The sequence from Bereishith 37 to 50 is the longest unbroken narrative in the Torah, and there can be no doubt who its hero is: Joseph. The story begins and ends with him. We see him as a child, beloved – even spoiled – by his father; as an adolescent dreamer, resented by his brothers; as a slave, then a prisoner, in Egypt; then as the second most powerful figure in the greatest empire of the ancient world. At every stage, the narrative revolves around him and his impact on others. He dominates the last third of Bereishith, casting his shadow on everything else. From almost the beginning, he seems destined for greatness.
Yet history did not turn out that way. To the contrary, it is another brother who, in the fullness of time, leaves his mark on the Jewish people. Indeed, we bear his name. The covenantal family has been known by several names. One is Ivri, “Hebrew” (possibly related to the ancient apiru), meaning “outsider, stranger, nomad, one who wanders from place to place.” That is how Abraham and his children were known to others. The second is Yisrael, derived from Jacob’s new name after he “wrestled with G-d and with man and prevailed.” After the division of the kingdom and the conquest of the North by the Assyrians, however, they became known as Yehudim or Jews, for it was the tribe of Judah who dominated the kingdom of the South, and they who survived the Babylonian exile. So it was not Joseph but Judah who conferred his identity on the people, Judah who became the ancestor of Israel’s greatest king, David, Judah from whom the messiah will be born. Why Judah, not Joseph? The answer undoubtedly lies in the beginning of Vayigash, as the two brothers confront one another, and Judah pleads for Benjamin’s release.
The clue lies many chapters back, at the beginning of the Joseph story. It is there we find that it was Judah who proposed selling Joseph into slavery:
Judah said to his brothers, “What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover his blood? Let’s sell him to the Arabs and not harm him with our own hands. After all – he is our brother, our own flesh and blood.” His brothers agreed. (37: 26-27)
This is a speech of monstrous callousness. There is no word about the evil of murder, merely pragmatic calculation (“What will we gain”). At the very moment he calls Joseph “our own flesh and blood” he is proposing selling him as a slave. Judah has none of the tragic nobility of Reuben who, alone of the brothers, sees that what they are doing is wrong, and makes an attempt to save him (it fails). At this point, Judah is the last person from whom we expect great things.
However, Judah – more than anyone else in the Torah – changes. The man we see all these years later it not what he was then. Then he was prepared to see his brother sold into slavery. Now he is prepared to suffer that fate himself rather than see Benjamin held as a slave. As he says to Joseph:
“Now, my lord, let me remain in place of the boy as your lordship’s slave, and let him go with his brothers. How can I return to my father without the boy? I could not bear to see the misery which my father would suffer.” (44: 33-34)
It is a precise reversal of character. Callousness has been replaced with concern. Indifference to his brother’s fate has been transformed into courage on his behalf. He is willing to suffer what he once inflicted on Joseph so that the same fate should not befall Benjamin. At this point Joseph reveals his identity. We know why. Judah has passed the test that Joseph has carefully constructed for him. Joseph wants to know if Judah has changed. He has.
This is a highly significant moment in the history of the human spirit. Judah is the first penitent – the first baal teshuvah – in the Torah. Where did it come from, this change in his character? For that, we have to backtrack to chapter 38 – the story of Tamar. Tamar, we recall, had married Judah’s two elder sons, both of whom had died, leaving her a childless widow. Judah, fearing that his third son would share their fate, withheld him from her – thus leaving her unable to remarry and have children. Once she understands her situation, Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute. Judah sleeps with her. She becomes pregnant. Judah, unaware of the disguise, concludes that she must have had a forbidden relationship and orders her to be put to death. At this point, Tamar – who, while disguised, had taken Judah’s seal, cord and staff as a pledge – send them to Judah with a message: “The father of my child is the man to whom these belong.” Judah now understands the whole story. Not only has he placed Tamar in an impossible situation of living widowhood, and not only is he the father of her child, but he also realises that she has behaved with extraordinary discretion in revealing the truth without shaming him (it is from this act of Tamar’s that we derive the rule that “one should rather throw oneself into a fiery furnace than shame someone else in public”). Tamar is the heroine of the story, but it has one significant consequence. Judah admits he was wrong. “She was more righteous than I,” he says. This is the first time in the Torah someone acknowledges their own guilt. It is also the turning point in Judah’s life. Here is born that ability to recognise one’s own wrongdoing, to feel remorse, and to change – the complex phenomenon known as teshuvah – that later leads to the great scene in Vayigash, where Judah is capable of turning his earlier behaviour on its head and doing the opposite of what he had once done before. Judah is ish teshuvah, penitential man.
