A Beautiful Mind: Parashat Vayigash 5779

Joseph, in the guise of the Grand Vizier of Egypt, accuses his brother Benjamin of theft and sentences him to life imprisonment in Egypt as his personal slave. Judah addresses Joseph in a last-ditch attempt to change the verdict. His plea is one of the most poignant monologues in the Torah.

Each weekly portion is divided into seven “aliyot”. It is unclear who was responsible for this division. Most scholars agree that the division has been in existence since Geonic or perhaps even Talmudic[1] times. Rabbi J.B. Soloveichik refers to those responsible as the “Ba’alei Mesorah”, literally “the owners of tradition”. Points of division were determined based upon a few simple rules: [1] An aliya should conclude at the end of a thought or an episode. [2] An aliya should not begin or conclude with a disparaging verse. [3] An aliya should not begin or conclude less than three verses from the beginning or from the end of a paragraph. Other than these rules, pretty much anything goes.

Judah’s plea extends over two aliyot – all of the first aliya (“Rishon”) and part of the second aliya (“Sheni”). The first aliya ends with the words [Bereishit 44:30] “Now, when I come to your servant, my father, and the boy is not with us, [since] his soul is attached to [the boy’s] soul,” Notice that the verse ends not with a period, but with a comma. That is because Judah’s sentence concludes only at the end of the next sentence [Bereishit 44:31]: “it will come to pass, when he sees that the boy is gone, he will die, and your servants will have brought down the hoary head of your servant, our father, in grief to the grave.” Judah is using classic if-then logic: If Benjamin does not return with us to our loving father then our father will die of grief”. Here is how this logic plays out in the synagogue: “If Benjamin does not return home [close the Torah, make the concluding blessing on the Torah, call up another person to read from the Torah, make the opening blessing on the Torah, begin reading the Torah] then our father will die of grief.” Why does the aliya conclude mid-sentence? Why didn’t the Baalei Mesorah wait one more verse for the conclusion of Judah’s thought?

To answer this question, we must take a deep dive into Judah’s plea. Recall that Joseph has caught Benjamin red-handed. There is no compelling legal reason for Joseph to release Benjamin. Indeed, Joseph is being generous when, after Judah offers to take Benjamin’s place as his slave, he tells Judah [Bereishit 44:17], “Far be it from me to do this! The man in whose possession the goblet was found [only] he shall be my slave, but as for [the rest of] you, go up in peace to your father”. Why does Judah think he can argue for a lighter sentence?

The commentators offer various avenues to understand Judah’s plea. Here we will make use of the explanation of Rabbi Chanoch Waxman[2].  Judah used a tactic that Rabbi Waxman calls “mercy-justice”. The party requiring mercy is Benjamin’s father, Jacob. He has done no harm but if Benjamin does not return home, then he will die. Rabbi Waxman writes, “[Judah] implicitly presses the Egyptian for justice. The Egyptian should not slay [Jacob] the righteous as part of his quest to enslave the guilty.” To prevent injustice, Benjamin must be freed.

Rabbi Waxman notes that while the brunt of Judah’s plea is based on mercy-justice, he seems to suddenly switch gears near the end. He tells Joseph [Bereishit 44:32], “For [I] assumed responsibility for the boy from my father, saying, ‘If I do not bring him to you, I will have sinned against my father forever.’” Then, Judah once again offers himself as a slave in Benjamin’s stead, concluding his plea with a cry of despair [Bereishit 44:34]: “For how can I go up to my father and not have the lad with me? Lest I see the evil that shall come upon my father”. Rabbi Waxman calls this tactic “substitution-confession”. Why does Judah change his tactic? Did he see something that indicated that Joseph was not buying in? Further, asks Rabbi Waxman, why does Judah believe that Joseph cares about a promise that he made to his father? Why should that sway him?

Rabbi Waxman proposes two answers. First, he suggests that Judah was flailing like a drowning man. Like a drowning man, Judah becomes irrational. Logic gives way to emotion. He thinks not with his head but with his belly. He begins to babble in a stream of consciousness. Rabbi Waxman’s second answer is far more esoteric. He asserts that Judah was addressing the “man behind the Egyptian mask” not only as the Grand Vizier of Egypt, but as his brother Joseph, as well: “When Joseph hears Judah’s offer of substitution and confession, he hears the reversal of the exact family dynamic that had led to his slavery in Egypt. Instead of callous disregard and resentment of Jacob’s choice of favorites, Joseph hears respect, duty, caring and self-sacrifice. In place of hatred of Joseph, he finds brotherly regard for Benjamin and his role… It is precisely Judah’s offer of self-sacrifice and his expressions of responsibility, anguish and caring that complete the reversal of Joseph’s youth. It is precisely the section of ‘Substitution-Confession’ that shatters Joseph’s Egyptian front and prompts his revelation”.

It is unclear how Judah somehow subconsciously knew that he was speaking to Joseph. Rabbi Waxman attributes it to Providence: Divine intervention somehow guided Judah’s words in a way in which Joseph would understand that after twenty years in Egyptian exile, it was finally time to heal. The problem with this approach is that it seems to impinge upon Judah’s freedom of choice: While Judah’s lips are moving, it is G-d Who is doing the talking.

Perhaps Hollywood can help us out. In “A Beautiful Mind”, a movie directed by Ron Howard, Russell Crowe plays John Nash, a Nobel Laureate economist. The Pentagon hires Nash to break encrypted Soviet communications. Nash’s code-breaking prowess comes from his incredible capability to see patterns. Alas, Nash suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. Many of the people in his life are imaginary, as are most of the patterns he sees. Howard’s cinematographic portrayal of Nash’s vision of patterns is stunning.  Numbers and words from the documents he is studying suddenly protrude and glow, enabling the audience to see what Nash’s mind sees. I suggest that more important than what Judah said was what Joseph heard. If we use the aliyot as a guide, we can see the patterns that shook Joseph to his very core.

While a Torah portion is divided into seven aliyot, the first aliya is further subdivided into three smaller aliyot used when reading on Shabbat afternoon as well as Monday and Thursday mornings. Using these subdivisions, Judah’s plea extends over three and a half aliyot. The first aliya ends with the words [Bereishit 44:20] “he is left alone of his mother, and his father loves him”. The second aliya ends with the words [Bereishit 44:24] “we went up to your servant, my father, and we told him the words of my lord”. The third aliya ends in the middle of a sentence with the words [Bereishit 44:30] “his soul is attached to [the boy’s] soul”. When Judah tells Joseph [Bereishit 44:34] “For how will I go up to my father if the boy is not with me? Let me not see the misery that will befall my father!” Joseph cuts him off. At this point Joseph can take no more and he reveals himself to his brothers. To Joseph’s ears, the words that conclude the aliyot protrude and glow, giving rise to a pattern that unequivocally proves Rabbi Waxman’s point: “Instead of callous disregard and resentment of Jacob’s choice of favorites, Joseph hears respect, duty, caring and self-sacrifice. In place of hatred of Joseph, he finds brotherly regard for Benjamin and his role.”

It is not Judah’s message that sways Joseph, it is the pattern within the message, a pattern that only Joseph can hear, that wins the day. The end of an aliya is an opportunity to pause and to reflect. The Ba’alei Mesorah chose to divide the aliyot in a way that enabled us to get a glimpse of what is going on in Joseph’s head, revealing patterns that unlock a family code that had been broken for twenty years.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5779

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and Tzvi ben Shoshana.

[1] The Talmud was written from about 300-500 CE and the Geonim lived from about 700-1000 CE.

[2] See

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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