Parshat Vayigash: Jewish mutual responsibility

In this week’s Torah portion, we read about the last moments in the great drama of the Book of Genesis.

Torah scroll (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Torah scroll
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In this week’s Torah portion, we read about the last moments in the great drama of the Book of Genesis – the story of the sale of Joseph.
Joseph’s life took many turns. Sold into slavery, thrown into an Egyptian dungeon, surprisingly released, and appointed to the role of assistant to the king of Egypt, he now stands before his brothers who do not recognize him and gives them a test without them realizing it.
These brothers who sold him are now asked to pass a very similar test and prove their concern for their little brother – Benjamin. Using different claims and excuses, Joseph threatens to take Benjamin as his slave, which would ultimately mean that another brother would be lost to the family. Joseph does this because he wants to check if the brothers are still capable of betraying their brother and abandoning him as they did Joseph, or if they changed their ways and will now do everything in their power to release Benjamin.
Indeed, Yehuda turns to Joseph and begs of him: “So now, please let your servant stay instead of the boy as a slave to my lord, and may the boy go up with his brothers.”
And Yehuda even adds an explanation of why he is prepared to sacrifice himself and be a slave in place of Benjamin: “For your servant assumed responsibility for the boy from my father.” (Gen: 44:32-33) Yehuda thus proves that he is not willing to abandon Benjamin and is even prepared to be a slave as long as Benjamin is released to return to his father. Here Yehuda behaves in a manner opposite of his treatment of Joseph, 22 years earlier, when he told his brother, “Let us sell him to the Ishmaelites.” (Gen: 37, 27) Then, Yehuda was willing to sell his younger brother, and now – a complete turnaround – he is willing to sacrifice himself to avoid harm to his younger brother.
When Joseph sees that his brothers changed their ways and now worry and take care of one another and are willing to sacrifice for each other, he bursts into tears and reveals his secret – “I am Joseph”! The reason that Yehuda was willing to sacrifice himself for Benjamin was that same “responsibility” he felt for him. That sort of responsibility is familiar to us from financial dealings. For example, when a man takes a loan, he is asked to get people to sign that they are responsible for his obligation to pay back the loan. Here we find the term responsibility has a different meaning. Someone is responsible for the well-being and survival of another.
But when we look at the term responsibility, “arevut,” we see that it is actually the same thing. “Arevut” comes from the root “eruv” – involvement; when a man is responsible for the debt of another, he involves himself in the debt of his friend and they are both as one body obligated to return the loan. Here, when Yehuda is responsible for Benjamin’s well-being, he feels involved with Benjamin’s existence. He and Benjamin are as one person. And therefore, he does not hesitate to offer himself in exchange for Benjamin since Yehuda will never feel free, and will never be able to live a peaceful life, if Benjamin becomes a slave. Therefore, Yehuda is willing for Benjamin to be free even at the price of becoming a slave himself.
Yehuda, for whom the Jewish nation is called Ha’am HaYehudi, bequeathed this trait of mutual responsibility to the entire nation. Throughout the generations, there have been countless times when Jews have sacrificed their time and their assets to save a Jew they did not even know. Sometimes, this reached sacrificing one’s life when Jews were prepared to endanger themselves in order to save another Jew. That is how strong the sense of Jewish mutual responsibility is.
Even today we see how a Jew who is in distress “attracts” other Jews, some of whom do not know him, who work tirelessly to save him. It could be financial distress, and then we see charity organizations that help the needy. If it is a health crisis, good people work tirelessly to help. And certainly if it is a life-or-death issue, we are amazed to see people with no connection to the person in distress, who do all they can to save him. A good example of this is when our IDF soldiers are abroad and a war breaks out and they all rush home out of the goodness of their hearts to protect and defend the Jewish nation in its land.
This is not an uncommon trait that just happens to be part of the Jewish nation. This is our inheritance from Yehuda who felt arev, responsible, for his younger brother. This inheritance was itself responsible for the survival of the Jewish nation in all its various reincarnations in the Diaspora. Wherever a Jew was, he knew he was not alone and that if he had a problem, his Jewish brethren would come and help him. This knowledge provided every Jew with the strength to deal with the hardships of the Exile, and until today, it provides strength to many people. One might say that this is the central characteristic of the Jewish nation – this sense of Jewish mutual responsibility.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.