I heard this story years ago while watching an episode of The West Wing. "This guy's walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can't get out. A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, 'Hey you. Can you help me out?' The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, 'Father, I'm down in this hole can you help me out?' The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by, 'Hey, Joe, it's me can you help me out?' And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, 'Are you stupid? Now we're both down here.' The friend says, 'Yeah, but I've been down here before and I know the way out.'"
In this week’s Parsha, Parshat Vayehi, we conclude the reading of the Book of Genesis/בראשית. Before Jacob our Father, peace be upon him/יעקב אבינו, עליו השלום dies, he blesses his children. Judah/יהודה is given the following blessing (Gen. 49:8-9), “Judah, your brothers shall praise you; your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons shall bow down before you. Judah is a lion’s whelp; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He crouches down, he stretches out like a lion, like the king of animals—who dares rouse him up?/יְהוּדָה, אַתָּה יוֹדוּךָ אַחֶיךָ--יָדְךָ בְּעֹרֶף אֹיְבֶיךָ; יִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְךָ בְּנֵי אָבִיךָ. גּוּר אַרְיֵה יְהוּדָה, מִטֶּרֶף בְּנִי עָלִיתָ; כָּרַע רָבַץ כְּאַרְיֵה וּכְלָבִיא מִי יְקִימֶנּוּ.”
There is a verse in Psalms (97:11) that we sing on Friday night/ערב שבת in Kabbalat Shabbat, “Light dawns for the righteous, and joy for the upright in heart/אוֹר זָרֻעַ לַצַּדִּיק; וּלְיִשְׁרֵי-לֵב שִׂמְחָה.” In Hasidic thought, Joseph/יוסף is considered the righteous one/tzaddik/צדיק. The Sfas Emes comes to teach us that Judah is the upright. And Rashi comments on this verse (BT Ta’anit 15a) that the upright are preferable to the righteous. Why is this? The Sfas Emes explains that it is Judah’s role to use his strength to raise up those who have fallen, and to straighten out their paths. Judah has been in the hole and made his way out . He has been in difficult situations, situations that he put himself in. And he ultimately got himself out.
Jacob knows as this book of our history comes to a close, that we are going to be in Egypt for some time. And this time in Egypt is going to be dark and painful. He not only blesses Judah, but he charges him with the task of leading our people. As the Rabbis teach in a Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 9:2), “The one who lights candles in dark alleys merits to see the salvation of God.”
Every one of us can get down in the hole with our fellows and help them out. We do not necessarily need to be a tzaddik. But we do need to be a mentsch. And when a mentsch sees someone in the hole, they don’t assume somebody else will come, or that advice will help. A mentsch, a disciple of the ways of Judah, crouches low, so that when we rise, we rise together.
 Rashi 49:9 SV My son, you have gone up, Judah redeems himself by trying to save Joseph’s life when his brothers plotted to kill him, and again he redeems himself by validating Tamar and claiming that she is more righteous than him.
Rabbi Ezra Balser has been the rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom since July 1, 2016. He received his “smicha” (ordination) in June 2017 from Hebrew College while also earning a Master’s Degree in Jewish Studies. He has also received the iCenter's Certification in Israel Education.