Vayigash: Judah and Joseph

Vayigash eilav Yehudah vayomer “Bi Adoni…”

And Judah approached him and said, “By your leave, my lord…” (Gen 44:18)

This may be the most dramatic moment in the entire Book of Genesis. During the long famine, Joseph’s 11 brothers had come down to Egypt to seek provisions. Joseph, now vizier of Egypt and in charge of food distribution, recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. The last time they had seen Joseph was when they sold him into slavery to a caravan of traders 20 years ago, and there is no reason they would identify the potentate before whom they now bow as their long-lost brother.

Joseph does not trust his brothers. He tests them mercilessly to ascertain whether or not they have changed since their nearly murderous betrayal of him 20 years earlier. He forces them to bring his younger brother Benjamin with them to Egypt, against their father Jacob’s protestations. Benjamin and Joseph are the two sons of Jacob’s beloved late wife Rachel. Jacob has been grieving the loss of Joseph all these years, and doing everything he can to keep Benjamin safe and nearby. If Jacob loses Benjamin as he did Joseph, Jacob may very well die of grief. Now Joseph frames Benjamin with a crime, and blithely tells the other brothers that they can go home in peace – only the guilty party, Benjamin, will remain in servitude in Egypt.

What are the brothers to do? Will they once again abandon their kin? Will they once again dissemble to their father about their actions? They still carry the guilt of their betrayal of Joseph – “Oh, we are being punished on account of our brother [Joseph],” they had earlier said to one another, unaware that Joseph could understand their conversation (Gen.42:21).

It is at this moment that this week’s Torah portion begins. Judah musters all of his integrity and all of his courage and approaches the throne: “Vayigash eilav Yehuda – And Judah approached him.” He makes an impassioned plea for Benjamin’s release, finally offering his own life in place of Benjamin’s. Somehow Judah reaches into Joseph: “Joseph could no longer restrain himself…He cried aloud…then said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph! Is my father truly still alive?’” (Gen. 44:1-3)

The dam has broken: Joseph removes his mask, and pours out his feelings. Reconciliation is now possible, and the family will be reunited. Torah commentators throughout the ages wish to elaborate on how Judah accomplished this breakthrough. One midrash1 focuses on the multiple shades of the term vayigash, “he approached.” The midrash scans the Torah for all the places where the term vayigash is employed, and discovers that in different contexts one can approach to make peace, to do battle, or to pray. Therefore the midrash proposes that Judah approached Joseph ready for any possible outcome: he was prepared to appease, to argue, or to plead. I think the midrash is trying to tell us that Judah stepped forward with no preconceived agenda other than to connect with Joseph. Whatever that would take, Judah was prepared to do. Judah was not concerned for his own pride or physical safety, and his genuineness unlocked Joseph’s heart.

Another remarkable midrash gives us this image:

“The designs in a person’s mind are deep waters, but a person of understanding can draw them out” (Proverbs 20:5) “The designs in a person’s mind” refers to Joseph; “a person of understanding” refers to Judah. What does this resemble? A deep pit into which no one could climb down. Then a wise person came and brought a long rope that reached down to the water so he could draw from it. So was Joseph deep [in the pit], and Judah came and drew him out.2

Playing on Joseph’s memory of his brothers casting him into a pit when he was a boy, this midrash now sees Joseph as traumatized and metaphorically still inaccessible in that deep hole – stuck in the past even though he was physically lifted out many years ago. In this reading, Joseph does not know how to climb out of his psychic pain. The trials through which he puts his brothers are the distress flags that he (unconsciously?) hopes will be recognized. Judah, with his passionate and selfless approach to Joseph reaches deep down into Joseph’s frozen pain, and draws it up into the light, where it can begin to dissolve: “And Joseph could no longer restrain himself…”

Why was Judah capable of this transformative approach? I think because Judah himself had been transformed by his own journey of loss in his life. Two of his own sons had died, and as we learn in chapter 38 he too had become frozen with grief, which led him to treat his daughter-in-law Tamar with contempt. When Judah was forced to confront his own immoral behavior by Tamar, he was finally able to own his own callowness and grow into a moral and empathic man. Judah could then empathize with the pain he had caused his own father Jacob when he and his brothers had faked Joseph’s death. Judah knew that he could not cause his father such pain ever again. Judah could reach down into Joseph’s pit because Judah knew the depths of parental grief and loss from personal experience.

An aspect of the wisdom that Judah had gained is that when one recognizes the fragility and the pain that accompany every single human life, it serves as a great equalizer, eliminating external gradations of status. We are all someone’s child, we all yearn for the love that we have lost. That is, at the dramatic moment when Judah approaches the throne, he is no longer intimidated by the fearsome vizier of Egypt, but instead is approaching another human being, as an equal. Judah will be heard, and damn the consequences of talking back to the potentate. Perhaps this is why Judah was able to disarm Joseph: he approached him as a true equal.

The Hasidic teacher the Sefat Emet elaborates on this idea with an ingenious wordplay3. The Torah reads, “And Judah approached him and said, ‘Bi Adoni’ – ‘By your leave, my Lord…’ Quoting the great kabbalist Isaac Luria, the Sefat Emet points out that you could also read that phrase as “Bi Adonai”, which transforms Judah’s statement to mean, “And Judah approached him and said, ‘God is within me.’” Bi Adonai means “God is within me!” The wordplay is further amplified by Judah’s name in Hebrew: יהודה YeHUDaH. Embedded within Judah’s actual name is the name of God, YHVH! We are each and every one of us animated by a Divine spark, each and every one of us is a child of God, a child of the Ruler of All, as it were. No earthly throne or pomp should disguise this truth. At this fateful moment Judah is aware that he too is child of God, God is in him, too. Aware of his true status, he approaches Joseph the Vizier of Egypt without fear. Confronted by Judah’s full and courageous humanity, Joseph remembers his own full and courageous humanity. External appearances are abandoned, and two souls can finally meet with their pain and hope and longing expressed.

May we all be courageous like Judah, willing to take the risk of sharing our full humanity for the sake of the people we love.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan


  1. Breishit Rabbah 93:4, cited in Aviva Zornberg’s magnificent Genesis: The Beginning of Desire, p. 318
  2. Tanchuma Yashan 2, Zornberg p. 322
  3. See Arthur Green’s The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, p.67-69