Conversations in Tanakh are generally recorded in very succinct fashion, and rarely does any single person speak for more than a couple of consecutive verses. Yehuda's plea on behalf of Binyamin at the beginning of Parashat Vayigash is unusual in that it spans a full seventeen verses (Bereshit 44:18-34). In fact, it is the longest speech of any individual in all of Sefer Bereshit.1 What is the message of Yehuda's address, and why does he need to carry on for so long?
Setting the Stage
The Torah notes that Yehuda draws nearer ("וַיִּגַּשׁ") to Yosef before beginning his speech and asks to "speak in Yosef's ear" ("בְּאָזְנֵי אֲדֹנִי"). Yehuda also prefaces his remarks with a plea that he should not provoke Yosef's wrath, given that Yosef is like Paroh.
וַיִּגַּשׁ אֵלָיו יְהוּדָה וַיֹּאמֶר בִּי אֲדֹנִי יְדַבֶּר נָא עַבְדְּךָ דָבָר בְּאָזְנֵי אֲדֹנִי וְאַל יִחַר אַפְּךָ בְּעַבְדֶּךָ כִּי כָמוֹךָ כְּפַרְעֹה.
And Yehuda came near him, and said, 'Let your servant say a word in my lord's ears, and let not your anger burn against your servant, for you are as Paroh'.
Was Yehuda requesting a private audience with Yosef? Is there anything in Yehuda's words that would require a need for secrecy or that would anger Yosef?
Yehuda continues his oration by reviewing the protocol of Yosef's interrogation of the brothers when they originally came down to Egypt:
(יט) אֲדֹנִי שָׁאַל אֶת עֲבָדָיו לֵאמֹר הֲיֵשׁ לָכֶם אָב אוֹ אָח. (כ) וַנֹּאמֶר אֶל אֲדֹנִי יֶשׁ לָנוּ אָב זָקֵן וְיֶלֶד זְקֻנִים קָטָן וְאָחִיו מֵת וַיִּוָּתֵר הוּא לְבַדּוֹ לְאִמּוֹ וְאָבִיו אֲהֵבוֹ.
(19) My lord asked his servants, saying, 'Have you a father, or a brother?' (20) And we said to my lord, 'We have an old father, and a young child of his old age, and his brother is dead, and he alone is left of his mother, and his father loves him.'
But why was there a need for Yehuda to repeat information that Yosef already knew? After all, Yehuda had a powerful argument that he was about to present. So why did he beat around the bush before making his case?2
Yehuda's speech recaps a significant portion of the dialogue of the previous two chapters. While it closely parallels the Torah's earlier accounts of the events, it makes several additions, subtractions, and substitutions. In particular, it cites Yosef himself as saying two things that the narrator never told us he said:
(יט) ...הֲיֵשׁ לָכֶם אָב אוֹ אָח.
(כא) ...וְאָשִׂימָה עֵינִי עָלָיו.
(19) Have you a father, or a brother?
(21) And I will set my eyes on him.
What is the meaning of this phenomenon? Did Yosef really say these words or was Yehuda employing rhetorical license? Either way, why were they significant enough to be included in his monologue?
In Approaches, we will explore the different understandings of the underlying message of Yehuda's words and how and why they impacted upon Yosef.