Parshat Vayeshev: The Light of Mashiach

Parashat Vayeishev begins with an almost-cryptic statement:

בראשית לז: א

וַיֵּ֣שֶׁב יַעֲקֹ֔ב בְּאֶ֖רֶץ מְגוּרֵ֣י אָבִ֑יו בְּאֶ֖רֶץ כְּנָֽעַן:

Yaakov settled in the land in which his fathers dwelled, in the land of Canaan. (Bereishit 37:1)

Yaakov had come to the point in his life when he could finally settle down. The Hebrew term for “settled” is vayeishev, while the term for “dwelled” is megurei, from the word gur, rooted in the word ger, stranger.[1] In this short verse, then, we are told that Yaakov succeeded in settling where his father and grandfather before him only managed to dwell. Interestingly, in his later years, when Yaakov stands before Pharaoh and the latter asks him his age, Yaakov responds:

בראשית מז:ט

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יַעֲקֹב֙ אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֔ה יְמֵי֙ שְׁנֵ֣י מְגוּרַ֔י שְׁלֹשִׁ֥ים וּמְאַ֖ת שָׁנָ֑ה מְעַ֣ט וְרָעִ֗ים הָיוּ֙ יְמֵי֙ שְׁנֵ֣י חַיַּ֔י וְלֹ֣א הִשִּׂ֗יגוּ אֶת־יְמֵי֙ שְׁנֵי֙ חַיֵּ֣י אֲבֹתַ֔י בִּימֵ֖י מְגוּרֵיהֶֽם.

The days of my dwellings are one hundred and thirty years, few and bad have been the days of my life, and they do not match the days of my fathers’ dwellings. (Bereishit 47:9)

Yaakov describes his life and times with the word megurei — dwellings - as opposed to the term with which the present parashah begins: Vayeishev, he settled. Did Yaakov, in fact, settle, or did he merely dwell?[2]

Rashi cites a midrash to explain the meaning of Yaakov’s “settling.”

רש"י, בראשית לז

וישב: ביקש יעקב לישב בשלוה, קפץ עליו רוגזו של יוסף. צדיקים מבקשים לישב בשלוה אומר הקדוש ברוך הוא לא דיין לצדיקים מה שמתוקן להם לעולם הבא, אלא שמבקשים לישב בשלוה בעולם הזה:

Settled: Yaakov wished to settle in tranquility, but the episode of [literally, the anger of] Yosef confronted him. The righteous wish to live in tranquility; God says, “Is it not sufficient for the righteous what is awaiting them in the next world that they [also] wish to live in tranquility in this world!?” (Rashi, Bereishit 37:2, based on Bereishit Rabbah 84:3)

This concept is quite puzzling. What does it mean that Yaakov wished to live in tranquility? Did Yaakov wish to “retire” from active patriarchal service and enjoy his “golden years”? Certainly, Yaakov’s life was difficult, but was this a reason to abandon his mission for the sake of “the good life”? There must be a deeper meaning to the “tranquility” Yaakov was seeking. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zt”l, suggested that what Yaakov was seeking was spiritual tranquility. When he returned to the Land of Israel, after overcoming the challenges presented by Lavan and Esav, Yaakov anticipated nothing less than the onset of Messianic Age. This would explain the midrashic reference to the World to Come: Yaakov sought spiritual utopia here on earth. This is reflected in God’s comment: Tzaddikim strive for spiritual perfection. They are not satisfied with what God has waiting for them in the World to Come; they desire perfection here and now as well.[3]

But how could Yaakov possibly think that a state of perfection or tranquility could be attained at that juncture in history? Had God not promised Avraham that his descendants would be enslaved for four hundred years?

בראשית פרק טו, יג-טז

(יג) וַיֹּא֣מֶר לְאַבְרָ֗ם יָדֹ֨עַ תֵּדַ֜ע כִּי־גֵ֣ר׀ יִהְיֶ֣ה זַרְעֲךָ֗ בְּאֶ֙רֶץ֙ לֹ֣א לָהֶ֔ם וַעֲבָד֖וּם וְעִנּ֣וּ אֹתָ֑ם אַרְבַּ֥ע מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָֽה: (יד) וְגַ֧ם אֶת־הַגּ֛וֹי אֲשֶׁ֥ר יַעֲבֹ֖דוּ דָּ֣ן אָנֹ֑כִי וְאַחֲרֵי־כֵ֥ן יֵצְא֖וּ בִּרְכֻ֥שׁ גָּדֽוֹל: (טו) וְאַתָּ֛ה תָּב֥וֹא אֶל־אֲבֹתֶ֖יךָ בְּשָׁל֑וֹם תִּקָּבֵ֖ר בְּשֵׂיבָ֥ה טוֹבָֽה: (טז) וְד֥וֹר רְבִיעִ֖י יָשׁ֣וּבוּ הֵ֑נָּה כִּ֧י לֹא־שָׁלֵ֛ם עֲוֹ֥ן הָאֱמֹרִ֖י עַד־הֵֽנָּה:

[God] said to Avraham, “You shall know that your descendants will be strangers in a land which is not theirs. They will be slaves and abused for four hundred years. The nation which enslaves them will be judged by Me. They will subsequently leave with great fortune. The fourth generation will return here, for the sin of the Emori will not be complete until then.” (Bereishit 15:13–16)

How could Yaakov ignore the four hundred years of slavery stipulated in the Divine decree?

