We left Yehuda last week in Parashat Miketz swearing to his father that he would return with Binyamin in tow. He swears to Yaakov that if he does not return with Binyamin, that he would “bear the blame forever” (43:8).
Taking a step back, it is quite remarkable to see the arc of Yehuda’s journey from the beginning of our “Joseph narrative” in Parashat Vayeshev, beginning in Chapter 37. There, we see a character who influences his brothers to sell Joseph for the highest price possible. “Why kill him, when we can benefit,” he questions openly and coercively. He is not the oldest in the family, but his brothers respect him — and he knows it. So he is going to use that power to get what he wants.
Then in Chapter 38, his daughter-in-law tricks him, ensuring that her dead husband’s progeny will come from his lineage, an ultimate act of thinking outside of herself, for the sake of God (see my d’var Torah from Vayeshev for more details on this). When Yehuda learns that the child Tamar is bearing is his, he can only proclaim, “Tzadka mimeni She is more righteous than I!” Yehuda’s outpouring of emotion steadily moves from pure self-righteous ego-centrism, to a more holistic view of his family and the world at large.
It is here that we encounter Yehuda in this week’s parasha. The introductory words of the parasha describe in both words and deeds the noted change of demeanor in the heir to the Messiah. “Vayigash elav Yehuda Then Yehuda approached him.”
Yehuda approaches Yosef with an impassioned plea to release Binyamin. But look closely at his arguments:
1. Do you have a father or a brother?
2. The child cannot leave is father, for if he does, his father will surely die
3. We told our father your request and told him that if we do not come with the youngest child, we will not be able to see you again
4. My father said that one of my sons born to my beloved is surely torn in pieces, and if you take my other son of this wife, I will surely die
5. I (Yehuda) have sworn to my father that I will return with him, saying that I shall bear the blame forever if I don’t hold my word
6. I pray to you, take me instead of the youngest, for how can I look my father in the face and tell him that his youngest son is not here
None of this is rational. No case studies on where Binyamin was in reference to when the goblet was stolen. No use of witnesses.
Yehuda seeks to evoke empathy from the man in front of him, the second most powerful person in the world. Moreover, he is arguing for the life of a known criminal. Yehuda has no doubt that Binyamin took the goblet — he was caught red-handed. All the evidence in the world was couched against him.
But despite this, Yehuda pleas on behalf of his brother.
The Biblical scholar Yochanan Muffs describes this mode of standing up for those that are guilty in his influential essay “Who will stand in the breach” (1992, found in Love and Joy). It features a model of the prophet whose key role is not a scolder or occasional comforter, but rather is the defender of the people. As Professor Ed Greenstein notes, the prophet is often “His majesty’s loyal opposition.” In essence, he states, “You’ll have to take me down, too!”
Such is certainly the case of Moshe’s defense of the people after the golden calf episode, when Moses pleads with God against destroying the people that he just redeemed from Egypt. There is no doubt that the people are guilty there. They just built a giant false-God out of gold.
So too is it with Binyamin in our narrative. Yehuda doesn’t try to appease the man in front of him. That won’t work. His brother, as far as everyone in the narrative knows, is guilty.
Rather he employs pathos, the energy and feeling of the prophet to sway the most powerful man he has ever encountered.
And after all of this energy, Yosef breaks down: V’lo yachol Yosef l’hitapek Joseph could not bear it any longer (45:1). He sends out everyone from the room and lets out tears.
Yehuda has the chance to put his word to his father to the ultimate test. “Take me and not my brother,” he insists. And because he puts himself on the line, imploring the man who will reveal himself later as his brother, ultimately Yosef reveals his true self to his brothers. Yehuda’s bearing of himself, in turn, provides a model for how Yosef can do so.
Over the course of the “Joseph narrative,” Yehuda goes from the manipulator to the manipulated. He goes from the person who thought entirely about his own material interests, of how he could use his power to bring goods to him, to an act of ultimate sacrifice, giving himself up for a brother that he knows is guilty of a crime.
We, the Jewish people, live the life of Judah every time we recognize ourselves as a people, as Yehudim. As Yehudim, we internalize the lessons of Yehuda over the course of this narrative, a character who stands in the breach for the other, who upholds family kinship as the essential value in his life.
Yehuda represents the model of teshuva — returning to a primordial self. He finds himself in the same situation a second time, and acts a completely different way. Now, in Parashat Vayigash, he thinks of how he can affect change for others.