vayigash – english

Yehuda = Honesty, Nobility and Responsibility

The inner strength of Yehuda during stressful times got him very far. Many of us know that the HolyTemplein Jerusalemwas situated in the portions of Yehuda and Binyamin. The reason for the Templebeing located in Binyamin’s lot was for something he did not do. All the tribes, excluding Binyamin, bowed to Esav. Binyamin had  not yet been born. Yehuda, however, merited his share of theTemple by actively choosing to take responsibility for returning his brother, Binyamin, to his father. Yehuda also merited being the direct forefather of King David and the royal family, including Mashiach. He won these significant honors for having confessed his intimacy with Tamar.

Yehuda’s descendant, Nachshon Ben Aminadav, preceded the Nesiim of all other tribes in bringing the inaugural sacrifice of the Mishkan. Yehuda merited this by humbling himself in front of Yosef in their heated discussion in this week’s parasha.

Yehuda Humbles Himself

In the Midrashim, we see the extent of Yehuda’s efforts and exactly how he humbled himself. In Yehuda’s defense for freeing Binayamin, Yehuda attempted to accuse Yosef  of wanting to enslave Binyamin for no just reason. A thief who has money to compensate the stolen goods should be able to pay and not be punished by enslavement. Yosef replied that the magical goblet that Binyamin had stolen was priceless, and no amount of money could possibly be sufficient to free Binyamin for such a theft. Yehuda reinforced his claim by saying that all the brothers were willing to be enslaved in Binyamin’s stead. Yehuda made this offer in an attempt to check if their lot was punishment meted out to the brothers by G-d for selling Yosef.  Binyamin did not take part in the sale of Yosef. If he were to be the only one enslaved, this would prove that the predicament the brothers were put in was not a Divine punishment. Rather, this would be an expression of the wickedness of the Egyptian leader they faced. Had he reached such a conclusion, Yehuda would have led the tribes in a war againstEgypt. With the help of G-d, he thought, they would release their brothers Binyamin and Shimon and searchEgypt for Yosef. This was Yehuda’s line of reasoning in the dispute.

Yosef, however, replied that he saw in his magical cup that Reuven and Levi were Yehuda’s elders.“Why are you, Yehuda, speaking before your elders, Reuven and Levi?” To this, Yehuda replied that it was because he had taken upon himself the responsibility to return Binyamin to his father. Yosef then remarked that he saw in his cup that Yehuda had once sold a brother Yosef (that Yehuda claimed, in his story, was dead) for 20 silver coins as a slave and told his father that Yosef was torn to pieces by an animal. Yehuda heard this, and he cried out an earth-shattering cry. “How can I return home after all that I have done and see my father’s face?”

Yehuda, at this point, recognized and outwardly admitted his grief for selling his brother. This realization prompted him originally to offer to take responsibility for Binyamin. Confession was followed by assuming responsibility, and therefore, Yehuda was rewarded with kingship. We find that this trait was hereditary as well. King Shaul sinned once by not annihilating Amalek (sparing King Agag) and he was not pardoned. King David sinned twice (both in the episode with Uriah and through counting the people) and was pardoned. (Yoma 22b) David was pardoned because he immediately confessed to the Prophet Natan. Shaul, on the other hand, first denied his sin to the prophet Shmuel. It seems that confession and successful kingship go together.


We may ask why the combination of confession and responsibility was rewarded so highly. We may wonder why Yehuda merited such great things for his actions. The Yalkut states, concerning Yehuda(on the passuk,(יהודה אתה יודוך אחיך  One who overpowers his Yetzer and admits his misdeeds – he merits the World to Come. R’ Dessler deduces that one can truly admit his shortcomings only if he first overpowers his Yetzer.

What are the ramifications of this statement?  Many confessions are made. Few are made out of an understanding of the severity of the transgression and out of an inner will to respect justice. This purity of motivation was reflected by Yehuda, who did not have to admit his deed to Tamar. No one else knew what had happened. His confession was an act of answering his own inner truth, and was not affected by any external considerations.

He did not have to take responsibility for Binyamin. He wanted to. Yehuda realized that his life went downhill following his having arranged the sale of Yosef . His sons, Er and Onan, married Tamar and lived lives with unacceptable behavior before G-d. He lost his sons as punishment for having taken away Yaakov’s son from him. When Yehuda confessed to himself what he had done, he wanted to take responsibility for his actions. This is the trait of a lion, a symbol that Yehuda so much deserved. The strength of a lion is that he does not care what any other animal thinks. He eats large quantities of meat, sleeps most of the day and lives the way he wants.  What he does and how he acts is dictated by what he feels. To overcome the yetzer and do a genuine form of Teshuva, one’s actions must come from a feeling that I am not doing this in order to impress others. I am going to do what is right and take responsibility for my actions, because that is what I  really want to do. 

