December 27, 2019
Ever wonder why we are called Jews and not Hebrews? We started as Ivrim – Hebrews, from the word “ever“, meaning the other side of the river. But somewhere along the way, we became Yehudim – Jews – in honor of Judah, only number four among the twelve sons of Jacob, but the undisputed number one leader of the pack.
And what about Joseph? Would we have been called Josephites – Yosefim – had Joseph been recognized as the leader of the Israelites? Rhetorical question, we don’t know. But we can understand why Joseph did not become the leader of the family. Not only because he was spirited away from his family for 20 years and worked and was imprisoned and then became viceroy of Egypt. No. He was never the leader. He was always the outsider in the family, both because of his actions, his father’s actions, and his brothers’ reactions to him, even after the great reunification of the family in Egypt.
We see that Joseph and Judah were different, but they were both leaders. They both accepted responsibility. Last week we saw that Judah’s daughter-in-law Tamar gave him the option of accepting or denying responsibility for impregnating her. And he accepted it.In trying to persuade Jacob to send Benjamin down to Egypt, Judah says, “I will take him and I will bring him back. If I fail, I will have sinned to you forever.” The “punishment” is the threat of not keeping his word, something that is very important to Judah.
This is why we will see next week that Judah is the one who speaks, eloquently, to Joseph. He weaves a web of subtle venom hiding under a veil of apparent humility, both ingratiating himself to Joseph and chastising him for his actions. And it was Judah’s actions that finally convinced Joseph that the brothers had changed, had repented, had understood the error of their early actions against him.
This brings us to Joseph. As some commentators point out, until Joseph speaks out before Pharaoh, he is passive. Yes, he dreams and relates his dreams to his disapproving brothers and father but everything that occurs is the work of others. His father makes him a coat. His brothers plot to kill (and then sell) him. Potiphar buys him. God makes him successful there. Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce him. God makes Joseph succeed in prison. And then, even when he can act, he denies it is his doing. God will provide an explanation for your dreams, he says to Pharaoh’s drink-master and baker. He explains that he was stolen from his home, that he was unjustly imprisoned. This is no way to interview for a job!
But with Pharaoh he finally acts. After citing God as the true interpreter, he then offers a strategy for avoiding the impending doom. And he succeeds in this. Why now? What quality in him said, this is the moment?
The quality he had was the ability to read people. Sure, interpreting dreams, if you want to be accurate, can only benefit from divine guidance. But Joseph had something more.Many years ago, in the television comedy series “Get Smart”, there was a character called “Simon the Likeable“. If you looked at him and he smiled at you, you couldn’t not like him. Here we have “Joseph the likeable”. People liked him, not only because he was good-looking but because he could read their needs. He made them feel fulfilled. This happened with Potiphar, and it would have happened with Potiphar’s wife, except that Joseph could not give her what she wanted. It happened with Pharaoh’s two servants in jail, with the head jailer, and then with Pharaoh himself.
This also explains his behavior with his brothers. Why didn’t he reveal himself to them? Because he was not sure that revelation was what they needed at the moment. So he tested them. Was he cruel, putting them and his father under such duress? Sometimes a little coercion or a little cruelty will go a long way towards sorting things out and making sure the future bodes well.
As we will see next week, when he was satisfied that his brothers had indeed changed, that they were ready for the shock of their lives, that they could grasp the revelation that would reshape their entire existence – that is when he revealed himself. And it was Judah, the other charismatic leader, who led his brothers to this unexpected promised land.Interestingly, the one thing that Joseph wanted, and could not get, and that Judah wanted, and could not give, was one united loving family. Yes, Joseph finally was accepted, but with reservations and lots of suspicion. We can assume that Judah was as wary of his newly re-found sibling as the others, probably because in similar circumstances, they would probably not have been as magnanimous as Joseph was. Which goes to prove that you can create a new present but you cannot erase the past. And like it or not, it colors our actions in the future.
Another Judah, Judah Maccabee, became our symbol of resistance, of heroism in the face of daunting odds and of devotion to Judaism and our right to serve God as we see fit. His leadership qualities attracted followers, and he remained dedicated to fighting for what he thought was right, even when the odds were totally against him. His courage and dedication are reflected in the courage and dedication of the pioneers and early Zionists who fought to establish our state and those who have continued to defend it over the years. One of the purposes of celebrating Chanukah each year should be to remind us that to keep our country, not only AS OURS but also in the image that we want it to be. We, too, have to be ready to stand up and be heard.