We now understand the significance of his name. The verb lehodot means two things. It means “to thank,” which is what Leah has in mind when she gives Judah, her fourth son, his name: “this time I will thank the Lord.” However, it also means, “to admit, acknowledge.” The biblical term vidui, “confession,” – then and now part of the process of teshuvah, and according to Maimonides its key element – comes from the same root. Judah means “he who acknowledged his sin.”
We now also understand one of the fundamental axioms of teshuvah: “Rabbi Abbahu said: In the place where penitents stand, even the perfectly righteous cannot stand” (Berachot 34b). His prooftext is the verse from Isaiah (57: 19), “Peace, peace to him that was far and to him that is near.” The verse puts one who “was far” ahead of one who “is near.” As the Talmud makes clear, however, Rabbi Abbahu’s reading is by no means uncontroversial. Rabbi Jochanan interprets “far” as “far from sin” rather than “far from G-d.” The real proof is Judah. Judah is a penitent, the first in the Torah. Joseph is consistently known to tradition as ha-tzaddik, “the righteous.” Joseph became mishneh le-melekh, “second to the king.” Judah, however, became the father of Israel’s kings. Where the penitent Judah stands, even the perfectly righteous Joseph cannot stand. However great an individual may be in virtue of his or her natural character, greater still is one who is capable of growth and change. That is the power of penitence, and it began with Judah.
One Future, One Hope, Two Paths
The Hebrew bible has endowed Western civilisation with two different concepts of time. One is the apocalypse, the idea that we are heading towards a shattering cataclysm in which the universe will shake on its foundations before the moral order is restored. There will be a day of wrath, sun and moon will be darkened, the heavens will roll together and the earth will quake. Then, like sunshine after the storm, justice will reign, evil will be defeated and truth will prevail. This vision, to be found in the book of Daniel and the writings of sectarian groups during the last days of the Second Temple, resurfaces in Christianity, giving rise in one century after another during the course of the Middle Ages to a series of revolutionary and anarchic sects.
It is born in a strange mixture of despair and certainty, certainty that good will triumph, despair that it will do so within the course of society as it is. So arises the belief in the end of history, and even, in extremis, a willingness to act to hasten the end. This, as Michael Waltzer notes, is what lies behind ‘the readiness of messianic militants to welcome, even to initiate, the terrors that precede the Last Days; and the strange politics of the worse, the better. In recent years we have been tragically reminded of such doomsday cults: Jonestown, the Branch Davidians of Waco and the Church of the Solar Temple are three examples. More generally, apocalyptic thinking has entered the mainstream of cultural anxiety. It is to be found is Alasdair MacIntyre’s prediction of the ‘new dark ages’ (and the many other laments I chronicled in the first chapter). Apocalyptic time has a destination. It is called the Millennium.
But there is another Jewish tradition, not apocalyptic but prophetic. Its most famous image is the journey of the Israelites across the desert towards the Promised Land. Here too there is a destination, but it is to be reached, not by upheaval but rather through a long, slow journey, by ‘joining together and marching’. The way is rarely straight. There are digressions and diversions, blind alleys and false turnings, backslidings and rebellions. At times the people despair and long to go back to a misremembered past, an idealised Egypt, the ‘would we have lost’. But somehow, through a combination of coaxing and persistence, they reach sight of their goal, even though Moses, who has led them there, will not live to cross the Jordan. ‘It is not given to you to complete the task,’ said a first century rabbi, summarising the moral enterprise, ‘but neither are you free to desist from it.’
