At the conclusion of last week’s sedra we were left on a real cliff hanger with Binyamin being caught red-handed with Yoseph’s goblet after being set up in the final of Yoseph’s tests to see if his brothers had changed their ways. Having told the brothers that he would only take Binyamin as a slave due to the theft, the trap was set to see if they truly loved Binyamin and would stick up for him or if they would simply abandon him like they had done with Yoseph 22 years prior. Binyamin was the youngest of the brothers and the only full brother of Yoseph having also been born from Rachel and therefore he provided the perfect candidate in this final test… “Then Yehudah approached [Yoseph]…”
With Binyamin’s fate looking rather bleak Yehudah stepped forward, risking his life to intercede on the plans of the Egyptian viceroy (Yoseph). The final showdown commences and Yehudah speaks simply yet eloquently; controlled yet emotional; respectful yet firm… he petitioned for his brother’s freedom without degrading himself and showed the character of leadership which would later be reflected in his offspring… being the source of Jewish leadership and royalty, of the David dynasty and Messiah. Why was it Yehudah who stepped forward however? If we remember back to when Yoseph was originally sold, it was Yehudah who was the main perpetrator of these events and now he seems to have completely changed character and stepped forward in the defense of his younger brother, he even offers himself as a slave in place of Binyamin as a final bargaining plea to save him (we see this as an act of מדה כנגד מדה/measure for measure for just as Yehudah offered Yoseph as a slave, now he is offering himself as a slave to Yoseph). The reason why Yehudah takes this active role is that he had a lot more to lose if Binyamin was taken as a slave than the others; back in Mikeitz he promised his father that he would ‘personally guarantee him’ (43:9) and even stated that ‘if I do not bring him back to you and stand him before you, then I will have sinned against you for all time’… our commentators read into this as meaning that he would not only have sinned against his father, Yaakov, for the rest of his life but also in his life in the world to come… a pretty solid way to back up a promise!!
Within the first sentence of Yehudah’s long dialogue he hints at some of the feelings he has towards the situation at hand… His first sentence is as so… “If you please, my lord, may your servant speak a word in my lord’s ears and let not your anger flare up at your servant – for you are like Pharaoh”… By requesting permission that he ‘speak a word in my lord’s ear’ he was asking Yoseph to actually listen to his words, hinting that this might be in vain. By asking Yoseph not to ‘let your anger flare up’, Yehudah was bravely warning the viceroy that he was ready to speak in a blunt manner that could well arouse Yoseph’s anger (Rashi), so he wanted Yoseph not to be caught by surprise and react furiously. The final sentence gives us the most intriguing insights however… at face value it seems as though Yehudah is simply praising Yoseph by stating that ‘you are like Pharaoh’, surely this means that he is as powerful in his eyes as the king himself? Hidden in these words however is both a threat and an insult. By telling Yoseph that he is just like Pharaoh, Yehudah is threatening that if he takes Binyamin as a slave, he will suffer just as Pharaoh did when he took his great grandmother Sarah (Parashas Lech Lecha) and was afflicted with a debilitating skin disease that made cohabitation impossible (this was to assure that Sarah’s chastity would be safeguarded)… he was therefore saying that just like Pharaoh (the last Egyptian leader to take a Jew captive) was punished directly by Hashem, so to will you be if you proceed with this plan! By stating that Yoseph is just like Pharaoh, Yehudah is also implying that he is as devious and dishonest as the corrupt leader… insulting indeed.
