Parshat Miketz: “I myself will guarantee his safety; from my hand you shall require him.”
Rabbi Uriya and Shima Dvir are Straus-Amiel shlichim serving as the Jewish Chaplaincy Couple at Nottingham University, England
In parshat Miketz we find one of the most difficult and appalling stories in the lives of our Patriarchs and their families.
Yosef is finally released from the Egyptian prison where he had been imprisoned following a great many trials and tribulations which had begun when he was sold to the Ishmaelites by his own brothers. In merit of the fact that he was able to decipher Pharaoh’s dreams and propose a brilliant economic strategy – the first ever five-year economic plan, which ultimately saves Egypt from famine – he is taken out of prison and becomes second-in-command to the king of Egypt.
Meanwhile, in the Land of Canaan, Yaakov and his sons experience hard years of famine and are desperate for bread. Yaakov sends his sons to Egypt to buy some food, and they find themselves standing before the great official responsible for all of Egypt’s food. This person is none other than their brother Yosef, whom they don’t recognize.
Much ink has been spilled on how Yosef tests his brothers by accusing them of being spies, incarcerating Shimon and demanding of them to bring their youngest brother from Canaan on their next trip down to Egypt if they wish to ever see their brother Shimon again. Yosef does not stop there, and secretly puts the money with which they paid for their food into their sacks of grain. When the brothers discover their money has been returned to them, they feel extremely anxious, and are worried they might be accused of thievery. The brothers return to Yaakov their father with the food they had just bought in Egypt, and relate all that had transpired, including the incarceration of Shimon and the ruler’s demand that they bring Binyamin with them on their next trip down to Egypt.
Yaakov is stupefied at the turn of events, and his response attests to the great tension that prevails between him and his sons: “And Yaakov their father said unto them: ‘Me have you bereaved of my children: Yosef is not, and Shimon is not, and you will take Binyamin away; upon me are all these things come” (Bereishit 42:36).
Rashi explains that the words “Me have you bereaved” teach us that he suspected they might have killed him or sold him, as they had done to Yosef. It seems that Yaakov suspected the brothers of being involved in Yosef’s death, perhaps even killing him with their own hands, or selling him. Hence, he is unwilling to let them take Binyamin, lest they hurt him or take bad care of him.
Two brothers confront Yaakov, and offer to take charge of Shimon’s “rescue mission” in addition to taking responsibility for Binyamin. In fact, it is the same two brothers who attempted to “rescue” Yosef when the other brothers wished to kill him who step forward now: Reuven and Yehuda.
Reuven, who had initially suggested to the brothers to throw Yosef into the pit instead of killing him, with the aim of ultimately saving him, is now willing to take Binyamin under his protection in order to save his brother Shimon: “And Reuven spoke unto his father, saying: ‘Thou shalt slay my two sons, if I bring him not to thee; deliver him into my hand, and I will bring him back to thee” (Bereishit 42:37). Reuven is willing for Yaakov to kill his own two sons should anything happen to Binyamin.
We will get back to Yaakov’s response to this proposal a little later.
Yehuda – who had also devised a plan to save Yosef, suggesting to the brothers to remove Yosef from the pit and sell him to the Ishmaelites instead of leaving him to die – is also willing to hold himself accountable to Yaakov for bringing Binyamin back safely, and all for the purpose of saving Shimon. “And Yehuda said unto Yisrael his father: ‘Send the lad with me, and we will arise and go, that we may live, and not die, both we, and thou, and also our little ones. I myself will guarantee his safety; from my hand you shall require him, if I bring him not unto thee, and set him before thee, then let me bear the blame forever” (ibid. 43:8-9).
Unlike Reuven, Yehuda does not offer his sons as pledge, but holds himself accountable. In other words, should anything happen to Binyamin, God forbid, Yaakov would hold Yehuda to his word. Yehuda speaks with great decisiveness to his father, and goes so far as to say: “For except we had lingered, surely we had now returned a second time” (ibid. 43:10).
