The Light That Stems From The Dark
By Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov Jax, Fl
“It’s the depths that make the heights. It’s the roots that make the branches. It’s the night that creates the dawn. It’s the darkness that gives birth to Light.”
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We all have our share of dirty laundry. No one in the world is born great. Everyone has skeletons in their closets. Do we shove it all under the bed, or do we deal with it, become amazing people, and move on? People who do the former are forgotten. Those who do the latter serve as an example for all us for all time.
The Parsha of Vayigash is one of the most exciting, tension-filled narrations in the entire Tanach. It is replete with drama from start to finish. You sense the action right from the get-go, as Yehuda “Approaches” Yosef requesting permission to speak with him privately, “Let your servant say something in the ear of my master.”
Last week’s Parsha, Mikeitz, left off with the hopeless situation in which the brothers found themselves. Having been framed for stealing the loyal goblet, Binyamin is forced to remain in Egypt as a slave, while the brothers face the grim prospect of returning to their aged father, Yaakov, without the “Child born in his old age,” knowing full well that the news will devastate, perhaps even kill him.
Our Parsha proceeds with Yehuda’s dramatic appeal to Yosef: “And Yehuda approached him saying: “Please sir (Adoni), let your servant speak in the ears of my master and don’t be angry at your servant, for you are like Pharaoh” (44:18). According to Midrash Raba (93:6), Yehuda approached Yosef with a three prong strategy; war, appeasement and prayer.
Regarding Yehuda and Yosef’s clash over Binyamin’s fate, The Midrash teaches: “They [the brothers] said: Kings are negotiating with each other; of what concern is it to us?” (Bereishis Rabba 93: 2). In light of the brothers referring to Yehuda and Yosef as “kings,” these two tribes must clearly be special in some way. By choosing to send Yehuda, specifically, to Yosef, “To show the way before him to Goshen” (46:28), Yaakov seems to recognize this as well.
Yosef and Yehuda, it appears are the central characters in the narrative of Yaakov’s “Offspring,” and their story is remarkably similar. Yehuda’s ill-fated marriage to Bat-Shua, is paralleled by Yosef Ill-fated relationship with the wife of Potifar. Yehuda’s true lasting marriage to Tamar is paralleled by Yosef’s true lasting marriage to Osnat. Yehuda fathers two sons; Peretz and Zerach, Yosef: fathers Menashe and Ephraim. Yehuda’s younger son bursts forth (Paratz) and takes the birthright, Yosef’s younger son is blessed with power and royalty.
Much as each of the initial matriarchs – Sara and Rivka – had one son who was most important, so did the latter matriarchs – Yaakov’s wives. Leah’s most important son was Yehuda, while Rachel’s most important son was Yosef. The fact that Yaakov had two principal heirs – Yehuda and Yosef, rather than one principal heir, as his forefathers had, results from Yaakov having had two wives of full status (as opposed to maidservants or concubines), while Avraham and Yitzhak each had only one wife of full status.
The details that the Torah provides concerning Yehuda’s family and Yosef’s family are far more numerous than those provided with regard to all the other brothers and their families. We know that Yehuda’s wife’s name was Tamar, and that Yosef’s wife’s name was Osnat. We are also told of the circumstances in which Yehuda married Tamar, and of the circumstances surrounding Yosef’s marriage to Osnat. Likewise, we know the reasons for the names that Yehuda chooses for his sons and the circumstances of their birth, as well as the reasons for the names of Yosef’s sons and when they were born.
From this perspective, Yosef and Yehuda resemble the forefathers, concerning whom the Torah details the circumstances of their marriages, the names of their wives, the circumstances of their children’s births, and the reasons for the names given to them. As for the rest of the tribes, we have no idea what Yissachar’s wife’s name was, or why Zevulun called his children Sered, Elon and Yachle’el.
The unique status of these two sons of Yaakov is evident throughout later history as well, when the kingdom split. Following the death of King Shlomo, Rechavam and his descendants of the house of David, ruled in Jerusalem, while Yeravam, of the house of Yosef, ruled in Tirtza. Later as well, most of Yeravam’s successors – up until the destruction of the Temple – were from the house of Yosef, and the kingdom of the ten tribes is very often referred to by the prophets by the name “Ephraim.”
It is not difficult to see that in Yaakov’s will to his sons (chapter 49), he blesses his other sons in brief language, while the blessings to Yehuda and Yosef are lengthy. It is likewise clear that the size of the inheritance of Yehuda and of Yosef, larger than that of their brothers, is directly linked to the “size” of the blessing they received from their father.
It is noteworthy that both Yehuda and Yosef faced similar challenges in their pasts. Yehuda did not fare that well in his test with Tamar, but in the end he confesses and owns up to his fault. Yosef, by contrast, holds fast against the advances of Potiphar’s wife.
In chapter 38, we read the sordid tale of Yehuda’s descent into Canaanite culture and life. Leaving his brothers, he stepped out into the surrounding society where he made friends, married, lost two sons and eventually impregnated his daughter in law, thinking her to be a roadside harlot. After Tamar is found to be pregnant, the family wants to have her killed, thinking she was violating family honor. At the last minute Yehuda realizes that she was not only innocent, but that “she is more in the right than I,” (verse 26). A set of twins are born from this liaison, who go on to have important roles to play in Jewish redemptive history.
