Why is Judah the Greater Hero than Joseph?

The Torah stresses goodness and godliness as the human ethical ideal. Judah began his life inauspiciously. He sold his brother, Joseph, into slavery, he failed to thwart the plot to get rid of the annoying, bragging brother. After breaking his word to give Tamar to Shela, as he had promised, Judah betrays his word and instead, consorts with a prostitute who happens to be Tamar.

Joseph, the beloved first born of the beloved second wife, was invested with uncanny powers. He had dreams and could explain them correctly. He could even explain the dreams related to him by others. And the skill did not go to his head. Joseph remained pious all of his life, unlike Judah, who had to grow into piety. With time, Joseph learned how to market and display his skill so that he did not earn the ire of people like his petty brothers.

By placing Joseph’s rejection of the advances of Mrs. Potipher with the solicitation of Tamar by Judah, the Torah is telling the attentive reader that first impressions are misleading. Joseph was indeed a righteous person, and the reader, like the Torah’s portrait of Judah as a young man, may be so morally scarred that we cannot trust that some one is really pious.

In addition to his skill, God given of course, in reading dreams, Joseph is a manager of men. He took control, supervised, organized, directed, and with time, came to appreciate that others were not blessed with his manipulative or prophetic skills. With his God given skills, Joseph was managed to manage his life; with his divine powers, he did mighty deeds.

Judah had no exceptional talent, but he developed character. Joseph knew how to lead, but not how to bond; Joseph could manipulate others, but could not come close to others.

Bereft of his loving and loved mother, Rachel, Joseph became a loner. No friends in Egypt, he did not contact his father when in Egypt, from the fact that his grandchildren were unknown to Jacob, there were family strains between son and father. When Jacob has to explain why Rachel was not buried in Machpela tomb, the reader realizes that Joseph, as smart and as talented as he is, is an emotional wreck, with “issues.” When he realizes that his brothers fear him and do not love him, when they plead for their lives once Jacob is buried, Joseph realizes that love must be earned and not purchased. Rabbi David Novak taught the wonderful insight that by asking the brothers to remove his remains from Egypt, he needed them just as they needed him.

While Joseph earned the fear but not the respect and love of his brothers, Judah, who had no power other than the wisdom of his mind and the emerging integrity of character, assumes leadership of the clan. Judah convinces Jacob to allow Benjamin, the remaining son of the beloved wife, to leave his father, and the moral courage of being willing to sacrifice himself for his half-brother after selling his interlocutor, Joseph into slavery.

Seeing some one as good as he but with no power other than character, Joseph breaks down.

Judah is acknowledged to be leader, not Joseph; the Messiah the son of Joseph will fail, because he has power, but issues, talent, but no constituency, skills, but no support. Judah will retain the scepter because he is the leader by means of morals. The King in Kohelet gives a musar shemues, a morality talk, and the Mosaic king on Sukkot reads the Torah as teacher. People will run from a leader of power who controls and manages, and run behind in support of a leader who is grounded in higher moral principles. Judah anticipated the rabbinic adage, “who is mighty, the one who conquers himself.” May the offspring of Judah come and redeem us from our exile and from ourselves.

About Rabbi Alan Yuter

Rabbi Yuter is Adjunct Prof. of Hebrew Lit., Baltimore Hebrew University, and Adjunct Faculty, Fairleigh Dickenson University/Institute for Traditional Judaism. S'micha from Chief Rabbinate of Israel, Rabbi Mordecai Eliyahu. See bio for more.