By Morgan Weiss
וְעַתָּ֗ה יֵֽשֶׁב־נָ֤א עַבְדְּךָ֙ תַּ֣חַת הַנַּ֔עַר עֶ֖בֶד לַֽאדֹנִ֑י וְהַנַּ֖עַר יַ֥עַל עִם־אֶחָֽיו׃
כִּי־אֵיךְ֙ אֶֽעֱלֶ֣ה אֶל־אָבִ֔י וְהַנַּ֖עַר אֵינֶ֣נּוּ אִתִּ֑י פֶּ֚ן אֶרְאֶ֣ה בָרָ֔ע אֲשֶׁ֥ר יִמְצָ֖א אֶת־אָבִֽי׃
“Therefore, 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!” (Genesis 45:32-33)
Have you ever wondered if people can truly change? A quick Google search of the question “Can people change?” results in hundreds of articles debating the answer to this question. Clearly, it’s a question many people ask.
In this week’s parashah, Vayigash (Genesis 44:16–45:9), we reach the dramatic conclusion of the conflict between Joseph and his brothers. Although there are a number of lessons we can learn from this week’s parashah—particularly Joseph’s ability to reframe the trauma of his past as a blessing from God and his ability to forgive his brothers—the part I find most inspiring is the role Judah plays in the ultimate reconciliation between Joseph and his family.
The parashah starts with an extraordinary and passionate speech from Judah to Joseph (who has not yet revealed his true identity) in which Judah offers himself as a slave in place of Benjamin so Judah can keep his promise to his father to bring Benjamin home alive.
This begs the question: How did a man who was so eaten up with jealousy that he was willing to sell his brother into slavery turn into a man who would sacrifice his life to save a different brother—one who was also favored over him by his father?
Judah’s story is one of personal growth and change—complete transformation.
The beginning of Judah’s transformation can be traced back to one person—Tamar. Tamar, who we read about in Parashat Vayeshev, was Judah’s daughter-in-law. She married Judah’s eldest son, Er. After Er dies, Tamar is married to Judah’s second oldest son, Onan, so that Tamar can have a child to “keep his brother’s name alive.” When Onan also dies, Judah refuses to marry Tamar off to his third son, thus keeping Tamar chained to a life where she is unable to marry and have children with anyone else. Tamar devises a plan to disguise herself as a prostitute and then tricks Judah into sleeping with her. A few months later, Judah hears that Tamar is pregnant and is outraged—since she was unable to remarry, he wants her put to death for adultery.
The first sign of Judah’s transformation is the choice he must make when Tamar subtly reveals that he is the father of her child. Tamar leaves the decision up to him as to whether he publicly acknowledges paternity—does he make the moral choice and reveal his identity or does he allow Tamar and his unborn child to be put to death? Judah makes the morally correct choice. He admits he is the father and confesses it is because he withheld his youngest son from Tamar.
In a moment when Judah could easily have continued down a path of selfishness and immorality, he makes a different decision.
By the time he faces Joseph in Egypt and offers himself in place of Benjamin, Judah is most certainly a changed man. He is a man who has lost his wife and two sons and been humbled by his daughter-in-law. Some scholars argue that because Judah empathized with his father over the loss of a son, he was more sensitive to the pain Jacob would feel if Benjamin was not returned. This perspective may be true, in part, but Judah was Jacob’s son as well. He could still be envious and angry that his father would not feel the pain just as acutely if he was lost instead of Benjamin. The real evidence of Judah’s transformation of character is that he could overcome his resentment of another brother being favored over him.
What can we learn from Judah? Just because we have made mistakes or have done something we’re not proud of does not mean we are doomed to repeat those mistakes or carry the burden of our past character with us for the rest of our lives. Change is most definitely possible, but it never happens overnight or without effort. We all have the opportunity to change—and it can start by making better choices, one decision at a time.
May we all continue to improve and change for the better.
Good Shabbos/Shabbat shalom.