Parashat Hashavua Study
Va-Yigash 5766/ January 7, 2006
the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan
University in Ramat Gan, Israel.
A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic
Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the
Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan
University's International Center
for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center
Staff at Bar-Ilan
University. Inquiries and
comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,
- Portrait of a Leader
The weekly readings of Va-Yeshev, Mi-Ketz and
Va-Yigash introduce the reader to Judah, one of the more prominent sons
of Jacob. In three events, set in
different times and places, Judah’s
deliberate involvement in the family dynamics becomes increasingly evident; he
is a figure who plays a central role in the drama that unfolds around his
The first event takes place in Dothan
(Gen. 37:18-27), and concludes when Joseph is sold to the Ishmaelites at Judah’s
suggestion. Judah’s second
intervention takes place in Jacob’s house, where Judah succeeds in removing his
father’s opposition to send Benjamin along with the brothers who were to go
down to Egypt a second time (Gen. 43:1-10). The final appearance is staged in
Joseph’s palace (Gen. 44:14-19), when Judah delivers his oration to save
In all three instances Judah is the one who brings about a turn in the
course of events, even when it seems that the situation is hopeless; and in
each of these events Judah
displays both understanding and courage.
Although he is not the first-born, he assumes responsibility.
He foresees what is coming and
understands that he must succeed in foiling the brothers’ design to kill
Joseph, and must obtain permission for Benjamin to go down to Egypt, otherwise
his family will be wiped out.
It would seem that Judah times his entrance and
interventions whenever the brothers or the family are about to become embroiled
in conflict. With his carefully-considered, sensible words he exhibits his
rhetorical ability, which finds expression especially in his great speech to
Joseph. From Judah’s
words we learn that he had been opposed to killing Joseph from the outset, but
had not wanted to assume leadership openly in the presence of his first-born
brother Reuben, and certainly, at least at that stage, could not enter outright
confrontation with his brothers, who were extremely worked up at seeing
Joseph. Reuben, upon whom rested
responsibility for the safety and well-being of his brothers, tried with great
caution to save Joseph, warning the brothers lest they become tainted as
professional murderers. He
refrained from expressing any emotional ties to Joseph, getting
them to agree that casting him into a pit would also achieve their
objective. Judah knew that only after their
fury had waned, only after they had thrown Joseph into the pit and had finished
eating, had the appropriate time come for him to take action.
What he said was carefully thought out
and based on rational and emotional considerations alike.
He addressed his brothers directly with a logical
question: “What do we gain by
killing our brother and covering up his blood?” (Gen. 37:26); in other words,
what benefit would we derive from Joseph’s death and all the lies we would have
to invent, always being cautious about what we say, so as not to reveal the
terrible secret. Moreover, twice Judah stressed the family bond
They were brothers, and killing Joseph
would place a weighty moral sin on them.
They must not lay their hands on Joseph (and not just any
hand, as Reuben had said), since harming a brother was like harming themselves,
“after all, he is our brother, our own flesh” (Gen. 37:27).
“He” – meaning our brother Joseph, son
of our father, just as we all are his sons, and not “that” person, hallazeh–
someone who is haughty and despicable, someone who should be killed.
Leader and Spokesman
In listening to Judah and accepting what he said we
see the brothers’ acknowledgment of his gifts of leadership.
The brothers consented to be led by
someone who was fit to be their leader, and so Judah
became the leader and spokesman of the brothers.
He was the one who subsequently led the
argument with his father to convince him to send Benjamin down to Egypt,
and he and no other took personal responsibility for Benjamin, promising to
return him to Jacob safe and sound (Gen. 43:3-9).
It appears that the biblical narrator
already recognized Judah’s
When the brothers, accused of stealing Joseph’s goblet, were
brought back to the palace, Scripture notes that “Judah and his brothers
reentered the house of Joseph” (Gen. 44:14), not simply “the brothers reentered
the house of Joseph.” Moreover, the
one who addressed Joseph was Judah, not Benjamin, in whose sack the goblet had
been found. Normally, he should have been the one claiming innocence and
pleading for his life.
understood that G-d was repaying them measure for measure and that they would
have to pay the price. But since he
could not return to his father without Benjamin, he proposed that they all
remain as slaves to Joseph. Joseph
rejected his proposition with feigned righteousness:
“Far be it from me to act thus” (Gen.
44:17). He ostensibly commuted the thief’s death sentence, substituting
slavery, as Judah
had proposed. But what is more, he
pretended to show them even greater beneficence by taking a more lenient line
than the law required and releasing all the brothers save for Benjamin, who
would remain with him.
At this point the plot reaches a further climax.
Given the situation which emerged, not
one of the brothers could repeat a second time the bereavement they had once
caused their father. Also, Judah,
who had assumed personal responsibility for Benjamin, could not live with the
feeling that he had sinned towards his father.
Thus Judah was faced with a frightening
challenge. On the one hand, he knew
full well that the dignitary had been playing around with them and had trumped
up false charges against them; on the other, he was facing a ruler who could be
very dangerous to him, and so he had to exercise self-control and choose his
words with the utmost caution.
knew that he was facing a difficult challenge and assumed responsibility for
the well-being of his father and of his brothers.
Applying his rhetorical talent, he
structured his speech intelligently, step after step, creating a progression of
tense moments that dissolved naturally, their intention being to persuade the
dignitary, Joseph, of his mistake, but primarily to arouse his mercy.
addressed Joseph and requested to be heard, speaking in humble and flattering
terms. Judah was extremely careful to show
respect for the ruler. He
assiduously addressed him only as “master,” while referring to himself, his
brothers, and his father as “servants.”
presented an overview of what had happened to him and his brothers up to the
current moment (verses 18-29). This
was not just a factual report of the sequence of events, but the plaintive cry
of a person who had himself, along with his brothers, suffered a series of acts
of deliberate and unreasonable harassment.
For what connection was there between Joseph’s accusation that they were
spies, and Judah’s
statement that they were ten or eleven brothers, except to arouse Joseph’s
An Appeal for Mercy
appealed to Joseph’s emotions in order to rouse his mercy for their father, and
stressed the father’s advanced years and deep emotional bond with the youngest
brother. Four times he repeats the phrase that the father’s life is bound with
that of the younger brother, and emphasizes that separating the two would lead
to the father’s death. He included
in his speech the personal confession that Jacob had disclosed to his sons in
his hour of distress – “As you know, my wife bore me two sons” (Gen. 44:27).
Judah knew that even the most stubborn
of men would not be able to withstand the idea of an elderly father who all his
life has been longing for his beloved lost son; indeed, Judah repeated the
expression “elderly father” fourteen times, making it the central leitmotif
of his speech. He concluded his
words with the heart-rending cry, “For how can I go back to my father unless
the boy is with me? Let me not be
witness to the woe that would overtake my father” (Gen. 44:34).
To the anguish of the elderly father we
must add Judah’s anguish; he
cannot face the suffering that would be caused to his father, when the person
causing that pain, according to Judah’s
intimations, was their brother Joseph.