Who is the hero of the Joseph story, which comes to a climax in this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash? The most obvious choice is Joseph himself, who, upon revealing his identity to his brothers, forgives them for the cruel betrayal they showed him as a youth. Yet there is another, more flawed and less likely, candidate: Joseph’s older brother Judah.
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 proves himself 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 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 imperfect 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 shared 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.
Stevie Wonder points us in this direction in his classic song, “Higher Ground.” He opens:
People keep on learning
Soldiers keep on warring. . .
Powers keep on lying
While your people keep on dying
‘Cause it won’t be long
Like Judah, we frequently fail—warring, lying, dying—and yet we keep learning. The human calling is to grow from our mistakes.
The chorus, which repeats several times, expresses this challenge:
I’m so darn glad he let me try it again
‘Cause my last time on earth I lived a whole world of sin
I’m so glad I know more than I knew then
Gonna keep on trying
Till I reach my highest ground.
This could be Judah’s theme song—and ours. We fail, time and again—and through our failings, with openness and courage, somehow find our way. Let us be grateful for second and third chances—and more—and strive, through them, to reach highest ground. Indeed, because it is so hard-won, that ground is even more exalted. As the Talmud teaches: “Those who sin and repent stand in a higher place than those who never sinned. We feel that in our bodies with Stevie Wonder’s song, where the funky groove moves inexorably toward that aspirational chorus.
The greatest heroes are not born but are always in the process of becoming. This is Judah’s—and Stevie’s—blessed legacy for us.