Under a bearded disguise, the brothers are under Yosef’s jurisdiction, unbeknownst to them that this ruler was their own blood brother. After accusing them of being spies and placing them in prison, Yosef demands of them to have Binyamin brought to him, or else he will have them killed. The brothers (except for Shimon who was kept with Yosef) went back to Yaakov, telling him what had transpired and that they must bring Binyamin to Egypt. This would be an extremely difficult task required of the brothers, since Yosef’s “demise” was still in Yaakov’s consciousness, and having another son be left in vulnerability would be almost unquestionably denied. Nevertheless, Reuven took the lead in attempting to convince Yaakov to let Binyamin go with them, offering the following deal: “You may put my two sons to death if I don’t bring him [Binyamin] back to you.” It’s a deal that should indicate trust and security for Yaakov, but nevertheless Yaakov shuts it down real quick. Rashi goes so far to write that Yaakov even said [perhaps to himself], “This firstborn [Reuven] is a fool; he offers to kill his sons; are they his sons and not my sons?” Yaakov wasn’t having it. However, strangely enough, a little later on Yehuda attempts to convince Yaakov to have Binyamin go with them, and surprisingly this time Yaakov gives in. Why did Yaakov accept Yehuda’s proposal and not Reuven’s?
The Bet Halevi explains that Yehuda put his entire future—both in this world and in the next—at stake if he didn’t return Binyamin home. Reuven only indicated that he would protect Binyamin for Yaakov’s sake. Yehuda, however, implied that he wouldn’t only protect Binyamin for Yaakov’s sake, but that he would also protect him for his own sake—for his own personal benefit, so that his own life is spared and his share in the next world would also. Therefore, Yaakov felt he can trust Yehuda, as his assurance to protect Binyamin was more reliable than Reuven’s.
The Bet Halevi can be a bit difficult to understand: Wasn’t Reuven also personalizing the matter by jeopardizing the lives of his two children? Why wouldn’t Yaakov feel comfortable having Binyamin under Reuven’s protection if Reuven is willing to give up his two sons? Isn’t that also a personal benefit for Reuven? Losing out on two sons would surely guarantee that Reuven would securely return Binyamin home!
Seemingly, the answer is that as personal as it may be to lose out on two children, Yehuda’s potential loss of his own life in this world and life in the next world are much more personal. Thus, this would motivate Yehuda much more than Reuven to protect Binyamin. Indeed, Rav Shimon Shkop explains that our nature is to be mostly interested in ourselves and our own personal gains. Yaakov apparently understood this human nature, and realized that Yehuda would have much more at stake, and he therefore trusted him.
This idea of personalizing our actions to motivate us can be a practical method to spur us to improve and change. For example, the Chovot Halevavot brings a concept of how speaking lashon hara can potentially have some of the speaker’s merits transferred over to the one that is being spoken about, and have the aveirot of the one being spoken about transferred into the account of the speaker. Lashon hara can be difficult to control, but once we make it personal it can be easier. We surely don’t want to lose out on some of the merits we worked hard to achieve, nor do we want the misdeeds of others on our account. The awareness of losing out, be it when it comes to our health, wealth or spiritual welfare, are ideas that can be utilized to develop self-control in certain areas of our lives and bring about change. It also works on the positive side. Working with incentives can be a useful method to strive toward accomplishment in any area of life. From building a business, to educating children in proper behavior, and of course in regard to our own quest toward enhanced ruchniyut, making the matter as personal as possible (whether through potential gain or loss) can help give us—and others we want to influence—a boost in the right direction.
Binyamin Benji is a graduate of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan, and Wurzweiler School of Social Work. He currently learns in Eretz Yisrael, and is the author of the Sephardic Congregation of Paramus’ weekly Torah Talk. He can be reached at [email protected]