Parashat Vayigash

Parashat Vayigash deals primarily with the events surrounding Jacob’s arrival in Egypt. After many tribulations, Joseph reconciles with his brothers, Jacob arrives in Egypt and finally reunites with Joseph, and the story comes to a close. By the time we reach Parahshat Vayeḥi we are already dealing with Jacob’s death and his final reckoning with his sons. As a rule, the haftara traditionally associated with each parasha emphasizes the central elements of that parasha as understood by our sages, and in effect constitutes a form of interpretation of the entire parasha. Sometimes the connection between the haftara and parasha is clear and obvious, and sometimes it is so remote that, in order to understand why the sages paired a particular haftara with a particular parasha, one must sit down and think. In the case of the haftara associated with Parashat Noaḥ, for example, the only similarity to the parasha seems to be the appearance of the words “the waters of Noah” (Yeshiyahu 54:9). When there are divergent opinions and customs regarding which haftara we read – as in the case of Parashat Vayishlaḥ or Parashat Vayetzeh , for example – these disputes usually revolve around the question of what the parasha’s essential point is.

The essence of Parashat Vayigash would appear to be the descent to Egypt, but the haftara (Yehezkel 37:15-28), which relates Ezekiel’s prophecy of the stick of Judah and the stick of Ephriaim, shifts the focus away from this subject to the meeting, or perhaps clash, of Joseph and Judah. This, according to the haftara, is the essence of the parasha; everything else is ancillary material.

Judah and Joseph

The Joseph -Judah relationship and the points at which their paths converge continue throughout history. From the sale of Joseph onward, Judah and Joseph constantly interact with each other, and their relationship continues in various forms. Here, in Parashat Vayigash, their interaction is a confrontation, as the Midrash comments, “‘Then Judah went up to him’ (Bereshit 44:18) – advancing to battle” (Bereshit Rabba 93:6. The Midrash views this confrontation as a momentous event, adding, “‘For lo, the kings converged’ (Tehillim 48:5) – this refers to Judah and Joseph; ‘they grew angry together’ (48:5) – this one was filled with anger for that one, and that one was filled with anger for this one” (Genesis Rabba 93:2). This is an epic clash between two kings, one that continues to occur in various forms throughout history.

There are times and places where the Joseph-Judah relationship is one of cooperation and even love. In the battle against Amalek, the leadership of the People of Israel consists of Moses, Aaron, and two other people; Ḥur, a member of the tribe of Judah, stands by Moses’ side opposite Aaron, while Joshua, from the tribe of Joseph, leads the actual war. This connection appears again in the story of the spies, where Joshua and Caleb are the only two spies who refrain from “Spreading calumnies about the land” (Bamidbar 14:36). Moses himself is connected by blood to the tribe of Judah (Aaron married the sister of their tribe’s prince, Naḥshon the son of Amminadav, and Miriam, Ḥur’s mother, was married to Caleb the son of Yefuneh). On the other hand, Joshua – of the tribe of Joseph – is his close disciple.

This duality does not end there but cotinues through the generations. The Shiloh Tabernacle stood in the territory of Ephraim for over 300 years, whereas the Temple was built in Jerusalem, on the border of the territories of Judah and Benjamin (Massekhet Yoma 12a). The dirges of Ezekiel (chapter 23) feature the sisters Ohola and Oholiva who correspond to the kingdoms of Judah and Israel: “Ohola is Samaria, and Oholiva is Jerusalem” (23:4). In the royal house, although Saul is not from a tribe of Joseph, he is a descendant of Joseph’s mother Rachel, while David is from the tribe of Judah. The encounter between them is one of antagonism. but, as if to balance out that animosity, we read of a parallel and opposite relationship: the friendship and love between Jonathan and David. There is a Joshua and there is Caleb; the tribe of Judah and the tribe of Joseph; the Kingdom of Judah and the Kingdom of Israel; David and Jonathan. We see that this duality is woven throughout our history, to the point that we ourselves are an example of it: The Jewish people today consists solely of descendants of Judah and Benjamin.

This complicated relationship between Joseph and Judah, in all its manifestations, continues to persist, and will continue until the end of days: Even our eschatological texts describe a division between the Messiah son of David and the Messiah son of Joseph.

