one small step for man
The story of Joseph reaches its climax. Finally able to turn the tables on the brothers who sold him into slavery, Joseph frames Benjamin by planting a goblet in his sack, and then demands that he remain as his slave. It is Judah who makes the plea for mercy on behalf of the brothers. And as he does so we read: “Vayigash Yehuda – And Judah drew near”. It is a simple gesture, a single step. But that movement of drawing near represents a turning point not just in the story of Joseph but in the entire history of the Jewish people.
Throughout the stories of Genesis there is a clear pattern of hatred and hostility in the relationship between brothers. Beginning with Cain and Abel, every generation is characterized by rivalry and separation between siblings. Cain quarrels with his brother Abel, and kills him. Ishmael taunts Isaac and is exiled by Abraham. Jacob tricks Esau and then flees from him.
It seems that Jacob’s twelve sons are destined to follow the same pattern. Taunted by Joseph’s dreams, they plot to kill Joseph and then sell him into slavery into Egypt.
But, in a single moment, the pattern of hostility changes. Judah breaks the chain of separation and moving apart, and responds by moving closer. At that very instant the entire dynamic of the book of Genesis is altered.
This simple gesture represents something crucial that has been missing from every sibling relationship since the start of the Bible – a sense of responsibility. “For thy servant has undertaken to be a guarantor for the boy,” Judah tells Joseph. It is Judah, the very one of the brothers who initiated the sale of Joseph as a slave, who finally recognizes that brotherhood means responsibility.
This acceptance of responsibility is a response to the very first question asked by Man in the Bible. Accused by God of killing his brother Abel, Cain denies any responsibility for him: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” he asks. Judah and his brothers give a powerful answer to Cain’s question: “Yes, I am indeed my brother’s keeper”.
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin has suggested that this is the reason why the Jewish people was only founded with Jacob’s sons: it was they who became the tribes of Israel, and gave the name the “Children of Israel” to future generations – precisely because they were the first generation to recognize the bonds of responsibility to each other. It is a lesson as relevant to the people of Israel today as at any time in our history: what binds us together as a people, more even than our common ancestry, is the sense of responsibility that we feel for each other.
In others’ words
Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom on brotherhood and responsibility: ‘The story was recently uncovered of a New York attorney. During the Holocaust, he signed 300 affidavits for refugees, claiming each as his brother to allow them entry into the United States. He later faced the authorities who found it hard to believe he had 300 brothers. The federal agents left his home in silence, however, after he calmly but forcefully replied that “every Jew around the world is my brother”. “This brotherhood between Israel and Jewish communities around the world is the essence of our existence.”
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, Address to AIPAC Convention, March 2003
On a lighter note
Chaim and Mendel were talking about the terrible international conflicts which plague the world. “Why can’t the nations of the world just live together like one big family?” asked Chaim. “But they do”, answered Mendel. “Have you seen my family!”