The Leadership of Yehuda (II)

  • Rabbanit Sharon Rimon
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion

This parasha series is dedicated
Le-zekher Nishmat HaRabanit Chana bat HaRav Yehuda Zelig zt"l.






This shiur is dedicated in memory of Stanley (Yisrael Menachem ben Chaim Meir) Fuchs – whose yahrzeit is yud aleph Tevet.



The Leadership of Yehuda (II)

By Rabbanit Sharon Rimon


Last week's shiur concluded with the question: Why is Yaakov not convinced by Reuven's words, why does he not send Binyamin with him, while later on he is persuaded by Yehuda, and is prepared to allow the brothers to take Binyamin with them to Egypt?




Perhaps Reuven's timing was wrong. The brothers have just returned, with a fearful account of what they endured in Egypt. Yaakov has not yet had time to digest what has happened and to think logically. This is not the time to pressure him; he should be left alone to calm down and to consider his options. In addition, the brothers have just brought food from Egypt, and so Yaakov is in no hurry to send Binyamin. When all the food is finished he will understand that there is no choice, and he will agree to send him. Hence, it is possible that Yaakov agrees to Yehuda's offer (43:3-5) while refusing Reuven's offer simply because of their respective timing. This, too, is an important quality: to know when to say something to a person so that he will accept the message rather than opposing it.


Content and Style


But is Reuven's offer rejected only because of its timing?


His offer contains two problematic aspects. Firstly, what does he mean by offering that his own two sons be slain? Is this supposed to calm and comfort Yaakov; will this help him? As Rashi comments:


"He did not accept Reuven's words. He said: What a foolish firstborn son. He suggests that his own sons be slain – as if they are only his children, and not my grandchildren!"


What Reuven means, obviously, is to make an oath – typically undertaken "by the life of" a close relative - the intention being to promise that he will do everything in his power to fulfill his oath because he does not want his own sons to die.[1] But even with the best of intentions, one has to know how to say something in such a way that it will be accepted by the listener.[2] The very idea of suggestion that his sons be slain is most peculiar, but for Yaakov it touches an especially sensitive nerve. He is suffering in his bereavement: Yosef is gone, Shimon is gone, he is worried about Binyamin; is the the idea that his grandsons, too, might die the best that Reuven can offer him?!


In addition, Reuven presents his case in the negative, "Slay my two sons," instead of focusing on the positive aspect of his commitment. If he would say: "Give him into my hand and I shall return him to you," and only afterwards utter his oath, the whole proposal would sound better. If he would first emphasize his commitment to bringing Binyamin home, perhaps Yaakov would accept it. But Reuven starts off by first emphasizing the negative, the worst-case scenario that will come about if Binyamin does not return.


Thus, Reuven states his oath with good intentions; he means to promise his father that he will make every effort to return Binyamin safely. But the timing of his proposal, along with the over-the-top style that serves only to highlight the danger, deter Yaakov even more strongly: "My son shall not go down with you."


Bereishit 43:

(1)        And the famine was severe in the land.

(2)        And it was, when they had eaten up the corn which they had brought from Egypt, that their father said to them: Go back and buy us a little food.


When all the food that they brought from Egypt is used up, Yaakov asks his sons to go back to Egypt and bring more.


Since Yaakov's categorical refusal to allow Binyamin to go to Egypt, no-one has dared to raise the subject for further discussion. The brothers make no mention of going back to Egypt. Only when Yaakov himself initiates the move does Yehuda use the opportunity to explain the situation to Yaakov in the clearest possible terms:


(3)        Yehuda spoke to him, saying, The man solemnly declared to us: You shall not see my face unless your brother is with you.

(4)        [Therefore] if you will agree to send our brother with us, we shal go down and buy you food.

(5)        But if you will not send him, we shall not go down, for the man said to us: You shall not see my face unless your brother is with you.


Yehuda emphasizes twice, at the beginning of his speech and at the end, that "the man" – the Egyptian viceroy – told them, "You shall not see my face unless your brother is with you." In other words, there is no possibility of going to Egypt without Binyamin. Yehuda continues and presents Yaakov with two choices. If you send Binyamin – we shall go down and bring food; if you do not send him, we shall not go down, and – obviously – there will be no food. Yehuda presents the situation clearly, objectively and unemotionally; he leaves the decision to Yaakov: "You decide," he is telling him, "The responsibility is yours alone."


Yaakov responds:

(6)        Yisrael said: Why have you brought evil upon me, telling the man that you have another brother?


Yaakov's words express sorrow and despair: Why have you done this to me? The utterance is not productive, nor does it answer directly the choice presented by Yehuda. Yaakov is well aware that he has no choice, and he must decide, but the choice hurts him and his response is one of pain rather than one of logic.


Bereishit Rabba 91,10:

"R. Levi said in the name of R. Chamma bar Chanina: Yaakov never made a worthless utterance except in this one instance…."


The brothers answer him:

(7)        They said: The man questioned us closely as to ourselves and our birthplace, saying: Is your father still alive? Do you have a brother? – and we told him, according to the facts. Could we possibly have known that he would say, "Bring down your brother"?


The brothers explain: Firstly, the man asked us; we did not tell him our story of our own initiative. Secondly, how could we have guessed that the man would want us to bring Binyamin? There was no logic to it! The brothers try to justify themselves, in an attempt to absolve themselves of the blame that Yaakov casts upon them: Why have you done evil to me?


But Yaakov was not asking a logical question that required an answer; he was expressing profound anguish. Yehuda understands this, and he makes no attempt to answer the question; he gets back to the point – the matter of going down to Egypt:

(8)        Yehuda said to Yisrael, his father: Send the boy with me, that we may arise and go and that we may live and not die, both we and you, and our children.

(9)        I shall be his surety; from my hand you may require him. If I do not bring him to you and present him before you, I will have sinned to you forever.

(10)      Had we not tarried, we would now have returned a second time.


Yehuda's words contain two messages:

a. "Send the boy with me… that we may live and not die; both we and you, and our children." Once again, Yehuda presents the two possibilities. If Yaakov sends Binyamin – "we will live"; if not – we will all die. He emphasizes "we, and you, and our children," as if to tell Yaakov, "Weigh the two alternatives: the certain death of all of us, versus the possibility of something happening to Binyamin."[3]


"I shall be surety for him; from my hand my you require him" – these words parallel those previously spoken by Reuven. Yehuda, too, undertakes to be personally resposible for returning Binyamin safely. But the style of his proposal is different. Firstly, he begins with the positive aspect of the oath: "I shall be his surety; from my hand you may require him" - I promise to be responsible for his return. Then Yehuda presents the negative aspect: should he not succeed in bringing Binyamin back, "I will have sinned to you forever." While Reuven's oath is more powerful – he swears by the life of his sons, demonstrating his absolute readiness to accept responsibility – we have already seen that his formulation is tasteless and espcially inappropriate when talking to Yaakov.


What is Yehuda's commitment? What does he mean by the words, "I shall have sinned to you forever"?


Rashi explains (in the footsteps of Bereishit Rabba 91:10), "Forever' – in the world to come." In other words, Yehuda assumes a very heavy responsibility: if he fails to return Binyamin, his guilt will weigh upon him not only in the guilt he will feel towards his father until the end of his life, but even in the World to Come he will have no atonement. He is ready to give up his portion in the World to Come. If this is indeed what Yehuda means, then his commitment is certainly greater than any punishment that he could take upon himself in this world.


Yaakov's "Agreement"


What is Yaakov's response?

(11)      Yisrael their father said to them: If that is the case, then do this: Take of the best fruits of the land in your vessels, and down to the man as an offering a little balm and a little honey, gym, ladanum, nuts and almonds.

(12)      And take double money in your hands; the money that was returned to your sacks – take it back in your hands, perhaps it was an oversight.

(13)      And take your brother, and arise, go to the man.

(14)      And may the Almighty give you mercy before the man, that he release your brother back to you, and Binyamin. And I – if I am bereaved of my children, then I will be bereaved.


Yaakov agrees to accept Yehuda's words – both because of the timing (there is no food left and he now has little choice; he understands this alone), and because Yehuda presents the alternatives very clearly, forcing Yaakov to recognize that this is what he must do. In addition, Yehuda's style of speech is also more convincing than Reuven was: he first presents the positive aspect of the oath, and only afterwards the negative aspect. The style of his oath is also better suited to his audience: he does not raise the specter of further bereavement, as Reuven did, but rather assumes a very heavy personal responsibility, acceptance of guilt even in the World to Come.


Despite all of this, it is clear that Yaakov's agreement is not wholehearted:

a.         He introduces his speech with the sense of no alternative: "If that is the case, then…."

b.         At first Yaakov makes no mention of Binyamin; rather, he mentions other things that the brothers should take with them. The brothers are undoubtedly waiting tensely to hear whether Yaakov agrees for Binyamin to go or not, but only at the end does he say: "And take your brother." Clearly, it is difficult for him to say the words; he does so only because he must.

c.         Finally, after all of this, he says: "As for myself – if I am bereaved, then I shall be bereaved." This is an expression of great anxiety, perhaps even despair.

d.         Attention should be paid to the fact that Yaakov does not addres Yehuda, his interlocutor. He offers no thanks to him for offering to bear full responsibility; he fails even to respond to his words. He addresses all of the brothers collectively: "Yisrael their father said to them…." Likewise, Yaakov does not send Binyamin with Yehuda, but rather with all of the brothers: "And take your brother." The fact that Yaakov ignores Yehuda's words in his response shows that he does not accept them wholeheartedly.


And so, in order for the brothers to go back to Egypt in order to bring food, Yaakov is forced, against his will, to send Binyamin along. Both Reuven and Yehuda have tried to persuade him: Reuven's words cause him to adopt an even more defensive stance, while Yehuda's words lead him to send Binyamin – even if it is really for lack of choice. Yehuda is more convincing, both because of his sense of timing and because of his style of persuasion.


The Guarantee is Put to the Test


Admittedly, Yaakov does not explicitly place Binyamin in Yehuda's hands, and from this we may deduce that the responsibility to bring him home rests upon all the brothers, including Reuven. But later on in the story we see that it is indeed Yehuda who assumes personal responsibility for him. When the brothers go back to Egypt, we do not read that Binyamin went specifically with Yehuda, but rather that all of them went down together. When Yosef's messenger pursues them and tells them that they are suspected of having stolen his royal goblet, they all answer him together:


Bereishit chapter 44:

(7) They said to him: why does my master speak such words…

(9) With whichever of your servants it is found – he shall die, and we will also be servants to my lord.

(10) And he said: Now, too, let it be according to your words; with whomever it is found – he shall be my servant, but [the rest of] you shall be innocent.

(11) So they hurried and each brought his sack down to the ground, and each opened his sack….


In this exchange there is no specific brother who takes the lead, conducting the negotiations with the Egyptian. All are equal in stature. At first, they are so certain that none of them is the thief, that they go so far as to propose the death sentence for the thief, while all the rest of them will be servants. The Egyptian does not agree to this idea; rather, he wants only the thief as his servant. While the verse records no response on the part of the brothers to this proposal, it seems that they were in agreement, and therefore they allow him to search through their belongings.


(12) And so he searched – starting with the eldest and ending with the youngest, and the goblet was found in the sack of Binyamin.

(13) Then they tore their garments, and each loaded up his donkey, and they returned to the city.


The agreement with the Egyptian had admittedly been that only the "thief" would be a servant, but all the brothers assume responsibility here, and return together with Binyamin to Egypt. They do not abandon him, and certainly show no anger towards him for stealing the goblet. Rather, they all proceed together to Egypt, all sharing the same distress. Against this background, the next verse is interesting:


(14) Yehuda and his brothers came to the house of Yosef, and he was still there, and they fell before him to the ground.


Yehuda comes at the head of the brothers. Here it is clear that he is the leader. Indeed, further on, it is Yehuda who speaks with Yosef, on behalf of all of them:


(15) Yosef said to them: What is this deed that you have done? Did you not know that a man such as I can certainly divine?

(16) And Yehuda said: What can we say to my master; what shall we speak, how shall we justify ourselves? God has found out the sin of your servants; behold, we are servants to my master – both we and he in whose hand the goblet was found.


Attention should be paid to the fact that Yehuda speaks in the plural. He speaks on behalf of all of the brothers, as their accepted leader, and he presents Yosef with the same proposal that the brothers previously offered to his messenger: not only Binyamin will be a servant, but all of them. Seemingly, this is acceptable to all of the brothers. Indeed, they themselves proposed it from the start. But since then they agreed to the deal proposed by the messenger – that only the thief will be a servant. Why, then, now that the thief has been found, are they not prepared to see only him imprisoned? Why do they return to the original proposal – that they all suffer punishment?


Perhaps the reason is that when they agreed to the messenger's proposal, they were certain that none of them was the thief. Now that the goblet has been found with one of them, it seems that they are not prepared to accept this prospect at all.


But perhaps there is a different reason. If one of the other brothers were to have been imprisoned, they would have agreed that he would remain as a servant in Egypt, while the rest of them returned home. But since the matter concerns Binyamin, they will not do this. They know how important it is to Yaakov that Binyamin returns. Yaakov sent Binyamin with them on the responsibility of all of them, not only Yehuda – as we saw above. Therefore they all feel responsible, and are all prepared to commit themselves to servitude together with Binyamin.


But the "Egyptian" does not agree. It is not fair to imprison all of the brothers because of a theft committed by only one:


(17) He said: Far be it from me that I should do this; the one in whose hand the goblet was found – he shall be my servant; as for you – go up in peace to your father.


The guarantee of the brothers is being put to a very tough test. What are the brothers to do now that the Egyptian ruler insists on imprisoning only Binyamin, not allowing them to be imprisoned together with him?


It is at this moment that Yehuda is revealed in all of his power:

(18) Yehuda approached him and said: Please, my lord, I pray you, let your servant speak a word in my lord's ear, and let your anger not burn against your servant, for you are like Pharaoh.


Yehuda delivers a lengthy monologue to Yosef, at the conclusion of which Yosef "breaks down" and reveals his true identity. What it is in Yehuda's speech that causes Yosef to reveal himself to his brothers?


He describes the relations between Binyamin and Yaakov, clarifying how important Binyamin is to his father, and how great Yaakov's anguish will be in Binyamin fails to return:

(30) And now, when I come to your servant, my father, and the boy is not with us, then – since his life is bound up with his life –

(31) It shall be, when he sees that the boy is not there, that he will die; and your servants will have brought the grey hair of your servant, our father, with sorrow to Sheol.


Finally, Yehuda explains the personal guarantee that he gave to his father:

(32) For your servant was surety for the boy to my father, saying: If I do not bring him to you, I shall have sinned to my father for all time.

(33) And now, I pray you, let your servant remain instead of the boy as a servant to my master, and let the boy go up with his brothers.

(34) For how can I go up to my father, when the boy is not with me – lest I see the evil that shall befall my father.


It is clear from the above that Yehuda feels that he is responsible for Binyamin, although his father did not explicitly take him up on this guarantee. Yehuda explains that he cannot return to his father without Binyamin, because he could not bear to watch the terrible tragedy that will descend upon his father if Binyamin does not return.


Yehuda's focus is not on being punished for Binyamin not returning,[4] but rather his father's suffering. On the basis of the guarantee that he gave for Binyamin, Yehuda makes an astounding offer: he alone will be imprisoned, and Binyamin will go up to his home, together with all the brothers.


Seemingly, the Egyptian viceroy should not accept this offer, for it is not logical to punish a different brother while freeing the "thief" – even if the thief is dearly beloved by his father! However, since the viceroy is Yosef, this proposal finds favor in his eyes, and it is this that causes him to reveal his identity to this brothers.


In Yehuda's words Yosef detects the power of his leadership, based upon the strong fraternity that prevails among all the brothers, leading Yehuda – and all of them, following his example – to be guarantors for Binyamin's welfare and the welfare of their father. The guarantee is so powerful that Yehuda is prepared to pay a very heavy personal price in order that Binyamin may return to his father.


Yosef feels that there is a powerful sense of fraternity among the brothers, along with love and concern for Yaakov. Their fraternity leads them to care about Binyamin, even though Yaakov singles him out for special treatment. Moreover, they recognize Yaakov's favoritism and are prepared to reconcile themselves with it: let Binyamin be freed, and let Yehuda be imprisoned in his place. This sense of fraternity is a correction of the great hatred that Yosef experienced first-hand. Therefore he now removes his mask.


Various aspects of Yehuda's leadership are revealed here:


First, it is he who assumes responsibility for Binyamin, even though his father never appointed him to be personally responsible.


Second, he is responsible for the atmosphere of fraternity among the brothers,[5] leading all of them to feel that there is no possibility of leaving Binyamin behind in Egypt.


Third, he is ready to pay a heavy personal price – to be imprisoned, in order to save his father anguish.


Once again, we see that Yehuda has the special gift of saying the right words at the right time, causing his listeners to accept what he is saying. Although Yehuda has no idea that it is Yosef who stands before them, he manages to find the words that touch the most sensitive part of him.


Thus, Yehuda's approach to Yosef, as representative of the brothers, expresses his leadership in the clearest possible way. In the wake of this encounter, it appears, Yehuda became the clear leader of the brothers – in the eyes of Yaakov, too, as we find later on when Yaakov prepares to go down to Egypt, and sends Yehuda before him:


"He sent Yehuda before him to Yosef, to show the way before him to Goshen, and they came to the land of Goshen." (Bereishit 46:28)


Once again, in Yaakov's blessings to his sons, he praises Yehuda and bestows upon him the blessing of leadership:


"Yehuda, it is you whom your brothers will praise; your hand is upon the neck of your enemies; your father's children shall bow down to you. A lion's whelp is Yehuda; from the prey, my son, you have risen up. He bowed, he crouched like a lion and as a lioness – who shall rouse him up? The staff shall not depart from Yehuda, nor a ruler from between his feet, until the coming of Shilo, and the nations shall obey him." (Bereishit 49:8-10)


In summary:


In two separate events Yehuda's leadership ability finds expression, leading to the situation where "Yehuda prevails over his brothers": one is the sale of Yosef; the other is his surety for Binyamin.


The Midrash teaches:


"Rabbi Yehuda bar Ilai said: The text is speaking in praise of Yehuda. In three places Yehuda spoke before his brothers, and they made him king over them: 'Yehuda said to his brothers' (Bereishit 37); 'Yehuda and his brothers came' (Bereishit 44), and 'Yehuda approached him….'"


In two episodes we encounter Reuven and Yehuda, both of whom respond to the events and function as leaders. In both cases the words of Yehuda are heard and accepted, while the words of Reuven are not. What is the reason for this difference?


It seems that Yehuda is a more charismatic personality. But beyond this, from the narratives themselves we deduce several differences between the two leaders:

a.         Relations with the other brothers: Reuven is somewhat distanced from the other brothers, while Yehuda is part of the group, a participant in their discussions and their actions; he includes himself in their company. Yehuda's brotherly relations and partnership with them allow him to influence them, and they cause them to listen to him. But beyond this, the quality of brotherly love is fundamentally important for a leader. A leader must be part of the nation, aware of their needs and wants, sensing their situation (both physical and spiritual). Only when he is part of the nation can he represent them, act on their behalf, and lead them to new and better places.

b.         It is Yehuda who emphasizes that Yosef is "our brother, our flesh," thereby succeeding not only in preventing Yosef's murder, but also creating a sense of fraternity among the brothers, which finds expression later on when they regret their cruel treatment of him, and feel concern and responsibility towards Binyamin. Here we find another important quality for a leader: the ability to bring the nation to a significant change of perception.

c.         Persuasive style of speech, testifying to an inner understanding of the psyche of others: Reuven represents a meaningful, moral stand and he gives expression to it, but he has no sense of "where his listeners are at"; hence he makes his case in a way that is not suited to his audience and which they do not accept. Yehuda, on the other hand, knows how to choose the right moment and to formulate his position in such a way as to make it acceptable to his listeners. The proper formulation is not something that is external to one's speech; rather, it is an expression of the ability to arouse emotion in others, and of knowing what the audience will identity with. Thus Yehuda succeeds in persuading his brothers not to kill Yosef but rather to sell him, and in persuading his father to send Binyamin – thereby, ultimately, causing Yosef to soften and reveal his identity to his brothers.

d.         Responsibility: Both Reuven and Yehuda take responsibility for what is happening. It is Reuven who saves Yosef from certain death, through immediate intervention; it is also he who immediately submits himself as guarantor for Binyamin's return. However, we find that at the critical moment Reuven is not on the scene (at the sale of Yosef) or fails to act (when Binyamin is in danger). Yehuda, in contrast, does the right thing at the right moment, thereby saving both Yosef and, later on, Binyamin. Yehuda takes his responsibily to the very end – even when his father has not explicitly required this of him. He is prepared not only to act for Binyamin's sake, but even to pay a heavy personal price.


Reuven is the eldest of the brothers, and as the firstborn he holds a position of responsibility towards what happens in the family. His intentions are good, but essentially he is unsuited to leadership, and therefore his brothers do not listen to him. Therefore, leadership is given over to Yehuda, who is a more natural leader.


Translated by Kaeren Fish

[1] See Ramban ad loc.

[2] As noted in several midrashim. Bereishit Rabba, 91, 9: "Rabbi said: He is a foolish firstborn. Are they your sons but not mine? How can you say such a thing?!"; Avot de-Rabbi Natan: "He who asks an improper question and provides an impertinent answer – this is Reuven. As it is written, 'Slay my two sons….' Was Yaakov then a murderer? One who asks a pertinent question and answers properly – this is Yehuda, as it is written: 'Yehuda said to his father, Yisrael: Send the boy with me…I shall be surety for him; you may require him from my hand.'"; Bereishit Rabba 98: "When someone used to utter a well-thought statement before Rabbi Tarfon, he used to say: 'Excellent!' And when someone used to say something worthless, he would say: 'My son shall not go down with you.'"

[3]  See Tanchuma, Miketz 8

[4]  Compare to Reuven’s words of anguish after Yosef is sold: "And as for me – where shall I go?"

[5]  As we saw in last week’s shiur, his leadership is based upon a connection of fraternity with all the brothers, and it is likewise he who emphasizes to them that Yosef is their brother, and thereby persuades them to sell him rather than killing him.