VAYECHI: Life through the windshield not the rear mirror

How can the life of such a man,

Be in the palm of some fool’s hand?

To see him obviously framed,

Couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed

Bob Dylan, Hurricane

Why do we do it to ourselves? We put ourselves through the ringer. Living life in the rear-view mirror. Sheryl Sandber writes in Option B, “when we face the slings and arrows of life, we are wounded, and the scars stay with us. But we can walk away with greater internal resolve”. That is the challenge.

Judah’s emotional struggle for justice and identity in this weeks’ parsha drove me to question my own commitment to my ideals this week. Judah and Joseph’s iconic scene, in chapter 43 and 44 of Genesis, in which one brother entreats another unknowing brother to save Benjamin’s life – is enrapturing.

As humans, we crave connection. John Steinbeck, the great 20th Century American author, said “You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself”. The Bible itself implores the Israelites to “not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed” in Leviticus 19:16. Connection is key. Yet, throughout the Bible, we see those key connections put under strain. This week – Joseph and Judah. It is the exegetical tales of Genesis which set the bedrock for the Torah’s articulation of justice and identity. Conflict is onerous. Humility and grace during disagreements, grueling.

Remember, Judah, the fourth son of Jacob and Leah, was the brother who led the process of selling Joseph to Egypt. Throughout Genesis, we see Judah as a lonely man of shame and secrecy. Firstly, in the famous episode with Tamar, in which he learns how to be honest about his past. Later, as the ringleader of the sale of Joseph. As the perpetrator of this heinous familial crime, Judah is the last person we would expect to stand up to defend and attempt to redeem Benjamin.

In our parsha, he has witnessed Joseph (the Viceroy of Egypt) accuse his brother, Benjamin, of stealing a goblet from the palace. Whether Joseph has recognised his brothers at this stage in the narrative, is unknown. However, what we do know is that the brothers, as a collective, are under huge pressure to avoid punishment at the hands of Egyptian judiciary because of the missing chalice.

It is now, that Judah as leader, steps forward and delivers his immortal words to defend and save his brother. However – let me show you the two versions of the text (Torah and Midrash) which differ significantly.

Bereishit 44:33-34

Now therefore please let your servant remain instead of the youth as a servant to my lord, and let the youth go up with his brothers. For how can I go up to my father if the youth is not with me? Lest I see the evil that will befall my father

The biblical text highlights Judah as the leader of the family who is seen approaching the Viceroy in conciliatory terms even offering a heart wrenching desperate plea begging Joseph to release Benjamin.

Yet a very different picture of Judah emerges from the Midrashic sources, that at first glance will seem to be diametrically opposite each yet through reconciling them we will arrive at a fascinating perspective with regards the transformation in the character of Judah himself. An emotional impassioned plea is followed by a Judah taking a very different tact with Joseph confrontational even aggressive style what would be the point of attempting to appease the viceroy of Egypt.

Bereishit Rabbah

Judah:  You have meted out a perverse judgement on us!

Joseph: Perverseness for the perverters. No greater perversion of justice could be imagined than the sale of your brother.

Judah: The fire of Shechem burns within me!

Joseph: The fire of your daughter in law Tamar it is -shall I douse it!

Judah: I shall go forth and dye all the markets of Egypt in blood!

Joseph: You were dyers earlier when you dyed your brother’s coat in blood and said to your father he is torn into pieces!

We are left bewildered at the change of tact and strategy deployed by Judah in the Midrashic version of the Torah’s text. Calm and serene turns angry and fierce.

From a moving, skillfully woven, emotional appeal to release Benjamin in the Biblical text, we   witness Judah becoming confrontational and threatening towards Joseph in the Midrash. The more Judah rages the more Joseph angers and wounds him reminding him of his mistreatment of their younger brother in the past.

What is the midrash teaching us about the character of Judah? Why the change in tone?

Nechama Leibowitz, the 20th Century Israeli Bible Scholar, suggested that the sages of the Midrash wished “to personify Judah’s conscience” – the inner voice of remorse which plagued him as the tables turned.

The more Judah denounces the injustice being endured by Benjamin at the hands of the Viceroy, the more his conscience reminds him of the injustice he inflicted on Joseph. Perhaps Judah’s increased rage with the threat posed to Benjamin is an effort to drown out his inner voice of conscience that gnaws away inside him.

We all have an inner voice. Sometimes bellowing, sometimes whispering.

I’ll never be good enough

They don’t like me

I’m a failure

If only, I had done that differently

Everyone else seems to know what to do

Judah’s inner struggle shows us his human side. He also struggles to tame the wave of shame and remorse which sometimes overcomes him. Yet, in his response to Joseph, what we do see – is the redemptive behavior that allows us to “walk away with greater internal resolve”. He lives life through his windshield. His emotions and tears are “liquid prayers”.

By offering himself as a replacement for Benjamin – as we see above – Judah displays total surrender and repentance for his sins.

The Karpman Drama Triangle and the accompanying roles of rescuer, prosecutor and victim are the work and observation of Stephen B. Karpman. In it, he articulates a powerful triumvirate of roles which we take on in the family, at work, or more generally – namely “the persecutor”, “the rescuer” and “the victim”. The Persecutor insists, “It’s all your fault.” The Persecutor is controlling, blaming, critical, oppressive, angry, authoritarian, rigid, and superior. The Victim in this model is not intended to represent an actual victim, but rather someone feeling or acting like one. The rescuer’s line is “Let me help you.” A classic enabler, the Rescuer feels guilty if they don’t go to the rescue.

Judah removes himself from the triangle altogether with his redeeming words. He refuses to claim victimhood or rescuer – instead he takes action.

Taking action does not mean we don’t acknowledge the painful inner voice which says we’re not good enough. But what it does do is redeem that voice. We, in turn, can learn that, by taking responsibility for our actions when faced with psychological drama triangles, we redeem ourselves and, in turn, live our lives through the windscreen.

Credits: The weekly Parshah insights is co-authored with Mr Daniel Sher

Published by Rabbi Piny Hackenbroch

Rabbi Piny Hackenbroch is currently the Senior Rabbi in Woodside Park Synagogue – a modern orthodox thriving community of some 1,400 members. His innate love for people and his empowering brand of leadership make him a well-loved figure in Woodside Park & London.

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