By Rabbi Geri Newburge
During our fourth and fifth years of rabbinic School at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion we were required to deliver a sermon in the chapel to the entire community.
In my fifth year, the Torah portion was Vayigash. As the parshah has powerful emotional and spiritual messages, it was an incredible experience and, ever since, the parshah holds a special place in my heart.
The Joseph narrative begins well before Vayigash, but it reaches its climax this week when Judah steps forward to speak to the powerful man who accused Benjamin of stealing and took him into custody. We do not know what motivates Joseph to frame Benjamin, but Judah takes a stand against the apparent injustice done to his younger brother Benjamin, and approaches (vayigash) the powerful Joseph pleading to be heard and for Joseph to restrain his anger. Ultimately, Judah was able to persuade Joseph.
The opening verse of the portion has been interpreted many times, with great variation. In the rabbinic commentary Beresheet Rabbah, the sages teach, ‘“Counsel in the heart of a man is like deep water; but a man of understanding will draw it out.”
This may be compared to a deep well full of cold and excellent water, yet none could drink of it. Then came one who tied cord to cord and thread to thread, drew up its water and drank, whereupon all drew water thus and drank thereof. In the same way Judah did not cease from answering Joseph word for word until he penetrated to his very heart, “Then Judah approached him.’ ”
Here the rabbis use a prooftext from Proverbs as the basis to illustrate Judah’s determination — “a man of understanding will draw it out.” They want us to believe Judah is that “man of understanding,” he knew what it took to save Benjamin. Judah was the leader and acted.
But there’s more to Judah’s deed. He wants to do the right thing. After his youthful indiscretions selling Joseph into slavery and denying his daughter-in-law Tamar her rightful husband, he has grown as a person. He is taking the steps, literally and figuratively, to ensure Benjamin’s safety, even willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good.
Judah models for us how we should approach the world. Today there is no shortage of critical and meaningful causes that need our attention — immigration, health care, sexual violence, gun control, civil rights, peace in the Middle East, climate change, homelessness, food insecurity, and the list goes on.
We are taught “justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20), and our reward is the land of Israel. That quest for justice cannot be a commandment of a bygone era — it must remain part of our spiritual inheritance as Judah demonstrates. Many Jewish and secular organizations exist to help perform this sacred work. Perhaps you can join in the work done by your congregation, or with the Jewish Federation, or HIAS-PA. There are many avenues through which to make a difference.
Judah, for me, is always the hero of this story. Whether it’s because he fought for his little brother, or he stood up to injustice (especially when he did not do so earlier in this family drama), or demonstrated what can be accomplished when you refuse to give up, Judah seems to rise above the fray, inspiring us to vayiash, to approach with determination whatever challenge stands before us.
Rabbi Geri Newburge is a rabbi at Main Line Reform Temple. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.
I appreciate Rabbi Newburge’s dvar. This has always been the parsha that most resonated with me. The rabbi notes Judah as the hero. I’d like to pay homage to the other hero in this family dialogue Joseph.
Can one think of a worse fate than being thrown into a pit to die or be sold into slavery by one’s kin?
The scholar Everett Fox in his Torah translation notes “the story is trying to teach a lesson about crime and repentance. Only by recreating something of the original situation–the brothers are again in control of the life and death of a son of Rachel (in this case Benjamin) — can Joseph be sure the brothers have changed.”
The way Joseph sets this situation up amazes me. The story could have been simply that the brothers initially come to Egypt for food, Joseph recognizes them, says “I forgive you.” End of story. That is one kind of forgiveness and reconciliation.
But this way, Joseph can recognize that the brothers have changed. And also, the brothers can themselves feel they have changed. They can “forgive” themselves. One of the most powerful ways to deal with guilt, to very effectively show you are truly sorry is not simply to say it, but to act differently. How powerful is it to act differently in essentially the same situation? That serves as a very meaningful lesson to me in my life.
The brothers can now say to themselves — Joseph has matured. He is not the egotistical youth he was. And even though we were not youths when we threw him into the pit and into slavery, we can also say we have matured: we are also not the same people we were those years ago. Given the chance to allow Benjamin (now the youngest and also Jacob’s favorite) to be taken into slavery, we do not do so.
Thus, the family can be truly reconciled.