The story of Joseph, perhaps the most developed narrative in the whole Bible, concentrates on Yaacov’s favorite son, his foibles, trials and tribulations, his eventual ascent to greatness and the rapprochement he initiates with his brothers. Yet at the same time a second brother also ascends the ladder of importance and, in our parsha, earns accolades for giving one of the ten most famous and inspiring speeches in the history of literature.
We have been trained from early on in Bereshit to expect the younger brother to outshine the older, but here, with Yaakov’s 12 sons, we do not know which of them will take the lead. It turns out to be number four, Judah – Yehuda.
As we saw two weeks ago, the firstborn, Reuven, has good intentions but bad implementation. He wants to save Yosef but doesn’t. He wants to convince Yaacov to send Benjamin down to Egypt but bumbles that too. He is not leadership material. Shimon and Levi are the ones who planned and then carried out the slaughter of a whole town because the prince had raped their sister. Such extreme violence precluded them from leadership of the clan. And then came Yehuda.
Yehuda doesn’t start out well – he is the one who proposes to sell Yosef down the desert to Egypt. He is the one who brings Yosef’s bloodied technicolor coat to Yaacov. He may be a leader, but he’s not a nice guy.
But something happens, way back, after Yosef is sold. We read the story of Yehuda’s three sons and his daughter-in-law Tamar. When she becomes pregnant (from him, though he did not know who she was during the act), he can have her put to death. Tamar gives him the option – she sends his identifying marks to him alone, and to his great credit, he takes responsibility and justifies her act.
Last week we read that it was Yehuda who convinced Yaacov to let Benjamin go down to Egypt. “I take responsibility,” he says. “If I do not return him to you…I will have sinned to you forever.” Simple. No conditions. Just responsibility.
And this week, Yehuda butters up Yosef with a speech that flatters and accuses at the same time. Having sensed Yosef’s soft feelings for fathers, he mentions “father” 14 times in 32 sentences, hammering away at Yosef to make him feel guilty for what he is about to do to this elderly father. Rabbi Neil Loevinger cites a midrash from the Tanhuma, which connects all the points of Yehuda’s actions.
The midrash states that it was Yehuda who brought Yosef’s bloody coat to Yaacov and made him think a wild animal had killed him. In response, according to the Midrash, 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 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
But this midrash is not written at the time that Yehuda’s two sons die (after Yosef is sold to Egypt) but when all Yaacov’s family comes down to Egypt at Yosef’s and Pharaoh’s invitation. Why?
According to Rabbi Loevinger, the message here is not “measure for measure” – you (Yehuda) left Yaacov bereft at the death of Yosef, so now you are bereft at the death of two of your sons. No, it’s a different message.
The midrash is assigned to our parsha because the two tragic experiences – Yaacov’s pain of loss and Yehuda’s pain of loss – have enabled Yehuda to develop a deep form of empathy, to the point that he cannot allow his father to suffer such loss again.
What makes this empathy even more remarkable is that Yehuda understands that Yaacov would be more upset if Benjamin did not return than if he, Yehuda, did not return. And he is OK with it, because he must alleviate his father’s pain at all costs.
This story presages the rise of Yehuda to leadership status, which is given official recognition in Yaacov’s blessing to his children at the end of the book of Bereshit.
Ironically, as much as Yehuda’s actions bring the family together after 17 years, it also portends the enmity that will surface between the two kingdoms – Judea and Israel (led by Ephraim, Yosef’s son) – that continues under the guise of different names and titles to this day.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.