Gandhi famously taught: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” Our biblical ancestor Judah embodies this teaching in our weekly parashah, Vayigash.
In one of the longest and most heroic speeches in the Torah, Judah sacrifices himself for the sake of his father Jacob and his younger brother Benjamin. Decades after his complicity in selling Joseph into slavery, Judah is a changed man. He has suffered enormously, losing two sons. He has also transgressed—and publicly acknowledged his failings. Judah transforms his personal pain and shortcomings into profound spiritual growth. As Rabbi Elyse Goldstein notes: “This is the measure of Judah's greatness: his tragedy becomes the soil for empathy, compassion, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice. He was the one to step forward when the hour demanded it because he was the one who knew that to redeem himself out of his own past mistakes and accumulated grief, he had to extend himself for the redemption of others.”
The Rabbis refer to Joseph as HaTzadik, “the righteous one.” He is a powerful and important figure in our tradition. But his almost too-pious righteousness renders him a little remote and distant. It is hard to relate to, and engage with, Joseph. Most of us connect more easily with Judah, the deeply-flawed man who wrestles with his moral choices and grows from his struggles. The midrash recognizes his greatness by pointing out that his name, Yehudah, contains all four letters of God’s Name, (yud-hey-vav-hey)—and is the origin of our collective name, yehudim, Jews. Judah is also the progenitor of King David and, by extension, the messiah. The messianic hope for an age of peace, justice, and compassion can only be realized if we, collectively and individually, commit ourselves to the kind of self-reflection and spiritual growth that we learn from Judah.
The greatest heroes are not born but are always in the process of becoming. This is Judah’s legacy for us.