Then Judah approached him and said, “Please, my lord, let now your servant speak something into my lord’s ears, and let not your wrath be kindled against your servant, for you are like Pharaoh.
It was the sort of confrontation most families try desperately to avoid. The black sheep challenges his family to a duel. He blames his siblings for his estrangement, anger and bitterness. The siblings wave him off, saying, “You brought it upon yourself with your haughty behavior.”
But Jacob was not your ordinary patriarch, and his sons were far from the usual quarreling Alpha males. The face-off between Judah and Joseph could decide the fate of the Children of Israel for eternity. Judah cannot allow Joseph to take away Benjamin, the remaining son of Rachel. Joseph was the viceroy of Egypt and could do whatever he wanted.
Joseph’s question to Judah was simple: For 23 years, you lived your lives without me. What do you care now?
Let’s go back to the first meeting of Joseph the viceroy and his brothers. The text says Joseph recognized his brothers even after all these years. But whether the brothers recognized Joseph is vague. The Midrash says the brothers did recognize Joseph but decided not to greet him or show any sign that they were of one family.
In a way, this was a natural reaction: Joseph had gone on to become a huge success. He looked different, dressed differently, spoke differently and did not resemble the bothersome kid brother who tattled to Daddy. It was no different from their Uncle Esau who broke away from his father Isaac and brother Jacob. It was no different from Ishmael who forged his own path apart from Abraham. This was no longer Joseph, rather an Egyptian named Tzafnat Pa’aneach. Good luck to you.
This was something Joseph could not accept. He was a brother to the end. It was not merely a personal choice. The future of an entire nation rested on this. If there was no Joseph, there would be no Children of Israel, no Land of Israel, no Torah of Israel.
If this was what the brothers wanted, then Joseph could easily up the stakes. Why should the brothers keep Benjamin at their side? After all, Benjamin was Joseph’s brother, coming from the same mother Rachel. If Joseph wasn’t good enough for the brothers, then Benjamin would be better off with his older full sibling.
And your servant, my father, said to us, ‘You know that my wife bore me two [children].
Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman, known as the Ramban, sees this verse as the turning point. Judah acknowledged something that had long been shelved. Benjamin was special, the son of Rachel, Jacob’s first and only love. His other three wives, including Leah, were imposed on him. Rachel was the only one he chose and worked for. That meant that Benjamin and Joseph were the only sons that Jacob really desired. Joseph is gone, and now losing Benjamin would kill our father, Judah said.
Joseph concentrated on every word. Judah had said two things ignored for decades. One, Joseph was no longer an outcast: He was now seen as the son of the woman Jacob desired. Joseph and Benjamin marked Jacob’s reason for living. Take away these two and the patriarch would simply fall dead. Judah swore that this would happen.
Finally, the brothers had found common ground: Concern for their father.
And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” but his brothers could not answer him because they were startled by his presence.
Joseph didn’t wait for a response. There was no time for recriminations. Instead, he kissed all his brothers. They all wept bittersweet tears. Yes, this was Joseph, not an Egyptian viceroy.
Preparations were quickly made for the family’s resettlement in Egypt, where they would be safe from the global famine. Jacob and his family would be taken care of — fed, clothed and housed away from what would be a hostile majority. Joseph would not betray his siblings. He always saw himself as a brother. Now, there would be a reunion and deliverance in Egypt. It was G-d’s plan.
And he sent off his brothers, and they went, and he said to them, “Do not quarrel on the way.”
It was not easy for Jacob. Initially, he did not believe that Joseph was still alive. More than 20 years ago, his sons strongly suggested that Joseph had been torn apart by a wild animal. Just as disturbing was Joseph’s message to his father: the patriarch would have to leave the land of his forefathers, the land that G-d had promised them. Unlike his fathers, he would die in a foreign land.
And He said, “I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid of going down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up, and Joseph will place his hand on your eyes.
This would not be easy. Living in a foreign land meant walking on eggshells. It would mean staying away from the mass of idol worshipers without sparking a confrontation. This would constitute a passive existence as Jacob’s progeny would be pressed into servitude and suffer persecution from the very emperor Joseph had saved. But one day, it would end, and the Children of Israel would return to their land — this time as a unified nation rather than merely a family or clan.
Judah and Joseph made a pact: Joseph would provide for his brothers and Judah would lead them. Joseph would do the heavy lifting and Judah would establish the monarchy. Because that’s what brothers do.