He Never Knew He Was an Angel

When I traveled to Las Vegas in July 2019 for the fiftieth wedding anniversary of my friend since grammar school, Steve King and his wife Wendy, Steve stood me up before his many friends and relatives and proclaimed, “This guy is a Rabbi, but I remember when he HATED Hebrew school.”

Steve was right. Back in the day, Hebrew School was nothing more than an annoying intrusion on my athletic endeavors.

That attitude accompanied me as my eighth-grade year in Sunday School began. We had a sweet gentle teacher who could not come close to controlling our incorrigible class.

When the bell rang on our fourth Sunday, our teacher was not there. My classmates and I were having a jolly old time talking and throwing wadded up pieces of paper at one another.

Suddenly the door opened, and Mr. Joseph Ehrenworth walked into the room. Ehrenworth was a battle tested, tough-as-nails, high school Principal in Bloomfield, NJ.

His dark eyes took in the chaos before him, and with three words delivered in a voice like cold steel, he put “the incorrigibles” out of business: 

“Take your seats.”

 Mr. Ehrenworth could make me behave, but he could not make me care about anything he had to teach. I still remember the comment he wrote to my parents on my first religious school report card: 

“This is a difficult report to write since I know you personally …” He went on to explain that I paid scant attention to the lessons and never completed any homework assignments. 

But Ehrenworth pierced my armor, permanently as things turned out, when he began to teach about Judah’s dramatic address to Joseph beginning in Genesis 44:18. 

Somehow, Ehrenworth made me appreciate the power and the beauty of the speech that Sir Walter Scott once judged, “The most complete pattern of genuine of natural eloquence extant in any language.” (Joseph Hertz, Pentateuch and Haftorahs,London, Soncino Press, Second Edition, 1980, p. 169)

Earlier in the story (Genesis 37:16-17) the direction of Joseph’s life changed when he was looking for his brothers but could not find them. A man, who saw him wandering in the fields, told him he could find his brothers in Dothan. So, Joseph went to Dothan. Rabbinic commentators call “the man” an angel, sent by God to alter the direction of Joseph’s life by pointing him to his brothers and eventually to Egypt. 

 Although I hardly knew it at the time, Mr. Ehrenworth by making me see the beauty and power of Judah’s speech changed the direction of my life. 

One Friday night during the summer after my freshman year in college I had been invited to conduct services at my home synagogue while the rabbi was on vacation. I was shocked to see Mr. Ehrenworth in the congregation.

I was proud of the service I conducted that night and of the first-ever sermon I delivered.  To my disappointment, Mr. Ehrenworth did not speak to me after the service, but he nodded – almost imperceptibly—in my direction as he left the building. 

I never saw him again. 

He never knew he was an angel.

AN END TO THE CHARADE

 

It might be the most moving address in all literature.”

That is the way my eighth grade religious school teacher, Mr. Joseph Ehrenworth, z”l, described Judah’s appeal to Joseph, which begins parashat Va-yigash.  The entire story of Joseph builds toward the moment when Joseph –so moved by Judah’s words- reveals himself to his brothers. 

We wonder though, why Joseph treated his brothers so harshly? Why did he accuse them of being spies? Why did he demand Benjamin’s presence in Egypt, and why did he instruct his steward to put his special goblet into Benjamin’s bag? 

Some commentators suggest that Joseph’s motive was revenge.

The brothers sold Joseph as a slave, and so now Joseph is paying them back. Even W. Gunther Plaut in his masterful Torah commentary suggests revenge as one of Joseph’s motives. Plaut writes, “At first and understandably, Joseph thought of revenge . . . He still wants revenge more than he wants love . . .” (The Torah, A Modern Commentary, p. 271).  Later, (P. 284) Plaut writes, “Joseph first faces his brothers in bitterness and devises a cat-and-mouse game in order to have his revenge . . .” 

If, however, revenge had been Joseph’s goal, he could have exacted it without disguise, without delay, and without bringing the untold anguish upon his father that Benjamin’s journey to Egypt caused.

If Joseph wanted revenge, he would not have said, “Now do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you . . . So it was not you who sent me here, but God.” (Genesis 45: 5,8)

No, revenge was not Joseph’s motive.  Joseph acted as he did for only one reason: He wanted to see if his brothers had changed. 

Years before, Joseph had been their father’s favorite. He tattled on them, he bragged about his dreams, and he proudly wore the famous “coat of many colors” that their father gave to Joseph and Joseph alone.  As a result, Joseph’s brothers hated him so much that they sold him into slavery. 

With Joseph gone, Benjamin, the only remaining son of Jacob’s beloved Rachel, became Jacob’s favorite. By putting his cup into Benjamin’s sack, Joseph places Benjamin in a position whereby he would be detained in Egypt as a slave and Jacob would once again suffer the loss of his favorite son. 

Judah knows what is at stake.   

Although he was in no way responsible for Benjamin’s plight (in contrast to his pivotal role in the sale of Joseph as a slave years ago) Judah steps forward (Genesis 44:18-34) and stirringly describes the events that have transpired.  He then tells his disguised brother that Benjamin’s imprisonment in Egypt will be too much for their aged father to bear, and he will die.  Then, Judah offers himself as a substitute for Benjamin. That is all Joseph –who has already had to leave the room twice in his meetings with his brothers to avoid breaking down and weeping in their presence– needs to hear in order to end the charade.  

Our tradition calls a person who repents for his or her sins a ba’al or ba’ alat teshuvah (literally, a “master of repentance”). The Jewish tradition accords even a greater honor to a person who commits a particular transgression but later, when he or she is put in a similar position, turns away from the same kind of wrongdoing. That person is a ba’al or ba’alat teshuvah shelemah (a “master of complete repentance”). This is the lofty designation Judah earns for his actions in Joseph’s presence. [See Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Sefer Bereshit, pp. 327-328 (Hebrew edition), pp. 460-461 (English edition)]. 

In Parashat Va-yigash, Judah becomes a true hero. The story explains his emergence as the progenitor of Israel’s most enduring tribe. We can be proud that the words “Jew” and “Judaism” are derived from his name. More important, Judah’s example of repentance can inspire us to examine our own actions and help us to turn away from transgressions we have committed in the past. 

(I am deeply grateful for my studies with Professor Leibowitz in Jerusalem during the 1970-1971 academic year, which helped me develop the outlook I have shared in this commentary. )