The portion of Vayigash describes the pivotal showdown between Joseph and his older brother Judah. The meeting between the long-separated siblings is far from a pleasant reunion. Joseph appears to Judah as Zaphnath-Paaneah, the second most powerful man in Egypt, a bearded non-Jew who in no way resembles the spoiled tag-along brat he last saw being pulled from a pit.
Judah believes that the powerful Egyptian is accusing their youngest brother, so precious to their aged father, of repaying his generosity by stealing a precious goblet. From Joseph’s perspective, he is facing his older brother who is responsible for selling him into slavery in Egypt.
Midrash Rabbah describes the meeting as having several connotations. Citing the word for Judah “approaching” (vayigash, ויגש), Rabbi Judah notes that the same word is used in II Samuel 10:13 to describe entering into battle, suggesting that Judah viewed Joseph as an enemy.
Alternatively, Rabbi Nehemiah cited the use of the same word in Joshua 14:6 where it implies reconciliation.
Yet again, the Midrash notes the same word is used in I Kings 18:36 to imply coming near for prayer,
“Rabbi Eleazar combined all these views” Midrash Rabbah concludes. “Judah approached Joseph for all three, saying: If it be war, I approach for war; if it be conciliation, I approach for conciliation; if it be for entreaty, I approach to entreat.”
In this manner, the meeting between Joseph and Judah echoes the meeting between their father, Jacob, and their uncle, Esau. In preparation, Jacob split his camp and sent Esau a gift, preparing for either eventuality; war or peace. In addition, he also offered a prayer to God (Genesis 32:4-13). Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the medieval French commentator known by the acronym Rashi, explained that Jacob was, in fact, preparing for three possibilities; a gift leading to a peaceful reconciliation, war, and prayer.
The significant difference between the two meetings was that Jacob and Esau were each entirely aware of the situation, whereas the meeting between Joseph and Judah was orchestrated by Joseph, apparently with an end result in mind, and Judah was unaware of the true nature of the meeting. In fact, Judah’s response was intended for an entirely different reality.
Jacob’s actions were tailored precisely for Esau and focused on those three routes to reconcile the conflict. Judah simply retold the obvious facts as they were known to all. Yet it was this simple recitation that generated an emotional response in Joseph so intense that he was forced to abandon whatever plan he had worked so hard at devising.
A closer look reveals that Judah’s recitation of the facts focused on, and emphasized, the family connections; his elderly father and the dear youngest brother, going into depth describing the effect his loss would have on their father. Judah does not neglect to mention that one brother has died, unaware that said brother is standing right in front of him.
Judah’s final statement, the point that seems to break Joseph’s resolve, was his offer to become a slave to the Egyptian overlord in place of Benjamin. This offer contrasts so strongly with Joseph’s last image of Judah, who had convinced the brothers to sell him into slavery, that it was surely unbearable.