The majestic king of beasts, the lion, is known to be the symbol of Yehudah. Many wonder what of his accomplishments cause him to merit not only this great emblem but the honor of his descendants’ becoming the kings of the nation as well. There is a two-part answer to this question: The first part concerns Yehudah’s actions following the incident with Tamar; the second concerns his actions at the end of last week’s Parashah and the beginning of this week’s Parashah.
In Parashat VaYeishev, we read that Yehudah’s oldest son, Eir, marries a woman named Tamar. After his untimely demise, which occurs before he can father any children, his younger brother Onan marries Tamar in an attempt to continue the legacy of his older brother. The Torah states that Onan refuses to father his brother’s children, and dies as a result. Yehudah sees that two of his three sons have died after marrying Tamar and is therefore reluctant to give his third son to her. Therefore, Yehudah asks Tamar to wait at her father’s house until his third son, Sheilah, is old enough to marry her. In reality, however, he is trying to keep her away so that Sheilah can marry a different woman and have children with her. After waiting for some time, Tamar realizes that Yehudah does not intend to give his Sheilah to her, so she takes matters into her own hands. She tricks Yehudah into having relations with her and she becomes pregnant. Yehudah gives Tamar his ring, staff, and cloak as collateral for his payment but when he sends her the payment, she apparently disappears without a trace. This all happens without Yehudah discovering Tamar’s identity. Soon after, Yehudah learns that Tamar is pregnant and, because he thinks that she committed adultery and thus dishonored his family, he orders her killed. When she is being brought out to be burnt, Tamar says that the man who owns the three items that Yehudah had given her is the father of her child. Yehudah, to his immense credit, swallows his pride and admits to all of his peers that he was wrong and that he is the father. Tamar later gives birth to twins, one of whose descendants is David HaMelech. This incident shows that Yehudah is not too stubborn to admit that he was wrong and to correct his mistakes, which is an essential quality of true leaders.
The second event that gives Yehudah merit to become king over his brothers is the incident of the brothers’ dealings with Yosef; specifically, when Yosef’s goblet is discovered in Binyamin’s sack at the end of Parashat MiKeitz. Originally, when the goblet is discovered, Yehudah speaks for his brothers and tries to negotiate with Yosef by saying that he will stay behind instead of Binyamin, because he personally guaranteed Ya’akov that nothing bad would happen to Binyamin. This ploy inevitably fails, because Yosef has no reason to want his other brothers to stay with him. When he sees that he has failed to negotiate with Yosef, Yehudah once again swallows his pride and steps forward to personally beg of Yosef to let Binyamin go home. He does this so that Ya’akov will not be subjected to more pain than he already has been for the past twenty-two years since Yosef’s disappearance. As a leader of his brothers, Yehudah also feels that he is responsible for the pain that Ya’akov has been going through because it was his idea to sell Yosef.
These two actions show that Yehudah is willing to forsake his personal honor and pride so that he can do the right thing, whether it be pleading with a viceroy or simply admitting his mistake. Such characteristics befit all leaders, and thus Yehudah is certainly deserving of his royal lion symbol as well as his descendants’ right to the throne.