In one of the most poignant scenes in the entire Bible, Jacob, confronted by the “proof” that his son Joseph must be dead, recoils in grief. He tears his clothes and goes into mourning (Genesis 37:34). His mourning is profound. His sons and daughter sought to comfort him without success. Refusing their words of comfort, Jacob exclaims: “I will go down to my grave in mourning!” (Genesis 37:35).
Like many readers of the Bible, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), one of the founders of nineteenth century Orthodoxy, is struck by the seeming callousness and heartlessness of Joseph’s brothers. They knew the truth. They knew that a savage beast did not devour Joseph, despite the bloody garment offered as proof. They knew that Joseph was alive. So why, seeing their father’s inconsolable grief, did they not come forward and reveal their deceit and relieve their father of his pain?
Hirsch reasons that had the other sons come forward to admit their perfidy, Jacob’s grief might have been assuaged but most certainly his anger against them would have erupted, to the point of spurning them completely and irrevocably. Should this be the case, Jacob would have effectively lost ten sons rather than one. Hence, the brothers made a consequentialist decision. For Jacob, a far better outcome than the brothers coming forward would be keeping silent although it meant protracted pain for their father. If Hirsch is correct, this may be the first application of utilitarian philosophy in literary history. It is better for one to suffer the loss of one son than ten.
However, what Hirsch seems to ignore is that the brothers’ decision to keep Joseph’s true status hidden from Jacob was self-serving. They – even more than Jacob – are the beneficiaries of their silence. They might have employed a utilitarian calculus but mostly for their own advantage!
Perhaps the better lesson to be learned from Hirsch is that people will go to extraordinary lengths to justify their conduct. And knowing this should make us more careful in acting in such ways that require no justification.