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Parashat Miketz

August 17, 2006

By Yechiel Buchband

I have long loved the saga of Yosef in Sefer B’reshit. For me, the most beloved person in the story is Yehuda. I love his story of personal development, growth and redemption, which serves as a beautiful counterpoint to the story of Yosef. Early on he took a leading role in the sale of Yosef and denied Tamar the right of Yibbum to which she was entitled. By the end of the story, he is clearly the leader of the brothers, another late-born yet preeminent son (like Yitzhak and Ya’akov).

To my mind, Yehudah’s defining moment is not the famed address before Yosef (which is certainly moving and memorable), which opens Parshat VaYigash, but rather the earlier, far shorter text (Gen. 43:8-9) in which he convinces his father Yisrael to allow him and his brothers to take Binyamin with them in order to return to Egypt, redeem Shim’on, and purchase food for the family. Yisrael is loath to let them take Binyamin with them to Egypt, fearing for his safety; he has already (so he believes) lost Rachel’s eldest son, their beloved first-born Yosef, and’as Yehudah points out later in the famed speech in VaYigash (Gen. 44:30-31)’could not possibly bear the loss of Binyamin. Yehudah says to Yisrael his father,

Shilhah hana’ar itiy V’naqumah v’nalkhah v’nihyeh v’lo namut gam anahnu gam atah gam tapeinu. Anokhi e’ervenu miyadiy tevaqshenu im lo haviotiv eilekha v’hitsagtiv lefanekha v’hatati lekha kol hayamim.

This short text speaks to me in many ways. First, it is an argument that clearly favors life over death, survival over unnecessary loss of life. Yehudah’s words are clearly to be contrasted with those spoken by Re’uven (Gen. 42:37), who in an identical situation sought to convince Yisrael to let him take Binyamin to Egypt, by saying,

Et shenei vanai tamit im lo avienu eilekha

The thrust of the entire saga of Yosef and his brothers is the affirmation of life’Yosef’s triumph over the pit, Ya’akov’s triumph over the loss of his beloved child, and the triumph of B’ney-Yisrael and all humankind over Death in the form of famine. Even before we became a people and were only one family, survival was a central issue and value. Yosef would later express this basic thrust of the story with expressions such as (Gen. 45:3,5, 50:20):

Ha’od avi hai? Ki l’mihiah shelahani elohim lifneikhem.

L’ma’an ‘asoh kayom hazeh l’hahayot ‘am rav.

Clearly Yehudah’s line of thinking is in tune with the high value the Torah places on life, and puts him head and shoulders above Re’uven (the biological firstborn), who offers up the potential killing of his two sons (Yisrael’s grandsons?!) as proof of his responsibility. But his words (see above, Gen. 42:37) are those of a reckless person, not of a responsible one. It is Yehudah who takes true personal resonsibility, offering himself as a kind of ‘Eravon. Once again the Torah’s words help us make the appropriate connection, and understand the significance of this eravon. This ‘pledge’ has appeared only once before (in Gen. 38:17-20), in the context of Yehudah’s personal identifying items, which he left with Tamar. So the expression ‘eravon’ is closely identified with the story of Yehudah and Tamar.

So now, here in Parshat Miketz, why is Yehudah’s personal ‘Eravon so convincing to Yisrael? Because he makes this promise with his whole being, his whole life experience. As a bereaved father (Yehudah has lost his first two sons in Parshat VaYeshev, Gen. 38:7-10) who knows the immense pain of losing a child, Yehudah is telling his father that he will do everything humanly possible to save him from the pain of losing a second beloved child. Later in the story, Yehudah is forced to keep this promise and offers to pay the ‘Eravon and protect Binyamin by sacrificing his own freedom (Gen. 44:32-33).

Yehudah, laden with remorse and wisened by the pain of bereavement, has grown immensely in spirit from the utilitarian youth who proposed getting rid of Yosef by selling him into slavery (Gen. 37:26):

Mah betsa ki naharog et aheinu v’khisinu et damo? L’khu v’nimkerenu layishma’elim.

Yehudah has evolved into a veritable moral forefather, worthy of emulation by every Jew who bears his name Yehudah-Yehudi. He inspires me to want to grow, to use my experiences good and bad to develop into a better person, a wiser Jew, a more compassionate brother and son’to seek to achieve redemption (as I believe he did) in this my only lifetime here on earth.