Judah (יְהוּדָה), associated with the month of Nisan (נִיסָן), is the fourth son of Leah and Jacob. In Judaism the number four, the letter Dalet (ד), represents doorways. There are also four new years in Judaism, and the Nisan is the first — the doorway (הדלת) to the year. Considering the number of fours found in the Passover Seder, is it any wonder that Judah is the fourth son?
Judah takes a very human journey of learning what it means to be a decent man, in the Torah. He starts out as a very unlikeable character, as he is the one who suggests selling Joseph to the Ishmaelites (Genesis 37:26). As others were calling for Joseph’s death, I suppose this could be seen as a moderate position — if you really wanted to try. Just after this, there is an odd interlude in the story of Joseph that focuses on Judah (Genesis 38). In this story we still see him acting less than an honorable man, until his daughter-in-law, Tamar, teaches him a valuable lesson. It’s probably not just coincidence that Tamar means “date palm” and dates are considered to be psychically cleansing. The next time we see Judah, he promises his life for Benjamin and then gives a moving speech (Genesis 44:18-34) to save Benjamin that show us, and Joseph, that Judah is truly a changed man. It is this change that seems to merit his incredible blessing from Jacob in Genesis 49:8-12, and his preeminence among the tribes.
Nisan is also the new year of kings, which is appropriate with Judah because it is the tribe of Kings. Judah is the forebear of David, the first king of Israel. It’s important to note, though, that David is descended from Judah and Tamar, whose story we read in Genesis 38. The children born of this union do not seem to have an auspicious start, but this may be a clue to the lesson of Judah.
Judah’s name, according to the Jewish Encyclopedia, is interpreted as YHVH with a dalet in the middle. I think here may be another clue to the lesson of Judah. If the letter dalet is a doorway, then does Judah become our doorway to G!d(dess)? Does his journey of growth and change show us what we must do? I think it does. Judah is not born a perfect human, as few of us are. We make mistakes and we have to learn. All through the Torah we see the struggle that is being human. It’s not about starting perfect, but rather perfecting yourself throughout your life.
In this month of beginnings, let us follow the example of Judah and learn from our past mistakes and grow into the best examples of humanity we can be.