Parshas Vayigash.




In the beginning of this parsha, the Torah describes a long monologue where Yehuda is persuading the viceroy (Yosef) to accept himself as a slave instead of Binyamin. The Ramban (44:19) questions the purpose of all this long speech[1]; what Yehuda said was already known to Yosef. Moreover, if Binyamin’s deserves the punishment what’s Yehuda’s whole appeal? Yosef had treated them very kindly until Binyamin stole his goblet, and even now Yosef extended his kindness as far as not punishing the entire group and not sentencing Binyamin to death. 




This meeting of Yehuda and Yosef is a continuation of events described at the end of the last parsha. When pursued, the brothers declared themselves to be innocent and said that if the goblet is found in their possession, they will all be slaves and the one in whose bag it is found will die. The answer they received was that it will be like they said, only the one in whose bag the goblet is found will be a slave. The Ramban (44:10) explains their conversation. In general, when many people are found stealing, they are either all guilty, or just one of them committed the crime without the others knowing. According to their words, the only one who stole is the one in whose possession the goblet is found. This means that they claimed they did not know of the stealing, otherwise the judgment they passed on themselves should be the same, either they all should die or all become slaves. This is why they were told: “it will be like you said”. I will give you the benefit of the doubt that only one of you is at fault. However I will soften the judgment as compared to what you yourselves offered. The thief will be a slave while you will not be punished.


Later, when the goblet was found and the brothers came to Yosef, they said they will all be slaves. Yosef again stated that only Binyamin will be his slave and they should all go home in peace. After Yosef soften the judgment considerably, Yehuda prepared to beseech for even further mitigation of the verdict.


The Malbim (44:18) writes that in general, there are two types of judgments. A regular judge has to follow the rules and laws that were set up. There is however a second way of judging, where the judge may act with extra compassion or take into account the factors that are usually not considered[2]. For example, if the one being judged is a father of a poor family and they have no other means of support, locking him in prison will affect those who are not at fault. A kind judge may take this factor into account and replace the imprisonment by a lighter punishment[3]. This second kind of judgment can not be used by just anybody. Only a king or a very important official is granted special powers to use his own discretion and include various considerations and feelings in his judgment.


Yehuda realized that he won’t be able to win the argument if he asked to be judged according to the letter of the law. Since such circumstantial evidence as finding the goblet in Binyamin’s sack was considered overwhelming, the judges assembled with Yosef would only consider it proper to punish Binyamin. Yehuda therefore approached Yosef alone, trying to persuade him to use the second type of judgment. He started by saying that he is speaking only to Yosef (not to the other judges) for Yosef is like Pharaoh himself, i.e. he has the authority to judge not according to the letter of the law. He asked Yosef not to get angry, for his request is not to twist judgment but rather to exercise the unique privilege of judging according to principles of kindness.


The Malbim now quotes sefer Akeidas Yitzchak (30:23) that Yehuda was asking Yosef to pass a lenient sentence for three reasons. First of all, according to the principles of kindness, a weaker person should not be judged the same way as a strong one. For example, if the penalty for a certain violation is 20 lashes, a weak person might simply die if the punishment is administered. Secondly, if the punishment of the transgressor can cause somebody else’s death, the principles of kindness dictate that the sentence should be altered. At last, if the one who was affected by the crime is the judge himself, it’s in his power to partially forgive and change the punishment.


Thus Yehuda started by saying that Binyamin is a weak child, the youngest one, who is accustomed to special love and care. He is the only living child of his mother, for his maternal brother died, and his father loves him more than anybody else. He is not a kind of child that can bear the yoke of slavery and can easily die under such conditions! Yehuda mentioned that Binyamin’s father will die if he finds out what happened to his favorite son. According to the principles of mercy, their father does not deserve such a cruel punishment for he did not do anything wrong.


Now Yehuda was explaining how Binyamin was only brought to Egypt at Yosef’s request. Since Yosef decreed that they can not see his face without bringing the younger brother, they had absolutely no choice but to bring him. Had Yosef declared that they should never see his face at all, they would still have a hope of coming before him and beseeching him for mercy. But since Yosef said that they can only come to him together with Binyamin, they had no other possible course of action: if they come without Binyamin, he would simply send them back until Binyamin is brought.


Since it is through Yosef that Binyamin was brought to Egypt in the first place, it is only proper that he should do his outmost protecting him. The reason for this is that it is not good for one to be the cause of harm to other people even indirectly[4]. If not for Yosef, Binyamin would never be brought to Egypt and these terrible events would not be happening.


