MY BROTHER’S (AND SISTER’S) KEEPER: WHY THE STORY OF JUDAH IS ONE OF MY FAVORITE STORIES

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cain ableOne of the most interesting stories in Genesis is about Judah. You probably remember the story of how Jacob’s older sons decided to get rid of their spoiled little brother, Joseph. One day when Jacob sent the boy out to see how his brothers were doing with their flocks, they ripped off his ‘coat of many colors’ and threw him in a pit, and then tried to figure out what to do with him. Some wanted to kill him, but Judah suggested instead that they sell him to a caravan that was heading to Egypt, and tell Jacob that the poor kid had been devoured by wild beasts.

Joseph of course became quite a success in Egypt. Many years later, when a famine broke out in Canaan, and Jacob sent his sons to Egypt where food could still be bought, they did not realize that the powerful Viceroy of Egypt who was in charge of distributing grain was in fact their long-lost little brother. But Joseph recognized them, and he played a little game with them to see if they had changed, to see if they felt remorse, to see if they had become better men than they were when he last saw them.

But in between these two parts of the story, the author of Genesis interrupts and tells us a separate little story about Judah. Here we learn that during those interim years, Judah had married and had three sons. When the first one died and left a childless wife, Tamar, behind, the custom of the times was that the next oldest son would take her to be his wife. This happened as prescribed, but then Judah’s second son also died. His third son, Shelah, would now be expected to marry Tamar. But Shelah was still a boy, so Judah told Tamar to return temporarily to her own father as a widow, and when Shelah was grown up they would be married.

Shelah grew to manhood, but Judah did not contact Tamar.

A long time afterward, Judah’s wife passed away. After the period of mourning, he took a trip to the city of Timnah, and Tamar heard that he was going there. She also knew that Judah had not done as he should have and as he had promised, for Shelah was by now a fully grown man. Since she considered it her sacred duty to bear children, and she was considered to be betrothed to the family of Judah and could not marry anyone else, she devised a shrewd plan:

She took off her widow’s garb, covered her face, and sat beside the road that led to Timnah. When Judah saw her, he did not recognize her and thought that she was a harlot, and he asked to sleep with her. She asked what he would pay. He offered a young sheep from his flock. She agreed, but since he did not have the sheep with him, and was only promising to send it later, she asked for some collateral. Judah gave her his seal, cord and staff. They then slept together and she conceived (twin sons, one of whom would be the ancestor of David and Jesus). He later sent a friend to give her the sheep and retrieve his belongings, but she was nowhere to be found and no one in the region had seen any harlots.

Some months later, Judah received word that Tamar was pregnant. Since she was betrothed to his family, and Shelah had not married her, Tamar was evidently guilty of adultery – a capital offense. Judah therefore ordered that she be brought out and burned. As she was being brought out, she sent a package and a message to her father-in-law: “I am with child by the man to whom these belong. Examine these: whose seal and cord and staff are these?” Judah recognized them, and sparing her he said, “She is more righteous than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah.”

When the brothers threw Joseph in the pit, they had shown no mercy. When they returned to Jacob and deceived him with Joseph’s blood-splattered coat, they took no responsibility. But here, Judah admits “She is more righteous than I.” This public confession of wrongdoing is the first such confession in the Bible (long overdue since Adam first blamed Eve and Eve blamed the Serpent), and it is a symbol of profound repentance. Judah has learned to be honest, to bear responsibility, and to be merciful.

The trick Joseph later played on his brothers was this: when they were preparing to return home with the food they had bought from him in Egypt, he instructed his deputy to secretly “Put my silver goblet in the bag of the youngest one.” In the morning the brothers set off, but not far from the gates of the city they were overtaken by Joseph’s deputy who accused them of stealing the goblet. The brothers, of course, were astonished, and claimed to know nothing about it. But they told him go ahead and search, and they declared that if any of them were found with the cup, that brother would die and the rest would return to Joseph as his slaves. But the deputy replied that only the person who took the cup would become a slave, and the rest would go free. He then searched their belongings, from the oldest to the youngest, and the goblet turned up in young Benjamin’s bag. Horrified and heartbroken, they repacked their belongings and returned to the city.

They were brought before Joseph, who demanded to know why they had done this. Judah replied that God had somehow uncovered an old crime in which all the brothers were guilty, and now at last they were all prepared to pay. “Here we are, then, slaves of my lord, the rest of us as much as he in whose possession the goblet was found.” But Joseph said, “Far be it from me to act thus!” Only Benjamin, he insisted, would become a slave. “The rest of you go back in peace to your father.”

This is the final test. Joseph had to see if the brothers would send the youngest, Benjamin, the remaining child of Rachel, into slavery, and save their own skins. They could go free, and return home to Jacob with new lies about how his beloved Benjamin met his demise. Have they changed?

Judah went up to him and said, “Please, my lord, let your servant appeal to my lord.” He did not grovel. He went right up to him. This is the same Judah whose idea it was to sell Joseph into slavery in the first place. But thanks to Tamar, it is a Judah who has changed and matured. Joseph is going to be looking to see for himself whether Judah has become a Tzadik – a righteous man.

Judah then told him how difficult it was for their father to let his youngest son go with them – and if he did not return, the old man would surely die of a broken heart. But Judah had promised his father that he would protect the boy. “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.”

Judah has passed the test. In this magnificent moment, he takes full responsibility. He shows his love for his father and his young brother. He knows what it feels like to lose two sons, and he demonstrates compassion and empathy. Since Cain slew Able and raised the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” no one has said yes! Until this moment, that is. Judah finally recognizes that he is, indeed, his brother’s keeper. He exemplifies the highest form of human love, without which life on earth can never succeed – the willingness to sacrifice one’s life for another.

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At times, this lesson from Judah seems all but forgotten. Life can be so painful, all on its own. And yet, we find all sorts of reasons and justifications to hurt each other. Life is so short. Why is it so important to kill each other? Life can be so lonely. Why is it so important to hate each other?