“The sceptre of Kingship will never depart from Judah!” (Genesis 49:10). These are Jacob’s departing words to his sons around his deathbed. 

Judah, his fourth son through Leah, is singled out as the progenitor of the Davidic Dynasty. The obvious question is how were Judah’s credentials worthy of such an accolade? What does Judaism see as the chief ingredient in the recipe for majesty?

The Torah’s portrayal of its key figures is refreshingly honest – their shortcomings are never swept under the carpet of convenience. Moral quandaries of the greats are spelled out clearly. We are interested in humanising heroes, not deifying them.

The story of Judah’s encounter with his daughter-in-law Tamar is complicated and easily misunderstood. Tamar, accused of harlotry, faces death. Neither Judah nor the entire city gathered for the spectacle realises Judah himself was her accomplice. In desperation, Tamar dispatches a message to Judah telling him the staff, ring and cloak in her possession were given to her as collateral by the biological father of her extra-marital child.

Judah is suddenly faced with an alarming choice. As the city’s leader and judge, his word is law and it is to him his citizens look for guidance and instruction. Does he confess his sin, risk his reputation and lose every shred of power and authority he once wielded.

Or does he take the easy route, ignore her message and feign ignorance of the whole affair?

Today, with honesty and humility increasingly rare among world leaders, Judah’s choice tells us everything we need to know about the nature of a truly just king: “She is righteous; I am responsible!” (Genesis 38:26).

  •  Rabbi Eli Birnbaum is director of YP Education at Aish UK

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