This is Yaakov’s response to Reuven: “And he said: ‘My son shall not go down with you; for his brother is dead, and he only is left; if harm befall him by the way in which you go, then will you bring down my grey hairs with sorrow to the grave” (Bereishit 42:38).
Yaakov’s response to Yehuda is different: “And their father Yisrael said unto them: ‘If it be so now, do this: take of the choice fruits of the land in your vessels… take also your brother, and arise, go again unto the man. And God Almighty give you mercy before the man, that he may release unto you your other brother and Binyamin. And as for me, if I be bereaved of my children, I am bereaved'” (ibid. 43:11-14).
Why does Yaakov refuse Reuven’s offer, and yet accepts Yehuda’s?
Firstly, it’s all in the timing.
Reuven makes his offer at a time of great anger: How could it be that the brothers, who went down to Egypt to buy food, have come back without Shimon?! And now they want to take Binyamin as well?! Yaakov’s anger rings loud and clear in verse 37, so much so that he refuses Reuven’s offer.
In contrast, Yehuda makes his proposal at a different time – “And it came to pass, when they had eaten up the corn which they had brought out of Egypt, that their father said unto them: ‘Go again, buy us a little food” (ibid. 43:2). Now Yaakov is desperate. The food the brothers had bought on their first trip down to Egypt is now finished. The only option that remains is to go back to Egypt. Yehuda seizes the moment and makes his proposal. Yaakov cannot but give his consent.
Secondly, it’s all about understanding what Yaakov really wants.
Reuven is willing to sacrifice his two sons, if anything happens to Binyamin. He seems to believe that in such case, Yaakov would surely want to avenge Reuven for the two sons lost to him [Yaakov], and for whom Reuven is accountable.
However, this is a strange notion, as expressed by Rashi on verse 38: “My son shall not come down with you – he [Yaakov] did not accept Reuven’s words. He [Yaakov] said: What a foolish firstborn is this one, who offers to kill his two sons! Are not his sons my sons?” It goes without saying that Yaakov does not wish for his two grandsons to die! Such a preposterous suggestion can only be made by a fool, as explained by Rashi.
In contrast, Yehuda shows a profound understanding of his father’s mindset at this difficult time. Yaakov has no thoughts of revenge, God forbid, but looks for true accountability. Taking responsibility means bearing the consequences of one’s actions. Yaakov is looking for a “responsible adult”; one who will make sure all his sons come back safely; one who would bear the sole responsibility, should anything happen. Moreover, this accountable person would also have to live with the success or the failure of the mission at hand for the remainder of his days, because his father will hold him accountable forever.
We left on our shlichut with the aim of helping Am Yisrael, as we had so often been taught in the Straus-Amiel Emissary Program. Often times, when one embarks on emissary work, one feels like Reuven – in the sense that one gives one’s all without thinking of the repercussions or the price one might have to pay for certain sacrifices.
Yaakov teaches us that Yehuda’s way is better. When one embarks on a mission, the guiding principle must be – “I myself will guarantee his safety; from my hand you shall require him”. In other words, of course one must set forth with great energy. However, one must also keep in mind that any emissary work must be carried out with a sense of personal responsibility for the community. One must tread cautiously, making sure no collateral damage is caused to anyone through any action of mine. It means that I am fully accountable. I take responsibility. “I myself will guarantee his safety.”
We live in Nottingham, England. The city has a small Jewish community, which is, unfortunately, growing smaller and smaller. Although there are 200 registered members, on Shabbat only 15-30 people come to the synagogue for the prayer services.
Most of the Jewish life in the city evolves around the 1000 Jewish students who learn on the city’s campuses, and this is the focus of our emissary work. Most of the students come from the greater London area, some are from other parts of England, and a few are on international student exchange programs. Our job is to make sure the rights of these Jewish students are exercised; to give them a sense of security on their campuses; to host them regularly for Shabbat and Chag meals; to hold events focusing on special days in the Jewish calendar; to serve as educational role models, in both formal and informal settings; and to reinforce their Jewish identity and their sense of belonging to the community.