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‘Checked Luggage’ Parashat Mikketz 5783

A story is told about a computer programmer who is asked by his wife to go to the store. She tells him, “Get a liter of milk and if they have eggs, get a dozen.” He returns from the store with twelve liters of milk. “Why on earth did you buy twelve liters of milk?” she asks. He responds, “They had eggs[1]”.

Strangely enough, the Portion of Mikketz tells a similar kind of story. Jacob’s sons have sold their brother, Joseph, into slavery in Egypt. When a famine forces them to travel to Egypt to purchase grain, Joseph, who has become the Grand Vizier, recognizes them and plots his revenge, accusing them of espionage. They succeed in proving their innocence only after they bring Joseph’s brother, Benjamin, down to Egypt where Joseph can meet him. Or so they believe. As they prepare to head back home to Canaan, Joseph secretly has his silver goblet planted in Benjamin’s luggage. As soon as the brothers leave the palace, Joseph sends a posse after them and accuses them of theft.

The brothers deny the charges, telling Joseph’s men [Bereishit 44:7-9] “Why does my lord say such things? Far be it from your servants to do anything of the kind! … Whichever of your servants it is found with [the goblet] shall die; the rest of us, moreover, shall become slaves to my lord.” The leader of the posse responds magnanimously [Bereishit 44:10]: “Although what you are proposing is right, only the one with whom it is found shall be my slave; but the rest of you shall go free.” To their shock, Joseph’s silver goblet is found in Benjamin’s luggage. The crestfallen brothers turn around and return to the palace, where they are met by a livid Joseph. When he asks them how they could act with such treachery, Judah responds [Bereishit 44:16 ] “What can we say to my lord? How can we plead, how can we prove our innocence? …Here we are, then, slaves of my lord, the rest of us as much as he in whose possession the goblet was found.” Joseph responds with the same magnanimity as his henchmen [Bereishit 44:17]: “Far be it from me to act thus! Only the one in whose possession the goblet was found shall be my slave; the rest of you go back in peace to your father.”

Notice that Judah has modified his plea. When the brothers are first accused of grand theft goblet, two separate punishments are specified: [1] The actual thief should be executed[2] and [2] the rest of the brothers should be incarcerated for life. The leader of the posse reduces both sentences: [1] The actual thief will be incarcerated for life while [2] the rest of the brothers will be set free. When the goblet is found in Benjamin’s luggage and they all return to the palace, Judah proposes that all of the brothers should be incarcerated. He is assuming that Joseph, like his henchman, will reduce his proposed sentence and will allow all of them to go home with a stern warning and perhaps a monetary fine. Unfortunately, Judah’s logic is faulty: Joseph leaves Benjamin’s sentence unchanged and reduces only the sentence of the rest of the brothers, allowing them to return home exempt from any punishment. In retrospect, it would have been more logical for Judah to request a less severe penalty, perhaps that Benjamin be allowed to pay a fine in lieu of jail time[3], and to pray that Joseph agreed.

Another hole can be found in Judah’s logic. What was his end-goal? Assuming that a logical person acts in a way that maximizes his utility, what parameter was he trying to maximize? Before Judah takes Benjamin to Egypt, he promises to Jacob that he will bring Benjamin back home. If, for any reason, he cannot return him to Jacob, he promises him [Bereishit 43:9] “I shall stand guilty before you forever.” According to Rashi[4], Judah was willing to wager his portion in the World to Come that he would bring back Benjamin. For this reason, Judah should have been interested in doing all he could in order to convince Joseph to let Benjamin go free. One way to do this would be to offer to trade his freedom for Benjamin’s, and yet, while Judah does eventually do this, his first suggestion that all of the brothers be incarcerated accomplishes nothing and is thus completely illogical.

Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin[5], writing in “Mah’lchim b’Mikra”, throws some more oil onto the fire. When Joseph accuses his brothers of espionage and sends them back home to fetch Benjamin, he secretly returns the money that they used to pay for their grain and hides it at the bottom of their sacks. When they discover the money, they are crestfallen, fearing that Joseph will now accuse them of further misdoings. If the brothers had already suffered a bad experience in which someone had tampered with their luggage, why in the world did they not check their suitcases before they left Egypt the second time? They would have discovered Joseph’s goblet in Benjamin’s suitcase and could have returned it before it was found missing. Rabbi Henkin answers this question by pointing to the events of the night before they left Egypt. Joseph invites his brothers to his house where they have a “sulha” – a “reconciliation party”. At the sulha, the wine flows freely [Bereishit 43:44]: “They drank and became intoxicated with him.” The next morning, they are awoken at the break of dawn and, with their heads still spinning from the previous evening, they are summarily thrown out of the country [Bereishit 44:3]: “With the first light of morning, the men were sent off with their pack animals.” Their inebriation made it impossible for them to act logically.

Why did Joseph want his brothers drunk? To answer this question, we stray from Rabbi Henkin’s explanation. The Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin [38a] states, “When wine comes in, secrets come out.” This is more than an old-wives tale. Alcohol leads to the loss of cognitive control. It is believed to mimic the effect of GABA – an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain – by binding to GABA receptors and inhibiting neuronal signaling. This compromises the ability to determine the potential emotional impact of our words. Joseph wanted to know exactly what his brothers were thinking. He believed that the reason that they had mistreated him and sold him into slavery was because he was the son of Jacob’s wife, Rachel, a woman whom Jacob held as the golden standard against whom all of the their mothers were measured. The way he would verify that his brothers had made their peace with his lineage was by seeing if they would abandon Rachel’s son, Benjamin, after the goblet is found in his luggage. Joseph had to know that if they did stand up for Benjamin, that their support was visceral – that they were following their hearts and not their heads. Joseph could then reveal his true identity and the family could begin to heal.

This explanation can shed some light upon a problematic verse in next week’s portion of Vayigash. The portion of Mikketz ends after Joseph has agreed to let all of the brothers except for Benjamin to return home. The portion of Vayigash begins with the words [Bereishit 44:18] “Then Judah approached [Joseph] and said, ‘Please, my lord’”. Judah is already engaged in a heated discussion with Joseph. What does “approaching” Joseph mean? I suggest that the Torah is teaching us that Judah paused. He took a deep breath, rubbed his eyes, and tried to shake off the effects of his inebriation. This enabled him to come to the inevitable conclusion that the only way out was to offer his freedom in exchange for Benjamin’s. Softened by alcohol and strengthened by sheer willpower, Judah is ready to say the words he must say, the words that Joseph must hear, the words that will ensure the future of their family.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5783

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Geisha bat Sara, Hila bat Miriam, Avraham Menashe ben Chana Bracha, Batya Sarah bat Hinda Leah and Rina bat Hassida.

[1] For those readers who are neither software engineers nor married to one, computer programmers have a different way of parsing instructions than most other carbon-based life forms.

[2] Rabbi Asher Wasserteil, who lived in Israel in the previous century, asks how Judah could make such a horrific suggestion. His father, Jacob, made a similar suggestion after Rachel had, without his knowledge, stolen the idols of her father, Laban, and she paid for it with her life.

[3] Whether Joseph would have accepted this offer is irrelevant. The fact that Judah did not propose it indicates that his logic was faulty.

[4] Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known by his acronym “Rashi”, was the most eminent of the medieval commentators. He lived in northern France in the eleventh century.

[5] Rabbi Henkin, who died last year, served as the Rabbi of the Beit Shean Valley and is most famous for his halachic response called “B’nei Banim”.

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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