Monday, November 26, 2007

Vayeishev 5 - The Controversy of Judah and Joseph

A d'var torah that I wrote for this week's issue of the UPenn d'var torah newsletter. I also handed in a condensed version, in the event that space constraints are an issue, but this is the full version.

In this week’s sedra, the two parshiyos describing Judah’s family and Joseph in the house of Potiphar are treated as one unit, being separated from each other by a minor break and being separated from the preceding and following parshiyos by major breaks. A close examination reveals that the two stories are eerily similar to one another: In both stories, one of the brothers is separated from his family and becomes attached to a new family; meets with a measure of success; has his world turned upside down by a woman; attempts to resist the woman; and continues to be pursued by the woman. Ultimately, Joseph successfully resists the woman, while Judah acquiesces to her temptation. Given the stunning parallelisms between these two stories, why do they have different results? Why did Joseph pass his test with full marks, while Judah stumbled?

Rachel, Joseph’s mother, is described by her complete physical beauty, representing engagement with the world. Judah’s mother, Leah, was described by her beautiful eyes, emphasizing her focus on the hidden intellectual and spiritual realms. It was the active Rachel who watered her father’s sheep, who asserted herself in demanding that her husband pray for her and that her sister share her love-fruits with her, who struggled with God’s decrees, and who had the foresight to steal her father’s teraphim. The retiring Leah calmly accepted everything she received. When she left her tent to speak to Jacob, Midrash Tanchuma (7) finds it so shocking that it compares it to Dinah’s going forth that resulted in her being assaulted. Once Rachel bore Jacob a child, he was ready to confront Esau, as he now possessed physicality to fight physicality.

Judah is named after “Hoda’ah”, thanksgiving. The word hoda’ah in a more general sense means admission or concession. One who concedes a point reciprocates exactly what is set before him, no more and no less. Joseph is named after “Asifah”, after the reduction of Rachel’s shame, and “Hosafah”, after Rachel’s desire for an additional child. Judah is associated with repetition and stability, Joseph with addition and subtraction.

R’ Joseph B. Soloveitchik in his address “And Joseph Dreamt a Dream” (included in Chameish Derashot) notes that Joseph realized that the time of the prophecy that Abraham’s descendants would be strangers in a strange land was very near, and that his family would then be forced to adapt to a new environment. Hence, he told his brothers his dreams in preparation for the time when his skills of engagement and reaction to change would be needed. His brothers, though, did not accept his arguments that a change from their current lifestyle would be necessary. They viewed the future as a continuation of the present, and instead concluded that he was their generation’s Ishmael or Esau, who was not content with his role, but rather sought to overstep into the boundaries of others. To neutralize this threat, Judah recommended that they dismiss Joseph from the family heritage, just as Abraham expelled Ishmael and Esau removed himself to Mount Se’ir.

When Judah left his comfort zone, he was anchored by his friend Chirah and by his wife and children, who replaced the society that he had lost. Joseph similarly prospered in the house of Potiphar. At the time of crisis, though, when the two men were left alone with their inclinations, Joseph’s ability to adapt to this intensified challenge enabled him to overcome, while Judah, on the other hand, succumbed. Joseph, with his gift for adapting to new situations, ultimately became the Egyptian viceroy and used his foresight to save the region from famine; Judah utilized his skill in strengthening the status quo in organizing the transfer of the Jewish settlement to Goshen. Joseph is compared to an ox, which is intimately connected to physical needs. Judah is referred to as a lion, whose awe-inspiring roar is compared to the blast of prophecy. When Moses died, it was Joseph’s descendant, Joshua, who had the skills to lead the people into their new phase. Judah’s descendant, Osniel ben Kenaz, restored to the nation the laws that had been forgotten during the mourning for Moses.

When King Solomon’s son Rechav’am refused to acknowledge the paradigm shift resulting from his father’s death, the northern tribes broke away and coronated as king Yarav’am ben Nevat, a scion of Joseph. Yarav’am’s beginning was auspicious, as he was given license to reign by the prophet Achiyah HaShiloni. Things quickly went awry, though, as Yarav’am became distracted from his designated purpose, and replaced the Temple in Jerusalem with local temples. Sanhedrin 102b relates that after these events, God told Yarav’am, “If you recant, then you, I, and [David] the son of Jesse will stroll together in the Garden of Eden – but David shall walk in front.” Yarav’am refused to depart from his chosen path, and became one of the most disastrous kings in our history. Yarav’am had great potential, but made the mistake of overvaluing himself and losing sight of the fact that his Judaism was authenticated only by its subordination to that of Judah. Once he viewed himself as superior to the Judean king, all was lost.

The prophet Ezekiel describes the conclusion of this struggle between the descendants of Judah and of Joseph. The twin staffs shall ultimately become one, under the unification of a Davidic monarch. Although David was a descendant of Judah, he possessed both the beautiful eyes of his grandmother Leah and the ruddy physical beauty of Rachel. In the end of days, Judah shall again be regnant, but shall be revitalized by the beauty of Joseph.

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At 11/29/2007 7:50 PM, Anonymous chaim said...

"rachot" = "beautiful"?

At 11/29/2007 8:17 PM, Blogger Josh M. said...

See Onkelos and Rashbam.


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