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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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.

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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.