Glory and Eternity

The meeting of Joseph and Judah in Parashat Vayigash illuminates one aspect of their relationship. On the larger historical plane. Joseph possesses an aspect of glory that Judah lacks, in the real sense and in the esoteric sense. At their first meeting, members of the tribe of Joseph almost always overshadow members of Judah. Even from birth, Joseph has an advantage: He is smarter, more handsome, more successful, and more loved. In this respect he lives up to his characterization as the sun in his famous dream, in that he is far more lustrous that his peers, while Judah appears inferior from the very beginning.

This paradigm follows here as well. How do they meet? Joseph, unofficially the king of Egypt, meets with Judah, a peasant shepherd from some remote place. Joseph stands there in all his glory, and facing him, “Judah went up to him.”

What, in comparison to Joseph, does Judah have to offer? What is unique about him? It appears that Judah’s unique point is that contiuity and endurance. Judah perseveres ,as he did when he admitted his responsibility to Tamar, and this is a point that can be observed in the case of many other members of his tribe. Joseph outshines Judah with respect to glory, but as for perseverance and staying power – “‘and the eternity’ (I Divrei HaYamim 29:11) refers to Jerusalem” (Massekhet Berakhot 58a) – Joseph, for all his nobility, does not measure up.

Judah perseveres because he has the advantage of being able to fall, as it says, “Though he may fall, he is not utterly cast down” (Tehillim 37:24). When Judah falls, he is able to get up again.This is Judah’s special quality; it is part of his essence.

The point of “Judah went up to him” is that Judah, in spite of being a person of minor importance – the contrast between his and Joseph’s appearance must have been striking – nevertheless dares to approach the kings. To some extent, this evokes the way in which Saul meets with David. Saul is the king, and David is a youth brought in from tending the flock to entertain Saul.

Intrinsic to Joseph and his descendants is a sort of perfection, but this perfection is very fragile: When something breaks, they are unable to fix it. For Joseph, every situation is all or nothing, whereas Judah is adept at raising himself up again.

For an example of this dichotomy, one must look no further than Saul and David. Saul and David both sinned. The difference between them is the following: After Saul “breaks” once, he breaks again a second time and a third time. Though Saul came from a distinguished family and was considered “of greater stature than all the people” (I Shmu’el 9:2) – a courageous warrior; a humble, modest, and worthy individual; a pure soul – when he falls he is unable to get up. When Saul sins, he reaches a state in which he is ready to die and is also willing to accept the entire punishment he deserves. In contrast, when David sins, he draws new wisdom and maturity from the experience, penning the Book of Psalms in its wake. This is quite an accomplishment! King David can sink low, but he can channel that low point in his life into real spiritual growth. This is something that Joseph, by his very nature, cannot do.

This difference surfaces again when the Kingdom of Israel is divided in two, with the House of Joseph and the House of Judah going separate ways. Upon reading the assessment of the midrashim of the characters involved, it is clear whom our sages favored.

Yerovam is an exalted and impressive figure, a man chosen by God to rule over the ten tribes of Israel. No matter what we think of him, he is certainly an extraordinary personality, as demonstrated by a series of talmudic anecdotes: He is capable of rebuking King Solomon when the latter is at the height of his glory (Massekhet Sanhedrin 101b). When Yerovam is together with Aḥiyya the Shilonite, all the wise men are like the grass of the field in comparison with them (102a), and God says to Yerovam, “Repent, and then I and you and the son of Jesse will stroll together in the Garden of Eden” (102a).

Facing Yerovam is Reḥavam. Who is Reḥavam? On the whole, he is a man who is a bit confused, who does not know what to do exactly with the fairly large kingdom that he inherited and which, through ill-advised harshness and imprudent softness, he manages to lose. Besides this, we are told little Reḥavam.

Nevertheless, Yerovam – who certainly was a great man and a far greater scholar than Reḥavam – is among those who have no share in the World to Come. He sinned and caused others to sin, and there is no way to atone for this. Reḥavam may not have been a righteous king or an especially significant king, but he carried on the line of the House of David. No royal line of the kings of Joseph manages to last more than a few generations. By contrast, the kings of the House of David – who certainly count some wicked men in their number – are able to build a stable dynasty, and are able, ultimately, to persevere.

