PARSHAT VAYIGASH

WHO IS JUDAH?

“Judah stepped forth to him [Joseph] and said, allow your servant to speak a word in the ears of my lord, do not be angry with your servant for you are like Pharaoh.”  (Genesis 44:18)

            Judah has a special place in my heart.  Not only is Judah the name of my grandson.    But Judah, the fourth son of Jacob and Leah, is the hero of this portion.  He steps forward towards his brother Joseph who he does not recognize and passionately defends his younger brother Benjamin.  Joseph wants to enslave Benjamin.   Judah argues that enslaving Benjamin would destroy their elderly father, whose soul was linked to Benjamiin’s soul.   Judah offers himself instead. 

            Judah’s words deeply move Joseph.  He finally reveals his true identity as their long-lost brother.  The brothers are amazed and they embrace, promising to bring their elderly father from Canaan down to Egypt.  Led by Judah, it is a moment of reunion and reconciliation.   It symbolizes a key theme in Genesis, that estranged brothers can learn to love each other once again.  Judah, the brother whose name means “thanks,” is responsible for this important moment.

            We are called Jews (in Hebrew Yehudim) named after Judah (in Hebrew Yehuda).  In the first commonwealth, the southern kingdom was called Judah.  When the Jews returned thanks to Persians from the first exile, they called their land Judea.  Only after the Romans destroyed the Temple and exiled the Jews did the Romans change the name of the land to Palestine, after the ancient Philistines.   Who are the true indigenous people of the land?

            Judah may have been heroic in our portion.  But he did not begin his life that way.  He had become the leader of the brothers who threw Joseph in the pit.  He was the one who presented Joseph’s coat of many colors covered with blood to his father.  His words to his father were painful.  “Do you recognize this?”  Later those words would come to haunt him.  He impregnated his daughter-in-law Tamar who had dressed like a harlot, after Judah refused to give his youngest son in Levirate marriage.  When he threatened her, she responded, handing him the surety he had given her, “Do you recognize these?”  Judah reacts with clear regret regarding his sin towards his daughter-in-law.  I imagine at this point that he changes his ways.

            It is Judah who gives his personal guarantee that he will return Benjamin to his father safely.  When it looks as if Benjamin will become a slave in Egypt, Judah feels obligated to step forward.  His speech is powerful, and it moves Joseph.  It is a moment that changes the relationship between the brothers and Joseph.  In truth, it would have been easy to let the beloved son Benjamin become a slave, just as earlier he had allowed the beloved son Joseph to become a slave.  But Judah is now a new man.

            I believe there is a deep message here.  People can change.  And people can grow.  We often hear sayings like, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”   “A leopard can’t change his spots.”  That is not the Biblical approach.  The Bible teaches that people can change for the better.  Judah proves that teaching.  That is why the Talmud teaches, “Where someone who repents and changes their ways stands, even someone who has been fully righteous their entire life cannot stand.’  (Berakhot 34b)

            Perhaps the lesson is that no human being is beyond redemption.  People can change; people do change.  We are named after Judah, the brother who became a new man.  May we all learn to renew ourselves and become better people.