Weekly D’var Torah Parashat Vayigash 5779

איזהו גיבור? הכובש את יצרו.

“Who is mighty? One who conquers their impulses.” (Avot 4, 1).

וַיִּגַּשׁ אֵלָיו יְהוּדָה. זֶה שֶׁאָמַר הַכָּתוּב: לַיִשׁ גִּבּוֹר בַּבְּהֵמָה וְלֹא יָשׁוּב מִפְּנֵי כֹל (משלי ל, ל(.

“Then Judah came near unto him.” Scripture states elsewhere in reference to this verse: The lion, which is the mightiest of beasts, turneth not away for anyone (Prov. 30:30). (Midrash Tanchuma, Vayigash 3:3)

This is the third time in the Yosef narrative in which Yehudah appears as a central character. In Parashat Vayeshev, in which Yosef is introduced, it is Yehudah who suggests that Yosef not be killed, but rather sold (Gen. 37:26-27). He appears again in an interruption of Yosef’s narrative (Ch. 38), in which his older sons die for their sins, and Yehudah himself unknowingly spends a night with his daughter-in-law, Tamar.

In the first case, we may ascribe the quality of overcoming one’s impulses to Yehudah, depending on what motivations we ascribe to him. He and Reuven both attempted to save Yosef’s life, and it was Yehudah who succeeded. Reuven suggested that Yosef be thrown into a pit so that he may later rescue him and bring him home (Gen 37:22), but was shocked to find him gone later. Yehudah suggested that he be sold to some passing Ishmaelites. According to Ramban, Yehudah was unaware of Reuven’s intent to save Yosef, and so his suggestion to sell him was meant to save him. If we say that Yehudah’s intent was the same as Reuven’s, to save Yosef’s life, and ideally, to see him safe home, then we may say that his strategy was the more effective of the two. Reuven’s plea not to murder their brother went unheeded. Yehudah allowed his brothers their revenge, but still accomplished the goal of saving Yosef’s life. This would be a case of Yehudah overcoming his passion to have his brother saved and brought home, to have true justice be done, and focusing his efforts on the practical goal of saving his brother’s life.

In the second instance, wherein Yehudah does act in ways that are not of the highest moral quality, we see that he reflects upon his own error, and tries to make amends. It was out of fear for his youngest surviving son that he denies Tamar her rights of yibum, of levirate marriage, and forces her to do something that breaks the accepted rules of proper behavior for a woman, and to do so at the risk of her own life. When he realized that, he proclaimed “צדקה ממני” “She is more in the right than I am!” (Gen 38:26). While he did not “conquer his impulses” in the conventional sense, he did overcome his egotism, and was willing to relent and to admit that he was in the wrong.

Years later, Yehudah comes before his brother, Yosef, and pleads on behalf of their youngest brother, Binyamin. He offers himself as a prisoner and as a slave, overcoming any self-interest in order that justice be done, and that he not bereave his father twice, and that he not be responsible for the loss of two brothers. At this point, Yosef breaks down, forgives his brothers, cries with them, and the enmity between them disappears.

Yehudah is the ancestor of the Mashiach ben David, the Messiah who will be the King of Israel. Yosef is the ancestor of the Mashiach ben Yosef, the other Messiah who will rebuild the Temple.  Both our political leaders and our religious leaders are examples of moral imperfection, and the accompanying responsibility to be aware of that imperfection and to make amends for it.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Aaron Shub

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