Rabbi Reuven Mann
In this week’s parsha, Vayigash, the tension mounts as the drama of Yosef and his brothers approaches its final act. The brothers had no idea what they had fallen into at the hands of this unpredictable Egyptian ruler. He alternated between displays of severe harshness and demonstrations of friendship and reasonableness. The underlying constants were his accusation that the brothers were spies who had come to discover the “nakedness of the land,” and that vindication would only come when they brought their younger brother, Benjamin,to confirm their claim that they were all members of one family. They had managed to convince Yaakov to part with his beloved youngest son who had become a substitute for Yosef. They had returned to Egypt, where matters had at first gone unbelievably well. All the misunderstandings had seemingly been resolved and the brothers had shared a meal at the house of Yosef. He treated them very well, gave them gifts and packed their bags with food to bring back to Canaan. One can imagine how relieved and cheerful the brothers must have felt as they began their return journey, with Shimon and Benjamin intact, to their father. However, they had no idea what awaited them. Who could have imagined that this fair minded ruler who they had convinced of their innocence had conspired to entrap them? Yosef’s messenger caught up to them on the road and accused them of stealing Yosef’s special goblet which he used for purposes of “divination.” The brothers were shocked and outraged that such a heinous accusation could be made against them. So convinced were they that the allegation could not be true that they made an astounding offer. “Whoever among your servants it shall be found by shall die and the rest of us will be slaves unto your master.” One must watch what one says. The search commenced and the goblet was discovered exactly where it had been planted, in the sack of Benjamin. The brothers appealed to Yosef to not be separated from Benjamin and for all of them to be slaves to him. However, Yosef, feigning righteousness, summarily rejected the vile notion of collective punishment. “The one who was found to have the goblet shall be a slave to me and the rest of you shall return in peace to your father.” At this point all seemed lost. The burden fell most heavily on Yehuda who had personally guaranteed that, come what may, he would return Benjamin, in good shape, to his father. The prospect of fulfilling that sacred pledge now seemed very bleak. Yet, Yehuda did not give up. His courageous and forceful appeal illustrates the Rabbis’ teaching that “even if the sharp sword is on one’s neck he should not despair of Divine mercy.” In addition to total faith one must utilize all of one’s resources and tap deeply into one’s reservoir of wisdom. Yehuda approached Yosef and made his case. He carefully reviewed all the events which had transpired since their initial encounter with the Egyptian ruler. He emphasized that the brothers had kept all the conditions that Yosef had demanded. He described how much suffering all of this had brought to Yaakov. The old man had gone through so much, losing one son and now facing the loss of the other. Yehuda did not merely plead for mercy. He had the creativity to come up with a proposal. He did not contest the justice of Yosef’s verdict against Benjamin. Though in his heart he knew his brother was not a thief and that the whole thing was a set up, he did not verbalize this idea. He, implicitly, conceded Yosef’s need to enslave Benjamin and make an example of him in order to put fear in any potential enemies. However, he argued that Yosef’s purposes could be equally served by letting Benjamin go and imprisoning him in his place. The benefit of this plan was that it would save Yaakov’s life. Yehuda made this clear as he conveyed the words of Yaakov who had told him, “if you take Benjamin from me and an accident befalls him you will bring my old age down to the grave.” Thus, Yehuda pleaded, “Allow me to stay behind as a slave to my master and the lad will go with his brothers.” Yehuda argued that imprisoning Benjamin would spell the end for Yaakov. One can’t help but ask, what about the loss of Yehuda, wouldn’t that be equally devastating to Yaakov? Yehuda was saying that though his father obviously loved him, Benjamin meant more to him. He would somehow survive the loss of Yehuda but not that of Benjamin. The greatness of Yehuda was that he was prepared to give up his life in order to honor his pledge. Even more important was his capacity to renounce the jealousy which had engendered the hatred of Yosef and to accept the right of his father to “love Yosef more than any of his sons.” The triumph over jealousy and renunciation of the baseless hatred it engendered was a great moral victory. It signaled to Yosef that the defects and sins which had caused the breakup of the family had now been rectified and the time for reconciliation had come. May we attain the wisdom and strength to recognize and rectify our flaws, make amends to all we have hurt and forgive those who have acted iniquitously to us.