Last week’s sedra, Miketz, ended with what is probably the greatest cliff-hanger in the entire Torah. Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest son, is caught red-handed handling stolen goods from Joseph’s palace.
Joseph seeks to imprison Benjamin, putting the other brothers in a very difficult position as they were well aware that should they fail to return with him, this could cause their father Jacob to die of grief.
At this point Judah speaks up and helplessly declares: “What can we say to my lord, how can we speak and how can we justify ourselves?” and offers himself and his brothers into slavery. Joseph refuses this request and seeks to only imprison Benjamin. At this point, the curtain comes down on Parshat Miketz and we all take a deep breath.
When the curtain rises again at the start of this week’s sedra, Vayigash, Judah takes a far more confrontational stance against his estranged brother Joseph.
The commentaries explain that Judah was willing to engage in conflict with Joseph to reclaim his brother and the midrash has a graphic description of the violent threats that were traded by both sides.
Rav Shimon Schwab notes that there is a change in mood between these two sedras. At the end of Miketz, Judah appears to be feeble and resigned to his fate, whereas at the start of Vayigash he is ready for all-out war.
When we read these sedras, we often overlook this point as there is a period of a week between them, but in the Biblical narrative this is all part of one episode. Why then did Judah’s attitude change so suddenly?
The answer lies in one short line where Judah recalls that he had personally guaranteed Benjamin’s safety: “For your servant took responsibility for the youth…” (Bereshit 44:32).
The acceptance and awareness of responsibility is perhaps the greatest motivating factor possible.
When we feel personally invested in a cause, when we realise that the buck stops with us, then we stand up for what we believe in and ensure that the job gets done, come what may.
Rabbi Jonny Roodyn is educational director at Jewish Futures Trust