Just before this week’s parasha, (Torah portion) we read about Judah and Tamar, and how Judah was publicly shamed into doing the right thing, acknowledging that the twins Tamar was carrying were his. He recognized her righteousness and finally stepped up as a father. In Vayigash, we come to the finale of the Joseph story. Joseph stages a set-up by sneaking a valuable cup into the pack of his only full brother. When “discovered”, Joseph threatens to keep Benjamin in Egypt because of his fabricated thievery. The newly-chastened and responsible Judah makes an impassioned plea to let Benjamin go and take himself in Benjamin’s place. Without knowing to whom he’s speaking, Judah tells Joseph that if they all return home without the youngest son, Benjamin, it will kill his father. Jacob already lost the first son from his beloved Rachel, and to lose her other son, the one whose very life caused her death in childbirth, would be too much. Judah’s act of self-sacrifice convinces Joseph to divulge his true identity.
This is a reconciliation scene to match any seen on stage or screen. Joseph sends everyone away, breaks into tears, and reveals himself to his stunned brothers. More than just a welcome “happy ending”, it’s a sea change from the usual family scenes in the Bible. When Judah, the second-eldest of all the brothers, steps forward and offers himself into servitude in place of his brother Benjamin, it looks like the typical “second son taking leadership over the firstborn”. We’ve seen this movie before; it has happened between (count ‘em) Cain/Abel, Ishmael/Isaac, Esau/Jacob and all the brothers/Joseph. But this time, there’s a big difference. No one dies (Cain/Abel), no one is banished (Ishmael/Isaac), and no one is betrayed or has his life threatened (Esau/Jacob). Finally, the pattern stops. Finally, the reconciliation is heartfelt and loving. Finally, a family is reunited before Dad dies, not after.
The impact of this turn of events is most evident in the relationship of the last pair of Biblical brothers we read about in Genesis. Between Joseph’s sons, Menasseh and Ephraim, there is harmony. For the first time in Biblical families, there is no rivalry. This is huge.
We’ve all witnessed (or worse, experienced) the feuds that rupture the family fabric. Consider how many grudges keep going, year after year, generation after generation. Consider the lasting poison of estrangement, and the power of one reconciliation, when one person finally says, “Enough.” Note that the Bible doesn’t tell of destructive siblinrelationships again. Even when Moses, Aaron and Miriam have a spat, they work it out (with God’s help, of course) and they maintain their family connection. They can move past the argument, so it doesn’t tear the family/people apart.
In some ways, Judah is the hero of this story, not Joseph. Judah brought the years of separation to an end. He stepped out of the painful patterns in time to get father and son reunited. He made it possible to bring the entire family of Israel (Jacob) together in Egypt, so that the nation of Israel could be forged generations later. So many families are kept apart because neither can say, “Enough.” So many nations are still fighting, because neither side can say, “Enough.” So many generations of hate and distrust, causing so many lost and damaged lives, because no one can say, “Enough.” May we look to Judah as a dugma (example) of knowing how to stop the cycle, and finally move on.