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Becoming Yehuda

Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

Eleven sons of Yaakov stand, accused and threatened, before one of the most powerful men in the world, second in command in a regime not known for compassion or forgiveness. They must make a decision, and their options, though seemingly straightforward, are actually quite complex.

Once again, a son of Rachel has apparently behaved in an unseemly fashion. When Binyamin is caught with the cup of the powerful leader in his bag, the brothers are faced with several possible choices. Self-preservation would dictate that they part ways with their brother Binyamin just as they did with Yosef years ago; however, their present situation seems much more complicated. The only reason Binyamin has joined them in Egypt is to serve as proof that they are, in fact, brothers, and not spies. Like true brothers, they could close ranks and follow Binyamin wherever fate takes him, be it incarceration or even death, and demand that they all be treated as one family, sharing the same fate. Perhaps this moral stance would help them assuage their own consciences, though it would most likely not achieve any other desirable results. Should they gamble that opting to share in Binyamin’s punishment will convince their Egyptian tormentor that they have been speaking the truth, that they are, in fact, brothers, and that they should all be set free?

What if they choose the opposite path, the option being offered to them by the Egyptian justice system, and simply walk away, washing their hands of their brother, the last remaining favored son of the favored wife? If they accept the offer, cut their losses, and leave Binyamin behind, will they fail the test they are being put through, thus sealing their own doom as well as Binyamin’s? Is this a test, a trap, or a straightforward execution of Egyptian justice?

Faced with this quagmire, Yehuda suggests a third solution - a solution that seems, given his personal track record, completely uncharacteristic and unexpected. Yehuda suggests that he and Binyamin change places: Binyamin will go home to his father, while Yehuda will face a life of servitude.

Yehuda’s first “speaking role” in the Torah is in the scene on the outskirts of Dotan, in the Land of Israel. Yosef has been stripped of his special coat and thrown into a pit, and the brothers table two possibilities: Murder Yosef in cold blood, or leave, him in the pit to die as nature takes its course. For the first time, Yehuda speaks; apparently, he is so charismatic that all the alternative plans suggested by his brothers are quickly abandoned, and his plan embraced: In his first known attempt at leadership, Yehuda proposes that they sell their brother into slavery rather than killing him. Yehuda speaks and his brothers listen.

This solution is both cunning and self-serving: Not nearly as messy as murder, neither in a literal nor emotional sense, Yehuda’s plan manages to “remove” Yosef without bloodshed while turning a handsome profit. In one fell swoop, the “Yosef Problem” is solved and Yehuda is established as leader of the brothers. There is no expression or even intimation of concern for his father or for Yosef.

The chapter immediately following the sale of Yosef reinforces what we have already seen of Yehuda’s character: He is charismatic, self-absorbed, self-involved, and gives no thought whatsoever to his daughter-in-law Tamar’s needs or feelings. We might be tempted to describe him as a borderline narcissistic personality, for whom the concept of “empathy,” if it exists in his lexicon at all, is something others should have for him, and not vice versa.

And yet, as he stands before this strange and menacing Egyptian prince, a different Yehuda emerges. Something, or someone, has transformed him from the narcissistic young man he once was into a person who considers others’ needs before his own. To be sure, years have passed and the tragedy of losing two of his own sons has had some impact – but there is something more to his metamorphosis. Yehuda goes far beyond what we would expect from an empathetic person. He does not merely beg for mercy on his brother Binyamin’s behalf. He is willing – wholeheartedly and immediately – to sacrifice himself in order to save Binyamin, in order to spare his father any more pain, in order to fulfill the promise he made to Yaakov. He takes a leadership role, but more importantly, he takes responsibility.

How did this change come about? Simply stated, Yehuda had a very good teacher. The person who changed him, who taught him self-sacrifice, was an elegant woman with an extreme sense of morality and justice: His daughter-in-law Tamar. Yehuda had abandoned Tamar, in effect sentencing her to a life in limbo as a “living widow.” Tamar took her fate into her own hands, and seduced the willing Yehuda by pretending to be a prostitute. However, when she stood accused of adultery, she chose the moral high ground. Rather than publicly exposing Yehuda’s hypocrisy and taking him to task for his selfish disregard of his legal and moral obligations, she decided not to embarrass him or to seek revenge. As she was led to her own execution, she sent a cryptic message that hinted at the identity of her paramour - a message that only Yehuda could decipher. And then, something magical happened: The self-absorbed borderline-narcissist developed a conscience, and admitted his guilt. What happened? Why did Yehuda make this dramatic admission when no one would ever know the damning truth?

Tamar’s self-sacrifice taught Yehuda a powerful lesson and transformed him from selfish to selfless. Now, as Yehuda unknowingly stands before his estranged brother, he rejects the two options that are on the table. He will neither abandon his brother and sentence him to a life of slavery, as he himself had once advocated, nor will he make the futile gesture of joining Binyamin in servitude. He makes an unexpected third choice, offering himself in Binyamin’s stead: His youngest brother must be returned to their father. Yehuda has learned and internalized the lessons he learned from Tamar: Self-sacrifice, empathy, responsibility – and love.

The contrast between this scene and the scene at the mouth of the pit in Dotan is unmistakable. Yehuda is still a leader, but he now displays a different type of leadership. The qualities he has learned, the qualities he will bequeath to his descendants, are the defining qualities of true Jewish leadership, from David through the Messiah: Self-sacrifice, empathy and an immutable moral compass. Yehuda places the needs of others before his own. This sort of leadership was, and always will be, the catalyst for the salvation of the Jewish People.

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