January 3, 2004
This week’s parashah marks the turning point in the anxiety ridden relationship between Joseph and his brothers. This relationship began with Joseph’s dreams and the special way that Jacob treated his favored son. It traversed the episode where the brothers kidnapped Joseph and sold him into slavery, then Joseph’s rise to power in Egypt, and the interactions between Joseph and his brothers when they descend to Egypt in search of food. Joseph contrived to bring his brother Benjamin to Egypt and to bring his brothers to contrition. At the end, it is Judah, the brother who orchestrated the entire situation in Egypt by inciting the brothers to sell Joseph into slavery, who inevitably must confront Joseph in order to repair what he has wrought. This meeting is filled with tension and its results are tenuous but it, at least, somewhat bridges the chasm which has developed within the family.
This is a story about fraternal alienation but it represents more than that. Like other Biblical stories, it is meant to transcend time. Joseph comes to symbolize the Northern Kingdom, Israel, since the first king of this kingdom, Jeroboam, came from the tribe of Ephraim – one of the sons of Joseph. Judah obviously represents the kingdom which carries his name. Consequently the conflict between these brothers represents, in the Jewish collective imagination, seemingly irreconcilable breaches within the Jewish community which somehow must be mended. Fortunately, the Joseph story does have a “happy ending”. There is a rapprochement between the brothers but it never seems quite complete. This may be why the prophet Ezekiel saw the ultimate reconciliation between these two parties in ideal terms: “And the word of the Lord came unto me, saying: ‘And you, son of man, take for yourself one stick and write on it: “For Judah and for the children of Israel his companions”; then take another stick, and write on it: “For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim, and all of the house of Israel his companions”; and join them one to another into one stick, that they may become one in your hand.” (Ezekiel 37:15-17) Ezekiel’s action was meant to symbolize the harmonious reunification of the two kingdoms into one.
This image differs substantially from the tense meeting between Judah and Joseph. The following midrash found in the Yemenite midrashic compendium, Midrash Hagadol (13th-14th century) attempts to reconcile this difference but in the process creates a completely different idea of what this reconciliation is about: “…There is never so much peace in the world as when the lion [the symbol of Judah] goes and makes peace with the bull [the symbol of Joseph]. It is a good sign for the people of Israel when Judah and Joseph are unified… Rabbi Judah said: ‘Just as when these two [Judah and Joseph] shared power in this world (constantly balancing each other’s power), so, too, it will be in the world to come, as it is written: And write for him: To Judah and the children of Israel his companions and take another stick and write on it: For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim and all the house of Israel, his companions.’ (Ibid.) As Jacob, our forefather said: ‘Since there is no one who is capable of standing up to Joseph except Judah, that is why only Judah can be sent to Joseph…” (adapted from Midrash Hagadol Vayigash 28)
The import of this midrash is that the unification of these two forces, Joseph and Judah, is needed in order to balance one another out. If either of them should be left alone, the world would be thrown into chaos. This model sees the dialectic conflict between these two forces as the source of harmony. In some sense, it is the conversation between these two conflicting powers (or ideals) which produce a positive force. It is only where there is no interaction between them – where there is no conversation – where the alienation is complete that the world is at a loss.