Judah’s Rise to Excellence

A picture is worth a thousand words. Look at the cartoon by Charles Schultz, זכרונו לברכה, between Lucy and Charlie Brown.

How does one get an “upper up” to use Lucy’s words, in Judaism? Life is not only about ups: Chris Daughtry sings “Everyone knows life has its ups and downs.”[1] Getting an up requires being willing to embrace the downs, learn from them and try again. This is why we are called Jews, descendants of Judah. When Jacob blesses Judah, he calls himגור אריה, a lion’s cub, continues מטרף בני עלית, you have ascended from amidst the prey,[2] and concludes לא יסור שבט מיהודה, the scepter shall not depart from Judah.[3]  The French biblical commentor par excellence, Rashi, states that this means that the line of Jewish leaders will never depart from the tribe of Judah. Wherever Jews live, the leader, and eventually the Messiah, will descend from Judah.[4]

          Why did Judah merit this ascent? Let’s review the cliff notes version of the story of Judah. Picture the scene with Joseph in the pit, his brothers’ desiring to kill him. Then off in a distance, there is a caravan of traders. Judah craftily says, “What benefit is there if we kill our brother and hide his blood?[5] Let’s go instead and sell him to the Ishmaelites for he is our brother, our flesh.”[6]       What cruel words disguised within compassion: we won’t receive any money from killing Joseph, so let’s sell him and let him rot away in Egypt.[7]

          Let’s descend even further into Judah’s story, where he separates from his brothers and takes a Canaanite wife.[8] He also had intimate relations with his daughter-in-law (albeit unknowingly) and when he found out she is with child he proclaimed הוציאוה ותשרף, “take her out and burn her!”[9] He’s quickly ready to dispatch a relative again. When he realizes that Tamar is pregnant with his child, he says צדקה ממני, she is more righteous than me.[10] This is the defining moment of our story: Judah begins to ascend through doing תשובה, repentance, recognizing that past actions were wrong and it’s time to change course.

          Fast forward to Joseph accusing the brothers of being spies. Judah tells Father Jacob “I will function as Benjamin’s guarantor when he goes into Egypt.”[11] When Joseph accuses Benjamin of thievery, Judah finds himself at a crossroads: let another brother go into slavery or speak up and save him. This time he chooses the latter, begging Joseph to spare his brother. He proclaims, “let your servant remain as a slave instead of the boy.”[12] Judah has gone from devaluation and degradation of human life, treating a brother as an object off which to profit or a daughter-in-law as one to be burnt, 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 ones we need to emulate. G-d looked at Judah’s תשובה and said, ‘I want that to be what leads the Jewish people forward.’

We might think the most righteous are those who have yichus, pedigree, or are “Frum from birth.” 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.[13] 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 commandments 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 high they are on the ladder of observance, but on whether one is ascending or descending the ladder. Let’s return to the Peanuts comic. What Lucy failed to recognize is the embodiment of what it means to be a Jew, a descendant of Judah. To be Jewish means to take on the ebb and flow of the roller-coaster we call life, to find the willpower to move forward even when one feels discouraged or in despair over where his/her life is at currently. In addition, being Jewish means to be able to admit when one made a mistake, as Judah did to Tamar, and more importantly, to take a different path in those moments where one is on the verge of making the same mistake again. It requires the one who sold a brother into slavery to, at a latter point in his life, say ‘No-take me instead.’ What makes Judah great is he learns from his past, changes course and, in one of the downward moments of his family’s history, can atone for past behavior. This is a vital lesson for each of us as we conclude the Book of Genesis. My prayer on this Shabbat is to take this to heart-to look at our lives and see the opportunities for personal growth and the lessons to learn at this moment in time. If we are at a “down” period, one of “descent” may we recognize that it might be for the sake of a great “ascent” in days to come. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our will to do so as descendants of Judah.


[1] Daughtry, “The Start of Something Good”

[2] Genesis 49:9

[3] Genesis 49:10

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

[5] Genesis 37:26

[6] Genesis 37:27

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

[8] Genesis 38:1-2

[9] Genesis 38:24

[10] Genesis 38:26

[11] Genesis 43:9

[12] Genesis 44:32, 33

[13] Talmud Berachot 38b

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