Judaism: Vayigash: Unity
Parashat Vayigash opens with Judah, the fourth oldest brother, approaching the Egyptian viceroy Tzafnat Pa’aneach, whom he did not yet recognise to be his young half-brother Joseph, to plead for his youngest brother, Benjamin, to be released.
Yet there is something slightly puzzling here: Why was it Judah, out of all the ten brothers, who stepped forward to plead for Benjamin’s freedom? For sure, earlier on when the brothers were trying to convince their father Jacob to send them back to Egypt for provisions, it was Judah who stood guarantor that Benjamin would return with them (Genesis 43:8-9); but this merely pushes the question further back. Why was it Judah who stepped forward then?
Immediately before that, Jacob’s first-born son, Reuben, had tried to stand guarantor for Benjamin, even telling his father “Put my own two sons to death if I do not bring him [Benjamin] back to you; give him into my hand, and I will return him to you” (42:37). But Reuben’s guarantee failed to convince Jacob, and Jacob refused to allow Benjamin to go down to Egypt until Judah stood guarantor.
The Talmud (Avot de-Rabbi Natan 37:12) puts Reuben’s suggestion to his father of “put my own two sons to death if I do not bring him [Benjamin] back to you” into the category of “one who does not ask relevantly”, which is one of the seven hallmarks of a clod (Pirkei Avot 5:9).
The Torah Temimah (Commentary on the Torah written by Rabbi Baruch ha-Levi Epstein Hy”d, Russia and Poland 1860-1942) cites Avot de-Rabbi Natan, and continues: “Was our father Jacob then a murderer?! Therefore he didn’t respond to his meaningless words” (Torah Temimah, Genesis 42 #102).
And the Torah Temimah continues by quoting the Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 91:9): “This is a foolish first-born; ‘Are your sons not my sons, too?’ he wondered aloud”.
That is to say – what sort of a guarantor was Reuben, and what sort of guarantee was he offering? – That if he failed to return Benjamin safe and sound, then his father Jacob could kill two of his grand-children? No wonder that Jacob didn’t take him and his suggestion seriously!
Clearly, any Jew – even the firstborn of the Children of Israel, the one who by rights should have become the leader – who can ever entertain the notion of killing another Jew is unfit to lead the nation.
Judah’s guarantee, however, was a serious suggestion (Avot de-Rabbi Natan ibid.), which his father Jacob accepted. What, then, did Judah have to offer that none of his brothers had?
It would appear that Judah, even though he was the fourth son, had already become something of a leader among the twelve brothers. The interaction between Reuben and his brothers and between Judah and his brothers at the sale of Joseph (Genesis 37:18-30) suggests that while both Reuben and Judah wanted to rescue Joseph from being murdered, and both suggested different stratagems to save him, Judah had more influence over his brothers than Reuben did.
The aside that the Torah inserts (Genesis Chapter 38) of the episode with Judah and Tamar is also very revealing: from that union between Judah and Tamar was born Peretz, who was destined to be the ancestor of King David, hence of the entire Jewish monarchy. Thus even at this early stage, Judah (the man, and by extension the tribe) was already being groomed for his future role as king of Israel – a role which, seventeen years later, his father would formally confer upon him in his death-bed blessing (Genesis 49:10).
Judah began to accomplish this role magnificently as soon as Benjamin was arrested: of all the brothers, it was Judah who seized the initiative. The Torah’s wording – “Judah came with his brothers to Joseph’s house” (44:14) – already singles him out even before the first word was said. And when Joseph threw the accusation of theft, it was Judah who responded, “What can we say to my lord?” (v. 16), and then continued with his impassioned plea for his brother’s freedom.
The Midrash cites this as one of the examples of Judah’s leadership. “The Torah speaks in praise of Judah in three places when Judah spoke out before his brothers, and they made him king over themselves: ‘Judah said to his brothers, How will it profit us to kill our brother?’ (Genesis 37:26); ‘Judah came with his brothers to Joseph’s house’; ‘Judah approached him’ (44:18, the opening words of Parashat Vayiggash)” (Bereishit Rabbah 84:17).
Judah’s assumption of leadership of the brothers was predicated upon two attributes: his self-sacrifice, and his ability to unite them.
It took tremendous self-sacrifice to stand up to Tzafnat Pa’aneach, this hostile ruler of a mighty foreign country, and to plead for freedom for his brother – both for Benjamin’s sake and for his father’s sake. He was risking his life merely by presuming to challenge the Egyptian viceroy.
But more than this: he offered himself as a slave in Benjamin’s stead. There, in the very jaws of Pharaoh’s dungeons (and he knew from his brother Simeon how easily he could be incarcerated on a whim), he willingly offered to trade his own freedom for his brother’s sake.
