Vayigash 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayigash

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

At the end of last week’s parasha, Yosef, now the Prime Minister of Egypt, had arranged to have a valuable cup placed in Binyamin’s saddlebags as all his brothers head back to their father with food to stave off the famine. The cup is discovered, and it looks like Binyamin, the youngest, will have to stay in Egypt to be Yosef’s servant. In one of the most moving stories of the entire Torah, this week’s parasha begins with Yehudah offering himself in place of Binyamin, so that Yaakov should not be bereft of his two youngest sons. Yosef reveals himself to his brothers, and the family is reunited under his protection in Egypt. Yosef settles his entire family, including his father, all his brothers, and their families, in Egypt, in the land of Goshen.

Then Yehudah approached him [Yosef] and said: ” Please, my lord, let your servant speak a word in my lord’s ears, and let your anger not flare against your servant- for you are like Pharoah! ”
(Genesis 44:18)


When it appears that Binyamin will be taken away as a servant to Yosef as punishment for apparently stealing the (planted) goblet, Yehudah steps forward and heroically defends him, offering himself instead. He speaks humbly but eloquently, begging for mercy on Binyamin’s behalf, pleading their elderly father would be utterly heartbroken.

Yehudah’s defense of Binyamin is one of the most heroic moments in the Torah; Yehudah seems to be selflessly sacrificing himself for the sake of his brother and father. He has changed since the day that he and his brothers threw Yosef into the pit, many years earlier. At that time, it was Yehudah who suggested selling Yosef into slavery in the first place. (Genesis 37:26). He might have been saving himself the trouble of actually killing his brother (and earning a bit of money on the side), or he might have been trying to concoct a scheme to keep Yosef alive when the others wanted to spill his blood- it’s not clear what his motivations were, but he was deeply involved in the harmful scheme.

Yet Yehudah was not the eldest of the brothers, and it’s not immediately apparent why he was the one to step forward to defend Binyamin and offer himself in his brother’s place. (He was 4th in the order.) We can note that both Ruven and Yehudah personally guaranteed Binyamin’s safe return to Yaakov (42:37; 43: 8-10). Furthermore, Shimon, the 2nd eldest, wasn’t there, because he was held as a hostage by Yosef when Yosef accused them of being spies; but that still leaves Ruven and Levi as being higher than Yehudah in the birth order, and therefore perhaps with a higher degree of leadership responsibility, at least as most ancient societies would have seen it.

So our question is still unanswered: why was it Yehudah, out of all the brothers, who stepped forward to defend Binyamin? Midrash Tanchuma, a collection of midrashic stories dating from Talmudic times, offers an imaginative possibility. Noticing that the story of Yehudah and his daughter in law Tamar (Genesis 38) immediately follows the story of the presentation of Yosef’s bloody garment to Yaakov (37: 31-35), the midrash posits a connection. In this midrash, it was Yehudah who convinced Yaakov that Yosef was dead; in response, God said to Yehudah:

    You have no children now, and you do not know the pain of children. You have troubled your father, and caused him to mistakenly believe that his son Yosef is torn, all torn up. By your life, you will marry a woman and then bury your son, and [then you will ] know the pain of children. (Midrash Tanchuma, Vayyigash: 9*)

On the surface, this midrash explains the whole story of Yehudah and Tamar, in chapter 38. The midrash connects Yehudah’s role in the sale of Yosef to his own experience of losing children- it is an example of midah k’neged midah, or “measure for measure.” Yet the midrash just quoted isn’t a direct commentary on either chapter 37 or 38 – it is placed later, in the section dealing with this week’s parasha, in connection to a verse that says “[Yaakov] sent Yehudah ahead of him to Yosef, to prepare ahead of him in Goshen. . . ” when the family is about to leave the land of Israel all to be reunited in Egypt with Yosef. (46:28) In other words, our midrash seems to be about Yehudah’s punishment for deceiving his father, but it’s actually brought as a commentary much later in the story, after the whole family is reconciled and reunited.

So what’s going on here, and what does all this have to do with our original question: why was it Yehudah who stepped forward, at great personal risk, to defend Binyamin? I think the placement of our midrash is crucial, for if it were merely an explanation of why the story of Yehudah and Tamar appears where it does, it would be offering us an image of a cruel and vengeful God, who kills one child to avenge another. Because this midrash is placed later, in connection with a verse that reveals the ultimate reconcilation of Yehudah and his father, I think this midrash is hinting that Yehudah’s experience of grief and bereavement was also the sources of great spiritual growth and evolving selflessness.

Our midrash says that when Yehudah was willing to let his own father sit bereaved, it was because he did not know the “pain of children.” Then he married, had sons, and lost two of them- thus bringing the lesson of the “pain of children” home to him in the most real and soul-affecting way possible. It’s not that God took away Yehudah’s children because of what he might have done to Yaakov- that would be cruel and capricious on God’s part. Rather, the midrash tells us what made their reconciliation possible: Yehudah’s ability (or willingness) to empathize deeply with his father’s experience, his “knowing the pain of children.” Empathy ideally leads to compassion, and it seems Yehudah’s compassion was so great that he could not let his father again lose a favored younger son.

This begs a further question: why should Yaakov be more bereaved at losing Binyamin than at losing Yehudah, since the whole point of Yehudah’s speech is that he will stay in Egypt as a substitute? Whether it was because Binyamin was the youngest, or because he was a son of the beloved wife Rahel, Yehudah knew that Yaakov had a special relationship with him, as he had once had with Yosef. (Cf. 44:30) This fact is what makes Yehudah’s compassion so extraordinary- not only was he able to empathize with a bereaved father, but he was even able to overcome his previous resentments to do so, perhaps even forgiving his father for loving his sons unequally.

This is the measure of Yehudah’s greatness: that he didn’t remain mired in his pain but grew spiritually out of it, taking tragedy and using it as the soil for empathy, compassion, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice. He was the one to step forward when the hour demanded it because he was the one who knew that to redeem himself out of his own past mistakes and accumulated grief, he had to extend himself for the redemption of others.

*Quoted in Aviva Zornberg, The Genesis of Desire, an extraordinary book of contemporary Biblical exegesis. I have taken the midrash in a somewhat different direction than she did, but her essay is very insightful.

The whole story of Yehudah and Tamar (Chapter 38) summarized:

Yehudah has 3 sons, two of whom die after getting married to Tamar. Yehudah refuses to allow his daughter in law, Tamar, to attempt to conceive with his youngest son. She deceives him by dressing as a prostitute, and when he sleeps with her, she becomes pregnant. Thinking that she has been promiscuous, Yehudah is about to have her put to death, but she unmasks him as the guilty party, and Yehudah has to admit that she was justified in her actions.

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