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.
Prepared for Internet
Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to:
Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,
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
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
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
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
Note that initially Jacob did not react at all to
Judah's offer; and Judah spoke again, trying further to persuade
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.
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.
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).