The Story of Judah Shows the Power of Change
The sequence from Bereishit 37-50 is the longest unbroken narrative in the Torah, and there can be no doubt who its hero is: Joseph. The story begins and ends with him. We see him as a child, beloved — even spoiled — by his father; as an adolescent dreamer, resented by his brothers; as a slave, then a prisoner, in Egypt; then as the second most powerful figure in the greatest empire of the ancient world. At every stage, the narrative revolves around him and his impact on others. He dominates the last third of Bereishit, casting his shadow on everything else. From almost the beginning, he seems destined for greatness.
Yet history did not turn out that way. To the contrary, it is another brother who, in the fullness of time, leaves his mark on the Jewish people. Indeed, we bear his name.
Our covenantal family has been known by several names. One is Ivri, “Hebrew” (possibly related to the ancient apiru), meaning “outsider, stranger, nomad, one who wanders from place to place.” That is how Abraham and his children were known to others. The second is Yisrael, derived from Jacob’s new name after he “wrestled with God and with man, and prevailed.” After the division of the kingdom and the conquest of the North by the Assyrians, however, our people became known as Yehudim or Jews — for it was the tribe of Judah who dominated the kingdom of the South, and it was they who survived the Babylonian exile.
So it was not Joseph but Judah who conferred his identity on the people; Judah who became the ancestor of Israel’s greatest king, David; Judah from whom the messiah will be born. So why Judah, not Joseph? The answer undoubtedly lies at the beginning of “Vayigash,” as the two brothers confront one another, and Judah pleads for Benjamin’s release.
The first clue lies many chapters back, at the beginning of the Joseph story. It is there we learn that it was Judah who proposed selling Joseph into slavery:
Judah said to his brothers, “What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover his blood? Let’s sell him to the Arabs and not harm him with our own hands. After all — he is our brother, our own flesh and blood.” His brothers agreed. (Gen. 37:26-27)
This is a speech of monstrous callousness. There is no word about the evil of murder, merely pragmatic calculation (“What will we gain?”). At the very moment he calls Joseph “our own flesh and blood,” Judah is proposing to sell him as a slave. Judah has none of the tragic nobility of Reuben who, alone of the brothers, sees that what they are doing is wrong, and makes an attempt to save Joseph. At this point, Judah is the last person from whom we expect great things.
However, Judah — more than anyone else in the Torah — changes. The man we see all these years later is prepared to suffer rather than see Benjamin held as a slave. As he says to Joseph:
Now, my lord, let me remain in place of the boy as your lordship’s slave, and let him go with his brothers. How can I return to my father without the boy? I could not bear to see the misery which my father would suffer.(44:33-34)
This is a precise reversal of character. Judah’s callousness has been replaced with concern. His indifference to his brother’s fate has been transformed into courage. He is willing to suffer what he once inflicted on Joseph so that the same fate should not befall Benjamin. At this point Joseph reveals his identity. We know why. Judah has passed the test that Joseph has carefully constructed for him. Joseph wants to know if Judah has changed. He has.
This is a highly significant moment in the history of the human spirit. Judah is the first penitent — the first baal yeshivah – in the Torah. How can we account for Judah’s change? For that, we have to backtrack to chapter 38 — the story of Tamar.
Tamar, we recall, had married Judah’s two elder sons, both of whom had died, leaving her a childless widow. Judah, fearing that his third son would share their fate, withheld him from her — thus leaving her unable to remarry and have children. Once she understands her situation, Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute. Judah sleeps with her. She becomes pregnant. Judah, unaware of the disguise, concludes that she must have had a forbidden relationship and orders her to be put to death. At this point, Tamar — who, while disguised, had taken Judah’s seal, cord and staff as a pledge – sends them to Judah with a message: “The father of my child is the man to whom these belong.”
Judah now understands the whole story. Not only has he placed Tamar in an impossible situation of living widowhood, and not only is he the father of her child, but he also realizes that she has behaved with extraordinary discretion in revealing the truth without shaming him. Tamar is the heroine of the story, but it has one significant consequence. Judah admits he was wrong. “She was more righteous than I,” he says.
This is the first time in the Torah that someone acknowledges their own guilt. It is also the turning point in Judah’s life. H
We now understand the significance of his name. The verb lehodot means two things: “to thank,” which is what Leah has in mind when she gives Judah, her fourth son, his name — and “to admit, acknowledge.”
Judah means “he who acknowledged his sin.”
Joseph is consistently known to tradition as ha-tzaddik, “the righteous.” Joseph became mishnehle-melekh, “second to the king.” Judah, however, became the father of Israel’s kings. Where the penitent Judah stands, even the perfectly righteous Joseph cannot stand. However great an individual may be in the virtue of his or her natural character, greater still is one who is capable of growth and change. That is the power of penitence, and it began with Judah.