While the ensuing parshiyot focus on Yosef and his journeys from Cana’an to Egypt, there is another character whose life and stories begin to unfold as well: Yehuda. The fourth son of Ya’akov, Yehuda enters this week’s parsha as the de facto leader of the brothers, after Reuven’s improper behavior with Bilhah and Shimon and Levi’s vigilante justice against Shechem. At first, Yehuda also seems to fail his brothers, for it was his suggestion that they sell Yosef and effectively destroy any chance of reconciliation until the reunifications many years later. After the sale, “וירד יהודה מאת אחיו” – he descends from his brothers and marries a Cananite woman, which as we’ve seen from Yitzchak and Ya’akov is not what Avraham wants for his lineage. Yehuda’s sons die due to their sinful ways, prompting Yehuda to send away Tamar, his widowed daughter-in-law. After many years, Yehuda confuses her for a prostitute and sleeps with her, violating her requirement to wait to marry Yehuda’s third son. Overall, Yehuda clearly fails as a leader and as a model Jew.
But with two simple words, Yehuda completely changes himself. After finding out that his daughter-in-law has become pregnant from a strange man, he declares that she should be killed. As she is brought out, she says “Discern, whose are these, the signet, and the cords, and the staff” (38:25) Yehuda, of course, recognizes them as the effects that he had given to her as collateral for payment. At this point, Yehuda has to make a choice: let his daughter-in-law die for his crimes but remain innocent in the eyes of others, or admit his guilt and save her life? The verse says (38:26):
"ויכר יהודה ויאמר צדקה ממני"Yehuda recognized and said “You are more righteous than I”
Chazal laud this moment in the Gemara Sotah 10b:
"דאמר רב חנין בר ביזנא א"ר שמעון חסידא יוסף שקדש שם שמים בסתר זכה והוסיפו לו אות אחת משמו של הקב"ה דכתיב (תהילים פא) עדות ביהוסף שמו יהודה שקדש ש"ש בפרהסיא זכה ונקרא כולו על שמו של הקב"ה"
How can we say Yehuda sanctifies G-d’s name in this moment when he has just revealed his own shame and mistakes? Aren’t all of his actions the antithesis of G-d’s will?
Chazal are clearly showing that the admission of failure is the moment that Yehuda takes all of his זדונות and turns them into זכויות, as the Gemara in Yoma explains. Yehuda realized how far he had fallen and how much he was to blame for the events that had befallen his family. Yehuda, in this moment, becomes the first "בעל תשובה", repenting for his failures, accepting responsibility, and immediately working to restore his place as a leader of the children of Israel. Yehuda’s sanctification of G-d’s name is not a product of his perfection, but a product of his imperfection. The Jewish people model Yehuda, realizing that even if we fall, there is always a chance to get back up, to repent and return to the values that we treasure in our daily lives.
As we welcome the holiday of Chanukah in the coming week, perhaps we can take this message and remember it as we watch the lights of the candles illuminate our homes. At times, the candle of our hearts grows dim from the light of inspiration and Godliness. Many weeks removed from the High Holy Days and fully immersed in our daily lives, we naturally feel our connection with the One Above growing weaker and feeling less vibrant. Chanukah is our chance to rekindle that inner fire. Let the candles remind us that no matter how weak our spiritual fire feels, it remains a fire inside our hearts that we can always strengthen and cherish. Let this year’s Chanukah provide us with the chance to keep the candles in our homes and in our hearts glowing brighter than ever before.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Chanukah.