from the heart of jerudalem

Achieving Am Israel’s oneness as a people


This column relates to last week’s parsha, Vayigash.

One afternoon during the second Intifada, our unit responded to heavy gunfire coming from El Khader, one of the Arab villages along the tunnel road south of Jerusalem. A number of families were caught in the crossfire, and the patrol that had arrived on the scene was advancing towards the gunfire, in an attempt to draw fire away from the road, as well as shorten the distance to the gunmen.

The goal in such situations is to set up a cover fire unit designed to keep the enemy’s heads down, while advancing towards the enemy until close enough to charge their position and take them out. Unfortunately, in this case the enemy had the high ground, and as the Israeli soldiers advanced towards them, they were caught in a murderous crossfire from a second group that had been waiting for just such a maneuver.

One of the boys was killed on the spot, and a second was lying under fire, wounded, when their deputy Commander arrived.

It was an impossible situation; the wounded man, lying near his fallen comrade was crying in agony in the middle of a wide-open area, under heavy fire with almost no cover. Logic dictated that until heavy re-enforcements including air support arrived, there was nothing to be done; the boy was simply unreachable. In fact, as he was within easy reach of some of the Palestinian gunmen; it was clear, in retrospect, that they were simply leaving him out there as bait. Some of the men later reported in the debriefing that they could see the grins on the Arab gunmen’s faces every time the wounded Israeli cried out in pain.

The ranking officer on the scene, a young lieutenant, wasn’t about to send someone else out on such a nearly impossible mission, so he did it himself. Under heavy fire, he succeeded in reaching this boy, throwing him over his shoulder to make his way back. But he never made it  — he was cut down not 200 yards from safety, and there they lay, brothers in death, forever.

I have gone back to that day, and his decision, many times since. Did he manage to say something to that wounded man? Was it worth it, so that an Israeli soldier, not 19 years old, would not die alone? And most of all was he right?

Should you risk your own life for the possibility of saving another? Indeed, this question is at the heart of the story we read in the beginning of last week’s portion, Vayigash.

Binyamin, the youngest son of Yaakov, stands accused of stealing the goblet of the viceroy, and the punishment for such a crime is to become a slave in the dungeons of Egypt forever. Seemingly in an impossible situation, with no way out, Yehuda steps forward, and in what becomes his finest hour, rises to the challenge of saving his brother from a horrible fate.

“And now, let your servant (me) remain a slave to you, and let the boy go (home) with his brothers.” (Bereishit 44:32)

What justified Yehuda doing this, earning the praise of our rabbis for offering to give up his life for that of his brother? Indeed, the sources suggest that it is in this moment that Yehuda the brother becomes Yehuda, father of the Royal Davidic line.

And yet, Jewish tradition is very clear on this point: “Ein Dochin Nefesh Mipe’nei Nefesh” rules the Shulchan Aruch. “We do not push one life away for another.” We cannot decide which life is more worthwhile; that is the purview of G-d. 

The Talmud (Pesachim 25b) makes it clear that I cannot save my own life at someone else’s expense, because “my blood is no redder than his.” But the Torah gives a very straightforward explanation as to why Yehuda feels the need, and even the obligation, to offer himself in place of Binyamin: “Ki’ avdechah arev et na’na’ar me’im avi (Because I guaranteed the lad from my father).” (44:32)

Yehuda explains to Joseph that he has become an arev, a guarantor, for his brother Binyamin. Back in Canaan, these were the words Yehuda used which seem to convince Yaakov to send Binyamin with the brothers: “Anochi e’ervenu, mi’yadi te’vakshenu (I will guarantee the lad, from my hand you can ask for his return).” (43:9)

What is the nature of this arevut and why does this suddenly change Yaakov’s mind over all the entreaties and attempts of the other brothers?

Rav Avigdor Neventzahl, in his Sichot Le’Sefer Bereishit, points out that arevut is related to the word eruv, or a mixture (like irbuv, or mixed up). Somehow arevut means Yehuda and Binyamin have become one. True arevut is about becoming one with another.

When a person borrows money, someone else is often asked to guarantee the loan; that second person is called an arev, or guarantor. And if the person who borrowed the money reneges on the loan, then his friend, the arev will be made to pay. By becoming an arev for a loan, he has agreed that the loan is his as well; the borrower and the guarantor have become one.

Yehuda does not even know for sure that Binyamin did not actually steal the goblet, but it does not matter. Incredibly, during this entire episode, Yehuda never once asks Binyamin this question, perhaps because that is not the issue; Binyamin is Yehuda’s brother and that is all that matters to Yehuda.

Twenty-two years earlier, tragedy befell the family of Yaakov because the brothers were not one. If ten brothers can throw their brother in a pit, and then sit down to have lunch, completely ignoring his cries and tears (Bereishit 37:24-25), then something is terribly wrong.

As Binyamin stands accused by the King’s Guard, with damning evidence found in his pack, the brothers might have simply continued home, fate handing them the perfect way to get rid of the new prodigal son.

But this time would be different. The brothers turn as one and return to Egypt. Despite the obvious motivation to continue on their way, and bring their provisions home, they cannot do so, because they are one.

And that is why, in this moment, Yehuda the brother becomes Yehuda the King, who will eventually produce the royal lineage of King David. This is what Royalty is really all about.

Perhaps that Commander on the field near El Khader, seeing his brother wounded, understood that a part of himself was lying there too, and as a Commander perhaps he felt he had no choice.

Indeed, at Sinai (Shavuot 39a), we all accepted as a people, the idea that “kol Yisrael arevim Zeh La’Zehn (all Jews are responsible for one another).”

We are all meant to be arevim and this is our greatest challenge: to achieve this oneness, first as a people, and eventually as a world.

Published 2013.