This is the greatest and deepest aspect of the rebuke of the End of Time mentioned in the Midrash (Rabba 93:10). The Midrash compares Yosef’s rebuke of his brothers to the rebuke of G-d to humanity. G-d will come and reprove each and every person according to who he is. R’S. Pincus explains that the most frightening judgment we will endure at that time is hypothetical judgment. Suppose that the negative acts we refrained from would have been accepted socially: would we still have refrained from them? This judgment will reveal the true self, not that which was dictated by social mores. Let us take murder for instance. How different is a person who did not commit murder because it was not accepted in his social circles from a person who refrained from such an act in obedience to G-d’s commandment. If, for example, killing would be socially acceptable, as it was in Nazi Germany, many people would “go along” with what was then the “norm”, without examining their actions against any absolute concept of right or wrong. If, for some reason, the doctors in a hospital were on strike, and it was accepted that doctors were at present off duty, would a particular doctor still keep his hands in his pockets , refraining from treating patients who could be healed? The judgment of the End of Days reveals if we are who we are because that’s who we want to be, or because we are the product of social pressure. We will be tested to see if we would have passed the test, even if no one would ever know our mark.

Noble Intentions

This nobility in the act of Yehuda shined forth in a very unique way. We know that Reuven, also, took responsibility for his brother, Yosef. He convinced his brothers not to kill Yosef, but instead, to throw him into the pit. We do not see that Reuven was rewarded for this. In what way was his act different from that of Yehuda?

To pursue the question further: there is a Midrash (Mechilta Beshalach ch. 5) that offers a second reason as to why Yehuda merited royal descendants. While the brothers wanted to kill Yosef, Yehuda saved him by persuading his brothers to sell him as a slave. This act afforded Yehuda with great merit.(see Rashi 49:9) Although we saw in other Midrashim that Yehuda lost his children as punishment for causing his father to lose his children. Also, Yehuda was excommunicated by his brothers for selling Yosef (וירד יהודה) , after they saw that their father, Yaakov, could not be consoled. Still, it remains to Yehuda’s credit that Yosef was not killed. Reuven, for the same act, was not rewarded at all.

The Siftei Chachamim (37, 40) states that Reuven’s motivation was partially due to the fact that he was worried that his father would blame him. He had already angered his father once (by moving Yaakov’s bed from Bilha’s tent to Leah’s), and he wanted to avoid doing so again. Reuven was more concerned with keeping his good name than he was with taking responsibility to save Yosef’s life. Yehuda, on the other hand, was credited for saving Yosef’s life by selling him because he did not care what anyone would say. He knew that this was the only way he could save his brother and he knew that he might be excommunicated for it. He merited having the HolyTemplein his territory, for he had taken responsibility for Binayamin out of his sense of duty alone. He did not act in order to exonerate himself from Yaakov’s suspicion that he had had a hand in the sale of Yosef. His father would not look at him in a bad light if he did not take responsibility, for Yaakov did not know that Yehuda was a main character in the selling of Yosef.  And still, Yehuda felt that he wanted to take responsibility.

We find this nobility of dedication to doing what is right in the testimony of the Torah in regard to Yosef. When Yosef kept his distance from his master Potiphar’s wife, he told her that his reason for restraining himself was וחטאתי לאלקים  And (by being with you) I would sin to G-d . Not because the master would find out his action. Not because Yosef’s family would find out. Not because of social status. Rather, because such an act is forbidden by G-d. This inner strength was unique in Yosef . It was also unique in Yehuda, expressed through his confession. This is the inner strength we find in Yehuda.  For Yehuda to become a real baal teshuva from his actions with Tamar and in selling his brother, he had to be honest with himself and overcome all self-justification.

Battling Evil Inclination /Recognizing G-d

R’ Simcha Zissel would say in the name of the Ibn Ezra:  “However well a person recognizes his Yetzer(יצר) , that is how well he recognizes his Creator(יוצר)”. The reason we do not see the Creator in the world is because the Yetzer does not let us see Him. The more we realize that we are in the dark, the more we can appreciate the light.

This is the greatness of Yehuda . Yehuda was able to get up and recognize his Yetzer. The root of the name Yehuda is both “confession” and “thanks”. The natural tendency of the human psyche is to deny gratitude for a favor. This is the root of being ungrateful. The Yetzer makes a person egocentric. Confessing means realizing one’s shortcomings and shortsightedness. And it also means taking responsibility for showing gratitude or rectifying wrongdoings.

We can learn from Yehuda responsibility for our family. We can learn responsibility to the truth and to justice. We can learn to do good things just because they are good. Nothing to do with how it makes us look. And we can learn the traits of the lion and humble ourselves and relinquish our honor for things that are more important. This behavior is fit for kings. These royal traits can be found in each and every one of us. All Jews are princes.(Shabbat 111a)

Transcendence is a uniquely Jewish trait: it means rising above ourselves, above petty considerations, and doing what is ultimately right.

Shabbat Shalom, Yosef Farhi

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