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The Light of the Messiah

Vayeshev (Genesis 37-40 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

The actions of the forefathers serve as a portent for their descendants.

And Jacob settled in the land in which his father dwelled. [Genesis 37:1]

Jacob has come to the point in his life when he could finally settle down. The Torah uses the Hebrew verb yeshev, "settled," to describe his action of setting up a homestead, contrasting it with the verb m'gurei, "dwelled." Interestingly, m'gurei is a derivative of ger, "stranger," and implies a stopover in wanderings. So the point is that Jacob succeeds in actually settling down and sinking roots.

Interestingly, at a later time, when Jacob is brought before the pharaoh of Egypt and is asked his age, he himself uses a m'gurai to answer:

'The days of my dwelling are one hundred and thirty years. Few and bad have been the days of my life.' [Genesis 47:9]

So did Jacob in fact, settle, or merely dwell?

Rashi cites a Midrash which explains:

Jacob wished to settle in tranquillity, but the anger over [the disappearance of] Joseph overwhelmed him. The holy ones wish to live in tranquillity. God says, is it not sufficient that they have a share awaiting them in the next world, they wish to live in tranquility in this orld as well! [Rashi 37:2]

But what does it mean that Jacob wished to live in tranquility? Does it mean that Jacob wished to "retire" from active patriarchal service and enjoy the good life or his golden years? There must be a deeper meaning to the idea of "tranquillity" which Jacob was seeking.

Rav Joseph Dov Soloveitchik suggests that Jacob was after not domestic but spiritual tranquillity. Jacob anticipated the onset of nothing less than the Messianic Age. He sought spiritual utopia here on earth, the fervent wish of all the holy ones who are not satisfied with what God has waiting for them in the next world and desire perfection here and now as well.

Part of the reason that Jacob held this belief was his son Joseph whom he identified as a fulfillment of his mission. The Torah gives us a hint of this from the start of this week's portion:

These are the generations of Jacob; Joseph was seventeen years old ... [Genesis 37:2]

The link between Jacob and Joseph is spelled out from the start. Of all his sons specifically Joseph holds the key to Jacob's legacy. The generations of Jacob will be fulfilled in Joseph. It is no wonder that Joseph, who had special gifts as visionary and interpreter of dreams, was his father's favorite.

Israel loved Joseph more than any of his sons ... [Genesis 37:3]

It is interesting that here the text uses the name Israel as opposed to Jacob, implying that the love was not just sentimental but on a national level.

But the love backfires. The favorite son becomes the object of the jealousy and derision of his brothers. Sold by them into slavery, he endures many trials and tribulations, but then rises to the second most powerful position in Egypt. Many years later he confronts his brothers, and finally the visions of his youth come true.

While Joseph is missing, Jacob, who does not know what happened, endures inconsolable grief. And the tranquility he thought was imminent is shattered forever.

In hindsight, we can ask: How could Jacob possibly expect that perfection or tranquility could be manifest at that particular juncture in history? Did not God Himself tell Abraham that his descendants would be enslaved for 400 years?

[And God] said to Abraham, 'You shall know that your descendants will be strangers in a land which is not theirs, they will be slaves and abused for 400 years. And the nation which enslaves them will be judged by me. They will subsequently leave with great fortune. The fourth generation will return here ... ' [Genesis 15:13-16]

How could Jacob ignore the 400 years stipulated in the Divine decree?

In reality, the Jews never were slaves for 400 years. In the Passover Haggadah we note that God was lenient, and after a mere 210 years they were liberated. The Midrash explains that God's words to Abraham were not etched in stone and that genuine repentance could alter the Divine decree.

The Holy One blessed be He said, "If they repent I will redeem them [after 4] generations, if not I will redeem them [after 400] years." [Michilta Drebbi Yishmael Bo Parsha 14]

The central idea was that Abraham's descendants would be enslaved, abused, and eventually leave the place of their oppression with great wealth. Apparently, Jacob initially believed that this sequence had already occurred, that all these elements of God's promise had been fulfilled in his own life story. He must have thought that his oppression at the hands of Laban, and the years of slave-like labor which ended in his return to Israel with tremendous material wealth, had fulfilled God's words to Abraham. Once he made peace with Esau, all his adversaries had been neutralized. With his sons at his side, Jacob was confident that the Messianic Age was dawning.

