Using Personal Tragedy For Growth

Judah's plea to Joseph is a sign of his personal growth and ability to empathize with his father's grief.

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So our question is still unanswered: Why was it Judah, out of all the brothers, who stepped forward to defend Benjamin?

Midrash Tanhuma, a collection of midrashic stories dating from Talmudic times, offers an imaginative possibility. Noticing that the story of Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar (Genesis 38) immediately follows the story of the presentation of Joseph's bloody garment to Jacob (37: 31-35), the midrash posits a connection. In this midrash, it was Judah who convinced Jacob that Joseph was dead; in response, God said to Judah:

"You have no children now, and you do not know the pain of children. You have troubled your father, and caused him to mistakenly believe that his son Joseph is torn, all torn up. By your life, you will marry a woman and then bury your son, and [then you will] know the pain of children." (Midrash Tanhuma, Vayyigash: 9; quoted in Aviva Zornberg, The Genesis of Desire, an extraordinary book of contemporary Biblical exegesis. I have taken the midrash in a somewhat different direction than she did, but her essay is very insightful.)

On the surface, this midrash explains the whole story of Judah and Tamar, in chapter 38. The midrash connects Judah's role in the sale of Joseph to his own experience of losing children--it is an example of midah k'neged midah, or "measure for measure."

Yet the midrash just quoted isn't a direct commentary on either chapter 37 or 38--it is placed later, in the section dealing with this week's parsha, in connection to a verse that says "[Jacob] sent Judah ahead of him to Joseph, to prepare ahead of him in Goshen . . ." when the family is about to leave the land of Israel all to be reunited in Egypt with Joseph (46:28).

In other words, our midrash seems to be about Judah's punishment for deceiving his father, but it's actually brought as a commentary much later in the story, after the whole family is reconciled and reunited.

So what's going on here, and what does all this have to do with our original question: Why was it Judah who stepped forward, at great personal risk, to defend Benjamin?

I think the placement of our midrash is crucial, for if it were merely an explanation of why the story of Judah and Tamar appears where it does, it would be offering us an image of a cruel and vengeful God, who kills one child to avenge another. Because this midrash is placed later, in connection with a verse that reveals the ultimate reconciliation of Judah and his father, I think this midrash is hinting that Judah's experience of grief and bereavement was also the sources of great spiritual growth and evolving selflessness.

Our midrash says that when Judah was willing to let his own father sit bereaved, it was because he did not know the "pain of children." Then he married, had sons, and lost two of them--thus bringing the lesson of the "pain of children" home to him in the most real and soul-affecting way possible.

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Rabbi Neal J. Loevinger

Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger is currently the rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Poughkeepsie, NY. A former student at Kolel, he served as Kolel's Director of Outreach from late 1999-2001. He was ordained in the first graduating class of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism, and holds a Master's of Environmental Studies from York University in Toronto.