Elisha b. Avuya, the tannaitic apostate known as “Aḥer” (literally, “Other”), was similar to Yeroval in this sense. He was perhaps the most brilliant man of his generation and was younger than all the other scholars with whom he would confer. According to his own account (Ruth Rabba 6:4), Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer attended his circumcision; thus, they were already scholars when he was born. But Elisha b. Avuya could not tolerate a world that lacked perfection, and when he discovers that there are problems in the world, he begins to fall apart. And when he falls apart, he cannot recover from the fall. This conception of perfection is reflected in a saying of his: “One who learns when young, to what may he be compared? To ink written on fresh paper. But one who learns when old, to what may he be compared? To ink written on paper that has been erased” (Pirkei Avot 4:20). Elisha b. Avuya does not want to write on erased paper; he wants ink written on fresh paper. He is saying – and this is part of his personality – that since he has been erased once, he cannot rewrite himself. By contrast, Rabbi Akiva is like Judah, a peasant from an undistinguished family. Unlike Elisha b. Avuya, who came from one of the prominent families of Jerusalem, Rabbi Akiva was the son of converts. Throughout his life, Rabbi Akiva “Broke” not just once but several times, including during difficult events in his personal life, yet he always overcame his setbacks.

The Tzaddik and the Baal Teshuva

Joseph was a true tzaddik. Sometimes this identity is apparent in a person’s character from birth, and it is immediately clear that this person is innately good. There is a type of personality for whom perfection is innate. Jonathan, Saul’s son, seems to fit this characterization – he is a person with no apparent defects.

Let us note, however, that such a person – a man who bears an aspect of perfection by his very nature, who was born with all the great gifts and who exercises them in perfect fashion – must be judge by his ability to remain at this level. Possessing all the virtues is not enough if he is unable to rectify himself the moment he becomes flawed.

In nature, too, there are structures that do not reach perfection by way of development but, rather, emerge perfect from the outset. The Talmud (Massekhet Betzia 3b) mentions the possibility of using an egg to support the leg of a bed. This talmudic statement is strange and surprising. After all, even if this were possible, who would use an egg to support the leg of a bed? But the truth is that from a physical standpoint, an egg is one of the most perfect structures in existence. The only problem is that an egg’s strength depends on its complete integrity. It is like a dome: The moment one stone falls, the whole structure collapses. This is often the nature of this kind of perfection: It can last only as long as there is no flaw.

In this sense – as is evident from their interaction before and after this point – the relationship of Joseph and Judah is that of a tzaddik and a baal teshuva. The story of Judah and Tamar compared to the story of Joseph and Potifar’s wife is a striking example of this relationship.

Judah’s character seems to deteriorate. He sells Joseph, which is a particularly despicable act. His conduct with Tamar demonstrates a moral deficiency as well. Nevertheless, he is also capable of confronting Joseph – “Judah went up to him.” Here is a person who has quite a few matters on his conscience and an unsavory past. We might have expected him to sit quietly on the sidelines, but as we see, he takes action instead.

Judah not only puts his life on the line but is also willing to face up to his past actions. The wide gulf between those actions and his present conduct is precisely what defines Judah’s essence. The Midrash (TanḥumaVayigash 4) comments that Joseph attempted – rightfully – to silence Judah, asking him, “Why are you speaking up? You are neither the eldest nor the firstborn. So what are you doing? Let your eldest brother Reuben speak. Why do you even have the right to open your mouth?” Yet Judah, despite all his baggage, rises anew, ready to come to grips with whatever he must face. That is Judah’s strength. By contrast, Joseph  – by nature and as a matter of principle – cannot change, cannot be flexible. He is a perfectionist, and this is precisely what breaks him.

