Judah’s Rise to Excellence

This Shabbat we complete the book of Bereshit with the reading of Parashat VaYehi.  Parshat VaYehi contains blessings that Jacob gives to each of his sons and to two of his grandchildren.  The blessing that interests me most is Jacob’s blessing to Judah: גור אריה יהודה מטרף בני עלית כרע רבץ כאריה וכלביא מי יקימנו  “Judah is a lion’s whelp.  From a predator, my son, you have ascended.  He crouches and lies down like a lion, who would dare rouse him?”  The middle of this verse greatly interests me, as what does it mean that Judah has risen from being a predator?

Rashi says that Judah has ascended in moral status.  According to him, when Jacob said “a wild beast has devoured Joseph,” he meant Judah as the beast.  Judah was the leader of the brothers and thus when Jacob saw Joseph’s bloodied coat, he thought that Judah had murdered him.  Jacob therefore is saying that Judah has risen מטרף, from being one who preys on others.  When the brothers reunite with Joseph and Joseph wants to hold Benjamin captive, it is Judah who pleads to be taken prisoner instead, so that Jacob will not lose his other favorite son.

I strongly agree with Rashi’s interpretation of מטרף בני עלית.  At the beginning of the Joseph narrative, Judah is the leader of the brothers who throw Joseph into the pit and sell him into slavery.  He heads the brothers who contemplate murdering Joseph!  By the end of the Joseph narrative, Judah is still the leader, although instead of making sport of a brother’s life he holds it as sacred.  It would have been easy for Judah to let Benjamin go into Egyptian captivity, as he did with Joseph, yet this time Judah protects his brother.

The lesson to be taken from this is that moral character is a process that grows with time.  The Judah we encountered a few weeks ago was a deeply flawed man, one who would get rid of one of his brothers out of jealousy.  He was not a moral leader, but rather one who led the older brothers to gang up on the defenseless youngest one.  The Judah of this week’s parashah, however, is a man who stands up for his weakest brother and takes charge as the head of the family.  He has truly risen from being a predator to being a righteous, deserving leader.

How does this apply to us?  Throughout our lives we encounter individuals whose behavior strikes us as immoral or egregious.  While we are right to shun this behavior, we also have to keep in mind that those whose example we decry today might go through a process of personal growth, like Judah did.  We are not the people of Abraham, Isaac or even of Moses. Rather we are יהודים, the people of Judah. Our protagonist was an unlikely leader-one who would murder his brother or sell him into slavery-yet at he went through a process of moral ascent and self-improvement. That is what leadership is all about: recognizing our mistakes and working each and every day to improve them.

As we begin the secular new year, let us resolve to be like Judah, working each and every day to make ourselves the best we can be. Let us recognize that whatever mistakes we make, there is always the opportunity to make positive changes to benefit ourselves and those who are important to us. That is what it means to be a Jew-one who comes from Judah.

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