Is it only two brothers who face off in the dramatic opening of our portion, or do they carry upon their shoulders the weight of future history—the division of their two respective kingdoms, Judah and Israel, which will vie for primacy and even engage in civil war? Why add the historical overlay? Is not the drama of this scene sufficient? When Judah tells Joseph, “you are just like Pharaoh,” does he expect his dagger of a compliment to cut so deep? When Joseph devises an elaborate test of his brothers, does he divine that he will be the one reduced to tears? Why dig down when the topsoil is so rich?
While the Torah presents the story as that of two brothers, it is evident from the outset that more is at stake than the fortunes of one generation of one family. Next week Jacob will call his sons forward to reveal, “what will befall you in the end of days.” He will speak prophetically, conferring royal blessings specifically on Judah and Joseph. The Torah here is setting up the drama of a millennium—the establishment of two Israelite kingdoms, north and south, each with spiritual and physical power.
In case you are skeptical—thinking that it is only modern scholars who read biblical texts as projections of national dramas—then consider the haftarah from Ezekiel 37, and the fact that these two texts were paired by ancient Jewish sages, presumably the rabbis. Ezekiel’s image is of a shattered staff, broken in two. God instructs the prophet to inscribe each piece with the name of one kingdom—Judah and Ephraim (Joseph’s dominant son), and to bind them back into one stick. National division is a sickness and source of weakness; reunion is the source of hope.
From the original Torah text, to the prophetic commentary upon it, to the rabbinic pairing of the two, we see that the “approach” of Judah to Joseph is more momentous than the tentative step of Judah toward his foreign and frightening kid brother. At issue here is national division, alienation, hatred and war. The matter at hand affects not one family but all families of Israel, and not for one generation but for all of time.
Midrash Bereshit Rabba (T-A ed, #93) relates our text to Psalms 48 (also the Psalm for Monday), when the kings conspire, “passing together” (avru yahdav). The Midrash cleverly plays on “pass” and “transgress,” saying that each brother drew the other into sin. This caused them to panic and tremble, but then they approached in reconciliation. Here the Midrash alludes to Job 41:8, which uses the same verb to approach (vayigoshu)–so closely that no wind (ruah) can pass between them. From an antagonism that diminishes each party, they reach a reconciliation and spiritual partnership.
The 15C Spanish exegete R’ Abraham b. Jacob Saba writes beautifully about this passage in his commentary Tzror HaMor (see bio below). He says that Judah took this moment to approach Joseph privately because he sensed in Joseph’s dismissal (“Now go in peace back to your father”) that the opportunity for reunion was about to be lost. There was a brief opening to heal the rupture, and so Judah stepped forward and pleaded—do not turn away from us. Let me approach, let us see each other as humans, let us realize that together we can be stronger.
While there are personalities and personal histories at play, in the end this story is much bigger than the tale of two brothers. Each has previously been shown in moments of personal failure, but now they are illumined by a much finer light, as people who are willing to become vulnerable, to plead, to reveal themselves, and to weep. Judah and Joseph are teaching all of us how to reconcile, not only as individuals but also as a nation. Their story is the story of the People Israel, the leaders and future redeemers.
Boy, do we Americans need such skill! Seldom has a nation felt as divided as we are today. And yet this week there were openings when it seemed that perhaps decency and common sense could lead our leaders to act for the common good. The specifics are not essential—they won’t last another news cycle—but after an election that divided this nation down the middle, we need opportunities to bind the pieces back together.
According to Jewish eschatology, there will be two messiahs, a descendant of Joseph and a descendant of Judah, to do the work of redemption. I think of these figures as metaphors for a broader national movement of reconciliation. We would do well to learn their lessons—when you sense that a rupture is about to deepen, act decisively to draw close. And when you sense in an opponent a surprising spirit of honesty and contrition, then be prepared to set aside anger and resentment, to reveal your best self, and to embrace them with love.