Clearly, only a Jew – even one who was not the firstborn of the Children of Israel, and who had no natural right to become the leader – who refuses to entertain the notion of abandoning another Jew is fit to lead the nation.
The Vilna Ga’on sees an additional allusion in the cantillation marks (the notes, often called the trop in Yiddish) of the Torah over the first six words of the parashah. “Judah approached him, and said: Please, my master…”. The Hebrew reads: Vayiggash elav Yehudah, vayomer bi adoni…. The corresponding cantillation marks are: Kadma ve’azla revi’i, zarka munach segol…. This translates roughly as: The fourth [i.e. Judah, the fourth son] advanced and went forth; he threw away and relinquished the treasure.
Judah knew that from his descendants was destined to come forth the kingship over Israel; he knew of the royal treasure that was to be his. Yet he willingly threw it away and relinquished it in order to spare his little brother and his father the pain of Benjamin’s imprisonment and enslavement.
This is perhaps the single most fundamental requisite for a Jewish leader – the willingness to defend other Jews even at the risk of losing everything, even at the risk of imprisonment and slavery, even at the risk of death. Can we, today in Israel, imagine any leader who would be willing to risk prosecution in the International Criminal Court in The Hague for defending the people and the land of Israel in defiance of international law? Come to that, how many leaders have we seen who were even willing to risk a salary cut in order to defend the nation and the land?
Judah was. Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Hertz (Chief Rabbi of Britain and the British Empire 1913-1946) writes, “The spirit of self-sacrifice which Judah’s speech reveals, offering to remain as a slave in Benjamin’s place, had its parallel in the life-story of Moses, who besought G-d to blot out his name from the Book of Life, unless his people, Israel, is saved with him (Exodus 32:32)”.
And by his example, Judah was able to unify his brothers, just as in future generations he was to unify the tribes. At the end of Jacob’s life, as he conferred his blessings upon his sons, his blessing to Judah was: “Judah – it is you that your brothers shall praise…” (Genesis 49:8). The great Tanachic commentator, halachist, grammarian, and philologist Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, France, c.1160-c.1235), in his lexicon Sefer ha-Shorashim (entry yud-dalet-heh) understands the word “yoducha” (“they will praise you”) to come from the same root as “hodu” (“to thank” or “to acknowledge”); “meaning, they will acknowledge that you are worthy of being king over them”.
And indeed, in later history, even before the permanent monarchy was established, the Tribe of Judah already led the nation. 210 years after the brothers stood before Joseph, in the debacle of the incident of the twelve spies (Numbers 13), the only two of the twelve who showed courage and leadership were Joshua of the Tribe of Ephraim (the son of Joseph), and Calev of the Tribe of Judah.
And some two-thirds of a century later, when Joshua died and the nation was left leaderless, G-d decreed that Judah would lead the nation in battling its enemies (Judges 1:1-2).
As the Radak (loc. cit.) continues: “And because Judah contained the principal royalty and glory of the nation, all Israel came to be called Yehudim [Judeans, anglicised as Jews]…and their tongue, the Holy Language, is called Yehudit [Judean], as in ‘Don’t speak to us in Judean [i.e. Hebrew]’ (Isaiah 36:11)”.
It is, therefore, wholly appropriate that when the Rabbis standardised the weekly Torah-readings and the Haftarot, the Haftarah that they selected for Parashat Vayiggash was Ezekiel’s prophetic vision of the future reunification of the twelve Tribes of Israel (Ezekiel 37:15-28), beginning: “And you, O Son of Adam, take for yourself one wooden tablet and write on it ‘For Judah and for the Children of Israel his comrades’; then take one wooden tablet and write on it, ‘For Joseph, Ephraim’s tablet, and the whole House of Israel his comrades’; and then bring them close to one other, as a single wooden tablet, and they will become united in your hand”.
Thus G-d instructs His prophet to announce to the nation that the rift which occurred immediately after the death of King Solomon, when the kingdom was split into two (Israel in the north and Judah in the south) would one day be healed. “Thus says HaShem G-d: Behold! – I am taking the Children of Israel from among the nations to where they have gone, and I will gather them from around, and I will bring them to their land. And I will make them one nation in the Land upon the hills of Israel, and a single king will king of them all. They will no longer be two nations, neither will they any more be divided into two kingdoms… My servant David will be king over them, and there will be a single shepherd for them all”.
This is the future that awaits us – that G-d has promised awaits us. This is the king that G-d has promised He will send us. As with Judah, and as with King David – so too the king who will one day lead us, the leader who is worthy of the title of King of Israel, can only be a leader who can both unite the nation, and who has self-sacrifice for the sake of Israel.