Parashat Vayigash

ויגש אליו יהודה. זש"ה בני אם ערבת לרעך וגו', נוקשת באמרי פיך וגו', עשה זאת איפוא בני והנצל . א"ל יוסף למה אתה מרבה דברים, מסתכל אני שיש גדולים ממך עומדין כאן ואינן מדברים, ואין ראובן גדול ממך, ואין שמעון ולוי גדולים ממך, ואינם מדברים, ואתה למה תרבה דברים, אמר לו מכל אלו אין אחד מהם חושש בו אלא אני בעצמי שאני ערב.

Yehuda approached him. This is what is is meant by the words “My son, if you are a guarantor for your neighbor… you are ensnared by the words of you mouth… do this now, my son, and be saved.” Yoseph told him, “why are you the one to say so much? I see that there are those who are your senior, and they aren’t speaking. Isn’t Reuven older than you? Aren’t Shimon and Levi older than you, and they aren’t speaking? Why are you spending so many words on this?” He said to him, from all of them, there isn’t any who is worried for him, except me, for I am his guarantor״ — Tanhuma

The two sons of Yaakov who we know most about are Yoseph and Yehuda. They push themselves to the forefront in every challenge they face. By the time of their confrontation in our parasha over Binyamin, it is inevitable that it will be decided by a confrontation between these two outsize figures, While the others hang back, it is clear that they are destined to be the leaders of Israel.

But the way they ascend to leadership is very different. Yoseph was destined for leadership. He was the first son of his father’s favorite wife. The Midrash says he was the image of his father. He was clearly wise and gifted with talent beyond his years. Furthermore, Heaven had plans for him and sent him dreams pushing him onto the path of greatness.

Yehuda is a different story. As the Tanhuma points out, he was the fourth son of his parentsp. He did not have any innate reason why he he should be the one in charge. He is never praised for his unique discernment. His authority and greatness entirely stemmed from one thing — his speaking up in the three stories that define his life: selling Yoseph, the story of Tamar,  and his guardianship over Binyamin. All three times it is his compulsion to take responsibility for others that drives him to speak up, and it is the same compulsion that forces others to recognize him.

Yehuda first speaks out to suggest selling Yoseph. He is not willing to see Yoseph die, even by inaction. He is willing to take action against all his brothers to prevent this outcome. But at this early stage, he is not willing to put his life on the line and openly demand the return of his brother. Had he done so, Tanhuma tells us the brothers would have had no choice to back down. They were not willing to harm any other brother in their pursuit of Yoseph, and so they could not have stood against such an ultimatum. But Yehuda did not fully stand with his brother. He compromises, and saves his brother only partially. He realizes the power of his commitment to others, but he doesn’t yet fully embrace it.

The second time Yehuda speaks out it is to save Tamar’s life. Here, when he finds out that Tamar is innocent of the charge and the burning he condemn her to, he speaks out. She is more righteous than he is, and the kids she is carrying are his. it seems he is already in a position of leadership when the story starts. All he has to do to save her life is to make up some excuse, to say that he is feeling magnanimous and will settle for banishing her or the like. But he cannot, because he is no longer able to take half measures. He needs to speak out. He now is willing to destroy his own reputation to fix what he is responsible for. If he had again settled for a half-measure, he never would have achieved more than temporal power, but passing that test cements his destiny.

Here, Yoseph taunts Yehuda. His older brothers are scared to stand up. What gives Yehuda that right? Yehuda answers simply. He is the one who declared himself responsible. He told his father his life is on the line to bring Binyamin back. All the other brothers might feel powerless to help. They might feel they have no choice but to go back to their father empty-handed. But Yehuda cannot. He took responsibility for Binyamin, and he told his father he will not come back without him. Yoseph can hold him instead, but Binyamin is coming back. He is the guarantor.

Often a leader is like Yoseph, head and shoulders above any other candidate for the role. But sometimes we feel that we are not Yoseph, that we are not capable of stepping up and protecting others. In those instances we should remember that the Sages say there is something even more powerful than a Yoseph. We need to be a Yehuda, someone who steps up, when no one else will, when it is insane to try, simply because it is right. We need to be the guarantor.