A Higher Responsibility

  • Rav Alex Israel
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion



A Higher Responsibility
By Rav Alex Israel



The famine was heavy in the land.  It came to pass, once they had eaten up the grain which they had brought out of Egypt, their father said to them: "Go, buy us a little food."



Ya'akov's casual, nonchalant language as he talks about going to "buy us a little food" in Egypt hides his fear, his deep terror of the excruciating decision that he knows he must make.  The family's food supply is depleted.  Ya'akov is fully aware how badly they need more grain, but he wants to avoid sending Binyamin; therefore, he opens a conversation as if hoping that he can procure the grain without paying the awful price.  Ya'akov is reluctant and worried; he wants to refuse to allow Binyamin to make the trip to Egypt.  They all know the facts: Yosef is gone, presumed dead; Shimon is incarcerated in Egypt.  However, the family cannot survive without grain: they have many mouths to feed.  The only way to procure food and to free Shimon is to send Binyamin down to Egypt.  Yet, if anything befalls Binyamin, the elderly and heart-broken Ya'akov will surely die in his distress, in his deep sorrow.  Furthermore, the xenophobic Governor of Egypt is unpredictable in the extreme: one minute he is threatening and suspicious; the next moment, friendly and reassuring.  Anything is possible; the one thing that is definite is that the family grain supply is almost gone.  What will they eat when there is none left?


It is obvious that the family is stuck, but only Yehuda is brave enough to present the situation to Ya'akov as a zero-sum game:


The man carefully warned us: "You shall not see my face, unless your brother is with you."  If you will send our brother with us, we will go down and buy you food; but if you will not send him, we will not go down, for the man said to us: "You shall not see my face, unless your brother is with you.'"



In other words, Yehuda says to his father: please do not tell us to "buy a little food" in Egypt.  Do not play with us!  We are waiting, exasperated, for you to give us the go-ahead.  It is all about Binyamin—without him, there will be no food!


Still, Ya'akov is unready to make the decision.  He is still thinking about how things might have been different.  Why has "fate" dealt him the cards so cruelly?


Yisra'el said: "Why did you wrong me by telling the man that you have a brother?"

They replied: 'The man asked about ourselves, and regarding our home, saying: 'Is your father yet alive? Have you another brother?'  We responded according to these matters; could we in any way know that he would say: 'Bring your brother down'?'"



Ya'akov is expressing wishful thinking here, and the brothers defend themselves, reminding Ya'akov that they are mere victims: had he been in their place, he would have said the same things!  We might think of Ya'akov's words here as his voicing his wishes aloud, a "therapy" of sorts, allowing Ya'akov to process the issue yet another time.  We see the restless turmoil in Ya'akov's brain, his personal turmoil and torment.  It would appear that Ya'akov at this point realizes that his back is against the wall.  He is fully aware of the answers to his questions, but he is seeking reassurance rather than information: he is asking himself whether this is in fact the sole option; he is searching for a way out that he knows does not exists.  He is building up the strength in order to reluctantly make the grim, awful decision to allow Binyamin to go to Egypt.





Still, Ya'akov is unwilling to take the final step until Yehuda speaks up:


Yehuda said to his father, Yisra'el: "Send the boy in my care, and let us be on our way, that we may live and not die: you and we and our children.  I myself will be surety for him (anokhi e'ervennu); you may hold me responsible (mi-yadi tevakshena): if I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, I shall stand guilty forever.  For we could have been there and back twice by now had we not dawdled.



At this point, Ya'akov finally gives permission for his sons—including Binyamin—to travel to Egypt.  This brings us to the issue: how did Yehuda persuade Ya'akov?  What in his words pushed his father to the "tipping point?"  What phrase found a place in Ya'akov's heart?  What was it that induced a change of heart?


When I look at Yehuda's argument here, I am rather perplexed.  What does he add?  He gives no reliable assurances: he simply says that he will take personal care of Binyamin and that he personally will vouch to keep him safe.  It is true that when Binyamin is accused of the robbery of Yosef's cup (44:18), it is Yehuda who valiantly steps forward and pleads desperately that Binyamin be spared.  Yehuda is indeed true to his word: he looks out for Binyamin. 


However, if we examine his promise, we must understand that Yehuda had no real knowledge that he could carry through on his promise.  If the Governor of Egypt had not been Yosef, then Binyamin would certainly have become his slave, and Yehuda would have had to return empty-handed and helpless to his father.  He accepts that he would bear the sin and the guilt "forever," but this would have hardly consoled his father.  Yehuda's promise seems rather empty.  How then did it convince Ya'akov?


