The Character of a Lion

Moshe Kempinski

Life Lessons from the Torah Portion

In the world of Ancient Egypt the will of the ruler was supreme and deadly. One would take great risk to confront and disagree with the whims and dictates of any ruler. Yet we read that Yehuda gathered that strength and moved into the line of fire.

“Then Yehuda (Judah) approached (VaYigash) unto him, and said: ‘Oh my lord, let thy servant, I pray thee, speak a word in my lord’s ears, and let not thine anger burn against thy servant; for thou art even as Pharaoh.” (Genesis 42:18)

The word VaYigash ( he approached) generally implies a standing resolutely before a great challenge .

When Abraham is told of G-d’s plan to destroy Sodom he stands before Hashem in a valiant attempt to sway G-d away from His intentions. “Abraham approached (VaYigash) and said: Will You sweep away the righteous with the wicked? . . . Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?” (Gen. 18: 23-25).

We see the word used again when Elijah confronts the priests of Baal. “Elijah stepped forward (VaYigash) and prayed: O Lord, G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are G-d in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command.” (I Kings 18)

Where did Yehuda develop the courage to do what he did? After all this is the same Yehuda that devised the sale of Joseph in order to find a way around the plans to kill Joseph without risking his stature or himself.

And Yehuda said to his brothers, “What is the gain if we slay our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, but our hand shall not be upon him, for he is our brother, our flesh. And his brothers hearkened”. (Genesis 37:26-27)

It was actually Reuven who had contrived a plan to save Joseph completely and not Yehuda.

Yet it t was in the fields of Canaan that Yehuda discovered his inner strength. Two dramatic events impacted him greatly. The first is that he tragically lost two of his sons. Though the narrative does not focus too greatly on this tragedy, it is clear that Yehuda was greatly impacted. It may have had a lot to do with why he never did what he needed to do with Tamar regarding his youngest son.

The second event which was a direct result of the first was to be impactful as well on Yehuda and all the generations to come. When the dramatic set of events unfold and he finds out that his daughter in law Tamar is now pregnant he declares that by the laws of the land she must be executed.

Tamar does not declare who is the owner of signet and the staff. ( ibid 38:25). It is up to Yehuda to accept and acknowledge his own responsibility.

“And Yehuda recognized them, and said: ‘She is more righteous than I; forasmuch as I gave her not to Shelah my son.’“ (ibid 26)

The ability to acknowledge failure and as a result attain the ability to acknowledge the source of real strength. Yehuda becomes his destiny when he understands that within his name is ensconced the name of G-d. It is then that he changes from a meek and complacent individual into the lion of courage. It is then that he fulfills the blessing and insight described by Jacob on his death bed

Yehuda is a lion’s whelp; from the prey, my son, thou art gone up. He stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as a lioness; who shall rouse him up? (Genesis 49:9)

This is not the only time that Yehuda or more specifically Yehuda’s descendants are likened to Lions

The prophet to the nations and sorcerer Balaam is summoned by King Balak of Moab (to curse the Israelites. Yet instead of his intended curses Balaam utters blessings. He then ends his list of blessings with a prophecy describes the “end of days.” and Israel’s majestic survival

“He crouches and lies like a lion, like a lioness; who will dare rouse him?”(, Numbers 24:9)

The Admor of Lubavitch points out that the scholars declare that a lion can never be domesticated or truly trained and therefore can never be truly “owned” in relation for responsibilities for damages incurred by the lion. A lion remains, a free and unfettered creature. This is true despite what impositions have been placed on him or what restriction have been designed. There is always going to be a time when it returns to its natural independent state.

The Rebbe then describes how that metaphor clearly describes the state of the Jewish people through the thousands of years of exile. Impositions were placed on them, expectations were put on them and on their lives. They were enticed into the political correct norms of society or threatened to adopt foreign faith systems. Yet at a critical time they will rise up and recapture their intrinsic identity.

That is what happened to Yehuda as well. He speaks in subservience and acts in docility but when the critical moment arrives he becomes “a lion roused”.

That is the lesson for our people as a people and each of us as individuals. It is also a warning to our enemies. It is so tempting to be similar and to live by norms and values espoused by our surroundings. Yet critical moments arrive in our lives that need to be recognized and seized.

The remnant of Jacob Will be among the nations, Among many peoples Like a lion among the beasts of the forest, Like a young lion among flocks of sheep, Which, if he passes through, Tramples down and tears, And there is none to rescue. ( Micah 5:8)

LeRefuat Yehudit bat Golda Yocheved

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