At the end of last week’s parsha, Miketz, the Torah recounts how Yosef, now the viceroy of Egypt, addresses his brothers, who are not yet aware of his identity. Our parsha begins in the middle of this audience, with the Torah describing how Yehuda attempts to persuade the lord of the land to free Binyamin. This being the context of the opening scene, we are immediately confronted by a question:
“Yehuda approached him [Yosef]” – but the brothers are in mid-conversation with him; how does Yehuda now approach him? Where is he coming from, all of a sudden?
In the Midrash Rabba, the Sages teach that during the course of this exchange, Yehuda underwent a profound inner change, such that he approached Yosef afterwards from a completely different psychological position:
“He [Yehuda] wore a sort of shield of the mighty, and five [layers of] garments. He had one bristle upon his chest, and when he became angry it would pierce all of them [the shield and the garments]. What did Yosef do [in response to this show of strength]? The stone pillar upon which he was seated – he kicked it, making it a heap of stones. Yehuda wondered, “Could he be mightier than I?” He grasped his sword to draw it, but it was stuck and would not emerge. Then Yehuda said, “He [Yosef] must certainly be a God-fearing man…”
Yehuda’s first response is an aggressive one: the brothers know very well that they have been set up; it was not they who stole the royal goblet and the money. Yehuda has a bristly hair on his chest, and when he becomes angry it stands on end and tears all his layers of garments. Yosef shows that he, too, has physical strength. Yehuda tries to draw his sword, but cannot. And it is then that he “approaches Yosef” – coming from a completely different psychological angle.
What is this ‘bristly hair’? What are the Sages trying to teach us in this strange midrash?
Anger is connected to feelings of guilt. A person who bears intense feelings of guilt, suffering constantly from pinpricks of conscience, has trouble containing it all, and his pain will often burst forth as anger. Is it possible to make some positive use of this pain? Can shame and the suffering of guilt be turned into beneficent power? It is certainly not an easy task, but Yehuda shows us the way: the way of admitting the truth. A person who is prepared to admit his weaknesses, his mistakes, can use his guilt as a driving force towards repair. A person who avoids facing the truth, who cannot deal directly with his guilt, casts his feelings of guilt outwards and is angry at everyone else.
The brothers are eaten up with guilt over having sold Yosef. Yehuda has something that pricks at his heart, that tears through all the garments of bravery that he wears. Yehuda starts off speaking in anger, but concludes with an admission. Just as in his response to the episode of Tamar, his daughter-in-law, the moment he recognizes that it is not he who is in the right, that his physical strength is limited because fear of heaven is operating to Yosef’s benefit, the pangs of conscience in his heart lead him to an admission of the truth. Yehuda recalls to himself, to his brothers and to Yosef, the whole story: “Yehuda said: What shall we say to my master; how shall we speak and how shall we justify ourselves; God has found the iniquity of your servants…”.
From out of his pain, from his guilt, from the thoughts of his suffering father, Yehuda draws the strength to do teshuva and to repair his wrongdoing, to be prepared to sacrifice himself for the sake of his younger brother, Binyamin. The hair that tore through his garments now tears his heart and the hearts of his listeners – but Yehuda does not collapse under the weight of his guilt. He rests upon it and gathers the strength to assume responsibility, to repair to the best of his ability.
Yehuda, who acknowledges the truth (modeh al ha-emet), later merits a blessing of acknowledgement: “Yehuda: your brothers will praise you (yodukha)…”.