Vayeshev: Jacob's dreams, Karl's dreams

Reader Response

January 1, 1998 / 3 Tevet, 5758
Rabbi Hillel Goldberg / Vayyigash

Two types of power

Were the incandescent figures of Genesis made up, or real? Is Genesis literature -- morally instructive and ethically luminous, perhaps, but fiction nonetheless -- or is Genesis history?

Joseph and Judah. Their long, winding, separate paths, which intersected at the dawn of their relationship, now cross again as our Torah portion opens in high drama, against an immediate background of pivotal and life-threatening implications. As Joseph and Judah meet, they lay bare a slow, subtle, inexorable reversal in the power relationship between Joseph, viceroy of Egypt, and Judah, his begging brother. Joseph has engineered events to pry his brother Benjamin from his father's hands, so that now all 11 brothers have traveled to Egypt and bowed down before Joseph, thus fulfilling his prophetic dreams (Genesis 43:26, 44:14).

Though Joseph has seen his dreams vindicated, he wants to see more; specifically, whether his brothers have learned anything since they callously sold him down to Egypt. The only way Joseph can know this is to engineer a replay of the original transaction.

Originally, Joseph put his brothers in a bad position in relation to their father by slandering them. Joseph's brothers resented this and got rid of him, first by leaving him to die in a pit, then by selling him into slavery (Genesis 37). Now Joseph wants to see whether his brothers have learned their lesson, have changed.

Joseph already has an inkling, and it is positive. When his brothers first came to Egypt, he took one brother hostage to coerce the others to meet his request to bring Benjamin with them on their next trip. They did not abandon their fraternal hostage; they returned to Egypt. This, of course, may well have been due to their need for grain and Joseph's threat to turn them away if they did not bring Benjamin (Genesis 43:1-16). And so, Joseph needed to see more. When his brothers did return with Benjamin, Joseph extended special treatment to him, the only child of Rachel besides himself (Genesis 43:29, 34). Joseph wanted to see whether his brothers would show jealousy of Benjamin, as they had of him. They did not. Joseph has now seen a lot, but not quite enough.

Joseph recreates, as closely as possible, the transaction of his brothers' original cruelty toward him. Joseph puts his brothers in a bad position in the eyes of the viceroy of Egypt, who controlled their food, by making their brother Benjamin look like a criminal. Joseph had his servants surreptitiously insert his own goblet into Benjamin's grain sack and then arrest Benjamin for thievery (Genesis 44:1-12, 17). Benjamin is in danger and implicitly endangers his brothers.

Joseph finally has his brothers where he wants them.

Will his brothers stand up for one of their own, who has become a source of trouble? Or, as originally, will the brothers let self-interest overrule fraternal obligation? Will they abandon Benjamin, in the process sharpening their father's grief, possibly to the point of death?

Thus the question hangs as this week's Torah portion opens, "Va-yigash elav Yehudah," -- and Judah approached Joseph.

Judah, the beggar. Judah, whose brother has been caught red-handed. Judah, faced with Joseph's threat to keep Benjamin. Judah, instructed by Joseph to return home to father Jacob without the one remaining son of Rachel.

Judah, lacking all evidence to defend Benjamin -- Judah, defenseless. Judah at the the bottom, Joseph on top, all power in his hands. What can Judah possibly say?

If Judah is Judah, very little, perhaps nothing. But Judah is not Judah. Judah is the archetype of royalty, the forerunner of the Israelite monarchy, the progenitor of kings, ultimately of the Messiah. And Joseph?

He is not Joseph, either. Joseph is an archetype of power, but power in the Diaspora, power under siege, power constricted and confined by forces eternally beyond his control. Judah's power, however profound its inadequacy as he approaches Joseph, is greater than Joseph's power, however clear its present superiority.

What does Judah say? With neither evidence nor facts on his side, he hammers away with the only ammunition available, and how irrelevant it seems! Judah stresses the suffering that Benjamin's house arrest will bring Jacob -- Jacob! a total stranger to Joseph (so Judah must think). But Judah is not Judah; he is an instrument. He is G-d's instrument, as only a progenitor of kings of Israel can be, and Judah strikes Joseph in the emotional solar plexus: "And now," says Judah to Joseph, "if I come to your servant my father and the youth [Benjamin] is not with us -- and his [Jacob's] soul is bound with his [Benjamin's] soul. . . he [Jacob] will die" (Genesis 44:30-31).

What more need Judah say? He has just finished telling Joseph the grief of Jacob and now plausibly predicts Jacob's death. Judah breaks Joseph. Joseph expels his Egyptians, breaks down, loses the upper hand. Joseph, who has controlled his brothers' travels and status in Egypt, does not control Judah's words. Utterly vulnerable to them, he sees his domination melt.

