Judah, the fourth of six sons born to Jacob and Leah, plays a critical role in biblical and, later, Jewish history. Judah is, after all, the eponym who gave his name to the land of Judah (or, Judea), to Judaism, and to Jews. What the Torah says of Judah, therefore, speaks to the essence of Jewish identity. Judah (Yehudah) presages what it means to be a Jew (Yehudi).
Though he is a complex character, the biblical Judah is at his very best when, in Parshat Vayigash, he appears before the still-incognito Joseph, pleading on behalf of his brother Benjamin, whom Joseph (in an elaborate ruse designed to test his brothers’ moral character) has framed for theft.
In what Sir Walter Scott called “the most complete pattern of genuine natural eloquence extant in any language,” a heroically self-sacrificing Judah begs Joseph to permit him to take Benjamin’s place: “Please, let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father!”
Judah understands all too well both the abject humility demanded by the occasion and all that his magnanimity on behalf of his brother is bound to cost him. The Israeli biblicist Nehama Leibowitz points out that Judah uses the term “eved” — slave/servant — 13 times in his oration.
According to the Torah commentary of W. Gunther Plaut, Judah’s speech marks him as “a man of exceptional character … he speaks in accents of love and not sibling rivalry.”
Psychodramatist Peter Pitzele has characterized Judah’s plea as evincing “pure feeling — pure in its contrition, pure in its sense of filial respect and sibling responsibility, and pure in its selflessness.”
Judah may thus fairly be said to embody selfless love and principled responsibility, self-sacrificing filial devotion, undaunted advocacy on behalf of the vulnerable, genuine humility, and genuine eloquence. Judah, however, was not always a character of heroic stature. Of all Judah’s admirable qualities, it is his contrition, his capacity for personal growth, his ability to transcend his own checkered past and moral failings, that is most remarkable. Professor Robert Alter applauds the “profound inner change” evident in Judah — who years earlier had played so pivotal a part in selling Joseph into slavery. It was, significantly, Judah who said: “What profit is there if we slay our brother, and conceal his blood? Come let us sell him to the Ishmaelites…” (Genesis 37:26-27).
In defense of Judah’s younger self, this ostensibly exploitative counterproposal to the brothers’ initial, fratricidal conspiracy can be viewed as a stratagem carefully calculated to save Joseph’s life. He did accomplish this laudable end, albeit through ignoble means.
Any such claims to merit notwithstanding, in Parshat Vayigash Judah strives for redemption. Having once devised a plan to sell a brother into slavery, Judah now spares no effort in saving another brother from the same odious fate. Having once been a leading architect of the disordering of his family and the emotional devastation of Jacob, the more seasoned Judah’s personal actions are to be credited directly with the restoration of a beloved son to his father, a long-overdue family reconciliation, and Jewish national survival. If the Sages are correct in saying “shma garim — one’s name has a defining impact on one’s character” (see Berachot 7b, etc.) — practitioners of Judaism inherit a rich, demanding and lofty legacy from the original Judah.
It is instructive that we read of Judah’s fruitful redemptive efforts on the cusp of a new year. As the namesake of every Jew, Judah models the process of thoughtful, honest, meaningful self-correction that Jewish tradition knows as teshuvah, which is most closely associated with our own New Year season, but for which we properly pray and strive on a daily basis. Judah’s capacity for “profound inner change” also informs the “resolutions” of contrite, self-aware individuals of many faiths and backgrounds anticipating the arrival of 2023.
Judah’s principled personal growth is echoed in the timely epigram of F. Scott Fitzgerald: “It’s never too late to become who you want to be. I hope you have a life you are proud of, and if you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start over.”
In the new year ahead may we who bear his name embrace only the best of Judah’s qualities, chief among them the strength of character that enabled him to begin anew, and to embark on a life we all can be proud of.
We have met Judah… and he is us.