“And Judah Approached”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayigash, Judah approaches Joseph, the all-powerful viceroy of Egypt, to plead with him on behalf of his brother Benjamin, who has just been caught, red-handed, stealing Joseph’s goblet.

In Genesis 44:18, the parasha opens with a memorable description of Judah, as he confronts Joseph. “Va’yee’gash ay’lav Yehudah, va’yo’mer,” and Judah approached him [Joseph] and said. Focusing on the word “Va’yee’gash “–Judah approached, the commentators try to gain insight into its full meaning. The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Yehudah Leibish Malbim, 1809-1879, leading Torah scholar in Germany, Romania and Russia) explains that Judah had two options. He could have argued on behalf of Benjamin from a legal point of view, or he could beg Joseph for mercy. Since the case against Benjamin was rather formidable (the incriminating evidence was in Joseph’s hand), Judah did not have much of a defense to present.

Judah therefore chooses to beg Joseph for mercy. He makes three claims: that the boy, Benjamin, is young and can not tolerate punishment, that a third innocent party [Jacob] will suffer, and that you, Joseph, have the power to change the law, and release Benjamin.

Eliyahu Kitov (1912-1976, one of Israel’s most acclaimed religious writers) presents an alternate interpretation of “Va’yee’gash.” Kitov notes that throughout the entire parasha, until after he reveals himself to his brothers, Joseph is not mentioned by name. In fact, it is not at all clear from the text exactly who Judah is approaching. Consequently, some of the Rabbis interpret this verse to mean that Judah actually approached himself! After all, Judah felt that he had grievously sinned against Joseph and his father, Jacob, and saw himself as primarily responsible for the events that led to this confrontation over Benjamin. Through the process of “approaching himself,” the rabbis suggest that Judah exposed the depths of his soul to reveal the great hidden strengths that lay within. Then, with total remorse, Judah begged Joseph to release Benjamin and to take himself, Judah, as a slave in place of Benjamin.

The Shulchan Aruch , the Code of Jewish Law, Ohr HaChaim 95, cites the Rama (Rabbi Moshe Isserles, 1530-1572) who states that one who stands to pray (to say the Amidah ) and hopes to have his prayers fulfilled, should take three steps forward as a way of approaching the Divine Presence. The author of the Ateret Z’kaynim cites the Sefer HaRokeach (Rabbi Eleazer ben Yehudah, c. 1165-c.1230) who maintains that these three steps are representative of the three times that the word “Va’yee’gash” is mentioned in similar contexts in the Bible. When Abraham prays for G-d to spare the city of Sodom from destruction (Genesis 18:23), it says, “Va’yee’gash Avraham,” and Abraham approached. When Judah approaches Joseph to beg forgiveness for Benjamin (Genesis 44:18), it states: “Va’yee’gash ay’lav Yehudah,” and Judah approached him. And finally, when Elijah the prophet approaches G-d to defeat the prophets of the Ba’al by providing a public miracle for the people (Kings 1 18:36), it is stated, “Va’yee’gash Eliyahu,” and Elijah approached.

When these three citations of “Va’yee’gash” are studied in depth in their original contexts, more than mere parallelism becomes apparent. Something very special is revealed about the nature of prayer itself. From Abraham we learn of the efficacy of praying for the benefit of others, as Abraham did before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. From Judah we learn that every generation must show courage and feel a sense of responsibility for one another. After all, many of our prayers are predicated on the well-known Talmudic dictum, Shavuot, 39a: “Kol Yisrael ah’ray’veem zeh ba’zeh,” all of Israel is responsible for one another. From Elijah the prophet we learn that Jews, no matter how great or meek, have a right to pray that G-d fulfill their wishes, even if they wish that G-d do something supernatural, like perform a miracle.

As we have noted in previous studies on this parasha, Joseph’s strategy was to test his brothers by recreating the exact circumstances in which they had betrayed him. Will his brothers do the same to Benjamin? After all, they have every reason to believe that Benjamin was guilty! Of all the brothers, it is Judah who stands firm, approaches Joseph and pleads on behalf of Benjamin. It is from these fateful steps that Judah takes on behalf of Benjamin, that we, the physical and spiritual descendants of Judah, need to learn to truly appreciate the ultimate value of areivut –mutual brotherhood and responsibility.

Every human being is faced with challenges in life, some major, some less consequential. Virtually everyone is called on, at one time or another, to step forward, to speak up, to defend, to protect, or to argue with the prevailing points of view and values. Of the ten possible candidates who are in a position to step forward among Joseph’s brothers, only one, Judah, does so, even though all the brothers were great men. The venerable sage Hillel is cited in Ethics of the Fathers 2:5, as saying, “B’ma’kom sheh’ayn ah’nah’sheem, hish’ta’dayl lee’hee’yoat eesh,” in a place where there are no men, strive to be a man. In instances where there is no courageous leadership, where there are no people of virtue, though one may feel inadequate and unqualified, it is each person’s duty to stand up and speak out.

Just as the fateful decision of Judah to step up to defend Benjamin impacted on the destiny of the Jewish people and on all of humankind, so must we assume that our steps will also have great impact.

May you be blessed.