A gentle response allays wrath; A harsh word provokes anger. — King Solomon, Proverbs 15:1
Joseph, viceroy of Egypt, has sprung the trap on his brothers, who still don’t recognize that he’s their sibling. He decrees that young Benjamin will be his slave based on fabricated evidence, while the other brothers can return to Canaan to their father Jacob. The whole ruse is patently unfair. They’ve been set up. Judah steps up and asks for a private audience with Joseph.
Judah, softly, gently, respectfully yet passionately, argues his case in front of the viceroy. He retells the history of how they came to the unfortunate situation. Judah ends his moving plea by offering himself as a slave instead of Benjamin. Joseph can no longer contain himself, is moved to tears, and reveals his true identity to his brothers in what becomes perhaps one of the most emotional reunions depicted in the Torah.
Rabbeinu Bechaye on Genesis 44:18 analyses the recounting of events, of Judah’s daring approach to viceroy Joseph, of his tactics in confronting the powerful ruler who held their fate in his hands. Rabbeinu Bechaye explains that Judah was successful in calling on Joseph’s compassion by speaking calmly and gently to the harsh accusations and decree. Had Judah responded with righteous indignation, he would have only succeeded at kindling Joseph’s own anger which may have led to a worse outcome. By confronting the situation with calm, patience and understanding, Judah assured the best possible outcome. He allowed Joseph’s better nature to determine the rest of the story, not vengeance or a momentary fit of anger.
Rabbeinu Bechaye however, adds that there were two other elements in Judah’s address to Joseph. Besides entreating, softly pleading with Joseph for mercy, he also called on Joseph to be fair with their family and particularly their aging father who would be heartbroken should Benjamin not return. His final point is that he’s prepared for battle. The Midrash shares with us ancient tales of how Judah faces off against Joseph, prepared to tear Egypt apart should Joseph continue with his unfair enslavement of Benjamin.
Rabbeinu Bechaye however repeats and reinforces the value of training oneself to speak calmly and to always answer angry words with patience. There is no better way to inflame a situation than by answering anger with anger; and there is no better way to forestall a fight than to answer anger with calm.
May we not be the source of heated conversations and may we diffuse those that start that way.
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