Defying discrimination – protesting injustice & Parshat Vayigash

This past week, the P5+1 committee, consisting of the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Russia, China, and France, reached an interim nuclear agreement with Iran. This deal was very revolutionary in what it actually demanded from Iran, very minimal nuclear compliance rules, in order to drop its crippling sanctions on the radical Islamic regime. While this deal is pretty frightening for myself and those who are in range of nuclear warheads of the country which swore to “wipe us off the map,” there is also an air of disappointment around the deal. An “easy out” of this magnitude seems very against the ideals of both the United Nations and the American government- the former’s objectives include global security and human rights (both of which are very much enforced on the Israel/Palestine stage), and the latter’s theoretically staunch “we do not negotiate with terrorists” policy.  As we complete our annual celebration of spiritual salvation from the Greeks, we have a much scarier threat on our hands- physical annihilation by the Persians, whose ancestors tried and failed to destroy us thousands of years ago (Purim). We know from that story, the most efficient way of saving our nation is through prayer and grassroots political action- however, in our time, it’s very difficult to imagine how we can do this. Luckily, we need to look no further than our weekly parsha for inspiration and advice on how to deal with inconsistent and unreliable gentile leaders.

Our parsha contains one of the most compelling and emotional arguments in Sefer Bereshit– Yehuda’s begging of his brother Yosef, known to him as the Egyptian viceroy Tzafnat-Paneah, for Binyamin’s life. The forebear of Jewish leadership starts out his monologue saying:
בִּי אֲדֹנִי יְדַבֶּר נָא עַבְדְּךָ דָבָר בְּאָזְנֵי אֲדֹנִי וְאַל יִחַר אַפְּךָ בְּעַבְדֶּךָ כִּי כָמוֹךָ כְּפַרְעֹה.
Please, sir, let your servant speak in the ears of the master (you), and do not become angry with your servant, for you are like Paroah. (בראשית מד:יח)

As far as openers go, this seems to be a little extreme. Yehuda begs Yosef to listen to him, because the latter is “like Paroah,” which, based on the simple reading of the text, could be a slightly excessive compliment, reminding the Egyptian viceroy of his high level of power.

However, Rashi, reading a little deeper into the text, asks if Yosef’s power was really what Yehuda was using to urge him to listen. No, answers Rashi, it must be deeper than that:

מה פרעה גוזר ואינו מקיים מבטיח ואינו עושה אף אתה כן
Just as Paroah makes decrees and promises, but doesn’t follow them, so too you (רש”י שם)

Every part of Binyamin’s setup seemed a little fishy- that the brother that Yosef demanded Yaakov’s children bring down, and promised that he would be returned safely, would happen to end up with a stolen cup in his bag. There was clearly a deeper strategy going on, and while Yehuda wasn’t sure what that was, he knew that he had promised Yaakov to bring Binyamin back safely, so before making his case before Yosef, he had to explain why there was a case to make. “Because you are like Paroah,” and you made a promise to us, yet broke it, I have to step forward now and beg for my brother’s life and safety.

Following in Rashi’s theme of negative interpretations of “For you are like Paroah,” Rav Nisson Alpert, a student of Rav Moshe Feinstein, makes an interesting observation on our story, with an interesting lesson for us from it. Rav Alpert questions why Yehuda got up to argue in the first place- if Binyamin had truly stolen from Tzafnat-Paneah, then he should be prosecuted, and if not, he should put himself before the mercy of Egypt’s justice system. Why did Yehuda bypass this and make a direct plea to the Egyptian viceroy?

Rav Alpert answers that Yehuda did not rely on the Egyptian justice system because Yosef was not properly following Egyptian law. Under Egyptian law, if one steals something, he is punished with the death penalty, and his accomplices are jailed. However, Tzafnat-Paneah, the all-powerful Egyptian leader, was bending the rules- he demanded that Binyamin be remanded for his robbery (for after all, he had broken the law), but he let the rest of the brothers go, in violation of the law. Even though this was more lenient than the brothers theoretically deserved, Yehuda couldn’t let the Egyptian tyrant break his own rules.

