Parashat Vayigash: The power of words

When confronting his brother Joseph, viceroy of Egypt, all Judah had at his disposal were words. Let us examine how he intentionally used them.

 The Midrash compares the clash between Judah and Joseph to that between two strong kings. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Midrash compares the clash between Judah and Joseph to that between two strong kings.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Four weeks ago, in parashat Vayetze, we read about the birth of Judah and the connection of his name with todah, “thanks.” We noted the importance and power of thanking. In that commentary it was written:

“We shall see in a few weeks that Judah’s life is filled with moments when he stands up to others or is unafraid to face the truth. In all these incidents, he is able to draw part of his strength from living a life in a state of thanks: being aware of what he has and not focusing on what he lacks. It is from that place that he is able to act selflessly beyond himself.”

Two weeks ago, in parashat Vayeshev, Judah was able to tap into his reserve of gratitude and face uncomfortable truths via the masterful guidance of Tamar. In this week’s parasha, Vayigash, strong and unafraid, Judah bravely stood above the asymmetry of power and confronted the viceroy of Egypt, his brother Joseph, whom he did not recognize. In that confrontation, all Judah had at his disposal were words. Let us examine how he intentionally used them.

Intentionally using words in asymmetrical power

What happened at their first meeting in last week’s parasha, Miketz:

“Then he [Joseph] said to them [his brothers], ‘Where do you come from?’ And they said, ‘From the land of Canaan to buy food’” (Genesis 42:7).

 SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90) SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

Judah’s rephrasing as he recalled that first meeting:

“My lord asked his servants, saying, ‘Have you a father or a brother?’ And we said to my lord, ‘We have a father, an old man, and a child of his old age, who is young; his brother is dead, and he alone is left of his mother’s children, and his father loves him’” (44:19-20).

“My lord asked his servants, saying, ‘Have you a father or a brother?’ And we said to my lord, ‘We have a father, an old man, and a child of his old age, who is young; his brother is dead, and he alone is left of his mother’s children, and his father loves him’”

Genesis 44:19-20

Judah did not mention why they came to Egypt but played up love and family, hoping to connect with Joseph – he used the word “father’’ 14 times throughout the discourse. 

What happened:

“Then Joseph… said to them, ‘You are spies!’” (42:9).

Judah’s rephrasing:

Judah did not reference this charge to divert the conversation in a better light. 

What happened:

The brothers said to Joseph, “Your servants are twelve brothers, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan; and in fact, the youngest is with our father today, and one is no more” (42:13).

Judah’s rephrasing:

“And we said to my lord, ‘We have a father, an old man, and a child of his old age, who is young; his brother is dead, and he alone is left of his mother’s children, and his father loves him’” (44:20).

Judah added more details about their family, hoping for an emotional response from Joseph. He used the word “old’’ twice, and added “mother” and “children.” Finally, instead of “and one is no more” he used the more jarring word “dead.” 

What happened:

“But Joseph said to them, ‘It is as I spoke to you, saying, “You are spies!” In this manner you shall be tested: By the life of Pharaoh, you shall not leave this place unless your youngest brother comes here... the rest of you will be kept in prison’” (42:14-16).

Judah’s rephrasing:

“Then you said to your servants, ‘Bring him down to me, so I may set my eyes on him’” (44: 21).

Judah did not engage the allegation of being spies or use the word “prison” but simply recounted Joseph’s desire to see Benjamin. 

What happened:

“Joseph said to them... ‘bring your youngest brother to me; so your words will be verified, and you shall not die.’ And they did so” (42:18-20).

Judah’s rephrasing:

“And we said to my lord, ‘The lad cannot leave his father, for if he should leave his father, his father would die.’ But you said to your servants, ‘Unless your youngest brother comes down with you, you shall see my face no more’” (44: 22-23).

Here Judah employed the word “father” thrice; and added the word “servants,” which he used overall 12 times – wanting Joseph to see them as servants and not spies.

What happened:

“But he [Jacob] said, ‘My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead, and he is left alone. If any calamity should befall him along the way in which you go, then you would bring down my gray hair with sorrow to the grave’” (42: 38).

Judah’s rephrasing:

“Then your servant my father said to us, ‘You know that my wife bore me two sons; and the one went out from me,’ and I said, ‘Surely he is torn to pieces, and I have not seen him since’” (44:27-28).

Repeatedly, he played up family connections and added that one of their brothers was “torn to pieces,” wishing to elicit an emotive reaction from Joseph.

What happened:

“I [Judah to Jacob] myself will be surety for him; from my hand you shall require him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, then let me bear the blame forever” (43:9).

Judah’s rephrasing:

“For your servant became surety for the lad to my father, saying, ‘If I do not bring him back to you, then I shall bear the blame before my father forever.’ Now therefore, please let your servant remain instead of the lad as a slave to my lord, and let the lad go up with his brothers. For how shall I go up to my father if the lad is not with me, lest perhaps I see the evil that would come upon my father?” (44:32-34).

Judah returned to the word “servant” but added his willingness to be a slave. Finally, but with more intensity, Judah spoke of the suffering their father would experience. It is at this moment that Joseph broke down and revealed himself to his brothers.

The Midrash compares the clash between Judah and Joseph to that between two strong kings, like a heavyweight boxing match or a magnificent World Cup final (Midrash Rabbah 93:2). Of that battle royal the Midrash comments:

“R. Jeremiah b. Shemaiah said: {Judah exclaimed}: ‘I will but utter a word (davar), and bring a plague (dever) upon them!’ R. Hanan said: When Judah was filled with anger, the hairs from his chest would pierce right through his clothes and force their way out, and he would put iron bars in his mouth and bring them out to ground to powder (Midrash Rabbah Genesis 93:6).

While hyperbolic, as the Midrash often can be, it does point to the power of words. And Judah used them so effectively. At the end of the day, they are all he had in this showdown with Joseph, who had the power of an empire behind him. 

In a masterful retelling of what took place at their first meeting, Judah, by carefully choosing his words, deflects and uses pathos and other means to make his case. In this week’s parasha, Judah gives a masterclass, teaching us that one of our greatest forms of agency is how we use our words. ■

The writer, a Reconstructionist rabbi, is rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vermont. He teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies on Kibbutz Ketura and at Bennington College.