At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, (Genesis 42) we are witness to Judah’s aggressive, unbridled and most undiplomatic behavior toward Joseph, Pharaoh’s viceroy. What went through Judah’s head as he approached Joseph? What caused him to unleash such an outburst that in the end caused Joseph’s emotional breakdown?

It appears that just one word in Joseph’s previous remarks incited Judah’s response.

[And that one word plays a critical but unsuccessful role some 200 years later in the Israelite spy incident.]

First, let’s look the brothers’ conversations in Genesis. Not just between Joseph and Judah, but look at all the conversations and dialogues between the Forefathers and their families when discussing travel between the Land of Israel and Egypt. Here’s an example of the Torah’s narrative of Abraham’s journey to Egypt:

And Abram descended to Egypt …And it occurred as he drew to entering into Egypt…But it happened at the entry of Abram into Egypt…Pharaoh called Abram… here is your wife; take her and go! And Abram went up from Egypt… (Genesis 12)

Note the different sets of verbs: descend – ascend or go down – go-up (יורד – עולה) of Abraham’s journey versus the set of verbs enter-go or come-go (בא – לך) of Abraham’s interaction with Egypt and Pharaoh.

Is there a difference? So it appears.

When the Forefathers travel to Egypt by themselves or talk within the family they “ascend and descend.” On the other hand, when there is an external character, especially if his name is Pharaoh or his deputy, they use the phrases of “come and go.”

Is there a point behind the language changes?

It’s likely that Abraham and his descendants had a deep faith in the holiness of Eretz Yisrael and used a more spiritual term when they referred to the aliya to the land and the yerida from the land. But to outsiders, especially the ruler of Egypt who viewed his land as the center of the universe, the children of Israel were learned in the ways of diplomacy and they were careful not to insult their exalted hosts. They came and went; they did not descend and ascend.

Here are several examples to prove the “descend-ascend” and “come-go” pattern:

• And they sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites…and they brought (vayavehu) Joseph to Egypt. (Genesis 37:28)

• And they said to Joseph … your servants have come (ba’u) to buy food. (Gen 42:10)

• (Joseph said to his brothers) go (lechu) and bring the provisions… (Gen 42:19)

But when traveling alone or speaking within the family:

• And Joseph had been brought down (hurad) to Egypt (Gen 39:1)

• And Jacob said to his sons there are provisions in Egypt go down (redu) there (Gen 42:2)

• And Jacob said to his sons (Benjamin) shall not go down with you (Gen 42:38)

There are several more examples of “come-go” verbs especially in the dialogue between Jacob and Pharaoh (Gen 47).

But there is one very unusual irregularity in this verbal code, so extreme that Judah was unable to restrain himself and Joseph was unable to contain his emotions.

At the very end of the Torah portion of Miketz (Gen 44:17) Joseph tells him “As for you, go up (alu) in peace to your father.”

[The division of the two Torah portions at this very point weakens our ability to comprehend the huge drama taking place here. It is possible that at this point Judah actually understood who was standing before him.]

Judah doesn’t believe what he heard and he responds immediately: Then Judah approached Joseph…

After Judah heard the word “alu – ascend” — so uncharacteristic for an Egyptian viceroy — he responded, repeating the family verbal code in a blunt and pronounced fashion:

Then you (Joseph) said to your servants bring him down [horiduhu] to me… (note the anomaly since Joseph in Gen 42:20 stated “Your brother who is youngest you shall bring [tavi’u] to me”)… And it was when we went up to your servant my father… We said we cannot go down… then we went down … [Jacob said] you will have brought down disaster …Your servants will have brought down the old age of your servant our father in sorrow to the grave… and the youth (Binyamin) will go up with his brothers… For how can I go up to my father if the youth is not with me?

Eight times Judah used the ascend – descend verbs in his verbal challenge to Joseph. The code was broken, as was Joseph. When he understood that the brothers had uncovered him, he was forced to reveal his identity, and he continued to speak with them in the family verbal code. “Hurry and go up to my father… Come down to me, do not delay. You must hurry and bring down my father to this place.”

An additional point:

If there is such a family code based on the ascend – descend verbs, why did the brothers use their private code to the “man in charge of the house of Joseph… and they said we had indeed come down (yaradnu) to buy food… and other money we have brought down (horadnu)”? (Gen 43:20) According to the Midrash, the interpreter standing between Joseph and his brothers (Gen 42:23) was the son of Joseph, Menashe. And according to Bible commentator Yonatan ben Uziel (circa 450 BCE) Menashe was also the man in charge of Joseph’s house.

Thus one explanation of the brothers’ use of the family code is that after they had spoken to the young Hebrew-speaking interpreter they thought that he was privy to the family code. The approached him (vayigshu – the same verb describing Judah’s approach to Joseph), but they quickly concluded that he was an Egyptian and not a family member when he responded, “Your God and the God of your father has given you a hidden treasure… Your money came (ba) to me…” Gen 43:23.

Post Script

It appears that the ascend-descend (עלו-ירדו) code also played a critical but futile dialogue in the Book of Numbers, chapter 13 in the disastrous spy mission to Canaan by the 12 spies.  Moses instructs them to “Go up (עלו)  into the south of the land”… And they went up and investigated…”  But the spies’ return was not described as descending, rather “they came (ויבאו) .  They presented a frightful picture of the land.  Calev, one of the two positive spies, made a desperate plea to the nation using the ancient family code  “(עלה נעלה וירשנו) We shall surely ascend and conquer.”  

But Calev and his fellow spy Joshua were unable to sway the people.  The Israelites’ lack of faith led to a punishing 40 years of wandering in the desert until Joshua brought them into the land.

Calev and Joshua were the advocates for “aliya.”  It is no coincidence they are descendants of Joseph and Judah, the two men who revived the family code in the palace in Egypt.

A version of this Dvar Torah appeared in the OU’s Torah Tidbits in 2011.