Archive: Sahara Desert Dunes (NASA, International Space Station, 07/07/07)

Parashas Vayeshev

Upon reviewing the stories of two of Yaakov’s twelve sons, Yosef and Yehudah, one may wonder why Yehudah’s descendants were ultimately crowned with the kingship of Israel rather than those of Yosef. Stories regarding their chastity are told of both.

After her first and second husbands died, both of whom were sons of Yehudah, Tamar dressed as a prostitute and seduced her former father-in-law. Yosef, on the other hand, when confronted by his master Potiphar’s wife, who propositioned him in the privacy of her mansion, ran away. Yehudah acceded to temptation; Yosef resisted.

Earlier in the Parshah, the Torah tells us that Yosef was thrown into a pit by his brothers and about to be killed. What does Yehudah do? He suggests that the brothers sell Yosef to a passing caravan of Ishmaelite merchants. Though he is the leader of the brothers, he does not recommend that Yosef be retrieved from the pit and brought back to their father. Moreover, Yehudah, according to certain midrashim, married a Canaanite woman – something even Esav did not do – at a time when his family was anxious about the children intermarrying.

Why, one wonders, was Yehudah rewarded with the sovereign leadership of Israel? A good leader is not one who is perfect, but one who falters and finds the strength of purpose to make a fresh start through repentance and improved actions. The Talmud tells us, “Four died through the serpent’s machinations” – that is, they died because all people are doomed to die and not on account of their personal sins:
Binyamin, Amram, Yishai and Caleiv. Binyamin was the most perfect of Yaakov’s sons, but he was never featured as a leader. The son accepted as leader, by the brothers and their father, was Yehudah.

Yehudah’s public admission of his relations with Tamar made a great impact in Heaven. Following G-d’s forgiveness of him, the angels pronounced the blessing (which later formed part of the Amidah), “Blessed are you, Lord, who is gracious and forgives repeatedly.” While the sincere confession acknowledges imperfection, it demonstrates moral maturity and responsibility. The baal teshuvah has the courage to admit his failures and uses those setbacks to better himself. Leaders are not born perfect, but they constantly strive toward that goal. This is Yehudah and his claim to royalty.

Rabbi Chaim Landau
Congregation Ner Tamid in Baltimore, Maryland

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