Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Miketz Shabbat Hanukkah 5764/ December 27, 2003

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Miketz Shabbat Hanukkah 5764/ December 27, 2003
Yonah Bar Maoz
Department of Bible

Reuben and Judah: A Study in Contrasts

The latent competition between Reuben and Judah over leadership of the clan makes it natural to draw a comparison between them. In two instances both respond to the same challenge, and in two other instances only one responds each time. Overall, Judah comes out the victor in this competition. However, closer examination reveals that Reuben, too, played a weighty role in shaping the course of history, since Reuben's initiative at the beginning of the Joseph story makes it possible for the rest of the plot to unfold.
When Joseph arrived unexpectedly in Dothan, where his brothers were shepherding the sheep, his appearance evoked great anger among them. They did not know what we, the readers know: that Joseph had come at his father's bidding, not to spy on them and report back to his father. They must have ruefully observed that even the great geographic distance which they had put between them did not suffice to prevent trouble. It is true that the Midrash pins the blame on Simeon and Levi, who plotted to kill Joseph; yet according to the text, "They said to one another" (Gen. 37:19), and this expression incriminates all the brothers equally.
The First Challenge
Only one brother, Reuben, took exception, and his intervention at this crucial moment was unequalled. In the heat of the moment murder might have been committed, and all their regrets after the fact, like their regret after selling Joseph, would not have been able to undo such a wrong. True, it was Judah who persuaded the brothers not to kill Joseph, but had it not been for Reuben's immediate intervention, Judah would not have been able to do what he did.
The Second
In this week's reading we see Reuben and Judah taking action, again in the same sequence: first Reuben responds and fails; then Judah takes action and succeeds. Both of them try to persuade Jacob to send Benjamin with them. Reuben says, "You may kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you. Put him in my care, and I will return him to you" (Gen. 42:37). Jacob refuses, and only after Judah's intervention does he accede.
Judah says, "I myself will be surety for him; you may hold me responsible: if I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, I shall stand guilty before you forever" (Gen. 43:9); but in actual fact he gives no tangible surety for Benjamin's well-being. He says only that he will suffer pangs of conscience if anything happens. In contrast, Reuben's reference to losing two of his sons evokes the hope that he would be especially intent on saving Benjamin. Indeed, a legend of the Sages offers a different reason for Judah's success where Benjamin failed: correct timing. The same holds for his proposal that they sell Joseph, made after the brothers had cooled off somewhat and had sat down to eat. His success proves his powers of leadership, but carries with it a moral failing, on which Tractate Sanhedrin 6b comments sharply:
Rabbi Eliezer says: What blessing is recited by a person who has stolen a se'ah of wheat, ground it into flour, baked it into bread and taken hallah from it? Such a person does not say a blessing; rather, he blasphemes, in which respect it is said: "The grasping man (heb. botze'a - used also to mean breaking bread) reviles and scorns the Lord" (Ps. 10:3). [Ed. Note: the word for 'reviles' is berekh, "blessed", a euphemism for 'reviles' when speaking of the Lord. The Midrash parses the verse differently, reading "If he who broke bread had stolen the wheat"-taking botze'a in both its meanings of breaking bread and also 'grasping', 'stealing', --"then his blessing over the hallah which he tithed is none other than blasphemy"-taking berekh in both its senses, 'bless' and 'revile'.]
Rabbi Meir says: "The word botze'a refers to none other than Judah, for it is said, 'Then Judah said to his brothers: What do we gain (heb. mah betza) by killing our brother' (Gen. 37:26). Whoever praises Judah says blasphemy; thus it is said: 'The grasping man reviles and scorns the Lord.'"
The Midrash also finds a negative tone in the way Judah relates to his father in this week's reading: "Judah said to them: let the old man be, until his bread runs out. For it is written, 'And when they had eaten up the rations...'" The Midrash sees this as being disrespectful of his father, treating him as weak-minded due to his age.
Judah's Initiative
Note that initially Jacob did not react at all to Judah's offer; and Judah spoke again, trying further to persuade him:
But Judah said to him, "The man warned us, 'Do not let me see your faces unless your brother is with you.' If you will let our brother go with us, we will go down and procure food for you; but if you will not let him go, we will not go down ... then Judah said to his father Israel, "Send the boy in my care, and let us be on our way, that we may live and not die - you and we and our children. I myself will be surety for him; you may hold me responsible: if I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, I shall stand guilty before you forever. For we could have been there and back twice if we had not dawdled" (Gen. 43:3-10).
In the end Jacob accepted the unpleasant reality, but even then he did not relate directly to Judah's remarks, nor even to his offer of surety, just as he had not related to Reuben's offer, given earlier. This is evident from the fact that he spoke in the plural, addressing all his sons. After Reuben's proposal, he said, "My son must not go down with you ...you will send my white head down to Sheol in grief" (Gen. 42:38). After Judah's proposal, he said: "If it must be so, do this: ... take your brother too; and go back at once to the man" (Gen. 43:11-14).