The narrative of Yehuda and Tamar has been the subject of many discussions, for it seems to be out of place. It interrupts the story of Yosef at a crucial dramatic spot, and is not chronologically fully consistent with it (Yehuda ages considerably; then we return to Yosef as a seventeen-year-old). Some feel that the suspension in the drama helps to raise tension; others argue that this is the only possible place to put an important tradition about the important brother. While these and other arguments may have their merit, one may discern some significant thematic connections as well.
The episode of Yehuda and Tamar is contrasted by the story of Yosef, who despite being exploited withstands temptation. “If I fail, I shall be considered a sinner,” he determinedly declares (paraphrasing 39:9).
The Talmud relates that Yaakov appeared to Yosef during his most vulnerable moment. He warned him that his place among the tribes would be forfeited forever should he fail the test. Regardless of the above,it is clear that the textual contrast, which we might call in modern cinematic terms, crosscutting, is meant to contrast the two figures who clearly emerge as the dominant descendents of Yaakov; Yosef and Yehuda.
Chasidic commentators explore the meta-theory regarding the contrasting archetypes within the two juxtaposed narratives. While the portrait of Yosef is only made more positive by the contrast with the escapades of Yehuda, in the end, it is “Yehuda” who is given the monarchy through his descendant, David, not “Yosef.”
The paradigms of Yosef and Yehuda represent the two ways to spiritual truth. Yosef is the “righteous one;” he is the saint from birth who intrinsically safeguards himself from temptation. It is part of his psychological makeup to be distant from sin and connected to G-d.
Yosef represents spiritual perfection. Much like his mother, Rachel, who in contrast to Leah, is described as perfectly beautiful; Yosef too symbolized spiritual perfection and beauty. The same is true with Rachel’s future descendant, King Shaul, from whom perfection was expected, to the point that a single sin resulted in the forfeiture of his entire kingdom. Yehuda’s descendants, David and Menashe, on the other hand, erred and repented.
Yosef represents the strict letter of the law; he views life though the eyes of Halacha and conforms to the full letter of the law, he cannot even conceive of any other way. He sees the world as though through G-d’s eyes, his primary concern is to feel the presence of G-d within every act.
Yehuda, on the other hand, symbolizes the route through which all can achieve atonement and transcendence; Yehuda sins, but learns from his mistakes; he discovers that despite his initial impressions, “She was more in the right than me,” he was able to recognize that he himself was the flawed one and needed to correct himself.
Yehuda lives in the real world, this sometimes puts him in the situation of sin, but he quickly recognizes the damage, learns from these mistakes and thus perfects himself and the surrounding society . The story, which began as a tremendous down-fall for Yehuda and could have been his Waterloo, was in fact the nadir of his life. Things looked bleak, but he rose to the occasion.
As things turned out, his descent was an opportunity for him to achieve his maximum potential; to reach the high-point of his life. This sordid incident of Yehdua’s involvement with Tamar and his public embarrassment over it may seem like a low-point. However, it was this very admission which gave Yehuda his claim to fame, as Yaakov later said “Yehuda, you your brothers will acknowledge” (Bereshis 49:8). He became Yehuda and he demonstrated the power of confession (Hodaah – same root as Yehuda) to all of us.
As part of the blessing that he gave to Yehuda, Jews are called by his name (Yehudim), not by the name of any other Tribe. Why are we “Yehudim?” It is because Yehuda did something that took a tremendous amount of self-discipline and honesty. He admitted: “You are right. I was wrong.”
Regardless of what tribe we come from, we all call ourselves “Yehudim” – spiritual descendants of Yehuda. In fact, one of the two sons born to Yehuda and Tamar (Peretz) eventually became the ancestor of King David and the Davidic dynasty. Peretz is the direct ancestor of King David and Moshiach. Thus he is identified with Moshiach, as a suggested by his name which alludes to the Messianic prophecy of “The Poretz (the one who breaks through) is gone up before them” (Michah 2:13).
The route of Yosef is unattainable for most; his way of service cannot be achieved on a wide scale in society. The masses can only be perfected and improved via the route of Yehuda, the route of learned experience; that is why the rule of the people is given to Yehuda and not Yosef.
In the end, however, the approaches of Yehuda and Yosef will be reconciled, as described in the Haftarah of Parshas Vayigash; the Parsha in which the confrontation between Yosef and Yehuda reaches its climax.
The Midrash therefore notes that “Before the first enslaver of Israel (i.e., Pharaoh) was born, the ultimate redeemer of Israel (Moshiach; i.e., Peretz) was already born.”
With the birth of Peretz, our sages note, the Almighty created the light of Moshiach. G-d thus brought about the remedy and cure before the affliction, that is, before the Egyptian exile and all the exiles that followed thereafter – including our present one.
This “light of Moshiach” confers upon Israel the strength and ability to succeed in their exiles to “break through” all obstacles and impediments in their service of G-d until their good deeds will affect the coming of Moshiach of whom it is said, “The Poretz is gone up before them.”
The Messianic Kingdom will shine forth and illuminate throughout the world. All mankind will benefit from its bright light, as it is written: “Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by the brightness of zarchech (your shining forth)” (Isaiah 60:3). May we witness this day imminently with the coming of the righteous Moshiach BBA.