“Judah, The Paradigm for Jewish Future”
(Updated and revised from Vayeishev 5762-2001)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


This week’s parasha, parashat Vayeishev, is 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 find a little inner peace after the tumultuous early years of his 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. He dreams that he is going to rule over his brothers, and when he shares his dreams of personal grandeur and dominion, he arouses feelings of deep resentment and enmity in his siblings.

Under the guise of shepherding the family’s flocks, the brothers leave Hebron and travel to far away Shechem in order to distance themselves from their dysfunctional home situation. Lo and behold, at the behest of Jacob, Joseph comes to Shechem and follows them to Dotan, to see how the brothers are doing.

At first, his brothers want to kill their brother Joseph, whom the perceive as obnoxious. But, Reuven, the oldest son, who would be blamed for any mishaps in the family, prevails upon the brothers not to kill Joseph, by suggesting that the boy be thrown in to a 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 an Egyptian officer, Potifar. Behind the scenes, the entire saga of Joseph is really the Al-mighty’s plan to bring about the fulfillment of the Covenant between the Pieces, the prediction of exile from Canaan, and enslavement and persecution of the children of Israel in the land of Egypt.

After Joseph is sold to Potifar in Egypt, even before the Torah describes Joseph’s experiences in Egypt, the biblical narrative takes a sudden break, and an entire, seemingly unrelated, chapter is devoted to the life of Judah.

Genesis 38:1 reads, וַיְהִי בָּעֵת הַהִוא וַיֵּרֶד יְהוּדָה מֵאֵת אֶחָיו, וַיֵּט עַד אִישׁ עֲדֻלָּמִי וּשְׁמוֹ חִירָה , And it was, at that time, that Judah went down from his brothers and turned away toward an Adulamite man, whose name was Chirah. The commentators explain that after the sons of Jacob returned home and saw their inconsolable father Jacob 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. Since Judah was the natural leader, the brothers argued that had Judah told them to return Joseph to his father, they would have listened to him. But, instead Judah said 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, וַיֵּרֶד , he went down. Judah clearly wanted to escape 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 spent his formative years.

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 wraps 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 the child’s mother, and is called Onan, a name which implies that there was a distancing between Judah and the child’s mother. “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 woman who produces babies for Judah. Judah’s intense desire to distance himself from his family and their traditions, is confirmed by his choice of a Canaanite wife—someone who is unacceptable to a decedent of Abraham.

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, Shaila, Judah really has no intentions of doing so, after all, he probably blames her for killing his first two 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 of this, she dresses up as a harlot and follows them to Timnah. Without realizing that the woman is his daughter-in-law, Judah impregnates Tamar 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 on 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), הַכֶּר נָא לְמִי הַחֹתֶמֶת וְהַפְּתִילִים וְהַמַּטֶּה הָאֵלֶּה  ”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 Tamar’s accusation, because all the incriminating 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), צָדְקָה מִמֶּנִּי , “she is more righteous than I, inasmuch I did not give her to Shaila, 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, צָדְקָה מִמֶּנִּי , 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 singular 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 incredible story is not mere fable or fairytale, neither is it legend. It is perhaps one of the most exalted moments in human evolution, 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.

Please note: The festival of Chanukah begins on Thursday night, December 10, 2020 and continues through Friday afternoon, December 18, 2020.

Wishing all a happy Chanukah festival.