This week’s Torah reading marks the transition from family to nation—from a tribe of wandering Arameans to the fulfillment of an ambiguous prophecy made to the tribe’s founder.
As the story of the “first family” of Israel reaches it’s climax, Yosef’s trap is baited and set. Last week’s parasha ended on the note of a perfect cliff-hanger. We all know the outcome, but those in the trap do not.
One of the brilliant characteristics of the literary style of B’reishit is that the names and titles of characters matches the mood of those to whom they are relating. The phrase “Yoseph’s brothers” occurs throughout this and the previous parshiot, since for the most part Yoseph’s point of view predominates. Quite often, the phrase is used ironically, as the brothers fail to act in any semblance of a brotherly fashion toward Yoseph.
But in our parasha, for the first time, we here Ya’akov’s sons referred to as “Bnei Yisrael”—the sons of Israel. This is significant. Yoseph’s brothers may make individual choices and mistakes; Ya’akov’s sons may decide for the family; but Bnei Yisrael represent the entire Jewish nation—past, present, and future. It is by that designation that they take their first step into what will soon become Egyptian slavery.
But we’re getting ahead of our story. What brings about this first nominal hint of history in the making? To answer that, we need to go back two parshiot, to the incident of Tamar and Yehuda.
The buck stops here
Recall that Tamar had been betrothed to Yehuda’s son, Er. When the boy died, his brother Onan was betrothed to Tamar. However, rather than carry out his duty to his dead brother, he “spilled his seed on the ground, because he knew the child would not be his”. Note that according to the p’shat—the plain meaning of the text—Onan’s crime was not in spilling his seed, but in not being willing to give Tamar a child to carry on his brother’s name. It was a crime against his brother’s future; his punishment was that his own future was cut off. Measure for measure.
And yet, apparently, Tamar kept faith with Onan and did not let on to Yehuda. How else to explain Yehuda’s fears about giving his next son to Tamar as husband? He had no way of knowing, and apparently Tamar wasn’t about to tell him. And so, when the next son is ready for marriage and is not betrothed to Tamar, she takes matters into her own hands; in keeping with what seems to be a family tradition, she resorts to deception. She deceives Yehuda into lying with her. The deception could have cost her her life, had not Yehuda undergone a significant character change. When she brings out the proof that he was the man who got her pregnant, he does not fall back on falsehood, but admits his own fault: “She is more righteous than I am.”
Not for nothing is the future king of Israel to be born out of this union. A hint of buried treasure is hidden in this episode: royalty is the offspring of the willingness to accept the responsibility for one’s mistakes. One cannot rule others if he cannot rule himself, because without this, he is at the mercy of outside forces; he is constantly blown about by the whims of others, or by the kind of peer pressure that led Yehuda to sell his younger brother into slavery.
Yehuda’s transformation in the incident with Tamar allows him to become the kind of person who can take the next step.
And the next step is none other than the completion of his T’shuvah for not saving Yoseph all those years before. The trap that Yoseph has set would leave Binyamin a slave to the capricious Egyptian governor, while Ya’akov’s remaining sons traipse home to tell their father that he is bereaved of yet another—the last—of Rachel’s children.
But Yehuda is not about to let that happen. Instead, he offers himself in place of Binyamin, and accepts upon himself the very same fate that his actions decreed for Yoseph—to be a slave in a foreign land. It is the final act in the self-transformation that began with his admission that, “She is more righteous than I am.”
It is the final proof that the story of deception and counter-deception that has plagued Avraham’s family from the beginning is now at an end. The buck stops—with Yehuda. With that one decisive admission of responsibility, and the readiness to accept the consequences, Ya’akov’s sons have grown up; they have become Bnei Yisrael.
This parasha is the watershed between family history and national history. The transition is a subtle one for the good and sufficient reason that…well, life is like that!