In Parashat VaYeishev, Yosef’s brothers sell him into slavery. Originally they planned on killing him but then they decided to throw him into a pit, as per Reuven’s suggestion. The brothers ultimately sold Yosef to the Yishma’eilim, as per Yehudah’s suggestion (BeReishit 37:20-28). The Perek following the sale of Yosef presents episodes that transpired in Yehudah’s personal life (38:1-30). What does this have to do with Mechirat Yosef?
The first details of Yehudah’s life about which we are told are his marriage to a Kena’ani woman, Shu’a, and the subsequent birth of their three sons, Eir, Onan, and Sheilah. When he is of marrying age, Eir is married off by Yehudah to a woman named Tamar, but Eir soon after dies childless because of his “wicked” ways. Yehudah tells his next oldest son, Onan, to perform the Mitzvah of Yibbum, the requirement of a man to marry his widowed sister-in-law if his brother or her husband died before having children. However, Onan refuses to perform Yibbum because he wants to remain with his own wife and children, not his brother’s. This “evil” is another reason for his death by the hand of God. Yehudah then sends Tamar back to her home so that she can wait for Sheilah, his youngest son, to be of marrying age to perform Yibbum. After waiting many years, however, Tamar realizes that Yehudah doesn’t plan on allowing Sheilah to marry her, lest he lose his last living son. Therefore, when she hears that Yehudah will be passing by her city’s crossroads, Tamar covers her face to disguise herself and waits for him by the crossroads. Tamar meets a lonesome and unaware Yehudah, sleeps with him in exchange for his goat, signet ring, and staff, and she leaves, putting Yehudah in an awkward position. Later, Yehudah finds Tamar and she reveals herself, the two reconcile, and Tamar gives birth to two sons, Zerach and Peretz.
On the surface, there is no connection between the stories of Yosef’s sale and Yehudah’s relationship with Tamar. Many commentaries, however, offer different reasons for the stories’ juxtaposition. Rashi (38:1 s.v. VaYehi BaEit HaHi) believes that Yehudah’s story is mentioned here because it describes his downfall from being the leader of his brothers, especially in the scheme against Yosef, to being a man riddled with punishment and shame. Rashi cites his proof from the phrase, “VaYeired Yehudah MeiEit Echav,” “And Yehudah went down from his brothers,” (38:1), with the phrase “VaYeired” being interpreted as “going down in status.” Radak, presenting the Peshat interpretation, states that “VaYeired” simply means Yehudah travelled south from his home. Ramban explains that the juxtaposition of the two stories teaches us that punishment comes to those who deserve it. Yehudah possessed the influence over his brothers to stop them from plotting against Yosef but chose to not exercise this power. Therefore, Yehudah was punished by losing his family about which he truly cared, since God saw that he already “didn’t care about his family (Yosef).”
Another answer is given by the Ibn Ezra, who disagrees with the general premise and instead believes that Yehudah’s story occurred before Yosef was sold. The story’s purpose, Ibn Ezra explains, is to show that there was at least some amount of time between Yosef’s sale and Yosef’s experience with Potifar, his eventual promotion to head of his house, and his drama with Potifar’s wife.
Why does there need to be a pause in Yosef’s life story? Ibn Ezra continues that this type of break for a side story comes up earlier in the Torah, where minor characters of the main story and timeline, Hagar and Lot, are tested by God and fail. Hagar was supposed to give her son Yishma’el to Sarah because she was barren, but Hager kept him as her own out of greed. Lot was tested regarding his ability to do Chesed, but passed only half the test. When the Mal’achim came to Sedom, Lot sheltered them from the angry people of Sedom who didn’t like their new guests, but rather let his daughters be harassed by the people of Sedom as they tried to break into his house to remove the guests. Now, Yehudah is put into the same type of difficult situation with the possibility of becoming the first minor character to pass God’s test, which he indeed became. While Yehudah could have said that Tamar required her death sentence for incest, he instead had mercy on her and took her as his wife, thus showing a more positive and righteous side of Yehudah.
We can learn from Yehudah’s story that although most of us might not be publically famous, important or popular, we still are the main characters of our own stories. In each of our personal stories, it is up to us to determine if we will pass the tests which God places before us throughout our lives by making the best decisions we can.