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THE BUCK STOPS HERE

by Ezra Cohen    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

In this corner, enrobed in princely garb, the reigning champion of the world, the dreamer - Jooooseph. And in the challenger's corner, wearing a white cloak, leader of the brothers, father of all kings, the lion - Juuuudah.

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In this corner, enrobed in princely garb, the reigning champion of the world, the dreamer - Jooooseph. And in the challenger's corner, wearing a white cloak, leader of the brothers, father of all kings, the lion - Juuuudah. Ding, ding. As the bells sounds, Judah lets out a terrifying cry of anger that echoes throughout the land. His eyes drip with blood and the hair on his chest pierces through his five cloaks. Judah proceeds to take iron bars into his mouth and grind them to dust with his teeth. He then grabs a stone weighing four hundred shekel, throws it up to the sky, catches it, and crushes it with his bare hands. And, in a "can you top this" fashion, Joseph proceeds to kick a marble pillar, breaking it into shattered debris.

This is the way the Midrash describes the dramatic confrontation between the two mighty sons of Jacob: Judah, the leader of his brothers, and Joseph, the viceroy of Egypt. The Midrash refers to this meeting as a confrontation of kings, as the verse states, "The kings assembled, they came together" (Psalms 48:5). This appellation is fitting for Joseph, as he was the de facto ruler of Egypt. However, it seems strange that Judah should be referred to by the same title. He seemed to have possessed none of the trappings of monarchy - he had no kingdom, no throne, and no subjects. However, a deeper analysis of Judah's character will reveal a personality befitting the progenitor of the dynasty of the kings of Israel and, ultimately, the Mashiach (Messiah).

One of the fundamental requirements of a leader is the ability to influence and inspire the masses with his courageous actions, persuasive speech, and charismatic personality. The Talmud (Tractate Sotah 36b) relates the details of an event that proved to be pivotal in the selection of Judah as the leader amongst his brothers. Ironically, it chooses the infamous story of Judah and Tamar as illustration. On first perusal of the Torah text and commentaries, we can understand the story as follows: Judah was walking towards the crossroads when Tamar, his barren daughter-in-law, widow of his two sons, approaches him. Judah does not recognize her and mistakes her for a prostitute. With pure intentions (of preserving the dynasty of kings), Tamar offers herself to Judah. Subsequently, Tamar is discovered to be pregnant and is thereupon brought to court where she is found guilty of harlotry. As she is led to her public execution at the stake, Judah pronounces "tzadkah mimeni - she is more righteous than I" (Genesis 38:26). The narrative then concludes with Tamar's giving birth to twins.

The crux of the story is Judah's public admission of guilt. He could have quietly protected his dignity rather than prevent another's suffering. Judah demonstrates his capability to rise above his own ego for the sake of justice and thus inspire the masses. The sages further comment: "Judah, who sanctified G-d's name publicly, merited that he would be called entirely by the name of G-d." In fact, when you remove the Hebrew letter dalet from Judah's name, you are left with the Tetragrammaton - the four-letter name of G-d.

This ability to take responsibility for one's actions was also exemplified by a descendent of the tribe of Judah. After the episode with Bathsheba, King David says, "I have sinned" (II Samuel 12:13). David acknowledges his mistake and attempts no excuses. In spite of his position as king of Israel, he is willing to humble himself and confess his wrongdoing. This willingness to take responsibility is especially important for leaders, who should serve as moral guides to their subjects. This concept was aptly expressed in the famous aphorism of former President Harry Truman, "The buck stops here."

Judah, as our namesake (the Jewish people are called Yehudim), exemplifies virtues that we must emulate. As Judah struggled to be a leader and example, so should we. And though we may not be in a position of leadership, we can be a leader in our own realm. As individuals, we should gather the strength to overcome our natural instincts and desires and rule them. Though the individual may fail at times, he must take responsibility for his actions. Through this, he will not only become a ruler over himself, but will positively influence those around him.

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Ezra Cohen, an alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta, is spending his third year of the rabbinic ordination process studying at the Gruss Kollel in Israel.

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