The conflict between Joseph and Judah in the Torah adumbrates the complicated relationship between the two kingdoms which made up ancient Israel, the northern kingdom, Israel (Joseph), and the southern kingdom, Judah. Each of these brothers underwent tremendous character development in their growth as human beings and in their interactions with each other. Joseph starts out as a favored son, indulged and spoiled, who carried with him an air of superiority and condescendence towards those around him. These negative qualities brought about his traumatic fall at the hands of his own brothers who sold him into slavery. We are privy to seeing Joseph’s rise up from these negative personality traits through trials and tribulations until he ultimately transcends them, evolving into a true leader.
But, what about Judah? Next to Joseph, Judah proves to be the most complicated character among the brothers. His life abounded in troubling episodes. It was Judah who counseled his brothers to sell Joseph into slavery and it was Judah who got tangled up in a complicated story with his daughter-in-law, Tamar. In each of these incidents, Judah’s leadership and behavior were, at the very least, disappointing. His “rehabilitation” only began when he and his brothers were obliged to return to Egypt a second time for more provisions to carry them through the famine. This return to Egypt necessitated bringing Benjamin, their youngest brother along with them even though his departure from Jacob, his father would be traumatic. Judah was transformed by this event. It prompted him to take on the mantel of responsibility for his brother, Benjamin’s welfare and when Joseph set up a ploy to entrap Benjamin, Judah showed his true colors, standing up to his yet unrecognized brother, Joseph, to try to save Benjamin. It is at this point that Judah becomes Joseph’s equal, turning the two brothers into the forerunners of the two competing states that formed the Jewish nation.
But was Judah’s character development really sufficient to make him the progenitor of Judah’s monarchy? This question was taken up by the following midrash: “[The elders asked Rabbi Tarfon:] ‘Our master, teach us, by what virtue, did Judah merit the kingship?’ [He was the progenitor of the house of David.] He said to them: ‘You tell [me].’ They said: ‘On account of saving Joseph by selling him’ (See Genesis 37:26) Rabbi Tarfon replied: ‘Saving Joseph’s life would only be sufficient to atone for having sold him into slavery.’ ‘If so, then perhaps it was on account of his having admitted [regarding Tamar] that she is more righteous than me (See Genesis 38:26).’ Again, Rabbi Tarfon replied: ‘That would only be sufficient to atone for cohabiting with her in the first place.’ ‘If so’, they replied: ‘perhaps it was, when he offered to Joseph to take Benjamin’s place as a slave.’ (See Genesis 44:33) ‘No’, replied Tarfon, ‘The guarantor must always pay!’ Well then, master, you teach us by what virtue Judah merited the kingdom.’ He said to them: ‘When the tribes of Israel stood at the sea equivocating, only Nahshon ben Amminadav was willing to take plunge into the waves! This is why the tribe of Judah warranted kingship! (Adapted from Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael Beshallah 5, Horowitz Rabin ed. pp. 106-7)
The stories of these two brothers and their interactions frame their futures. It is as if to say that their rich life stories transformed them from mere individuals into larger-than-life characters. Could they have mastered the challenges they faced without their rich life experiences? Could Judah have faced down Joseph if he had not gone through so many trials? Were these trials sufficient to shape Judah to be the progenitor of the Davidic line which would lead the nation? While Joseph’s experiences may have seemed sufficient for inspired leadership, Rabbi Tarfon claims that one necessary element was missing from Judah’s personal development before this promise could be fulfilled. Judah lacked the “audacity of faith” to lead. It was Nahshon who provided the spirit which could inspire others. Judah’s inspiring transformation as a person together with Nahshon’s inspired leadership were just the right combination that the nation needed.