“Judah Emerges as the Leader of Israel”
(Updated and revised from Vayeishev 5763-2002)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, Vayeishev, represents the opening chapter of one of the great human sagas–the story of Joseph and his brethren. The renowned German novelist, Thomas Mann, devoted two large volumes to this epic narrative.

There are actually two theological objectives to the biblical story of Joseph: One is to fulfill the prediction recorded in the Brit Bain Hab’tarim, the Covenant Between the Pieces, during which G-d tells Abram (his name has not yet been changed to Abraham) in Genesis 15:7-17, יָדֹעַ תֵּדַע כִּי גֵר יִהְיֶה זַרְעֲךָ בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא לָהֶם, וַעֲבָדוּם, וְעִנּוּ אֹתָם, אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה, “You shall surely know that your children will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will be enslaved and persecuted for 400 years.” The prophecy then concludes with G-d assuring Abram that He will also judge the nation of enslavers, and Israel will eventually leave that land [Egypt] as a free people, and with great wealth.

The second objective of the Joseph story is to designate which of the 12 sons of Jacob will emerge as the leader of Israel.

It is through the story of Joseph that the promise of exile, enslavement, and persecution comes to fruition. Joseph’s dreams create enmity between himself and his brothers. At Judah’s suggestion, Joseph is pulled from the pit where he had been thrown by his resentful brothers, and sold to the Ishmaelites.  His coat of many colors is dipped into goat’s blood and sent to his father, Jacob, to deceive their elderly father into believing that a wild animal had devoured his beloved Joseph. Joseph himself is sold to the Egyptians and, after interpreting Pharaoh’s dream, Joseph becomes the second in command of Egypt. During the great famine that strikes, Joseph sells food to his brothers, and eventually relocates Jacob and his entire family to Goshen, Egypt. Thus, the divinely-ordained process of exile, slavery, and persecution begins.

What does all this have to do with Jewish leadership? In one of the most exalted stories of human literature, the Bible, at the end of Chapter 37 of Genesis, reports that after the brothers saw their father Jacob’s inconsolable grief as a result of the loss of his beloved Joseph, they had a falling out with Judah–blaming him for everything, since it was his idea to sell Joseph. (Of course, the brothers themselves were prepared to kill Joseph, but never mind that minor detail!)

In Genesis 38:1, the Bible states that, וַיֵּרֶד יְהוּדָה מֵאֵת אֶחָיו, Judah goes down from his brothers–translate this to mean that Judah has a “falling out” with his brothers, departs from the family homestead and turns to an Adulimite man, whose name is Chira. With his departure, Judah, in effect, renounces his family connections and distances himself as much as possible from his “Jewish” past. He marries a local woman, the daughter of a man named Shua, whose name we never learn. The woman’s name is not really important, only the fact she is not an Israelite is relevant.

In rapid succession, Judah’s wife gives birth to three sons. Judah names the first child Er, which means “awakening,” probably acknowledging the new feeling of independence that Judah has acquired. Judah’s wife names the second son “Onan,” which means bereft. The name apparently reflects the fact that after the birth of Er, and as a result of Judah’s newfound identity, Judah has distanced himself somewhat from his wife. The third son is named Shaila, which means “quiet” or “tranquil.” It can also mean to arouse false hopes. By the time Shaila is born, the estrangement has significantly increased. We can be certain that Judah and his wife didn’t take birthing classes together. In fact, Judah is away at a place called Keziv (which means to deceive) when the child is born.

To make certain that his oldest son, Er, would not possibly revert back to his family’s Jewish roots, Judah arranges for Er to marry a local woman named Tamar. Er is wicked in G-d’s eyes and dies. A levirate marriage is performed which binds Tamar to Judah’s oldest surviving son, Onan. But, because Onan knew that any child born would really be considered the child of his deceased brother Er, Onan spills his seed, and also dies. Judah tells Tamar to return to her home and wait for the time when Shaila, his 3rd and youngest son, is old enough to marry her. Of course, Judah really has no intention of allowing Tamar to marry Shaila, because after all, he regards Tamar as the reason for the death of his two older sons.

