What made Judah a leader?

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This week’s Torah portion is Vayashev, Genesis 37:1-40:23.

“And Judah said to his brothers: ‘What profit is it if we slay our brother and conceal his blood? Let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let our hand not be upon him; for he is our brother, our flesh.’” (Gen. 37:26-27)


Why are Jews Yehudim? Historically speaking, the vast majority of the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who remained committed to their traditions and faith after the first exile (586 B.C.E.) come from the tribe of Judah, since the 10 tribes (not including Levi) were exiled by Sanherib. In addition to the factually accurate nomenclature, however, I would like to offer a text-based explanation that provides a complementary but different answer to our question.

The fact that a person can still call himself a Jew 3,300 years after Sinai and despite nearly 2,000 years of national homelessness is a miracle. To understand what enables a Jew to survive despite the forces against him, we must turn to his eponym, Judah.

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What traits did Judah possess that set him apart from his 11 brothers, especially Reuben? When an angry mob of brothers look to carry out their wish to kill Joseph by leaving him in a pit, two siblings take a leadership role; it seems that Reuben’s words are the more moral.

Reuben, assuming his first-born status, attempts to foil his brothers’ evil design. Reuben thought “he might deliver [Joseph] out of their hand, to restore him to his father” — but Reuben doesn’t get to implement his plan.


This is because Judah sees Ishmaelite traders and suggests to his brothers that there is no point in murdering Joseph when they could earn money from his sale to slavery.

Reuben returns to find an empty pit and rends his garments in despair.
He seems to own the moral high ground, risking his brothers’ ire in preventing them from killing Joseph.

Judah appears crass, convincing the brothers to get rid of their nemesis while enjoying a material advantage. How could Judah subject his younger brother to slave conditions? This makes Jacob’s subsequent decision to name Judah as the recipient of the birthright more puzzling.

I suggest that Judah’s decision is what makes him the more fitting leader from among his brothers. The test of leadership is not who provides the most morally upright solution if that will not be accepted by the crowd; it is the person who saves the victim’s life.

Judah, a realist, understands how to make the best deal possible under difficult circumstances, so he is deemed best suited for a leadership role. Faced with dreadful options, he pursues the least horrific one. Leaving Joseph inside the pit was to leave him to die a cruel death.

So when Judah sees the Ishmaelites, he seizes the opportunity to give his brother a chance to perhaps survive. However, to be heard by his jealous brothers, he must conceal his motivations under the guise of a profit-making venture.Thus it is Judah, in his first test of leadership, who becomes worthy of receiving the birthright from his father, Jacob, a man also intimately familiar with navigating in a treacherous world. In an imperfect world in which ideal situations rarely exist, it is Judah, eponymous ancestor of all “Jews,” who demonstrates what it is that enables a Jew to survive and thrive: to take responsibility for the welfare and continued life of his brother, even if he must use guile in order to achieve that goal.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.

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