Parshat Vayigash 2017
Most of the attention in our story centers on Yosef, and how he changes from a papa’s boy to a powerful ruler and forgiving sibling. But squeezed in is a no less amazing story of transformation, that of Yehuda. We have noted Yehuda’s charisma before, in terms of leadership in the family. But the same stories that show him to be charismatic can also reveal a true-blue narcissist.
Take his suggestion to sell Yosef to the passing Ishmaelites. Perhaps he was thinking about saving Yosef, as suggested a few weeks ago, but then again, perhaps he was simply thinking of the most expedient and bloodless way to make the “Yosef problem” disappear.
It’s at that point, right after the sale, that the narrative jumps to Yehuda, his three sons and his one daughter in law, Tamar. She is first married to son number one, Air, who dies, and then she is married to Onan, the second brother, who also dies. To avoid a hat trick, Yehuda tells Tamar to go home and wait until the third son is old enough to marry.
Of course when he is old enough Yehuda doesn’t call Tamar. When Yehuda goes north at sheep shearing time, Tamar dresses up as a prostitute, Yehuda sleeps with her and because he doesn’t have payment (a lamb) with him, he leaves a deposit of his staff and stamp. At this point Tamar as prostitute disappears.
Three months later, when Yehuda hears that Tamar is pregnant he says, “Take her out and burn her” because she hadn’t remained faithful to her husband’s family. Oh, did we forget that Yehuda had not kept his part of the bargain either? I did say narcissistic.
And now comes the crux of the story. She sends him a personal message saying, These are the staff and stamp of the person who got me pregnant. Do – you – recognize – them? Only Yehuda sees them. All he has to do is ignore them and Tamar will be burned and no one will be the wiser.
Yehuda the narcissist would ignore the message, of course. But something happens here, something that Rabbi Ari Kahn attributes to the circumspective and self-sacrificing gesture of the daughter in law Tamar. After all, she could have made the staff and stamp public and announce to the world that Yehuda was the father and a man who did not keep his promises. But she didn’t.
It’s hard to believe that one selfless act could create such a turnabout in another person, and so we can conjecture that this order to kill Tamar may have reminded Yehuda indirectly of the Yosef incident. There he got rid of the corpse before it became one. Here there would be one.
Remember also that he was older, two of his sons had died, his wife had died. Maybe he did some soul searching.
Whatever the process, the result is one of the most remarkable sentences a person – almost any person – could say: “Justice is more on her side than mine.” She’s right!
From this point on, Yehuda is the leader, not only charismatic but responsible. It is he who persuades Yaacov to send Benjamin down to Egypt, not with promises but simply by saying, “I am his guarantor. You can demand him from me. If I do not bring him back to you, I will have sinned to you all of my life.”
Yehuda has effectively become a moral leader. He does not try to wiggle out of his responsibility. He is willing to stay in Egypt in Benjamin’s place as a slave or to be killed – as long as Benjamin can return to his father.
Call it repentance, call it soul searching, call it growing up. Whatever you call it, this is a different person. He is fighting for his life, for his brother’s life and for his father’s life, and this he does with consummate skill, emphasizing the high rank of the potentate (the still unrevealed Yosef) yet needling him with pinpricks of guilt about hastening the death of his father.
Yehuda has chutzpa in facing down Yosef, but it is his description of his own concern for the welfare of his brother and his father that finally convinces Yosef that this circle has been closed.
Therefore it is only logical that Yehuda is the one that Yaacov sends to Egypt to announce the arrival of the family. This is a subtle but unmistakable indication that Reuven, the firstborn, is no longer even in the running as leader of the people.
It’s the little things, not only the big ones, that show a person’s integrity. Yehuda shows his with Tamar, Yosef shows his with his brothers. Even when Yosef seems to be needling them when he reveals his true identity: I am Yosef your brother, the one you sold down to Egypt – he’s not being mean. The sale was the darkest secret the brothers had, one known only to them and to the person who was sold. That was the most direct way for Yosef to prove who he was.
So the story of Yosef is also the story of Yehuda, who will be given the right to rule in the future because of his charisma but even more because of his responsibility and integrity.
Unfortunately, the leaders of today, here and around the globe, seem to shy away from real integrity, almost as though it were poison. And politically it is: once you own up to something you did, you are expected to take the steps such a revelation would demand, such as resigning from office.
So each year we hark back to the Biblical stories to gain some perspective about what is expected. Each year we read the story and each year it is forgotten for another year.