"Decree on the Community vs. Decree on the Individual"
Summarized by Danny Orenbuch
"And Yehuda approached him and said, 'Please, sir, let your servant speak a word in the ears of my master.'" (Bereishit 44:18)
Rashi: "From here we learn that he (Yehuda) spoke to him (Yosef) harshly."
This seems surprising - did we not read at the end of the last parasha (44:16), "And Yehuda said: What shall we say to my master; what shall we speak and how shall we justify ourselves? The Lord has found the sin of your servants; behold - we are slaves to my master, both we and he in whose hand the goblet was found."
Here Yehuda is neither arguing nor making any effort to save Binyamin. Instead, he accepts the verdict and offers to sell himself and his brothers into slavery to Yosef. Why, then, is it specifically now, when Yosef refuses to take up the offer and insists that only he in whose hand the goblet was found will serve him, that Yehuda suddenly jumps to Binyamin's defense and presents his emotional speech?
At the beginning of Hilkhot Ta'anit (1:1-2), the Rambam writes:
"It is a positive mitzva from the Torah to cry out and to blow the trumpets for any trouble which befalls the community... such that all will know that they are suffering because of their evil deeds..."
While it is obvious that when trouble befalls the community, it represents a punishment which comes as a result of the evil deeds of the community, in the case of the individual this is not always so. Such is the line adopted by the Ramban in his commentary on the Book of Iyov (Job), chapter 36, where he divides mankind into three categories. The first category includes the righteous people, who are deserving of God's perpetual watchfulness:
"And for this reason He watches over the righteous, for just as their hearts and eyes are always turned towards Him, so His eyes (as it were) are upon them from the beginning of the year until the end of the year... so much so that the completely righteous individual ... is continually protected from all temporal accidents and incidents, even those which occur naturally, and miraculously avoids them." (36:7)
The wicked, in contrast, have no such protection:
"And he who in his thoughts and actions reflects distance from God will not even be put to death for his sins (which make him deserving of such a fate), but will be abandoned and left to circumstance." (ibid.)
The third - and by far the largest - category includes those who are neither righteous nor wicked, and who are sometimes deserving of Divine protection and sometimes not.
Now we can understand the change in Yehuda's approach. So long as he believed that the decree fell on all the brothers, on the community as a whole, he felt certain that this was a punishment sent from God (as explained above in the Rambam). And if this was their Divinely-ordained fate, then they had no choice but to bear it. But when it became apparent that Yosef sought to apply his verdict to Binyamin alone, an individual, then it became possible that this was not a Divine decree at all but rather a regular, incidental event. If this was the case, then possibly the situation could be changed, and this prompted him to deliver his speech before Yosef.
(Originally delivered on Shabbat Parashat 5753.
Translated by Kaeren Fish.)
Copyright (c) 1996 Yeshivat Har Etzion. All rights reserved.