And then, "out of the blue," Jacob's worldview is derailed when he loses his son and his illusions of tranquillity and fulfillment are shattered. There had to be this last unanticipated struggle. The Messianic Age could not begin (nor could the Book of Genesis come to an end!) prior to the playing out of this final intrigue within the family of Israel.

The narratives of Genesis are more than stories. The vicissitudes of the forefathers are far more than ancient tales; they are spiritual realities pregnant with meaning, which form the woof and warp of Jewish history. In order to understand the significance of the teachings in Genesis generally, and in this Torah portion specifically, we must introduce the concept of ma'aseh avot siman l'banim, which literally translates "the actions of the forefathers serve as a portent for their descendants." Put another way, history repeats itself, or, in theological terms, Jewish history is Jewish destiny.

When Joseph and his brothers fight, the spiritual power for future domestic disputes is unleashed. We see it replayed in history over and over. For example, it is no accident that the festival of Hannukah, with its tragic fratricidal overtones, always falls during the weeks when the portions regarding Joseph and his brothers are read. Similarly, the destruction of the Second Temple is attributed by the Midrash to the unwarranted hatred between brothers that is the plot of these Torah portions. And the popular Midrash found in the Yom Kippur liturgy which describes the demise of the ten martyrs is another far-reaching echo of the Joseph story.

Once the problem of internal conflict is presented, it will continue to play itself out until people find new and creative solutions to undermine its insidious power. In order to better understand this phenomenon, we must study this Torah portion carefully as it presents us with the necessary model.

It is impossible to miss the jarring break in the narrative that happens in the middle of the Joseph story. Ancient and modern scholars alike have noted that the last verse of Chapter 37 (the Midianites sold him to Egypt to Potiphar) and the first verse of Chapter 39 (Joseph was brought down to Egypt, where he was purchased by Potiphar) are almost identical, as if bracketing the whole separate story of Judah that is told in between them in Chapter 38. It is this story that holds the all-important key.

When we last left off Judah, he was part of the gang of brothers plotting to murder Joseph. Then Reuben, who as the eldest would be held most responsible, waylaid the plan suggesting that they throw him into a pit instead; Reuben had secretly hoped to rescue Joseph later and return him to his father. The brothers, Judah included, go along with Reuben's suggestion and, in one of the harshest scenes in the Bible, sit down to eat as Joseph cries out from the pit. At this point, Judah speaks, for the first time in the entire Torah:

'What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover his blood? Let us sell him to the Ishmaelites and let not our hands be upon him, for he is our brother and our flesh.' [Genesis 37:27]

Judah takes responsibility and displays leadership; on the other hand, he also displays callousness and an almost-Machiavellian cynicism. His conclusion, that the brothers should not kill Joseph because 'he is our brother and our flesh,' while in the same breath suggesting that they sell him as a slave, is shocking.

The brothers go for the idea and sell Joseph into slavery. Now with Joseph gone, they are presented with a new problem, namely, how to inform their father Jacob of Joseph's disappearance? They dip his coat in the blood of a slaughtered goat and say to their father:

'We have found this. Do you recognize it? Is it your son's coat?' [Genesis 37:32]

The brothers don't actually lie to Jacob, they merely deceive him. According to the Midrash, Judah does the dirty deed as the leader. Jacob's response is inconsolable mourning. Meanwhile, Joseph is taken into Egypt and sold to Potiphar.

Time seems to stand still in the life of Joseph at this point, while the Torah digresses to recount the life of Judah over many years:

And it came to pass at that time, and Judah went down away from his brothers. [Genesis 38:1])

Rashi explains that the Torah uses this language because Judah parted ways with his brothers as a result of his lowered esteem in their eyes; they blamed him for their father's bereavement, and, by extension, for Joseph's disappearance. Rashi explains:

They said, "You are the one who said to sell him! Had you said, return him to his father, we would have listened to you." [Rashi on 38:1]

The Midrash adds:

R'Shmuel, the son of Nachman said: "The brothers were busy in the selling of Joseph; Joseph was busy with his sackcloth and fasting; Reuben was busy with his sackcloth and fasting; Jacob was busy with his sackcloth and fasting; Judah was busy taking a wife for himself; and God was busy creating the light of the King Messiah. 'And it came to pass at that time and Judah went down ...' before the first slave is born, before the final redeemer is born." [Midrash Rabba 85:1]

The Midrash is, in effect, answering the unspoken question: Where was God during the sale of Joseph? The answer is amazing. God was busy creating the light of the Messiah. Surely this is a bizarre response. As the result of the sale the Jews would all make their way to Egypt, slavery will ensue, and along with it, incredible suffering for countless people. And this was all of part of God's Messianic plan?

