Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Yigash 5766/ January 7, 2006

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



Judah - Portrait of a Leader


Esther Feldmar




The weekly readings of Va-Yeshev, Mi-Ketz and Va-Yigash introduce the reader to Judah, one of the more prominent sons of Jacob.  In three events, set in different times and places, Judah’s deliberate involvement in the family dynamics becomes increasingly evident; he is a figure who plays a central role in the drama that unfolds around his brother Joseph.

The first event takes place in Dothan (Gen. 37:18-27), and concludes when Joseph is sold to the Ishmaelites at Judah’s suggestion.  Judah’s second intervention takes place in Jacob’s house, where Judah succeeds in removing his father’s opposition to send Benjamin along with the brothers who were to go down to Egypt a second time (Gen. 43:1-10). The final appearance is staged in Joseph’s palace (Gen. 44:14-19), when Judah delivers his oration to save Benjamin. [1]   In all three instances Judah is the one who brings about a turn in the course of events, even when it seems that the situation is hopeless; and in each of these events Judah displays both understanding and courage.  Although he is not the first-born, he assumes responsibility.   He foresees what is coming and understands that he must succeed in foiling the brothers’ design to kill Joseph, and must obtain permission for Benjamin to go down to Egypt, otherwise his family will be wiped out.

Judah’s Approach

It would seem that Judah times his entrance and interventions whenever the brothers or the family are about to become embroiled in conflict. With his carefully-considered, sensible words he exhibits his rhetorical ability, which finds expression especially in his great speech to Joseph. From Judah’s words we learn that he had been opposed to killing Joseph from the outset, but had not wanted to assume leadership openly in the presence of his first-born brother Reuben, and certainly, at least at that stage, could not enter outright confrontation with his brothers, who were extremely worked up at seeing Joseph.  Reuben, upon whom rested responsibility for the safety and well-being of his brothers, tried with great caution to save Joseph, warning the brothers lest they become tainted as professional murderers.  He refrained from expressing any emotional ties to Joseph, [2] getting them to agree that casting him into a pit would also achieve their objective.  Judah knew that only after their fury had waned, only after they had thrown Joseph into the pit and had finished eating, had the appropriate time come for him to take action.   What he said was carefully thought out and based on rational and emotional considerations alike.

He addressed his brothers directly with a logical question:  “What do we gain by killing our brother and covering up his blood?” (Gen. 37:26); in other words, what benefit would we derive from Joseph’s death and all the lies we would have to invent, always being cautious about what we say, so as not to reveal the terrible secret. Moreover, twice Judah stressed the family bond between them. [3]   They were brothers, and killing Joseph would place a weighty moral sin on them.  They must not lay their hands on Joseph (and not just any hand, as Reuben had said), since harming a brother was like harming themselves, “after all, he is our brother, our own flesh” (Gen. 37:27).   “He” – meaning our brother Joseph, son of our father, just as we all are his sons, and not “that” person, hallazeh– someone who is haughty and despicable, someone who should be killed.

Leader and Spokesman

In listening to Judah and accepting what he said we see the brothers’ acknowledgment of his gifts of leadership.   The brothers consented to be led by someone who was fit to be their leader, [4] and so Judah became the leader and spokesman of the brothers.   He was the one who subsequently led the argument with his father to convince him to send Benjamin down to Egypt, and he and no other took personal responsibility for Benjamin, promising to return him to Jacob safe and sound (Gen. 43:3-9).   It appears that the biblical narrator already recognized Judah’s leadership.

When the brothers, accused of stealing Joseph’s goblet, were brought back to the palace, Scripture notes that “Judah and his brothers reentered the house of Joseph” (Gen. 44:14), not simply “the brothers reentered the house of Joseph.”  Moreover, the one who addressed Joseph was Judah, not Benjamin, in whose sack the goblet had been found. Normally, he should have been the one claiming innocence and pleading for his life.

