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Vayeshev 5775

by Rabbi Yaakov Grunewald

At the centre of the Sidra, in chapter 38, we find the story of Judah’s separation from his father and brothers. This was after Joseph's disappearance. The family was in a state of deep shock.   Judah, who had proposed Joseph’s sale, blamed himself for doing so and went to live amongst the Canaanites.  The Torah says that he went down from his family home. This means that he now lived in the plain which was some distance away from the mountainous area of Hebron.  His descent can also be interpreted in a Midrashic sense.  Judah went down spiritually.  He married a Canaanite woman by the name of Shu'a. This means that he rebelled against important family principles. We only have to remember what lengths Abraham went to in order to prevent his servant from arranging a marriage for his son Isaac with a Canaanite woman.  Similarly, Isaac and Rebecca sent Jacob to Aram to marry a woman from her family.  Even Esau married a woman from the tribe of Ishmael in order not to cause distress to his parents.  Judah must have caused his father considerable distress, by marrying a Canaanite woman. This demonstrates how angry he was with his father.

The Torah says that Judah went down, VAYERED, immediately after telling us that Joseph was brought down to Egypt, HURAD.  This teaches us an important lesson. Judah forced Joseph to go down to Egypt and, as a consequence, he was punished. He now felt that he himself had to leave his family. The punishment which was meted out to him was in accordance with the principle of middah keneged middah, Measure for Measure.

The Torah also contrasts Judah’s life amongst the Canaanites  with Joseph’s life amongst the Egyptians. One of the themes which we encounter in chapter 38 is that Judah succumbed to temptation. On his way to the Canaanite Festival of the shearing of the sheep, he saw his daughter in law Tamar, waiting on the main road, disguised as a prostitute.  Despite the fact that he did not know who she was, he asked to come to her. As we find out at the end of the story. he should have taken the trouble to check her identity. On the other hand, when Joseph found himself in extremely compromising circumstances, morally, he acted very differently. Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him. Yet, despite the great risks to his life and, certainly career, Joseph resisted her advances. He showed great courage. He even said to her that he was not prepared ‘to defy God’, although she was a pagan and, therefore, couldn’t have had much appreciation of this statement. Because of his refusal, he ended up in prison. It is clear that we can we compare Judah to Joseph, we find that Joseph proved himself to be far greater than Judah.   

Judah’s story begins with great tragedies.  After some time amongst the Canaanites, his two older sons died young. The Torah says that they were evil people. Judah’s wife also died and he was left a widower. This must have been a punishment for his terrible crimes.

Fortunately, in the course of his life Judah rehabilitated himself.  At the end of chapter 38, we see that Judah has been transformed. Now he proved himself to be a courageous and sincere leader. When Tamar challenged him to admit that he had been the man who had made her pregnant, he immediately admitted his mistake. It was a public admission in circumstances which were extremely embarrassing for Judah. However, he passed the test of leadership. 

Judah’s relationship with TAMAR proved to be crucial in the history of Israel. Tamar was a righteous woman. Because of the way that she conducted herself, she became the ancestress of the future redeemer of Israel.  She bore two twin sons to Judah. The elder of the two sons was called Peretz. King David’s lineage was: Judah, Peretz, Chetzron, Ram, Aminadav, Nachshon, Salmon, Bo’az, Oved, Jesse and David. Indeed, this fact explains why the Torah devotes an entire chapter to Judah.  His tribe became the most important tribe in Israel.  It is the only tribe  that has survived to this day, by name. We are called Jews, Yehudim. Despite his early failures, the tribe of Judah became more important that the two tribes of  the House of Joseph, Ephraim and Menashe. All the 8 tribes which joined the House of Joseph, to make up the kingdom of Israel, vanished. Together, they are still known as the 10 tribes. To this day, we do not know what happened to them or where their descendants live. The Prophet Ezekiel prophesied that when the Messiah comes, the house of Joseph will again be reunited with the house of Judah.

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