Meanwhile, Judah’s wife, the daughter of Shua, dies. To recover from his grief, Judah goes to Timna for some well-deserved “R and R” with his old buddy, Chira, the Adulamite.

The widowed Tamar realizes that Judah has no intention of ever giving his youngest son, Shaila, to her, so she dresses as a harlot and deceives Judah into having relations with her. Since Judah had no conventional payment with him, Tamar requests foolproof ID in the form of Judah’s seal, his cord, and his staff. Judah later sends his friend Chira to deliver the promised goat as payment to the harlot and to retrieve his deposit. (The payment is revealing, because, after all, it was through a goat that the brothers deceived their father, Jacob.) But the harlot is nowhere to be found. Judah, who is afraid of public mortification, determines that it is better for the harlot to keep the items of deposit, rather than create a scene by trying to track her down in order to deliver the goat.

Several months later, after Judah has returned home, he is informed that Tamar, his daughter-in-law, has committed harlotry and is pregnant. Of course, Judah is not aware of the fact that he is the father of her child. And so, Judah instructs his servants to take Tamar out to the stake to be burnt. As Tamar is being led to her death, she sends the items of deposit to Judah, and asks him to identify them, stating that the seal, the cord and the staff belong to the man who had made her pregnant. Since all the evidence is now in Judah’s hand, Judah could have easily stonewalled and denied all. Judah could have simply put Tamar to death, and no one would have known of the embarrassing incestuous relationship he had with his own daughter-in-law. Despite the fact that we already know that Judah is terribly sensitive to public embarrassment, Judah rises to the occasion and pronounces two of the most heroic words in human history, (Genesis 38:26) !צָדְקָה מִמֶּנִּי “She, Tamar, is more righteous than I!” It is my fault, not hers, that this happened, since I did not allow my son, Shaila, to marry Tamar.

The rest, of course, is, as we say, “history.” Tamar gives birth to twin boys. The eldest, Peretz, is destined to be the great, great grandfather of King David, and ultimately the progenitor of the Messiah.

As we look back on this moving story, we realize that by acknowledging his guilt Judah becomes history’s first Ba’al Teshuva-(penitent). As the story develops further in parashat Vayigash, Judah rises to the occasion once again. He appeals to his father Jacob to allow Benjamin to go to Egypt with him, saying (Genesis 43:9): אָנֹכִי אֶעֶרְבֶנּו,ּ מִיָּדִי תְּבַקְשֶׁנּוּ , “I will be a surety for him, you will demand him from my hand. If I fail to bring him back to you, I will be guilty to you for the rest of my life!” It is at that critical moment that Judah introduces into the Jewish lexicon the revolutionary concept of עֲרֵבוּת“areivut,” mutual responsibility. This critical ideal, which Judah introduced to Jewish tradition, was later codified in our Talmud, in Shavuot 39a, as the principle of: כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל עֲרֵבִים זֶה בָּזֶה, which states that every Jew is responsible for one another.

There are those who argue that we, the Jewish people, are called “Jews” in acknowledgment of Judah, who was the first to affirm the primary principle of mutual responsibility. And so, it is Judah who emerges to become the leader of all of Israel.

In his last will and testament to his sons before his death, Jacob cries out, (Genesis 49:10): לֹא יָסוּר שֵׁבֶט מִיהוּדָה, the scepter of leadership shall never depart from Judah, and will always remain with him. Despite the fact that Joseph is traditionally referred to as יוֹסֵף הַצַּדִּיקYosef Hatzadik, “Joseph the Righteous” because of his superhuman resistance to Mrs. Potifar’s relentless efforts to seduce him, it is not Joseph, but rather Judah, who emerges as Israel’s leader. It is Judah with whom the common folk can identify, whereas, Joseph is far too utopian and much too unrealistic. It is Judah the sinner, the one who falls out and returns to become the Ba’al Teshuvah, the penitent, from whom we can learn. It is he who can serve as the more reasonable and realistic role model for mortals like ourselves, while Joseph is far too perfect.

What a story! Once again, as always, the Bible conveys a most profound and transformational message.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The festival of Chanukah begins on Sunday night, November 28, 2021 and continues through Monday night, December 6, 2021.

Wishing all a Happy Chanukah!