Parashat Vayigash is the dramatic dénouement to the Yosef story; it includes Yosef's overwhelmingly emotional revelation to his brothers and his plan to secure a fertile and prosperous future for his extended family in Egypt. Yosef's story highlights the power of forgiveness and reconciliation. In the narrative, though, Yosef is not the only person who figures prominently and who motivates the remarkable outcomes of the events. Yehudah takes center stage as the parashah opens as he dares to approach ("vayigash," a word also used to describe Avraham's audacious and heroic plea on behalf of the city of S'dom) the Egyptian viceroy and beg for his brother Binyamin's release.
With this impassioned request, Yehudah demonstrates another set of themes in the chronicle of Yosef's life. Yehudah changes and grows. Earlier in the Yosef story, Yehudah suggests that he and his brothers sell Yosef rather than kill him. He doesn't want his brother's blood on his hands so he abdicates the responsibility he has for Yosef and passes him on to nomadic merchants. In the Tamar story that interrupts the account of Yosef, Yehudah once again shirks his responsibilities until his daughter-in-law calls him on his actions and compels him to accept the consequences of his behavior. By the time Yehudah and his brothers descend to Egypt and the viceroy commands that they return with their youngest brother, Yehudah confronts Yaakov and promises that he will serve as the guarantor for Binyamin's safety. His brother's welfare, Yehudah explains clearly to his father, is his responsibility and he will bear the consequences should something tragic happen to him. By the time Yehudah faces Yosef and begs to switch places with the imprisoned Binyamin, Yehudah reveals that he has undergone a transformation. He is prepared to step up and fulfill his role as Binyamin's guarantor; he will not stand idly by when his brother's life-and consequently his father's-lies on the line.
Yehudah's recognition of his ultimate accountability for his family becomes the hallmark of the nation that bears his name, the Jewish People. Yehudah grows into assuming responsibility for his brother, modeling that all Jews act as guarantors for each other and cannot stand idly by when others in the Jewish family may face danger. Last month we watched with horror as the forests, homes, and communities in Israel went up in flames and our students raised their voices to raise funds for their brothers and sisters in Israel, because their welfare and safety is our responsibility. We dread the anti-Jewish armed march planned for Whitefish, Montana next week with equal horror and are exploring ways to show the Jewish population in that town that we stand with them. We are all part of one greater community!