Judah and Joseph: The Meaning of Approach (More Midrash Ep. 11)

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The Midrash

Bereishit Rabbah 93:4

Davar Acher (Another Interpretation): “Then Judah approached [Joseph]” (Genesis 44:18). It is written, “Counsel is like deep waters in the heart of a person, and a person of understanding will draw them forth” (Proverbs 20:5). [A parable] to a deep well filled with cold [water] – its water was cool and good, but no creature was able to drink from it. Then someone came and tied a rope to a rope and a string to a string and a cord to a cord, and drew from [the well] and drank. Everyone started drawing from it and drinking.

Similarly, Judah did not cease responding to Joseph point by point until he learned what was in his heart.

Understanding the Midrash

I find this short midrash so beautiful. It comments on a critical moment in the book of Genesis, when Benjamin is in peril from Joseph the Egyptian official. How will the rest of the brothers respond? Will they demonstrate their growth and protect their younger sibling, or will they revert to old patterns and doom him like they intended to do to Joseph? In this moment, Judah steps up, steps forward into responsibility, and becomes a worthy hero in this complex tale. He confronts danger, wins over his estranged brother, and saves the day for his whole family.

Joseph and Judah are arguably the two protagonists of the final arc in Genesis. We can learn from their differences. Joseph might be considered the talented prodigy who develops a keen understanding of dreams, administration, and power. He is the visionary who sees the future and how to get there.

Judah on the other hand is just a brother, not the oldest nor the youngest. His contribution to the story involves humility and courage. Recognition and confrontation are key traits he learned from Tamar in Genesis 38, where his mistreatment of his daughter-in-law leads to the first human acknowledgment of error in the Torah. In 44:18, Judah channels Tamar in confronting Joseph.

Our midrash gives us a detailed and poetic account of what it means to approach someone else in the spirit that Judah does. It does so first through another biblical verse, then a parable, and finally by directly spelling out Judah’s manner of approach.

Proverbs 20:5 sets the stage for this interpretation.

מַיִם עֲמֻקִּים עֵצָה בְלֶב אִישׁ; וְאִישׁ תְּבוּנָה יִדְלֶנָּה

“Counsel is like deep waters in the heart of a person, and a person of understanding will draw them forth.”

I must admit that I don’t recall ever reading this proverb before, but it has vaulted into my collection of favorites (along with 27:19, which similarly involves water imagery and discerning relational comprehension). Deep internal waters often signify what we’ve come to call the subconscious, what we know that flows beneath what we are aware of knowing (see Carl Jung, for example). The proverb suggests that every human possesses counsel deep within, and what makes one wise is the ability to draw it up from the subconscious so that we can be guided by it. Parker Palmer would refer to this as listening to the inner teacher.

It is also possible here that there are two people in the proverb, one who is trying to access inner wisdom, and another who has the skills to assist. Or that one needs to help another see the first one’s inner counsel. This is the direction the midrash moves with its parable. There is a deep well filled with cold water, presumably meaning it is good and refreshing to drink. But it is too deep to access, so no creature can enjoy it. Someone else comes along and has the ingenuity to create a long rope that allows access to the cool water, and once that person created the connection, everyone could draw on the water and slake their thirst. This parable develops the proverb by suggesting that wisdom is not simply for the person who holds it, but necessary for all beings.

Relating the parable back to the biblical context, we can see that the midrash suggests Judah’s approach was not a political and pragmatic choice, nor even an emotional and vulnerable appeal, but an even deeper, spiritual invitation. Like the person in the parable who ties together lengths of cord until they reach the depths of the well, Judah engages Joseph in a conversation creating a spiritual deepening point by point until suddenly he stood on his heart. Who stood on whose heart? It seems as if Judah has developed his own inner awareness to such an extent that he can offer spiritual insight, nourishment, and honesty to another, in this case Joseph. And because Joseph comes to know Judah’s heart on this level, his own heart shifts and responds. This is the moment of forgiveness, of clarity, and of reconnection.

Now, the midrash gives us no clues as to how to practice Judah’s approach. But perhaps if we ponder our own experiences of real connection to another human being and to our own inner loving wisdom, we may be reminded that such depths exist, that such connection is possible and transformative, and that we can choose to be bravely vulnerable like Judah and open to witnessing like Joseph.

I read this midrash as a meta-statement as well about the process of reading sacred text. There are depths of insight and nourishment in the texts, and we need to drink them in, to internalize their messages. One goal of studying midrash is learning how to tie cords together to access deep waters, and we can see the process at work in many midrashim – in this one, tying a proverb to a parable to a direct interpretive comment on the verse at hand. One after the other, we connect piece by piece until what we are connecting to is the vast ocean of wisdom within sacred text, and within sacred self.