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His brother’s keeper

‘For your servant took responsibility for the youth...Now let your servant remain as a servant instead of the youth [Benjamin] to my lord....’ (Genesis 44:32,33).

Lion of Judah
Photo by: Thinkstock/Imagebank
In his perfectly crafted and emotionally stirring speech before the “Grand Vizier” of Egypt, Judah manages to move his powerful “adversary” to the point of revealing who he really is and so repairing the fractured family of Jacob.

It is precisely this function – uniting the people of Israel – which is the most important criterion for the leader of the emerging nation, who will stand as prototype for King Messiah. After all, Israel will never be able to unite the world unless it first unites itself.

Unless we understand this crucial element of Jewish leadership, we will never understand why the patriarch Jacob sent his beloved son Joseph into the “lion’s den” to seek “the welfare of his brothers.” Although he had pronounced Joseph heir apparent by presenting him with the striped cloak of many colors – indeed, the very symbol of a single entity which combines and unites within itself many different hues, attitudes and ideas – Jacob was painfully aware of the deep divide within the family engendered by Joseph’s arrogance and dreams of domination. Hence, Jacob sends Joseph as an agent (shaliah) “to look after the peace of your brothers” (Genesis 37:13, 14) – to unite them through his concern for their welfare.

In the very next verse, an anonymous passerby asks Joseph: “What are you searching for?” He responds, “It is my brothers [or brotherliness, sibling harmony] for whom I am searching.” But alas, Joseph’s agency (shlihut) is not sufficient to mend the break in the family.

The Talmudic sages teach us that “the agent of an individual is like the person on whose behalf he undertakes the mission” (Shulhan Aruch, Hoshen Mishpat, 183, 1), which means that he is also limited by his “sender,” that he cannot transcend the limitations of his sender. And since it was Jacob who set the stage for the division by so blatantly expressing his favoritism, Joseph’s mission fails; the chosen brother becomes the cast-out brother, first in a pit and then in the exile of Egyptian slavery.

Now, let us turn to the most dominant and influential of the other brothers, Judah. Yes, he probably prevented Joseph’s life from ending in a deadly, deserted pit, but he was ultimately directly responsible for Joseph’s separation from the family; it was his idea to sell him into Egyptian serfdom.

This story continues with the subsequent deterioration of Judah, how he continues to move further and further away from brotherly love and unification. “And it happened at that time [after the sale] that Judah went down [and away] from his brothers...” (Gen. 38:1).

Judah takes a Canaanite woman to wife (against the Abrahamic command), with whom he fathers three sons, Er, Onan and Shelah. Er marries Tamar, but dies without leaving progeny. When a man dies without leaving an heir, his brother marries the widow, providing her with financial security, and giving her a child who will bear the name and receive the inheritance of the deceased brother.

Onan, however, selfishly refuses to provide his brother with continuity, withholding his seed from her. When Onan also dies without progeny, Judah refuses to give Tamar his third son, Shelah, in levirate marriage, giving as his reason that Shelah is too young. Judah himself is now left without an heir, having raised sons who lack sibling responsibility. This is hardly the way to continue the Abrahamic covenant.

Tamar, anxious to continue Judah’s family line and produce offspring for her deceased husbands, poses as a harlot, seduces Judah, and becomes impregnated by him. When the widowed Tamar is seen to be pregnant, she is about to be killed. Judah takes responsibility, declaring, “She is more righteous than I” – because she understood better than I sibling and familial responsibility.

Twin sons are born, one of whom, Perez, is the ancestor of Boaz who, together with Ruth, will be the grandparents of David, progenitor of the Messiah.

When Judah thought Tamar was a prostitute, he had given her a pledge of responsibility: his signet, his cloak and his staff. (eravon, as in arev, co-signer). When she returned these to him, he finally recognized his familial responsibility to her, and to his family and to his continuity.

When Jacob is frightened of sending Benjamin to the Grand Vizier, a chastened Judah declares, “I shall personally be his guarantor,” his arev (Gen. 43:9).

And when the Grand Vizier hears that Judah is ready to stand in as a slave instead of Benjamin in order to save his father the grief of losing yet another son of Rachel, he realizes how far Judah has come. Familial unity can only be achieved when familial love demands mutual responsibility one for the other, each truly acting as his brother’s keeper. Now Joseph can be revealed, ready for the family to heal and unite behind the one brother ready to bear co-signership responsibility for the welfare of each of his siblings.

The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs and chief rabbi of Efrat.


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