Vayigash: Why Are We Jews And Not Josephians?

The drama between Joseph and Judah began with their mothers...

Joseph tested his brothers, and thanks to Judah they passed.

Table for Five: Vayigash

Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

So now, please let your servant stay as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go up with his brothers. 

– Gen 44:33

Rabbi Aryeh Markman, Executive Director Aish LA

In this one verse, 46 years of mysteries are solved.  Now Jacob understands why God stole the love of his life, Rachel, from the chuppah.

Let’s explain the scene to understand the completed puzzle. The servant is Judah, the fourth son of Leah, who is emerging as the leader of the twelve tribes. His line is destined for royalty.

The Lord is Joseph, the first born to Rachel and the eleventh born of the twelve tribes. He rules Egypt second only to Pharaoh.  Joseph is not recognized by his brothers who haven’t seen him for 22 years since they sold him into slavery.  The boy is Benjamin, age 30, Rachel’s second son. He is being framed as a thief by his brother, Joseph, the mysterious and contradictory Viceroy.

Judah offers himself to replace the innocent Benjamin. In doing so he rectifies the schism that had divided the 12 brothers. But he will serve a life sentence of slavery to Joseph. Why this drama?  Because 46 years before, Benjamin’s mother, Rachel, was commanded by her father, Lavan, to forgo her planned marriage to Jacob so her older sister, Leah, would marry first. Rachel altruistically gave over the secret signs she had concocted with Jacob just for this scenario. Remember they wore veils.

Now the child of Leah, Judah, steps into the breach 46 years later to sacrifice his freedom for the child of Rachel. Life comes full circle.  And so too with us, eventually all will become clear. Keep the faith!

Judy Gruen, Author, The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love with Faith

Judah is completing a heartfelt, searing argument to Egypt’s viceroy, imploring him not to enslave Benjamin (over a false charge of theft) but to enslave him instead. Judah invokes the promise he made to their father, Jacob, to protect Benjamin while in Egypt; losing Benjamin would be a death blow to Jacob.

The viceroy (an unrecognized Joseph) has tested his brothers repeatedly to see if they still harbored the hatred and jealousy that had originally prompted them to sell him into slavery years ago. Joseph’s harshness was particularly aimed at Judah, who had been responsible for selling Joseph in the first place. Would Judah now also be willing to “sell” Joseph’s younger brother, Benjamin, thus ridding the family of both sons of Rachel? Judah’s speech eloquently answers: No.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues that Joseph subjected his brothers to these tests as a way to lead them through the three stages of teshuva (repentance): confession, expressing remorse, and not repeating the sin when another opportunity arises. In fact, the brothers immediately recognize that their troubles in Egypt spring from the sale of Joseph: “Indeed, we are guilty because of our brother . . . that is why this distress has come upon us. (42:21).” Judah’s commitment to protect Benjamin proves that he will not repeat a previous crime.

With all three stages of teshuva complete, Joseph can reveal himself to his shocked, guilt-wracked brothers and begin the difficult steps toward reconciliation.

Dini Coopersmith, Teacher, Trips director, reconnectiontrips.com

This statement of Yehuda’s was the final necessary step before Yosef revealed himself to his brothers. Yosef could not hold back anymore and felt that his mission was accomplished once Yehuda offered to be a slave instead of Binyamin. Why? What was Yosef waiting for? Why the humiliation of the brothers, the trickery, the false accusations?

Netivot Shalom says that after the 22 years of separation between the tribes, Yosef wanted to ascertain that there would be full unity and reconciliation among the brothers. He was afraid that if there were still strife and dissention, they would not be considered one holy entity upon which the Divine Presence would rest. In order to survive the exile in Mitzrayim (Egypt), and not assimilate and disappear, Yosef knew they needed to be completely one, “the 12 tribes of Israel”, a strong block of people who could then become a nation.

When people are egocentric and arrogant, they cannot unite with others. They are too busy with their own opinions and self-worth and can’t fully connect with each other. Yosef was causing the brothers to experience utter humility and broken-heartedness, and to lose all sense of self and ego.

When Yehuda, the leader, the one most likely to have a big ego, was willing to humiliate himself and become an eternal slave, thereby taking full blame and responsibility for the situation, Yosef realized that the family was now sufficiently humble. They were finally worthy of being re-united among themselves and re-connected with God as a holy nation.

Ilan Reiner, Architect & Author, Israel History Maps

Does “going up” refer to a change in altitude, or to heading north? Nowadays, we’re used to maps being oriented so that north is up. Hence, “going up” is often synonymous with going north. There’s evidence that also during Biblical times maps showed north as up. Perhaps Judah is referring to actual elevation? Going from the plains of lower Egypt to the mountains of Hebron, where Jacob lived, was literally going uphill. Hence, in this case, the answer to both is affirmative.

Geography aside, Judah’s also hinting at their emotional wellbeing. There’s no doubt that for Benjamin, who’s about to become a slave, going back home with his brothers would be considered “going up.” As in getting out of a deep pit.

Beyond all that, when it comes to moving between Egypt and Israel, the Torah is consistent. Going from Israel to Egypt is referred to as “going down.” Going from Egypt to Israel is referred to as “going up.” Surpassing considerations of geography, elevation or emotional wellbeing, the Torah hints to us that any time our Patriarchs go to Israel, they are ascending. They rise above what’s expected of them, and come one step closer to being up and elevated.

When people move from one country to another, they “relocate” or “migrate.” To this very day, when Jews move to Israel, they make “Aliyah.” They “go up.” They rise. Not necessarily in elevation or geography, but to be exalted in their Promised Land.

David Sacks, Torah Podcaster at LivingwithGod.org

Do you want to understand Judaism? How it sees the world and how it values the individual? There is Joseph, also known as Yoseph HaTzaddik, the one who never makes a mistake. Then there is his brother Yehuda, the one who makes mistakes but then has the strength to go back and fix them.

Which one do you think Moshiach, the ultimate Redeemer, descends from? If you were to ask me, I would tell you the one who never makes a mistake. Amazingly, the Torah teaches otherwise. The Messiah descends from Yehuda, the one who makes mistakes but then has the courage to fix them.

Do you understand the profundity of this? It means that redemption isn’t contingent on perfection. Rather, our redemption finds its source in endless striving. Or, to think of it a different way, the question isn’t will I ever make a mistake? The question is, after I make a mistake, what do I do next?

I once learned from Rabbi Meir Fund that if you break a vase and put it back together, it never looks as good as it did before it broke. But in the eyes of heaven, if you break a vase and put it back together, it looks even better than it did before it broke.

With thanks to Rabbi Aryeh Markman, Judy Gruen, Dina Coopersmith, Ilan Reiner and David Sacks

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