Editors’ note: The following article was originally published in Volume 20 of Kol Torah in 2010/5771. To read more Parashah and Halachah articles from previous editions of Kol Torah, please visit koltorah.org.
Parashat VaYigash continues the famed word-brawl between Yehudah and Yosef. Last week’s Parashah concluded with, “Hu Yihyeh Li Eved,” “He shall be a servant unto me” (BeReishit 44:17), with Yosef saying that Binyamin will be his slave as a punishment for supposedly stealing the Gevi’a, the goblet. This week’s Parashah begins, “VaYigash Eilav Yehudah VaYomer Bi Adoni,” “Then Yehudah approached him and said, ‘If you please, my lord’” (BeReishit 44:18). The Ba’al HaTurim notes that the Gematria of “VaYigash Eilav Yehuda” is equal to 396, corresponding to “Zehu Lehilachem Im Yosef.” Yehudah’s purpose for approaching is to fight with Yosef, despite the connotation of the text. Although Yehudah uses kind phrases such as “Bi Adoni,” “please, my lord,” and even calls himself “Avdecha,” “your servant,” Yehudah, in actuality, intends to fight with Yosef (ad. loc. s.v. VaYigash Eilav Yehudah).
The Vilna Ga’on offers an alternative understanding of this Pasuk. Interestingly, the Vilna Ga’on notes the Ta’amei HaMikrah, the musical notes of the Torah. The first few notes on the first Pasuk of VaYigash are Kadma VeAazlah, Revi'i, Zarka, Munach, Segol. At first glance, these notes seem to be no different from those of any other Pasuk. However, the Vilna Ga’on presents an interesting perspective on these notes. He interprets the Ashkenazic names of the Ta’amei HaMikrah, and arrives at “the fourth one got up and went; and he had thrown away his eternal rest with the Am Segulah.” Yehudah, the fourth son, arose to speak with Yosef. Why did Yehuda, and not the oldest son, Reuven, approach Yosef? The Vilna Ga’on answers that normally Re’uven, the Bechor, would be most responsible for Binyamin. However, Yehudah has promised Yaakov before leaving for Mitzrayim, “Im Lo Havi’otiv Eilecha VeHitzagtiv Lefanecha VeChatati Lecha Kol HaYamim,” “If I do not bring him back to you and stand him before you, then I will have sinned to you for all time” (BeReishit 43:9). Additionally, Rashi explains that Yehudah proclaims that should he fail to return Binyamin, he will be punished “for all time,” namely, in Olam HaBa (ad. loc. s.v. VeChatati Lecha Kol HaYamin). Therefore, the Vilna Ga’on explains that in this instance, Yehudah has the most responsibility, which explains why he is the one to approach Yosef and bargain for Binyamin’s freedom.
Perhaps the Vilna Ga’on’s interpretation can complement the Ba’al HaTurim’s interpretation. The Vilna Ga’on utilizes the Ta’amei HaMikra to explain the first Pasuk in Parashat VaYigash. However, perhaps the notes can be understood in a slightly different manner. The Ta’amei Hamikrah are Kadma VeAzlah, Revi'i, Zarka, Munach, Segol. A more literal translation of these notes is, “the fourth one got up and drew a circle.” That is, Yehudah approaches Yosef, and draws a circle around himself (similar to Choni HaMa’ageil). By doing so, Yehudah boldly asserts himself to Yosef and explains that he will not move until Yosef frees the innocent Binyamin. Yehudah persists to the extent that he causes Yosef to cry out finally, “Ani Yosef Ha’Od Avi Chai,” “I am Yosef, is my father still alive?” (BeReishit 45:3).
Despite the indications of the Pasuk, Yehudah at the start of Parashat VaYigash seems to be fighting with Yosef. Although at first not making any progress, Yehudah perseveres and breaks down Yosef and forces him to reveal his true identity. However, why does the Torah record this victory so inconspicuously and make Yehuda seem to merely “approach” Yosef? Perhaps if a noble cause for which to argue exists, then one should persist until justice is reached. However, we must know how to pick our battles. We should never argue or become as stubborn as Yehudah when dealing with a small or unimportant issue. When righteousness and truth are challenged, such as Yosef’s falsely accusing Binyamin of being a thief, we should fight for justice just as Yehudah rightfully fights with all of his might to restore justice. May we learn from Yehudah’s example not only to pick the right fights, but also to always have the urge to spread honesty and integrity.