In fact, there are conflicting sources regarding the period of the Israelites’ enslavement in Egypt: From the text of the Haggadah (which, in turn, is taken from earlier rabbinic sources), we learn that God was lenient in the calculation, and after a mere 210 years the Israelites were liberated.[4] And yet, the Torah explicitly states that the Jews left Egypt “at the end of four hundred and thirty years.”[5] The contradiction among the sources was quite apparent to our sages, and they addressed this question in the midrash: Which was it - four hundred years, four hundred and thirty years, four generations? The answer provided by the Midrash reconciles the apparent contradiction by pointing out that God’s revelation to Avraham, in which both four hundred years and four generations were mentioned, took place thirty years prior to the birth of Yitzchak. God stipulated that Avraham’s descendants would be enslaved by a foreign power for four hundred years, and the clock was set in motion the moment Avraham’s son was born; the calculation of the four hundred years of oppression begins with Yitzchak’s birth. Thus, the Exodus came “at the end of four hundred and thirty years” – from the moment God made this covenant with Avraham, which was four hundred years from the moment Yitchak was born.[6] Yitzchak and Yaakov, as well as the 12 sons of Yaakov, were subject to foreign rule for one hundred and ninety years, followed by the period of actual slavery in Egypt which was 210 years in duration.

What, however, is the significance of the four generations mentioned in God’s covenant with Avraham?

מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל בא - מסכתא דפסחא פרשה יד

…אמר הקדוש ב"ה אם עושין תשובה אני גואלם לדורות ואם לאו אני גואלם לשנים.[7]

The Holy One, blessed be He, said, “If they do teshuvah I will redeem them [after four] generations; if not, I will redeem them [after four hundred] years.” (Mechilta D’Rabbi Yishmael, Bo 14)

The details of the promise to Avraham were not etched in stone; they were flexible. The central idea was that Avraham’s descendants would be enslaved and abused, and would eventually leave the place of their oppression with great wealth. Apparently, Yaakov believed that this sequence had already occurred, that all these elements of God’s promise had been fulfilled in his own life story. He must have thought that his oppression at the hands of Lavan and the years of labor which ended in his return to Israel with tremendous material wealth had fulfilled God’s words to Avraham, and redemption could now take place. His children, after all, were the fourth generation of Avraham’s family.

And then, out of the blue, Yaakov’s worldview was derailed by the saga of Yosef and his brothers. “The anger of Yosef” shattered his illusions of tranquility and fulfillment.

When the enemy was Nimrod, Yishmael, Lavan, or Esav, confrontation was understandable, inevitable — even anticipated. But an internal struggle such as this did not seem to be part of the Divine Plan. Yaakov was certain that all the adversaries had been neutralized, and that the era of spiritual tranquility was dawning. With his sons at his side, Yaakov was confident that the Messianic Age had arrived. This new struggle was unanticipated, but the Messianic Age could not begin (nor can Sefer Bereishit come to an end) before this final intrigue within the family of Israel was played out. Thus, toward the end of the book of Bereishit when Yaakov meets up with Pharaoh, in his succinct retrospective of his life, he tells the Egyptian monarch that he had, in fact “dwelled,” but had not succeed in “settling.” He never achieved this sought-after tranquility.

The narratives that comprise the bulk of Sefer Bereishit are more than stories; the vicissitudes of the lives of our forefathers are far more than ancient tales. They are spiritual realities pregnant with meaning, which shape the contours of Jewish history. If we are to understand the significance of the teachings in Bereishit in general, and this parashah in particular, we must read them through the prism of “ma’aseh avot siman labanim:[8] “The actions of the forefathers serve as a portent for their descendants.” Put another way, ‘History repeats itself,’ or, in theological terms, ‘Jewish history is Jewish destiny.’

