One the unique things about Judaism is how we portray our Patriarchs, Matriarchs, prophets and sages. Each one of them is human, each one of them had frailties and thus challenges. Each one of them was human, imperfect and addressing challenges not always successfully.
Consider a couple or reasons why this is so. We humans need inspiration. We need role models upon whom we can emulate. We need people to serve as examples. On the other hand, how do you relate to a Being who is perfect, as there are in some other cultures? You’re always going to fall short, so what’s the point?
The example of our ancestors demonstrates that we, too, can rise above our imperfections. It shows us that even though making mistakes is a certainty, it does not doom us to eternal damnation. It shows us that the purpose of life is to succeed despite those imperfections, to rise above and do great things in spite of them.
This week’s portion, Vayeishev, demonstrates that. We see two different situations in which two progenitors of our tribes, Joseph and Judah, achieved greatness in spite of their human imperfections. Both of them overcame their human imperfection.
Most of the rest of Genesis is devoted to Joseph. Here is someone who is seen by some sages to be an immature, spoiled kid who lords his favoritism over his other, older brothers. While his older brothers are out in the fields working for a living, he is at home with daddy studying. He is given the task of checking up on the latter to make sure they are not sloughing off. This, of course, creates contention and discord among this large, blended family.
He even uses his gifts of prophecy to denigrate them. Yes, he has dreams that portend future events of his brothers appeasing him, but he presents them in an immature manner that infuriates his brothers to the point of planning on killing him. It is only the mercy of his oldest half-brothers that spares him. For his arrogance, though, he is sold into slavery ending up in Egypt.
Chapter 38 takes a sidebar into a piece of the life of Judah. Wanting to strike out on his own, he forms an alliance with a local merchant. He gets married and has three sons. His oldest dies prematurely without an heir, so it is up to the next son to marry the widow and father an heir. This is according to the customs of the time, and according to Kabbalah this would be the reincarnation of his deceased older brother. He fails to carry out the task and ends up with an early demise himself. Judah is concerned that his daughter-in-law is too much of a risk and uses the pretense that the surviving brother is too young to save his life. He has now failed to bear his responsibility for “yibum”, or the levirate that gives the widow an heir.
His daughter-in-law, Tamar, sees instinctively that she needs an heir because her son’s lineage will lead to the Davidic reign and ultimately the Messiah. She tricks Judah into carrying out yibum by posing as a prostitute thus ensuring he carry out his responsibility. She has done a great job of disguising herself because when she is three months pregnant, she is accused of adultery and puts Judah into a situation in which he would pronounce the death penalty. Still, she is silent rather than embarrass Judah.
Very complicated and trying situations. The mettle of both men are being tested; their character is being pushed to the limit. Now they have to rise up to the occasion. We see that Judah is dealing with a life-or-death situation and Joseph has to use his gifts of prophecy to intervene in life in Egypt.
We see the Judah eventually admits that it was he who is the father of Tamar’s child and praises her for doing the right thing. Joseph, pursued by his benefactor and master’s wife, avoid her even as he is put in prison for what ends up being the next twelve years. Both accept the consequences with grace, acknowledging as the result of their own actions.
Both, however, end up being great men. It is their lofty superior character that resolves their respective situations in the most efficacious way and results in advancing our heritage. Both are able to overcome their basest temptations and character flaws, rise above them and go down in our history as role models, revered by later generations as the epitome of Jewish character.