Let us step back for a moment to a previous parsha, Vayeshev. After losing two sons who were meant to have children with Tamar, Yehuda was concerned about losing a third. The fates of his eldest sons, Er and Onan, were brought on by their own wickedness, yet Tamar was the one who was punished—Yehuda’s selfishness, founded on self preservation, led to Tamar being denied children and a family, just as Yehuda’s actions nearly denied children and a family to Yosef and in many ways denied Yaakov his most beloved son.
Again and again, Yehuda’s focus on protecting what he has leaves others bereft.
The story of Yehuda and Tamar was a turning point. It forced Yehuda, through Tamar’s cleverness, to recognize how his selfish self preservation was hurting others. He realizes his failings and the greatness of Tamar, who used her wits to force him to do the right thing in Breishit 38:26:
וַיַּכֵּ֣ר יְהוּדָ֗ה וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ צָֽדְקָ֣ה מִמֶּ֔נִּי
Judah recognized them, and said, “She is more in the right than I”
That was his transformative moment, just as Yosef was going through his.
But did it work? Did Yehuda really change? In this week’s parsha, Vayigash, he is put to the test.
When Yehuda faced Yosef again, not knowing it was his brother, he was faced with the prospect of losing Binyamin, Yosef’s full brother, the only beloved of Yaakov. Binyamin stood accused of stealing a goblet. Old, or younger, Yehuda would have taken any opportunity to get away to protect himself and his family.
In a powerful speech to Yosef, Yehuda, pleading to his brother, uses the word “Avi”—father—7 times (Breishit 44:18-34). Strange, because, as the Israeli Rabbi Amnon Bazak points out, Yaakov never once refers to Yehuda or any of the sons other than Binyamin or Yosef, as “Beni”—my son.
Despite this, Yehuda, who once sent Yosef into slavery, now offers himself as a slave to take Binyamin’s place! Why on earth would Mr. Self Preservation do this? Why would he willingly sacrifice himself?
Because he realized, for all he would lose, the others around him, the innocents, whether he loves them or not, would lose so much more—his father would lose another son, his family would lose another brother, a tribal leader—this is when selfishness turns to selflessness.
Israeli Rabbi David Silverberg, influenced by Rav Amnon Bazak, says about Yehuda:
Yehuda was mature enough to recognize that he must treat Yaakov as his father even if Yaakov did not, at least in his mind, treat him like a son. We should not make our treatment of others dependent upon what we feel they deserve or do not deserve. Instead, we must decide upon the wise and appropriate course of action, and leave the judgment to the one true Judge over the world.”
When we focus only on our own needs, we all lose in the end, but when we put others first, with everyone looking to protect the person next to them, deserving or not, whether from a place of love, loyalty or, for Yehuda, having respect and knowing what is right to do, then everyone will thrive and have what they need.
This essay is part of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah’s weekly parsha wisdom. Each week, graduates of YCT share their thoughts on the parsha, refracted through the lens of their rabbinates and the people they are serving, with all of us.