Provided by the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a summer seminar in Israel that aims to create a multi-denominational cadre of young Jewish leaders.
This week, we come to the climax of the Joseph story. All through the drama, Joseph has not revealed his identity to his brothers; they think he is the vice-Pharaoh of Egypt. At the end of last week’s parsha, Miketz, Joseph framed his younger brother Benjamin by placing his goblet in Benjamin’s knapsack, making it look as if Benjamin had stolen it.
As the brothers left Egypt on the way back to Canaan, Joseph sent his men to catch up with them and accuse them of the theft. The brothers, who knew nothing of the goblet’s whereabouts, are indignant, and say that if any stolen object is found in the possession of one of them, that man should be put to death, and the rest of them made slaves. Joseph’s men make a more reasonable demand — the guilty party will be enslaved in Egypt, and the rest of them will be set free.
Their bags are searched, the goblet is found where Joseph put it, in Benjamin’s bag, and the brothers, astounded, tear their clothing in a symbolic act of mourning. They return to Egypt, and meet with Joseph. At this stage, it is the brother Judah who speaks out. Instead of accepting Joseph’s suggestion that only Benjamin, the ‘guilty’ party, should be enslaved, he insists that all the brothers should remain in Egypt as slaves of Joseph.
Joseph demurs; it would be unreasonable for me to do that, he says. The guilty party will be my slave, the rest of you are free to go home.
Where the Parsha Begins
At this point, our parsha, Vayigash, begins. Judah approaches Joseph, and, in a long speech, recaps his family’s history; the elderly father Jacob at home, mourning the ‘dead’ brother Joseph, afraid of losing Benjamin as well, and therefore very nervous about his going to Egypt. Judah dramatically describes his predicament to Joseph: How can I destroy what’s left of my father’s life by returning home without his beloved Benjamin? His solution: I will stay here as your slave, and let Benjamin and my brothers go.
At this point, apparently moved by the selflessness of Judah’s offer, which stands in such stark contradistinction to the way he and the other brothers behaved toward Joseph so many years before, Joseph breaks down, and finally reveals himself to his astounded brothers.
An obvious question that comes to mind is what was Judah thinking when he made his first offer to Joseph, to have ALL the brothers remain in Egypt as slaves? If Joseph is fair and only wants the guilty party to stay in Egypt, why didn’t Judah go right to the substitution idea? Why did he first suggest that they all stay behind as slaves?
The Tragic Story is Jacob
Perhaps Judah, when he first suggested that all the brothers stay in Egypt, was trying to solve what was for him the real problem of Benjamin — not Benjamin’s fate, but the need to tell his father Jacob of his failure. Judah feels — and he makes this clear in his speech to Joseph — that the truly tragic figure in our story is Jacob. He has lost Joseph and will be devastated by the loss of Benjamin.
Judah therefore suggests, illogically, that not just Benjamin, but NONE of the brothers return to Canaan. Now, how is Jacob going to respond to that? It would seem that Judah’s real goal was to simply prevent a confrontation with Jacob. He isn’t thinking, at first, of saving anyone. He was running away from facing his father, and also trying to take his brothers with him.
Subsequently, perhaps prompted by Joseph’s response to him — “The man in whose possession the goblet was found, only he shall be my slave, and all of you, go up in peace to your father” — he realizes that Jacob can not be abandoned like that, his sons must return and face him, with or without Benjamin, and it is then that he proposes to substitute himself alone for his younger brother.
Facing an Unpleasant Reality
I think that Judah displayed a similar kind of inability to face an unpleasant reality when the brothers first sold Joseph. At that time, with Joseph in the pit in which his brothers had thrown him and left him to die, it is Judah who proposes that they remove him from the pit and sell him.
The reasons he gives are interesting. “Let our hands not be upon him, for he is our brother, our flesh.” Apparently, Judah feels that selling him to a faraway land, so that his fate will never be known, is preferable to the certain death he faced in the pit, not because this will save Joseph, but, because, this way, “our hands” will not be upon him.
What Judah was afraid of was being directly responsible. What he sought by selling him was a way to pass the responsibility on to others. Similarly, his initial response here was to have none of the brothers face up to the responsibility of telling their father Jacob what happened. To accomplish this, he was willing to have all the brothers enslaved forever in Egypt–as long as the really hard part–facing their father and telling him of their failure–could be avoided.
It was only when he stepped forward, and realized that Jacob could not simply be run away from, that he came to the correct decision and offered himself as Benjamin’s substitute, sending his brothers back home to tell their father of the loss of Judah.
Often, it seems easiest to simply not confront the consequences of our actions, even if the contortions we go through to avoid that confrontation have their own awful cost. Judah came to understand that he had to stop maneuvering his problems out of the way, and start to confront them directly.