VaYigash: The Reunion of Joseph and Judah


VaYigash: The Reunion of Joseph and Judah


We all have limited amounts of time and energy, and must learn how to apportion these resources wisely. In particular, we need to find a balance between activities that are directed inwardly, for our own personal development, and those directed outwardly, for the benefit of others. As Hillel taught [Avot 1:14], "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I?" Both areas are crucial. The dilemma is in deciding how much to dedicate for inner growth, and how much for reaching out to others.

The need to juggle between these two competing spheres also exists for the nation as a whole. The search for a proper balance of national energies was played out in the tension between Joseph and his brothers. Their struggle corresponded to two different paths within the Jewish people, one stressing the inner spiritual growth of Israel, and the other emphasizing universal responsibility and influence.

Eidut and Torah

The Jewish people are crowned with two qualities, Eidut (testimony) and Torah, as it says: "He established testimony in Jacob, and He set down Torah in Israel" [Psalms 78:5]. What are these two qualities? The essence of Eidut is to accurately report facts as they occurred. Nothing may be added or changed when giving testimony. Torah, on the other hand, involves chidush - creative and innovative thinking.

This dichotomy of Eidut and Torah is the root of the conflict between Jacob's sons. Joseph stressed the concept of Eidut, as it says, "a testimony for Joseph" [Ps. 81:6]. The aspect of Eidut reflects Joseph's desire to interact with the nations and expose them to the authentic message of monotheism and morality.

On the other hand, the other brothers - and especially Judah, their leader - emphasized the Torah and the special holiness of the Jewish people. They sought to develop and cultivate the unique heritage of Israel. Thus it was Judah that Jacob picked to establish a house of Torah study in Goshen. Furthermore, the Midrash credits Judah with burning the wagons that Pharaoh sent to bring Jacob's family to Egypt, when Judah saw that they were engraved with idolatrous symbols [Breishit Rabbah 94:3]. This act demonstrated Judah's stress on the greater purity and innovation of Torah, as he introduced the law of destroying idols with fire, later codified in Deut. 7:25.

The Unity of Shema

With the descent of Jacob and his family to Egypt, the two paths of Joseph and Judah, of Eidut and Torah, were brought together once more. Interestingly, the Sages noted a peculiar incident that took place during the family reunion. The Torah states that Joseph cried on his father's neck, but it is silent regarding Jacob's actions in this emotional meeting. What was Jacob doing? According to the Midrash, he was busy reciting the Shema. What was the significance of this recitation at that particular time?

The Shema's message is, of course, one of unity. "Listen, Israel: God is our Lord, God is one" [Deut. 6:4]. The two sections of Shema refer to two levels of unity. The first level is "God is our Lord." This is God's unity as it is revealed in our current world, a world created according to the blueprint of Torah, and through which we can recognize the greatness of the Creator. The second, higher level is "God is one." This is God's unity as it will be revealed in the future, a unity that will encompass the entire universe. "After all has ceased to be, He, the Awesome One, will reign alone" [from the Adon Olam hymn].

Judah is the revelation of the first level of God's unity, through the Torah and the special stature of the Jewish people. Joseph, on the other hand, sought to sanctify God's Name among the nations and bring knowledge of one Creator to the entire world. He represents the second, universal unity of God.

The Scales of the Leviathan

The two paths within the family of Jacob - the exclusive path of Judah and the universal path of Joseph - diverged with the sale of Joseph as a slave. The reconciliation of the brothers and the unification of these two paths took place in Vayigash, as Judah drew near to his brother Joseph [Gen. 44:18].

The Midrash [Breishit Rabbah 93:2] chose a curious verse to describe the coming together of Joseph and his brothers. The word vayigash ("and he drew near") also appears in Job's description of the scales of the giant Leviathan: "One is so near (yigshu) to the other, that no air comes between them" [Job 41:8]. What do the Leviathan's scales have to do with the reunification of Jacob's family?

According to the Sages, this fearsome sea creature belongs to a category all its own. All living creatures have both male and female, except one - the Leviathan [Baba Batra 74b]. In other words, while all other creatures reflect a quality of duality and fracture that exists in our imperfect world, the Leviathan retains something of the universe's original unity. Thus the Talmud describes the Leviathan as being akalton - twisting around and encompassing the entire world [Rashi ad loc]. And the Zohar [2:179a] teaches that "its tail is placed in its mouth." In other words, this amazing creature has neither beginning nor end. Undetected, it surrounds and unites the entire world. This hidden unity will be revealed in the future, when the righteous tzaddikim will feast on the Leviathan [Baba Batra 74b].

The future unity will reveal the underlying oneness of the universe, the true balance of Eidut and Torah, of Joseph and Judah, of inner and outer efforts, of the particular and the universal. They will be united like the wonderful harmony of the Leviathan's scales, "one so near to the other that no air comes between them."

[adapted from Shemuot HaRe'iyah, vol. 10 (1930)]

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