Judah: Transformation from Heartless to Heartfelt

Amazon.com has over 88,000 books in the category called “Self-Help.” In this lucrative category of book, hundreds of authors write about what people can do to overcome their past, improve themselves and become better people. If only the people in the Torah had access to these books, they might have been able to save themselves years of heartache and pain. Cain and Esav could have read up on anger management. King Saul might have been able to cope with his mood swings. Rachel and Leah could have taken some cues from books about difficult family dynamics. At their core, most of these books have a noble purpose in mindhelping people do teshuvah. According to Rambam (aka Maimonides, the great Jewish scholar and thinker), teshuvah is a process of realizing that one sinned, regretting the sin, resolving not to do it again, confessing to the person that they wronged and then, when put in the same situation again, making the right choice.

In this week’s Torah portion, VayigashJudah, the brother who heartlessly recommended that they sell Joseph into slavery becomes the brother who makes a heartfelt speech to save the other younger brother, Benjamin, from the same fate. Judah becomes a model of doing teshuvah. In Parshat Vayeshev, Judah coldly said to his brothers:

“What gain is there if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites and our hand will not be against him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” (Breisheet 37:26-27)

Last week, at the end of Parshat Mikketzwe found Joseph’s family still living under famine conditions. Joseph’s brothers return to Egypt to purchase more food, and brought their youngest brother Benjamin with them, at the request of the viceroy in charge of Egypt’s food stores, Joseph, known to them as Tzafnat Paneach. Joseph frames Benjamin as a thief by hiding a precious goblet in his sack, and threatens to enslave him. Of all the brothers, Judah is suddenly the one who steps up and make an impassioned plea to rescue Benjamin.

How does Judah transform from a person who is willing to sell brother into slavery into one who steps into the breach to rescue another? How did Judah do his teshuvah?

For sure, he did not read any self-help books. Indeed, Judah has two personal experiences that ignite the spark of teshuvah: his own experience of loss and seeing his Jacob’s daily grief over the loss of Joseph.

Often overlooked in the Joseph saga, especially if one is only familiar with Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, are the events of Breisheet Chapter 38. In this chapter, we discover Judah’s personal story. He marries, has three sons, the oldest of which, Er, marries a young woman named Tamar. Er mysteriously dies before he and Tamar are able to have children. The next brother, Onan, who is supposed to marry Tamar so she can have children, fails to do so, and then he dies. Judah is now a father who has experienced the loss of two sons. Although the Torah is silent about Judah’s emotional pain from the death of two sons, he does make efforts to protect his remaining son, Shelah. Ironically, Judah caused his own father to lose son, and now after Judah loses two sons, he has developed empathy for his father. This empathy is the likely source of Judah’s recognition of his sin, his regret for having caused his father’s suffering, and resolution not to make the same mistake again.

Then Judah makes an impassioned speech for the release of Benjamin from slavery. The focus of Judah’s speech is actually not to release Benjamin, but to avoid causing grief and suffering to their father Jacob. Judah is mainly trying to spare Jacob the devastating loss of a second son, a loss that Judah is well acquainted with. It has been over two decades since Joseph’s disappearance, and the family sees Jacob’s grief from the loss of Joseph every dayThey know that Jacob keeps Benjamin close by all the time, and is only willing to let the brothers take him to Egypt in the face of starvation. Judah’s empathy for his father becomes clear, confirming that his own experience is what drives his teshuvah process.

However, Judah must confess for this to be considered real teshuvah. As far confessing to his crime, Judah’s careful use of language betrays a subtle confession. When Judah tells Joseph what Jacob said about Benjamin going down to Egypt, he says:

“And your servant, our father said to us, ‘You know that two did we wife bear me. And one went out from me and I thought, O, he hasbeen torn to shreds, and I have not seen him since. And should you take this one, too, from my presence and harm befall him, youwould bring down my grey head in evil to Sheol.’” (Breisheet 44: 27-29) [Emphasis mine.]

Jacob says that Joseph “went out from” him, which is not the normal way of speaking about the dead. Jacob could have just said that Joseph was dead. Additionally, why would Jacob say that he had not seen him since? Was he not dead? One could argue that Judah reveals that Jacob knows the brothers are responsible for Joseph’s disappearance. In addition, Jacob says that he “thought” that Joseph was torn to shreds, which indicates awareness that he had made an assumption that was he later realized might not be the case. Jacob also hints that the brothers are the ones who made Joseph disappear, and potentially could do the same to Benjamin. As Judah quotes his father’s words, he voices his own confession. They are the ones responsible for getting rid of Joseph.

The last part of teshuvah is doing the right thing in the same situation as before. The situation with Benjamin is quite parallel to when they sold Joseph as a slave: It is the son of Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife. They were all away from their father. All of the brothers are together. Deception would have been easy. Judah makes it clear that he will not make the same mistake:

“And so, let your servant, please, stay instead of the lad as a slave to my lord, and let the lad go up with his brothers. For how shall I go up to my father, if the lad be not with us? Let me see not the evil that would find out my father!” (Breisheet 44:33) 

Judah offers himself in place of Benjamin only to spare his father the suffering from the loss of Benjamin.

What can we learn from Judah? Sometimes it takes something tragic to change the way we see the world and others who also live in it. Teshuvah is a process that can take years, but is always worth doing, no matter how long it has been. Forgiveness is always possible. May we all leave continue to grow as people, to look to our past for lessons that will help us move into the future.


  1. Talk about a time when you made amends with someone after a difficult argument or situation. 
  2. After Judah’s speech, Joseph sends out all of the people in the court except for his brothers. The Rabbis understand that this was too avoid embarrassing his brothers. Talk about the importance of not embarrassing people, and ways to avoid that.
  3. Judah had to rely on his own difficult experiences to help him make better choices. Talk about resources that we have today to help us make better choices: parents, teachers, friends, counselors, etc.


  1. When Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, he said: “I am Joseph; is my father alive?” What was his brothers’ response?
  2. Joseph tells his brothers not to grieve or be angry with themselves for having sold him into slavery. What is his reasoning?
  3. What was Pharaoh’s reaction when he heard that Joseph’s family would be coming to live in Egypt?
  4. What did Joseph give the brothers for the trip back to Caanan? What different gift did he give to Benjamin? What can we learn from the gifts to Joseph’s brothers?
  5. One has the impression from last week’s parashah and also this week’s that Benjamin is still a very young man. Judah calls him a lad. Is that so? If you think not, what is your proof?
  6. Along the way to Egypt, Jacob had a dream. In the dream, what did God tell him? How was that similar to or different from the experiences of his father and grandfather?
  7. How many of Jacob’s family went on the trip down to Egypt, including Jacob?
  8. On the journey to Egypt, Jacob stopped to make sacrifices to God. Where did he do that?
  9. What did Joseph tell his brothers to say about how they made a living and why?
  10. Pharaoh asked Jacob his age. What did Jacob reply? What did he mean by “few and evil”?
  11. After the Egyptians had spent all the money they had, they came to Joseph and asked for bread. Joseph sold them bread for the rest of that year in exchange for what?
  12. After the Egyptians had sold all their herds, what did Joseph take next and what did he give them in exchange?