Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            The Sages designed the framework of our weekly torah readings very carefully.  They mated material to teach us ideas about the relationship of those pieces.  However, perhaps, the most important and dramatic aspect of this editing job is the choice of what verse with which to begin each parsha.  Just like a leadoff man sets the tone for a baseball lineup, so, too, the first verse or two of a Torah reading powerfully highlights a rabbinic point of emphasis.  This week is amongst the clearest of these message-bearing opening statements.  When our scene opens in this way:  Then Judah confronted Yosef (Genesis 44:18), we are introduced to the new order of the world.  This dramatic opening to the reading reports on the emergence of Judah as the principal brother, and foreshadows the dominance of his tribe and his descendant, David, for the remainder of Jewish history.  All of this gets confirmed next week in the blessings conveyed by Ya'akov to the brothers on his deathbed.  But how did this happen while our attention was elsewhere?  How did Judah eclipse the others, even while Yosef was becoming the most influential man in the world?    

            Although, I believe that there are many factors in this complex ascendance of Judah to the ultimate leadership position, there are two critical elements which emerge in this short scene which opens our parsha.  The first ingredient is Teshuva or repentance.  Judah has already displayed this trait in the incident with Tamar (chapter 38).  In that story Tamar is being accused of adultery, but Judah publicly acknowledges his culpability in this episode, which saves Tamar and impresses us with his sincere repentance.  In our scenario, Judah tells Yosef, who is in the guise of viceroy of Egypt, that he must take the punishment for stealing the cup, because the alternative, punishing Binyamin, is beyond disastrous.  Why would it be so terrible for Binyamin to be jailed?  Judah explains:  It will come to pass, when our father sees that the boy is gone, he will die, and your servants will have brought down the hoary head of your servant, our father, in grief to the grave (44:31).  This sincere declaration is an impressive act of Teshuva for this son who twenty years earlier was the catalyst for his father's intense anguish by sending Yosef to Egypt. 

            It is this act of contrition which begins the reconciliation of this sprawling family.  When Yosef hears this genuine concern for their father, he is unable to continue the charade.  The Torah testifies:  Now Joseph could not bear all those standing beside him, and he called out, "Take everyone away from me!" So no one stood with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers.  And he wept out loud… And Joseph said to his brothers, "I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?" (45:1-3). Yehuda twenty years earlier wasn't concerned for their father's feelings when he participated in the abduction of Yosef and the succeeding cover up.  Now, however, he's willing to sacrifice all to make sure Binyamin returns safely to his father.  This brings me to the other character trait which thrusts Judah into the prime position in the family.

Judah is virtually selfless. His concern for brother and father supersedes concern for himself and his own safety.   He is completely sincere when he says:  So now, please let your servant stay instead of the boy as a slave to my lord, and may the boy go up with his brothers (44:33).  His willingness to suffer in place of his bother is not only inspiring, but it engenders the kind of faith and loyalty which makes Judah the obvious leader of the clan, the go to man on the team.  Last week, Judah supplanted Reuvain, the oldest, in leadership role by convincing Ya'akov that Binyamin must go down to Egypt with him in charge.  This week, he displaces Yosef.  When it's time to go down to Egypt, the advance man entrusted by Ya'akov to ensure that proper conditions exist for the family in Goshen, Egypt is Judah (46:28).  This supreme trust in Judah is confirmed in the blessings next week, when eternal leadership is bequeathed to Judah and his heirs. 

Therefore, I believe, that we can state categorically that the two fundamental characteristics of a great leader are:  the ability to admit mistakes and the courage to accept total responsibility for whatever happens on his watch.    

            So, what are the ramifications of Judah's emergence from the rest of the pack?  Obviously, he earns the right to generate the royal dynasty and, eventually, Mashiach.  His DNA will reign supreme.  This fits the regular mold for the result of admirable leadership skills.  You become the leader, and, in the ancient world, so do your kids.  However, it's clear to me that in the case of Judah and our nation something much more momentous is taking place.  We all aspire to become Judah.  Something really cool happens in Megilat Eshter.  Mordechai, who is clearly not a descendant of Judah, because he's from the tribe of Binyamin, is identified as a Yehudi or Jew (Esther 2:5).  When we call ourselves Hebrews we are acknowledging our descent from Avraham who is called the Ivri, but when we are called Jews, we are acknowledging our connection to Judah, the root of that term.  We maintain that we are the progeny of Avraham, but we make no such claim concerning Judah.  Then why do we identify ourselves by his name?  Because the outstanding traits which define Judah's leadership are to be emulated by us all, not just the governing cadre.

            We expect every member of our nation to aspire to the high ethics demanded of those in charge.  Everyone must admit wrongdoing and take responsibility for others.  Only then can we make our nation great, and only then can we assume the leadership role within all of humankind predicted at Mount Sinai, and you will be holy nation and kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6).  So, whenever we proudly proclaim that we are Jews, remember that we are declaring our commitment to responsibility and accountability for all our actions.               



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