“Joseph and Judah: A Confrontation for Posterity”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, we read of the dramatic and powerful confrontation between Judah and Joseph. (For an alternative analysis, see Vayigash 5766-2006 )

In parashat Mikeitz, we learned that Benjamin had been accused of stealing Joseph’s royal goblet. Demanding that Benjamin remain in his palace as a slave forever, Joseph agreed that the other brothers could return to their father in Canaan to attend to their families’ needs. Numbed by the horrific developments, all the brothers were dumbfounded except for Judah, who approached the Egyptian viceroy, Joseph, in an attempt to win the release of his brother, Benjamin.

Scripture in Genesis 44:18, states, “Va’yee’gahsh ay’lahv Yehudah va’yo’mer: Bee ah’doh’nee, y’da’behr nah ahv’d’chah dah’vahr b’ahz’nay ah’doh’nee, v’ahl yee’char ahp’chah b’ahv’deh’chah, kee cha’moh’chah k’Phar’oh,” Judah approached him [Joseph] and said, “If you please, my lord, may your servant speak a word in my lord’s ear, and may your anger not flare up at your servant-–for you are like Pharaoh.”

Our sages tell us that the confrontation between Judah and Joseph was not merely intended to free Benjamin, but, in fact, was a confrontation that would impact profoundly on the destiny of Israel. The commentators explain that the other brothers refused to get involved, not only out of fear, but because the confrontation was, in essence, a struggle between Judah and Joseph for the leadership of the People of Israel. Two kings are wrestling with one another. How could others intervene?

In hindsight, we know that it is Judah who would eventually emerge as the leader of the Jewish people. It is from Judah that the dynasty of King David, which rules for thousands of years, is established. Joseph is also destined for monarchy. His descendant, Jeroboam the son of Nevat from the tribe of Ephraim, leads the ten tribes away from the Kingdom of Judah, to establish and assume the leadership of the breakaway Northern Kingdom. The new Northern Kingdom of Israel would last until the year 722 BCE, when the ten tribes are led into exile by the Assyrian forces.

The rabbis of the Midrash state that the word “Va’yee’gahsh,” (literally, and he, Judah, approached him,) means much more than approached. According to the Midrash, three primary biblical references using the word “Va’yee’gahsh,” may be found. From II Samuel 10:13, we learn that it can mean drawing near for the purpose of engaging in battle. The context of Joshua 14:6, implies a conciliatory approach. In I Kings 18:36, it denotes coming near for prayer. The Talmudic sage, Rabbi Elazar, combines all three meanings and suggests that when Judah approached Joseph he was prepared for all eventualities: battle, conciliation and prayer.

Rabbi Nison Alpert (1927-1987, European born, American bred Torah scholar) in his teachings on the Sidrah, questions what the Bible’s purpose was in noting that Judah “approached” Joseph. Why didn’t Scripture simply state that Judah spoke to Joseph? Rabbi Alpert suggests that “approaching,” whether for war, appeasement or prayer, implies both physical and emotional preparation.

Rabbi Alpert explains insightfully, that when anticipating battle, it is vital to know the enemy well, their strengths and vulnerabilities, so that the enemy’s shortcomings may be exploited. Without this vital knowledge, one can hardly expect to succeed in battle.

Similarly with prayer, one must conduct inward “reconnaissance” in preparation for prayer. Those who pray must be aware of their own strengths, weaknesses, and the nature of their relationship with G-d. Says Rabbi Alpert, “Only after careful consideration of one’s inner self and proper emotional composure, might one begin pouring out his heart to his Creator.”

With respect to appeasement, it is important to know the nature of the person one is trying to appease. What makes that person tick? How can that person’s feelings be penetrated to make the appeal successful?

Whether for prayer, warfare or appeasement, one must always “come close” to their subject. Thus, says Rabbi Alpert, when Judah approached Joseph, it was not coincidental. It was essential!

In order to successfully appeal to Joseph, Judah had to understand Joseph’s innermost self. It was only when Judah approached Joseph and “came close” to him that Judah recognized how vulnerable Joseph was, and was able to discover his emotional soft spot.

Fourteen times, Judah repeats the word “father” with all its emotional undertones, in order to arouse compassion in the hardest of hearts. Judah emphasizes that Jacob, who is well advanced in years, would not survive without his son, Benjamin, whom he deeply loves.

Judah repeatedly humbles himself before Joseph, the mighty ruler. The word, “eved,” slave or bondsman, is repeated thirteen times in Judah’s appeal to Joseph.

In his final plea for Joseph’s mercy, Judah dramatically explains that were he to return to his father in Canaan without Benjamin, Jacob would die, and Judah will have brought down the gray hairs of Jacob, with sorrow, to the grave.

Judah already knew quite clearly that Joseph had strong feelings for their father. Joseph had, after all, repeatedly inquired about Jacob’s welfare. Even when Joseph sends his brothers off to bring food to their families, he instructs them (Genesis 44:17), to “go in peace to your father.”

Judah knew where Joseph’s soft spot was, and exploited it to the fullest, knowing that Benjamin’s failure to return would cause untold grief to Jacob.

Judah’s ability to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of his opponent, with respect to war, appeasement and prayer, paid off handsomely. When Judah approached Joseph, he did so not only physically, but emotionally as well, enabling Judah to discover the vulnerable weak spot that would succeed in the release of Benjamin.

This is the meaning of “va’yee’gahsh,” and the implication of the phrase “and Judah approached him [Joseph].”

May you be blessed.