How Did Judah Change Joseph’s Mind?
Judah’s Fight For Benjamin
In Parshat Vayigash (Genesis 44:18–47:27) we learn about the power of a truly epic speech. Judah's monologue to Joseph changes the course of history – instead of falling into a future of despair and misery for the house of Jacob, Judah's speech saves Benjamin and reunites the entire family. What was it about this speech that so drastically turned the tide of our history?
- For more about the resolution between Joseph and his brothers.
- Dive into the story of Joseph.
- Learn about the resonances of Judah's act throughout history.
This week's parsha picks up at the most dramatic part of the story – Judah appeals to Joseph for his brother Benjamin…. And then, just a few verses later, Joseph reveals himself as their long lost brother. They hug and kiss, and the whole saga, all the family drama, is resolved.
Immanuel: This story swings our emotions back forth, from one extreme to the other. One moment, the world has come to end, Benjamin is gone, Jacob will die mourning over the loss of his son. Then, out of nowhere, not only is Benjamin saved, but Jacob's whole family reunites!
What changed? What happened to make the plotline swing so abruptly and unexpectedly from disaster to celebration? What happened is that Judah appeals to Joseph.
Understanding the Story of Judah and Benjamin
David: What was it about Judah's speech that so drastically turned the tide? A speech that ends a decades-long rift in the family must be the most heartwarming speech in the history of time. But if you look at the speech, it seems pretty... unremarkable.
Judah recaps a conversation with his father, Jacob, before they returned to Egypt with Benjamin. You told us to get Benjamin, so we asked our father, and he said… and then we said… and then he said.... It's hard to understand how such a pedestrian appeal had so great an impact.
Immanuel: Let's explore what exactly happened, this week on the Parsha Experiment.
David: Hi, I'm David Block.
Immanuel: And I'm Immanuel Shalev, and welcome to the Parsha Experiment. Let's bring up our 20-second parsha recap.
- Judah appeals to Jacob in an attempt to save Benjamin from slavery.
- Joseph reveals himself to the brothers.
- Joseph sends an entourage to bring his father down to Egypt, on his way down, God tells Jacob that he'll be with him down in Egypt, and after 17 years, Joseph and Jacob reunite.
- Jacob and the brothers meet Pharaoh, and Pharaoh gives them the land of Goshen.
- Finally, Joseph then establishes a sort of feudalism in Egypt.
Benjamin, Jacob's Favorite Remaining Son?
David: In order to understand the impact of Judah's speech, we can't look at it in isolation. There's a backstory, there's a conversation that the brothers had with Jacob before bringing Benjamin to Egypt, a conversation recapped in Judah's speech.
So we're gonna try an experiment, we're going to try to read through that original conversation, but let's try to experience it from the brothers' perspective. How did they feel during this conversation with Jacob?
The brothers come back from Egypt with one less person than they had when they left: Simeon is being held captive… And they need to bring Benjamin to Egypt in order to get Simeon back.
The problem is, Jacob isn't too thrilled with the idea of sending Benjamin and potentially losing another son. וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא-יֵרֵד בְּנִי עִמָּכֶם – Jacob said: No, I will not allow my son to go with you. כִּי-אָחִיו מֵת וְהוּא לְבַדּוֹ נִשְׁאָר – for his brother has died, and Benjamin is the only one left.
Immanuel: Now let's look at that from the brothers' perspective… We know Jacob meant that Benjamin was the only remaining son of Rachel. But if you were one of Leah's sons and lived your whole life knowing that your mother was the unfavored wife, that your father seems to love you less, can you imagine how painful it must have been to hear your father call Benjamin his only remaining son?
Furthermore, think about the implications of Jacob's decision. Not letting Benjamin go doesn't just mean that they couldn't go back to Egypt to get food. It means that Jacob was gonna let Simeon stay in Egypt forever! It seems like Jacob was actually choosing one son over the other – he was choosing Benjamin over Simeon!
David: And look at why Jacob won't let Benjamin go. He says: If something were to happen to Benjamin, וְהוֹרַדְתֶּם אֶת-שֵׂיבָתִי בְּיָגוֹן, שְׁאוֹלָה – you, my sons, will bring me to my grave in terrible misery. Does that sound familiar? The brothers have heard these words before.
Connections to Judah and Benjamin's Story in the Bible
After the loss of Joseph, Jacob refused to be consoled. "ויאמר כִּי-אֵרֵד אֶל-בְּנִי אָבֵל שְׁאֹלָה" – he said: I will go down to my grave mourning my son, Joseph. Jacob felt that his world was over when he lost Joseph, and now, he says he'll feel the way again if he loses Benjamin.
But you know who Jacob doesn't feel that way about? Simeon. Jacob isn't going to his grave mourning the loss of Leah's children, only Rachel's children. How must this feel to Leah's sons?
Immanuel: What's happening here is tragic. The brothers are being forced to relive the terribly painful and unequivocal favoritism that Jacob showed to Joseph – it's all happening again. Jacob is choosing Benjamin, Rachel's child, over the children of Leah.
And it continues: Judah steps in and takes responsibility for bringing Benjamin back safely. This time, Jacob begrudgingly gives in, but when he agrees, he says: "God should grant you mercy before this man, וְשִׁלַּח לָכֶם אֶת-אֲחִיכֶם אַחֵר, וְאֶת-בִּנְיָמִין; – and may he release your other brother and Benjamin."
That's very strange... Jacob calls Benjamin by his name, but he refers to Simeon as "your other brother." He's "that other guy."
