Vayigash: Judah's justified 'ingratitude'

Judah spoke harshly to Joseph. Why didn't he thank Joseph for his act of mercy, in reducing the sentence he had pronounced?

Danny Ginsbourg ,

Danny Ginsbourg
Danny Ginsbourg

We read (44:1-4)that Yosef (Joseph) instructed his servant, after he ‘found’ the goblet that he had commanded him to place in the sack of Binyamin (Benjamin), to say:’Why do you repay evil for good?’

Might not these have also been Yosef’s words to Yehuda (Judah), in the subsequent dialogue between them?

Let us explain: When Yosef’s servant accused Yehuda and his brothers of taking Yosef’s goblet, they vehemently denied the charge, and said:(44:9)’Anyone among your servants with whom it is found shall die, and we also will become slaves to my lord’.

And, as instructed by Yosef, the servant replied:(44:10)’What you say now is also correct but the one with whom it is found shall be my slave, but the rest of you shall be exonerated’.

After this act of leniency by Yosef, why did Yehuda speak harshly to him, as Rashi (44:18) comments:’From here we learn that he spoke to him harshly’.

Might we not have expected Yehuda to have, instead, thanked Yosef, for his act of mercy, in reducing the sentence that Yehuda himself had pronounced?

Rav Shlomo Goren answers :’Initially, Yehuda, thought that the punishment should fall on all the brothers, as he thought that the misfortune that had befallen them, was for the sin of the sale of Yosef, as they had previously admitted:(42:21-22)’And they said one to the other, but we are at fault in respect of our brother, whose pain we saw when he pleaded with us, yet we paid no heed to his pleas’.

‘The brothers, therefore, accepted that they were being punished from Above for selling Yosef into slavery. This feeling accompanied them throughout the subsequent events, and they therefore accepted that they all deserved severe punishment, for that misdeed.

‘This is why Yehuda, when brought before Yosef, after the cup had been discovered in Binyamin’s sack, immediately said to Yosef:(44:16)’What can we say to my lord.? How can we speak? And how can we justify ourselves? G-d has uncovered the sin of your servants. Here we are:We are ready to be slaves to my lord, both we and the one in whose hand the goblet was found’.

‘However, when Yosef decreed that only Binyamin should be punished, Yehuda realized that this was not a decree from above, as Binyamin was the only one of the brothers who was not involved in the sale of Yosef.

‘Therefore Yehuda felt compelled to speak harshly to Yosef, to make clear to him that, from the outset, Yosef had acted solely to ensure that Binyamin was brought, intending all along to enslave him, for his capricious reasons’.

Rav Eliyahu Dessler similarly expounds:’What complaint could Yehuda have against Yosef? Had he himself not said in the name of all his brothers:’What can we say..We are ready to be slaves..both we and the one in whose hand the goblet is found’. Why, then, did he now ‘go to battle’ with Yosef?’

He answers:’The brothers had all now come to a clear acceptance that they transgressed in selling Yosef into slavery, and therefore accepted that, measure-for-measure, they were now being punished, by being themselves enslaved.

‘However, when Yosef demurred, saying:(44:17)’It would be sacrilegious for me to do so. The one in whose possession was found, only he shall be my slave, and as for you- go in peace up to your father’, the brothers immediately realized that this was not decreed from Above.

To be commensurate punishment for the sale of Yosef, the opposite should have been decreed: the ten brothers, who ‘sold’ Yosef, should have been enslaved, and Binyamin should have been permitted to return to his father.

‘Therefore Yehuda felt compelled, to ‘attack’ Yosef’.

Rav Matityahu Solomon sweetens our understanding, by adding that, as the brothers concluded that Yosef’s decree was not ‘dictated’ from above, we might err to think that it was purely the capricious act of the Egyptian viceroy.

‘But this clearly cannot be, as our Sages teach that(Brachot 33:):’All is in the hands of Shamayim, except for the fear of Shamayim’.

‘Rather, then, that there are two ways in which to understand השגחה פרטית: the ‘hand of Providence’- OR as decrees, OR as trials. When the holy brothers understood that the actions of Yosef were directed to enslave them all, they accepted that ‘their creditor’-Hashem- had found the occasion ‘to be paid’, for their transgression in selling Yosef, and they were ready to accept this fate.

‘However, when instead of they being punished, only Binyamin- who had ‘no debt to repay’, as he alone did not transgress - was to be punished, they understood that it was not a decree from Above, but a נסיון: a test to see how far Yehuda was prepared to be מוסר נפש: ‘to offer himself’, to save Binyamin, in fulfillment of the ערבות: the responsibility that he had accepted to their father, for the safe return of Binyamin’.

Let us conclude with the insight of the Abarbanel:’’Here the story is completed, by Hashem ‘repaying’ all of Yosef’s brothers, measure-for-measure, for what they had done to Yosef: be it in the libel that they were spies, or in the imprisonment of Reuben and the threatened enslavement of Binyamin.

‘All that remained was to demand ‘repayment’ from Yehuda, who had advised that Yosef be sold, and who was therefore compelled to offer himself to be a slave instead of Binyamin, thereby completing the repayment of the whole debt’.

לרפואת נועם עליזה בת זהבה רבקה ונחום אלימלך רפאל בן זהבה רבקה, בתוך שאר חולי עמנו.