When Yosef and his brothers fight, the spiritual power for future domestic disputes is unleashed. It is no accident that the festival of Chanukah, which, at its core, marks the end of a tragic period of fratricidal conflict, is celebrated each year during the weeks when the Torah portions regarding Yosef and his brothers are read. The destruction of the Second Temple is attributed to the sinat chinam, unwarranted hatred between brothers – the very same hatred that underlies the plot of these Torah portions. The civil war fought by the Maccabees against the Hellenized Jews is seen as a repercussion — in the most literal sense of re-percussion, the repeated beating of the same drum — of the conflict in Parashat Vayeishev. The midrash that describes the deaths of the Ten Martyrs in the days of the Tannaim, a central part of the liturgy of Yom Kippur, is another far-reaching echo of Yosef’s story.

Once internal conflict arises, a new type of solution is required; the methods employed against external threats are of no use. This is the lesson of Vayeishev: Not only would tranquility not be achieved in Yaakov’s lifetime, but the insidious power of internal conflict would haunt future generations. The text of the Torah makes this clear in its unique way:

בראשית לז: לו

וְהַ֨מְּדָנִ֔ים מָכְר֥וּ אֹת֖וֹ אֶל־מִצְרָ֑יִם לְפֽוֹטִיפַר֙ סְרִ֣יס פַּרְעֹ֔ה שַׂ֖ר הַטַּבָּחִֽים:

The Midianites sold [Yosef] to Egypt, to Potifar, eunuch of Pharaoh, the Chief Executioner. (Bereishit 37:36)

בראשית לט: א

וְיוֹסֵ֖ף הוּרַ֣ד מִצְרָ֑יְמָה וַיִּקְנֵ֡הוּ פּוֹטִיפַר֩…

Yosef was brought down to Egypt, where he was purchased by Potifar... (Bereishit 39:1)

Ancient and modern scholars alike have noted a difficulty in the text: The last verse of Chapter 37 and the first verse of Chapter 39 are almost identical. Between these two verses, time seems to stand still in the life of Yosef, while Chapter 38 recounts the life of Yehudah over many years: Yehudah marries and raises a family, and his children, in turn, marry - and die. The Torah finds it necessary to take us into the life and character of Yehudah before it can proceed to tell us about Yosef’s fate. Why?

To understand this peculiar ordering of the text, we must first recall the larger context: Yosef was sent by his father to look for his ten older brothers. When the brothers see Yosef approaching from afar, they plot to kill him. Reuven, who, as the eldest, would be held most responsible, suggests that they throw him into a pit; the “narrator” shares Reuven’s thoughts with us.

בראשית לז: כא-כב

וַיִּשְׁמַ֣ע רְאוּבֵ֔ן וַיַּצִּלֵ֖הוּ מִיָּדָ֑ם וַיֹּ֕אמֶר לֹ֥א נַכֶּ֖נּוּ נָֽפֶשׁ:וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֣ם׀ רְאוּבֵן֘ אַל־תִּשְׁפְּכוּ־דָם֒ הַשְׁלִ֣יכוּ אֹת֗וֹ אֶל־הַבּ֤וֹר הַזֶּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בַּמִּדְבָּ֔ר וְיָ֖ד אַל־תִּשְׁלְחוּ־ב֑וֹ לְמַ֗עַן הַצִּ֤יל אֹתוֹ֙ מִיָּדָ֔ם לַהֲשִׁיב֖וֹ אֶל־ אָבִֽיו:

Reuven heard this and rescued [Yosef]. 'We will not take his life!' he said. Reuven said to them, “Do not commit bloodshed. Throw him into this pit [or cistern] in the desert, and do not lay a hand on him.' [His plan was] to rescue [Yosef] from [his brothers] and bring him back to his father. (Bereishit 37: 21-22)

In the hope of rescuing Yosef later, Reuven convinces his brothers to “let nature take its course.” What follows is one of the harshest scenes in the Bible: The brothers sit down to break bread as Yosef languishes in the pit.[9] At this point, Yehudah speaks (for the first time in the entire Torah):

בראשית לז: כו-כז

וַיֹּ֥אמֶר יְהוּדָ֖ה אֶל־אֶחָ֑יו מַה־בֶּ֗צַע כִּ֤י נַהֲרֹג֙ אֶת־אָחִ֔ינוּ וְכִסִּ֖ינוּ אֶת־דָּמֽוֹ:לְכ֞וּ וְנִמְכְּרֶ֣נּוּ לַיִּשְׁמְעֵאלִ֗ים וְיָדֵ֙נוּ֙ אַל־תְּהִי־ב֔וֹ כִּֽי־אָחִ֥ינוּ בְשָׂרֵ֖נוּ ה֑וּא וַֽיִּשְׁמְע֖וּ אֶחָֽיו:

And Yehudah said to his brothers, “What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover his blood? Let us sell him to the Yishmaelites and let not our hands be upon him, for he is our brother and our flesh.” His brothers acquiesced. (Bereishit 37: 26-27)

Yehudah takes responsibility and displays leadership; on the other hand, he also displays callousness and an almost Machiavellian cynicism. His conclusion, “Let us not kill him, for he is our brother and our flesh” -  while in the same breath he suggests that they sell him as a slave - is shocking.

