Vayigash: Emotional rescue
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Vayigash: Emotional rescue

This week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, begins with Judah’s impassioned plea to the viceroy of Egypt to release his brother Benjamin from Egyptian bondage. At the time, Judah would not have imagined that the man he was addressing (Egypt was then the world’s superpower) was his long lost brother who had been sold into slavery twenty two years earlier.

Judah entreated the viceroy, “Please, my lord, let now your servant speak something into my lord’s ears, and please do not be angry with your servant, for you are like Pharaoh.” The casual reader might get the impression from Judah’s opening words that included “please,” “my master,” and “your servant,” that he spoke softly and humbly to the viceroy. However, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (Rashi), the pre-eminent commentator of the Torah, deduces from Judah’s appeal for mercy from the viceroy that Judah must have given the viceroy good reason to be angry. And, because Judah had done nothing other than speak to the viceroy, the viceroy’s anger toward him could have been caused only by harsh words from Judah. Rashi, citing the Midrash, concludes that Judah had warned the viceroy that if Benjamin was not released, the viceroy would be punished by Heaven and that Judah would personally kill both the viceroy and Pharaoh!

This raises the question: Why would Judah threaten the two most powerful men on the planet? Surely, it would have been wiser to use diplomacy (and perhaps resort to warnings and threats if that failed).

In a Shabbat address in the winter of 1965, the Lubavitcher Rebbe explained that at that moment Judah spoke to the viceroy on behalf of Benjamin, nothing else mattered more than his brother’s physical and spiritual well-being. Judah was so embroiled that he was incapable of a calculated act. His brother was in danger; he acted instinctively. As the Yiddish saying goes, “When it hurts, you scream!” And to the extent that Judah was capable of rational thought, Judah believed that speaking harshly to the viceroy would have a greater impact than diplomacy: The viceroy would see just how great Judah’s brotherly love was, that he was willing to put his own life in imminent danger, and so Judah hoped that his heartfelt but harsh words would pierce the heart and mind of the one with that power to release his brother. And indeed, Judah prevailed!

We see from this that when it comes to saving a Jewish child from enslavement to cultures and ideologies that are foreign to Judaism, we must act instinctively. True, we must dress our remarks with “please,” and “do not be angry,” but the immediate, strong, and heartfelt words must come through without compromise. It is not a time for diplomacy; it is time to show raw hurt, concern, and love. It is not a time to call on so-called experts and academics who will then pencil in an appointment at a convenient time to dish out advice. Nor is it a time to thoroughly discuss, carefully deliberate, and cautiously ponder how the “Egyptians” (those around us) might react, and only then perhaps actually embark on a course of action (but only if one can be found that will not ruffle anyone’s feathers).

Immediate action is the call of the day! Each and every one of us must do all that we can to ensure that our children, and the Jewish children down the block, are shown and taught the beauty of our heritage. And as the Rebbe famously said, “even if [all that] you know [is the Jewish letter] Aleph, then teach Aleph.”

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