Vayeshev: the different personalities of Jacob’s sons bring balance to our tradition

The Book of Genesis tells the stories of a succession of families, but the thread of sibling rivalry goes through them all – from Cain and Abel the sons of Adam and Eve, through to Joseph and his older brothers. And it has to be said that the rivalry between Joseph and his siblings overshadows all the other sibling squabbles in the intensity and passion with which it is played out – the near murder and the series of betrayals. From this sidra until we end the book of Genesis, everything, – including the going down to Egypt by Jacob and his family which will lead into slavery and ultimately the redemption by God – emerges directly from this sibling struggle.

On the one side of the conflict we have Joseph, oldest son of his mother Rachel, beloved and spoiled son of his father, the dreamer of dreams. On the other side we have ten of his eleven brothers, including Judah, the oldest son of his mother Leah, the son who loves his father much more than he himself is loved.   The struggle between Joseph and Judah is not only a personal one, it is ideological, and that ideology is played out in our history.

The language of Joseph’s dreams implies that he will travel far from his family’s home into the wide world outside it and live his life amongst other peoples. Joseph dreams universal dreams, and though only 17 years old he senses that his star is rising, he is destined to make his mark on history, and he is keen to go further into the world, to rise above the parochial concerns of his immediate family.

In contrast to the outward looking Joseph, Judah represents the brother who never even dreams of leaving home, nor of wandering very far from his father’s sight. Tradition tells us that he was a studious man, a conserver of traditions, a man who cared deeply for his family and his inheritance, and was not at all interested in any interchange with the world outside – indeed he actively chose to repulse any attempts to ally his family with other groupings.

So which of these streams, the inward Judah or the outward Joseph, represents authentic Judaism?

The truth is that both are, and that both are needed to form the balance that makes Judaism the firmly grounded yet dynamic and responsive religion that it is. Our calendar contains festivals that are particularistic and festivals that are universalistic, our prayer books contain prayers that are particularistic and prayers that are universalistic. Judaism even recognises the possibility of two messiahs – one from the line of Joseph and one from the line of Judah (the House of David) because it understands and acknowledges both aspects of existence – the need to remain rooted in traditions and texts as well as the burning need to reach outwards and upwards – towards other societies and peoples, towards the stars.

Both aspects of Judaism are authentic and both are needed. Our texts and our historical narrative tell us that again and again. The problem we face is that in our day the polarisation between the two is again very strong: part of the Jewish world is increasingly internal, drawing stronger and stronger boundaries against modernity, and part of the Jewish world is choosing to be porous and open to the point of apparent assimilation. We need each other and we need the different ways to be Jewish, and as Jacob and Judah eventually do – but not yet in this sidra – we need to honour each other’s difference and recognise that we are and always will be family.

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