The history of the cliffhanger probably isn’t much older than the late 19th century. Stories were serialized, first in newspapers and later in motion pictures, and authors wanted to entice the reader or viewer to tune back in for the following installment. A common device was to interrupt the story at a point where the hero was hanging for dear life onto a cliff — either literally or figuratively — and you needed to wait until the next episode to discover his or her fate.
Cliffhangers are not normally a part of Jewish tradition; the rabbi doesn’t stop the Torah reading on Shabbat morning right in the middle of a dramatic part of the biblical narrative in the hopes that people will be so riveted that they’ll want to come back the following week to hear how the story ends (although maybe it’s not a bad idea; we’ve tried everything else to increase synagogue attendance).
The one exception to the no-cliffhanger rule is the end of last week’s Torah portion. Joseph has just informed Judah that only the littlest brother, Benjamin, who has been accused of stealing Joseph’s magic goblet, must become his slave; Judah can return with his other brothers to Canaan. The parasha ends abruptly, almost in mid-sentence, only to pick up this week right where it left off, with Judah pleading with Joseph to spare Benjamin. Why the cliffhanger in this story?
Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, the 19th century founder of Izhbitz Chasidism, explained that the middle of the story — precisely where our parasha begins — represents a pivotal turning point in the life of Judah, the son who would eventually sire the most important tribe of Israel. It was a defining moment in his life, and it was necessary in order for his tribe to take its place in Jewish history.
Judah injured his father, Jacob, three times: It was his idea to sell Joseph into slavery; he deceived Jacob into thinking that Joseph was dead, thus causing him even greater anguish; and now, after he had promised to take care of his beloved kid brother, Benjamin, and bring him back safely to Canaan, he was about to devastate his father once again by returning home sans Benjamin.
One can only imagine how Judah must have felt as Benjamin was being handcuffed and hauled off: Now I’ve really done it; I’m an absolute failure, and my poor choices are finally catching up with me. A demoralized and defeated Judah thus told Joseph at the end of last week’s portion: “We are hereby your slaves.”
But now, at the beginning of this week’s portion, we see a new spirit within Judah. Instead of simply resigning himself to his fate, he somehow summons the strength to say, “No, I will not allow myself to be pulled down by my own poor choices. I will fight to survive and will do whatever it takes to make things right.” He thus pleads and argues with Joseph, ultimately forcing Joseph to reveal himself as their brother.
Judah thus represents the inner strength of the ba’al teshuvah (returnee to righteousness) to pick oneself up and move on. And this is why, when we scope the larger history of the Jews (indeed, “Jew” is a derivative of “Judah”), Judah’s tribe has survived and weathered the storms of the Diaspora better than any other. Judah has this power to shake off the malaise with an optimistic view of the future: Even if I’ve messed up today, tomorrow is another day.
Instead of resuming the cliffhanger, our portion begins with a completely transformed paradigm of how to cope with the mistakes of our past. Instead of giving up, Judah is a new man with newfound strength, ready to face and fix the challenges of his imperfect life.
When we do experience setbacks in life, even if they are of our own making, we can always call out to God for help. When He sees that we’re ready to tackle the challenges instead of giving up, He’ll be there to lend a hand.
Daniel Korobkin is rosh kehilla of Yavneh (yha.org) in Hancock Park, synagogue services consultant to the Orthodox Union and a community mohel.