In today’s parsha we read how, after the brothers had sold Joseph into slavery, Judah married a Canaanite woman and had three sons, the first two of whom, Er and Onan, died because of their sins, and then shortly thereafter his wife died. The Sforno explains that Judah was made to suffer in this way as a father, because of the grief which he had caused his own father, Jacob, by instigating the plan to sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites.
Now this is strange when we read what actually happened — for Judah’s proposal to sell Joseph was a device to save Joseph’s life! According to Rashi, he judged that his brothers would not listen to a proposal to free Joseph completely and return him to their father, and so he calculated what compromise proposal would be acceptable to them. Now how can this be considered bad? In fact, later on (Gen. 49:8), when Jacob is blessing his sons, and predicting the royal destiny of the house of Judah, his words to Judah are interpreted by Rashi as praising him for saving Joseph’s life!
How can we reconcile these two viewpoints? Was Judah being bad or good in instigating the sale of Joseph to the Ishmelites in order to save his life?
The answer is given by Rashi (on Gen. 38:1): It was both! Of course, he did a good deed in saving his brother’s life, but his great sin was in trying to judge how far his brothers would be willing to listen to him, and how much he should compromise on his position accordingly.
This is something we should never do: to judge of someone, how far he is willing or able to rise to a challenge; for we are making a judgment on his neshama, his soul.
If someone asks us: “What is involved in keeping Shabbos?” and we judge that he is unable to face the full truth, and so we water down the answer and say: “It’s just a matter of making Kiddush on Friday evening”, since we think that is something he can accept easily enough — then we are committing a grievous sin, since we are making a judgment on that person’s soul! We are being patronizing and condescending to that person. It is quite a different matter to say: “Look, keeping Shabbat means doing such-and-such, but that may be difficult to do in one shot, so perhaps you should take it a little at a time, and wait at each step until you feel ready for the next one.”
But to water down the truth so as to make our answer more acceptable — that is quite wrong, and it insults the other person. We should never underestimate anyone’s neshama — in fact, we should never estimate anyone’s neshama altogether! Everyone we meet should be accepted as being formed “betselem Elokim” — in G-d’s image. We cannot presume to judge what other people are, or are not, capable of. In fact, says Rashi, if Judah had advised his brothers to release Joseph and send him home, they would have listened to him! And later on, they had a grudge against him for not doing so!
We can now understand the strange combination of praise and blame, reward and punishment, given to Judah. For a king should, at the very least, be capable of judging his subjects fairly, and someone who is to be ancestor of the Jewish Royal House (even if this is a reward for saving Joseph’s life) should certainly be capable of judging others fairly, or at least not underestimating them.