Last week we read Parsha Miketz that ended with Joseph framing his brother Benjamin with falsely planted evidence in order to keep him with him in Egypt.
Brother Judah pleads with Joseph to release Benjamin and he offers himself instead. This show of loyalty and devotion touches Joseph and he reveals his true identity to his brothers.
The brothers are overcome by shame and remorse but Joseph comforts them. It was not you who sent me here," he says to them, "but G-d. It has all been ordained from Above to save us, and the entire region, from famine."
The brothers rush back to Canaan with the news. Jacob comes to Egypt with his sons and their families -- seventy souls in all -- and is reunited with his beloved son after 22 years. On his way to Egypt he receives the Divine promise: "Fear not to go down to Egypt; for I will there make of you a great nation. I will go down with you into Egypt, and I will also surely bring you up again."
Joseph reaps wealth for Egypt by selling food and seed during the famine. Pharaoh gives Jacob's family the fertile county of Goshen to settle, and the children of Israel prosper in their Egyptian exile.
Who will lead?
The history of the twelve sons of Jacob foreshadows that of their descendants, the children of Israel, as if they comprised a kind of general rehearsal for the history of the Jewish people in its own land. What the sons did as individuals, and the roles each performed, foreshadows the actions of the Twelve Tribes of Israel in history. In the Portions of Vayishlach, Vayeshev and Vayigash, the future leadership of the people takes shape as it becomes increasingly clear who will be the leader in time to come--that is, who will be the founding father of Israel's royal dynasty. One by one the various candidates are disqualified, until through a process of natural selection the true leader of Israel emerges.
Disqualified because he “lay with Bilhah – his father’s concubine and when he fails to rescue Joseph from the pit.
Simeon and Levi
Those next in line for leadership, were the brothers born after Reuben, Simeon and Levi. They were disqualified however because of their role in the killing of the population of Shechem
Joseph stands head and shoulders above his brothers: he is brilliant, wise, honest, righteous -- a leader from birth. In qualities and morality, he was undoubtedly superior to his brothers; for he was willing to suffer and even die for the sake of his principles. He also enjoyed a special status as the first-born of one of Jacob's principal wives (Rachel, the wife he loved best). In every way he is fit to be the leader, but he has one major drawback he is not acceptable to his brothers.
In the struggle for leadership it is Judah who prevails. What does he do to achieve it, and what makes him worthy of being the progenitor of the royal house of David? He may be a decent human being, but he is certainly not a saint. We never hear of his risking his life for the sake of something in which he believes, nor is he a genius like Joseph. But he has other qualities which make him fit to lead. Unlike Joseph, he is acceptable to his brothers--a practical man, sensible and a man with charisma. He undergoes three tests of character and emerges from each with honor, until it is clear that he is entitled to the leadership.
The first test: Judah's role in the selling of Joseph
Reuben suggests that Joseph should be thrown into a pit: "Do not shed blood, throw him into that pit out in the wilderness (Genesis 37:22)."3 He says this in order to save Joseph and take him home to his father, but although his intention is good it is impractical. If he were to succeed in restoring Joseph to Jacob he would become embroiled with his brothers, who would lose all faith in him. Similarly, he would perpetuate the unhealthy family situation: the tension between Joseph and the other brothers would remain and would, no doubt, eventually worsen to the point of murder.
Judah's suggestion is simple and much more workable, and it is adopted at once: "What do we gain by killing our brother and covering up his blood? Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let us not touch him ourselves, for he is our brother, our own flesh'." This straightforward proposal is phrased in an original and persuasive manner. Here Judah seizes leadership, gives practical advice of the lesser-of-two-evils type. His behavior can hardly be called gallant, but unlike Reuben he does not operate by tricking his brothers but by making a suggestion which he can stand by honourably and with credibility. In the knowledge that it would be useless, he does not attempt to oppose his brothers, but exploits the situation--the chance passing of the Ishmaelites--and acts quickly and decisively.
The second test: the affair of Tamar
Judah is tricked into impregnating his widowed daughter-in-law Tamar. Here we see Judah's greatness as a leader: he admits the mistake which he has made and does not attempt to justify himself, although he has acted under constraint and without much alternative. He accepts full responsibility both for his actions and for his shortcomings.
