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As the dramatic story of Joseph and his brothers comes to its climax in this week’s Torah reading, one is struck by the comparison between Judah and Joseph, the main antagonists in this final act of the biblical narrative. Joseph is the righteous one, the person who lives by dreams, the one who resists temptation and pays a dear price for so doing.

The brothers did him wrong, very wrong. Even though there are many justifications for their behavior towards Joseph, the simple narrative of the story as portrayed for us in the Bible – and their own admission that they were cruel towards their brother – places them in an awkwardly guilty situation.
And Judah is the brother that advises selling Joseph as a slave. As such, he appears to have a special burden upon him in the whole story of the disunity in the family of Jacob. And his behavior with Tamar raises questions of morality and probity. So, from the reading of this narrative alone, one could easily come to the conclusion that the future of the Jewish people lies with Joseph and not with Judah, that the greatness of the piety of Joseph should certainly override the leadership qualities and strength of Judah.
Yet we find from the blessings of Jacob onwards that Judah is the leader of the Jewish people through the dynasty of King David. The Jewish people are called by his name and he and his descendants are the catalyst of survival, which has characterized Jewish life throughout the ages.
Why is this so? The Talmud indicates to us that leadership does not necessarily belong to those whose closets are bare of skeletons. Somehow, in order to be a truly successful leader one must first have tasted failings and defeat, physically and even spiritually. The perfect person, the most righteous of people, is not necessarily the right choice for leadership.
Because the nation and the people are never perfect, therefore the leader must clearly understand what the failings and shortcomings are, and work one's leadership through that framework of imperfection. This does not mean that we should overlook shortcomings and previous sins of those who aspire to leadership currently. But it does mean that past errors are not necessarily fatal to the cause of current leadership and even national greatness.
Judah's greatness lies in his willingness to assume the burden of his actions and words and to attempt to rectify past wrongdoings. We see that in his reaction to the judgment of Tamar, where he vindicates her at his own expense and shame. We see that in his defense of Benjamin and his willingness to allow himself to become a slave in order to save his brother. He had vouched for him and personally guaranteed to return him to his father.
Leadership is taking responsibility and owning up to commitments and situations that are difficult and taxing but inescapable. That becomes the true test of leadership and that is what defines Judah as the leader of the brothers and eventually the leader of Israel through all of its generations.
Shabbat shalom
Rabbi Berel Wein

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