Based on the writings of Nehama Leibowitz
My lord Asked his servants.... (44 - 19)
I don’t know the reason for Yehudah’s lengthy plea, in his repeating what already had transpired between them. The comment of our sages: “Is this what you meant by ‘setting your eyes’ upon him when you said ‘bring him down and I will set my eyes upon him’ ” do not constitute a complaint. In the event that a ruler demands somebody’s appearance before him, it is not on the condition that the person summoned will be immune from punishment for a crime committed. Certainly punishment would be meted out for theft of the goblet from the royal residence. In fact, when Yosef first beheld Binyamin, he blessed him, arranged a banquet for all the brothers in the palace and gave them gifts and more food than they could afford to buy.
From a pshat perspective, it appears to me that Yehuda’s words were a plea to stir up Yosef’s compassion towards the brothers. Given the fact that Yosef had stated earlier that he feared God, Yehuda pursued this course by recapitulating the events that led to Binyamin being allowed by his father to come to Egypt. This is the explanation of the retelling of the events.
The verses could also be explained based on the interpretation of our sages (quoted above). Yehuda said “for you are likened to Pharoah” - meaning you must stand by your words and commitments - for we have brought our brother here at your imposed request; Yehuda feared to be more explicit in challenging Yosef so he inferred his indignation at what was happening i.e. that the incident with the goblet was a plot engineered by Yosef, otherwise why did he force them to bring Binyamin? According to our sages, implied in Yehuda’s words is a strong complaint against Yosef that he was unprovoked by the brothers, yet he sought to entrap them. Ramban (slightly abridged translation)
What is Ramban’s argument vis au vis the words of Hazal in the first part of his above commentary?
The plain reading of the Humash text does not support a belligerent stance on the part of Yehuda. The total speech is replete with words of deference and submission. In addition, the context of Yosef’s treatment of Binyamin could not justify Yehuda making accusations against Yosef.
How does Ramban justify and explain the words of Hazal in his second commentary quoted above?
Ramban directs us to seek the implicit meaning of Yehuda’s words. Given the power imbalance in a situation of an accused person facing a royal personage, the inherent fear and dread would necessitate only implied references against the motives of accuser using subtle language.
Ramban based his first opinion on what Yehuda said explicitly. His second opinion is based on what Yehuda really meant, following the manner of Hazal.
Prepared by: Rabbi Mordechai Spiegelman veteran yeshiva educator (USA) now residing in Jerusalem