Vayigash 5769 - The Lion and the Bull

[For Congregation Ner Shalom, Jan. 3, 2009.]

This week’s portion – and this week itself – are both about a bull and a lion butting heads.

Our parashah, Vayigash, offers the dramatic conclusion of the Joseph story, in which disguises are dropped, secret identities are revealed, those thought to be dead show up alive, erstwhile thugs are reformed, and a grand, loud, tearful reconciliation takes place.

Here’s the back story in case you weren’t reading Torah all week. As of last week’s parashah, Joseph has become Pharaoh’s vizier. The same famine that Pharaoh foresaw in his dream – and the rationing plan Joseph has developed as a result – have brought Joseph’s brothers down to Egypt where Joseph, unrecognizable to them, has them in his proverbial clutches.

Joseph does not reveal himself to them, but demands that they go back to Canaan and return with their baby brother, Benjamin. Joseph proceeds to frame Benjamin for theft. He tells the brothers that Benjamin must stay with him as a slave and that they should return to Canaan without him.

This is the suspenseful setup, as we move into Act III of the opera. The Playwright, through Joseph, has set everyone up for redemption or for tragedy or both. If the brothers have changed, they now have a chance to prove it, to behave differently this time than the last time, and to refuse to abandon Benjamin. If they haven’t changed, Joseph has cleverly rescued his little brother from the same men who abandoned him in a pit and/or sold him into slavery, depending on which sage’s interpretation you follow. Here, on the verge of redemption or catastrophe, is where this week’s parashah opens.

The curtain rises and Judah, who has become the brothers' chief and spokesmodel, approaches Joseph and delivers an impassioned speech, worthy of any fine orator or propagandist.

Our father is old. He will die if we return to him without Benjamin. Benjamin’s brother is also dead. How much sorrow can we heap on a white-haired old man?

At the end of the speech, perhaps seeing that his arguments are not winning the day, Judah finally volunteers to take Benjamin’s place as Joseph’s slave so that Benjamin can go free and return to their father.

This is what finally breaks the tension and ends the masquerade. Judah is redeemed. They are all redeemed. Joseph, unable to contain himself any longer, reveals himself and bursts into a wailing that can be heard in the palace. The brothers nivhalu mipanav; they were speechless. Then everyone embraces and cries together. And they begin to get reacquainted. “Father is really still alive?” “Yes, 130 takeh.”

Happy ending. Curtain falls.

There was something, though, that our sages found unpersuasive about this wrap-up. In Midrash, they offer a much more detailed version of the final scene. There, instead of Judah making a speech, Judah and Joseph are having a loud and increasingly hostile argument, accusing and counter-accusing each other, each one articulating his sense of betrayal and hurt. Eventually Judah, in a fury, threatens a massacre, and as we know from the story of Dinah and Shechem, these brothers are capable of massacre. “We will paint Egypt red with blood,” he tells Joseph the vizier. “Ah, but you were already painters in the old days,” counters Joseph, “when you painted your brother’s coat in blood and told your father he’d been devoured by beasts.” It was only then, faced with his own shame and guilt at that horrible act, that Judah offers himself up.

The problem with the Midrash, of course, is that Joseph couldn’t have said all these things to Judah without revealing his true identity. After all, how would Pharaoh’s right-hand man know about these details from the brothers’ shameful past. So the Joseph of the Midrash could not have been the Joseph we know, the Joseph of the Torah narrative. The great scholar Nechama Leibowitz, z"l, suggests that the Joseph in this Midrash is in fact Judah’s own conscience. This whole debate, all this rage and hurt, all the accusations and counter-accusations, take place in Judah’s heart, and they are what lead him finally to give up the fight and offer himself up.*

Midrash also says that when Judah approached Joseph, malachei hasharet – the ministering angels – said to each other, “Let us go down and watch the bull and the lion mitnagchim – butting heads.” Of course the lion is the traditional symbol of Judah (which is why so many of us have ancestors named Yehudah Leyb - Judah the Lion). The bull was sacred in ancient Egypt, and here seems to be the symbolic stand-in for the very assimilated Joseph. The Midrash points out that in the real world, bulls fear lions. But now the bull is facing off against the lion – Joseph has taken the position of power.

But what if this is just an internal struggle that Midrash describes? Would the angels watch? Well, perhaps the bitter fight between Judah the Lion and his own bull-headedness might have been exciting enough spectator sport for the angels all on its own.

So why was this Midrash necessary? I think the sages, living in the real world, did not find self-sacrifice credible, when seemingly offered as a strategy. They needed Judah’s offer, his surrender, to be more than a rhetorical device, and frankly, Torah is ambiguous about whether it is or not.

So they supplied this supplemental narrative so that we could see Judah arrive at his self-sacrifice only after all his anger and hurt were sucked out of him. The sages could not believe in someone who offered to drop their arms as part of a negotiation. They needed it instead to be the outcome of great personal struggle. “I may have plenty of right on my side,” they seem to want Judah to say, “but not enough to continue on this path of hatred and guilt and violence. I offer myself up.”

This has also been a week of hatred and violence in our country-away-from-home, in Israel, and in Gaza, whose inhabitants are also our siblings. The lion and the bull have been going at it, aggressively and cruelly; and at this moment I can’t clearly tell you which is which. Each side is acting out of old hurts and old guilt; each trying to unbalance the other. But instead of the barbs of Joseph and Judah, we have bombs and missiles. Both sides promise to paint the other’s territory red. And yet neither side has publicly wondered, like Judah ultimately did, whether they truly are in a moral position to do so. Alas, both sides have, shamefully, become very, very experienced painters.

So if Joseph in the Midrash was Judah’s conscience, and a deep struggle with conscience is what allowed Judah to let go of his need to win at all costs, then we need to stand up and take on Joseph’s mantle. We must continue to be the conscience that challenges everyone’s right to make it worse, over and over again. We must challenge the State of Israel; we must also challenge Hamas.

And we must imagine, really imagine, what it would be like if both sides reached a conclusion, like Judah did, that it might be better to risk losing than to cause more pain.

Imagine if both sides reached that conclusion. Imagine the stunned silence. Imagine the weeping and the wailing and the embracing. Imagine us all able take off our masks and reveal our true selves to each other. Remember me? I am your brother. Imagine if we could, at last, dwell next to each other in peace and say, hineh mah tov umah naim shevet achim gam yachad – behold how good, how pleasant, how obvious, how overdue it is, to dwell, siblings that we are, together.


* I am indebted to my friend Rabbi Eli Cohen for pointing out that Judah’s first words to Joseph in the portion, bi adoni, could be understood as “you, my lord, are inside me,” supporting Professor Leibowitz’s view that this Midrash represents an internal dialogue.