His True Identity
By Rabbi Label Lam
Then Judah approached him and said, “If you please, my lord, may your
servant speak a word in my lord’s ears and let not your anger flare up at
your servant- for you are like Pharaoh….” (Breishis 44:19)
How did Judah hope to influence Joseph by speaking directly into his ears?
We have from many sources that Joseph had set up interpreters between
himself and his brothers as part of his ploy. Judah, then would have to
understand that Joseph could not understand a word of what he was about to
say. Why would he engage in a seeming exercise in futility when so much
was at stake?
In concluding his appeal to Joseph to release his baby brother Benjamin,
Judah declared, “For how can I go up to my father and the youth is not
with me…?” (Breishis 44:34) At that moment Joseph could contain himself
no more and it was then that he revealed himself, “I am Joseph!” Why was
that his breaking point? What magic was embedded in those words that Judah
uttered that caused the man with such an iron exterior to melt
Sometimes a single phrase can be understood and appreciated as “standing
alone” out of the context of the verse. We know that Judah did not want to
damage his beloved father by delivering deep disappointment. He needed
desperately to return with Benjamin. Even still that verse carries an
alternate message with perhaps a different meaning altogether.
A young Rebbe in Israel had taught his students that we can reflect on
these words, “How can I go up to my father and the youth is not with me?”
in reference to ourselves. How can we go up after 120 years to our Father
in Heaven and the playful spontaneous zeal for life is not with us? It
speaks of a mandate to remain sensitive to and excited about the
opportunities of life. How dare we go up to our Father and the vital
qualities of youthfulness have somehow soured within?
I heard from a great person that there is a profound distinction between
being childlike and childish. Adult childishness, a prolonged midlife
crisis, can occur with one whose childhood was too brief or lacking
play. “Childlike” betrays a happier and healthier core of curiosity and
fascination with existence. Both may be slain by “the slings and arrows of
I was once sitting on Shabbos with Rabbi Mordechai Schwab ztl., and a
friend who was not yet observant. In the middle of our discussion, Rabbi
Schwab looked over at a dumb-cane plant with its huge drooping leaves and
decoratively highlighted veins and asked rhetorically in a childlike
manner, “Who painted this?” It was so cute and yet profound beyond words.
In Simcha Raz’s account of the life of Rabbi Aryeh Levin ztl., A Tzadik in
Our Time, he records as follows: Here is fragment of memory from a woman
who was sentenced by the British to a term of fifteen years: “With me in
the Bethlehem women’s prison were women who had just been arrested, on
their entry into the land (of Israel) without official consent of the
British. They found it hard to understand Rabbi Levin when he came
visiting and spoke to us. They were Sephardic, and he (bless him) used his
good old Ashkenazi pronunciation that he brought with him from Eastern
Europe. If that were not enough, he spoke in a rather faint voice mingled
with intermittent sounds of weeping. Yet these inmates would always sit
right opposite him drinking in his words. So I asked them, “Did you
understand what he said?” “Not a word,” they replied. “But we come to
contemplate his pure clear eyes. Such absolute childlike innocence looks
out from them. And his glance gives us affection and courage…”
Maybe it’s not such a stretch to say that Judah, contemplating his many
risks in this battle, spoke on multiple levels, and Joseph hearing the
words deeply, wondered about his own lost youth, and needed to reaffirm,
his true identity.
DvarTorah, Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Label Lam and Torah.org.