וַיִּגַּשׁ אֵלָיו יְהוּדָה וַיֹּאמֶר בִּי אֲדֹנִי
Va’yigash eilav Yehudah va’yomer “Bi Adoni … ”
And Judah approached him and said, “By your leave, my Lord … ” (Genesis 44:18).
This may be the most dramatic moment in the entire book of Genesis. During the long famine, 10 of Joseph’s brothers had come down to Egypt to seek provisions. Joseph, now vizier of Egypt and in charge of food distribution, recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. The last time they had seen Joseph was when they sold him into slavery 20 years ago, and there is no reason that they would identify the potentate before whom they now bow as their long-lost brother.
Joseph does not trust his brothers. He tests them mercilessly to ascertain whether or not they have changed since their nearly murderous betrayal. He insists that they bring his younger brother Benjamin with them to Egypt, although Jacob protests. Benjamin and Joseph are the two sons of Jacob’s beloved late wife, Rachel. Jacob has been grieving the loss of Joseph all these years, while doing everything he could to keep Benjamin safe and nearby. If Jacob loses Benjamin as he did Joseph, Jacob may very well die of grief. But famine looms, and Jacob relinquishes Benjamin to Egypt so that they all might avert starvation. When the brothers arrive with Benjamin to Joseph’s court, Joseph can barely control himself, and he excuses himself and weeps privately upon seeing his long-lost brother. But Joseph then once again dons his public face, and continues to test and torment his clueless brothers; he frames Benjamin with a crime and blithely tells the other brothers that they can go home in peace — only the guilty party, Benjamin, will remain in servitude in Egypt.
What are the brothers to do? Will they once again abandon their kin? Will they once again dissemble to their father about their actions, as when they faked Joseph’s death 20 years earlier? They still carry the guilt of that betrayal. Unaware that Joseph understood their conversation, the brothers had earlier said to one another, “Alas, we are guilty for what we did to our brother Joseph! We saw his distress when he pleaded with us those many years ago, but we did not listen.” Reuben then chastised his brothers, “Didn’t I tell you back then not to sin against the lad Joseph? But you wouldn’t listen, and now our guilt has come due!” (Genesis 42:20–21).
At this critical moment, this week’s Torah portion begins. Judah musters all of his integrity and all of his courage, and steps forward: “Va’yigash eilav Yehuda — And Judah approached him.” Judah makes an impassioned, extended plea for Benjamin’s release, finally offering his own life in place of Benjamin’s. Somehow, Judah reaches into Joseph: “Joseph could no longer restrain himself … He cried aloud … then said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph! Is my father truly still alive?’ ” (Genesis 44:1–3).
The dam has broken. Joseph removes his mask and pours out his feelings. Reconciliation is now possible, and the family will be reunited.
Torah commentators throughout the ages have elaborated on how Judah accomplished this breakthrough. One midrash focuses on the multiple shades of the term va’yigash, “he approached.” The midrash scans the Torah for all the places where the term va’yigash is employed and discovers that in different contexts one can approach to make peace, to do battle or to pray. Therefore, the midrash proposes that Judah approached Joseph ready for any possible outcome: He was prepared to appease, to argue or to plead. I think the midrash is trying to tell us that Judah stepped forward with no preconceived agenda other than to connect with Joseph. Whatever that would take, Judah was prepared to do. Judah was not concerned for his own pride or physical safety, and his genuineness unlocked Joseph’s heart.
