And Judah drew near to him… (Bereishit 44:18)
“How can I go up to my father and the boy is not with me…” (Bereishit 44:34).
The time has come,
the scales are tipping;
trembling but resolved
Judah draws towards
the one whose hands
ordain the future.
Revisiting his past –
bad choices, wrong turnings,
heartless words and crueler deeds –
his heart cracks open:
“How can I face my father?”
The barrier melts away.
In the opening sentence of the parasha, “Vayigash eilav Yehuda, – and Judah drew near to him,” the question is asked to whom did Judah draw near? The simple answer is to Joseph.
The Sefat Emet, however, teaches that Judah drew near to himself. He finally became his true self, not the man who had sold his brother into slavery and brought incalculable sorrow to his father, but the one who himself is now willing to become enslaved, in order to spare his father and maintain family harmony.
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, however, brings a teaching that when Judah stood before Joseph, he realized that he had reached the end – if Benjamin had to stay in Egypt, then Judah could not return to Jacob. What else was left for him to do? Reb Shlomo says that suddenly he realized that he had made a complete mess of things up until then. So he started to pray, and the One to Whom he drew near was God. And when Judah said later at the end of his impassioned plea to Joseph, “How will I go back to my father…?” Joseph might have thought he was speaking about Jacob, but Judah was not really standing before Joseph, he was standing before God and saying to Him, “How can I ever face You, my Father, I’ve done everything wrong my whole life…”
The Chidushei HaRim* among other commentators, also interprets the word father as alluding to God. His commentary on the phrase, “How can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me?” is, “How can I ascend the levels of service and approach God, before I have repaired the sins of my youth…?”
Reb Shlomo adds that at the point at which Judah realized that although everything that he had done until then might have been wrong, now was the time to do right, God opened the gate for him…
Joseph then was impelled to reveal himself and role of the brothers in God’s plan.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in a commentary on Vayigash http://www.rabbisacks.org/covenant-conversation-5767-vayigash/ (December 2006), describes Judah as the person who metamorphoses from a monstrously callous person (at the very moment that he calls Joseph “our own flesh and blood” he proposes selling him as a slave!) to a courageous compassionate man. Judah, he says, is the first real penitent in the Torah. This change in his character is traced back to the loss of two of his sons and the subsequent episode with his daughter-in-law Tamar. In her book, Genesis, The Beginning of Desire, Dr Avivah Zornberg cites a midrash which connects Judah’s moral growth with his bereavement of two children, which engenders empathy with his father on his loss of a child. She adds that his willingness to take public responsibility for having fathered Tamar’s twins is further evidence of his becoming a more ethical person.
Rabbi Sacks points out the significance of Judah’s name which is derived from the verb lehodot. It can mean “to thank,” – Leah says on the birth of her fourth son, “This time I will thank the Lord.” However, it also means “to confess” which according to Maimonides is the key element in repentance.
He adds that while Joseph is traditionally called “Ha-tzaddik – the righteous one,” he becomes the king’s deputy. Judah, however, becomes the father of Israel’s kings. Where the penitent Judah stands, even the perfectly righteous Joseph cannot stand. “However great an individual may be in virtue of his or her natural character, greater still is one who is capable of growth and change. That is the power of penitence, and it began with Judah.”
* The first Gerer Rebbe, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter (Rothenburg) (1799 – 1866), he was the grandfather of the Sefat Emet. A descendant of Rashi, he was born in Poland and became known as a Talmudic gaon. He became a disciple and later a brother-in-law of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, known as the Kotzker Rebbe, who was famous for his acerbic wit and Talmudic brilliance.
He wrote commentaries on the Bible and on the Talmud.