At last, Yehuda asked Yosef to change the verdict since the crime committed only affected himself. Moreover, he would not even loose anything. Since Yehuda is stronger and better equipped to handle slavery, he will be a better replacement for Binyamin. And if Yosef asks why he is volunteering for this, Yehuda explained that he is the guarantor for Binyamin’s safety. Had the guarantee been given to Binyamin himself, Yosef could claim that he had forfeited his rights when he committed theft. However the guarantee was to their father and therefore it still holds true. Rather than being a sinner before his father forever, Yehuda would prefer to be Yosef’s slave.


At this point time came for Yosef to reveal himself. After explaining who he is, he immediately jumped into action. He instantly sent his brothers to bring his father and the rest of the family to Egypt. He was also given Pharaoh’s permission to send carriages (agalos) for transportation. According to our sages (Bereyshis Raba 94:3 brought in Rashi 45:27) the carriages would serve as a testimony to Yakov that Yosef remained righteous even while living in immoral Egyptian society. The reason was that the last mitzvah Yakov was teaching Yosef before they were separated was the mitzvah of “eglah[5] arufa”. Thus Yosef would hint to his father that he still remembers his teachings. This mitzvah is performed when an assassinated body is found outside a city and the identity of the murder can not be discovered. Most likely Yakov was thinking about it many times after he was told that Yosef was killed: “How could I let him go alone? This was a sign from Heaven, I should have realized this. The last halacha I taught him is the law of the one murdered outside the city!” Now that the “agalos” were brought to Yakov, his spirit was renewed. The agalos may have been a sign that Yosef will be considered dead for a long time, but he is still alive.


Yakov knew that a difficult exile lies ahead of his children. He realized that by coming to Egypt he will be preparing a path for successive exiles, (this is why he sent Yehuda ahead to prepare the first Yeshiva, see Rashi 46:28 in the name of Midrash Tanchuma, Vayigash, 11). The Ramban and Rabeinu Bachye (47:28) write that Yakov’s exile to Egypt was a prelude to our exile to Rome[6]. The exile to Egypt happened because of the feud between brothers, and Romans gained control over Israel because of the fighting between two brothers who both wanted to be kings and brought Rome as an arbiter[7]. Moreover, the war that ended in the destruction of the Temple also was started through the last king seeking Roman help to put down other Jews[8]. Our sages (Talmud, Yoma 9b) thus teach that the second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred. We have been in exile for almost two thousand years, but even during the darkest times we knew that just as the Torah predicted our punishments, so too it predicts our return and restoration[9]. And every day we will continue to hope for Moshiach’s quick coming!


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[1] Rashi on these verses follows the Midrashim (Bereyshis Raba 93:6; Tanchuma, Vayigash, 5) and explains that certain words of Yehuda were actually warnings and even hidden threats. However, according to the level of peshat (simple meaning) most commentators (Rashbam, Ramban, Sforno, Ohr Hachaim Hakodesh, Haemek Davar) agree that Yehuda was only appealing for mercy.


[2] This is a known concept, see for example the GR”A to Megilas Ester, 1:13. Achashveirosh asks his counselors, “who know the times” to give him advice as to how to judge queen Vashti. The GR”A explains the expression “who know the times” to mean that they judge according to the need of the time, not according to the letter of the law. In this case, since the judgment pertained to the royal queen, it was important to take that into consideration!


[3] Our sages mention in particular that all the judgments of the “Heavenly Court” in fact consider other factors.

[4] See Talmud, Sanhedrin 95a. Even though Dovid was not at all at fault that the city of Nov was destroyed, since he caused this indirectly, he needed atonement. See also Teshuvos Mahariv, 125; Teshuvos Maharam Milublin, 44; Teshuvos Node Beyehuda Kama, Orach Chaim 34; Teshuvos Tzemach Tzedeck Hakadmon, 93; Teshuvos Vehanhagos 1:823, Beer Heitiv, 603:1 regarding repentance and atonement of different people who accidentally and indirectly caused someone’s death.


[5] The word egla (young cow) is spelled the same way as the word carriage, possibly because a carriage is usually pulled by oxen.


[6] In fact, according to Ramban, the three forefathers prepared the exiles to the three countries their children were sent to. Avraham’s decent to Egypt prepared our decent to Egypt. Yitzchak’s decent to the land of Plishtim was a prelude to the Babylonian exile. Yakov and his family went to Egypt forming the path of our exile to Rome.


[7] See Rashi on Shir Hashirim 6:12. See also Talmud, Menachos 64b.


[8] See Doros Harishonim, “Hamilchama Bechlal”.


[9] See Talmud, Makos 24b.