The Scepter Shall Not Depart from Judah

How does one rise to greatness in Judaism? It is not as easy as we might think. Greatness is not based upon pedigree (yihus) but rather upon hard work and merit. We see this through the praise that Jacob gives to his son Judah. He calls him גור אריה, a lion’s cub, says מטרף בני עלית, you have ascended from amidst the pray.[1] He then says לא יסור שבט מיהודה, the scepter shall not depart from Judah.[2] Rashi comments that this means that the line of Jewish leaders will never depart from the tribe of Judah, that wherever Jews live the leader, whether a king or resh galuta (exilarch) will descend from Judah.

Why did Judah merit this ascent? To get at that answer we have to go back to Parshat VaYeshev, where Joseph’s brothers want to kill him. Judah craftily says מה בצע כי נהרוג את אחינו וכסינו את דמו, “What benefit is there if we kill our brother and hide his blood?[4] לכו ונמכרנו לישמעלים וידנו אל-תהי-בו כי אחינו בשרנו הוא, “Let’s go instead and sell him to the Ishmaelites for he is our brother, our flesh.”[5]   Here Rashi asserts Judah is saying we won’t receive any profit, any money from killing him, so better to sell him and wipe our hands from his death (presuming he’ll die in slavery in Egypt).[6]

Judah descended even further in the next chapter of Parshat VaYeshev וירד יהודה מאת אחיו going down from where his brothers were at and taking a Canaanite wife.[7] Even Esau knew how bad it was to take a Canaanite wife, and yet Judah did precisely that. He also had relations with his daughter-in-law (albeit unknowingly) and when he found out she is with child he proclaims הוציאוה ותשרף, “take her out and burn her!”[8] He’s quickly ready to do away with the life of a relative again. When he realizes that Tamar is pregnant with his child, he says צדקה ממני, she is more righteous than me.[9] It is at this point that he begins to ascend through doing תשובה, or repentance, recognizing that the actions that he took were wrong and that it’s time to change course.

Of course the greatest step in Judah’s ascent was in last week’s parsha, VaYigash, where he begged Joseph to spare his brother Benjamin’s life. He states עבדיך ערב את הנער, “I, your servant, has pledged my life for the boy” and ישב-נא עבדיך תחת הנער עבד לאדוני, “let your servant remain as a slave instead of the boy.”[10] Judah has went from devaluation and degradation of human life, treating a brother as an object off of which to profit or a daughter-in-law as one to be burned, to pledging his life on behalf of a younger, innocent brother. He took a roundabout, circuitous way to get there, but the fact that he changed and evolved is why he is the son we need to emulate. G-d looked at Judah’s תשובה and said ‘I want that to be what leads the Jewish people forward.’

Normally we think the most righteous are those who are “Frum from birth.” However that’s not true in our tradition. The Talmud teaches that in the place of a baal teshuva (one who has undergone repentance) a tsadik cannot stand.[11] There is also the story of a Jew asking his rabbi about who is more holy, who is higher on the ladder in God’s judgment: A person beginning to observe the mitzvot or a person who had been observant who is now moving away from observance? The rabbi replied that God’s judgment is not based on how observant the person is, on how high they are on the ladder of observance, but rather on whether one is ascending or descending the ladder.

We have seen an example of ascent today through the hard work and dedication of our Bar Mitzvah boy. It was not easy for you to reach this day yet you did it with pride. Of course it didn’t hurt to have a great teacher-your abba-to guide you along the way. Your imma grew in her Jewish understanding, observance and commitment as an adult as many were casting it aside. Your abba came from Russia at a time when Jews had to hide aspects of their religion. Many left Russia with the status of being tinokot shenishbau, uneducated in the beauty of our faith. He has had to work hard, including through service in Tzahal, asking many questions and take steps forward each day in his Jewish learning. Unlike him you grew up in a place where people are proud to be Jewish, embracing our traditions, and ironically in environments like this it can be difficult to continue immersion in Jewish study. I urge you to follow in the example of your parents, putting in the time, effort and mesirut nefesh as you devote yourself to continuing to grow as a Jew.

Mazal Tov on reaching this joyous day! To celebrate as a congregation, let us turn to Page 841 and read responsively.

[1] Genesis 49:9

[2] Genesis 49:10

[3] Rashi on Genesis 49:10 ד”ה לא-יסור שבט מיהודה

[4] Genesis 37:26

[5] Genesis 37:27

[6] Rashi on Genesis 37:26 ד”ה מה בצע, ד”ה וכסינו

[7] Genesis 38:1-2

[8] Genesis 38:24

[9] Genesis 38:26

[10] Genesis 44:32, 33

[11] Talmud Berachot 38b

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