Why Interrupt a Good Story? by Rabbi Steven Finkelstein


Reading Parashat VaYeishev, we are completely engaged as the saga of Yosef and his brothers unfolds. We can sense the discomfort of the brothers as Yosef describes his dreams. We fear for Yosef as he says, “Hineini,” and he bravely agrees to fulfill his father’s request to check on his brothers. We are mortified as Yosef is thrown into the pit and quickly sold into slavery.

As we anticipate discovering Yosef’s fate, the Torah interrupts the story. All of a sudden, we are forced to turn our attention to Yehudah.

We understand the need for the Torah to share with us the story of Yehudah. But why must it be placed at this point? Why not wait until later, before the brothers leave on their journey to acquire food in Egypt?

Clearly, the Torah is trying to tell us that it is precisely at this point, as the gravity of what has just happened to Yosef is settling in, that we need to stop and think about Yehudah and his role in the Yosef saga.

 The Torah begins the story of Yehudah with seven words of introduction: “VaYhi BaEit HaHi VaYeired Yehudah MeiEit Echav,” “And it happened at that time that Yehudah went down from his brothers” (BeReishit 38:1). Rashi (ad. loc.) explains that the word “VaYeired,” “went down,” implies that the brothers demote Yehudah from his position of greatness. The brothers see the suffering of their father, Yaakov, and they turn to blame Yehudah. They explain, “Yehudah, we admired and respected you. We were willing to listen to you. When you suggested selling Yosef instead of leaving him to die, we followed your advice. Had you only encouraged us to bring Yosef home safely, we surely would have complied, and we would not have caused so much distress to our dear father.”

Thus, Rashi captures for us the great sense of regret that the brothers experience. “How did we get into this terrible situation? Where did things go wrong? What should have happened?” Their answer, according to this comment of Rashi, is that a terrible failure of leadership causes their downfall. Yehudah has their respect. He has the potential to influence them. It is within his ability to bring Yosef home, but Yehudah does not utilize that ability. His inaction as a leader allows Yosef to be sold and costs Yehudah, at least temporarily, the respect of his brothers.

 While we are all aware of the dangers of an inflated sense of self, reading this Rashi reminds us that a lack of self-confidence and a deflated self-esteem can be equally detrimental. Had Yehudah acted as a leader, fully and honestly recognizing the power that he had to sway his brothers, this story could have ended differently.

Inserting the story of Yehudah at this point is the Torah’s way of encouraging each and every one of us to look at all of the wonderful skills, talents, and abilities with which we have been blessed and to consider honestly and accurately all that we are capable of achieving. It is with this healthy self-esteem and self-confidence that we will be best able to deal with the difficult situations in our own lives. May we be Zocheh to recognize our Berachot and to use them to serve Hashem and our fellow men.

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