Joseph, then viceroy of Egypt, decides to hold Benjamin to pressure his brothers to bring their father Jacob to Egypt. His true identity is still hidden from his brothers. But Judah steps forward to intervene (Gen. 44:1-14). As Vayigash opens, in an impassioned plea, Judah offers himself in place of Benjamin (Gen. 44:18-34). Where does Judah, who once lacked strength to protect Joseph, finally find the courage? In this midrashic monologue, we imagine Judah recounting the moments just before his audience with the Egyptian leader:
“Years ago, at that pit with my brothers, I acquiesced to their rage. When they wanted to kill Joseph, I faced a terrifying choice: Stand up to them as my brother’s protector or sit back, protect myself, and let the fates decide. Back then, I stood silently by, even when it became clear that our brother’s life was in danger. Only when the option to sell him into slavery presented itself did I choose the lesser of two evils (Gen. 37:25-28). But then I became part of the devastation of our father Jacob. We lied to him, saying that Joseph had died, and we broke his heart. Oh, how our father mourned! Oh, how quickly he aged! (Gen. 37:31-35).
“Then, before my audience with this Egyptian leader, I realized: Here I was again. Caught between impossible choices, should I speak out to protect my brother Benjamin from Pharaoh’s viceroy? Or should I remain quiet, protecting the majority of us, yet subjecting young Benjamin to an unknown fate? Standing up might have endangered my whole family. Returning to Canaan without Benjamin would surely have killed my father.
“My aunts Bilhah and Zilpah taught me that my grandmother, Rebekah, believed that the Holy One’s Voice guides us (Gen. 25:22-23). But I had never heard that Voice before. And then this happened….”
(Re)discovering The Voice Within
Under such pressure,
I was lost and alone.
I wanted to go home.
So many lives in my hand,
Where and when should I take a stand?
I needed the Voice to guide me.
Unable alone to discern
How to decide this growing concern,
With nowhere else to turn,
With my insides starting to churn,
My disbelief I decided to spurn,
And I cried out:
“Where are You now? I need you!
Where are You?”
Just before I stood before the throne,
When I felt the most alone,
When my anxiety had run its course,
And my crying voice was utterly hoarse,
When I had no tears left to shed,
I sensed it right there in my head,
In the midst of my anguish and fear,
A still, small voice right then I did hear,
Responding with words that declare...
“I am here.”
“I am here,”
Said the Voice,
“And here I always have been,
Right inside you.”
It was the Kol d'mama daka
(That still small Voice inside),
Whispering my father Jacob’s own words
From his encounter by the sulam,
That ladder to heaven,
Achen yesh Adonai bamakom hazeh,
"Behold, [I, Adonai] am in this place" (Gen. 28:10),
And in this moment too.
"I am here,
If you let me in” (Menachem Mendel of Kotzk)
So I wiped away my tears,
Held in check my debilitating fears,
Filled my lungs with breath that seared,
And, like a young child to his father
Who seemed so far, far away,
“Where were You?
When my brothers were in a murderous rage.
When my actions with Tamar almost destroyed my life and hers.
When the famine came, threatening starvation.
Where were You?"
And then the Voice enveloped me,
Like a tallit wrapped around my heaving shoulders.
It held me close,
And let me cry.
Ever so compassionately,
It let out a sigh,
“Remember back when,
In the midst of your brothers’ bloodthirst,
You found the words to engage,
To temper their rage,
Convincing them to spare Joseph’s head
When he was assuredly all but dead?
And after the bloodlust dissipated,
And before the guilt abated,
Did you ever wonder whereupon
You found the ability to carry on?
“And remember when,
In the depths of your shame,
After you had called out Tamar, your daughter-in-law—accused adulteress—by name,
And then she brought forth your signet, cords, and staff,
Proving her truthfulness and your culpability? (Gen. 38:1-30)
You could have denied, denied, denied.
But instead you finally replied
That those things were yours.
And you accepted responsibility to ensure
That Tamar and your children
Were cared for forevermore.
Did you ever wonder where you found that courage?"
"It’s all in there," the Voice said. “I’m in there. In you."
“Your name Yehudah consists of five letters—
Take away the Dalet
And the Four that remain
Spell out the Tetragrammaton, My Holy Name.
Is within you. (the S’fat Emet)
“So if you find yourself in a troubling situation
in which you must stand up to someone’s damnation,
or hold back on your weak-kneed fixations,
or forgo that licentious assignation,
You may think,
which means, “please, my lord”
which means, “Within me is Adonai.”
Same letters, same intent.
An eternal truth does it represent,
I’ll be whispering quietly, and I won’t relent.
I’ll be pointing a way forward.
Kakatuv b’Torahteinu (as it is written in our Torah): And so Judah approached [Pharaoh’s viceroy, Joseph] and said, Bi adoni (please my lord), give your servant a hearing…” (Gen. 44:18). So now please, let [me] remain as [your] slave in place of [Benjamin], and let the lad go home with his brothers (Gen. 44:33),… And then Joseph cleared the room and said to his brothers, “I am Joseph…" (Gen. 45:1-3). “Come draw near to me… and don’t be troubled” (Gen. 45:4-5).
And from then on Judah knew,
As we all might now know too,
That in our moments of greatest fear,
Or when the choices are too much to bear,
We might strive to be aware,
That the Voice is within us, it’s clear.
That, like in Yehudah,
Right in there.
Rabbi Paul Kipnes, MAJE, a popular lecturer on raising spiritually balanced, emotionally whole children, is leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA. A former camp director and North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) regional advisor, Rabbi Kipnes and his wife Michelle November, MSSW, co-wrote Jewish Spiritual Parenting: Wisdom, Activities, Rituals, and Prayers for Raising Children with Spiritual Balance and Emotional Wholeness (Jewish Lights Publishing).