There are two parallel storylines in Parashat Vayeshev. Joseph is kidnapped by his brothers and starts his journey to leadership within Egypt. We are also told of an odd saga within Judah’s family.
Judah, Joseph’s older brother, had three sons. The first married Tamar and died before they had a child. According to halakhah, Tamar must marry her brother-in-law in the hopes of producing a child. Unfortunately, her new husband dies and she is still childless. The law dictates that Tamar marry Judah’s remaining son, but Judah refuses. Tamar is now locked into the status of a betrothed woman with no possibility of marriage or a relationship with another man. Judah has committed a sin and a cruelty against this woman.
Realizing her predicament, Tamar dresses as a harlot and lures Judah into relations with her. She has now fulfilled the law. But Judah does not know it was her, and when word comes that Tamar is pregnant, he assumes she has committed adultery and demands her execution.
Anticipating this, Tamar took proof that it was Judah she had lain with and produces this proof to Judah. Judah not only saves Tamar, but publicly proclaims her to be more righteous than himself. At that moment, Judah transforms and grows to become a Jewish leader.
Meanwhile, Joseph rises to leadership in Potiphar’s house and, like Tamar, is accused of a sexual crime he did not commit. Potiphar’s wife cries rape and submits proof in the form of his cloak. Joseph represents the first Jew to be forced into exile, and he spends years learning that he must fit the Egyptian model or perish.
But Joseph does not transform. Instead, he becomes more Egyptian. He will never lead the Jewish people.
Judah shows us that leadership is not to live without sin, but to be accountable and grow. It is Judah’s model we search for in leadership. It is one of the reasons we are called Jews.