It doesn’t look good. Because of the harsh famine, Yaakov has been forced to separate from Binyamin, his last remaining reminder of his beloved wife. Then that very same son is subsequently accused of thievery and is threatened with eternal slavery in Egypt. The remaining brothers are guiltily caught in the middle. Suddenly, Yehudah steps up and pleads the case for the freedom of his youngest brother. And, it works! Upon hearing Yehudah’s speech, Yosef cannot control himself any longer and, through streaming tears, reveals his identity to his estranged brothers!
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s estimation of the brothers’ ‘honesty’ aside, why is Yosef overwhelmed by Yehudah’s words? What could he possibly have heard that would so dramatically change his distrusting attitude towards them – one so boldly demonstrated when he spoke ‘harshly’ to his brothers during their first meeting – an attitude so strongly felt that it prevented him from informing them of his existence for so many years?
An answer can be found in the actual words of Yehudah’s heart-wrenching plea. Scanning the verses of his appeal (44: 18-34), we can easily discern an exaggerated focus on 1) the familial relationships: the word ‘father’ is mentioned no less than 14 times (three of those instances it is twice in one verse!), and there are six times the word ‘brother’ is used; and 2) the ‘innocence’ of Binyamin: six times he is referred to as a ‘lad’ and four times as ‘small’ or young; in addition to a sprinkling of ‘love’ and ‘sorrowful death’. And all this in a mere 17 verses! Quite the heart-string tugging speech, appealing to (or even perhaps exploiting) Yosef’s filial and fraternal weaknesses; Shakespeare would be proud.
However, as powerfully poignant as Yehudah’s speech may have been, it seems a bit strange to say that the only reason the Torah wrote this entire section was to explain how best to win over a stubbornly dubious enemy; Yosef has spent great amounts of time and effort on cleverly manipulating the fulfillment of the his dreams’ prophecies – how does Yehudah’s speech demonstrate Yosef’s success? Can we learn nothing more from the immediate and total success of Yehudah’s petition?
Understanding that the first verse of any section (like the first line in a sonnet, the first paragraph of a short story, or the first chapter of a book) creates the setting or tone, the starting verse of this section too must be scrutinized for its function: “And Yehudah approached (‘ויגש’) and said, ‘please, my master (‘אדוני’), please allow your servant to speak something in the ear of my master, and don’t become angry (‘אל יחר אף’) with your servant, because you are like Pharaoh.” There is another monumental plea for the saving of lives recorded in the Torah that also includes the very same components as Yehudah’s: Avraham’s plea for the people of Sedom (Breishit 18: 23-32). The speech begins with, “And Avraham approached (‘ויגש’)” (23); then, five times throughout the conversation, Avraham refers to God as ‘my master’ (‘אדוני’) and twice Avraham beseeches God ‘not to become angry’, (‘אל נא יחר אף’). The textual similarities are brilliantly blatant; what can we therefore learn from the purposeful conceptual comparison?
The impetus for Avraham’s argument to God to spare the people of Sedom from total annihilation is the fundamental justice it would be defying. How can a just and lawful ‘Judge of the Land’ sentence an entire population, including innocent Tzadikim, to death? Avraham argues that with enough righteous inhabitants, it would be truly wrong to destroy the sinful cities; and if God is truly Right, He can’t carry through with His plans. (In the end, of course, there are in fact not enough Tzadikim to save the cities). However, what we must appreciate from this scene is the elevated and objective arguments of justice and rightfulness that Avraham used, as opposed to mere emotional or subjective pleas; Avraham looked to employ the irrefutable truth of God’s justice and righteousness ‘against’ Him in his fight for the cities’ salvation (an argument God Himself labeled as ‘the way of God’).
And now to return to our parsha. What does the Torah want us to understand about what Yosef hears that convinced him to finally reveal his identity and reunite his family and initiate the Brit Ben Habtarim future? Beyond the (mere) dramatic and complete turnaround from the brothers’ previously exhibited ‘hatred’, ‘jealousy’ and murderous intentions towards a younger son of Rachel to the present expression of ‘love’, deep concern and willing sacrifice for another son of Rachel, what truly wins Yosef’s confidence and what the Torah wants us to properly recognize is the justice and righteousness Yehudah demands. Like his great-grandfather, he, too, has ‘innocents’ he argues for: the arresting and enslaving of Binyamin would not only be condemning a faultless ‘small’ ‘lad’ to undeserved suffering, but would ultimately kill his innocent father whose ‘soul is tied up with his [Binyamin’s]’. Yehudah demands the very same Avraham argument of truth and justice and is, in turn, what Yosef is won over by. (And it’s not coincidental that God’s ‘rationale’ for informing Avraham of His plans to destroy Sedom, therein affording him an opportunity to fight for its survival, is ‘because he will teach his children the way of God, of justice and righteousness’!). And when we and Yosef witness this newly felt and outwardly demonstrated Avraham–esque personae in Yehudah (as representative of all his brothers), it becomes perfectly clear that the next stage of the Promise (given to Avraham at Brit Ben HaBtarim), which Yosef has strategically set up from the very first accusation of his brothers, is now ready to commence.