Vayigash 12-6-2013

Post date: Dec 14, 2013 10:37:18 AM

Dear Haverim,

Shelli, Miriam and I just saw the sequel to the Hunger Games. It turns out to be the same story that opens this week's Torah portion!

This week's perasha (Torah passage) is Vayigash. I cried when reading it, as I often have in the past, it is so moving.

At the end of last week's perasha, through Joseph's deception, Benjamin was caught stealing. Only Joseph knew it was a set-up. He stated that he would detain Benjamin, and told the remaining brothers to return to their father.

It is at this point that Judah steps forward. He had promised their father Jacob that he would protect Benjamin with his own life if it came to that, and this is when he has every intention of fulfilling that promise.

Judah is in Joseph's territory, with Joseph's guards all around. He is at such a tactical disadvantage that he can not expect any physical confrontation to end any way but disastrously. That would be opposite the outcome he needs. But Judah is not dissuaded. He proceeds to tell Joseph the whole story of why he can not face their father without his brother Benjamin, confiding in the process, the ruse they had used those many years before about Joseph's disappearance, i.e., that a beast tore Joseph apart.

Judah's language seems like that of a contrite toad... referring both to himself and to Jacob repeatedly as "Your servant." You would think that Judah was licking the bottom of Joseph's sandal, he was so contrite. But the first word of the perasha, Vayigash, betrays a different truth.

Vayigash is translated variously as "walked up" ("Judah walked up to [Joseph]"), or "came near" ("Judah came near to [Joseph]"), or "went up" ("Judah went up to [Joseph]"). But there are Hebrew words for all these terms - "Vayelech" (walked up), "Vayikrov" (came near), "Vayaale" (went up). So this word, Vayigash troubled me. What did Judah actually do when faced with that untenable prospect of losing his second brother at another man's hand?

In modern Hebrew, the related word, "Nagesh", means to prepare oneself for or to participate in a competition. The reflexive form of the verb means to serve oneself up for a competition or an exam.

In this subtle way, the Torah tells us that Judah realized this situation was a test. And that is exactly what it was. Judah was prepared to do whatever it took to pass that test. In this case, it took his impassioned plea to Joseph to offer himself up in Benjamin's stead (the reflexive verb). But there was no mistaking Judah's intention. He was either going to succeed or die trying.

Another hint indicating this understanding is the way Judah starts his soliloquy. He asks Joseph to hear his petition, but he doesn't wait for Joseph's response! He asks permission, then starts right on talking, and doesn't stop until he has been heard, to the last word!

Judah's sincere passion proves too much for Joseph. He reveals his identity to his brothers and bursts into a wailing sob so loud, that the entire palace could hear him! Joseph was testing his brothers, but the student surpassed the teacher. He had no idea just how much Judah not only reformed himself, but had become a formidable champion and protector of the family.

It is not often that we are confronted with such a stark test. It is even rarer to find someone with the moral character to stand the test. Wouldn't it have been so much easier for Judah to escape with his life, perhaps start a new family? And yet, we would not be the "Yehudim" (Jews) had it not been for "Yehudah" (Judah). And it is this moral character, not just fighting, but fighting for what is right, that defines us as Yehudim.

Stories are how we learn. Whether it's the modern dystopian fiction of the Hunger Games, in which the heroin Catness learns to find her moral character despite the corrupt test she is forced to endure, or our ancient story of Judah, who started as a man who would take his brother's life, but grew to be a man who would sacrifice himself to save his brother's life. Our stories are how we learn what to do when it is time for our own test.

May we be ready.

Shabbat shalom,