The Torah reading of Vayigash opens with one of the most moving speeches in the Biblical literature. Judah delivers the moving speech on behalf of Benjamin who had been taken prisoner by Joseph, viceroy of Egypt (Genesis 44, 18-34) – prior to Joseph revealing himself to his brothers. In delivering this speech, Judah, as it were, takes center stage with Joseph in the story of Joseph. The question that arises here is – who is the true hero of the story of Joseph?
According to the Jewish tradition, Joseph is called Joseph, the righteous. In my view, the picture that is drawn of Joseph in the plain meaning of the Bible is not that of a righteous person but a person of profound faith. The profound faith that Joseph displays is not in a theological but psychological sense of a positive and optimistic attitude and outlook toward life in which he sees the hand of God in all that happens in life. He says to his brothers when he reveals himself to them – “and now it was not you who sent me here but God” (Genesis 45, 8).
The term tshuva, which is a central concept of the Jewish tradition, is often translated inadequately as repentance, but literally means return in the sense of a return to the path of right living. In the Torah reading of Miketz, I distinguished between the tshuva of Jacob that is connected to a specific action (of wronging Esau) and the tshuva of Joseph that is not connected to a specific action. Joseph’s tshuva is in the sense of his achieving a deep and profound faith and wisdom in which, as I said, he sees the hand of God in all that occurs in life – including his having been thrown into a pit by his brothers and then having been sold into slavery in Egypt.
On the face of it, the hero of the story of Joseph is Joseph. However, in my eyes, this is a misconception. In the Torah reading of Vayeshev, I pointed out that in the midst of the story of Joseph suddenly appears the story of Judah and Tamar. I suggested that the function of the story of Judah and Tamar in the midst of the story of Joseph is to prevent a mistake on the part of the reader – we might mistakenly conclude that when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers telling them that their throwing him into the pit, and his being sold into slavery, was part of a larger Divine plan, Joseph was justifying the immoral behavior of his brothers in having thrown him into the pit. Joseph was not justifying their behavior – he was only encouraging them to see the larger Divine plan so that they could be forgiving of themselves in spite of their wrongdoing. I argued that the story of Joseph (like the story of Judah and Tamar) is teaching that there are such situations in life when we commit wrongdoing, and even though our wrongdoing cannot be morally justified at all, the result of our wrongdoing nevertheless is ultimately good in being part of a larger Divine plan.
I want to suggest that there is another additional function of the story of Judah and Tamar suddenly appearing in the middle of the story of Joseph – in order to prepare the way for Judah to become the true hero of the story of Joseph. The high point of the story of Judah and Tamar is the tshuva of Judah that is connected to a specific action (his wronging Tamar) when he publicly acknowledges his wrongdoing to Tamar (Genesis 38, 26) – “she is more righteous than me”. By contrast, Joseph does tshuva that is not connected to a specific action and attains profound faith and wisdom. But, what stands out in the story of Joseph is that there is no evidence or hint in the Biblical account that Joseph does tshuva that is connected to a specific action.
There is no evidence or hint that Joseph apologizes and expresses sorrow to his brothers for his part in the story. Although Joseph genuinely attempts to comfort his brothers and to speak to their heart, he does not acknowledge any wrongdoing whatsoever on his part. While the behavior of his brothers in throwing him into the pit is morally unjustifiable, their anger and hatred is understandable. The Bible had previously told us that Joseph brought an evil report regarding his brothers to Jacob (Genesis 37, 2), and that he related to them in an arrogant way in telling of his dreams to his brothers and father (Genesis 37, 5-11). When Joseph later reveals himself to his brothers in Egypt he reminds them of their wrongdoing in throwing him in the pit, but he does not acknowledge any wrongdoing on his part (Genesis 45, 4). By contrast, Judah does not explicitly mention any wrongdoing on the part of Tamar toward him, and speaks only of his own wrongdoing toward Tamar (Genesis 38, 26).
In my understanding, the story of Joseph is a tragic story with a great deal of sadness especially because there is no genuine appeasement in the end between Joseph and his brothers. Joseph remains distant from them in speaking to them in a philosophic manner encouraging them to see all that has happened and happens as part of a Divine plan – but, he does not reveal his own feelings (of anger and pain) and reveals no sorrow regarding his own wrongdoing, which would have brought his brothers closer to him. He genuinely speaks to their heart but not from his heart in the sense of revealing his feelings. Therefore, his brothers remain fearful of him in spite of his efforts to comfort them by speaking to them in a philosophic manner, and out of fear they sink to the level of lying in making up the story that Jacob had ordered them to tell Joseph that he should forgive them (Genesis 50, 16-17). Joseph responds by saying – “Am I in the place of God?” (Genesis 50, 19). Strikingly, although Joseph continues to comfort them by speaking in a philosophic manner that he is not in the place of God, he does not state that he forgives them. It is possible that from a psychological point of view Joseph could not bring himself to acknowledge his own wrongdoing toward his brothers, could not bring himself to apologize to them and could not bring himself to forgive them – out of his own pain and anger, and due to his inability to overcome his feelings of anger and rejection by the brothers in throwing him into the pit.
In my view, it is not by chance then that Judah, and not Joseph, becomes the leader of the family following the death of Jacob. On the face of it, Joseph is much more worthy than Judah to be the leader of the family due to his profound faith and wisdom, and due to his political experience as the viceroy of Egypt. Nevertheless, Jacob before his death blesses Judah as the leader – “the staff shall not depart from Judah, nor the scepter from between his feet, until Shilo comes and the obedience of peoples be his” (Genesis 49, 10). The tshuva of Judah in the story of Judah and Tamar prepares the way for Judah to become the true hero of the story of Joseph – especially in taking responsibility for Benjamin his brother (Genesis 43, 8-10) and the delivering of the moving speech on behalf of saving Benjamin who had been taken prisoner by Joseph (Genesis 44, 18-34). But, most important, Judah as demonstrated in the story of Judah and Tamar is indeed more worthy to be the leader of the family as Jacob understood in blessing Judah as the leader – for, Judah rather than Joseph is the spiritual continuation of Jacob.
The story of Jacob is of his tshuva in the sense that is connected to a specific action in which he transforms himself from Jacob, one who deceives, to Israel, one who is righteous before God – and, the name Israel (ישראל) if divided in the middle means righteous of God (ישר אל). I earlier indicated that according to the Jewish tradition Joseph is called the righteous – yet, as I have argued here, Joseph in the plain meaning of the Bible is depicted not as righteous but as a person of profound faith and wisdom who does tshuva in the sense that is not connected to a specific action. Joseph strikingly does not do tshuva that is connected to a specific action in refusing to acknowledge any wrongdoing on his part toward his brothers – and thus Joseph is not worthy of being the spiritual continuation of Jacob (righteous of God). Judah, in the story of Judah and Tamar, demonstrates his righteousness in acknowledging his wrongdoing to Tamar, and demonstrates that he is truly worthy of being the spiritual leader of the family in continuing the way of his father Israel (righteous of God) – and righteousness rather than faith in God is the essence of religion in the Biblical conception as reflected in the verse (Deuteronomy 6, 18) “you shall do that which is righteous and good in the eyes of the Lord” (and the word righteous in the verse is the very same word righteous that is part of the name Israel).