|Dr Annette M. Boeckler|
It is Joseph’s story? Or is it Judah’s? Who really is the main hero? Isn’t Joseph rather a victim or at least only reacting to unlucky or happy circumstances? Judah’s actions and words however, move the story forward.
Does Joseph’s personality change during the story? No. Isn’t it, that at the beginning he wished to be adored, at the end he loves to be adored (42:9). Does Judah change? Yes. This week’s parasha is the proof. So who actually is the main hero of the story? Shouldn’t it be called the Judah-Story rather than the Joseph-Story?
The Judah we encounter this week is not the Judah of the past weeks. Do you remember: It was Judah who suggested selling his then youngest brother Joseph, “for what gain do we have if we kill him. Let us make money with him.” (37:26). The story of Judah and his daughter in law Tamar, however, is the key to understand Judah’s change. He deceived Tamar and is deceived and humiliated. This changed him. Tamar changed him. (Interestingly Tamar’s son Perez will become the ancestor of the messiah, as we sing in Lecha Dodi: ben parzi.) From now on Judah grows in responsibility. It was because of his plea, that Benjamin joined the brothers to Egypt (43:3-4), he guaranteed with his life for his youngest brother (43:9). The story now suddenly speaks of “Judah and his brothers” (44:14) and Judah becomes their spokesperson for good (44:16, also 46:28). In this week’s parasha Judah takes the full responsibility for his family, which finally leads to the revelation of truth: pharaoh is Joseph, everything is fine.
It was thanks to Joseph that Judah survived. This week’s Haftarah makes it clear, that Judah and Joseph stand for political entities, they symbolize the two extremely different antique kingdoms in Erez Israel: the northern Kingdom called “Ephraim” or “Israel” and the southern kingdom called “Judah”. In Judah only kings from the Davidic line ruled whereas the northern kingdom Israel saw many dynasties coming and going; it was multicultural and very open-minded towards Assyrian and Canaanite cultures. However the northern kingdom Israel had prophets as Elijah and the books of prophets and the earliest traditions about the patriarchs originate here. The two kingdoms had rather not a friendly relationship; each one regarded itself as the true representative of “Israel” or “the house of David”. They treated each other like Judah treated Joseph in his youth. (The two books of kings tell the story of these two different kingdoms.) Especially the small southern kingdom of Judah looked arrogantly down to Israel and condemned its politics and behaviors and regarded its end by the Assyrians as God’s punishment for idolatry.
The Haftarah now teaches: both kingdoms belong inseparably together. God’s eternal peace and God’s presence will only dwell in a united people (Ez 37:16-17; 26-28).
Till today, both belong together: Those groups of Jews who assimilate and adapt and change and those who keep the traditional line. Judah would have starved without Joseph. But also: Judah needed to leave Egypt again to build the identity of the Jewish people.
Judah and Joseph/Ephraim are two extreme poles. It is their encounter that keeps Judaism alive and that makes us learn and develop responsibility and it is their respect and care of each other and will guarantee God’s peace and presence in Judaism.
Dr Annette M. Boeckleris a member of KNM and lecturer at Leo Baeck College.