The Nature of Each
Thus we see that on two occasions each of the sons responded in his own characteristic fashion, in ways which were both commendable and reprehensible. In Jacob's blessing on his deathbed, he characterizes Reuben as "unstable as water," responding hastily without waiting for the proper moment; yet this haste of his was invaluable when faced with imminent danger, like life-giving water to the thirsty soul, always full of emotion. Judah, on the other hand, had the patience of a lion laying in wait for its prey, only leaping into action when the time was ripe, and for the most part achieving his objective. However the considerations of profitability that underlay Judah's actions were not always morally commendable.
The circumstances are noteworthy in the next two instances, in which Reuben and Judah responded individually. In the first instance, where the brothers recalled their mercilessness - "They said to one another, 'Alas, we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us. That is why this distress has come upon us'" (Gen. 42:21) - Reuben responded immediately with reproach: "Did I not tell you, 'Do no wrong to the boy'? But you paid no heed. Now comes the reckoning for his blood" (Gen. 42:22). This reproach might seem like a petty and foolish provocation, since it was of no avail then, but it does reveal the great pain suffered by the older brother over "the boy".
Reuben's emotional outbreak also absolves him of any possible suspicion of secretly rejoicing over Joseph's disappearance. Remember that Reuben, the first-born, suffered most from the haughty behavior of Joseph, who supposedly would become the leader, replacing his father. It is true that Reuben saved Joseph, but one might suspect him of doing so only out of a desire to set right relations with his father, which had been damaged due to the sin he committed against his father. Reuben's distress over Joseph's fate, more than twenty years later, attests to his pure heart, free of the least bit of jealously towards the favored brother, be he Joseph or Benjamin, who had supplanted his place in Jacob's heart.
In contrast, Judah's silence at this juncture is noticeable; his voice is swallowed up in that of the group: "They said to one another, 'Alas, we are being punished.'" Perhaps the reason is that these were words that did not involve action.
In the second instance, at the end of Parashat Miketz, the picture is inverted; Reuben is the one who blends into the background with the other brothers, and Judah is the one whose voice stands out above them all, speaking on his own behalf and on behalf of his brothers: "When Judah and his brothers reentered the house of Joseph, who was still there, they threw themselves on the ground before him... Judah replied, 'What can we say to my lord? How can we plead, how can we prove our innocence? G-d has uncovered the crime of your servants. Here we are, then, slaves of my lord, the rest of us as much as he in whose possession the goblet was found'" (Gen. 44:14-16).
Judah suddenly rose up like a lion, with amazing might. He found the inner strength to stand up to the tyrannical despot, on his own, and revealed the depths of his soul, evincing morality, responsibility and empathy. All his lines, however, shared in common the ability to find the right timing so that his action would bear fruit. He was capable of changing plans on the spur of the moment, and instead of all the brothers becoming slaves in exchange for Benjamin's release, he offered himself alone as a slave.
How could Judah have hoped to convince the ruler to accede to this minimalist offer after the latter had already turned down a more generous one? The answer is that Judah detected in the ruler's words one soft spot. He heard the ruler, who was torturing them, say: "the rest of you go back in peace to your father" (Gen. 44:17), and seized the opportunity. Fourteen times, in his speech, Judah mentioned the word "father," playing on Joseph's feelings of pity for the elderly, suffering father. One could view Judah's words as calculated emotional manipulation, were it not for the utter devotion and self-effacement which he showed in accepting as fact the assumption that in his father's eyes his life was not as important as that of Benjamin.
Through these words and behavior Judah finally atoned for suggesting that Joseph be sold into slavery with full composure and without any sense of brotherhood or sensitivity to his father's feelings. Adding his exemplary behavior in the story of his daughter-in-law Tamar, in which he publicly admitted his responsibility and absolved her of blame, we understand why "the scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet" (Gen. 49:10), for "Judah became more powerful than his brothers and a leader came from him" (I Chron. 5:2).
As for Reuben, he lacked the ability to be a leader of his brothers in the difficult hours, to "exceed in rank and exceed in honor" (Gen. 49:3); but his warmth and sensitivity to the suffering of his brother and father earned him a place of honor among his brothers and assured that, despite his sin in defiling his father's bed, he be blessed: "May Reuben live and not die" (Deut. 33:6), "May Reuben live in this world, and not die in the world to come" (Sanh. 92a); "May Reuben live on the merit [of what he did for] Joseph, and not die for his act with Bilhah" (Avot de Rabbi Nathan II, 45).