In Parshas Miketz, the Torah records that the brothers returned to Yaakov in Canaan and related that the Viceroy of Egypt had instructed them that they could no longer seek provisions in Egypt unless their brother Binyamin accompanied them. Yaakov was beside himself and insistent that Binyamin not go.
Then, as time went on, their provisions began to dwindle. Reuven boldly announced that he would guarantee the safe return of Binyamin at the cost of the lives of his two oldest sons. Yaakov promptly refused his offer. It was not until Yehuda pledged that if Binyamin did not return with him he would forfeit his portion in this world and the next that Yaakov finally relented.
Why did Yaakov only agree to send Binyamin when Yehuda pledged everything away?
At the beginning of Parshas Vayigash, the moment of truth arrives. The seemingly volatile viceroy announces that the culprit – Binyamin – in whose sack the royal chalice was found, will remain a slave, while the rest of the brothers are free to leave.
The parsha opens with the words, “Then Yehuda approached him.” It is one of the most dramatic confrontations in the Torah. Yehuda approaches Yosef to plead Binyamin’s case and emphatically states that he will not leave without Binyamin at his side. “For your servant took responsibility for the youth from my father saying, ‘If I do not bring him back to you, then I will have sinned to my father for all time.’” Yehuda’s arguments push Yosef over the edge and he reveals his identity to his brothers.
Many times we are faced with daunting and demanding situations. We struggle mightily and apply ourselves as much as we feel that we are able. But when we feel that we are no longer progressing, we are forced to concede defeat so that we can invest our efforts elsewhere. However, when a person is heavily invested in something, he is slower to admit defeat and walk away. Even when he feels he has exhausted his efforts and done as much as he could, if he is truly committed, he will somehow figure out a way to try again.
Yaakov undoubtedly trusted his children and believed they would utilize every means to ensure that Binyamin return home to him safely. But doing their utmost was insufficient. To Yaakov, losing Binyamin was tantamount to dying himself. Thus, he would not allow Binyamin to go unless he felt that someone would have the same level of commitment for Binyamin’s wellbeing as he did.
It was only when Yehuda put everything on the line that Yaakov reluctantly agreed to let Binyamin go. Only then did Yaakov feel confident that Yehuda would risk his own life to ensure that Binyamin return home safely.
When Yosef insisted that the rest of the brothers return to Canaan in peace, the brothers might very well have reasoned that there was nothing more they could do. They may have rationalized that the best they could do at that moment was to return to Yaakov to seek his advice before they returned and tried to formulate a plan to rescue Binyamin. But to Yehuda, leaving was not an option. He had no recourse but to take up the cause immediately because, to him, nothing else existed besides the welfare of Binyamin. Such is the power of commitment.
On March 13, 1964, a woman named Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death near her home in the Kew Gardens section of Queens, New York. The reason her case made headlines was because of the apathy of her neighbors. The New York Times article detailing the events was titled, “Thirty-eight who saw murder, but didn’t call the police.”
“For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched… three separate attacks in Kew Gardens. Twice the chatter and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted him and frightened him off. Each time he returned… Not one person telephoned the police during the assault.”
The case became symbolic of the cold and dehumanizing effect of urban life. It seemed that nobody cared enough to bother to call, and therefore all the neighbors remained indifferent even as a woman was being killed.
The truth, however, is somewhat more complicated and intriguing. Two New York City psychologists subsequently conducted a series of studies to try to understand the “bystander problem.” They staged emergencies in different situations to see who would come forward to help. What they found was that the one factor which predicted who/how many people would come forward was how many witnesses were present at the time.
For example, in one experiment, a student who was alone in a room staged an epileptic fit. When there was only one person in the room next door listening, that person rushed to the student’s aid 85 percent of the time. But when the subjects thought there were four other people overhearing the seizure, they came to the student’s aid only 31 percent of the time.
In another experiment, people who saw smoke seeping out from under a doorway reported it 75 percent of the time when they were on their own, but only 38 percent of the time when they were in a group.
The conclusion was that when people are in a group, responsibility for acting becomes diffused. Everyone assumes that someone else will act, and if no one else does, they assume that it must not really be a serious problem.
Thus, in the case of Kitty Genovese, it wasn’t that no one called despite the fact that thirty-eight people heard her screams; it’s that no one called because thirty-eight people heard her screams. Had she been attacked on a lonely street with only one person around, the story may have ended differently.
According to the old quip the Israeli army always fights with incredible determination and gusto because they have “General Aleph Bais.” Aleph Bais, the first two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, is an acronym for the words, “Ayn b’rayra – there is no choice!” In other words, the Israelis know against whom they are fighting, and that they are always fighting defensive wars. Surrender is simply not an option; they have no recourse but to fight until the end.
There is simply no comparison between the efforts invested by one who is committed and one who is uncommitted. One of the shortcomings of our world is that there is a general lack of commitment to ideals and values. Any successful marriage requires a great degree of patience, tolerance, and understanding. But above all, there must be a sense of commitment to ensure that those other vital characteristics are fostered.
Our personal level of service to G-d is also bound to our level of commitment. Those aspects of Judaism to which we are not committed often fall by the wayside as soon as the invariable obstacles surface. It is only when we are fully committed that we oblige ourselves to traverse all impediments to ensure that we maintain our obligations.
The brothers all realized the severity of what was transpiring, but it was only Yehuda who stepped forward to protect Binyamin because he had committed himself to the cause.Rabbi Dani Staum