When you know for certain that something is wrong, it doesn’t matter at all what stands in your way; to effect change, you must by necessity plow forward. Such is the model of Judah, who in this week’s Torah portion goes toe to toe with an adversary to speak truth to power.
In its opening word, the portion hints at the momentous character of the events about to unfold. Literally meaning that Judah “approached” Joseph — the disguised brother whom he had sold into slavery and who had since become the viceroy of Egypt —the word at first appears superfluous.
Last week’s portion ended with Judah already speaking to Joseph, so from where did Judah approach. Did he leave and come back? Did he come closer? The Midrash imports much deeper meaning to the portion’s opening verb, “vayigash.” Speaking on behalf of all of his brothers and seeking to save the life of Benjamin, the youngest, Judah first comes to Joseph as a supplicant.
Unbeknownst to them all, the still-disguised Joseph had framed Benjamin when they all descended into Egypt to purchase food for their father back in Canaan. Brought before the viceroy, Judah offers them all up as slaves, admitting a shared guilt. But when Joseph refuses to show mercy, Judah changes tactics.
Whereas before he was prostrate, now, without permission, he approaches one of the most powerful rulers of the land as an equal. He recounts the entire sequence of exchanges: the brothers’ original foray into Egypt without Benjamin, their original encounter with Joseph, their going back to Canaan to fetch Benjamin, their return and subsequent entrapment.
Judah speaks with an air of authority and, according to the commentaries, prepares himself for war. It all becomes too much for Joseph; touched by the care his once cruel brother shows for the youngest, he finally reveals himself and embraces his siblings. The story offers an amazing lesson on the innate power of an individual to upset the natural order and of a small group to overpower the mighty. But so does the story of Chanukah with the few and weak Maccabees overcoming the army of Antiochus.
Looking even deeper, the conversation between Judah and Joseph can also be a paradigm for the relationship between the Jewish people and the Almighty Judah’s “approach,” says the Midrash, could be analogous to prayer; it points out that the same verb is used in the Book of Kings to describe one of the Prophet Elijah’s visions.
The idea expressed here is that while, most of the time, prayer is a supplicatory act, it’s also permitted to demand from the Holy One. Especially when an injustice prevails, when the unthinkable happens, when terror seems to reign, it is fitting and proper to have the chutzpah to turn to Heaven and demand mercy.
Rabbi Joshua Runyan, former news editor of the Jewish Exponent, is the editor of Chabad.org News. E-mail him at: jrunyan@ chabad.org.