fittingly, this tribe was chosen to accomplish the "Tikkun" (rectification) of the Sin’at Hinam that plagued the Jews at that time and reawakened the nation’s guilt for what was done to Yosef.

The Sages allude to this association between the Purim story and the sale of Yosef also in a different context. In Masechet Megilla (16a-b), the Gemara discusses the gifts that Yosef gave his brothers when they returned to Egypt with Binyamin. Yosef gave each brother a change of clothing – but gave Binyamin five changes of clothing. The Gemara wonders how Yosef, who had suffered terribly on account of the favoritism that Yaakob had showed him, extending to him preferential treatment over his brothers, could have made the same mistake by showing favoritism to Binyamin. The answer, the Gemara explains, is that Yosef was alluding to his brothers that a descendant of Binyamin would one day wear five special garments. After Ahashverosh had Haman killed, he named Mordechai to Haman’s post, and Mordechai was dressed in five royal garments, bringing the Jews immense joy (Ester 8:15).

Why did Yosef see fit to make this allusion, and why was this done specifically through the extra garments?

I heard Hacham Baruch Ben-Haim (1921-2005) explain that Yosef gave Binyamin these extra garments as part of the "Tikkun" for his brothers’ sin. The ultimate repentance is achieved when one finds himself in the same position in which he had been when he acted wrongly, but this time refrains from sin. Yosef put his brothers in a position where they would be jealous of their younger brother – just as they had been twenty-two years earlier, when Yaakob favored Yosef, and they responded by selling him as a slave. This time, upon seeing the favoritism showed to Binyamin, the brothers did not react; they were not disturbed at all. This accomplished a "Tikkun" for their sin – thus paving the way for their descendants’ salvation during the time of Mordechai.

The Purim celebration revolves around the theme of unity and brotherhood. We enjoy festive meals with family and friends, exchange gifts, and give money to the poor so they would not feel envious or resentful. All this is part of the effort to cure the ill of Sin’at Hinam, to end fighting, conflicts and strife, and to build peace, harmony and unity among the Jewish Nation so we will be worthy of miracles and of our final redemption, Amen.

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