Yehuda and His Brothers’ View of Their Sin Against Yosef

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Yehuda Says “It’s Me”

Parshat VaYigash opens with Yehuda’s dramatic plea to Yosef, engaging his emotions enough for him to reveal himself and bring us to the happier parts of the story. Yehuda’s first words are bi adoni, usually translated as “please, my lord,” but the word bi can also mean “in me.” Kli Yakar reads it that way, and understands Yehuda to be launching an explanation of why he is the one stepping forward, why he is the best candidate to stay back and allow Binyamin to go home to his father.

First, Kli Yakar reminds us the brothers had said to Yosef, 44;16, that God had found their sin. He says they meant their long-ago sin, were explaining to Yosef the events were coming from God, to punish them for what they had done back then. They did not specify the sin, but were clear they assumed it was the context for their predicament.

It justifies Yehuda’s taking the lion’s share of the burden. Back in 38;1, when the Torah digressed to Yehuda’s leaving the family, finding a wife, having children, and more, Rashi had said Yehuda left because the brothers blamed him for having the idea to sell Yosef. [Rashi thinks the brothers said: if you had told us to save him, we would have, an idea that sticks in my craw but is not our issue here.]

The Burdens of Yehuda’s Leadership

Yehuda’s guilt as leader provides two reasons he is the one to offer himself in his brother’s stead. First, Kli Yakar thinks it is why he was the one to guarantee Binyamin’s safety, to tell Ya’akov he would be on the hook, in this world and the next. But for his role in the sale of Yosef, Hashem would not have put them in the position of needing to bring Binyamin.

Second, Ya’akov’s resistance to sending Binyamin, his extracting such a serious promise from Yehuda, was only because he had already lost Yosef. Had Yehuda not led that sale, even had they had to bring Binyamin for some reason, Ya’akov would not have been as hesitant. It fell to Yehuda to put his share in the World to Come on the line because he had pushed the sale, he bears the guilt, it is therefore fitting he be the slave, not the innocent Binyamin.

For Kli Yakar, Yehuda explains his motives to Yosef with a broader context than we might see ourselves. He was the leader in the long-ago sin that put them there that day, was the reason their father had refused to send Binyamin right away, was the best candidate for who deserved the punishment of lifelong slavery.

And Yehuda accepted all that in this moment, Kli Yakar hears him saying.

An Only Temporary Switch

Hatam Sofer re-reads Yehuda’s speech more radically. He finds it inconceivable [yes, the word means what I think it means] that Yehuda proposed exchanging himself for Binyamin, an idea he is sure any rule would find insulting. As if this ruler’s just punishment of a criminal could be traded for whoever volunteered.

Therefore, Hatam Sofer assumes Yehuda was suggesting staying there as collateral, only to allow his brother to return to Canaan for the sole purpose of telling his father what had happened. Otherwise, Ya’akov would die in agony, a second son of his having disappeared with no explanation.

Hatam Sofer surprises me by saying Binyamin would tell Ya’akov he had stolen from the king’s house [the verse tells us he didn’t]; Ya’akov, a supremely honest man (Hatam Sofer refers to Ya’akov being called an ish tam, 25;27; the translations I found online render it in terms of versions of quiet, mild, peaceful, but Hatam Sofer is translating it to mean honest, offended by dishonesty), would not allow his relative, even his beloved Binyamin, to get away with that. To support his reading, he points to Yehuda’s saying Binyamin ya’al, would go up with, his brothers, a word Hatam Sofer understands to mean a brief return.

[I don’t feel so comfortable questioning Hatam Sofer, both because he was a giant of Torah and because I find his version of derush often questionable, and do not want to spend the rest of this year harping on what I find problematic. I do think it is worth laying out the assumptions he makes without obvious textual or traditional sourcing:

1) Yehuda fully swapping himself for Binyamin was a nonstarter. Had Yehuda been suggesting such an idea, he would have been insulting Yosef. 2) Hearing from Binyamin in person that he was going to prison/servitude for life would have eased Ya’akov’s pain significantly. 3) Binyamin would have told Ya’akov he did steal the cup. 4) The verb of aliyah indicates a less permanent stay than other verbs.

All those are necessary steps for Hatam Sofer’s reading, Yehuda offered himself only to be collateral for Binyamin’s return.]

Not All the Brothers Got It

If Hatam Sofer couldn’t accept that Yehuda was suggesting a permanent switch, Ha’amek Davar is similarly unsure all the brothers had accepted how wrong they were. He notices Yosef consoles his brothers, 45;5, says not to be sad, te’atzevu, nor to let the matter bother them, yehar be-einechem. Sadness comes when people have acted in ways they wish they had not, where yehar be-einechem is when others do bad to us [already interesting, because online translations think the phrase means to be angry with oneself].

Ha’amek Davar assumes Yosef intuited a split among the brothers, some now aware they should never have sold him, others wishing only they had sold him to a place he could not have risen to such a powerful position. Yosef addresses both groups, says it was from God, to provide food to live, and henah, here, even though you think another place would have been better.

He is not willing to go all the way with his idea, because the brothers had come to Egypt dedicated to finding and redeeming Yosef. Too, Yosef speaks of it not being bad in their eyes, where the verb harah usually attaches to a reference to the person, harah lechaharah lachem. He says the brothers, in retrospect, were annoyed with themselves for thinking it through poorly, and Yosef was telling them their thoughts were in error, because God had wanted him here.

In Va-Yigash, Kli Yakar thinks Yehudah was taking more responsibility than the simple reading shows, Hatam Sofer thinks he was offering less than the verses seem to say, and Ha’amek Davar thinks some of the brothers were kicking themselves for having handled their original crime less effectively than they could have.

About Gidon Rothstein

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