The Rav on Vayigash: 3 short insights

Notes from a shiur given in Boston on January 6, 1979. (מוצאי שבת)

Insight 1

I try to answer one question halachically. When the brothers come to Mitzraim for the first time to buy food and presented themselves before Joseph, were accused of espionage and denied the charges, Judah’s name is not mentioned. No matter where you look, he isn’t mentioned. We find in the conversation between the brothers and the Viceroy the word, “Vayomru” — (and they said) but it doesn’t mention “Who said.” “Vayomru” is mentioned in fact several times but not specifically who. Where does Yehudah appear?

In his debate with Jacob (where he appeals to his father to let them go a second time to buy food and to take along their youngest brother Benyamin as requested by the Viceroy). At first, it is Reuven – the oldest brother who intervenes right away and is rejected by the father. Much later, it is Yehuda. Scripture tells us there was no food and then Yehuda repeated basically what his brother spoke before him. Suddenly, he emerges from the shadows to the forefront. Apparently, his appeal was irresistible and was accepted. He could have said it before the food was consumed but waited till the point of starvation. When they come to Joseph’s house Yehuda again disappears in the background. When they were caught with the silver chalice in Benjamin’s possession, again, Yehuda is not mentioned. The turning point is where Yehuda is singled out in a solemn manner. Yehuda took over the leadership. The fact that Joseph couldn’t contain himself any longer is due to Yehuda’s appeal. Yehuda takes over when the situation becomes grave. Thus, it was grave when the food became low. Before the goblet was found they thought it was a joke on the part of Joseph. When the goblet was found however, disaster threatened. Yehuda takes over in the time of crisis. Technically, Reuven’s power still had not been removed till Jacob’s blessings in Sedra “Vaychi”. Yehuda takes over in the time of despair.

“Chazal” (Sages) says, “Reuven bchor shota” – Reuven is a fool for he speaks of “Jacob killing his children if he fails to return Benjamin – Aren’t his children Jacob’s also? Yehuda however, wins over with his oration. When Yehuda takes over, the mission will be implemented. The reason is: Yehuda will be Melech. From him will arise the kingship. I want to quote Rambam about the mission of a king. If a “novi” – prophet appoints a king, even if not from the house of David, and he follows the right path, he will be accepted. His ability must be to fight a war. He should think of one objective – to raise the standard – to establish justice, to break the arms of the wicked and to engage in a holy war because the whole purpose of appointing a king is to implement justice, to march ahead of the armies and to emerge victorious over our enemies.

The job of the king is two-fold: to enforce justice and fight the war. The word war, however, has to be interpreted. The word milchama (war) by Rambam is in a much wider sense than the literal meaning. I would say, “milchama” means time of crisis — military, economic, or spiritual. When there is a war it is a critical time. When times are normal there is no need for such unity. In times of war, we need unified, collected leadership. He is responsible for the well-being of the people and their continued existence. Secondly, the king is responsible for the principles of justice. The courts were composed of three, twenty-three, or seventy-one justices — and found in all the cities. But the king is necessary when justice is being trampled in time of crisis and is in danger of disappearing. When the principles of justice are being desecrated, where the people make mockery, the Bes Din (court) is not sufficient. For example, the Hashmonayim lived in critical times. They fought against the “mishyavnim” — the revisionists in combat and the power was seized by Yehuda Hamaccabee. He had the courage and ability of a king.

These are the two objectives which a Melech should pursue: general crises and justice. When the brothers first come to Joseph and he accused them of espionage, they thought he was irritated but not critical. After all, he acted like a gentleman, was handsome and in general conducted himself exemplary. When they finished the food, Yehuda smelled danger. His conscience was affected. “I must come forward at once, it is a crisis!” Later, he withdraws because again there is no crisis. He becomes humble, modest, withdrawn. When he comes before Joseph, they exchange gifts etc. Again he withdraws and his name is not mentioned. When the goblet is discovered and they tear their clothes in despair, now he must emerge. It is a critical time. They all come to Joseph’s house and Joseph understands very well that he’ll have to deal with them, but he thought it would be collective bargaining. However, “Vayigash Yehuda” — Yehuda stepped forth. Joseph had an intuitive feeling that he’ll have to fight with Yehuda and this he’d want to avert. Of course, they were aroused by the initial charge of espionage for it is wrong to be suspicious. But this was a conspiracy. “This Egyptian is out to destroy the house of Jacob.” After all, many nationalities came to Egypt and Joseph didn’t receive them personally. Here he singles out the house of Jacob. He is a fiend interested in destroying the house of Jacob and he will go on provoking and provoking. The possibility that the house of Jacob will be destroyed aroused the “Lion of Judah”.

It is time for the King Yehuda to come forth. Medrash says that the “Shvotim” (tribes) were not involved at all. It is a confrontation of 2 kings. The Torah characterizes Yehuda as a “lion”. Often, the lion sleeps and is unaware of what is happening outside. This “lion” slept when Joseph was sold. In time, when courageous action was desired the “lion” aroused to defend the principles of justice and to defend Jacob’s house. Yehuda appears courageous twice: — once in the affair with Tamar when she returned his goods for identification (when he accused her of harlotry and sentenced her to death. He could have remained silent but chose to forego his honor and publicly admitted his guilt). Secondly, was his defense of Benyamin. Yehuda was successful on both occasions. Why was he tested twice? Because there are two problems! Does he have power as an individual? Does he have power as a leader? Some people can only do one. Some have leadership but as an individual (over their own conscience) they have no power. Here he was tested on both levels. It was not easy to lower himself for an unknown girl. The second time he called the Viceroy of Egypt a liar.