Judah understood that G-d was repaying them measure for measure and that they would have to pay the price.  But since he could not return to his father without Benjamin, he proposed that they all remain as slaves to Joseph.  Joseph rejected his proposition with feigned righteousness:   “Far be it from me to act thus” (Gen. 44:17). He ostensibly commuted the thief’s death sentence, substituting slavery, as Judah had proposed.  But what is more, he pretended to show them even greater beneficence by taking a more lenient line than the law required and releasing all the brothers save for Benjamin, who would remain with him.

Judah’s Challenge

At this point the plot reaches a further climax.   Given the situation which emerged, not one of the brothers could repeat a second time the bereavement they had once caused their father.  Also, Judah, who had assumed personal responsibility for Benjamin, could not live with the feeling that he had sinned towards his father.   Thus Judah was faced with a frightening challenge.  On the one hand, he knew full well that the dignitary had been playing around with them and had trumped up false charges against them; on the other, he was facing a ruler who could be very dangerous to him, and so he had to exercise self-control and choose his words with the utmost caution.

Judah knew that he was facing a difficult challenge and assumed responsibility for the well-being of his father and of his brothers.   Applying his rhetorical talent, he structured his speech intelligently, step after step, creating a progression of tense moments that dissolved naturally, their intention being to persuade the dignitary, Joseph, of his mistake, but primarily to arouse his mercy.

Judah addressed Joseph and requested to be heard, speaking in humble and flattering terms.  Judah was extremely careful to show respect for the ruler.  He assiduously addressed him only as “master,” while referring to himself, his brothers, and his father as “servants.”  First Judah presented an overview of what had happened to him and his brothers up to the current moment (verses 18-29).  This was not just a factual report of the sequence of events, but the plaintive cry of a person who had himself, along with his brothers, suffered a series of acts of deliberate and unreasonable harassment.  For what connection was there between Joseph’s accusation that they were spies, and Judah’s statement that they were ten or eleven brothers, except to arouse Joseph’s sympathy?

An Appeal for Mercy

Judah appealed to Joseph’s emotions in order to rouse his mercy for their father, and stressed the father’s advanced years and deep emotional bond with the youngest brother. Four times he repeats the phrase that the father’s life is bound with that of the younger brother, and emphasizes that separating the two would lead to the father’s death.  He included in his speech the personal confession that Jacob had disclosed to his sons in his hour of distress – “As you know, my wife bore me two sons” (Gen. 44:27).   Judah knew that even the most stubborn of men would not be able to withstand the idea of an elderly father who all his life has been longing for his beloved lost son; indeed, Judah repeated the expression “elderly father” fourteen times, making it the central leitmotif of his speech.  He concluded his words with the heart-rending cry, “For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me?  Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father” (Gen. 44:34).   To the anguish of the elderly father we must add Judah’s anguish; he cannot face the suffering that would be caused to his father, when the person causing that pain, according to Judah’s intimations, was their brother Joseph.

[1] Judah is mentioned one other time in Genesis, in chapter 38.   Unlike the three cases we have cited, in the story of Judah and Tamar he is not the one who takes the initiative, rather the one who becomes embroiled in difficulties and is extricated from the situation by Tamar.

[2] Reuben, who attempted to save Joseph, did not mention the biological connection between them even once, in contrast to Judah, who emphasized that they were brothers, all born of the same father.

[3] It is interesting to compare how the biblical narrator presents Reuben as opposed to Judah.   Regarding Reuben the Bible says, “And Reuben went on …” (Gen. 37:22), whereas when Judah speaks, the biblical narrator says, “Then Judah said to his brothers …” (Gen. 37:26).   This expression may attest to a closer relationship between Judah and his brothers than between Reuben and his brothers. Perhaps Reuben was somewhat distanced from his brothers because he was the first-born.

[4] The seal, cord, and staff which he gave to Tamar might have indicated elevated social status. They hint that Judah had won recognition of his leadership among the brothers, an alternative status symbol to Joseph’s ornamented tunic.