David: The Ramban, Nachmanides picks up on this, and explains that Jacob doesn't refer to Simeon endearingly because Simeon wasn't preferred in Jacob's eyes… Ramban says "had they had enough bread at home, Jacob still would not have sent Benjamin, and would have left Simeon in Egypt." This is a favoritism replay!
The first time, with Joseph's favoritism, the brothers deceived. They didn't confront anyone… they just got rid of Joseph. But what would they do this time, with Benjamin? We don't have to wait long to find out. What happens next really pushes them to the brink.
Immanuel: The brothers take Benjamin down to Egypt, and everything seems to go well: they get Simeon back, they get food, and they start heading back to Canaan – mission accomplished! But then something terrible happens. Joseph finds his goblet in Benjamin's bag.
If you're the brothers – if you're Judah, who took responsibility for Benjamin – what might you be feeling at this very moment? Outrage! They don't know that he didn't steal the cup! Benjamin is an entitled thief – he takes whatever he wants!
All the jealousy, the hatred, the bitterness that has been building over the years from being unfavored reaches a boiling point. "This is who we put our necks on the line for? Who our father favors?"
But it's not just a replay of favoritism and hurt feelings. The brothers find themselves exactly in the same position that they were in, years ago, when Father favored one brother over the rest. What did they do to Joseph? They sold him into slavery.
And what was Benjamin's sentence for stealing the goblet? Oh yes...slavery... the brothers can so easily stand back and let Benjamin become a slave. The opportunity is ripe for a sale of Joseph replay.
Judah Confronts His Father's Favoritism
David: But that's not what happens. Judah – the very person who suggested selling Joseph – stands up and makes a direct appeal. יֶשׁ-לָנוּ אָב זָקֵן we have an elderly father – וְיֶלֶד זְקֻנִים קָטָן – and he has a young son in his old age, referring to Benjamin, וְאָבִיו אֲהֵבוֹ – and his father loves him.
Does that sound familiar? Back before the sale of Joseph, the text says: וְיִשְׂרָאֵל, אָהַב אֶת-יוֹסֵף מִכָּל-בָּנָיו – and Israel, Jacob, loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, כִּי-בֶן-זְקֻנִים הוּא, לוֹ – because he was a son of a father, old in age. Joseph is the only one other person in the entire Torah who is referred to that way – as a child of זקנים, old age…
That verse in the Joseph story captures what caused the sale of Joseph in the first place. Blatant, unbridled favoritism of one son over the rest.
The very next verse says: וַיִּרְאוּ אֶחָיו, כִּי-אֹתוֹ אָהַב אֲבִיהֶם מִכָּל-אֶחָיו–וַיִּשְׂנְאוּ, אֹתוֹ – the brothers saw that Jacob loved Joseph the most… and they hated Joseph for it. Here, Judah's calling on the verse that so terribly ripped his family apart. Only this time, it's not followed by hatred. Judah sees the favoritism, he may not like it but he's able to accept it.
Immanuel: And later in Judah's speech, he says: וְנַפְשׁוֹ, קְשׁוּרָה בְנַפְשׁוֹ – Jacob's soul is bound with Benjamin's soul! Look at what's happening! For the first time, Judah is able to name the reality that Benjamin is more loved.
It doesn't mean Jacob was right to favor one child over another, but there's a transformation that's taking place here. With Joseph, the brothers didn't confront the issue. They never voiced their concerns, they were never open with Joseph.
This time, they're not hiding from it or trying to change the reality with deception. They're admitting it – at the very least, to themselves. But as we learned in the story of Judah and Tamar, recognition of your actions and mistakes is crucial, but it alone is not enough for real change. You also have to mend the relationships that you broke.
Judah's Redemption Through Benjamin
Judah can't fix his relationship with Joseph, because he doesn't know Joseph's alive… But look at what he says:יֵשֶׁב-נָא עַבְדְּךָ תַּחַת הַנַּעַר–עֶבֶד, לַאדֹנִי; please take me as a slave instead of Benjamin. וְהַנַּעַר, יַעַל עִם-אֶחָיו – let him return home with his brothers. And that's it.
It's not just that Judah is so heroic in this moment, in that he places another before himself – it's that he's doing precisely what he should have done with Joseph years before.
The brothers kicked Joseph out of the family, out of brotherhood. But Judah won't let that happen again – he acts as a brother. He won't sell another brother into slavery… he'd sooner become a slave himself.
David: But there's another layer to this story. Who is Judah really reconciling with? It's actually not Joseph. Or Benjamin. It's Jacob, his father. He said: If I don't come back with Benjamin, וְחָטָאתִי לְאָבִי כָּל-הַיָּמִים – I will have sinned against my father for eternity. And when Joseph hears that, he cries.
When he hears the whole backstory, he realizes that his brothers caused tremendous pain to Jacob when they sold him. More importantly, Joseph realizes that he's been perpetuating that pain, too; by holding back Simeon, by demanding Benjamin and by hiding his own identity, he's guilty of causing his father pain as well and resolves not to do it anymore.
This story isn't just about repairing personal past deeds. It's about realizing who you've hurt along the way, and repairing that too. Throughout the Jacob story, we've seen different dynamics replay themselves: Jacob's deception with the blessings, Laban's deception, Dinah and Shechem, the sale of Joseph, Judah and Tamar.
Each time, the person is faced with a choice: Allow the same scenario to replay itself just like it did before – mistreat others because they have been mistreated? Will they continue this cycle? Or will they bravely take responsibility and redeem a mistake and repair a relationship?