With Yosef gone, the brothers are presented with a new problem: How are they to inform their father, Yaakov, of Yosef’s disappearance? They dip his coat of many colors in the blood of a slaughtered goat and present it to their father:

בראשית לז: לב

…וַיֹּאמְר֖וּ זֹ֣את מָצָ֑אנוּ הַכֶּר־נָ֗א הַכְּתֹ֧נֶת בִּנְךָ֛ הִ֖וא אִם־לֹֽא:

…We have found this. Do you recognize it? Is it your son’s coat? (Bereishit 37: 32)

The brothers didn’t actually lie to Yaakov, they merely deceived him. According to the midrash[10], Yehudah was still the leader, and it was he who spoke. Yaakov, who immediately recognized the coat and assumed the worst, began to mourn for his son in a way that only a bereaved father can.

It is at this point that the narrative shifts its focus to Yehudah’s personal life story:

בראשית לח: א

וַֽיְהִי֙ בָּעֵ֣ת הַהִ֔וא וַיֵּ֥רֶד יְהוּדָ֖ה מֵאֵ֣ת אֶחָ֑יו …

It came to pass, at that time, that Yehudah parted ways with [literally, went down from] his brothers… (Bereishit 38:1)

Rashi explains that Yehudah’s “descent” was the result of his lowered esteem in his brothers’ eyes. The brothers blamed Yehudah for their father’s bereavement, and therefore for Yosef’s disappearance.

רש"י בראשית פרק לח

אמרו אתה אמרת למכרו, אלו אמרת להשיבו היינו שומעים לך:

They said, “You are the one who told us to sell him! Had you said, ‘Return him to his father,’ we would have listened to you.” (Rashi, Bereishit 38:1)

Yehudah takes leave of his father’s house; he has lost his brothers’ respect, and he sets out to build a new family for himself. The midrash attempts to explain this seeming tangent in the narrative:

בראשית רבה (וילנא) פרשת וישב פרשה פה

ויהי בעת ההיא: …שבטים היו עסוקין במכירתו של יוסף, ויוסף היה עסוק בשקו ובתעניתו, ראובן היה עסוק בשקו ובתעניתו, ויעקב היה עסוק בשקו ובתעניתו, ויהודה היה עסוק ליקח לו אשה, והקב"ה היה עוסק בורא אורו של מלך המשיח ,קודם שלא נולד משעבד הראשון נולד גואל האחרון.

“It came to pass at that time” … The brothers were occupied with the selling of Yosef, Yosef was occupied with his sackcloth and fasting, Reuven was occupied with his sackcloth and fasting, Yaakov was occupied with his sackcloth and fasting, Yehudah was occupied with taking a wife for himself, and God was busy creating the light of the King Mashiach.... Before the first enslaver is born, the final Redeemer is born. (Bereishit Rabbah 85:1)

In its own words, the Midrash, in effect, asks a question to which we can relate: Where was God? How did He allow the sale of Yosef to proceed? The answer is nothing short of amazing: While this unspeakable travesty was unfolding, as the innocent and righteous Yosef was being abused, tortured and sold by his own brothers - which would eventually bring the entire Jewish People to Egypt, into the clutches of slavery and unspeakable suffering - God was busy creating the light of Mashiach. What are we to make of this bizarre response?

Yaakov sought tranquility, but God had a different plan. The slavery and redemption foretold to Avraham had not yet taken place, but God was busy planning the final redemption -  a plan that began with the sale of Yosef and was crystallized with the “descent of Yehudah.” Yosef, who was always uniquely capable of seeing the larger picture and visualizing long-term strategy, came to recognize the Divine Hand involved in the events of his life. It began, he eventually understood, when he wandered the countryside in search of his brothers.

בראשית לז: טו-יז

וַיִּמְצָאֵ֣הוּ אִ֔ישׁ וְהִנֵּ֥ה תֹעֶ֖ה בַּשָּׂדֶ֑ה וַיִּשְׁאָלֵ֧הוּ הָאִ֛ישׁ לֵאמֹ֖ר מַה־תְּבַקֵּֽשׁ:וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אֶת־אַחַ֖י אָנֹכִ֣י מְבַקֵּ֑שׁ הַגִּֽידָה־נָּ֣א לִ֔י אֵיפֹ֖ה הֵ֥ם רֹעִֽים: וַיֹּ֤אמֶר הָאִישׁ֙ נָסְע֣וּ מִזֶּ֔ה כִּ֤י שָׁמַ֙עְתִּי֙ אֹֽמְרִ֔ים נֵלְכָ֖ה דֹּתָ֑יְנָה וַיֵּ֤לֶךְ יוֹסֵף֙ אַחַ֣ר אֶחָ֔יו וַיִּמְצָאֵ֖ם בְּדֹתָֽן:

A man found [Yosef] wandering, lost in a field. The man asked him, “What are you seeking?” [Yosef] said, “I am seeking my brothers. Tell me, please, where they are grazing [their flocks]?” The man said, “They left here, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dotan.’” Yosef went after his brothers and found them in Dotan. (Bereishit 37:15–17)

Yosef would never have found his brothers and would have returned to his father had this man not found him and directed him onto their path. God made sure that, one way or another, Yosef would find his brothers, that he would be sold, that he would end up in Egypt, and that his brothers would follow. Yaakov’s tranquility would have to wait.

