“Judah, The Paradigm For Jewish Future”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week’s parasha, parashat Vayeishev, has got to be one of the most inspiring and dramatic chapters in all of human literature.

The story, of course, opens with Jacob, who is back in the land of Canaan, seeking to achieve a little inner peace after the tumultuous years of his early life. His beloved wife, Rachel, has died. Consequently, Jacob is deeply attached to Rachel’s oldest son, Joseph, unfortunately at the expense of the other brothers. His favoring of Joseph creates terrible turmoil and jealousy in the family.

Joseph himself doesn’t help things at all. He dreams that he is going to rule over his brothers, and when he shares these dreams of personal grandeur and dominion, he arouses feelings of deep enmity in his siblings. Under the guise of shepherding the family’s flocks, the brothers leave Hebron and travel to far away Sh’chem in order to distance themselves from the home situation. Lo and behold, Joseph comes to Sh’chem, follows them to Dotan, to see how they’re doing. At first, they want to kill him, but Reuven, the oldest son, who would be blamed for any mishaps in the family, prevails upon the brothers not to kill Joseph, and suggests that the boy be thrown into the pit. Judah, however, who is the natural leader of the brothers, when he sees a passing caravan of Ishmaelites, recommends that the brothers profit by selling him. Eventually Joseph is sold to the Midianites and the Ishmaelites who transfer him to Egypt where he becomes a slave in the house of Potifar. This entire saga of Joseph is really a prelude to the arrival of the children of Israel into the land of Egypt, and the fulfillment of the prediction of the Covenant between the Pieces.

After Joseph is sold to Potifar in Egypt, but before describing his experiences in Egypt and Mrs. Potifar’s attempted seduction of him, the biblical narrative takes a sudden break, and an entire, seemingly unrelated, chapter is devoted to the life of Judah. The verse in Genesis 38:1 reads, “Va’y’hee bah’ayt ha’hee, va’yay’red Yehudah may’ait achav, va’yait ad eesh ahdoo’lah’mee, ush’mo Chirah,” And it was at that time, that Judah went down from his brothers and turned away towards an Adulamite man, whose name was Chirah. The commentators explain that after the sons of Jacob returned home and saw their inconsolable father suffering from the loss of Joseph, the brothers ganged up on Judah and blamed him for their father’s misery. After all, it was Judah’s idea to sell Joseph. “Had you told us to return him, we would have listened to you. But you told us to sell him.” Judah, on the other hand, did not feel that he should take the rap for his brothers, who were prepared to murder Joseph. So Judah decided to move away. This move was not just a “move,” it was a “falling out.” That’s why the scripture says, “Va’yay’red,” he went down. Judah clearly wanted to flee from his dysfunctional family, and to distance himself as much as possible from anything that reminded him of his family and the faith in which he grew up.

Judah soon befriends Chirah, an Adulamite man, and marries or takes as a common law wife the daughter of a man named Shua. Judah has three sons with her. The first is named Er, which means to awaken. Perhaps Judah is saying, “Finally, my juices, that I’ve kept under wrap all this time can be aroused and awakened. At last, I have the opportunity to live out my fantasies, instead of being restricted by those primitive Jewish laws.” The second child was named by Judah’s wife and is called Onan, a name which implies that there was a distancing between Judah and his wife. “Onan” means intense grieving. We see this idea confirmed, because when the third child is born, scripture tells us that Judah is nowhere to be found. He’s in Cheziv. Another interesting fact is that we never learn the name of Judah’s wife’s. In fact, it seems quite irrelevant. Judah’s wife is, after all, just a baby factory, her not being “Jewish” or at all related to Abraham’s family, strongly confirms his estrangement from the family.

As if to ensure this estrangement, Judah handpicks a wife, named Tamar, for his oldest son, Er. By doing so, Judah makes certain that Er doesn’t, G-d forbid, revert back to his Jewish roots. Er is considered evil in G-d’s eyes, and he dies. Tamar is then given in a levirate marriage to the younger brother, Onan, who also dies. And while Judah promises Tamar that she will soon be given to the third son, Shayla, Judah really has no intentions of doing so; after all, he probably blames her for killing his first sons.

Tamar returns to her father’s house, where she remains a widow. After some interlude, Judah’s wife dies, and Judah goes to Timnah with his friend, Chirah, to console himself. When Tamar hears this, she dresses up as a harlot and follows them to Timnah. Without realizing that the woman is his daughter-in-law, Judah impregnates her believing that she’s a harlot. Judah promises the harlot a he-goat as payment, and leaves as a deposit his signet, his chord and his staff, objects that were considered reliable identification in those days.

When Judah’s friend, Chirah, comes back to pay the harlot, she is nowhere to be found. Judah, afraid of being embarrassed publicly, tells Chirah to drop the issue. We see here parenthetically how Judah is punished “measure-for-measure,” because after all it was the blood of the he-goat that the brothers used to color Joseph’s coat to deceive Jacob, and now Judah is himself deceived. We also see how sensitive Judah is to public embarrassment and humiliation.

After three months, Judah is told that his daughter-in-law, Tamar, is pregnant by harlotry. He summarily orders that she be burnt by fire. As she is being taken out to be executed, Tamar sends a message to Judah, her father-in-law, saying (Genesis 38:25), “Ha’ker nah, l’mee ha’cho’temet v’ha’p’tee’lim v’ha’mateh ha’ayleh?” Identify please whose are this seal, this chord and this staff?

It’s interesting to note that Tamar does not say to Judah, “You were the one who impregnated me! Look at this ID, you can’t deny it!” Instead, Tamar sends Judah the evidence. Judah is now in a position to stonewall and deny the whole thing, because the evidence is now in his hands. Judah recognizes the objects and, instead of denying, says two of the most profound words in scripture and in all of human history. Genesis 38:26: “Va’yomer,” and he said, “tzad’kah mee’meh’nee,” she is more righteous than I, inasmuch I did not give her to Shayla, my son. The story ends with Tamar’s life being spared. She gives birth to twins, one who eventually becomes the great-grandfather of King David, and ultimately the progenitor of the Messiah.

Those two words that Judah uttered, “tzad’kah mee’me’nee,” not only changed the course of history for Judah, but for all the Jewish people, and, in fact, for humanity in general. After defecting from his family and from “Jewish life,” Judah rises up and becomes the paradigm Baal Teshuva, the master of return. It is undoubtedly because of that great and courageous act that Judah’s leadership of the people of Israel, for time immemorial, is confirmed. And who knows, if we are not called “Jews,” at least in part, because of that profound act of our forefather Judah.

This is not mere fables or fairytales, this is not legend. It is perhaps one of the most exalted moments in human development, demonstrating how one person can lift himself up from the abysmal depths, from the lowest ash heap, and rise to become a symbol of inspiration for all, for time immemorial.

May you be blessed.