Avoiding Confrontation And Responsibility

Judah's plea to Joseph marks his transition into claiming responsibility and facing the consequences of his actions.

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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 parashah, 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 the 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 Parashah Begins

At this point, our parashah, 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?

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Rabbi Shimon Felix

Rabbi Shimon Felix is the Israel Director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. He lives with his family in Jerusalem, and has taught in a wide variety of educational frameworks in Israel and abroad.