Parshat Vayigash

FRIDAY, December 22

Our parsha this week opens with the famous moment when Yehudah stands up to Yosef (whom he does not yet realize is his brother) to plea for Binyamin’s freedom and to offer to give himself up to save Binyamin.  Yehudah begins by asking permission to speak, saying “Please do not be angry with your servant.”  Rashi says that from the fact that Yehudah asks Yosef not to be angry, we can infer that Yehudah spoke harshly, in a way which he could reasonably assume might provoke anger in Yosef. Rashi’s assumption seems to be someone wouldn’t say “don’t be angry” if they weren’t behaving in a way that might provoke anger.

But this is not the first time in the Torah that someone speaks this way. In parshat Vayeira, Avraham uses the same phrase when pleading with God to spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorra.  Interestingly, Rashi does not say anything there about Avraham speaking harshly, though Avraham’s words to God as recorded in the Torah speak for themselves.  However, the same logic ought to apply.  If we can infer that Yehudah was speaking harshly to Yosef, because he asked Yosef not to be angry, presumably we can also infer that Avraham must have been speaking harshly to Master of the World, since he felt the need to ask Him not to be angry.

Moreover, while Yehudah might imagine that the human, fallible vizier of Egypt could become unjustifiably angry even if he wasn’t intending to speak harshly, Avraham knew he was speaking to the One who is all good and all knowing, so he could not possibly imagine that God would be angry unjustifiably.  He must have been speaking in a way that he knew might be legitimately offensive.

Both Avraham and Yehudah present us with examples of a person standing up for what he believes to be right, and having the courage to speak clearly and forcefully, without being cowed by the power and status of their listener (in Avraham’s case that listener being the Creator Himself).  However, it’s worth noting they both take care to preface their direct, even harsh arguments with words of appeasement, asking permission to speak, saying “please do not be angry.”

Often when we find ourselves disagreeing with or upset by the actions or decisions of people in positions of authority, or even of God Himself, we tend to pursue one of two options—either we don’t say anything and we silence our misgivings, out of fear or out of respect, or we go to the opposite extreme and openly rebel, allowing our legitimate complaint to take the form of attacks and insults.  We would do well to follow instead the example of Avraham and Yehudah, by voicing concerns clearly, forcefully, even harshly, but making clear that no disrespect is intended, and that we seek to maintain a positive relationship with the one to whom we are speaking, whether that is another human being, or the Holy One blessed be He.

May we all be blessed with the courage to speak up for what is right, and the graciousness to do so in a spirit of respect and love.

Rabbi Garth Silberstein