It has been suggested that Judah "went down" from his brothers- went down in status, because once the brothers saw how their actions had caused Jacob to suffer, they no longer respected the ringleader as much. He seems to have fallen out of favor, marrying a Canaanite woman, a practice that we know was frowned upon (see Genesis 28: 1). Two of his sons die and he refuses to let the third marry. The woman to whom his son is betrothed deceives him, pretending to be a prostitute, and then chooses not to embarrass him publicly, allowing him to make the pronouncement "She is more righteous than I." From here our sages learned that it was preferable to throw oneself into a fiery furnace (the punishment for committing adultery) rather than embarrass another. While Tamar is rewarded by becoming the ancestress of the Davidic dynasty, Judah is no longer intimate with her.
Many meanings can be gleaned from this story. The story is one of the sources for the sin of Onanism- ejaculating outside of a woman to prevent conception. There is a sense of justice being served because Tamar says הכר נא- Identify, if you please- regarding Judah's pledges, the same words the brothers used when they deceived their father and pretended the bloodied coat of many colors meant that Joseph had died. Some sages view the story as a reproach, pitting Judah and Joseph against each other. Joseph resisted the advances of Potiphar's wife, ending up in prison because of it, while Judah could not resist a prostitute's wiles.
But I believe that the main purpose of this story, one that has perhaps been overlooked- or at least, has not come up somewhere I have read- is to provide the impetus and catalyst for the tremendous change in Judah.
Think about it: According to rabbinic tradition, Judah is the one who originally determines that Joseph ought to die. He does change his mind, saying:
Judah's action has far-reaching consequences. Due to his words, Joseph is sold and Jacob is left bereft, led to believe that his son has been torn apart by a wild animal.
Then Judah sets off on his own. It is possible that he has fallen out of favor with the brothers. He takes a wife from a despised nation which may indicate his low status- or a rebellion against his father. He then has three sons. He marries his first son off, but then he dies. He marries the second son off to the same woman, but then that son dies as well. When it comes to the third son, he cannot bear to further the alliance. He claims that Tamar must wait till his son is grown but in truth he never plans to allow the two to wed.
Consider what has happened here. Judah is learning, in the most painful way possible, exactly what it is to lose a son. He loses not one son but two -and he cannot bear to let the third one go. He is then deceived by the very woman he views as responsible for the death of his sons- and must publicly confess that he is the one who impregnated her. It is a very powerful and effective lesson in empathy for his father. First, he learns what it is to suffer the death of a child. And then, he discovers what it is like to be deceived by a woman, believing her to be one individual (a prostitute) and then discovering her to be another (his daughter-in-law, Tamar). This exactly parallels what happened with Jacob, who weds the veiled Leah believing she was Rachel.
The root of the enmity between Leah's children and Rachel's children all stems from this moment. Leah was the שנואה, the hated woman. God gave her children first, opening her womb. Leah believed that through bearing these children, Jacob would come to love her. But instead, Jacob perversely insisted upon loving Rachel. It is possible that Judah, clearly a strong, decisive individual, hated Joseph not only for being the favored child, the one in the coat of many colors, the one who had dreams that set him above the other brothers- but also because of who he was, the child of Rachel, his own mother's rival. Perhaps (although there is no textual proof for this) Judah felt frustrated by his father, wondering how he could have caused this all to happen. Had he only made sure that the woman he was marrying was the right one, this enmity would never have been forged and Judah's mother would not have been so unhappy. Now Judah understands how it is possible to make such a mistake. More than that, the text is explicit that Judah is no longer intimate with Tamar. Having had his one mistaken encounter with her, he saves her from the pyre and sets her aside. Jacob remains with Leah, continuing his conjugal relations with her- but emotionally, on some level, he too sets her aside. Does Judah not remain intimate with Tamar because she had originally been promised to his son? Or is there something fundamentally impossible about intimacy that begins shrouded in deception? If the latter...Judah has begun to understand his father. He realizes now that the love Jacob felt for Rachel and for her children was not intended as a slap in the face to his mother, although that may well have been how it was perceived. Perhaps, on some level, it was simply impossible for Jacob to emotionally connect with the woman who deceived him.
It is within this context that Judah's later actions make sense. He and the other brothers return to Jacob and inform him that the viceroy has demanded that Benjamin travels to Egypt. Jacob is understandably distressed, claiming that Joseph is gone and Simeon is imprisoned and now Benjamin, too, runs the risk of running afoul of evil chance or deliberate harm. Reuben's response to this is to threaten the death of his own two children:
|לז וַיֹּאמֶר רְאוּבֵן, אֶל-אָבִיו לֵאמֹר, אֶת-שְׁנֵי בָנַי תָּמִית, אִם-לֹא אֲבִיאֶנּוּ אֵלֶיךָ; תְּנָה אֹתוֹ עַל-יָדִי, וַאֲנִי אֲשִׁיבֶנּוּ אֵלֶיךָ.||37 And Reuben spoke unto his father, saying: 'Thou shalt slay my two sons, if I bring him not to thee; deliver him into my hand, and I will bring him back to thee.'|
Reuben is overwhelmed by guilt. He had intended to save Joseph and failed. Therefore he makes this brash promise, saying that the lives of his two children can act as sureties for Benjamin.
But Judah has actually had two children die. He knows that his brother is acting foolishly- cannot, does not understand the horror of the death of a child. The last thing Jacob would want would be the deaths of two more children should his beloved son Benjamin not come home.
Therefore, Judah intervenes.
Why would Jacob trust Judah over Reuben?
Because Judah knows what it is to have a child die. Indeed, he knows what it is to have two children die. He will truly be a surety for Jacob- because he has changed. He understands the pain that his father went through, the loss of his beloved son. Judah will ensure this does not happen again.
And indeed, in arguably his finest moment, Judah steps forward in פרשת ויגש and presents a passionate plea, detailing the story of Jacob's suffering on a deep level. He ends off with a wrenching statement:
|לד כִּי-אֵיךְ אֶעֱלֶה אֶל-אָבִי, וְהַנַּעַר אֵינֶנּוּ אִתִּי: פֶּן אֶרְאֶה בָרָע, אֲשֶׁר יִמְצָא אֶת-אָבִי.||34 For how shall I go up to my father, if the lad be not with me? lest I look upon the evil that shall come on my father.'|
In this moment, he has changed himself completely. Judah is standing there as surety because he has taken the place of Reuben, the firstborn. Reuben illogically threatened the deaths of his sons should Benjamin not return, thereby demonstrating that he does not comprehend Jacob's anguish. But Judah does. That is why he stands there defending a son of Rachel, a child of the person responsible- in his mind- for monopolizing his father's love. Except that he has now realized it wasn't Rachel who held the monopoly- it was Leah who unfortunately lost the opportunity to be loved equally when she chose to participate in deception. Love that has its roots in deception cannot flourish, and this is something that Judah now understands. He has lived it. It has changed him.
The bizarre interlude in Judah's life inter-spliced with the Joseph story now no longer seems so bizarre. It is there to show us what caused the tremendous change between the Judah that was and the Judah that came to be.
This idea inspired in part by Mr. Chaim Kohanchi's 'Ner Chaim' and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks' 'Covenant and Conversation'