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Jacob vs. Esau, Part III: The Next Generation

Jacob vs. Esau, Part III: The Next Generation

Joseph embodied Jacob's mission to the world; Judah embodied Israel's.


Thus far we have described the initial development of the Children of Israel. Originally, the nation was to consist of Jacob and Esau together, as Isaac originally wished. Each brother would have fulfilled a part of Israel’s mission to the world. Jacob and his descendants would be the inwardly-focused scholars. They would perfect themselves spiritually, bringing God’s presence into the world, but they would have been helpless to combat the evils of the world about.

Esau by contrast was the aggressive man of the world. He had the power and the ability to impose upon others obedience to God – which is Israel's ultimate mission to the world. But Esau was personally unworthy of his mission. As a result, Rebecca orchestrated Jacob’s taking of Esau's blessings, giving him physical as well as spiritual supremacy. The story of Jacob's life is one in which he grew to assume Esau's role, learning how to contend with the evil of the world. Eventually, God gave him the second name of Israel – reflecting his second mission in life – the one he obtained from Esau.

As we also discussed, not only was Jacob granted a second name, but he was given a second wife as well. He originally wanted to marry Rachel, whom he recognized as his true soulmate. But providence had it that he married Leah as well. Leah was Esau's soulmate. She wasn't Jacob's proper wife – but she was Israel's. Rachel's children would fulfill Jacob's role in the world while Leah's would further Israel's. In this article we will explain what these two roles are and how they were fulfilled by Jacob's children.

The mission of the Children of Israel is twofold. Firstly, we are to make ourselves into a holy people, bringing spirituality down into the world. Second, we are to take that holiness and sanctify the world as a whole, bringing all mankind to recognition of God. The first stage of that mission is the role of Jacob – and one fulfilled by Rachel's children. The second is the mission of Israel, fulfilled by Leah's.

In any major transition in Jewish history, first Rachel's descendants are dominant and afterwards the children of Leah.

Before we begin examining these two missions more closely, one fascinating observation about their fulfillment. We find throughout history Rachel's descendants always fulfilling the role of the forerunner or enabler. In any development or transition in Jewish history, they are generally dominant in the first stage, while afterwards Leah's children become ascendant. The descent to Egypt began with Joseph becoming viceroy. Joseph's role concluded when he caused the showdown with Judah, leading him to take responsibility for Benjamin. Monarchy began in Israel with Saul, descendant of Rachel's son Benjamin, and continued with King David (of Judah) and his descendants. Finally, the ultimate redemption will be initiated by a Messiah descended from Joseph, to be followed by the ultimate ruler, the Messiah descended from David.

Let us look more closely at Joseph and Judah. They most fully embody these two roles of the nation.

Who was Joseph? He was a dreamer, a person more attuned to the messages of the spiritual world than the mundane. Dreams played an important role throughout his life – first in experiencing his own dreams of kingship, and then in interpreting the dreams of both Pharaoh's ministers and of Pharaoh himself. But he did not only understand dreams. He endeavored to have them fulfilled – in assuming kingship himself and in heeding the message of Pharaoh's dreams. For Joseph's mission was to bring the spiritual world down to reality – to take the messages he understood from the Divine world and to bring them down the world of man.

Joseph was also handsome. But he was more than just good-looking. The Torah describes him as having “chen” – charm or favor. This implies a beauty which cannot be measured in concrete terms. It was a beauty no one could quite put his finger on but which people were drawn to nonetheless. People who saw him recognized there was something deeper to his looks – that his beauty was a reflection of his spiritual grandeur.

Thus, Joseph was a person more spiritual than physical. His mission was to take the spirituality of heaven, which he was so connected to, and bring it down to this world, establishing a bridgehead of holiness on the physical plane. Later, Leah's descendants would build on that bridgehead, spreading the sanctity out to the rest of mankind.

