Judah once allowed a son of Rachel to be taken, but in this week's parsha, he offers to sacrifice himself instead of Benjamin, because Jacob's soul is bound up in the soul of Benjamin. Where do we see the same language used centuries later? In this video, Rabbi Fohrman explores a fascinating Biblical echo and helps us answer, what is heroism?
This is Rabbi David Fohrman and welcome to Parshat Vayigash.
This week’s Parsha contains one of the most dramatic moments in Sefer B’Reshit, in which Yehuda comes to the aid of his brother Binyamin. Binyamin is imprisoned, framed by Yosef, the brothers don’t know that Yosef is Yosef, he is just a high Egyptian official. Yosef has placed his silver goblet in the sack of Binyamin and as the brothers leave the city, Yosef dispatches his armed guards to track them down. Yehuda said, ‘Search our belongings, we have nothing to hide and if you find anything, the person that’s found to have taken the goblet of the king, shall die.’ Well they found the goblet in Binyamin’s sack. What Yehuda is going to say now?
Yosef says, ‘No, don’t worry, I am not going to kill the thief, I will just take him as my slave. The rest of you can go.’ What is Yehuda is supposed to do? Yehuda had promised his father that he would bring Binyamin back alive but he had never thought that Binyamin would steal the cup of the King, he doesn’t know he was framed.
Most of us would have gone back to Yaakov and said, ‘Look what we are going to do? It’s true, Binyamin was taken captive. We should count ourselves lucky that Binyamin is still alive.’ But that is not what Yehuda does. Yehuda made a last ditch attempt to save Binyamin by any means possible and those means include an impassioned speech that he makes to Yosef. In that speech, he tells the whole story, the painful story. You don’t understand, he said, ‘Our father had already lost a child, a child of his beloved wife Rachel. If you take this last child, Binyamin, from him, the last remaining vestige of Rachel, he says “nafsho kshura b’nafsho,” my father’s soul is bound up with Binyamin’s soul. If you take Binyamin from him, he’ll die. Please take me instead.’
There was a time when Yehuda had allowed a brother, a child of Rachel, to be sold in slavery because father loved Rachel more, because father loved that child more. But now would not be that time. Now Yehuda says, I know that my father loved Rachel more than my mother. I know that he loves Binyamin more than me, I know that his soul is bound up with Binyamin but that’s okay. Take me instead. Let Binyamin go back to his father. It’s perhaps Yehuda’s finest moment and it succeeds in ending the long painful story of the sale of Yosef. Yosef cries, reveals who he really is, and the long charade is over. But let me ask you this question, where else in the Torah do we hear these words “nafsho kshura b’nafsho”? One person’s soul bound up with another person’s soul.
So it turns out that the language appears in the book of Samuel, in Sefer Shmuel Alef, perek yud-chet, chapter 18. Let’s read together some of these verses. The verses appear in the story of David and Goliath. In that story, Goliath, Goli’at, had threatened the first king of Israel, Shaul. No one from the Jews thought that they could fight him and then this little shepherd boy David rises to the challenge and miraculously fells the giant with a stone from his sling.
“U’chshuv David mahakot et-ha-plishti,” and when David returned from killing the Philistine, “vayikach oto Avner,” Avner took him, “vayviahu lifnei Shaul,” and brought him before Shaul, the King, “v’rosh ha-plishti b’yado,” and the head of the Philistine was in his hands. “Vayomer elav Shaul,” and Shaul said, “ben mi atah ha-na’ar?” Whose child are you my son? “Vayomer David ben-avdcha Ishai bayt ha-lachmi,” I am the child of Ishai from Bethlehem. It’s very strange, by the way, that Shaul should be asking this: whose child are you?
The truth is Shaul knows who David is. Before this David had already played the harp for Shaul; they knew one another. But somehow he gets this question and, by the way, listen to the question…not just ‘who are you?” Whose child are you?’ David’s response, ‘I am the child of Ishai.’
Next words: “vayihi k’chaloto l’daber el-Shaul,” and after David said this to Shaul, “nefesh Yehonatan nikshra b’nefesh David,” the soul of Yehonatan became bound up with the soul of David. It’s like an intertwining of the souls, “vayehvehu Yehonatan k’nafsho,” and Yehonatan loved him like his own self. Here we’ve got these echoes, these echoes of the Yosef story. Yehuda had once talked about this. Yehuda said that Yaakov’s soul was bound up with Binyamin, and now the Torah is using the same language to describe Jonathan falling in love with David.
Why are we quoting from Yosef’s story; what does this mean? “Vayikachehu Shaul b’yom ha-hu,” the next words, and Shaul took David that day, “lo natno lashuv bayt aviv,” and didn’t let him return to his father’s house, kept him in the palace. “Vayichrot Yehonatan v’David brit,” and at that moment Yehonatan and David made a covenant one to the other, “b’ahavato oto k’nafsho,” because Yehonatan loved him like his own self, “vayitpashet Yehonatan et-ha-me’il,” and Yehonatan took off his cloak, “vayitnehu l’David,” and gave it to David.
What’s going on here? What’s going on is that we are hearing the ripple effects of the Yosef story because these men are the descendants of the two prime actors in the Yosef story…because who is Shaul and who is Yehonatan his son? Shaul is a king from the tribe of Benjamin. Oh and who is David? David is from the tribe of Yehuda. Yehuda and Benjamin one more time.
In the story of Yosef and his brothers, Yehuda risked his life for Binyamin. Yehuda came face-to-face with the recognition that his father loves Binyamin more, would rather have Binyamin home with him than Yehuda, and that was okay. Yehuda says, take me instead. It’s okay, you can love him more. When did Binyamin ever repay Yehuda for that? Yehonatan repays that debt because what does it look like from Yehonatan’s perspective, when David comes back triumphant?
If you’re Yehonatan, who is next in line to become king? You are. Who does your father love—you. Now, who does your father love? Look at how Shaul is treating David. Shaul took him, adopted him as his own son that day, and didn’t allow David to return back to his father’s house. You are mine. Shaul knows that David will one day become king and what would that mean for Yehonatan, for Yehonatan it is the greatest threat that could possibly imagine. But that’s not how Yehonatan sees it.
“V’nefesh Yehonatan nikshra b’nefesh David.” The heroism of this child of Binyamin mirrors the heroism of the original Yehuda. Yehuda had once said this for Binyamin, now a child of Binyamin will say it for Yehuda. It’s not threatening for me that father would love another child more than me. Let father take David, I love David like my own soul. And then he takes of his cloak. Strips himself off of his cloak and gives it to David; what does that remind you of, oh yes, there was a time when a child of Rachel’s did have a cloak stripped by Yehuda, forcibly in the sale of Yosef. Now, it’s not forcible.
Now the child of Rachel, child of Binyamin, willingly strips his cloak and gives it to the child of Yehuda. It’s a moment of healing, a moment in history where at least, at that brief point, the two sides of the family were reconciled, because of the moment, when a man faced his greatest possible threat, he turned his back on his own welfare and loved his brother from the other side of the family like his own self. The memories of the sale of Yosef run deep but the heroism of Yehonatan is that he didn’t remember just the animosity, he remembered the sacrifice too, he remembered the love and in that remembrance lies Yehonatan’s greatness.