Over Hanukkah, my family observed the 32nd yahrzeit of my father, a”h. When I was a teenager, he drummed into me an idea that gave insight into Yehudah in this week’s parsha. My father would say people reach real maturity when they can forgive their parents their errors.
In that context, Yehudah’s argument to free Binyamin is all the more remarkable. He tells/asks Yosef to let his younger brother go, because Ya’akov could not survive the loss, and to take him instead. Implicitly, Yehudah recognizes his father could survive his own absence, yet he says it without rancor or bitterness. Previously willing to sell Yosef—for whatever complex set of reasons/emotions/reactions to favoritism, Yosef’s dreams, or something else—he now knew his role was to save Binyamin on behalf of his father.
Last week, my friend (and sponsor in this space) R. Nataf suggested Yehudah earned the kingship with his shift to truth-telling and relentless authenticity; here he faces the challenge of facing up to an uncomfortable truth of his family dynamic, his father’s greater need for Binyamin’s presence.
We need not overstate the matter to retain its drama. We do not have to assume Ya’akov loved Binyamin more (whatever that emotion meant to people back then), nor even preferred Binyamin. After all, Ya’akov had allowed Yehudah to take Binyamin, not Re’uven, and later in the parsha sends Yehudah ahead to set up for the family’s arrival. He clearly trusts and appreciates Yehudah.
All we know—my father a”h was very fond of taking care to assert only what we know, as in a favorite joke of his: an engineer, physicist, and mathematician on a train in Scotland spot some black sheep. The engineer says, “hm, sheep in Scotland are black.” The physicist corrects him, “some sheep in Scotland are black,” and the mathematician corrects him, “some sheep in Scotland are black on one side”—is Ya’akov’s wellbeing depended more on having Binyamin close.
The ability to face painful truths unflinchingly links nicely to the idea of hereditary leadership. I think many of us today resist the idea because we fear it becomes entrenched and abused. From the king’s perspective, it might also sometimes feel like a bad fit; imagine a young man whose passion was art or literature or debate, but was born to be king. Yehudah shows an ability here to step into the role history, destiny, or Gd assigned him, accept it, and work within its parameters to further best possible outcomes.
As a member of the tribe of Levi (my father was, too), the idea of some level of predetermination comes at birth. It may not seem a burden, but leaving shul to wash kohanim’s hands whenever they are to administer the priestly blessing inculcates the idea we are born to some roles. Especially in my family, where our voices made clear we would not be among the singers of the Beit HaMikdash, may Gd rebuild it soon, we knew were born to a life of guarding, opening and closing gates, and living without any inherited share of the Land. Life is about choosing a path within set parameters, a lesson Yehudah has absorbed as he speaks with Yosef.
My father’s idea about parents wasn’t about parents, I am saying, although I am not sure my adolescent self realized it. It was about picking up on which parts of the world are fixed, accepting them as unchangeable, and working within them to do our best to further Gd’s plan for the world. Yehudah understood and accepted this truth, proving himself fit to sire all the legitimate kings of Israel from David on.