Midrash: The Rabbis’ Allegorical Lessons

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

Jessie: Can you explain this midrash:

Once he [Judah] recognized him [Joseph], he desired to kill him. An angel then descended and scattered them across the four corners of the palace. At that time Judah cried with a great voice and all the walls in Egypt fell. And all the wild beasts in Egypt fell, and Joseph fell from his throne and Pharaoh fell from his throne and they both fell. And the faces of all the mighty men that stood before Joseph turned away and did not turn back until their deaths, as it states, “The lion's roar, the cub's howl and the teeth of the young lion are lost” (Job 4:10).

Rabbi: Judah was angry. Anger is directed either externally—towards others—or internally, towards oneself. I’d like to share 2 possible interpretations following these 2 types of anger.

To spare Benjamin suffering as a slave not due to any wrong of his own, Judah offered to take Benjamin's place as an eternally indentured slave to Joseph. Facing this tragic reality caused Judah tremendous anger, but an anger that he could not express. Although, now that Joseph revealed himself and Judah's slavery would not materialize, Judah's contained anger could now outlet itself without repercussion. Judah was furious with that very real prospect that Joseph and Pharaoh (all of Egypt: walls, beasts and mighty men) would have allowed this. Judah was especially angry with Joseph for orchestrating the entire scheme causing Judah and his brothers much anguish and threat of slavery, and this is what is meant that Judah wished to kill Joseph. Divine providence [the angel] was needed to prevent Judah from overreacting. 

Alternatively, we can explain this midrash as Judah’s displacement of self-blame, and projecting it onto Egypt. Judah was angry with himself for selling Joseph. The entire country of Egypt—people, leaders, beasts and even its walls—represented to Judah the tragic fate he caused Joseph to endure. His anger towards Joseph and Egypt was his displaced anger towards himself. 

"The lion's roar, the cub's howl and the teeth of the young lion are lost" 

These various rankings of "lions, cubs and young lions" refer to men of various ranks: "Kings, officers and servants" (Rashi). The falling of Egypt's walls and the falling of Joseph and Pharaoh from their thrones means—in Judah's mind—that Egypt's leadership was intolerable. Judah felt aggression towards Egypt and its rulers, as if they should be falling from their thrones. They are all complicit in Judah's fate to be an eternal slave. And according to the second interpretation, Judah was angry with all of Egypt as a displacement of self-blame for Joseph’s sale and pain.

“The mighty mens' faces turned backwards and did not return until they died"

As these men were not officers, they posed no threat of repercussion to Judah’s anger. This indicates that Judah’s anger never completely abated.