reprinted courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel Education Department
We analyzed in this previous chapter of our Studies on this sidra Judah’s moving speech which marks the climax of the story of Joseph and his brethren. Judah uttered it at the most critical juncture. The brothers, who had once been strangers to the feeling of brotherhood, who had, deaf to his entreaties, sold him into slavery were now put to the test. Would they leave the other brother, a son of Rachel too, in bondage and return to their aged father, once again, a brother-by-Rachel-short or would they fight to rescue him even at the cost of their own freedom?
Judah, as we have noted, resorted in his speech, to every psychological and rhetorical device to stir the feelings of the Egyptian. Our sages, however, turned this speech into a duel of words, a tussle between Joseph and Judah. Here is an excerpt from this lengthy verbal duel: My Lord asked his servants, saying: have ye a father, or a brother? (44:19) From the outset thou didst come upon us with a pretext. From many provinces did they come down to Egypt to buy victuals; yet thou didst not interrogate any of them.
Peradventure we came for thy daughter’s hand, or our sister’s hand didst thou seek? Even so, we hid nothing from thee.
Joseph replied to him: Judah! Wherefore art thou the spokesman of all your brethren, whereas I see in my divining goblet that thou has brothers older than thyself? Answered Judah: All that thou seest is due to the bond that I stood for him. To which Joseph replied: Why didst thou not stand surety for thy brother when ye sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver and grieved thine old father, when thou didst say unto him: Joseph has been torn by a wild beast, when he did thee no wrong?
Regarding this one who did wrong and stole the goblet, tell thy father: The rope has followed the bucket. As soon as Judah heard this, he cried out bitterly: How can I go up to my father when the lad is not with me? Joseph then said to him: Come let us debate the matter. Have thine say and arrange thine arguments.
Whereupon Judah immediately called to his brother Naphtali: go see how many markets there are in Egypt. Whereupon he leapt forth, returned and told him: twelve. Said Judah: I shall lay waste three of them; the rest of you, take each one a market and spare no one. His brethren answered him: Judah, Egypt is no Shechem; Should thou destroy Egypt, thou destroyest the whole world. (Tanhuma)
Judah immediately became furious and raged at the top of his voice, so that the sound traveled 400 parasangs till Hushim the son of Dan heard it and leapt to his side from the land of Canaan. Both of them raged and sought to overthrow the land of Egypt. (Bereshit Rabbah)
Judah said unto Joseph: Knowest thou, that from the beginning thou didst only seek a pretext. Thou didst first say unto us: Ye are spies. Then didst thou add: To see the nakedness of the land, ye have come, and then: Ye have stolen a goblet. Thou by them didst swear by the life of Pharaoh the wicked; whereas I swear by the life of my father, the righteous one. If I unsheathe my sword, I shall fill all Egypt with corpses. Said Joseph to him: If thou will unsheathe thy sword, I shall bind it round thy neck. Judah: If I open my mouth I shall swallow thee up. Said Joseph: If thou wilt but open thy mouth, I shall stop it up with a stone. Said Judah: What shall we say to father? Said Joseph: I have already told thee: Tell him: the rope has followed the bucket. Said Judah: Thou dost mete out a pervert judgment on us. Said Joseph: Perverseness for the perverters. No greater perversion of justice could be imagined than the sale of your brother! Said Judah: The fire of Shechem doth burn within me. Said Joseph: the fire of thy daughter-in-law Tamar it is I shall douse it. Said Judah: Now I shall go forth and dye all the markets of Egypt in blood. Said Joseph: Ye were dyers aforetimes when ye dyed your brother’s coat in blood and said to your father: He is torn to pieces.
Said Joseph: Did ye not say thus, that the brother of this one is dead? I purchased him. I am going to call him and he will come to you. He began to call: Joseph the son of Jacob, come to me! Joseph the son of Jacob, come unto me! Speak with thy brethren who sold thee. Whereupon they looked to the four corners of the house. Said Joseph to them: Wherefore do you look hither and thither? I am Joseph your brother! Whereupon their souls flew out and they could not answer him.
Said R. Yohanan: Woe to us on account of the day of Judgment! Woe to us on account of the day of retribution! If in the case of Joseph who said unto his brethren: I am Joseph your brother , their souls flew out, all the more so, when the Holy One blessed be He stands in judgment, as it is written: Who may abide the day of His coming? (Malachi 3, 2). And if, in this case, his brethren were affrighted at his presence, all the more so, when the Holy one blessed be He comes to judge us for neglect of His commands and the violation of the torah
The Holy One blessed be he performed a miracle for them and their souls returned.
What was the reason for this fanciful interpretation of Judah’s moving speech, this transformation of a skillfully-woven emotional appeal and monologue into a bitter denunciatory dialogue?
But the fanciful embroidery of our sages is also skillfully built up into a dialogue which moves, stage by stage into a climax. There is, however a difference. Judah, in the original Biblical petition only hinted at injustice, indirectly. In the Midrash, he beseeches, threatens and denounces, whilst Joseph aggressively answers him back in mocking and ironic tone: The rope has followed the bucket. The more Judah rages, the more Joseph angers and wounds him, recalling his treatment of their younger brother in the past. Joseph, of course, could not have said these words. Who then is the Joseph in the Midrash, who plays the role of the accuser? Our sages wished to personify Judah’s conscience, the inner voice of remorse which plagued him at this turning of tables.
The more Judah denounces the injustice of the regent’s conduct, the more his conscience reminds him of the injustice he inflicted on Joseph.
Thou dost mete out a perverse judgment on us. Perverseness for perverters.
No greater perversion of justice could be imagined than the sale of you brother!
When Judah’s natural indignation at injustice knows no bounds he threatens to envelop a whole empire with catastrophe for the slander of innocent people on peril of starvation:
Now shall I go forth and dye all the markets of Egypt with blood.
But his conscience cooled his raging fury with the words:
Ye were dyers aforetimes when ye dyed your brother’s coat in blood and told your father: He is torn to pieces by wild beasts.
Perhaps the picture of Judah’s ragings are meant to depict the effort to drown the voice of conscience which taunted him:
Wherefore didst thou not stand surety for your brother, when you sold him for twenty pieces of silver?
The Midrash contrasts their situation in Egypt, the justice meted out to them, with their conduct towards their brother, on the advice of Judah, in the past. This idea is also expressed in the text itself, in the last words of Judah’s speech:
Now therefore let thy servant, I pray thee, abide instead of the lad a bondmen to my Lord;
And let the lad go up with his brethren
Once Judah, who here represents all the brothers, had reached the stage of not being able to return to his father without Benjamin, being prepared to give his life for him, the wrong they had all originally perpetrated against their other brother was atoned for and Joseph could reveal his identity to them.