The Talmud (Massekhet Ḥagigia 15a) recounts an interesting conversation between Elisha b. Avuya and Rabbi Meir. Elisha b. Avuya asks Rabbi Meir to interpret the verse, “Gold and glass cannot match its value, nor can vessels of fine gold be exchanged for it” (Iyyov 28:17). Rabbi Meir responds, “This refers to Torah matters, which, like vessels of gold, are hard to acquire, but like vessels of glass are easily lost.” Elisha b. Avuya says to him, “Rabbi Akiva, your master, did not interpret that way, but, rather, ‘Both vessels of gold and vessels of glass, if broken, can be repaired.'” One can melt them and form them anew. But there are vessels – such as those of clay, mother of pearl, or even diamond – that, after being broken, remain forever broken. One cannot do anything about it; the defect remains a defect.

We read in Megillat Ester, “But Mordekhai neither bowed down nor prostrated himself” (Ester 3:2). On the one hand, this conduct reflects his strength and glory; but on the other hand, it gets him into trouble: According to the Talmud (Massekhet Megilla 12b), the Jews became furious with him for not acquiescing to Haman’s demands. “Why did you get us into all of this trouble?” they cried. “Bow down!” Mordekhai is cast in the same mold as his ancestors Saul and Joseph before him. He is called “Mordekhai the tzaddik” (10b), and tzaddikim often cannot abide even the slightest flaw. Mordekhai’s essential nature requires that he be perfect.

Before going out to his last battle, Saul knows that he and his sons are going to die, and he does not care. An aspect of strength and idealism accompanies this man throughout his life – even at his fall. Just like Elisha b. Avuya, Saul does not act in half measures; if his flaws cannot be corrected completely, then he does not want them corrected at all. He aims for the highest heights, but if he cannot achieve this, he will consign himself to the lowest depths. To go halfway is not an option.

By contrast, for someone like Judah – the true baal teshuva – the existence of flaws is intrinsic to him and his personality. If he did not have flaws, he would not be who he is. The baal teshuva thrives on his ability to deconstruct his personality in order to reshape it in another form, to make changes within himself.

Judah begins entirely from below. Like David, he comes “From following the flock” (II Shmu’el 7:8); he begins from nothing. Judah is neither the firstborn nor the most physically imposing of Jacob’s children. However, he “prevailed over his brothers” (I Divrei 5:2), and he continuously perseveres, generation after generation.

Joshua and Caleb seem similar, to a large degree. However, though the Talmud likens Joshua to Moses, saying, “Moses’ countenance was like that of the sun; Joshua’s countenance was like that of the moon” (Massekhet Bava Batra 75a), Joshua had no children. Caleb had a son and a brother – he had successors, generation after generation. Not all of his descendants were important or significant people, and most certainly did not measure up to his eminence, but Caleb’s essence lived on . When Joshua died, however, only a tombstone remained. After the tribes of Joseph were smashed and exiled, they did not return home. We – who are basically the Kingdom of Judah – had our first Temple destroyed, but we built the Second Temple. We were exiled again for a period of time, but once again, we are returning.

Wherever Judah and Joseph interact, it is a meeting between perfection and adaptability. Throughout history, Joseph represents splendor, even heroism.  In contrast, Judah is flawed and beleaguered, beset with difficulties; but in the end, Judah always prevails.

Rectifying the World

At the end of the parasha, there is a section that the commentators discuss extensively, even though it seems to have little to do with the main theme of the parasha, and is connected to a different aspect of the relationship between Judah and Joseph.

The entire final section of Parashat Vayigash is the story of how Joseph handles Egyptian politics for Pharaoh and how he governs the Egyptians. That Joseph was a powerful ruler over the entire land has already been stated, but here we find a whole story about how Joseph interacts with the Egyptians.

Shortly before this story, the Torah states, “And he [Jacob] sent Judah before him unto Joseph, to show the way before him unto Goshen” (Bereshit 46:28). Where do Judah and Joseph stand at this juncture?

In contrast to Judah, Joseph is practically a king. He speaks seventy languages, while Judah no doubt stammers in the only language he knows. But that is not the point. Here we see that Joseph acts not only in his own interest; rather, he tries to rectify the world. Joseph endeavors on behalf of the entire country and puts it back on its feet. While Joseph is saving the country, Judah brings the family to the land of Goshen, where they organize themselves in their own matters. While Joseph is engaged in a great undertaking, Judah deals with the small matters” his flock, his herd, and the question of how to support the family.

