When I was at school I remember that the collecting of football (soccer) stickers was very popular amongst us boys. We would buy packets of stickers, affixing them in an album, trying to complete teams and eventually fill in all the blanks. At school during break times there would be bartering and haggling as boys swapped the stickers for which they had doubles and triples in search of the elusive stickers they still needed. It was not clear that swaps were always one for one, a rare sticker could gain several in exchange, and one of the shiny stickers (with the team logo on it) was always infinitely more valuable than the ones with the players upon them. There was always the question of what would be a fair swap and exchange.
This week in the Torah there is a different form of bartering as two of Jacob’s sons attempt to convince him to allow them to take Benjamin with them to Egypt. Feeling the full effects of the famine, Jacob had sent his ten sons, less Benjamin, to Egypt to buy food. There they told Joseph their story, and he said to them: ‘But bring your youngest brother to me; so shall your words be verified’ (Genesis 42:20). And as a guarantee he kept Shimon in Egypt.
Jacob, fearing for Benjamin, refused to allow him to go to Egypt with his brothers, but as the famine got worse the brothers tried to convince him. First ‘Reuben spoke to his father, saying, Slay my two sons, if I bring him not to you; deliver him into my hand, and I will bring him to you again’ (Genesis 42:37). But these terms were not acceptable to Jacob.
As the famine continued eventually ‘Judah said to Israel his father, Send the lad with me, and we will arise and go; that we may live, and not die, both we, and you, and also our little ones. I will be surety for him; from my hand shall you require him; if I bring him not to you, and set him before you, then let me bear the blame forever’ (43:8-9). Only then does Jacob finally agree for his sons to return, with Benjamin, to buy food from Joseph in Egypt.
Reuben wants to take Jacob’s son and so he offers his two sons as a guarantee for Benjamin’s safety; while this may seem like an appropriate exchange, it is unacceptable to Jacob. Only when Judah offers his own life as a guarantee for Benjamin is Jacob willing to accept the offer. Reuben is willing to step forward and do what must be done, but he fails to realize that it is not about offering another life in exchange for Benjamin, it is about taking that responsibility upon one’s own shoulders.
As my father-in-law has taught me, it is at this point that we finally begin to receive an answer to that question asked by Cain, back in the first Torah portion: ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ (4:9) Judah answers in the affirmative ‘I am my brother Benjamin’s keeper’, and he offers his own life in exchange.
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