Yosef eventually came to understand this encounter with the mysterious man in the field – as well as the entire chain of events that followed it - as an act of Divine Will. When he was reunited with his brothers years later, he attempted to explain to them the mysterious ways in which God takes an active role in human history:

בראשית מה: ה-ח

וְעַתָּ֣ה׀ אַל־תֵּעָ֣צְב֗וּ וְאַל־יִ֙חַר֙ בְּעֵ֣ינֵיכֶ֔ם כִּֽי־מְכַרְתֶּ֥ם אֹתִ֖י הֵ֑נָּה כִּ֣י לְמִֽחְיָ֔ה שְׁלָחַ֥נִי אֱלֹהִ֖ים לִפְנֵיכֶֽם:כִּי־זֶ֛ה שְׁנָתַ֥יִם הָרָעָ֖ב בְּקֶ֣רֶב הָאָ֑רֶץ וְעוֹד֙ חָמֵ֣שׁ שָׁנִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֵין־חָרִ֖ישׁ וְקָצִֽיר:וַיִּשְׁלָחֵ֤נִי אֱלֹהִים֙ לִפְנֵיכֶ֔ם לָשׂ֥וּם לָכֶ֛ם שְׁאֵרִ֖ית בָּאָ֑רֶץ וּלְהַחֲי֣וֹת לָכֶ֔ם לִפְלֵיטָ֖ה גְּדֹלָֽה:וְעַתָּ֗ה לֹֽא־אַתֶּ֞ם שְׁלַחְתֶּ֤ם אֹתִי֙ הֵ֔נָּה כִּ֖י הָאֱלֹהִ֑ים וַיְשִׂימֵ֨נִֽי לְאָ֜ב לְפַרְעֹ֗ה וּלְאָדוֹן֙ לְכָל־בֵּית֔וֹ וּמֹשֵׁ֖ל בְּכָל־אֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם:

Now do not be saddened and do not be angered that you have sold me here, for God has sent me ahead to be a source of sustenance. For these two years there is famine in the land, and for another five years there will be no sowing and harvesting. God sent me ahead of you to set aside for you a remnant of the land and to save your lives by great deliverance. And now, it is not you who has sent me here but God.... (Bereishit 45:5–8)

“Fate” – the Hand of God -  took the form of this mysterious man in the field. This seemingly insignificant event in the life of Yosef was in actuality the Will of God, guiding him to his destiny in Egypt. While this does not exonerate the brothers for their nefarious behavior, the Will of God is ultimately apparent in the world. Rashi tells us that the anonymous person in the field was none other than the angel Gavriel, whose very name denotes gevurah (strength), God’s attribute of Din (justice).

It is this “Hand of God” that the midrash describes: At the moment Yosef was being sold into slavery, God was occupied with weaving the mantle of Mashiach, while Yehudah was involved in his personal life. What does this mean?

When Yehudah’s oldest son, Eir, dies, one would expect Yehudah to gain some insight into his own father’s pain. He now knows intimately, firsthand, what his father feels and what it means to mourn one’s own child. When Yehudah’s second son, Onan, dies, we would expect Yehudah to be tormented with guilt; it would be a natural response for him to blame his own actions for the tragic deaths of his sons. We would expect Yehudah to approach his father, admit his guilt, and tell him, “Yosef is alive!” But Yehudah seems cold and indifferent.

When Tamar, Yehudah’s daughter-in-law, approaches him, he callously tells her to wait for his third son, despite having no intention of giving him to her for a husband. Some time later, Yehudah’s own wife dies, and he seeks illicit comfort in the company of the type of woman, who plies her trade, standing on the side of the road,  Unbeknownst to him, his daughter-in-law Tamar, who has come to realize that Yehudah has not been honest with her, has disguised herself as a prostitute as Yehudah is about to cross her path.

When she becomes pregnant, Yehudah, unaware of his paternity, orders that she be killed. She then presents Yehudah’s signet ring, staff, and coat, which she held as collateral, in lieu of the goat she was to receive as her wages. The Midrash points out that Tamar’s “wages,” a goat, also conveyed a powerful message:

בראשית רבה (וילנא) פרשת וישב פרשה פה

א"ר יוחנן אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא ליהודה אתה אמרת לאביך הכר נא חייך שתמר אומרת לך הכר נא.