Insight 2

There is another problem which is bothersome. When Yehuda came over to Joseph and wanted to engage in an argument what was the substance of his argument? He told him a story which Joseph knew very well. Basically, it seems strange to think that Joseph would change his position and let Benjamin go free. He merely told Joseph all which he already previously knew. He didn’t argue; he merely related a story. Therefore, what is the idea?

I believe that Yehuda told Joseph something new — something he didn’t know! It is like a lawyer telling a judge that which he already knows. Yet, he must have told him something which caused Joseph to break down and reveal his identity. Why did Joseph torture his brothers — charge them with espionage? I believe that Joseph pursued a double objective. First, Joseph wanted to make up his mind, “should I be loving and forgiving or should I be vindictive? Shall I be a brother or an Egyptian tyrant? The answer is: “It depends on them! Are they the wild Bedouins who sold me or have they grown up? Has the morality of Abraham taken hold of them? Are they or aren’t they ‘B’alay T’shuvah’ (repentant)? Have they changed in the course of time?”

Judah’s appearance changed his mind. He remembered Judah on that awesome day when he sold him. How Jacob would suffer to such a message. He had no compassion for his father’s feelings. Now we are told by medrash that Judah grasped the columns of the palace and shook them. He was ready to give his life. The one who repents is willing to give his life. I believe that Judah felt, Joseph will give in if he repeats the story. Here Judah shows his feeling for his father.

Deep down in his heart, Joseph wanted something which no one could give him. Joseph dreamt twice! Once he dreamt of the surrounding sheaves and the prostration of the sheaves. This was fulfilled! When the brother’s came and bowed there was no doubt about the reality in such a fantastic manner. His ego was satisfied. His brothers are beggars and prostrate themselves. Was the second dream a reality or is it a vision waiting to be recognized. Joseph wanted not only that the sheaves should prostrate themselves but also the celestial bodies! He was mainly interested in the second dream. This is related to the spiritual leadership which the “shvotim” (tribes) will prove. He wanted “malchus” (kingship) not in Egypt but in the Eternal City — the “Messiah”. He wanted all to prostrate themselves and recognize that from him will the Messiah issue forth.

In order to have all this he had to have one condition. When Joseph beheld the second vision, this is the one which he revealed to Jacob. Jacob declared, “Do you expect me to bow to you?” Jacob is the sun! In order to recognize fulfillment of the second condition, Jacob must bow. Jacob had the key – the control. Jacob will never accept and Joseph can never lay claim to “malchus”. His problem was, “How can he make Jacob prostrate himself?” Thus, he contrived the following plan. He will contain or retain Benjamin — fully knowing that Jacob will not remain in Canaan if Benjamin doesn’t return. He will come to Egypt, bow just once to the “Egyptian Viceroy” as a matter or protocol and the “malchus” will come to him. Judah did not understand all this but he felt that the strange Egyptian leader had an interest in making Jacob leave Canaan and come to Egypt. “Jacob will come without knowing the identity.” Should he know, he surely will not bow and Joseph cannot take over “malchus”.

What did Judah tell Joseph? “You are making a mistake. Jacob will never come. You cannot achieve your objective. If you keep Benjamin, Jacob will die but not in Mitzraim. You have lost your game! You’ll never force Jacob to come! “This is when Joseph broke down and realized that “Hashgocha” (providence) has different plans. Now he no longer could control his emotions!

Insight 3

“Vayigash alov Yehuda” (And Yehuda drew near to him). It should have said, “Vayigash Yehuda el Yosef”. This would have been perfectly acceptable Hebrew grammar. What is the difference semantically? In order to understand “alov”, we must study the end of Sedra “miketz” to find out to whom. The brothers didn’t understand the Egyptian. They really didn’t believe he was an Egyptian. “What could we really have said about him had we been exposed to him? We he brutal, capricious? He never engaged anyone else in conversation — the thousands who came to buy. The others bought, they loaded – they departed. Here he asked them all sorts of personal questions. Also they couldn’t understand Shimon’s treatment. Having seen him arrested and bound before their very eyes when they first departed from home, yet when they returned and Shimon was released and was questioned, “How were you treated?,” he answered “Better than ever!” When they come to Joseph’s house, they were wined and dined and exchanged gifts. It was strange!

Even after the charge against Benjamin they were not brought to jail or to the executioner, but to his own house. It was customary even at the time of accusation to throw all into jail. Here the text reads, “Cholilah” (far be it from me to take you all as slaves). In that era, a Yehuda rebuttal against Pharaoh (as he did) would have led to the gallows. Therefore, “alov” is Joseph — the cryptical figure; on one hand an Egyptian — on the other hand, a different kind of person. Even the word, “Baso” (his house) had the opulence of a king but the reminiscence of the quality of their own home. Even when they were apprehended, they were not assaulted and he didn’t shout. He used the language of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. It is more of a complaint person, not the language of a despot. Joseph was still the cryptic, mysterious figure which no one could describe. He was the man of their family!

Author: pitputim

I'm a computer science professor in Melbourne, Australia. I skylark as the band leader/singer for the Schnapps band. My high schooling was in Chabad and I continued at Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh in Israel.

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