The third test: responsibility for Benjamin in Egypt
Once again Judah's leadership stands out clearly. He succeeds in persuading Jacob, who is afraid that if Benjamin is sent down to Egypt he will lose him, to entrust Benjamin to him: "Send now the boy with me, and let us be on our way, that we may live [since they will be able to buy food in Egypt] and not die, both we and you and our little children." Can this simple and reasonable suggestion be refused? Judah goes on, "I, myself, will be his guarantor; you may demand him of me. If I do not bring him back to you ... then I will have sinned against you forever" (Gen. 43:8-10).6 And his father, Jacob who found himself unable to rely upon Reuben, entrusts Benjamin to Judah. Trustworthiness and strength: these are the two qualities which particularly distinguish Judah. To him may one's dearest possession be entrusted! And when the test comes and Joseph seeks to imprison Benjamin, Judah once again assumes a leading role and in a moving and well-composed speech offers himself as a slave in Benjamin's place (Gen. 43:33). Here, then, is an example of a leader who accepts responsibility and stands by his promises.
Judah's selection through Jacob's will
In his will, the Patriarch Jacob recognizes Judah's undisputed leadership and explicitly assigns kingly dominion to him: "Judah, you shall your brothers praise. Your hand shall be on the nape of your enemies, the sons of your father shall bow low to you. A lion's whelp is Judah; from the prey, my son, have you gone up" (Gen. 49:8-9). Taken in its simplest sense, Jacob's blessing means that Judah's brothers will acknowledge his leadership
It is through the merit of these deeds, by which Judah demonstrated his leadership, that "the scepter shall not depart from Judah"! (Genesis 49:10).
Analysis of Judah’s Character
This is the measure of Judah's greatness: that he didn't remain mired in his pain but grew spiritually out of it, taking tragedy and using it as the soil for empathy, compassion, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice. He was the one to step forward when the hour demanded it because he was the one who knew that to redeem himself out of his own past mistakes and accumulated grief; he had to extend himself for the redemption of others.
Judah’s Character Development Through Midrash
Why was it Judah, out of all the brothers, who stepped forward to defend Benjamin?
Midrash Tanhuma, a collection of midrashic stories dating from Talmudic times, offers an imaginative possibility. Noticing that the story of Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar (Genesis 38) immediately follows the story of the presentation of Joseph's bloody garment to Jacob (37: 31-35), the midrash posits a connection. In this midrash, it was Judah who convinced Jacob that Joseph was dead; in response, God said to Judah:
"You have no children now, and you do not know the pain of children. You have troubled your father, and caused him to mistakenly believe that his son Joseph is torn, all torn up. By your life, you will marry a woman and then bury your son, and [then you will] know the pain of children." (Midrash Tanhuma, Vayyigash: 9)
On the surface, this midrash explains the whole story of Judah and Tamar, in chapter 38. The midrash connects Judah's role in the sale of Joseph to his own experience of losing children--it is an example of midah k'neged midah, or "measure for measure."
Yet the midrash just quoted isn't a direct commentary on either chapter 37 or 38--it is placed later, in the section dealing with this week's parsha, in connection to a verse that says "[Jacob] sent Judah ahead of him to Joseph, to prepare ahead of him in Goshen . . ." when the family is about to leave the land of Israel all to be reunited in Egypt with Joseph (46:28).
In other words, our midrash seems to be about Judah's punishment for deceiving his father, but it's actually brought as a commentary much later in the story, after the whole family is reconciled and reunited. So, what's going on here, and what does all this have to do with our original question: Why was it Judah who stepped forward, at great personal risk, to defend Benjamin?
I think the placement of our midrash is crucial, for if it were merely an explanation of why the story of Judah and Tamar appears where it does, it would be offering us an image of a cruel and vengeful God, who kills one child to avenge another. Because this midrash is placed later, in connection with a verse that reveals the ultimate reconciliation of Judah and his father, I think this midrash is hinting that Judah's experience of grief and bereavement was also the sources of great spiritual growth and evolving selflessness. Our midrash says that when Judah was willing to let his own father sit bereaved, it was because he did not know the "pain of children." Then he married, had sons, and lost two of them--thus bringing the lesson of the "pain of children" home to him in the most real and soul-affecting way possible.
It's not that God took away Judah's children because of what he might have done to Jacob--that would be cruel on God's part. Rather, the midrash tells us what made their reconciliation possible: Judah's ability (or willingness) to empathize deeply with his father's experience, his "knowing the pain of children." Empathy ideally leads to compassion, and it seems Judah's compassion was so great that he could not let his father again lose a favoured younger son. This begs a further question: why should Jacob be more bereaved at losing Benjamin than at losing Judah, since the whole point of Judah's speech is that he will stay in Egypt as a substitute?
Whether it was because Benjamin was the youngest, or because he was a son of the beloved wife Rachel, Judah knew that Jacob had a special relationship with him, as he had once had with Joseph. This fact is what makes Judah's compassion so extraordinary--not only was he able to empathize with a bereaved father, but he was even able to overcome his previous resentments to do so, perhaps even forgiving his father for loving his sons unequally.
