THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Vayeshev – פרשת וישב
November 27, 2021 – כג כסלו תשפב
Judah’s Ignominious DescentGenesis 38 tells the story of Judah and Tamar. The chapter begins with Judah’s departing the company of his brothers and developing close bonds of friendship and matrimony with local Canaanites: “And it came to pass at that time, that Judah went down from his brethren, and turned to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hira. And Judah saw there a daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua; and he took her, and went in unto her (Genesis 38:1-2).” Commentators have offered a wide range of interpretations for Judah’s “descent” (“going down”) from his brethren. Radak understood the phrase literally. From a topographical perspective, Judah descended from the highlands to the western foothills. The family resided at Hebron (37:14), while the brothers grazed their flock at Shechem (37:12) and Dothan (37:17). All of those locations are in the mountainous spine of Eretz Yisrael. Adullam, however, is listed among the cities of the Judahite lowlands (Joshua 15:33-35). Nahum Sarna, in the JPS Commentary, prefers that understanding of the verse. It connotes a geographic separation of Judah from his brothers, and does not necessarily implicate any notion of moral condemnation. The verse may also allude to a later time in history when the tribe of Judah was territorially cut off from the rest of the Israelites. A further hint to the need for Judah to fight to regain territorial contiguity with Israel is found in Moses’ blessing: “And this for Judah, and he said: Hear, LORD, the voice of Judah, and bring him in unto his people; his hands shall contend for him, and Thou shalt be a help against his adversaries (Deuteronomy 33:7).” Abravanel rejected the topographical explanation, preferring to understand Judah’s descent as relating to social status. By leaving his prestigious brothers in favor of the low-class Hira, Judah degraded himself. In Pseudo-Jonathan’s embellished translation, Judah suffered a major financial setback that led him away from his materially successful brothers and toward the company of the underclass. Malbim suggested that, because of his fraternizing with a lower-class individual like Hira, Judah was punished with removal from the elite social circle inhabited by his prosperous brothers. This sociological explanation smacks strongly of Jewish chauvinism, though that does not in any way diminish its plausibility as a possible interpretation. (The son of upper-middle-class American Jewish parents who falls short of the educational and professional attainments expected of him, and who no longer comfortably socializes with his former peers, may readily relate to Malbim’s view.) The Aggadic tradition understood Judah’s descent in light of the story’s position within the Biblical text. Genesis 38 interrupts the flow of the Joseph narrative that is set down in chapters 37 and 39. The Midrash suggests that the Torah could have recounted uninterruptedly the story of the sale of Joseph with “And Joseph was brought down to Egypt (Genesis 39:1)” appearing right after “And the Midianites sold him into Egypt unto Potiphar (37:36).” Why the long interruption about Judah’s siring children from Tamar? Genesis Rabbah answers: To compare the descent of Judah with that of Joseph, indicating that the former happened only because of Judah’s culpability in having made the latter happen through his participation with his brothers in selling Joseph into slavery (Genesis Rabbah 85). The Midrash asserts that Judah’s brothers forced him into exile because they blamed him for the sale of Joseph. Scripture says that Judah convinced his brothers not to kill Joseph because there would be no profit for them in doing so, but instead to sell their hated younger brother to a passing caravan of Ishmaelites. The impressionable brothers listened and accepted Judah’s suggestion (Genesis 37:26-27). The Midrash has the brothers complaining, post factum, that they would have hearkened to anything Judah advised, and so it was his fault for not ordering them to return Joseph to their father. Essentially their argument was: “We were only following orders, and you knew we would follow any order, so you are to be blamed for not giving us more moral orders.” They held Judah in a formal state of contempt, prompting him to temporarily part ways from the family (Exodus Rabbah 42:3). Another Aggadic text blames Judah for initiating the process of Joseph’s rescue, yet failing to finish that task. The punishment imposed on someone who begins the fulfillment of a mitzvah but neglects to complete it is a fall from greatness (Tanhuma Vayeshev 13). Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani added that such a person is further punished by having to bury his wife and children – as was the case with Judah, who lost his wife (Shua’s daughter) and his sons Er and Onan (Sotah 13b). In his commentary on the Gemara, Rashi explained that this punishment comes from Heaven. In his commentary on the Torah, he favored the Midrashic view that Judah’s brothers thought to impose the punishment. (Rashi is here not necessarily inconsistent, because Heaven acts through earthly intermediaries.) Ibn Ezra rejected the notion that Judah’s descent was connected to the sale of Joseph. Why? Because only 22 years elapsed between Joseph’s descent to Egypt as a slave and the descent of the remainder of Jacob’s family during the famine. Ibn Ezra thought it impossible to compress into such a short time all the following: Judah married the daughter of Shua; he begat Er, Onan, and Shelah; Er and Onan grew old enough to marry Tamar; Judah begat Perez and Zerah with Tamar; Perez begat Hezron and Hamul. Instead, posited Ibn Ezra, the Judah and Tamar episode began shortly after Jacob’s return to the Land of Israel and transpired over a period palpably longer than Jacob and Joseph’s 22-year separation. My preferred interpretation of Judah’s descent is the one offered by Rabbi Joseph Bekhor Shor. He explained that when Judah realized the pain and suffering that he had caused his father over the disappearance and supposed death of Joseph, he went into self-imposed exile. Judah could not bear to watch as his father mourned the loss of his most beloved son. Judah understood that he had erred and that his continued presence among family members was not especially welcome. In a morally healthy society, when a leader is caught committing a serious infraction or serious error of judgment, his or her career in public service either ends immediately (because he or she has the decency to resign) or, at minimum, goes on hiatus until the transgressor finds forgiveness after a stint in the political wilderness. Only the brazen and shameless refuse to step aside even after public exposure of their sins against the state and body-politic. Rather than waiting to submit to the verdict of a judicial body or the electorate, honorable leaders in their hours of disgrace will meekly make their way out of the spotlight. Judah was eventually restored to leadership, but first he displayed a requisite sense of humility.