Overcome, he can only let loose an unplanned confession: "And now, be not distressed, nor reproach yourselves for having sold me here, for it was to be a provider that G-d sent me ahead of you. . . It was not you who sent me here, but G-d. . ." (Genesis 45:5, 8).

Having said this, Joseph's power over Judah vanishes. Not Joseph's brothers and not Pharaoh's chamberlains, nor even Pharaoh himself, have brought Joseph power; only G-d. Gifted by G-d with power, Joseph is ruled equally by G-d's will. Ruled, nor ruler. Joseph, like Judah, is but an instrument of His will.

There, there similarities end.

Joseph and Judah. Joseph: the brother who began his sojourn in the land of the gentiles with nothing but faith and wits. He acquires power and respect, but then is jailed on false charges. Yet, somehow, he rises. And rises. He is entrusted with enormous authority over the state. He is never fully accepted, however; his gentile brethren will not eat with him, even as they rely on him for food. He is cut no slack; if put in a compromising position, as he was with a gentile ruler's wife, he has to be both above reproach and ready to suffer the consequences of an unjust accusation. If made master of the economy and given power second only to Pharaoh, he must still content himself with being a loner (nezir echav). He is allowed no imperfection, yet not fully embraced, either. Joseph is the archetype of the successful Diaspora Jew, at once powerful and marginal.

Judah: the brother who, unlike Joseph, enjoyed none of the privileges of a first-born, who grew under no star of destiny, had no dreams of stars bowing before him. Judah: a man of imperfections. He was part of the original plot to kill Joseph; even when he convinced his brothers to save Joseph's life he concealed this from his father and brought him intense grief. Judah consorted with Tamar when he thought she was a harlot. Yet, somehow, Judah rises. He admits his error about Tamar and despite, or perhaps due to this disgrace he acquires respect. Judah errs, but repents sincerely. And when he makes mistakes, he grows from them. Having wounded his father, Judah alone reaches deep into his father's feelings and succeeds in persuading him to allow Benjamin to go to Egypt, to meet Joseph's demand. Judah rises -- and not as a loner. Judah eventually brings those whom he had wronged -- his brothers, his daughter-in-law, his father -- along with him; he leads (yoduchah achechah); he takes responsibility. He alone steps up to approach Joseph. Judah is the archetype of the Israelite king, at once powerful, persuasive and praiseworthy.

Like Joseph, Judah is an instrument of G-d, but Judah is more powerful than Joseph because he is less passive. With two exceptions, most notably Joseph's test of his brothers' commitment to Benjamin, Joseph let fate roll over him. For 22 years he made no attempt to contact his father. He interpreted dreams -- if asked. He assumed authority over Egypt -- when asked. He engineered Benjamin's trip to Egypt -- to let prophecy takes its course. G-d, more than people, animated Joseph. Perfect, pious, partly passive, isolated: this is Joseph. Imperfect, repentant, active, social: this is Judah. Power and abnegation: this is Joseph. Power and majesty: this is Judah. Diaspora: this is Joseph. Kingship: this is Judah.

Joseph and Judah were real historical figures, but may profitably be understood as representing "pure types," archetypes of humanity or destiny.

Joseph may represent Jewish power in the Diaspora and Judah Jewish power in Israel. Joseph may be perfect, as it were, and Judah may follow a different trajectory of imperfection, repentance and growth. Joseph and Judah: two pure types, each projecting a different concentrated essence. Concentrated essences are unlikely ever to constitute the totality of a single, real, living human being. Joseph and Judah, as pure types, may be derived from a careful reading of the Biblical text -- and may be instructive, important, even vital and indispensable -- but a pure type can never exhaust the complexity of one person. Actual human beings are too complex, multifaceted or contradictory to be archetypes.

Why, then, does the Hebrew Bible engage in typological analysis? The Hebrew Bible's mission is to record history selectively, to be book not of objective history, but of religious teaching; not of "things as they really were," but of things as they should or should not have been. The Hebrew Bible records not neutral fact, but Divine judgment. One of the Bible's categories of religion, value and judgment is typology. Joseph and Judah are exegetically cast as archetypes to sharpen our understanding of Jewish power. Were Joseph and Judah -- and Genesis' other figures -- real? Of course. As a method of Biblical exegesis, typology excludes neither historical fact nor literature, just as they, in fact, do not exclude each other.


Rabbi Hillel Goldberg is the executive editor of the Intermountain Jewish News and the author of several books on Jewish themes.

© 1998, Rabbi Hillel Goldberg