Joseph – as well as later leaders descended from Rachel – was not a true ruler. He was never king, as he was never fully a person of this world. He was instead viceroy, second in command. His job was to begin the process of establishing Israel's supremacy. As soon as he fulfilled his mission, he was to give the true reins of leadership to his brother Judah.

Joseph was given one main challenge in his life – resisting the romantic advances of his master Potiphar's wife. His test was twofold. First of all, he was a person of internal spirituality. Could he resist the physical temptations of the outside world? But secondly and equally significant, he was not a true ruler. He was not master of Potiphar’s house, just as he would not be king of Egypt, but only the chief administrator. And he was challenged: Does he feel it all belongs to him? Can he take whatever he wishes, even his master’s wife? Or does he realize he is only a servant of others and power is not truly his?

Let us move on to Judah. Judah and his brothers, as the children of Esau’s soulmate Leah, were more physical and aggressive than Joseph. It was Simeon and Levi who wiped out the city of Shechem. Reuben took liberties with his father’s personal life, moving his father’s bed to his mother’s tent. Judah likewise took control, but in a more proper manner. He stood up to his brothers and had them sell Joseph rather than leave him to die. Leah’s children were thus more people of this world whose focus was likewise more physical. They were at home in this world – and so were more fit to rule than the otherworldly Joseph.

What is the true test of a king? How can a person show his worthiness to rule?

Judah was given one key test in the earlier part of his life – to publicly admit that he sinned with Tamar. His daughter-in-law Tamar was being led to her death. It was assumed that she had an affair while she was designated for Judah’s youngest son Shelah – who was to marry her standing in for his deceased brother Er. But there was one way in which her “affair” was legitimate – if it had been with another relative who also had an obligation to continue Er’s line. One such relative was Judah himself. Tamar only hinted to Judah that he was the consort: She didn’t want to publicly embarrass him. But he did, and in doing so saved her life and the life of her unborn children – from whom King David would eventually descend.

By confessing, Judah demonstrated his worthiness of kingship. Unlike Joseph who was not truly king, a king really does have control over others. All is his; he is all-powerful. And there is one test to determine if he can handle power: Will he admit his mistakes? Does power make him feel everything is his, that he can do whatever he wants without conscience? Or does he recognize that his power over others is only so that he can lead them to serve God? He merely represents God’s power to his subjects, not power for its own sake. Joseph was given the ultimate test of the “non-ruler” – recognizing that he was merely an administrator, not really possessing control over others. Judah, by contrast, was given the ultimate test of the ruler – showing that power would not corrupt him – for he was merely embodying the power which is ultimately God’s.

Joseph was given the ultimate test of the “non-ruler”; Judah was given the test of the ruler.

Later on in Genesis the showdown between Joseph and Judah occurs. Joseph orchestrates a situation in which his brother Benjamin is threatened. He plants his silver goblet in Benjamin’s pack and threatens to take him as his slave. Joseph, the enabler, gives each of the brothers the chance to step forward, to show his sense of responsibility for the others – to demonstrate his worthiness to be king.

Judah steps forward. He offers himself as slave in place of Benjamin. And this is true Jewish kingship. In a sense a king is master over all, but at the same time he is the nation’s servant. He does not live for himself and his own aggrandizement. He lives for his subjects. His job is to serve and protect them – at all costs.

Once Judah stepped forward, Joseph knew his job was done.

Once Judah stepped forward, Joseph knew his job was done. He was holy and maintained his purity even in Egypt. That began the establishment of the nation. But he was a spiritual giant, not a physical ruler. His job was not to be king but to enable the true king, Judah, to step forth and take control. Once this had occurred, when the encounter between the sons of Rebecca and the sons of Leah was successfully concluded, Joseph’s mission was complete. He revealed himself to his brothers – and the nation had been formed.

Based in part on thoughts heard from my teacher Rabbi Yochanan Zweig.

January 8, 2018

Article 3 of 3 in the series Jacob versus Esau

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