The prophetic dream is less about the end of history (the messianic age) than about how to move forward, step by step, towards the good society. It is not a cosmic vision; rather, it is a moral one. Isaiah’s ‘Seek justice, encourage the oppressed, defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow’ or Micah’s ‘What does the Lord require of you but to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your G-d?’ are not It shall be a jubilee for you, a time when everyone shall return to his inheritance and to his family’ (Leviticus 25:10). The Jubilee is not the end of history. It is simply a reminder that wherever we are, we can begin again.
I have been arguing for a prophetic rather than apocalyptic society. Things may be bad; the social fabric may be frayed; but precisely because we are moral beings, we have every reason not to despair. It is no accident that what Alasdair MacIntyre calls ‘hope as a social virtue’ makes its first appearance among the prophets of ancient Israel. It lies in the profound difference between prophecy and prediction. Foreseeing the future, the prophets did not predict what would happen, but warned of what might happen in the hope that people would change. In Judaism there is not inevitable future, and hence no tragedy in the classic sense, because the driving force of human history is not a power beyond our control, but our own responsible decisions. Through free will we overcome the present. Through repentance and forgiveness we overcome the past. That is the moral basis of hope.
(From ‘The Politics of Hope’ – Published by Vintage 2000 – P258-260)
To be a Jew and to be proud.
The only sane response to anti-semitism is to monitor it, fight it, but never let it affect our idea of who we are. Pride is always a healthier response than shame. Some years ago a rabbi told me of an episode that happened to him in Russia. Glasnost was in its early days. For the first time in seventy years Jews were free to practise Judaism openly. He has gone there to help in the revival of Jewish life. He discovered, as many did at that time, that ‘openness’ meant also that anti-semitism could be more freely expressed.
One day a young woman came to him in distress. All her life, she said, she had hidden the fact that she was a Jew, and she still did. Now, though, for the first time, her neighbours muttered Zhid (‘Jew’) hen she passed. What could she do? The rabbi thought, then said this. “If you had not come to me with your story I would have no way of knowing that you are a Jew. But when I walk in the street, people can see that I am a Jew. I wear a Yarmulka. I look like a rabbi. Yet in all the months I have been here, no one has said to me Zhid. Why do you think that is?” The girl took a minute to reflect, then said,“ because they know that if they call me ‘Jew’ I will take it as an insult. But if they call you ‘Jew’ you will take it as a compliment.
There is all the difference in the world between pride and arrogance. Arrogance is the belief that you are better than others. Jews have sometimes been guilty of this, and it is inexcusable. Pride is simply knowing that each of us is different and being at ease with that fact, never “desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope”. Arrogance diminishes others and therefore diminishes us. Pride values others because we have learned to value ourselves.
I learned this lesson from an old Israeli boatman in Eilat. We had gone there, my wife and I, to find the sun after a cold, northern winter. Eilat is hot, but bleak, set in the desert among brown and barren hills. There is not much to do there, so one morning we decided to go out in one of the glass-bottomed boats, through which you can see the multi-coloured fish that swim in Eilat’s waters. We were the only passengers on that trip.
The captain overheard us talking and rushed over to us. Atem Me-Anglia? “Are you from England?” Yes, we said. Why did he want to know? Ah, he said, I have just come back from a holiday there. What did he think of England? “Wonderful! The grass – so green! The buildings – so old! The people – so polite!” And then a vast smile filled his face, and he spread his arms and looked around him at the barren desert hills and said, with an air of infinite delight, Aval zeh shelanu, “But this is ours.”
Then I knew what it is to be a Jew. There are other cultures, other civilizations, other peoples, other faiths. Each has contributed something unique to the total experience of mankind. Each, from its own vantage point, has been chosen. But this is ours. This is our faith, our people, our heritage. By loving them, I learn to love humanity in its diversity. At peace with myself, I find peace with the world.
(From Radical Then, Radial Now - Continuum 2003 – P.205-206)