Vayigash – two leaders face to face

‘Vayigash Yehuda’ means “and Yehuda came close” to him, or came up to him. Yehuda is confronting Yoseph (who he does not recognise) and is going to explain why it is impossible for his half-brother Benjamin to remain as a slave to the Egyptian prime minister. He explains that if Benjamin does not return safely their father will drop dead on the spot. In a very long and poignant speech, Yehuda assertively puts his case to the ruler. He begins with a mere half-sentence of flattery and appeasement, “You’re as important as Pharaoh, but don’t get angry at me.” The rest is like the summing up of a legal case, very descriptive and aimed to elicit sympathy. For those commentaries which state that Yoseph’s mistreatment of his brothers is to bring about their repentance, this climactic scene is conclusive. In Rambam’s definition of true teshuva, one must be in an identical situation in which the sin took place, and this time resist the temptation. Repentance also includes confession and regret (which some of the brothers did after their three day incarceration in the last parsha, and after Yoseph tells them he will keep one of them locked up until they bring Benjamin to him. (Ashemim anachnu – we are guilty, because we saw his mental anguish when he pleaded to us and we did not listen – that’s why this trouble has come upon us.) At that point Reuven points out – Didn’t I tell you – don’t sin against the child but you didn’t listen to me? One could argue that the situation is not exactly the same. Benjamin did not have the same youthful arrogance as Joseph, nor do we hear of Jacob’s outrageous favouritism in the form of a coat of coloured stripes making a reappearance.

So now we have Yehuda as the leader, and the brother they did listen to. He has certainly repented, aided no doubt by his own suffering after the death of his two sons. He knows what it is to lose a child. He is now willing to go into slavery himself rather than indirectly cause Benjamin to be taken from his father. We have here a classic case of psychological maturity. Twenty-two years have passed since Yoseph’s disappearance. In that time the brothers, particularly Yehuda, have had time to think about the terrible effect of their deed on their father, as well as the psychological dynamics of the marriage relationships between their mother Leah and aunt Rachel and their father Jacob. In a sensitive and poignant comment, Yehuda relates that their father said, “You know that two children my wife bore to me” and “nafsho keshura lenafsho” – his soul is bound up with his soul. Where is the jealousy now? In its place is understanding. The wife is Rachel. Yehuda understands the love and the grief, and the tragedy for Leah as well, that she was never the intended wife. Yehuda is the confident son of Leah, however, as he was born into some happiness for his mother. His name derives from her saying ‘This time I will thank G-d’, and for the first time she does not refer to her husband’s attitude to her in the naming. This implies her own confidence in Jacob’s respect for her. He was also the baby for a while, as after his birth Leah had no other children for some years, so she had time to give him attention.

In short, Yehuda and Joseph are head-to-head in this scene, and continue to be the two parallel leaders of the Jewish people. Adin Steinsaltz in ‘Characters from the Tanach’ describes this dual leadership well in his discussion on Rachel and Leah as mothers of the Jewish People. Yehuda is later the father of kings, and the house of David. Joseph is also the father of kings, but ones not destined to continue: Jeroboam the first king of the Northern Kingdom was from the tribe of Ephraim. In the distant future there will, according to the tradition, be two Mashiachs: Mashiach ben Yoseph followed by Mashiach ben Yehuda. And even with the loss of the ‘lost ten tribes’, Rachel lives on in the tribe of Benjamin, which was part of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. We see how Yehuda stood up for Benjamin at this crisis point, and how the tribes were together later on in history.

The rest of the parsha unfolds with Joseph making himself known, forgiving his brothers and sending for his father. He sends wagon loads of riches. The Jewish people as a family are coming down to Egypt, and will go up again as a nation. Imagine the confidence, like for today’s weather forecasters, for Joseph to know that the famine “will last five more years”. And yet the Bnei Yisrael stayed much longer than that.

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