Two paradigms: Yosef and Yehuda
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TorahParshat Vayigash

Two paradigms: Yosef and Yehuda

Genesis 44:18 – 47-27

(File photo)
(File photo)

This week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, represents the final act in a drama between Yosef and his siblings. Yosef had demanded that his brothers set Binyamin before him in order to buy food for their families. Their father, Yaakov, first refuses this request, but finally complies. The brothers bring Binyamin down to Egypt and Yosef gives them grain. However, before the brothers can return home, Binyamin is accused of theft and Yosef claims him as his slave.

At this point, Yehuda steps forward. He recounts their journeys. He describes his father’s love for Binyamin. Then he begs, “So now, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go up with his brothers.” In response, Yosef breaks character and reveals himself to his stunned siblings.

What made Yosef change his mind? He wasn’t moved earlier when Yehuda described the effect that Binyamin’s capture would have on his father before. So why should Yehuda’s final plea, “For how can I go up to my father when the boy is not me,” change Yosef’s mind?

One possible answer is that Yosef wasn’t convinced by something that Yehuda said, but by something that Yehuda did.

According to our sages, Yosef and Yehuda represent two paradigms. Yosef represents the righteous individual. He was able to descend to Egypt, a place of immorality and superstition, and not be affected. Yehuda is the paradigm of the baal teshuva, someone who has overcome challenges.

There are various levels of teshuva. On the most fundamental level, it means taking responsibility for one’s actions and expressing remorse. Yet there is a higher level of teshuva, which involves rectifying the misdeed to the point where it becomes like a merit. Who was responsible for Yosef being sold as a slave? Yehuda! Now Yehuda was begging for the chance to become a slave! And to whom? Yosef!

Yet this episode isn’t just about Yehuda and Yosef. It centers on the youngest of Yaakov’s sons,’ Binyamin. Yehuda was willing to sacrifice his personal freedom, his future with his own family, and even his ability to see his father again to save Binyamin from such a fate.

Yosef was unable to withstand Yehuda’s higher level of teshuva and his self-sacrifice for Binyamin, as the Torah testifies: “Yosef could not abide the presence of all those standing around him, so he announced ‘Remove every man from my presence.’ Thus, no man stood in Yosef’s presence when he made himself known to his brothers.” In other words, Yosef was no longer second in command to Pharoah, king of Egypt. He was no longer the nation’s director of food distribution. He was no longer Egypt’s representative to the world. Yehuda’s sincerity and conviction empowered Yosef to reveal his true identity: “I am Yosef!” he says simply.

The Zohar states that in the future, Moshiach (Jewish messiah) will make the tzadikim (perfectly) righteous do teshuva. If a person is a tzadik, he has no sins. So why does he need repentance/return? While he has no need to repent for a sin, he can always deepen his relationship with his Creator.

Moshiach will empower the tzadik and every individual to break through their boundaries and to get “in touch” with the Divine. Knowing this, we can answer two further questions.

There are three names given to the Jewish people: Hebrews, after the term iverim, referring to “those on the other side of the river”; Bnai Yisroel, after Yaakov’s second name; and, most commonly, Yehudim, or Jews, after Yehuda.
Yehuda is related to the word lehodot, meaning “to thank, or praise” as well as to “admit.” In essence, it describes a process of communication and unification — not just with another person, but with Hashem. More than any other name, Yehuda describes who we really are.

The second question is: Why does Moshiach come from Yehuda rather than Yosef or any of the other tribes? One answer can be found in the spelling of Yehuda. In Hebrew, it is spelled yud, hey, vav, daled, hey. Notice that Yehuda contains the four letters of Hashem’s Supernal name that is not pronounced, along with the letter daled. More than any other name, Yehuda reflects the intrinsic relationship we have to the Creator. Currently, that relationship is hidden by the Hebrew letter daled, referring to four spiritual worlds, from the highest and most G-d-like down to our material world. When Moshiach is revealed, we will experience Divinity symbolized by the four letters of Yehuda’s name with our physical eyes. May it occur immediately. PJC

Rabbi Yossi Rosenblum is CEO of Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh and rabbi of Congregation Kesser Torah.

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