Then Judah approached him and said, “Please, my lord, let now your servant speak something into my lord’s ears, and let not your wrath be kindled against your servant, for you are like Pharaoh. [Genesis. 44-18]
After all the pretense, piety and protocol, it’s come down to two brothers: Joseph and Judah. Simon and Levi have been neutralized. Reuven the eldest is no longer a factor. The patriarch Jacob is far away in Canaan.
And the argument begins: The Midrash says that by this point all is known. Judah, and perhaps some of his brothers, have identified the viceroy as his long-lost brother. They knew that the goblet found in little brother Binyamin’s satchel was planted on orders of Joseph. They knew that they stand accused of the sale of Joseph to the Ishmaelites some 20 years ago. The brothers are passive, even apathetic. It is only Judah who comes forward.
“For you are like Pharaoh.”
In the Torah portion of Vayigash, Judah is facing a stacked deck. Joseph, who has all the cards, wants a split. “I’ll take Binyamin. You can have the rest of the brothers. I can see the future, and my descendants will become kings. The only thing lacking will be the Temple, and part of that will be in Binyamin’s state.”
“I can see the future, too,” Judah responded. “But that’s not the whole story. Yes, you will lead Israel through Joshua, who will bring the masses back to Canaan. There will be a king as well through Binyamin named Saul. But that will be temporary: My descendants will establish the kingdom of Israel for eternity.”
“Eternity?” Joseph responded bitterly. “Judah will lead the kingdom for no more than 73 years — through David and Solomon. As soon as Solomon bequeaths his throne to his son Rehavam the kingdom will be divided and I will once again rule Israel. The problem is that you will have Binyamin by your side, and he belongs with me. Together, we will combine the spiritual and the material.”
The other brothers stayed off to the side. This was the war of the kings. Joseph and Judah stood eyeball to eyeball, and for a while it looked like they would come to blows. This wasn’t personal: It was about the future of Israel.
Judah’s reply was to compare Joseph to Pharaoh. Actually, Judah was being polite: Joseph was far greater than Pharaoh. At the end of this week’s Torah portion, Joseph exploited the famine in Egypt to bring Pharaoh everything — money, land and finally the people themselves. In return, the viceroy supplied food. Joseph didn’t keep a dime for himself.
So, Joseph bought all the farmland of the Egyptians for Pharaoh, for the Egyptians sold, each one his field, for the famine had become too strong for them, and the land became Pharaoh’s. And he transferred the populace to the cities, from [one] end of the boundary of Egypt to its [other] end. [Genesis. 57:20-21]
But there was a deeper meaning in Judah’s words: He challenged Joseph. “Is that who you want to be — Pharaoh? Working for money and power and more money. Our ancestors encountered several Pharaohs, and in the end the emperors all proved to have been naked. If you can see the future, you will know that your boss will see his kingdom destroyed and will end up screaming in the streets for help. Indeed, if you persist in trying to keep Binyamin, I and my brothers will destroy Egypt right now.
“Or you can come back home to a flawed family with brothers who once did you wrong, a mother who died all too young, a father who couldn’t protect you. But you will be part of Israel and your children will lead the fight for liberation. And I, Judah, will be by your side. We started out as 12 brothers and, despite all the setbacks, that is how we will end up.”
Nearly 2,000 years ago, Rabbi Chanina listed three things to avoid: guarding the valuables of others; persuading your minor daughter to wed by telling her she can walk away at any time; and serving as a guarantor for somebody’s debt. Then the sage lists three things to embrace: levirate marriage, or the option of a childless widow not to marry her husband’s brother; the annulment of vows, and finally bringing peace between two people.
The need to bring peace between brothers allows us to exercise levirate marriages and annulment of vows. These tools could be vital in resolving long-standing feuds within families or communities. “I don’t want to marry my brother-in-law,” the young widow cries. “You don’t have to.” “I swear I’ll never talk to my family again,” spits out an aggrieved sibling. “We can break that vow and have a do-over.”
In the showdown, Judah relayed another message. This, from his great-great-great-great grandchild Solomon. In Ecclesiastes, Solomon has a message for Joseph, who at one point thought he could grab his younger brother Binyamin and send the rest back home.
Wisdom is a stronghold to the wise man more than ten rulers that are in a city. [Ecclesiastes. 7:19]
Solomon’s message, the Midrash says, is that Joseph had the power to overcome Judah and his brothers. He could have kept Binyamin and killed the rest of the siblings. But just before the opening shot in the war, Joseph had to make a decision immediately — to destroy the family or heal the wounds.
Joseph chose the latter and Jewish history began.