THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Miketz – פרשת מקץ
December 8, 2018 – ל כסלו תשעט
This essay is sponsored by Richard Hochman in memory of Frances Roth Hochman Z”L; by Edite Vieira in memory of Maria Cristina Z”L; and by Eugeny Rubashevsky & Tatyana Tchaikovskaya in memory of Leah Rubashevsky Z”L.
Judah’s Dubious Confession
Joseph, the viceroy of Egypt, ordered his servant to place surreptitiously the royal goblet in Benjamin’s sack of grain. As the sons of Jacob departed the city on their way back to Canaan, they were flagged down by Joseph’s underlings. The Egyptian officers accused the sons of Jacob of stealing the royal goblet. They rummaged through the brothers’ respective grain bags and found the divination cup in Benjamin’s possession. The sons of Jacob returned to Joseph’s palace and prostrated themselves on the ground before him. Joseph railed at them in feigned anger over their apparent thievery.
Judah, who had vouchsafed to Jacob that Benjamin would return home safely, offered Joseph a peculiar confession: “What can we say to my lord? How can we plead, how can we prove our innocence? God has uncovered the crime of your servants. Here we are, then, slaves of my lord, the rest of us as much as he in whose possession the goblet was found (Genesis 44:16).” Judah here shows willingness to suffer the consequences of having committed a crime. But nowhere does he admit to the specific charge that he and his brothers — or Benjamin as an individual – willfully stole the royal goblet. The cup was merely “found” in Benjamin’s possession. Judah’s words amount to a plea of nolo contendere.
Samuel David Luzzatto theorized that Judah offered a confession upon realizing that any attempted denial of guilt would only further enrage the Egyptian viceroy. Judah was loath to confess exclusively on Benjamin’s behalf because he did not want Benjamin alone to be enslaved while the rest of the clan went free. If that were to happen, Benjamin would lack the protection afforded by his older brothers and might be killed if a further accusation were leveled against him. Why did Judah risk his own wellbeing and the freedom of his nine other brothers to save Benjamin from harm? Maybe he truly loved Benjamin; or he was committed to the solemn oath he had made to his father; or he felt guilty about the sale of Joseph and did not wish to have the demise of a second brother on his conscience. At least if all the brothers were imprisoned together, they could, at an opportune moment, perhaps attempt a collective escape. After positing this motivation for Judah’s confession, Luzzatto then cited an opinion that Judah actually believed Benjamin was guilty of the theft.
The Midrash focuses on Judah’s admission that “God has uncovered the crime of your servants.” The Midrash’s meaning is that Joseph’s functionaries uncovered nothing criminal, as the goblet had not really been stolen by Benjamin. Rather, Joseph and his minions are God’s tools in punishing the sons of Jacob for other crimes previously committed by the brothers. In one Aggadic rereading of the verse (Genesis Rabbah 92), Judah says, “What can we say to my lord about the episode of Tamar [Judah’s soliciting a harlot and his near execution of a women pregnant with his child]? How can we plead about the episode of Bilhah [Reuben’s consorting with his father’s wife]? How can we prove our innocence about the episode of Dinah [Simeon and Levi’s massacring of the unsuspecting menfolk of Shechem after duping them into circumcising themselves]?” As Rabbi Isaac explained: The creditor (God) found an opportunity to exact payment from His debtors (the sons of Jacob) over their contract (the several sins they previously committed).
Alternatively, the brothers’ (excepting Benjamin) great sin, from which they could no longer escape punishment, was the sale of Joseph into slavery (Genesis Rabbah 85). This seems to be the most likely past event the recollection of which is running through the minds of the brothers as Judah offers his non-confession confession on their collective behalf. When the Egyptian viceroy first began to treat the brothers harshly and accuse them of espionage on their initial grain-purchasing mission to Egypt, they said to themselves in his presence: “Alas, we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us. That is why this distress has come upon us (Genesis 42:21).”
Rashi, following the Midrash, understood the brothers to be denying guilt concerning the goblet but simultaneously acknowledging their present misfortune to be the Will of God and punishment for their past misdeeds. Ibn Ezra noted Scripture’s artful use of the word “found,” as though past sins seemingly gone and forgotten had been suddenly found or rediscovered. Rabbenu Bachya, too, understood the brothers to be accepting the fairness of Divine Judgment against them. In this view, the Egyptian viceroy was an earthly representation of the Heavenly prosecutor, punishing the defendants on God’s behalf for their true transgressions, notwithstanding that they were unrelated to the supposed theft of the goblet.
In the JPS Commentary, Nahum Sarna wrote: “Judah’s words may merely express the simplistic ancient belief that suffering was divine punishment for sin, even if the particular sin could not be identified, so that, in effect, this is a resignation to misfortune.” In the Talmud, Rav Ammi posited that there is neither death without sin nor suffering without iniquity. His view — echoed to this very day by Jews who believe that the Shoah was punishment inflicted on Jews because of their sinfulness — was challenged in light of an Aggadic tradition that, in human history, there lived four completely blameless people who died only because of the mortality decreed upon the descendants of Adam after his primeval sin in the Garden of Eden. [The four were: Benjamin son of Jacob; Moses’ father, Amram; David’s father, Jesse; and David’s son Chileab.] The Talmud accepts this as conclusive proof, rejects the view of Rav Ammi, and concludes that death and this-worldly suffering can occur even when undeserved (Shabbat 56b).
The Talmud offers several Scriptural examples of the use of acronym as a literary device (Shabbat 105a). One example is taken from Judah’s statement “how can we prove our innocence?” The word נצטדק is read homiletically as an acronym for נכונים, צדיקים, טהורים, דכים, קדושים. “We are upright; we are righteous; we are pure; we are clean; we are holy.” The Talmud’s words here are shocking. To read Genesis 44:16 in that way is to turn the verse on its head; it is a dramatic departure from the plain meaning.
Maharsha defended the Talmud’s acronym, noting that it meshes well with Judah’s subsequent speech to Joseph, recorded in the beginning of Parshat Vayigash. Judah did not plead for Joseph to be merciful toward a convicted criminal. Rather, Judah went on the offensive and, in effect, accused Joseph of having plotted all along to incarcerate their younger brother. At their initial encounter, Joseph asked them “Do you have a father or brother?” (Genesis 44:19). Rashi commented that Judah was highlighting the absurdity and inappropriateness of Joseph’s question. “From the outset, you came against us with a false charge. Why did you have to ask all these questions? Were we seeking to marry your daughter? Or are you seeking to marry our sister?” It is arguably incongruous for someone to speak so audaciously to the viceroy after having meekly confessed only moments earlier. Hence, the Aggadic reworking of Judah’s confession into something entirely different.
I am troubled by the Talmud’s placing into Judah’s mouth such self-serving and audacious statements. There is a tendency among some Jews to turn a blind eye to our moral failings and to hold ourselves out as paragons of virtue who stand above all others on the ladder of ethics and morality. [The polar opposite is true among other Jews, who can never discern the good among their co-religionists and who wildly exaggerate the worst of our offenses.] It is, in my view, much better for readers of Scripture to be able to open up the Book of Genesis and read there how our esteemed forebears were capable of admitting the truth about their misdeeds than it is for contemporary Jewish readers to know that our ancient heroes boasted of their moral supremacy even in the face of actions by them inconsistent with unvarnished rectitude in all things.
The words uttered by Judah in his confession are subject to interpretation; however, not rationally maintainable, it seems to me, is to assert that it was not, indeed, a confession.