I would like to offer a novel suggestion





Let us take a step back from the story for a few moments.  Let us venture into the laws of shepherding.  Parashat Mishpatim gives us the following law:


A man may give a donkey, an ox, a sheep or any other animal to his neighbor for safekeeping; and it may die or be injured or be taken away while no one is looking.  Then, the issue between them will be settled by the taking of an oath before the Lord that the neighbour did not lay hands on the other person’s property…

If it is torn to pieces (im tarof yitaref), he shall bring the remains as evidence and he will not be required to pay for the torn animal.

(Shemot 22:10-13)


Here the Torah gives us the laws of the guardian.  If somebody deposits an article with a watchman and it mysteriously goes missing, the guardian can take an oath in court swearing that he is not culpable of taking the object for himself nor guilty of negligence.  The guardian can thereby substantiate his innocence, exempting him from any obligation to reimburse the owner for the lost object. 


A shepherd has a special law in this regard.  If a shepherd is given sheep to watch and one of the sheep is mauled by a wild animal, it is not by means of an oath that he may absolve himself of responsibility.  Rather, he must bring evidence of the attack; once he has done, he shows that he did not personally dispose of or sell that animal, but that it was set upon by wild animals and he bears no guilt.

By understanding this law of the shepherd, we understand more clearly a section of the story at the start of the Yosef saga. 


They took Yosef's coat, slaughtered a goat and dipped the coat in blood.  They then sent the striped coat to their father and said: "Look what we have found—do you recognize it? Is this your son’s robe or not"'

Ya'akov recognized it and replied, "It is my son’s coat!  A wild beast has devoured him!  Yosef has been torn to pieces (tarof taraf Yosef)!"

Ya'akov rent his clothes, put on sackcloth and mourned his son for a long time. 

His sons and daughters tried to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted; he said, "I will go down to the grave mourning for my son.”



When the brothers send the "evidence" to their father, they are using the code of the shepherd: evidence of a mauling absolves the responsible party.  When he is presented with the bloody coat, Ya'akov knows what the conclusion is: Yosef has been torn to pieces.  Here the phraseology is exceptionally precise.  The text in Mishpatim uses the phrase "Im tarof yitaref;" here too, Ya'akov exclaims: "Tarof taraf Yosef."  In other words, this is a direct application of the Torah's rule of the shepherd.  The brothers use this technique to acquit themselves absolutely of guilt for the fate of Yosef.





However, this is not Ya'akov's personal ethic.  As we have seen earlier, Ya'akov himself relates to this familiar shepherding situation, when Ya'akov professes to Lavan:


“These twenty years I have spent in your service, your ewes and she-goats never miscarried, nor did I feast on rams from your flock.  I did not bring to you whatever was torn by wild beasts; I bore the loss myself: (anokhi achattenna), you demanded it of me (mi-yadi tevakshena): whether snatched by day or snatched by night.”

(31: 39)


In other words, Ya'akov says that he never utilized this legal proviso.  He always demanded a higher standard of responsibility, of integrity from himself.  He went beyond the call of duty—what Halakha in later times calls, "lifnim mi-shurat ha-din."  Ya'akov as a shepherd always paid for animals that were torn apart by predators as if he was personally responsible.  Hence, he reminds Lavan that throughout his twenty years of shepherding, he never brought a mauled animal to Lavan.  It was not because animals were not attacked; they certainly were.  Rather, Ya'akov always absorbed the cost, adopting an ethic of responsibility in the widest sense possible. 





Now, let us return to Yehuda's promise.  We posed the question as to how Yehuda's words succeeded in persuading Ya'akov: what did he add?  I believe that we now have an answer.  Pay close attention to the striking similarity between Ya'akov's phraseology and that of Yehuda:


31:39: "Anokhi achattenna; mi-yadi tevakshena."

43:9: "Anokhi e'ervennu; mi-yadi tevakshena."


In other words, the brothers adopt the standard degree of personal responsibility of shepherding, but precisely through this standard, they vindicate themselves of the blood-guilt for Yosef.  Quite clearly, this degree of responsibility is insufficient to secure Binyamin's safety.  If the brother's "lost" Yosef that way, then how can that same degree of guardianship suffice as they travel to foreign territory with Binyamin, Yosef's brother?  No!  If this is the extent of their trustworthiness, their reliability, Binyamin is not going!


Yehuda understand this.  He rises above the "regular" ethic of the shepherd, and adopts Ya'akov's own, personal, stricter standard.  He uses Ya'akov's own words, indicating that he will engage in supreme efforts to safeguard Binyamin, measures that go beyond the call of duty and the standard rules of guardianship.  Once Ya'akov hears his own high standard repeated back to him and senses that Yehuda understands that tighter security arrangements are required and a greater sense of dependability and faithfulness demanded, he gives his permission to send Binyamin.


Hence, through listening carefully to the words of the Torah, and by understanding the jargon of the shepherd, we gain a critical insight into the decision that allows the story to progress a stage further, towards the eventual reunion of Yosef and his family.


Shabbat Shalom!