Like a Candle in the Sunshine (Shabbos 63)

Yaakov’s sons were shepherding the sheep in Shechem.  Thinking it would be nice if they would include Yosef a little more in their activities, he sends his young son off to his brothers with provisions.  But while he is excited to see them, all they can think of is his preferential treatment by their father.  They are ready to kill him, when Reuven convinces them that it would be a sin to murder him with their bare hands.  Instead, he argues, they should throw him into a pit full of snakes and scorpions, and let nature take its course.  They then settle down to lunch and a thought occurs to Yehuda, “What is the gain if we slay our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, so that our hand shall not be upon him, for he is our brother, our flesh.” His brothers all nod in agreement.

They return to Yaakov and show him Yosef’s bloody coat, which they’ve stained with goat’s blood.  Yaakov cries out in mournful pain and refuses all attempts at consolation.  The brothers cast their gaze upon Yehuda with feelings of deep resentment.  After all, whose idea was it to sell their brother?  He finds himself separated from the family and he marries a local woman who bears him three sons.  His firstborn, Er, marries Tamar, but behaves badly and dies.  His brother Onan follows in his wicked footsteps, and he suffers the same end.  According to the tradition of levirate marriage, a childless widow must marry her late husband’s next of kin to keep the family name alive.  (The Torah limits such unions to the brother.)  Seeing that her marriage to Onan was ill-fated, Yehuda delays the wedding of Tamar and his third son, Shaylo.

Feeling frustrated with Yehuda’s hesitation, and sensing that Yehuda is actually her ‘Mr. Right,’ Tamar disguises herself by the side of the road and is approached by Yehuda.  He pledges a goat to her, and offers his ring, coat, and staff, as collateral.  The next day, he sends his friend to recover his property but Tamar is nowhere to be found.  Three months later, her pregnancy becomes apparent.  Not realizing he is the father of her unborn child, Yehuda is furious at his daughter-in-law for her indiscretion, and condemns her to execution.  As “she is taken out” to the gallows, she says, “From the man to whom these belong I am pregnant.  Praytell, whose ring, cloak, and staff are these?”  Yehuda confesses to his sin and Tamar’s life is spared.

Our Sages teach that, at that moment, Yehuda’s extraordinary strength of character is revealed to all, and he becomes the leader of his brothers.  Indeed, as a result of his fortitude, he becomes the forebear of the Davidic royal dynasty, and ultimately, the King Messiah.

מַתְנִי׳ לֹא יֵצֵא הָאִישׁ לֹא בְּסַיִיף וְלֹא בְּקֶשֶׁת וְלֹא בִּתְרִיס וְלֹא בְּאַלָּה וְלֹא בְּרוֹמַח. וְאִם יָצָא — חַיָּיב חַטָּאת. רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר אוֹמֵר: תַּכְשִׁיטִין הֵן לוֹ. וַחֲכָמִים אוֹמְרִים: אֵינָן אֶלָּא לִגְנַאי, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״וְכִתְּתוּ חַרְבוֹתָם לְאִתִּים וַחֲנִיתוֹתֵיהֶם לְמַזְמֵרוֹת וְלֹא יִשָּׂא גוֹי אֶל גּוֹי חֶרֶב וְלֹא יִלְמְדוּ עוֹד מִלְחָמָה״. גְּמָ׳ תַּנְיָא: אָמְרוּ לוֹ לְרַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר: וְכִי מֵאַחַר דְּתַכְשִׁיטִין הֵן לוֹ, מִפְּנֵי מָה הֵן בְּטֵלִין לִימוֹת הַמָּשִׁיחַ? אָמַר לָהֶן: לְפִי שֶׁאֵינָן צְרִיכִין, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״לֹא יִשָּׂא גוֹי אֶל גּוֹי חֶרֶב״. וְתֶהֱוֵי לְנוֹי בְּעָלְמָא! אָמַר אַבָּיֵי: מִידֵּי דְּהָוֵה אַשְּׁרָגָא בְּטִיהֲרָא.
נר בצהרים מתוך שאינו צריך אינו נאה

