Yosef’s collapse

As Yehuda rises to open Parshat Vayigash, the accompanying musical marks (taamei hamikra) perfectly escalate the drama. The marks’ names even describe the drama: Then rose (kadma) and went forth (v’azla) the fourth (revii), and challenged (zarka) the royal (segol). Yehuda reveals to Yosef and to the reader that we’ve underestimated him, that he is a man of great courage and integrity, a man in whose word you can trust. The Torah is filled with great dramatic moments, often with supernatural bells and whistles. To me, Yehuda standing up to Yosef is the Torah’s greatest human dramatic moment.

In contrast, the music for Yosef’s big reveal is a complete dud, and this too tells the story. You can read the marks’ names as: Then rose (kadma), reversal (mahpach), stripped [his regal bearing] (pashta) and stood small (or the small one stood) (zakef katon).

The biblical patterns had been clear. The soft younger brother rises above the wild unworthy older ones. Yosef must have imagined his big reveal to his brothers a thousand times. Suddenly he realizes that he, not his brothers, has read his brothers all wrong. It’s his world that will shatter.

His reveal will be a repeat of his revelation of his dream 22 years earlier. He meant to prove that he’s been right all along. His brothers see it as confirmation that he’s a dangerous obnoxious jerk with a god complex. Yosef isn’t winning the reunion by showing that he became viceroy. They didn’t know that Yosef and the viceroy were actually the same person, but the brothers’ worldview is unchanged. Their brother is petty and nasty, with some narcissism and megalomania. Yosef’s big reveal returns him from viceroy to overreaching little brother who will never earn his half-brothers’ love, trust, or respect.

The brothers have a few seconds of shock, and then the darkness in their world turns to light. The crime for which they’ve spent 22 years atoning turns out not to have killed their brother. The victim forgives them, and declares that the crime was an act of G-d which worked out well for everybody. The viceroy who was playing with their minds and ruining their lives transforms into the fairy godbrother who will support them through the famine.

Yosef and his descendants repeatedly relive the same patterns of dramatic rise and crash. Wherever he goes, Yosef quickly gathers friends and foes, but the former fade while the latter accumulate. Pharaoh forgets him. The Egyptians stop being thankful for being saved from the famine, and start being resentful that Yosef bought their land, and themselves, for Pharaoh. Yosef and his brothers die trapped in Egypt, enslaved by the system Yosef created.

Yosef’s children become kings of most of Israel. They and most of the people they lead are later conquered, dispersed, and lost to history.

The prophets promise a happy ending. Yishayahu says Ephraim will not be jealous of Yehuda, and Yehuda will not constrain Ephraim. Yirmiyahu, in the haftorah of Rosh Hashannah, tells us that G-d loves and misses his rebellious son Ephraim, and Ephraim will atone, return, and be forgiven. Yechezkel, in Vayigash’s haftorah, says Yehuda and Ephraim will come together, never to split again.

Yosef is core to the Jewish idea. He’s the idealist, the dreamer, the one who thinks differently, the change agent who is never satisfied and whose very name means more. The annoying little brother who is always agitating and is sometimes right.

Yehuda is the rock. Solid, reliable, the keeper of promises. While Yosef is always changing the world, sometimes for the better, Yehuda is improving himself.

Without Yosef the Jewish people are far less relevant. Without Yehuda the Jewish people cease to be. May we learn to appreciate and love each other and to live together.

About the Author
Gil Reich is the author of If You Write My Story, which helps kids deal with life, love, and loss. He is also co-founder of internet marketing and development company Managing Greatness. Previously Gil was VP of Product Management at He has been a popular speaker at internet marketing conferences around the world.
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