The Choice of Simon
This week's parsha takes us into the first stage of the dramatic meeting between Joseph and his brothers. The brothers go down to Egypt to buy food for their famished families who are living in the Land of Canaan. Joseph recognizes them but they don't recognize him. He begins by accusing them of spying. We find the following verses:
"If you are honest, one of your brothers will be locked up in prison where you are under guard, and you go bring food for your famished households. Bring your youngest brother to me so that your words will be verified, and you will not die." They decided to do so. They said one to another "In truth, we are guilty regarding our brother. We saw the anguish of his soul when he pleaded with us and we did not listen. Reuben answered them saying "Did I not say to you, thus 'Do not sin against the lad,' but you did not listen. His blood is now being avenged." They did not know that Joseph was listening because the interpreter was between them. And he turned aside and cried. And he returned to them and spoke, and then he took Simon from them and he bound him up in front of them."
Simon - RASHI: He was the one who threw him in the pit, he was the one who said to Levi, "Here comes the dreamer..."
Can you see what prompted this comment?
WHAT'S BOTHERING RASHI?
An Answer: It seems clear that Rashi wondered why, of all the brothers, Simon was chosen. This seems to be an arbitrary choice. If anything, Reuben, who is the oldest and bears most responsibility for the brothers' behavior, should have been chosen.
Rashi's comment fills us in on some background information that we were not aware of. On the basis of midrashim (see earlier verse 37:19 – where it says "one man to his brother" which is interpreted as Simon to Levi, who were referred to as "brothers" when they wiped out the city of Shechem).
On this basis Simon was not just another brother, he was an instigator against Joseph. So Rashi tells us this is why Simon was chosen.
A LOOK AT P'SHAT
But there is another explanation why Simon was chosen based not on Midrash but on p'shat. One rule of p'shat interpretation is to look at context. Look at the surrounding verses to our verse (which I printed above) and see if you can give a reasonable explanation for Joseph's choice of Simon.
IBN EZRA, CHIZKUNI, BECHOR SHOR & P'SHAT EXPLANATIONS
An Answer: The above Torah commentators, all following the Ibn Ezra (a contemporary of Rashi),explain Joseph's choice as follows:
Ordinarily , as we said above, the oldest is considered the most responsible for the brothers' actions. That is Reuben. And it is very likely that Joseph held him responsible for his sale to the Ishmaelites and eventually to Egypt. He had many years while in slavery to think of this trauma and to be angry with Reuben. But now for the first time Joseph hears, (and understands) the conversation the brothers have after they hear Joseph's accusation of them.
Joseph hears that, in fact, that Reuben did try to save Joseph, but his brothers would not heed his advice. So, if Reuben had acquitted himself, who is next in line? Simon! Had Simon backed Reuben, maybe he wouldn't have been sold. Therefore "he took Simon from them and he bound him up in front of them."
What is particularly nice about this interpretation is that it also explains the need for verse 23, which comes immediately before our verse. There it says:
"They did not know that Joseph was listening because the interpreter was between them."
This verse appears, at first glance, to be totally unnecessary and not essential to the story. But now we realize that it is integral to the development of the story. It explains that Joseph overheard and understood the brothers' conversation when Reuben acquitted himself, and thus explains his choice of Simon to be the one to sit in jail.