Another remarkable midrash gives us this image:
The designs in a person’s mind are deep waters, but a person of understanding can draw them out (Proverbs 20:5). “The designs in a person’s mind” refers to Joseph; “a person of understanding” refers to Judah. What does this resemble? A deep pit into which no one could climb down. Then a wise person came and brought a long rope that reached down to the water so he could draw from it. So was Joseph deep in the pit, and Judah came and drew him out.2
Playing on Joseph’s memory of his brothers casting him into a pit when he was a boy, this midrash now sees Joseph as traumatized and metaphorically still inaccessible in that deep hole — stuck in the past even though he was physically lifted out many years ago. In this reading, Joseph does not know how to climb out of his psychic pain. The trials through which he puts his brothers are the distress flags that he, perhaps unconsciously, hopes will be recognized. Judah, with his passionate and selfless approach to Joseph, reaches deep down into Joseph’s frozen pain and draws it up into the light, where it can begin to dissolve: “And Joseph could no longer restrain himself … ”
Why was Judah capable of this transformative approach? I think because Judah himself had been transformed by his own journey of loss in his life. We learn this tale in Chapter 38. At first glance, this chapter seems like an odd intrusion into the Joseph story, but we come to understand that it is necessary so that we might understand Judah’s development as a person. Judah has three sons. He marries the eldest off to Tamar, and this son dies suddenly. Then, according to the requirement of ancient law, Judah gives his second son to Tamar, but he, too, dies unexpectedly. Judah, now left with only one son, refuses to give him in marriage to Tamar, leaving her in a terrible limbo, unable to marry again. As a result, Judah treats his daughter-in-law Tamar with dismissive contempt.
As that story unfolds, thanks to Tamar’s cleverness, Judah is forced to confront his own immoral behavior and make restitution to her. He is finally able to own his callowness, and grow into a moral and empathetic man. We witness this growth in Judah when we compare his behavior when he and his brothers threw Joseph into a pit, and then sold him as a slave, to the way Judah comes to Benjamin’s defense in our episode. Twenty years earlier, Judah had torn Joseph’s coat of many colors and stained it with goat’s blood. Then he blithely showed the coat to his father, who concluded that Joseph had been torn by wild beasts.
In faking Joseph’s death, the younger Judah had no idea of the pain he was causing Jacob. As is true about so much of our lives, Judah had to experience tragedy and grief himself in order to understand the grief of his father. Now, 20 years later, Judah understands the pain of losing a child. With Benjamin’s life in the balance, Judah knew that he could not cause his father such pain ever again. Judah was even willing to offer himself in Benjamin’s stead. Judah could reach down into Joseph’s pit because he knew the depths of parental grief and loss from personal experience.
Judah understood that the fragility and the pain that accompany every single human life is true for everyone. Whether potentate or pauper, we are all someone’s child; we all yearn for the love that we have lost. At the dramatic moment when Judah approaches the throne, he is no longer intimidated by the fearsome vizier of Egypt, but instead is approaching another human being as an equal. Judah will be heard — and damn the consequences of talking back to the potentate.
The Hasidic teacher the Sefat Emet elaborates on this idea with an ingenious wordplay.3 The Torah reads, “And Judah approached him and said, בִּי אֲדֹנִי Bi Adoni — ‘By your leave, my Lord … ’ ” Quoting the great kabbalist Isaac Luria, the Sefat Emet points out that you could also read that phrase as בִּי אֲדֹנָי Bi Adonai, which transforms Judah’s statement to mean, “And Judah approached him and said, ‘God is within me.’ ”3 The wordplay is further amplified by Judah’s name in Hebrew: יהודה YeHUDaH. Embedded within Judah’s actual name is the name of God, יהוה YHVH!
Each and every one of us is animated by a Divine spark; each and every one of us is a child of God. No earthly throne or pomp should disguise this truth. At this fateful moment, Judah is aware that he, too, is a child of God; God is in him. Aware of his true status, he approaches Joseph, the vizier of Egypt, without fear. And confronted with Judah’s full and courageous humanity, Joseph remembers his own full and courageous humanity. External appearances are abandoned, and two souls can finally meet with their pain and hope and longing expressed.
May we all be courageous like Judah, willing to take the risk of sharing our full humanity for the sake of the people we love.
 Bereishit Rabbah 93:4, cited in Aviva Zornberg’s magnificent Genesis: The Beginning of Desire, p. 318.
 Tanchuma Yashan 2, Zornberg, p. 322
 See Arthur Green, The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet; Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, pp. 67–69.