Rav Yochanan said: God said to Yehudah, “You deceived your father with a goat. By your life, Tamar will deceive you with a goat.” (Bereishit Rabbah 85:11)

Tamar confronts Yehudah, presenting the personal effects of the man by whom she became pregnant:

בראשית לח: כה-כו

הִ֣וא מוּצֵ֗את וְהִ֨יא שָׁלְחָ֤ה אֶל־חָמִ֙יהָ֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר לְאִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁר־אֵ֣לֶּה לּ֔וֹ אָנֹכִ֖י הָרָ֑ה וַתֹּ֙אמֶר֙ הַכֶּר־נָ֔א לְמִ֞י הַחֹתֶ֧מֶת וְהַפְּתִילִ֛ים וְהַמַּטֶּ֖ה הָאֵֽלֶּה:

When she was being taken out [to be executed], she sent [the security] to her father-in-law with the message, 'I am pregnant by the man who is the owner of these articles.' She said [to Yehudah], ‘Do you recognize [these objects]? Who is the owner of this seal, this wrap, and this staff?' (Bereishit 38:25)

The Midrash explains:

בראשית רבה (וילנא) פרשת וישב פרשה פה:יא

א"ר יוחנן אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא ליהודה אתה אמרת לאביך הכר נא חייך שתמר אומרת לך הכר נא.

Rabbi Yochanan said: God said to Yehudah, “You said to your father, ‘We have found this. Do you recognize it? Is it your son’s coat?’ (Bereishit 37:32). By your life, Tamar will say to you, ‘Do you recognize...?’” (Bereishit Rabbah 85:11)

The Midrash draws a straight line from the relationship between Yehudah and Tamar to the relationship between Yehudah and his father; Yehudah’s earlier sin is rehabilitated by Tamar. When Tamar says the words, “Do you recognize,” Yehudah hears the echo of his own words all those years before, when he looked his father in the eye and shattered his father’s world by saying, “Do you recognize it? Is it your son’s coat?”[11] At last, Yehudah breaks through the walls of his own selfishness; he sees Tamar – and so much more. He sees himself, and he sees what he has done, the wrongs he has committed, against his daughter in law, and against his father. The next verse encapsulates his transformation:

בראשית לח: כו

וַיַּכֵּ֣ר יְהוּדָ֗ה וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ צָֽדְקָ֣ה מִמֶּ֔נִּי…

Yehudah recognized, and said, “She is more righteous than I...” (Bereishit 38:26)

With these words, the idea of Mashiach is born: The capacity to recognize when we have sinned and to take responsibility is the starting point for both personal and national redemption. From this point on, Yehudah is a changed person, perhaps the first true baal teshuvah. From the relationship between Yehudah and Tamar, our kings emerge — David,[12] and his descendant, the Mashiach.  The midrash refers to this concept in its unique symbolic language: Tamar challenges Yehudah with his own staff:

בראשית רבה (וילנא) פרשת וישב פרשה פה:ט

ומטך, זה מלך המשיח.

The staff [is the scepter] of the King Mashiach. (Bereishit Rabbah 85:9)

When Tamar asks Yehudah to identify his staff, she challenges him to find the courage to admit his guilt and take responsibility, to manifest the greatness which she sees within him. She challenges him to change, to step up, to become a man. This is the lesson that Mashiach will one day teach the world: Every person controls his or her own destiny. No matter what mistakes have been made, they can be fixed, redeemed, turned into tools for greater understanding and empathy, insight and courage.

Neither Yehudah nor David, the progenitors of the Messiah, were like Yosef, who heroically withstood temptation. Rather, they were both guilty of sin. This flawed personality, and not the perfect, superhuman ideal, is the Jewish prototype for the Messiah. Moreover, the lineage of the Messiah traces back to the incestuous relationship between Lot and his daughter, which resulted in the birth of Moav, the founder of the tribe to which Ruth, the great-grandmother of David, was born.

The seemingly unrelated, apparently tangential – and unmistakably sordid relationships recorded in Sefer Bereishit lead inexorably to the birth of David, and, eventually, the Messiah.[13] Yosef is perhaps the more obvious candidate for proto- messiah; Yosef certainly plays a key role – some might argue that his is the leading role - in the remainder of the book of Bereishit. Indeed, Yosef is the prototype for a second type of Messiah - known, appropriately enough, as “Mashiach ben Yosef.”[14] However, Yosef, who withstands temptation, is not the same as Yehudah, who sins - and acknowledges his own failure.