MISHNA: A man may neither go out on Shabbat with a sword, nor with a bow, nor with a shield, nor with mace, nor with a spear. Rabbi Eliezer says: These are ornaments for him. And the Rabbis say: They are nothing other than reprehensible, as it is written: “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not raise sword against nation, neither will they learn war anymore”. GEMARA: They said to Rabbi Eliezer: If they are ornaments for him, why are they to be eliminated in the messianic era? He said to them: They will not be needed anymore, as it is stated: “Nation will not raise sword against nation”. Why not keep them purely for ornamental purposes? Abaye said: They would be like a candle in broad daylight.
Rashi: Since a candle is unnecessary in the afternoon, it is not beautiful.

When did Yehuda become a leader of our people?  The truth is, he was always a leader.  If anything, his ability to convince his bloodthirsty brothers to sell Yosef rather than leave him to die, was a far greater act of bravery than his admission of guilt over the affair with Tamar.  Why was the latter story his springboard to greatness?

It was his defining moment, because it was the moment of deepest darkness.  Yehuda was already the family pariah.  Undoubtedly, upon the announcement of her illicit pregnancy, his brothers turned to him with looks of disdain.  First, the sale of Yosef.  Then, his marriage outside the family.  And now, this embarrassment.  Most others in his situation would have responded by laying low and allowing all evidence of his indiscretion ‘disappear’, along with his poor daughter-in-law.

But Yehuda chose to speak out and declare his terrible sin not just before his immediate family, but to be laid bare in the Torah for all generations.  To his surprise, instead of rejecting him, lo and behold, he became their hero.  And Yehuda thinks to himself, ‘I don’t get it.  Why are they suddenly acclaiming me?  I’m the same Yehuda I always was. I would never have considered letting this innocent girl be executed on my account!’

Often in life, however, the candle of greatness is not recognized in the light of day.  Only in the deepest darkness are we able to perceive the light.  During this darkest moment in the life of Yehuda, and indeed the entire family, was everyone able to discern the leadership qualities of their brother.  Yehuda was the same Yehuda.  He didn’t change.  But the lights had to go out for everyone else to appreciate the leading light they’d had with them all along.

You might find yourself experiencing darkness in your life right now.  You’re wondering how you’ll be able to survive and make it through.  No matter how hard you try, you just can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.  Don’t give up!  Maybe it’s the darkness itself that is the springboard for the light!  As difficult as it may be, sometimes Heaven puts darkness in our lives as a vehicle to greatness.

More often than not, great leaders come from places of struggle and want.  The child who is born with a silver spoon in their mouth, never needing to fight for anything in life may be tempted to plod along without any real effort.  That child will always remain average and nobody will ever hear about them.  Whereas the individual who knows that the difference between a life of want and a life of plenty is in their personal hands has far greater motivation to overcome all adversity and achieve greatness.

Everyone knows that all fairytales have a happy ending.  But most people fail to notice that the common thread of all those fairytales is the challenge and danger that occurs somewhere in the middle of the story.  A typical fable begins on an even keel.  Then, a villain or difficult situation enters the picture.  Finally, one of the characters demonstrates their heroic qualities and overpowers the villain, leading to the happy ending.  This idea is known as ‘lupus in fabula’ – the wolf in the fable.

Nobody wants wolves in their life.  But without the wolf, there can be no hero.  Without the darkness, your candle is useless.  Challenges and difficulties in life may appear insurmountable.  And sometimes, the wolf cannot be beaten.  But if you can muster the inner strength to subdue the wolf and keep him at bay, the brightness of your candle will be clear to all.  May Hashem grant you the strength to overpower the wolf and may your greatness be as bright as the light of day!

About the Author
Rabbi of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, London, UK.
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