Using Personal Tragedy For Growth
Judah's plea to Joseph is a sign of his personal growth and ability to empathize with his father's grief.
Provided by KOLEL--The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, which is affiliated with Canada's Reform movement.
At the end of last week's parashah, Joseph, now the Prime Minister of Egypt, had arranged to have a valuable cup placed in Benjamin's saddlebags as all of his brothers head back to their father with food to stave off the famine. The cup is discovered, and it looks like Benjamin, the youngest, will have to stay in Egypt to be Joseph's servant.
In one of the most moving stories of the entire Torah, this week's parsha begins with Judah offering himself in place of Benjamin, so that Jacob should not be bereft of his two youngest sons. Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, and the family is reunited under his protection in Egypt. Joseph settles his entire family, including his father, all his brothers, and their families, in Egypt, in the land of Goshen.
Then Judah approached him [Joseph] and said: "Please, my lord, let your servant speak a word in my lord's ears, and let your anger not flare against your servant--for you are like Pharaoh!" (Genesis 44:18)
When it appears that Benjamin will be taken away as a servant to Joseph as punishment for apparently stealing the (planted) goblet, Judah steps forward and heroically defends him, offering himself instead. He speaks humbly but eloquently, begging for mercy on Benjamin's behalf, pleading their elderly father would be utterly heartbroken.
Judah's defense of Benjamin is one of the most heroic moments in the Torah; Judah seems to be selflessly sacrificing himself for the sake of his brother and father.
He has changed since the day that he and his brothers threw Joseph into the pit, many years earlier. At that time, it was Judah who suggested selling Joseph into slavery in the first place. (Genesis 37:26). He might have been saving himself the trouble of actually killing his brother (and earning a bit of money on the side), or he might have been trying to concoct a scheme to keep Joseph alive when the others wanted to spill his blood--it's not clear what his motivations were, but he was deeply involved in the harmful scheme.
Yet Judah was not the eldest of the brothers, and it's not immediately apparent why he was the one to step forward to defend Benjamin and offer himself in his brother's place. (He was 4th in the order.) We can note that both Reuben and Judah personally guaranteed Benjamin's safe return to Jacob (42:37; 43:8-10).
Furthermore, Simeon, the 2nd eldest, wasn't there, because he was held as a hostage by Joseph when Joseph accused them of being spies; but that still leaves Reuben and Levi as being higher than Judah in the birth order, and therefore perhaps with a higher degree of leadership responsibility, at least as most ancient societies would have seen it.