The Yosef narrative of the last few parshiyot – the longest narrative of Breishit – has been focusing, not surprisingly, on the character of Yosef. But also central to this story is the person of Yehudah, and his growing into the role of a leader. Although he failed to stop the selling of Yosef, and although he almost sent Tamar to a fiery death, he learned from these experiences. He understood that as a person, and as a leader, his bond must be his word. He must be guided by a strict moral code, and he must be prepared to live up to his commitments regardless of the cost.
It was by exhibiting this trait that he secured Yaakov’s agreement to send Binyamin down with the brothers, and as our parasha opens, it will be this trait that is put to the test. Does he have the courage to take on a stronger, more powerful adversary? Can he live up to his promise to his father even at the possible cost of his life or his freedom?
VaYigash – and he stepped forward. The opening word of our parasha is an answer to these questions. Yehudah is prepared to move, to confront, to do what it will take to ensure that Binyamin will return home safely. His impassioned plea to Yosef is both the climax and the turning point of the Yosef story, and results in Yosef revealing himself to his brother, and ultimately in the entire family leaving Canaan and settling in Mitzrayim.
Yosef demonstrates a different approach to engaging the world. Not personal responsibility, but belief in God’s guiding hand. After revealing himself to his brothers, attempts to put their minds at ease:
Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that you sold me here; for God did send me before you to preserve life… And God sent me before you to preserve you a posterity in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance. (Breishit 45:4, 6)
His belief in God, and in God’s hand in history and in his life and the life of his family, allowed him to see what had happened as part of a Divine plan, and to absolve his brothers of blame. This approach stands in stark contrast to that of Yehudah, who does not talk about God, and who embodies personal responsibility. How does one approach life, its good and bad fortunes, and his or her role in the world? Is it “God working through us” or is it “the buck stops here”? Is it “It is not in me; God shall give Pharaoh a favorable answer” (Breishit 41:16) or is it “I will be a surety, from my hand you may demand him?” (Breishit 43:8). To take the former approach absolves one, and others, of responsibility for their actions, to take the latter is to remove God from one’s world.
One answer is that both are correct, we are responsible, and we need to strive to see God in the world. The key to resolve this contradiction is humility – we need to strive to see God in the world, not to presume to know how God works. If we believe that we know what God’s plan is, then we can do great evil. We can go on holy wars, killing innocent people, because we know that it is God’s will. We can ignore the needs of others, our interpersonal responsibilities, even our ethical responsibilities, because we know what God’s plan is.
Even if not by acts of commission, we can fail to take the initiative to respond to real world events, because we will see all that happens as God’s will. In this regard, it is interesting to note that Yehudah is much more of an active character, and Yosef is much more passive and reactive. Yosef is content to let events unfold, to not even tell his father for 22 years that he is in Mitzrayim, because he is content to wait for God’s plan to reveal itself. This is taking religiosity too far. One’s belief in God’s hand in history may never compromise one’s ethical responsibilities.
However, if we fully embrace our personal responsibility, and we are open, with humility, to the possibility of God acting in the world, we will live our lives both connected to God, and being proactive in addressing what is wrong in the world, in taking responsibility, in living up to it, and in never compromising our ethical obligations.
Yosef and Yehudah, then, represent the two components that are sadly often missing from an observant Jewish life – religiosity and strong and proactive sense of moral responsibility. As Modern Orthodox Jews, we often are very wary of an approach that is “too religious.” We see how people can act when they believe they know God’s will or that God works through them. How people can wreak violence and murder, and justify the most heinous acts. The answer, however, is not to remove God from the world. The answer is to embrace a humble religiosity. To strive to see God in our lives, to look for those moments of connection, and at the same time to know that we are just human, and that – especially in a post-Holocaust world – that we can never truly know God’s plan. And when we allow ourselves to think that living a halakhic life is the beginning and end of our responsibility, we lose sight of the fundamental Torah mandate to do “what is right and just in the eyes of God.” Technical observance is not enough. We must fully embrace a sense of moral responsibility – to take full responsibility for our actions or our failures to act, to see what must be done in the world, what rights must be wronged, and to act on it.
These issues are of particular moment when tragedies and atrocities occur in the world. Many people may ask where is God in all of this? How can God allow such a tragedy to take place? These are legitimate questions, and they have a place. But to overly focus on the question of Divine justice, is being religious at the expense of our obligation to do something about it. Rav Soloveitchik, zt”l, has said that the reason that Judaism does not overly focus on the question of theodicy, is because to come up with answers as to why God allows bad things to happen to good people is to make our peace with suffering and injustice. As responsible Jews, as responsible human beings, our mandate is always to be sensitive to the suffering of others and do all that is in our power to give succor and to prevent such suffering and tragedies from ever happening again.
This dialectic is powerfully summed up in the following dialogue, the author is anonymous:
“Sometimes I would like to ask God why He allows poverty, suffering, and injustice when He could do something about it.”
“Well, why don’t you ask Him?”
“Because I’m afraid He would ask me the same question.”
To see God in the world is to live the life of Yosef. To never compromise our obligation to act, to do, is to live as Yehudah, to be an embodiment of vayigash eilav Yehudah. To be able to do both, to embrace full faith and full personal responsibility, is the challenge and the goal of our as religious moral agents in this world.