The Hebrew word for "Jew," Yehudi, stems from the word Yehudah ("Judah"), the name of the tribe from which most of us hail. In this week's Torah portion, our eponymous ancestor Yehudah has a starring role. He approaches the vice regent of Egypt (who, unbeknownst to him, is his brother Joseph) and offers his own freedom in exchange for that of his brother Benjamin. This noble gesture precipitates the great reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers, and the reuniting of Joseph with his father, Jacob.
Yet Judah's behavior in the previous Torah portions was not quite so admirable. In Parashat Vayeshev, the Torah introduces a leader who could have mobilized his other brothers to remove Joseph from the pit, but instead convinces his siblings to sell him into slavery.
Later on in Parashat VaYeshev, the narrative of the Torah digresses for an entire chapter to tell the story of Judah and his daughter-in-law, Tamar. It's a racy story about intermarriage and prostitution. It's a story kids don't usually study in religious or day school; my teachers at the Yeshivah of Flatbush skipped over it completely.
The rabbis have long wondered why this episode – oddly wedged between the story of the brothers selling Joseph into slavery and the story of Joseph in Potiphar's house – was included in the Torah at all. Perhaps it comes to teach us something about Judah's character.
The chapter begins with the words, VaYered Yehudah, which literally means "Judah descended"; this phrase can be understood, literally, to refer to Judah's geographic descent, or metaphorically, to refer to his moral descent. Some commentaries emphasize the moral transgressions that Judah commits with Tamar.
Other commentaries focus on the ethical transgressions Judah committed in previous chapters.
Rashi understands Judah's descent in yet another way; he teaches that he "descended in the eyes of his brothers" when they witnessed their father's reaction to the news of Joseph's "death."
The brothers said to Judah: "You were the one to tell us to sell Joseph into slavery. If you had told us to return him to our father, we would have listened to you." As the respected leader whom the other brothers eagerly followed, Judah missed the opportunity to pull Joseph out of the pit and bring him home.
We begin to see a positive change in Judah's character when he recognizes and admits his mistake in not fulfilling his legal obligations to Tamar. That character continues to improve in Parashat Vayigash. When the silver goblet was first found in young Benjamin's sack, we wonder if Judah will sell out Benjamin like he did Joseph.
But when Judah delivers his long oration to Joseph in Egypt, he finally does what he failed to do years ago: He expresses the responsibility and love that he has for his brother and his father. This time, Judah is willing to put his life on the line for his family; he's no longer consumed with his own selfish needs and desires.
By offering up his own life instead of his brother's, Judah has done what Rambam refers to as teshuvah gemurah, "complete repentance" – achieved when a person is confronted by the identical situation in which he transgressed in the past and abstains from transgressing, even though he has the opportunity to succumb to the same wrongdoing.
As Jews, perhaps this is the greatest lesson we can learn. Judah emerged from the depths of moral depravity and did complete teshuvah. In Judaism is the possibility of moral and spiritual ascent, of self-improvement and transformation, of ascending the ladder.
Rabbi Lisa S. Malik is religious leader of Suburban Jewish Community Center-B'nai Aaron in Havertown.