The end of the first book of the Torah contrasts Yosef and Yehudah. While they were not rivals, there is no doubt that Yosef was the leader of the moment in Egypt, but that Yehudah ends up holding the scepter of kingship. It is Yehudah’s line that leads to King David, and who will lead to Moshiach.
Recently I argued that the core difference between the two brothers is that Yehudah publicly repented for his error with Tamar, and then took responsibility for Benjamin. Yehudah showed that sometimes it is not the sin that is what matters: what matters is what we do after we sin. And having repaired his errors, Yehudah becomes fit to lead the Jewish people.
But what does Joseph say when he reveals himself to his brothers?
It was not you that sent me hither, but G-d (Gen 45:8)
It is G-d’s plan!
And Joseph is saying: And if it was G-d’s plan that I be sent to Egypt, then surely it was also G-d’s plan that I drove you nuts, and caused you to sell me as a slave!
Which means, of course, that Joseph is entirely unapologetic about having acted as he did in the first place! The old Joseph, the Joseph with the tin ear for how his brothers would hear his words, has made a comeback. He does not explicitly forgive his brothers as much as saying that what they did was part of a master plan from On High that Joseph can now reveal to them. The old arrogance surfaces, just a little.
Is it any wonder that Joseph’s brothers fear his retribution after Yaakov dies?
Unfortunately, people learn the wrong lesson from Joseph’s story. People learn a kind of fatalism, that whatever happens is what is meant to happen, that everything in the world is all part of G-d’s plan. And so sin and error are all perfectly alright, or at least understandable.
This seems to be the lesson Joseph learns as well. . Joseph says that everything that happens is G-d’s plan, but G-d does not seem to concur. Joseph is not rewarded; on the contrary, he is passed over for ultimate leadership of the Jewish people. After all, fulfilling the prophecy to Avraham that the Jews would serve others for 400 years in a foreign land could have been fulfilled in a myriad of other ways, ways that do not involve the sins that Joseph and his brothers committed against each other.
Joseph had the perfect opportunity to apologize to his brothers, and beg their forgiveness (giving his in turn). It would have been a true reconciliation, but Joseph does not do it. He never actually sees the error of his ways, and so he does not – cannot – correct them.
“It is G-d’s Plan” is not, after all, the whole truth. Certainly the story ends well enough, so what happened could well have been one on G-d’s plans. But there is no reason to think that there could not have been lots of other plans as well. It is the choices, the sins, of the brothers that bring this particular plan to fruition. And we cannot imagine that G-d requires us to do bad things in order to bring about G-d’s ultimate plans. Indeed, we are commanded by the laws of the Torah to do precisely the opposite!
Yehudah understands this. From the moment he apologizes to Tamar, he understands that it is the choices of mankind that change the world. And when Yehudah steps up to Joseph, taking responsibility for his brother, his father, and the entire family, he acts precisely as a Jew and a king acts: a king makes decisions and takes responsibility for those decisions, and constantly seeks to improve on what he has done before. Yehudah does this, and Joseph does not.
Our role model is not Joseph. We do not sin, and then say that everything that happens as a result is what G-d had in mind all along. Our role model is Yehudah – shaping the future by improving ourselves is our obligation.