By Shlomo Riskin
“Judah, to you shall your brothers give homage” (Gen. 49:8)
The climax of our biblical portion of Vayechi – and indeed of the entire Book of Genesis – comes in the death-bed scene in which Jacob–Israel bestows blessings upon each of his sons, the future twelve tribes of our nation. The deepest biblical conflicts arose in the competition for the birthright-blessings. Now we face the question, which son of this last patriarch will receive the Abrahamic mission- covenant and why?
God promised Abraham that “through him all the families of the earth would be blessed.” To achieve this, Abraham needed to ensure that the bearer of the birthright would have “compassionate righteousness and moral justice” (Genesis 18:19) as well as profound God consciousness, and a commitment to the land and the mission of Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3). When our story reaches the third generation, and Jacob is blessed with twelve sons, it seems that another qualification for leadership is added: the ability to unite the family.
Jacob thought that beautiful, brilliant Joseph, first-born son of his beloved Rachel was the perfect candidate. However, Jacob’s favoritism began a process of familial dissolution which accelerated when Joseph reported dreams in which the whole family bowed down to him, as though he were their king (Gen. 37:3-9). When Joseph brought back tales of his brothers’ transgressions to their father, he bred even more resentment in his siblings, alienating them from him and fatefully fracturing the family of Israel.
Joseph is now sold into slavery. Jacob is suspicious of the role the brothers may have played in his beloved son’s “disappearance”, but he is wary of causing even more familial dissension by voicing his thoughts. The patriarch remains a disconsolate mourner in famine-stricken Canaan-Israel.
When the brothers come to Egypt to purchase food, the siblings are reunited. Joseph is hidden behind the mask of the Grand Vizier, so his brothers are unaware of his presence. But we, the readers are aware, and we see the potential for family reconciliation. Now Joseph faces Judah, the other candidate for the birthright. Each protagonist has come a long way in developing the traits necessary for leadership. The incident with Tamar has taught Judah the importance of taking responsibility for one’s siblings and for familial future, and it has established his credentials as a paragon of compassionate righteousness and moral justice. Joseph too has proven his moral rectitude by escaping the advances of Mrs. Potiphar and developing greater modesty. But will Joseph or Judah succeed in repairing their broken family?
At the end of the portion of Miketz, Joseph seemed to have made a decision. He had given up on the brothers who cast him into the pit, and even on his father whose favoritism had set in motion some of the family struggles. Joseph may have even wondered whether the patriarch was part of the plot to get rid of him. Now, he wishes to spend the rest of his life in Egypt with his only true brother, Benjamin, child of the same mother, who was too young to have had any hand in the near fratricide. To blazes with my family! he thinks. I now have a new Egyptian family!
Initially, Judah thought that God was sending all the trials and tribulations to the brothers coming to purchase food in Egypt because they sinned in having sold their brother Joseph into slavery. But when Joseph rejects Judah’s proposal that all the brothers become his slaves on account of the stolen goblet, he wonders why they had been singled out in such a punitive fashion by the Grand Vizier. Who in Egypt might be out to get them? Unless, the Grand Vizier himself is actually Joseph!
Now that Judah thinks that he has uncovered the true identity of the vizier, he understands that he must find a way to bring Joseph back into the bosom of the family. He must effect a rapprochement between Jacob and all of his sons, in such a way that everyone will understand the futility of dredging up history which would only exacerbate personal recriminations.
And so Judah faces Joseph, the Grand Vizier, ostensibly pleading for Benjamin’s freedom, but using the opportunity to describe their old father who deeply loved the two sons of Rachel, and still mourns for Joseph, whom he believes has been killed by a wild beast (44:28). Not only does he disabuse Joseph of any suspicion that Jacob had been linked to the plot, but he also subtlety tries to impute guilt upon Joseph for not contacting his old, grieving father. How can Joseph now inflict further pain on the patriarch by keeping him from Benjamin?
By offering himself as a slave in place of Benjamin, Judah is also proving that he, who had initially proposed the sale, has finally learned the lesson of brotherly love. Judah succeeds. Joseph reveals himself and rejoins the family. Jacob-Israel and his children are reunited – by Judah, who has now proven that he is the most worthy recipient of the coveted birthright.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.