בראשית פרק מד, יח
(יח) וַיִּגַּ֨שׁ אֵלָ֜יו יְהוּדָ֗ה וַיֹּאמֶר֘ בִּ֣י אֲדֹנִי֒ יְדַבֶּר־נָ֨א עַבְדְּךָ֤ דָבָר֙ בְּאָזְנֵ֣י אֲדֹנִ֔י וְאַל־יִ֥חַר אַפְּךָ֖ בְּעַבְדֶּ֑ךָ כִּ֥י כָמ֖וֹךָ כְּפַרְעֹֽה:
יחזקאל פרק לז, טז-יז
(טז) וְאַתָּ֣ה בֶן־אָדָ֗ם קַח־לְךָ֙ עֵ֣ץ אֶחָ֔ד וּכְתֹ֤ב עָלָיו֙ לִֽיהוּדָ֔ה וְלִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל חברו חֲבֵרָ֑יו וּלְקַח֙ עֵ֣ץ אֶחָ֔ד וּכְת֣וֹב עָלָ֗יו לְיוֹסֵף֙ עֵ֣ץ אֶפְרַ֔יִם וְכָל־בֵּ֥ית יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל חברו חֲבֵרָֽיו: (יז) וְקָרַ֨ב אֹתָ֜ם אֶחָ֧ד אֶל־אֶחָ֛ד לְךָ֖ לְעֵ֣ץ אֶחָ֑ד וְהָי֥וּ לַאֲחָדִ֖ים בְּיָדֶֽךָ:
בראשית רבה (תיאודור-אלבק) פרשת ויגש פרשה צג
כי הנה המלכים נועדו עברו יחדו (תהלים מח ה), כי הנה המלכים נועדו זה יהודה ויוסף, עברו יחדו זה נתמלא עברה על זה, וזה נתמלא עברה על זה, המה ראו כן תמהו (שם שם /תהלים מ”ח/ ו) ויתמהו האנשים איש אל רעהו (בראשית מג לג), נבהלו נחפזו (תהלים שם שם /מ”ח ו’/) ולא יכלו אחיו לענות אתו וגו’ (בראשית מה ג), רעדה אחזתם שם חיל כיולדה (תהלים שם /מ”ח/ ז) אילו השבטים, אמרו מלכים מדיינים אילו עם אילו אנו מה אכפת לנו, יאי למלך מדיין עם מלך ויגש אליו יהודה וגו’.
אחד באחד יגשו (איוב מא ח) זה יהודה ויוסף, ורוח לא יבא ביניהם (שם שם /איוב מ”א/) אילו השבטים, אמרו מלכים מדיינים אילו עם אילו אנו מה אכפת לנו, יאי למלך מדיין עם מלך ויגש אליו יהודה וגו’.
איוב פרק מא פסוק ח
אֶחָ֣ד בְּאֶחָ֣ד יִגַּ֑שׁוּ וְ֝ר֗וּחַ לֹא־יָב֥וֹא בֵֽינֵיהֶֽם:
צרור המור בראשית פרשת ויגש
ואמר ויגש אליו יהודה. לפי שהוא אמר ואתם עלו לשלום אל אביכם. ונראה שבדיבור זה היה יוסף מתיאש מהם כמי שרוצה לילך. לזה אמר ויגש אליו יהודה לעכבו ולפייסו שלא ילך לו. ולזה א”ל בי אדוני. מפיל אני תחנתי לפניך שאף על פי שתהיה נחפז ללכת אל בית המלך. תשמע דברי כי לא אטריח לך בדברים אלא בדבר אחד. וזהו ידבר נא עבדך דבר. ולפי שזה אינו מדרך מוסר שיעכב איש הדיוט למלך. לזה אמר ואל יחר אפך בעבדך. כי איני עושה זה לפי שאיני מעריך כבודך. כי כמוך כפרעה:
Abraham b’r Jacob Saba was born in Castile, Spain, ca. 1440. He was a disciple of R. Isaac de Leon and served as a community rabbi. In the Expulsion of 1492, he emigrated to Portugal, and following the Expulsion from Portugal in 1497, he moved to Fez, Morocco. Two of sons were kidnapped by Christians and he had to bury his manuscripts upon leaving Iberia, mourning both throughout the remainder of his life. From Morocco he immigrated to Adrianopole (Edirne) , Turkey, where he rewrote some of his books. He is essentially known for his volume, Tzeror haMore, a homiletic and mystic commentary on the Torah (Venice, 1523) . He also authored the Eshkol haKofer on the scrolls of Esther and Ruth. He died aboard ship on his way to Italy on the eve of Yom Kippur, 1508, and was buried in Verona, Italy. His granddaughter (by his son R. Isaac) was the wife of R. Joseph Caro.