Yehudah ends his plea by honorably offering himself to be a slave instead of his younger brother. Rashi tells us that he did so by claiming he was better than Binyamin in every way; money matters, strength, war and as a servant… The commentator Schochovah (can just about pronounce let alone spell his name!) also informs us that Yehudah questioned why Yoseph would even want a suspected thief as a slave?! So with that Yehudah concluded his courageous plea… and in turn Yoseph was finally convinced that his brothers had changed their ways…
The Torah states that Yoseph ‘could not restrain himself’ anymore and readied himself to reveal his true identity at last, after 22 years of being parted from his family he was finally going to be reunited… The next series of actions from Yoseph reveal his incredible character as a tzadik... Rather than embarrass his brothers in the presence of so many bystanders (Rashi interpretation), Yoseph ordered ‘remove everyone from before me’, Rashbam sees this act as a concern for his own self image however as it would be seen as unseemly for him to break into tears in the presence of so many outsiders. Yoseph then cried out in a loud voice which shows the intense buildup of emotion the whole episode must have caused, any view that he was enjoying the bullying of his brothers to see if they were righteous was disproved with this final release of anguish… and the moment finally came!!... (no wonder Andrew Lloyd Webber made this is into a theatre production, intense stuff)… Yoseph revealed himself with the words, “I am Yoseph. Is my father still alive?” Yoseph’s primary concern was his farther, and although he had been told several times by his brother’s that Yaakov was indeed alive, he needed to make sure as they could have been lying as a ploy to get Binyamin back (Ralbag). Not surprisingly the brother’s were more shocked than an Englishman being served by an Israeli waiter and ‘could not answer him because they were left disconcerted before him’. The Chafetz Chaim gives an alternative, deeper reason for their silence… when Yoseph said “I am Yoseph”, Hashem’s master plan became clear to the brothers, they had no more questions. Everything that had happened for the last twenty two years fell into perspective. So, too, will it be in the time to come when G-d will reveal himself and announce, “I am Hashem!” and the veil will be lifted from our eyes and we will comprehend everything that transpired throughout history.
Before Yaakov finds out the news, the Torah tells us that ‘the news was heard in Pharaoh’s palace’… and guess what, Pharaoh is pretty happy with the new revelations, why? No not because he is a big softy who watches romantic movies in his spare time, but because it benefits him of course! Ramban explains how he was delighted that Egypt would no longer bare the stigma of being ruled by an ex-slave and ex-convict of unknown origins, now it was known that Yoseph was a member of a prominent and respected family. Sforno also points out that with Yoseph’s family now in the land, he would stop thinking of himself as an alien and would surely be more devoted to the best interests of the land as it now affected them too.
Yoseph couldn’t wait any longer to see his farther and sends the brothers off to get him, ‘laden with the best of Egypt’ (no, not Mido). To each of them he gave changes of clothing but to Binyamin the Torah writes that he specifically gave five changes of clothing… The Talmud, in Megillah (16b), explains that Yoseph’s gifts were meant to allude to the future success of Binyamin’s descendant Mordechai, who would emerge from King Ahasuerus’s presence attired in five royal garments (Megillah Esther). This episode therefore is yet another instance of the events in the lives of the Patriarchs alluding to future Jewish history.
Jumping back to Yoseph’s revelation to his brother’s of his identity we can learn a fundamental life lesson. After revealing his identity, Yoseph tells his brothers to ‘come close to me’, this act of affection reassured them that he had indeed forgiven them. Could you imagine the amount of anger and upset someone would build up through twenty two years of hardship caused by the act of your brothers selling you, which was the better alternative to their original plan to kill you… to then be confronted with them when you have risen to a position of huge authority… the perfect time to seek revenge at last, surely?! Not Yoseph, within his second set of words to them they are assured of his forgiveness and this is confirmed when he continues to say, ‘do not be distressed, nor reproach yourselves for having sold me here, for it was to be a provider that G-d sent me ahead of you’. Yoseph’s non-diminishing faith in Hashem causes him to logically place his brother’s actions as a benefit to him, after seeing how the situation panned out. He assures them that by selling him they were simply playing out the will of Hashem. We can learn from this that one should never seek revenge against a person who caused him any form of distress or damage. Rather one should repay even a guilty offender with kindness (Tanya, Chapter 12)... Surely though, it is crazy to assume that we should be kind to guilty offenders?! When you think with the same logic as Yoseph then whatever the person did to you ultimately stems from G-d. The person was merely an agent from Hashem, who decreed that this thing should occur to you. Since we know that everything that G-d does is for the good, you must repay the person (who brought this ‘good’ to you) with kindness… and when you reach that level, you’re up there with Yoseph!
True story- An Iraqi terrorist, Khay Rahnajet, sent off a letter bomb, but didn’t pay enough postage. It came back to him with return-to-sender stamped on it. Not recognizing the envelope, he opened it up and the bomb blew up in his face. Remember who is running the world!
I wish everyone a good Shabbat and a successful week ahead.
Daniel Sandground, (student at Ohr Somayach Yeshiva, Jerusalem)