The prime subject of the last portions that we read in the book of Bereishit is the struggle between Judah and Joseph. Joseph is presented to us as a person who has lofty dreams. He dreams of the stars and the moon – of a time where he will gain influence and rule over his brothers. To a great extent these dreams resemble the dream of his father, Jacob. Jacob dreamed of a ladder extending to the heavens and angels ascending and descending upon it.
What stands out about Joseph’s dreams is that they always come to fruition. In fact, whatever Joseph sets his mind to accomplish, he succeeds in doing. When he arrives in Egypt after being sold by his jealous brothers, he is able to work for an influential person in Egypt’s government. When he is thrown into jail, he gains favor with the head of the prison. And when he finally interprets Pharoah’s dream, he is elevated to the position of viceroy, perhaps the most powerful position next to the king himself. Everything that Joseph touches seems to turn to gold.
Judah, on the other hand, is depicted as a person of seemingly good intentions, but nothing seems to work out for him. He presents his bright idea to his brothers to sell Joseph into slavery, only to later be confronted by the deep sorrow of his father. He has a relationship with his daughter-in-law without knowing her identity, only to be shamed into admitting his guilt and publicly embarrassed.
In Egypt, Judah finally meets his brother Joseph again after being willing to give his life to save the life of his brother Benjamin, only to be embarrassed in having to own up to his mistake of initiating and carrying out the sale of Joseph, and realizing that he is standing before his long-lost brother, the dreamer whose dreams have come true.
Interestingly, the future king of Israel and the one whom we proclaim will lead us in messianic times, King David, is a direct descendent of Judah – not Joseph. It would seem more logical that the future king of Israel, the forecaster of the Messiah, would come from Joseph.
One reason our Sages give to explain this phenomenon is that Judah sincerely cared for his brothers. He was the one who undertook responsibility for Benjamin and swore to their father Jacob that he would bring him back safely. Judah, by his act of caring and assuming responsibility for his brother, set the tone for all Jews to be called after him as “Yehudim.”
But even more important – and this is the character trait that makes me personally identify with Judah – is his humanness and the fact that he makes mistakes in his lifetime but has the strength and ability to own up to his wrongdoings and start over.
His descendant King David has these same character traits. David, on a simple level, displays poor judgment with reference to Bat-Sheva and in a host of other instances related in the book of Samuel. But he is always able to rise up from his mistakes and begin anew. His character, which is essentially the character of his ancestor Judah, is represented by a typical Jew who is faced daily with religious challenges – and sometimes fails and sometimes is successful. The strength of the Jew is the ability to take responsibility, admit wrong where necessary, and then start anew.
The fallibility of human beings is something that parents should keep in mind so that they don’t place undue burdens and responsibilities on their children, expecting them to be perfect in every way. Parents very often try to realize their own dreams through their children, without concern for what is really good for the children. I have seen parents who make sure that their children are enrolled in every conceivable activity after school, without keeping in mind that children need some downtime and space for themselves. Teachers, also, often have unreasonable expectations for their students, not allowing them to falter even one bit.
The strength of our people is that we resemble and, yes, even aspire to the character of Judah – who is not all perfect but is human in his frailties, yet aspires to great heights.