Vayeishev 2021: Gratitude for Change

The story of Judah, placed so strikingly in the middle of the famous Joseph story, gives us hints at the core of who we are as descendants of Judah, and what it means to carry forward his legacy of gratitude for change.

This week’s Torah portion is one of the most famous - the story of Joseph. In the middle of the parshah, though, we get a completely different narrative - one less famous, but, perhaps, more important to the core of who we are as a people. It is a narrative about Judah, Joseph’s older brother; the brother who suggested Joseph be sold into slavery. 

One of our commentators, Rashi, tells us that the reason this narrative appears here, smack in the middle of the Joseph story, is to tell us that Judah’s other brothers deposed him from his high rank amongst them for having come up with the plot. Another tells us that it is to reflect Judah having left, being unable to bear witness to the pain he caused his father in having lost Joseph. Either way, our tradition teaches that this story is one of Judah’s fall from grace. 

This beautiful literary feature of the Torah becomes more meaningful when we pan out and see Judah’s wider relevance. Judah, the fourth son of Jacob, is a true patriarch of our people. During the history of the Israelite nations, the kingdom of Judah eventually took precedence, became the ruler over Jerusalem, and the monarchic household viewed as the inheritor of full legitimacy in the covenant with God through King David. As this plays out over the later books of the Hebrew Bible, we see that although Judahites are also Israelites, inheritors of the Torah and the Mosaic covenant alongside their brethren, Judahites became the next step in our peoples’ development. The clearest sign is that we are called Jews, Yehudim in Hebrew, which comes specifically from Judah - in Hebrew, Yehudah.

This story is, then, a literary peek into the early understanding of who the forefather and namesake of the Judahites, the Jews, really was, and therefore what the core of our people might be. It is not a story that involves God too directly, other than God smiting a couple of Judah’s sons. It is more a story about how we comport ourselves in the world - how we consider power dynamics, the power of our speech, and our responsibility therein.

In the story, Judah has two sons who are killed by God. The first brother is struck down for vaguely being “evil in the eyes of God,” then the second brother is then also struck down for failing to provide his brother’s widow a child. The widow, Tamar, is then told by Judah to wait for his third son to be of age to marry her. It is clear Judah never meant to actually have her marry his third son - he was afraid this son would die too. Rather than release her from his family’s line, though, Judah declares she must stay a widow. 

It’s not clear why, but this is a bit of an insight into Judah’s mindset. He, in this way, acted as if Tamar were his property, just as he did with Joseph when he told his brothers to sell him into slavery. Judah treats these people, family, even, as objects to be controlled, bought, or sold. And uses the power of speech to exercise this authority.

At the end of the story, Tamar comes out on top. She ends up tricking Judah into having children with her, which was the only way to gain her freedom from widowhood. When he first finds out, Judah declares she is to be burnt at the stake but ultimately Judah realizes that he is in the wrong. He confesses aloud in the end that he had abused his power, saying “She is more in the right than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my [third] son Shelah.”

Putting aside the troubling issues of gender here, let us think about what this transformation means using the literary features of the story. First, let’s look at Judah’s name. The Hebrew root is the same as “Todah” - thanks, or recognition. Second, let’s look at Judah’s future - he also repents before Joseph next week, just as he does before Tamar this week, admits aloud he is wrong, and does what is necessary to make up for it the best he can. I think these two things, although not obviously connected, provide us a very interesting grounding for what it means to be Jewish, descendants of Judah.

The clear outline of Judah’s involvement in both of these stories is simple: Judah misused his power through speech, repented, and was given another chance. Judah, too, as our ancestral Israelite tribe, did wrong in the eyes of God, repented and were redeemed. This action, then, is both an individual and a collective theme throughout Jewish history. Today, we are the inheritors of this legacy. Our name, Judah, means gratitude. The story teaches us that we should have gratitude for this capacity for change via recognizing our wrongdoing and then repenting. If we take this as the core of our peoplehood, this focus on gratitude for the capacity to change and do better, as the essence distilled from the stories of our namesake ancestor Judah, we come into a clarity as to what our tradition entails.

An example. The 18th century Hasidic master Rebbe Nachman of Breslov has a surprising teaching about Chanukah that reflects this theme directly. In his magnum opus, Likutei Moharan, he wrote:

The days of Chanukah are days of thanksgiving. They are the delight of the World to Come and the Jewish way, through which one merits perfected speech via the revelation of truth through Tzedakah, righteousness, Teshuvah, repentance, Ashira, influence, and Malchut, our connection to God. This is the idea behind the oil of the Chanukah lights...Through thanksgiving, the light of truth is revealed... This alludes to the oil, which is the light of truth, as in “Send forth Your light and Your truth” (Psalms 43:3). Truth radiates its light into the words.

Although I tend to think of Chanukah as primarily a celebration, which it also is, Rebbe Nachman’s teaching shows us that the legacy of Judah is found even as we light our candles. We give thanks for the great miracles that sustained our ancestors, and simultaneously remember our responsibilities as Jews - to speak with righteousness, to do the work of repentance, to use our influence for good, and to investigate our connection to the Divine. Judah, too, does just this, realizing that righteousness required him to repent of his action, to use his influence to eventually save Tamar and Joseph, and to realize that each of these acts were modes of connection to God. 

May each of us use our festival of lights to remember our ancestor Judah; to give thanks for all that we have; to use our power for good; and to practice our capacity for truthful, righteous speech to accomplish all of these things. Shabbat shalom, and chag urim sameach!