This week’s parashah, Vayiggash, showcases the most dramatic moment of the Joseph narrative. Coerced by Joseph to bring their youngest brother, Benjamin, down to Egypt, the brothers find themselves involved in a Kafkaesque plot. Benjamin now stands accused of stealing a goblet from the Pharaonic household. Judah’s promises to his father to return the child flash before him as he pleads with Joseph to let himself be enslaved in place of their brother Benjamin. How are we to understand the emerging character of Judah? And why does his plea open the emotional floodgates for Joseph, leading him to finally reveal himself before his brothers?
Joseph B’khor Shor (French Bible commentator, Orleans, 12th century) imagines a dialogue taking place between Judah and Joseph, on the one hand, and between Judah and himself, on the other. He explains,
If you ask “why is it that I am spokesman before brothers that are senior to me, it is because I am the guarantor”: [Judah had said to Jacob, their father] “if I do not bring him (Benjamin) back to you and set him before you, I will stand guilty before you forever” (Genesis 43:9). “And if you need a servant, behold I will be your slave in place of the lad, because if you delay him then I will not return, for how could I be witness to this evil; it is better that I stay here alone and he will go up. He cannot remain here . . . and you have also said that you do not want to buy us as slaves since we have not sinned. So how is it that you are prepared to kill our father since surely, he has not sinned . . . ”
Seniority is on Judah’s mind. That is to say, Reuven, Simeon, or Levi should be the appropriate spokesperson for the group, as each of these siblings is older than Judah. The reason, however, that Judah owns his role as interlocutor is because of a promise made to Jacob. Judah assures his father that he himself will be surety for his beloved son Benjamin. And true to his word, Judah fulfills the vow made to Jacob. He presses his seemingly Egyptian nemesis, urging Joseph to take himself into custody in place of his younger brother.
We are privy to a portrait of Judah, once again standing within earshot of the pit into which Joseph is thrown. The brothers are about to lose another. Rather than respond with hatred, venom, and indifference, Judah is now ready to put his own life on the line. One imagines that Judah’s impassioned and compassion-filled words and Joseph’s painful memories of a very a different brother lead Joseph to reveal himself in the moment. Joseph is prepared to love again, and admit of the splendid possibility of teshuvah. It is, at the end of the day, Judah’s words and emotion that open the doorway to his brother’s mercy.
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