As a result of the episode of Yosef, the Jews were enslaved in Egypt; because of the teshuvah of Yehudah, the Jews will be redeemed at the End of Days, when a spirit of change will permeate the world, spearheaded by a descendant of Yehudah. History will reach its apex and the light of Mashiach, created all those years ago during the sale of Yosef, will shine bright. At that time, all the children of Yaakov, and with them all the people of the world, will finally achieve the tranquility Yaakov so eagerly hoped to find.

[1] Yaakov describes the time he spent in Lavan’s house with the word “garti” (Bereishit 32:5), implying that the time spent outside of the Land of Israel was a time of “strangeness” for him.

בראשית לב: ה

וַיְצַ֤ו אֹתָם֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר כֹּ֣ה תֹאמְר֔וּן לַֽאדֹנִ֖י לְעֵשָׂ֑ו כֹּ֤ה אָמַר֙ עַבְדְּךָ֣ יַעֲקֹ֔ב עִם־לָבָ֣ן גַּ֔רְתִּי וָאֵחַ֖ר עַד־ עָֽתָּה:

[2] Apparently, Yaakov here refers to all his days, including his sojourn in the house of Lavan, and his present stay in Egypt.

[3] I heard this idea in a lecture I had attended in 1983. Also, see Chumash Mesoras Harav Bereishis page 273, which cites a lecture delivered in Boston in 1974.

[4] In the words of the Haggadah, God did a “calculation.”

הגדה של פסח - נוסח ההגדה:

בָּרוּךְ שׁוֹמֵר הַבְטָחָתוֹ לְיִשְֹרָאֵל, בָּרוּךְ הוּא, שֶׁהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא חִשַּׁב אֶת הַקֵּץ לַעֲשֹוֹת כְּמָה שֶׁאָמַר לְאַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ בִּבְרִית בֵּין הַבְּתָרִים. שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר, וַיֹּאמֶר לְאַבְרָם יָדֹעַ תֵּדַע כִּי גֵר יִהְיֶה זַרְעֲךָ בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא לָהֶם וַעֲבָדוּם וְעִנּוּ אֹתָם אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה. וְגַם אֶת הַגּוֹי אֲשֶׁר יַעֲבֹדוּ דָּן אָנֹכִי וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן יֵצְאוּ בִּרְכוּשׁ גָּדוֹל:

[5] Shemot 12:41.

שמות פרק יב פסוק מא

וַיְהִ֗י מִקֵּץ֙ שְׁלֹשִׁ֣ים שָׁנָ֔ה וְאַרְבַּ֥ע מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָ֑ה וַיְהִ֗י בְּעֶ֙צֶם֙ הַיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֔ה יָ֥צְא֛וּ כָּל־צִבְא֥וֹת ה֖' מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם:

[6] See Talmud Bavli Rosh Hashana 10b-11a.

[7] The full text reads:

מכילתא דרבי ישמעאל בא - מסכתא דפסחא פרשה יד

ומושב בני ישראל וגו'. כתוב אחד אומר שלשים שנה וארבע מאות שנה וכתוב אחד אומר ועבדום וענו אותם ארבע מאות שנה (בראשית טו יג) כיצד יתקיימו שני מקראות הללו שלשים שנה עד שלא נולד יצחק נגזרה גזירה בין הבתרים. רבי אומר כתוב אחד אומר ועבדום וענו אותם ארבע מאות שנה וכתוב אחד אומר ודור רביעי ישובו הנה בראשית טז) כיצד יתקיימו שני כתובין אלו אמר הקדוש ב"ה אם עושין תשובה אני גואלם לדורות ואם לאו אני גואלם לשנים.

[8] See Midrash Tanchuma, Lech Lecha section 9, and Ramban, Bereishit 12:6.

