This week, we read from Parshat Vayiggash which begins with Yehudah’s plea to Yosef, in which Yehudah said, “For you are like Pharoah”. According to Midrash, this was the moment when QUOTE “the kings joined in battle.” Now, of course, we know that Joseph is like a king. Yehudah himself points that out. But how could Judah be considered a king? It’s true that later on, next week in Parshas Vayechi, Yaakov designates Yehudah as the tribe of kingship. And we know that he is famous for his incredible strength; he is Yehudah the lion. But, at this point in time, nothing has really transpired that would make Yehudah into any sort of king. So why would Midrash consider him such?
Perhaps the answer is that the king is ultimately the person who is responsible for the decisions and destiny of his nation. The bottom line is that responsibility resides with the leader of a nation. He must decide when to send the nation into war and when to sue for peace. Kingship equals responsibility. When Yehudah came forth and committed to his father Yaakov, “I will be responsible for Binyamin, from my hand you may seek him...”, he became the king. He put his life on the line, he personally guaranteed his brother’s safety, and he became a new man. He went from one of the brothers to the leader. To king.
If we understand this transformation, then we also understand another dramatic scene from earlier in the Torah. At the end of Parshas Miketz, when it was thought that Binyamin was ‘guilty’ of stealing the silver, Yehudah seems to act like a servant. He’s meek, and he prostrates himself in front of Yosef, confesses to the brother’s guilt, and offers himself and all his other brothers into slavery. And yet, later, two verses later, Yehudah is almost arrogant when he speaks to Yosef. What happened?
One rabbi, Rav Yosef Leb Bloch, explains that what happened is that Yehudah remembered his acceptance of responsibility. Once he remembered the commitment of “I will be his guarantor,” he underwent a metamorphosis. He could no longer play the role of the weak, gentle, and servile brother. “The buck stops here. It is my responsibility.” Yehudah experienced a personality change. He was now a different person. “I accepted responsibility and I must do what I must do to live up to that responsibility.”
I would add to Rav Bloch’s interpretation that this is what happens when a person does TESHUVAH. We know that the brothers, Yehudah in particular, have all sought repentance. The experience of teshuvah, of genuine repentance, involves an accepting of responsibility. It’s not an ignoring of the past, but it is a rewriting of the past. A rewriting that now includes responsibility for one’s actions. And accepting responsibility changes a person. In the words of Winston Churchill, “Some people are born great; some people achieve greatness; and some people have greatness thrust upon them.” I’m not sure if anyone is “born great,” but there is no question that Yehudah had greatness thrust upon him. And he rose to that challenge.
The message here is clear. If Yehudah, who was guilty of so much, in thought AND deed, can take responsibility and become a changed man, so can any of us.
In this week’s parsha, we continue the riveting saga of Joseph and his brothers. We see in today’s Torah portion the quick and almost incredible rise of Joseph from forgotten prisoner to the second in command in all of Egypt. And he meets his brothers. We are told, in this dramatic passage: Joseph recognized his brothers but they didn’t recognize him.
How could that be?
Well, obviously, the brothers were not expecting to see Joseph. They assumed that he was a slave somewhere in Egypt. If you’re not expecting to see someone in a completely different context, it would be easy not to recognize them. That’s one possible explanation.
There’s also the dramatically different look that Joseph now has. His hair has been cut. He wears robes of fine linen. He has gold chains around his neck. On his finger is the royal signet ring. (He’d fit right in in Florida!) Joseph even has an Egyptian name: TSOFENAT PANEAKH. He’s thoroughly blended into Egyptian life.
These are all good reasons why the brothers wouldn’t recognize Joseph, and yet I think that there might be another reason, one not quite so literal.
Perhaps the brothers don’t recognize Joseph because he has changed so much, not ONLY on the outside which is obvious but also on the inside, which is not visible. Perhaps the parsha is telling us that Joseph has now become the true tsaddik that he was meant to be. He has learned from his mistakes, and he has been not only educated by those mistakes but also HUMBLED.
Where’s the evidence for that?
Well, think about what he tells Pharaoh when Pharaoh asks him about his ability to interpret dreams. Joseph tells him that it is not he, but rather GOD, who interprets those dreams for him. If you recall years back when Joseph tells his brothers of his dreams, he does not give any credit to anyone other than himself. So that’s a big change.
There’s other evidence, too. Remember that the brothers all bow down to Joseph. KEEP IN MIND THAT THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT HE HAD PREDICTED YEARS AGO THROUGH HIS DREAM. So what COULD HE have said? What would YOU have said to them at that moment? I think many of us would have been tempted to say: “SEE!! I told you guys!! This is just what I said would happen!! HOW COOL!! In your faces!!”
But he doesn’t say any of that.
