Parshat VaYigash marks the climax of the story of Joseph and his brothers. At the end of last week’s cliffhanger, we are left wondering how the brothers will resolve the crisis Joseph has put before them. Will they abandon Benjamin to Joseph? How will they convince Joseph (who in their eyes is a powerful autocrat, with impenetrable motives) to release their youngest brother?
Judah steps up, showing himself the leader of the brothers. His impassioned plea and willingness to sacrifice himself, break down Joseph’s last barriers, and the brothers are reconciled. He successfully conveys the pain that Jacob would endure with the loss of his second son by Rachel, and his love of his father and brother are clear.
From early in the story, Judah showed leadership ability. When the brothers want to kill Joseph, it is Judah who suggests selling him instead. However, unlike in his speech before Joseph in our parsha, back then he was much more practical. He did not express concern or mercy for his brother, but wanted to avoid blood on his own hands. His concern was for himself, not for Joseph.
In last week’s parsha, when Reuben and Judah need to convince Jacob to send them back to Egypt with Benjamin, lest they die in the famine, it is Judah’s plea that is heard. What is it that Jacob hears in Judah’s voice that convinces him, when he is deaf to Reuben?
Judah underwent a significant life change in the meantime, and I believe this is the secret to his connection to Jacob. Judah knows the pain of loss of children, and can therefore relate to Jacob’s concerns more directly. Like Jacob, Judah tried to protect his remaining son, Shela, keeping him from marrying Tamar, whom he suspected wrongly of being the cause of the death of his first two sons. Judah understands that it is a natural impulse to protect a remaining son after his brother or brothers are lost. He acted in exactly the same way himself. Jacob therefore trusts him not to take any unnecessary risks with Benjamin. Reuben’s offer of his own two sons showed that he was not sensitive to loss in the same way.
Judah’s experience as a bereaved parent made him more sensitive to his father’s pain. His acknowledgement of the wrong that he had done to Tamar made him understand that while his protection of Shela was a natural instinct, it could not be absolute – life had to go on. It is that message that convinces his father.
Finally, in standing before Joseph, Judah cannot bear the idea of failing his father. When imagining his father’s pain in losing Benjamin, he is feeling his own pain on the death of Onan, and the potential of losing Shela, after having losing Er. Empathy, which Judah struggled to feel for his brother in the pit, now comes naturally to him as a result of his own pain. Joseph hears the pain in Judah’s voice and sees a different brother than the one who flung him in a pit. His own emotions are aroused, and he reveals himself.
Personal loss is not a prerequisite for feeling empathy. It is also not a guarantee that one will. However, we all experience loss in our lives. Judah’s lesson is that while we can never understand the reasons for the pain we experience in life, we can use it to grow and learn.