מדרש תנחומא (ורשא) פרשת לך לך סימן ט

א"ר יהושע דסכנין סימן נתן לו הקדוש ברוך הוא לאברהם שכל מה שאירע לו אירע לבניו, כיצד בחר באברהם מכל בית אביו שנאמר אתה הוא ה' האלהים אשר בחרת באברם והוצאתו מאור כשדים ושמת שמו אברהם (נחמיה ט) ובחר בבניו משבעים אומות שנאמר כי עם קדוש אתה לה' אלהיך ובך בחר ה' אלהיך להיות לו לעם סגולה מכל העמים אשר על פני האדמה (דברים יד) לאברהם נאמר לך לך, ולבניו נאמר אעלה אתכם מעני מצרים אל ארץ הכנעני והחתי והאמורי והפרזי והחוי והיבוסי אל ארץ זבת חלב ודבש (שמות ג), לאברהם נאמר ואברכך ואגדלה שמך והיה ברכה ואברכה מברכיך, ולבניו נאמר יברכך ה' (במדבר ו), לאברהם נאמר ואעשך לגוי גדול ולבניו נאמר ומי גוי גדול (דברים ד) אברהם כתיב בו אחד היה אברהם (יחזקאל לג) וישראל ומי כעמך ישראל וגו' (ד"ה =דברי הימים= א יז), לאברהם נאמר ויהי רעב בארץ וירד אברם מצרימה לגור שם כי כבד הרעב בארץ, ולבניו כיון ששבו למצרים והרעב היה בארץ (בראשית מג), אברהם ע"י הרעב ירד למצרים ואף בניו על ידי הרעב ירדו למצרים שנאמר וירדו אחי יוסף עשרה לשבור בר ממצרים (שם /בראשית/ מב), אברהם כשירד נזדווגו לו המצרים ויראו המצרים את האשה כי יפה היא מאד, אף לבניו הבה נתחכמה לו פן ירבה והיה כי תקראנה מלחמה ונוסף גם הוא על שונאינו ונלחם בנו ועלה מן הארץ (שמות א), אברהם נזדווגו לו ארבעה מלכים אף לישראל עתידין כל המלכים להתרגש עליהם שנאמר (תהלים ב) למה רגשו גוים ולאמים יהגו ריק ואומר יתיצבו מלכי ארץ ורוזנים נוסדו יחד על ה' ועל משיחו, מה אברהם יצא הקדוש ברוך הוא ונלחם בשונאיו שנ' (ישעיה מא) מי העיר ממזרח צדק יקראהו לרגלו יתן לפניו גוים ומלכים ירד יתן כעפר חרבו כקש נדף קשתו, אף כך עתיד הקדוש ברוך הוא לעשות לבניו שנאמר ויצא ה' ונלחם בגוים ההם כיום הלחמו ביום קרב (זכריה יד).

רמב"ן, בראשית יב:ו

ויעבר אברם בארץ עד מקום שכם - אומר לך כלל תבין אותו בכל הפרשיות הבאות בענין אברהם יצחק ויעקב, והוא ענין גדול, הזכירוהו רבותינו בדרך קצרה, ואמרו (תנחומא ט) כל מה שאירע לאבות סימן לבנים, ולכן יאריכו הכתובים בספור המסעות וחפירת הבארות ושאר המקרים, ויחשוב החושב בהם כאלו הם דברים מיותרים אין בהם תועלת, וכולם באים ללמד על העתיד, כי כאשר יבוא המקרה לנביא משלשת האבות יתבונן ממנו הדבר הנגזר לבא לזרעו:

[9] While the brothers contemplate first the murder and then the sale of Yosef as they break bread, little do they realize that by selling Yosef as a slave, they have taken the first step toward the enslavement of their own children. How appropriate that when the Jews leave Egypt, they are commanded first to sit as a family and have a Passover seder – a family meal that includes the entire family.

[10] Bereishit Rabbah 84:19.

בראשית רבה (וילנא) פרשת וישב פרשה פד סימן יט

וישלחו את כתונת הפסים וגו', א"ר יוחנן אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא ליהודה אתה אמרת הכר נא חייך שתמר אומרת לך הכר נא, ויכירה ויאמר כתונת בני, אמר לית אנא ידע מה אנא חמי כתונת בני חיה רעה אכלתהו וגו'.

[11] In 1975 Robert Alter published a brilliant analysis of this section in which he pointed out these connections, and lamented: “At this late date there exists no serious literary analysis of the Bible.” See “A Literary Approach to the Bible,” Commentary December 1st 1975. When this article was later expanded into a larger book, The Art of Biblical Narrative (Basic Books 1981), Alter noted (p. 10) that the Midrash had anticipated his analysis. “It is instructive that the two verbal cues indicating the connection between the story of the selling of Joseph and the story of Tamar and Judah were duly noted more than 1500 years ago in the Midrash.”

[12] David, too sinned, and had the courage to admit his mistake. See Shmuel II, 12:13.

שמואל ב׳ יב: יג

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר דָּוִד֙ אֶל־נָתָ֔ן חָטָ֖אתִי לַֽה֑'…

[13] In the darkest days of the Holocaust, a formally anti-Zionist rabbi, Yisachar Shlomo Teichtal, came to the realization that God uses “broken vessels,” and that the rebuilding of Israel could well be accomplished by “sinful” non-religious Jews. Rabbi Teichtal came to understand that from sin, redemption may yet arise. See Eim Habanim Semeichah (and the masterful translation by Rabbi Moshe Lichtman in Kol Mevasar: Jerusalem 2000).

[14] See Talmud Bavli Sukkah 52a. According to the Vilna Gaon’s understanding, this second Messiah (Ben Yosef) is the central figure in the messianic process. See Kol Hator, ascribed by followers of the Vilna Gaon to their master.