Why does he refrain? I think Joseph refrains because he does not want to humiliate his brothers. He chooses not to lord his power over them because he himself has been so far down. Because he himself has lived through slavery and prison and the loss of his freedom. He was his father’s favorite, but where did that get him? He had the beautiful coat, but it was only a magnet for his brothers’ resentment. He now realizes that what matters is what he has learned, what he has gained on this spiritual journey.
Joseph has grown up.
Part of the Parsha of this week is Vayayshev is an interruption of the Joseph narrative. That section tells the story of Judah and Tamar. Judah, the most formidable of Jacob’s sons, is convinced that Tamar has betrayed him and his third son, to whom she is betrothed. When he sees that she is pregnant, he does not realize that the child she is carrying is actually his. So he accuses her of immorality and sits as a judge in the trial. As she is brought in to face the court, she sends him the security he had left with her when he himself had consorted with her. When he sees the damning evidence, he immediately sees that she is the one in the right. He declares, She is more righteous than I.
This is the same Judah who was willing to sell his brother Joseph into slavery. The same Judah who will later be willing to give himself up into slavery to save his youngest brother Benjamin. This brief interlude suggests to us that Judah is changing, that he is beginning to show compassion for others and to take responsibility for his actions.
But the real hero of this story is Tamar. Though she is virtually silent throughout the narrative, we know that she was willing to go to her death rather than to publicly humiliate her father-in-law. I would like to think that she accepted his apology and that she held no grudge against Judah for the accusation that he made. She chooses NOT to shame him, even when she could have. Our sages draw from this the life lesson, that it is better to go into a fiery furnace than to shame a person publicly.
Here’s a simple, concrete analogy: Think about how we cover the challah on Shabbas. Some say that we do so in order that the challah not be shamed while we pass over it to bless the wine. We show our respect for the bread that sustains us. But that respect should not stop at the Shabbas table. I bet that we all know people who are zealous about covering the challah but have no compunction when it comes to shaming or embarrassing other people. This is what happens if we remember the halakha—the rule—but forget the moral principle behind it. If we show that kind of consideration for an inanimate object—BREAD—how much more obligated must we be to other people. Never put anyone to shame. Seek NOT to embarrass another person. This is what Tamar taught Judah and what we should all strive to practice in our daily lives.
Let me ask you a question: do Jews believe in KARMA? I assume that everyone knows what karma is; I suppose another way of putting it is “what goes around comes around.” Is that idea part of Judaism? I may do a little sermon about the concept some day, but, for now, I just want to explore the idea in relation to this week’s parsha, Vayishlach.
I ask about karma because in Vayishlach we see that Jacob kind of gets what he deserves. Remember that he has stolen his brother’s birthright. He has tricked his father into giving him the blessing that his father had intended for Esav, the son Isaac prefers. Even his name tells us that he’s flawed—YAAKOV can mean HEEL but it can also mean CROOKED.
So, there is no question that Jacob has some growing up to do, even if this is all part of God’s divine plan. But, as we know, he does get his comeuppance. He has to flee from his home. He ends up being tricked by Laban and forced to marry the daughter he does not love. He works for more than 14 years to get the woman of his dreams. And he is finally driven to sneak away—once again—under cover of the night with all his property, his children, and his wives.
So maybe that’s karma. Payback for all the deception he used against his brother and his father. But let’s not forget that there’s another part to this powerful narrative. Remember that, before meeting up with his brother Esau, Jacob is left alone by the stream of Jabbok. There he wrestles with a man all night long. When morning comes the man asks to leave, and Jacob tells him, not until you bless me. The man says to Jacob, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed.” The name Israel means “wrestles with God.” Jacob has a new name, and an injury to his sciatic nerve that will cause him to limp for the rest of his life.
Maybe that’s another form of karma. But what happens when Jacob’s name is NO LONGER JACOB, but Israel? After wrestling with the man—and some say that the “man” was really GOD, or really an angel, or perhaps even Jacob wrestling with HIMSELF—what happens after this dramatic contest is that Jacob now knows that he has not been the kind of person worthy of the covenant God promised him. He has been crooked, and he needs to become a new self. He changes.
Is that KARMA? Maybe. But I think that, regardless of what you call Jacob’s transformation, this chapter of Breishit teaches us that people can change. WE CAN CHANGE. We tend to focus on that lesson during the High Holidays, but the lesson itself is right here in this week’s reading. Any one of us can wrestle with our demons and come out a better, less crooked person. That struggle is definitely painful, and Israel has the limp to prove it. The limp that reminds him—and us—of how far we have come, but also of where we have been. The limp that lets us know that change is hard and painful and leaves scars, but it is something that we survive. And, ultimately, it is worth it.
Rabbi David Grossman
Rabbi Joshua Grossman