Parashat Vayigash

By Susan Elkodsi

In Parashat Vayigash we witness the emotional reunion of Joseph and his brothers, and ultimately Joseph’s reunion with his father. Initially, it appears that the parashah’s focus is on Joseph, the man who saves his family during the time of great famine. But I believe that Judah is the ‘hero’ of the story, and with the benefit of hindsight, that history supports this. In time, Judah becomes one of the promised land’s mighty nations. We, the Jewish people, get our name from him as well. What makes Judah deserving of this honor and ultimate legacy? After all, Judah was the brother responsible for selling Joseph to the Ishmaelite traders, and presumably he who showed Jacob the blood-stained tunic, allowing him to jump to the conclusion that his favorite son had been eaten by a beast.

As we see, a lot can happen in 22 years. Consider that for all this time Judah has lived with the knowledge of the pain he has caused his father. Perhaps this is why, at the beginning of Vayigash, it is Judah who is making an impassioned plea for Benjamin’s release and offering to be enslaves in his stead.

The text begins, ‘vayigash elav Yehudah,‘ ‘. . . and Judah went up to him (Joseph).’ There are several interpretations of this verse. Some commentators suggest that Judah was preparing for a battle with Joseph. Bereshit Rabbah, 93:4 says that Judah drew close to Joseph physically and emotionally. The S’fat Emet understands this to say ‘Judah approached himself,’ meaning that he discovered who he really is. He has grown in this time, he has looked inward, and he has perhaps been humbled by the death of two sons and his interaction with Tamar. He is willing to give up his freedom, and possibly his life, to secure his brother’s release.

Judah can’t change the fact that his father still has a favorite son, but he can and has changed his attitude towards that knowledge. When appealing for Benjamin’s release, Judah’s concern is for his father’s well-being. Judah, the man who was once so angry with his brother that he suggested selling him to a traveling caravan, will now bring father and son together.

The text has little to say about the brothers’ relationships after the reunion, but Judah and Joseph share a special relationship in the time to come. In Parashat Vayehi Judah is the first of Jacob’s sons whose blessing is not a rebuke. Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, are the only two grandsons blessed. Later in the Tanakh, they are two of the tribes who settle the northern part of the country after the wandering in the desert – ‘bamidbar.’ Judah becomes a mighty tribe in the south.

In the haftarah for Vayigash, Ezekiel uses sticks inscribed with the names of Judah and Joseph to demonstrate God’s love for his people Israel. Bringing these sticks together, God says he will gather the Israelite people from among the nations they have gone to, and bring them to their own land (Ezek. 37:21). I believe that this particular portion of the prophets further stresses the importance of the relationship between Judah and Joseph, and enlightens us about an aspect of the Torah reading that we might not normally consider.

Judah’s actions speak of a strong commitment to his family, and emphasize the importance of speaking up and fighting for what is right. Judah has grown as an individual, he has changed, and he has learned what’s important in life. While we may never have to experience such dramatic events in our lives, I pray that we continue to grow as individuals, and strive to live up to Judah’s example.