Saturday, December 17, 2011

Judah's Narrative Journey throughout the Joseph Story

For the next four weeks we will read about Joseph. His ego, his clothes, his dreams, his family relationships, his engagement with power. In many ways, the Torah gives us a fuller description of the full character of Joseph than any other figure in the Torah, with the exception of Moses.

But we also see a narrative arc for the character Judah, too. In this week’s parasha, Vayeshev, Judah leaps onto the scene while Joseph remains in the depths of a pit. He tells his brothers “What profit is it to us if we kill our brother, covering his blood. Come let us sell him to the band of Ishmaelites. Then our bloodguilt will not be upon him, for he is our brother.” The verse ends “And his brothers listened” (Genesis 37:26).

Those final words are telling. Judah is not the oldest. That title belongs to Reuven. And a few verses earlier, Reuven had pleaded with the group not to kill Joseph, but rather to throw him in the pit, with the idea that Reuven would go save him later (verse 21). But while not the oldest in years, the brothers listen to Judah, they respect him.

Make no mistake, Judah most certainly was not acting altruistically in selling Joseph to the Ishmaelites. It was not to save Joseph’s life. If anything, it seems that Judah could have changed the tide of the brothers thinking in almost any case, and that he was directing it. The Torah Temimah (Rabbi Baruch Epstein, 19th century Lithuania) states the following about this leader of the brothers:

This verse about a compromiser was stated only in reference to Judah, as it is stated, "Judah said to his brothers, 'What gain will there be if we kill our brother?'" And anyone who praises Judah for this is considered a blasphemer. And concerning such a person, it is stated: "One who praises a compromiser [Judah] has blasphemed Hashem."

We hear about Judah again in chapter 38, the infamous meeting between Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar. We rarely talk about this chapter. It represents a law of times gone by, that of the levirate marriage, of values that don’t resonate with almost all of our post-modern sensibilities. And perhaps it’s a bit icky, as well.

Stemming explicitly from Deuteronomy 25:5-6, should a man die without having a descendent, his wife will marry his brother, in order to continue the lineage. Such was the case of Tamar’s husband, Er, who died. His brother Onan, in turn refused this process of levirate marriage, choosing to spill his seed on the ground instead of conceive a child with Tamar.

Fast-forwarding in the narrative, upon confronting Tamar on the road, Judah thought that he was approaching a harlot, for she hid her face. But Tamar knew exactly who Judah was. She took his cord and his staff as a sign (the modern day driver’s license or passport) so that he would return with payment for the sexual services. She encountered Judah and fooled him to sleep with her, moreover, because she was obeying this law of levirate marriage, ensuring that her husband’s progeny continue on to the next generation — Judah had not told his other son Shelah to consummate the levirate obligations, and thus Tamar took it upon herself to continue the line, in accord with God’s law.

Judah was incensed when he heard that Tamar was pregnant, that she had sold herself to harlotry. Of course, he didn’t realize during this episode that the children were his. But Tamar came forth with Judah’s identifying markers, proof that the children were indeed his.

This twist in narrative in the course of two chapters, of Judah manipulating his brothers to sell Joseph for profit, and then being the manipulated by his daughter-in-law, is certainly striking. As is Judah’s response to Tamar when he discovers the reality of the situation. He exclaims, seemingly in an outburst:  “She is more righteous than I! For I did not give her to son Shelah!” Judah realizes his misjudgment, and begins the process of teshuva that will continue on into future parshiot.

The twins she bore might have familiar names: Peretz and Zevach. Each week during L’cha dodi  of Kabbalat Shabbat we read: Al yad ish, ben parzi Next to a man, the son of the Peretz-ite. The line of the medieval poem refers to the Messiah, a descendent of Peretz. Judah is the ancestor of David. The line of the Messiah ultimately goes back to this tumultuous scene in Chapter 38 of Genesis.

I’ll again pick up with this narrative of Judah in two weeks with Parashat Vayigash. For now, read this narrative over, embracing the complexity of the character, of the narrative of arc of manipulation.

And perhaps most importantly, in two chapters where God does not communicate with any of the characters, there is a figure behind the screen seemingly pulling the strings of puppets along the way.

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