The stories of Joseph and Judah are contained in this parashah: Joseph from the time of his childhood to his imprisonment after asking the Cup Bearer of the Pharaoh to remember him, and Judah from the death of his first two sons to the seduction of Judah by Tamar, his daughter-in-law and birth of her twins.
Why, in the middle of the exciting adventures (or more correctly, trials) of Joseph, would we be told about Judah? It’s like a long infomercial right near the end of a Columbo mystery.
The Chumash says that this is to show us the difference between how these two very influential sons of Israel, one who saves the nation and the other whose descendants lead the nation, reacted to temptation.
Joseph is tempted by Potiphar’s wife, and Judah is tempted by Tamar, his daughter-in-law (while in disguise.) Joseph, while he could easily have gotten away with the betrayal (of the trust) of his master, chose to resist sin. On the other hand, Judah fell easily into the sinful trap that Tamar set for him. Judah had no second thoughts about having sex with a cult prostitute, a representative of a foreign and forbidden god.
Yet, all Judah lost was his staff and seal, which could be replaced; Joseph, on the other hand, lost his position of importance and was thrown into prison for many years.
It just ain’t fair, is it?
Joseph never really showed any lack of morality (although as a child he showed a lack of judgement in the way he made his brothers angry with him) and Judah showed lack of morality in how he associated with prostitutes, but when Tamar revealed that Judah had neglected his duty to provide her a husband, he admitted his guilt and justified her actions, removing the stigma she was under as an unmarried woman who was pregnant. Judah showed the strength of character that is such an important part of true leadership in accepting responsibility for his actions when he was in the wrong.
Joseph also showed his strength of character by accepting the position he was placed in and continuing to do what is right, even when he was not responsible for doing anything wrong. Judah did wrong and accepted responsibility for it when he was made aware of it; Joseph did nothing wrong, yet he accepted the consequences of what happened and continued to do his best.
The lesson for us is that whether we do wrong or right, we will always be OK in God’s sight if we continue to strive to do what is right in God’s eyes. Judah sinned, Joseph resisted sin, yet Judah got off easy and Joseph suffered years in prison. It doesn’t seem fair, but in the long run Joseph was ruler over all the land, and through his trials not only did Egypt survive, but Israel, too. As Joseph tells his brothers later in this book, it was God that sent Joseph to Egypt so that he could save them from starvation. Joseph saw the truth of his suffering, the reason for it, and accepted it as God’s plan of salvation for him and his family. It’s interesting also that Judah’s story is placed smack-dab in the middle of Joseph’s story because it was Judah who first came up with the idea of selling Joseph into slavery, knowing that he would end up in Egypt. Although the brothers never got that chance (the Midianites found Joseph before the sale to the Ishmaelites could occur), Judah would have been the reason for Joseph ending up in Egypt.
When we have either strife or joy in our lives, we never really know where it will lead until we are already there, and by then it’s too late. So what can we do? We can do our best to always do what is right in God’s eyes. Judah did wrong but accepted responsibility for it, which was something that is right in God’s eyes, and ended up as the ancestor of Messiah. Joseph did right but was treated wrongly, yet because he continued to do what was pleasing to God, even in the midst of slavery and imprisonment Joseph was rewarded and honored. Joseph and Judah were like two sides of the same coin: Joseph in the right and Judah in the wrong, but both showed that, in the end, they did what was proper and pleasing to God, and both ended up in positions of honor. It doesn’t matter if you are always righteous, or if you perform an unrighteous act, God wants you to do what is right as you continue to go on with your life.
As God told us in Ezekiel 33:18:
“When the righteous turns from his righteousness and commits iniquity, then he shall die in it. But when the wicked turns from his wickedness and practices justice and righteousness, he will live by them.”
Judah did wrong, but turned from his iniquity (when he took responsibility for it and vindicated Tamar); Joseph never did wrong even when wrongly accused of iniquity, and both were honored by God. It may seem to us that Joseph got the short end of the stick, that what happened to Joseph just wasn’t fair compared to the sin Judah committed (and sorta got away with), but from God’s perspective all went exactly as it should have.
Considering how everything ended up, I think God did alright, don’t you?
We need to remember that no matter what happens in our life, so long as we trust in God and continue to try to do what is right in God’s eyes, we will be OK. We will all succumb to iniquity at one time or another, and we will all be mistreated at one time or another, but as long as we take responsibility, atone and try to stay on the path of righteousness, then no matter how many times we fall, God will always be there to help us back up.
I guess what it really boils down to is this: “fair” has nothing to do with it. “Fair” is something conceived of by someone who wasn’t treated the way he or she thought they should have been treated. “Fairness” is a condition of the flesh. I don’t care about “fair”, but I do care about God’s will, and how He says we should treat each other. “Fair treatment” isn’t in the Torah, but compassion is, love is, respect is, and justice is. They are in the Torah and they are how God wants us to treat each other.