The longest speech in the book of Genesis belongs to Judah, pleading before an Egyptian potentate for the life of his youngest brother Benjamin, and indirectly also for the life of his father.
The word ‘Vayigash’ is usually understood as ‘and he approached’, or possibly “he went up towards” something so daring in this context it could easily have cost him his life. To come close to a great leader in order to persuade him to change his mind – the whole of the book of Genesis seems to be building to this moment, and everything hangs on what Judah is about to do.
Tradition tells us that the verb can be taken three ways – that he went up to plead for mercy for Benjamin; that he went up prepared to battle Joseph for the release of Benjamin; or that he approached God, praying for direction to be able to save the lives of his family.
The speech itself is carefully constructed; no spur of the moment outburst this but essentially it reads as the argument of a defence lawyer at the height of his powers.
The speech is beautifully layered and structured, full of images of the plight of Jacob, and we are told how it moved Joseph to the point where he simply had to stop what he was doing and reveal his true identity. As a literary text it is perfect, as a strategic defence it performs brilliantly. But somehow my attention is drawn to what is not in the text, to all the things left unsaid.
Why for example doesn’t Judah criticize Joseph for the false accusation that he and his brothers were spies? Why doesn’t he flatter this most powerful man into changing his mind? Or even ‘call him’ on his promise that Joseph had originally said only that he wanted to see the youngest brother, but now he was making him a slave? The Midrash even comments that Joseph was breaking his own Egyptian laws – that the law allowed one to punish the thief by taking away everything that he owned, but it did not allow one to go so far as to make that thief your slave – and yet Judah did not use this unlawful behaviour of Joseph’s to build up his defence against his brother.
When the cycle of Joseph stories begins there is a surfeit of words. Words are used to bring evil report, they are used in conspiracy to murder, they are used to describe dreams, they are found almost impossible to utter civilly by the older brothers to their arrogant sibling. As you read the early stories you can’t help but be struck by the number of times ‘davar’ or ‘diber’ is used. They are perfect examples of what war time posters reminded the population – ‘careless words cost lives’.
Here as the stories are coming to an end, one is struck by the silences. The silence of Joseph who chooses not to reveal himself to his brothers. His earlier silence when he did not send word of his survival to his family in Canaan many years earlier. The grief of Jacob which is described as his inability to speak any more.
As the narrative builds up, it seems that we go from too many words to too few, until this speech of Judah, the longest single speech in our text, both formalizes the silence and releases the words. Joseph is no longer able to contain the words within himself.
Joseph’s major failing was his arrogant boasting. He couldn’t help telling everyone about his dreams; he couldn’t help telling on his brothers to their father, he couldn’t help himself using words to build himself up while at the same time putting others down. It was why his brothers hated him. He may have been his father’s favourite, but while favouritism is never a recipe for happy families, it doesn’t have to create the kind of sibling hatred this family developed. After all Benjamin took his place as favourite child. Benjamin became even more precious because his only blood brother had gone, presumed dead – and yet Benjamin was not the object of hatred, but was recognized as the one person able to comfort their father in his desperate grief.
Biblically, words are seen as the building blocks of creation – God created our world by the power of the spoken word and equally could destroy us with a word. We ourselves know the power of speech, that words, once released, have a life all their own, can never be taken back or made unsaid. Prayer, based on well chosen words, has taken the place of sacrifice in our ritual system.
Less well known is the power of silence – that the absence of words can be more powerful than their presence, for in the silence, when we take away the distraction of words, we can experience and encounter a far deeper meaning. While words can divert us from what is really important, or else can be used to defend us so that we don’t confront ourselves and our lives.
The silence in Judah’s speech teaches us something important. Judah does not flatter, nor does he criticize. He is past the point scoring so often associated with argument, totally focused on what is substantially important. He doesn’t use verbal tricks but prefers to be silent rather than to condemn. His impassioned speech contains no falsehood or accusation. He speaks only words which focus directly and clearly to his cause.
The speech of Judah is a text book study in defence advocacy. It is also a textbook study in good human relations. He only says what should be said. He doesn’t say anything hurtful. At this time, when so many are thinking about making resolutions about their behaviour in the year to come, Judah’s model is a wonderful one to emulate. Speak what should be said; Keep silent on what should be kept silent.