The Brothers’ Ultimate Face-Off
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Shabbat Vayigash

The Brothers’ Ultimate Face-Off

Sandra E. Rapoport, award-winning author of “Biblical Seductions,” is at work on her fourth book, a historical novel set in biblical times.

Open Torah Scroll
Open Torah Scroll

Our parasha unfolds in the palace of Egypt’s viceroy, presenting a battle of titans [Binyamin Lau, Genesis Rabbah 93]. Two men, Joseph and Judah, face-off: Joseph, bureaucratic genius, viceroy to the most powerful king in the world; and Judah, putative head of his aged father’s nomadic clan. They confront one another, with Judah’s ten brothers hanging on every word. Each man orates eloquently, desperate to convince. Against the odds, both speeches succeed. Let’s explore why.

“Vayigash eilav Yehudah” (“Judah drew near to him”) [Gen. 44:18]; this is Judah’s first strategic move. He is about to bare his soul, to beg this strange ruler for mercy for his youngest brother, Benjamin. The viceroy’s divining cup had been found in Benjamin’s sack of grain, so Benjamin stands condemned to slavery for stealing it. Bent on saving him, Judah reckons he will have more impact if he speaks into the viceroy’s ear. We envision Judah skirting protocol, stepping ever closer to the great man sitting on his throne.

The dramatic irony is that, unknown to Judah, the viceroy is not a true Egyptian. He is secretly Hebrew, none other than Judah’s lost brother, Joseph! Using Benjamin as bait, Joseph sets a trap for his half-brothers who sold him into slavery two decades ago. Now that fate has placed them — desperate for food in this second year of famine — into his hands, before saving them he intends to know: will they give up their brother Benjamin to slavery as they had done to him? Or have they changed?

A further irony is that it was Judah who had proposed the long-ago sale of Joseph to a caravan of slave traders. And Joseph remembers. Unbeknownst to Judah, his speech will give Joseph his answer.

Judah explains to the viceroy — in the longest single speech in Genesis — that he stands as guarantor to their aged father, having pledged to bring Benjamin home safely [Tanchuma; Bava Batra 175b]. And that if he fails, their father will die of a broken heart, as he already has lost his other beloved son. Desperate to save Benjamin, Judah speaks from his heart, using the plural voice, including all his brothers in his plea. Judah makes two critical points: that the clan from Canaan is a unified brotherhood determined to save — not sacrifice — Benjamin; and that they seek to spare their father further grief. Judah rings the bells of brotherhood and familial responsibility.

Then Judah does the unexpected. He offers himself as a substitution for Benjamin. This momentous offering signals Judah’s elevation to biblical immortality. Comparable in moral gravity to the Akeida, where Isaac was spared death and the ram sacrificed in his stead, Judah accepts sole responsibility as guarantor for his brother — a lesson he learned from Tamar [Gen. 38:26, Jonathan Sacks]. Judah pleads, “Spare Benjamin and take me instead!” [Gen. 44:33]. Hearing this, Joseph weeps with relief [Gen. 45:1]. Judah and his brothers are, indeed, “morally regenerated” [Ephraim Avigdor Speiser].

Joseph’s speech follows Judah’s. It does not start off well. When he reveals his true identity — “I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold into Egypt!” and “Does my father still live?” [Gen. 45:3-4] — his brothers are struck dumb, terrified and incredulous. What is this Egyptian viceroy saying? He is our brother Joseph?! Has the viceroy been toying with us all this time?

Now comes Joseph’s trial. He is desperate to convince his shamed and guilt-ridden brothers that despite his recent game-playing, he genuinely does not hold a grudge. Joseph knows he would be lost to them irretrievably if they fail to believe him. So, wittingly or unwittingly, Joseph echoes Judah’s oratory. He invites his brothers to “Geshu-na elai” (“Draw close to me”). Recall that virtually the same words open our parasha: “Judah drew close to him.” Joseph also taps into Judah’s convincing combination of brotherhood and parental fealty.

Then Joseph, as Judah did, adds a third element. In seeking to lift the boulder of shame from the brothers’ shoulders, he tells them, three times, “It was not you who sent me here, but God” [Gen. 45:5-8]. Just so. Had the brothers not conspired to sell him to slave traders, Joseph would not now be standing before them, exalted, wealthy and beneficent. The brothers latch onto this, perhaps thinking, “Look at what our deed of betrayal has wrought! Our brother is second to the greatest king in the world. Surely, now that he has what he has always wished for, he has forgiven us.”

Joseph’s speech wins the brothers’ hearts. Just in time, too. The stakes could not be higher. This is the last chance for Abraham’s progeny to show they can act as brothers for their family’s common good. It is this unity that will keep them alive as they slide into crushing bondage.

Sandra E. Rapoport is the award-winning author of “Biblical Seductions” (KTAV). Her new book, “The Queen & The Spymaster” (KTAV), is a novel base on the story of Esther.

Candlelighting, Readings:

Shabbat Candles: 4:11 p.m.

Torah: Gen. 44:18-47:27

Haftarah: Ezekiel 37:15-28

Havdalah: 5:11 p.m.

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