Genesis 44:18 - 47:27
Reuben was the first born, but Judah was the leader. Of all of Jacob’s sons, Judah was the one the other brothers followed. It was Judah who wanted to throw Joseph into the pit, who was ready to sell him into slavery for profit; and it was Judah who risked it all at the beginning of this week’s parashah to do the opposite.
Last week’s portion left us with a real cliffhanger. Joseph, now viceroy of Egypt, had cruelly tested his brothers to see if they had changed. They had come to Egypt during the great famine in search of food, and did not recognize the powerful Egyptian man in charge as their long-lost brother. Joseph, however, recognized them! He was no longer the same arrogant youth they remembered, and wanted to know if they had grown as he had. So, he framed Benjamin, the only brother he had never met, the only other child of his mother Rachel – and sentenced him to a life of slavery for the “theft” of one of Joseph’s precious goblets. That is how last week’s parashah ended.
What would the brothers do? Would they abandon Benjamin the way they left Joseph in the pit? Would they plead for mercy?
No. They do not do either of these things. Instead, Judah does the unthinkable. VaYigash means “and he drew near.” Judah dared to walk right up to Joseph, who he knew only as the Egyptian aristocrat Zaphenath-Paneah. Not only was this probably a violation of royal etiquette, but it could easily have been interpreted as a threatening move by the royal guards. Who knew how they might respond? Yet Judah drew close and offered himself in Benjamin’s place for the sake of their father, who loved Benjamin above all others – as he had previously loved Joseph.
This is the moment that Joseph had been waiting for! Judah, in submitting to a life of slavery for the sake of his family, demonstrated an extraordinary teshuvah. No longer the jealous and vengeful brother, Judah has suffered and learned from his mistakes and has grown as a human being and a leader. With this one selfless act, Judah effectively ended three generations of family dysfunction. No wonder the future kings of Israel would be from the tribe of Judah!
What did Joseph do?
He could have kept Benjamin for himself (as a beloved brother, not as a slave). He could have accepted Judah’s offer and nobody would have been the wiser, thus exacting his own revenge. However, Joseph too has grown. When Judah makes his offer, Joseph is barely able to contain himself. He orders all of his attendants out of the room and reveals himself to his brothers, speaking for the first time in their own language, “Ani Yosef! I am Joseph, your brother, who you sold into slavery. Fear not!” (Gen. 45:3-5 – paraphrased)
I love this story because it teaches us one of the fundamental truths of Torah: we are free agents. We have the ability to change, to grow, to heal. It may not be easy, but we have power over ourselves, and over our future. Let us exercise that power with love, compassion and wisdom.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras