When reading the Torah portion Vayigash, we often focus on Joseph and his ability to forgive his brothers. Joseph suggests that their selling him into slavery had been intended by God as a way of saving lives. His reasoning is that, if he had not been sold into slavery by the brothers, he would not have ended up in the place to help so many people from the ravishing famine that overtakes the land of Egypt.
But, I would like to focus on Joseph’s brother Judah and what he teaches us. Early on, he is the brother who suggests to the others to sell Joseph into slavery instead of killing him. Judah’s position is very different by this point in the story though. Joseph says he will take Benjamin as his slave after having his cup planted in Benjamin’s bags. Judah steps up and asks that he instead be taken as Joseph’s slave. Instead of arguing for someone else to become a slave, he is now arguing to become a slave himself.
Judah says that losing Benjamin will have such a great impact on his father that it will kill him. Jacob dotes over Benjamin, and has already lost a favored son. Losing Benjamin will send Jacob to his grave.
We could just take Judah’s argument as rhetoric, just one way to argue for Benjamin to be released. Or, we may imagine that Judah just wants to uphold the oath he made to his father to protect Benjamin.
But, I do not think that this is necessary. Perhaps, Judah is truly concerned about his father’s well-being. And perhaps, this is a change, part of Judah’s development as a person and as an adult.
Earlier in the story, the brothers, except for Reuben possibly, do not seem to express much concern for their father. They clearly want his love and approval, since they get so furious that Joseph is treated as the favorite. However, they do not seem so worried about how their violent act against Joseph will affect him. They just pretend like Joseph was killed by an animal. They worry about their own skins and covering their crime.
But, Judah is now older. He himself has lost two sons Er and Onan. And maybe he has come to the understanding to which we all need to come as we mature. His father is a real person that is just flesh and blood. A person that has his own memories, his own hurts, and his own pains. And maybe Judah has come to accept his father’s faults in addition to appreciating his father’s positive attributes. Yes, his father is still playing favorites, favoring Benjamin now instead of Joseph. And maybe he wishes that his father did not do this anymore. But, he understands that this is his father’s way, and his father is not going to change. So, Judah can at least honor his father by reducing his father’s potential suffering by offering himself in place of Benjamin.
In the end, Judah does not need to make this sacrifice. Joseph reveals himself and ends up seeing to the welfare of his father and brothers by resettling them in Egypt. But, he teaches us something about being a child. In time, we need to come to understand that our parents are not there only to take care of us, but we need to take care of them too. We learn that we do not only receive their love, but also have to learn compassion for who they are and what they need.
We talk much about what it means to be a good parent and what we need to do for our kids. May we be given the strength, not just when we are young, but throughout our lives, to learn how to be compassionate children too. To learn how to accept the faults of our own parents, to realize no one is perfect, and to focus on our love for them.