Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

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Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk 


It's a cliché in Old West movies that the climax of the film will be a showdown between the good guy and the villain, white hat v black hat. Traditionally, it would be a gun fight at high noon on the main street of some generic western town, as assorted townsfolk scurry for cover. Did you ever ponder: Why 'high noon'? It's actually quite simple. At noon there are no shadows, and no advantage to either participant from a sun in the other's eyes. But it's mostly a myth, because most gunfights were spontaneous. This plot design was also adopted by super hero flics. Batman, Ironman, Spiderman or Whateverman is beaten by some nemesis early in the film only to have a climatic return match towards the end of the film. Believe or not, we have a similar scenario in this week's Torah reading. 

This week's 'high noon' moment appears at the very outset of the parsha: Then Yehuda approached him and said, 'Please, my lord, let now your servant speak into my lord's ears, and let not your wrath be kindled against your servant, for you are like Pharaoh' (Breishit 44:18). The word translated as 'approached' is our Torah readings title, VAYIGASH, and is perhaps better translated 'confronted'. There are a number of Midrashim which describe Yehuda threatening the disguised Yosef. That approach is a bit whimsical. Egypt is the world's super power, and Yehuda does employ the magic word 'please' in his presentation. However, we do get a sense that Yehuda will not back down as he presents the case for Binyamin's defense. 

The tension of the encounter is arranged by the Torah, with a little help from our Sages, to heighten the drama of our scene. It all begins back in parshat Vayeshev, when Yehuda takes the lead on the sale of Yosef. Then their stories become entwined. Yehuda has an elicit relationship with Tamar, ending with his sincere repentance. This union resulted in two boys, Zerach and Peretz, of whom the younger would become the heir. Yosef eschews an elicit affair with his master's wife. He, eventually does get married and has 2 boys, Efraim and Menasheh, the younger of whom would take the lead. Yosef ramps up the tension by demanding that Binyamin come to Egypt if the Ya'akov clan ever wants food again. Of course, it's Yehuda who guarantees his safety. 

The also-ran in all these developments is Reuvain. In a future article I'll address his triple failure to become a leader within the family. 

Along came our Sages who divided up the weekly readings. When establishing the break between last week's material and this week's continuation, they broke the narrative with Yosef demoralizing the brothers by demanding that Binyamin be imprisoned. It seems that our Sages invented the cliff hanger by ending last week's reading with the distraught Binyamin being dragged off in chains. The Jewish world spends a week holding its collective breath awaiting the resolution of the crisis. Then we breathe a sigh of relief as Yehuda steps up to champion his cause. 

Throughout these sagas, the competing leadership claims of Yehuda and Yosef are emphasized many times. The 12 sons of Ya'akov are only referred as brothers when referencing Yosef or Yehuda. When the family moves to Egypt it's understandable that Yosef has a major role because of his position in the Pharaonic government, but it's Yehuda who travels ahead to apparently get directions from Yosef where to settle in the area called Goshen. But there is an ambiguity over who is directing whom, so the Midrash says that Yehuda was setting up a Yeshiva before the family arrived, while, presumably, Yosef is arranging the living quarters (46:28). 

Even though we do have this dramatic showdown moment, the result is different from the old western model. We have no clear winner. Maybe everyone's a winner, because these two stalwart characters continue to lead the Ya'akov clan into nationhood. The clearest statements of the leadership roles of Yosef and Yehuda come in the blessings, both those of Ya'akov next week and those of Moshe, in the Torah's penultimate chapter. 

Ya'akov Avinu tells Yehuda: Yehuda, your brothers will acknowledge you...and your father's sons will prostrate before you...The scepter will never depart from Yehuda (49:8 & 10). While he reports to Yosef: His Bow remains taut, his arms are strong. This was Ya'akov's champion, who became a shepherd, and builder of Yisrael (verse 24). 

Moshe Rabbeinu adds: Hear O Lord, Yehuda's voice, and to his people You shall bring him. May You help him against his enemies (Devarim 33:7). And here at the end of Moshe's life the greatest blessing goes to Yosef: Blessed of the Lord is his land...His glory is like a firstborn ox, his horns like the mighty aurochs, with them he gores the nations of the earth (verses 13 & 17). It's clear that will both will lead, but Moshe gives a little extra to Yosef, I think, because his beloved successor, Yehoshua, is from Yosef through Efraim. 

This continual struggle between Yosef and Yehuda for ultimate leadership becomes a constant of Jewish history. In this week's haftorah, Yechezkel foresees: O human, take a stick and write 'for Yehuda'...and take another and write 'for Yosef'...Join them together into one stick...and they will become one in the Hand of God (37:15-20). The future of the Jewish people requires them both. 

Our Sages interpreted this future vision as predicting a Mashiach from Yosef as well as the eventual Mashiach ben David, representing the tribe of Yehuda (TB Sukkah 52a). 

Yosef never faltered; he always knew the right path, because he was the Zadik. Yehuda stumbled but saw his error and repaired the damage, because he was the Ba'al Teshuva. The eventual destiny of the Jewish people requires both attributes. Just like in our parsha the eventual path of our people requires Yosef's announcement: Come close to me (GESHU)! We await the time when the confrontation (VAYIGASH) becomes the embrace of GESHU.