Later, Joseph comes to recognize that this was indeed true. He understands that the Divine hand was involved in the events of his life. As he would inform his brothers upon their reconciliation:

'And now do not be saddened that you have sold me into this slavery in a foreign land, for God has sent me ahead to be a source of sustenance for you ... it is not you who has sent me here but God.' [Genesis 47:5-8]

While Jacob was misinterpreting the events of his lifetime, thinking that his sought-after tranquility was around the corner and totally not anticipating any misfortune, God was putting His own plan into action. The slavery foretold to Abraham had not taken place yet, the redemption had not taken place, nonetheless God was busy planning for the final stage – the coming of the Messiah – of which Judah's descent was a vital element.

During his separation from his brothers, Judah marries, has children, and witnesses the death of his two grown sons. But his reaction, as related in the Torah, is peculiar. When his oldest son Er dies, one would expect Judah to gain some insight into his own father's pain. He now knows intimately, first-hand, what his father feels and what it means to mourn one's own child. When Judah's second son Onan dies, we would expect Judah to be tormented with guilt; it would be a natural response for him to see the connection between his own earlier actions and the tragic deaths of his sons. We would expect Judah to approach his father at last, to admit his guilt, and to tell him, "Joseph lives!" But Judah seems cold and indifferent. Indeed, he continues the deceit.

When Tamar – the widow of Er who subsequently married Onan and was widowed a second time – approaches Judah, he callously tells her to wait for his third son, despite having no intention of giving him to her for a husband. Then, when Judah's own wife dies, he seeks comfort in the arms of a prostitute.

Unbeknown to him, the woman he chooses is no prostitute but Tamar in disguise. She has come to realize that Judah has not been honest with her and decides to take the initiative. Thereafter Tamar becomes pregnant as a result of this union, and Judah, unaware of his paternity, orders her to be killed. She, however, has his ring, staff and coat, which he gave her as collateral for the goat he promised to send as payment.

The Midrash asks why she asked for a goat, and answers:

And God said to Judah, "You deceived your father with a goat. By your life, Tamar will deceive you with a goat." [Midrash Rabbah 85:11]

Tamar finally confronts Judah, and says that the person who impregnated her is the owner of these personal effects.

She said, 'Do you recognize who owns this ring, staff, and coat?' [Genesis 38:25]

The Midrash elaborates:

God said to Judah, "You said to your father, 'We have found this. Do you recognize it? Is it your son's coat?' By your life, Tamar will say to you, 'Do you recognize ... ' [Midrash Rabbah 85:2]

The Midrash understands that the relationship between Judah and Tamar is directly related to the relationship between Judah and his father. The sin of Judah will be rehabilitated by Tamar. When Tamar says the words 'do you recognize who owns this ring, staff, and coat' Judah – at last – hears the echo of his own words all those years before, when he looked his father in the eye and shattered his world by saying 'Do you recognize it? Is it your son's coat?'

The effect on him is profound:

And Judah recognized, and said, 'She is more righteous than I.' [Genesis 38:26]

With those words, the idea of the Messiah was created. The power of man to recognize his sin and take responsibility is the concept of the Messiah. From this point on Judah is a changed person. And from his union with Tamar, kings will emerge – David, and his descendant, the Messiah.

When Tamar asked Judah to identify his staff, she was asking him to manifest the greatness which she saw nascent within him – the courage to admit guilt, to take responsibility, to change. This is the lesson that the Messiah will one day teach the world. Man controls his destiny. No matter what mistakes he has made, man can fix them.

As a result of the betrayal of Joseph, the Jews were destined to be enslaved in Egypt. As a result of the repentance of Judah, the Jews were destined to be redeemed at the end of days. Then a spirit of change will permeate the world, spearheaded by a descendant of Judah. History will reach its apex, and the light of the Messiah, created all those years ago at the time of the sale of Joseph, will shine bright. At that time, all the children of Jacob, and indeed the entire world, will find tranquility at last.

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