Why? Because once a ruler throws out his own rules, he loses all legitimacy, and since Yosef had lost his legitimacy as a ruler, Yehuda would not let the viceroy enslave his brother, and therefore he steps up and argues for Binyamin’s release. How could he justify this? “כי כמוך כפרעה”- “Just like Paroah, you make up your own rules instead of following the established ones. Just like Paroah, you are an illegitimate ruler. So, release my brother, because…”

Rav Alpert’s insight on Yehuda’s motivation for his monologue, aside from inspirational for those who truly seek justice, has an important lesson for us as well. Yosef, in his plan to check if the brothers were truly repentant, bended the law and changed his own rules. Yehuda, facing the outrage and unfairness of this, stood up to the injustice and challenged the misrepresentation of the law. While the other brothers took a step back, Yehuda stepped forward (“ויגש אליו יהודה”), and demanded that justice be done. According to a social psychology study by Vrije University in Amsterdam, the biggest distinction in one’s psyche when protesting is “Fight or flight,” passive or aggressive demonstration [1]. When faced with injustice, we can either be the Yehuda, who stands up and challenges the unfairness, or we can emulate the other brothers, waiting in the hope that someone else will stand up, or the issue will resolve itself. The lesson of our parsha, as seen through Rav Alpert’s idea, is that in order to rid the world of injustice, in order to right the wrongs in our lives, we must be the Yehuda- we must choose to fight, not flight; facing our problems and standing up to prejudice and unfairness is the only way to get rid of them and make the world a better place.

As we finish the first week of the Geneva interim agreement with reports of Iran already violating the minimal agreements it made, we can clearly see that injustice has been done by our national governments, and the United Nations. They made commitments to guard international security and regulate dangerous materials, and, like Tzafnat-Parneah in our parsha, they have failed to live up to their own laws and binding agreements. As of now, the future seems bleak and all possibilities, short of a military operation, seem to have been exhausted. At a time like this, we must follow the important lesson of Yehuda’s activism- to protest injustice, and force the facts in the faces our leaders until they have no choice but to admit they are wrong- only then will they correct the mistakes that they’ve made. I would like to take this opportunity to encourage all who feel that they are “Yehuda’s” to reach out to United States President Barack Obama (Online or +1202-456-1111), Secretary of State John Kerry (+1202-647-4000 ), and United States Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Powers (Online or +1212-415-4062), to remind them of what a colossal mistake they’ve made- these individuals are our leaders and they have a responsibility to represent our interests and the interests of our country. When they forget what the interests of the United States are, it’s up to us to remind them, before it’s too late.  For those readers who do not have American citizenship, please contact your local leaders, foreign ministries, and UN Ambassadors- only through reminding them of their obligations to us and to global safety can we ever hope of securing their opposition to the unfair and unjust Geneva interim agreement.

Last but not least, I would like to remind everyone of the importance of appealing to the highest international authority, even more powerful than the United Nations; G-d. Holidays like Chanuka and Purim serve as reminders to us of the power of prayer and repentance, how even the most horrifying evil decree, the most imminent threat of annihilation can be reversed and disappear in the blink of an eye. In Ma’oz Tzur, the thirteenth century liturgical song customarily sung after lighting the Chanuka candles, we praise G-d for all of the times that He’s saved us. He saved us from Paroah, from Nebuchadnezzar, from Haman, and from Antiochus. Then, in seeming contrast to the first four paragraphs, we read:
חֲשׂוֹף זְרוֹעַ קָדְשֶׁךָ וְקָרֵב קֵץ הַיְשׁוּעָה
נְקֹם נִקְמַת עֲבָדֶיךָ מֵאֻמָּה הָרְשָׁעָה
כִּי אָרְכָה הַשָּׁעָה וְאֵין קֵץ לִימֵי הָרָעָה
דְּחֵה אַדְמוֹן בְּצֵל צַלְמוֹן הָקֵם לָנוּ רוֹעִים שִׁבְעָה
Bare your holy arm, and bring soon the time of salvation, Wreak vengeance on the wicked nation, on behalf of your servants;
For deliverance has been delayed for too long, and the evil days are endless,
Thrust the enemies into the shadow of depth, and set up for us the seven shepherds (as Micha prophesied would happen in the time of the Redemption)
This sixteenth century addition to the considerably older song is not another praise to G-d, but rather a desperate plea. Save us now, G-d, as you saved us already four times! Redeem us soon, for the days of evil have no end in sight! In our times when we once again face the threat of annihilation, we cannot forget the importance of calling out to G-d and begging him to “נקם נקמת דם עבדיך מאמה הרשעה,” for the end is near- the Redemption has begun, we have our own country for the first time in two milenia, but still “אין קץ לימי הרעה,” there is no end in sight, the enemies are too numerous and the threats endless.

With G-d’s help, we will see a complete reversal of this evil decree, a complete and final destruction of Iran’s nuclear program and radical regime (whether through political, military, or divine action), and the resulting world peace and global safety, very speedily in our days. [1] “The social psychology of protest,” Jacquelien van Stekelenburg & Bert Klandermans: VU University, The Netherlands

About the Author
Born and raised in Teaneck NJ, Tzvi Silver moved to Israel in 2012 after catching aliyah fever while learning abroad. Tzvi is now pursuing a degree in Engineering from the Jerusalem College of Technology, and works on the side as a contributor for local newspapers in the New York Area. Tzvi's interests include learning Torah, rabble-rousing, and finding creative ways of mixing the two.
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