The interpretation by our sages (Genesis Rabba 95:3) that Jacob sent Judah in order to establish a house of study does not affect the analysis. The same conclusion emerges: Joseph is not just the most successful son in his family. He is a man who concerns himself with the whole world, while Judah concerns himself with parochial Jewish pursuits. Whereas Joseph is universal, Judah is only a Jew, engaging in his own pursuits and his own matters.

On the surface it appears that Joseph, the man of the world, is the hero of this narrative, while Judah is of minor importance. Precisely here, the haftara plays a crucial role, presenting the differences in the nature and character of Judah and Joseph as fundamental distinction between two parallel worlds. When the Judah-Joseph duality is viewed under a different light, as it is in the haftara, we see the world of Joseph – who transcends his own individuality and represents a whole way of being – and a world of Judah, whose essence is that he beings from below, from crisis, from distress, and from the minutiae of life.

What Joseph does almost instantly takes Judah several generations to accomplish. Even when Judah builds, the building is not straight; his progress is characterized by ups and downs. But which is the ideal path, the worldview that we should adopt and strive for? Neither the book of Genesis nor the Torah as a whole presents a clear answer to this question.

When Jacob blesses his sons before his death and gives Judah and Joseph the biggest and most significant blessings, they are on equal ground, one facing the other. Evident in the blessings to Joseph is not just greater love for this son; they are blessings of tremendous scope – Jacob grants him heaven and earth: “May your father’s blessing add to the blessing of my parents, to the utmost bounds of the everlasting hills. May they rest on Joseph’s head, on the brow of the elect of his brothers” (Bereshit 49:26). He gives him everything that can possibly be given. Correspondingly, Judah receives eternity: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet” (49:10). Joseph is given grandeur, while Judah is given eternity.

The conclusion is not found in this parasha, nor in the book of Genesis, nor anywhere in the entire Torah. The final reckoning is that of the Messiah: Who will be the true Messiah? Since this reckoning moves back and forth over the generations, it is clear that Joseph and Judah are equals: It is the ultimate conflict between the perfect and the imperfect, between those who begin with a stacked deck and those who forge themselves.

The Stick of Judah and the Stick of Joseph

The haftara presents Judah and Joseph as two branches, and the conflict between them is not personal but, rather, a conflict between essential natures. It is very difficult for them to join together, because they are two different character types that cannot be integrated.

The haftara concludes that in this disagreement, although from time to time the scales tip to the stick of Judah or the stick of Joseph, it is impossible to truly favor one side or the other. According to the haftara, ideally the two aspects should be able to work together, as the Likkutei Torah writes in his Shir HaShirim (13a) regarding the verse, “We will add circlets of gold to your points of silver” (Sefer 1:11).

In all the texts that deal with this subject, it is clear that there will be no solution to this question until the end of days. This conflict, like the “Dispute for the sake of Heaven” of Shammai and Hillel (Pirkei Avot 5:17), will ultimately endure.

When we say that these two aspects should go together, the meaning is not that they should be joined together like two planks, forcing each to adapt to the nature of the other. When the stick of Judah and the stick of Joseph join together they should each exist independently, but side by side, in the perfect harmony of a string quartet. Judah and Joseph represent two different elements, each of which retains its distinctness. The inevitable internal conflict in this coexistence is the very thing that creates the beauty.

In Joseph’s case, there is an element of great tragedy. People who possess the character traits of Joseph are incomparable in their splendor and virtual perfection. They are radiant suns, but they have no way of recovering from a fall. Must it always be that those of us who approach closest to perfection are also the most fragile among us? Will the spiritual descendants of Joseph never be able to lift themselves up and repair themselves?

Apparently, until the end of time, these two types will remain: one who is characterized by wholeness and perfection, and one who is characterized by fault and repair; one who draws his strength from his perfection, and the other, from the power of renewal. These two will never completely unite, but together they comprise the tension that makes our lives so vibrant. We live between Judah and Joseph, and when the two elements work in perfect tandem, the symphony of life is formed.


This essay first appeared in Talks on the Parasha, from Koren Publishers Jerusalem, 2015.

 

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