Vayigash: Why Are We Jews?

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Fly on the wall
13 Dec 2007

“Biblical stories are in our present — in the cheder we cried when we learned of the sale of Yosef — and we rejoiced in his ascendancy to power. There was a freshness, a vigor, a nearness, which we felt in that drama.” — Rabbi Yosef B. Soloveichik

Oh to be a fly on the wall in the great and dramatic Yehuda – Yosef confrontation!

The scene: Twenty-two years after being sold, Yosef, unbeknownst to his brothers, has ascended to be Egyptian viceroy. Choreographer par excellence, Yosef frames his brothers by placing a royal goblet in Binyomin’s sack and then graciously offers to exonerate all but Binyomin. Floating between feisty and fearful, Yehuda, the engineer of Yosef’s sale, walks into the palace to confront a mercurial ruler and delivers a poignant message climaxing with a plea to free Binyomin:

“For how can I go up to my father if the youth [Binyomin] is not with me lest I see the evil that will befall my father?” (44:34)

V’lo yachol Yosef l’hisapeik-And Yosef could no longer control himself. In the face of such courage, Yosef crumbles — breaking down into tears and ultimately divulging his identity in what seems to be a premature revelation. How deliciously ironic that Yosef Hatzaddik, the moshel b’yitzro (cf. Shmuel 2, 23:3), the paradigmatic man of restraint, a teenager in a foreign land who is able to withstand Potiphar’s wife’s lures, loses control after all these years, davka, in the presence of Yehuda.

Wherein lies Yehuda’s power? Equally remarkable is the haunting silence of Yehuda’s siblings. Why is it Yehuda alone who stands tall in the face of the hostile viceroy who wants to seize Binyomin? Are they not all certain of the consequent early demise of their father Yaakov?

Chazal portray the development of the Yehuda personality. A picture of transformation emerges. After initiating his brother’s sale, Yehuda begins to reflect upon his actions and their effect on Yaakov. Shortly thereafter, he is thrust into crisis with his daughter-in-law, Tamar, who is pregnant with illegitimate twins.

Unlike his role in the Yosef saga, in this epic, Yehuda does not hold all the cards. He is, after all, the unwitting father. Tamar does not want to embarrass Yehuda. (see Brachos 43b). Her non confrontational approach presents Yehuda with the evidence and forces him to make a momentous decision; one that will ultimately serve to define his essential religious persona. How convenient would it have been for Yehuda to say nothing! A few moments of uneasy passivity would lay the whole matter to rest. The wincing pain would soon subside. Tamar would be gone and Yehuda could move on.

Tzadkah mimeni (“She is more righteous than I”, 38:26), Yehuda declares. Two words, no ambiguity and an uncompromising sense of truth emerges. Yehuda’s reaction serves as a model of gevurah, confirms his essential royalty and earns him messianic stripes*.

Why did God give the crown to Yehuda? Surely, he was not the only brave one of all his brothers; were not Simeon and Levi and the others valiant too? But because he dealt justly with Tamar did he become the judge of the world.…

Yehuda’s metamorphosis is almost complete. The same Yehuda that can express culpability to Tamar is primed to play a lead role when the Binyomin crisis strikes. Yaakov refuses to let Binyomin out of sight – for good reason. Once again Yehuda steps forward, boldly proclaiming proclaims: Anochi e’ervenu (“I will be his guarantor.” – 43:9). Ultimately, Yehuda’s actions yield a profound curative effect, reuniting the brothers and healing the family.

For the past 2,000 years, our people have been called Yehudim, a derivative of the word Yehuda. We are not Yissachars, Dans, nor are we even Yosefs. Perhaps it is because God demands of us to take responsibility for our flaws.

Our litigious society is wonderful at redirecting blame and our clinical world has excelled at creating new labels which serve to divorce one from accountability. Nevertheless as Jews, we would do well to remember that while we do not dictate our circumstances, we surely can control the way we respond to them. This essential understanding forms the basis of real spirituality, for once we acknowledge that we are accountable for ourselves and for our fellow human beings, we become emboldened to unlock the grand potential stored within.

* שמות רבה ל ד”ה יט א”ר אלעזר. See also :ב”ר צט ח יהודה אתה יודוך אחיך, אמר לו הקב”ה אתה הודית במעשה תמר יודוך אחיך להיות מלך עליהם

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.