Judah recognized them and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn’t give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not sleep with her again. — Genesis 38:26
The Torah portion for this week, Vayeishev, which means “and he lived,” is from Genesis 37:1—40:23, and the Haftorah is from Amos 2:6—3:8.
What makes a great leader? Is it brilliant brains? The ability to give an inspiring speech or excellent people skills? Maybe it’s the ability to make the right decisions almost every time. The Bible tells us that it is none of these things. The greatest attribute of any leader is not his or her ability to succeed – it is their willingness to admit when they have failed.
In this week’s Torah portion, we read about a most unusual relationship between two individuals who would eventually become the ancestors of King David. Judah was one of Jacob’s sons and a leader of Israel’s tribes. Tamar was his daughter-in-law, twice over. After Judah’s first son died, his second son married Tamar. That son died, too, and Judah had just one more son. Understandably, Judah hesitated to give his last son to Tamar, even though that was the right thing to do according to Israelite custom.
Tradition teaches that Tamar knew prophetically that she was destined to be the mother of the Davidic dynasty through the family of Judah. And so she resorted to drastic measures. She veiled herself and seduced Judah, posing as a harlot. Tamar asked Judah to leave his staff and signet ring in her possession until he could bring her payment.
As time passed, Judah heard that his unmarried daughter-in-law had become pregnant and ordered her to be burned. As she was being taken away, Tamar held up Judah’s belongings and said, “I am pregnant by the man who owns these” (Genesis 38:25). Only the father of the child understood the message, and that person was Judah.
This was the defining moment. Judah had many options. He could own up to the belongings and make excuses for his behavior – he was seduced, he was confused. He could say nothing at all, and his secret would have been destroyed with Tamar. Instead, Judah uttered these amazing words: “She is more righteous than I.” Judah admitted his guilt and accepted full responsibility for his actions.
That was the moment, say the Jewish sages, that it was determined in heaven that Judah would be the father of kingship. The leadership of the Jewish people – the greatest honor – was given to Judah, who had dishonored himself more than any other person ever did.
What a powerful lesson! We tend to avoid admitting that we are wrong because we are afraid to lose face in front of others. But Judah teaches us that the opposite is true. The one worthy of respect is the one who is most humble.
Let us be courageous like Judah. Let’s admit when we are wrong. It won’t expose our weaknesses as much as testify to a great and admirable inner strength.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President