Click on Sons of Yaakov for a general introduction to the lives of these individuals who constituted the original Jewish People.
Yehudah is the fourth son of Yaakov and Leah. His mother, who is less-loved than her sister and co-wife, Rachel (The Torah will later forbid the marrying of two sisters at the same time), feels the sting of that fact throughout her life, as is seen in the names that she gives her sons. In the case of Yehudah, Leah has almost given up hope of attaining her husband’s love by bearing sons for him. We find in Parashat Vayetze, “She conceived again, and bore a son and declared, ‘This time let me gratefully praise HaShem’; therefore she called his name Yehudah (“hoda’ah” in Hebrew means expressing gratitude)…’ ”
One of the most dramatic episodes in the Torah occurs at the beginning of Parashat Vayigash, where we find a clash of giants, Yoseph and Yehudah. Yoseph, now the viceroy of Egypt, has manipulated events in order to test the brothers, to determine whether they have done “Teshuvah,” repented, over their terrible sin of selling him into slavery. He now holds Binyamin, his younger brother, and has threatened to keep him as a slave. We find, “Vayigash elav Yehudah,” “Then Yehudah came near to him and said, ‘… My master asked his servants, ‘Do you have a father or a brother?’ We answered my master, ‘We have an old father, and the youngest child of our family, whose brother died, and he alone remains as a child of his mother, and his father loves him.’ But you said to your servants, ‘Bring him down to me, that I may see him.’ We said to my master, ‘The lad cannot leave his father, for if he would, our father would die.’ Nevertheless, you said to your servants, ‘If your youngest brother does not come down with you, do not see me again.’ ” (Bereshit 44:18,20-23)
Yehudah describes the great reluctance of Yaakov to send Binyamin because “his life is bound up in the lad’s life.” (Bereshit 44:30) Yehudah continues his plea, “And I have taken ultimate responsibility for the lad, in taking him from his father, saying ‘If I don’t return him to you, I will have sinned against my father for all of the days’ (Chazal interpret ‘all of the days’ as referring to ‘This-World’ as well as the ‘World-to-Come.’) But now, let your servant be a substitute for the lad, as a slave to my master, and let the lad return to his father…’ ”
How did Yehudah reach this level of greatness – that he risked his life – his mortal life and his eternal life, for the sake of his brother?
We first meet Yehudah in Dotan, and find that he plays an ambiguous role. He is clearly viewed as a leader by the brothers, and he has a chance to return Yoseph to his father. But instead, he takes a position midway between siding with his brothers in their intense, even murderous sibling rivalry, and the recognition that Yoseph is their own flesh-and-blood. He suggests selling Yoseph. He says, “…Of what profit would it be for us to kill our brother… let us rather sell him as a slave… let us not kill him, for he our flesh-and-blood. And his brothers listened to him.” (Bereshit 37:26-27)
After the brothers see the effect of their action on their father, that he descends into inconsolable mourning over Yoseph, they demote, even banish Yehudah for not saving them from themselves.
Yehudah marries a Canaanite woman, who bears him three sons: Er, Onan and the much younger Shelah. Yehudah selects a beautiful wife, Tamar, for Er. Er acts immorally with her and because he “was evil in G-d’s eyes,” he dies. Onan was enjoined to marry Tamar, but he also acts immorally and dies. Though he knows that it was not Tamar’s fault, Yehudah withholds his third son, Shelah, from marrying Tamar, leaving her in the state of “living widowhood.” After Yehudah’s wife dies, Tamar decides to take action. She veils herself and sits at a crossroads, pretending to be a prostitute.
Yehudah, very lonely, encounters her at the crossroads and visits her, leaving his signet, cord and staff in lieu of the payment that she demands, a kid from his flock. When Yehudah attempts to make payment, she has disappeared. She has been impregnated by Yehudah. When Yehudah is informed of her pregnancy, he pronounces her verdict, “Take her out, and let her be burnt.” At the site of her execution, she announces in a manner calculated not to publicly embarrass Yehudah, “I am pregnant by the man who gave me these; recognize please, whose are this signet, cord and staff?” (Bereshit 38:25) And the narrative continues, with Yehudah rising to a moment of greatness matching Tamar’s – “And Yehudah recognized them, and said ‘She is more righteous than I’…” (Bereshit 38:26) And Tamar gives birth to a pair of twins: Peretz and Zorach.
Yaakov Avinu, recognizing the greatness of Yehudah, says in “Birchot Yaakov,” “Yehudah, you are the one whom your brothers shall praise…You are like a young lion.” (Bereshit 49:8-9) He promises the ultimate kingship over Israel to descendants of Yehudah; “The staff shall not depart from Yehudah, nor the scepter from between his feet…” (Bereshit 49:10) Moshe Rabbeinu recognizes Yehudah as the Tribe from which the Davidic dynasty will emerge and lead to the “Mashiach.” He prays that Yehudah, the great founder of the Tribe, be forgiven for all his shortcomings.
In Megilat Ruth, we find a fascinating and ambiguous story, that begins with another famine, used as a device for reclaiming a “Spark” of holiness from Moav; in the person of the righteous and modest Princess of Moav, Ruth. She says to Naomi, “Entreat me not to leave you, to return from following after you; for where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your People shall be my People, and your G-d, my G-d.” (Ruth 1:16) Boaz agrees to redeem the property of Naomi and to marry Ruth, teaching that the prohibition against marrying descendants of Moav applies only to males. The Megilah ends by tracing the genealogical line beginning with Peretz, the twin borne to Yehudah by Tamar. The line proceeds from Peretz to Chetzron, to Ram, to Aminadav, to Nachshon, to Salmah, to Boaz who marries Ruth, to Oved (their child), to Yishai, and finally, to David, the one who rekindled the flame of Yehudah, and inaugurated the dynasty that will lead, soon and in our days, to the “Melech HaMashiach,” the Anointed Redeemer of Israel.