Power and powerlessness are important themes in society today. They are issues in family dynamics, as in international politics. They are issues in the stance of any man or woman facing the world.
This week's Torah reading opens with a dramatic confrontation. The twelve sons of Jacob are all on stage, together with a few extras – interpreters and other officials. Eleven of the brothers face the Egyptian viceroy, whom we know is actually their long-lost brother Joseph. Joseph is claiming his younger brother Benjamin, and seems determined to keep him under his own care in Egypt. He wants the other ten brothers to go back to their elderly father Jacob in the Land of Canaan without Benjamin. Jacob, without a doubt, will be utterly heart-broken. Benjamin is his youngest son and, seemingly, the only surviving offspring of his beloved departed wife, Rachel. Actually her other son, Joseph, is still alive, but no one knows this.
The brothers are all filled with consternation, but they are powerless.
Joseph, who went under an Egyptian name, Tzofnat Pane'ach, has been put in command of the Egyptian economy by Pharaoh. You could hardly imagine a more powerful position for a member of Jacob's family. After all, the future Jewish people were at this stage just an extended family group: the children and grandchildren of Jacob. For a member of this lonely family to rise to be viceroy in Egypt was absolutely remarkable.
Joseph represents one kind of power.
At this point Judah steps forward. Judah had promised his father that he will take responsibility for his youngest brother Benjamin, and only on that basis had been permitted by his father Jacob to take the boy to the aggressive Egyptian viceroy, who insisted on seeing him.
Judah pleads that Benjamin should be allowed to go back home. He himself will stay as a slave of Joseph. At first sight this might seem a pathetic, powerless pleading. The cringing Jew, Judah, facing the Egyptian ruler. Yet Judah is insistent. The Sages tell us Judah was ready to face any odds. He would not accept the idea that Benjamin would remain in Egypt, and would fight to the death in order to bring him home.
This is another and higher kind of power. It is actually greater than that of Joseph. Joseph had a limited political power, due to having been put in his position by Pharaoh. By contrast Judah came with the force of right, based on the Torah, beyond any other form of authority.
Hence Judah was able to confront Joseph, and was ready to face Pharaoh himself if need be. In a sense, his stance was beyond nature, like David facing Goliath. Yet he knew, with certainty, that G-d was on his side. This gave him a strength which won through in the end, with a dramatic capitulation, when Joseph revealed his identity, and the anxious tension turned to tears of joy. We see that the highest power was not Joseph but Judah, who therefore was the ancestor of King David and, ultimately, of the Messiah.
This story of more than three millennia ago tells us something about ourselves. About what constitutes real power, for a Jew facing a shifting reality. About how we should focus ourselves in the ups and downs of our personal lives, and in the conflicts facing the Jewish people in the world.