Themes of the Parsha
Transformation – The Theme of the Joseph Story
Why would one-quarter of the Book of Genesis be devoted to the story of Joseph? Perhaps it’s because the unfolding drama of the story of Jacob’s sons provides important insights for us into universal human—and particularly Jewish—concerns about reconciliation, repentance, and real growth. But the most powerful lesson the text can teach us is about the value—and the cost—of peace.
In Vayeishev, Joseph entered the pit a narcissistic, self-absorbed youth and emerged a tzaddik, a righteous one. In the physical and emotional blackness of that pit, Joseph found redemption by embracing the God of his fathers and mothers. Judah, who had nonchalantly shared a meal while ignoring the cries of his brother Joseph, achieves redemption when he is able to step forward to sacrifice his own life in order to save his brother Benjamin. In that moment of encounter two decades after the incident of the pit, both Joseph and Judah stand face-to-face, transformed by the pain that makes real change—and peace—possible.
“Each of us,” Dr. Carol Ochs teaches, “must personally choose how we respond to suffering. . . Our greatest flaw, or woundedness, can become the source of our greatest virtue” (Carol Ochs, Our Lives as Torah [San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001], p. 98).
In the Joseph story, healing and redemption are possible only after great personal pain and suffering have stripped away the pretensions of power and self-importance that characterized both Joseph and Judah. But more than self-awareness or even true regret about the past was needed to bridge the chasm between the brothers; what was necessary was action. Joseph set the stage for reconciliation through the charade of the stolen goblet, but it was for Judah to step up, as it were (Vayigash eilav Y’hudah, “Then Judah went up to him”), and actualize the process as the moral leader he had become. And in that step, the transformed Judah became visible to Joseph, who could, in turn, allow himself to become visible to his brothers.
The reconciliation between the brothers opened the way for Jacob’s family to resettle in Egypt, an event that would have dramatic consequences for the Israelites many years later. But we are left to wonder about the relationships within this family after the reconciliation. Was all really forgiven? Is it truly possible to forget the past? Are there lasting consequences to the difficult encounters of our lives, especially with our family members, or are the hurts washed away forever in the tears of reunion? “He [Joseph] kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; only then were his brothers able to talk to him” (Genesis 45:15).
Perhaps the answer can be found in an earlier moment in this family’s story: “And a man wrestled with him [Jacob] until break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket” (Genesis 32:25–26). Jacob’s limp was a lasting sign of his own struggle with another being, just as our struggles on our own journeys leave their mark forever. We strive for the transformation that brought redemption to Joseph and Judah. When we commit ourselves to that process, we choose life, as they did. But the price we must be willing to pay for that redemption is the pain of seeing ourselves as we truly are and taking responsibility for the hurts we may have caused others.
Joseph’s Brotherhood is transformed by his growth
Sustaining brotherhoodis humanity's first ongoing challenge, upon being escorted from Eden. After slaughtering his brother, Cain utters the timeless question, "Hashomer ahi anohi"--"Am I my brother's keeper" Rabbi Nahum Sarna asserts in the JPS Torah Commentary of Genesis that "the sevenfold stress in this chapter on the obvious fraternal relationship of Cain and Abel emphatically teaches that man is indeed his brother's keeper."
By repeating the Hebrew word for brother, "ah," in Genesis 45, Joseph responds as much to Judah's words and actions as to the first disastrous confrontation between the first siblings in the Torah. In other words, Joseph's emotional outburst stems from hearing Judah's passionate plea beyond their own family's story, in a larger context that affects all of the children of Adam and Eve.
The overarching challenge of being one's brother's keeper, however, continues throughout Genesis. Sadly, the partnership efforts of generation after generation become impeded and frustrated by jealousy, competition, and greed.
In our story this week, Joseph is overwhelmed by Judah's compassion for his father, and for his brother, Benjamin. It is not only that Judah is willing to take the place of his brother, but that he does not want to contribute to his father's pain. Judah has learned from the loss of his own two sons what loss can do to one's soul. Aviva Zornberg expounds in Genesis: The Beginning of Desire: "Initiated into the fellowship of pain, Judah becomes capable of investing the whole force of his personhood into preventing its recurrence." With his compassion and courage, Judah demonstrates before Joseph's very eyes what it means to be a brother.
In the end, the significance of what Joseph learns surpasses even his wildest dreams. He loses control of his emotions because not only will his brothers be reunited, but also humanity has finally proven that it can shoulder the responsibility of brotherhood.