The Yalkut Shimoni (159) records that after hearing the sharp criticism which Ya'akov Avinu delivered to Reuvain, Shimon, and Levi, Yehudah was terrified and thought Ya'akov would chastise him as well for his relationship with Tamar. Instead, Ya'akov comforted Yehudah by saying, "Yehudah, atah yoducha achecha", your brothers will praise you because through your admission of guilt Tamar and her children were saved. The Midrash continues and credits Yehudah for saving Yosef as well, for it was Yehudah who said to the brothers, "Mah betza ki na'harog es achinu", what gain will there be to us by killing our brother?
R' Yehudah Leib Chasman points out that we find in Chazal a diametrically opposite view of Yehudah based on this same pasuk of "mah betza..." The gemara (Sanhedrin 6b) connects the pasuk in Tehillim (10:3 based on Radak) "...U'botze'a beireiach ni'etz Hashem", "One who blesses the thief has blasphemized G-d", which uses the same root "betza", to the pasuk of "mah betza" and writes that one who blesses Yehudah has insulted G-d. Rashi explains: had Yehudah insisted on returning Yosef home instead of selling him the brothers would have followed his lead. Since instead Yehudah suggested that Yosef be sold he is culpable for the events which followed.
So which is it? Is Yehudah to be praised for saying "mah betza" and saving Yosef from death, or is Yehudah to be criticized and condemned for not doing more to bring Yosef home?
R' Leib Chasam answers that we need not view these two opinions as contradictory. Given that Yosef faced the danger of being killed, Yehudah certainly deserves credit for coming to Yosef's defense. However, measured against the ideal of what Yehudah could have accomplished, he is found wanting.
Chazal (Chagiga 9) famously interpret the difference between "oveid Elokim" and "asher lo avado" as the difference between one who learns a topic 100 times and one who learns the same topic 101 times. One who reviews a topic 100 times is obviously worthy of tremendous praise. Nonetheless, relative to what the same person might have accomplished, there is something lacking.
I would like to suggest another possible way to reconcile these Midrashim. We each ultimately will be called to upon to provide an accounting, a din v'cheshbon, for our actions. The Brisker Rav (which we discussed here) explains that there is a difference between "din" and "cheshbon". Din is an accounting of whether our actions were appropriate to the situation; cheshbon is an accounting of our role in creating the situation itself. For example, a person who misses shacharis may be obligated to make up that tefilah through a tefilas tashlumin at mincha time. Given the situation, davening that teflias tashlumin is the halachically appropriate course of action -- it satisfies an accounting of din. What is cheshbon? Cheshbon asks the question of why the person missed shacharis in the first place -- Could he have set an alarm clock? Did he stay up to late? What created the situation that din must deal with?
Given the circumstance of the brothers plotting to kill Yosef, Yehudah's best option was the suggestion to spare his life and instead sell him and for that he deserves praise. But that is not a complete accounting, for it looks only at din and not at cheshbon. How is it possible that the situation of Yosef's life being judged came to be? What led to these circumstances arising? Had Yehudah intervened and taken a stronger hand in quelling the animosity toward Yosef would the deliberations of killing vs. selling have been needed? Perhaps it is this larger picture of cheshbon which Chazal wish to convey in their criticism of Yehudah.
On a deeper level, I think perhaps we can reconcile these two views in light of a torah of the Ishbitza (I can't do justice to this in a few sentences-- see it in P' vaYeishev in the Mei haShiloach, and see my article "What's Bred in the Bone" in the kallahmagazine archives). In a nutshell the Ishbitza tells us that there is a truth based on din, which is based on what we see before us, but there is also an "omek ha'emes", a truth which transcends the facts. We are all familiar with this -- we have all heard of cases where it is obvious to all that Ploni is guilty of some crime but then he hires a "dream team" of lawyers who know what to say in court and the person is out free the next day, and sometime someone who is innocent is caught is a Kafka-esque horror of unjust prosecution. The din may say one thing, but the "omek ha'emes" is otherwise. How do we reconcile these two forces? The answer is that we can't -- there is a constant tug of war inside each of us, and that tug of war is the root of the difference between the leadership of Yosef and Yehudah.
At the end of Parshas VaYigash when the cup is found in Binyamin's bag Yehudah seems to accept guilt and resign himself to the fate of slavery without excuses. "Mah nomar l'adoni, mah n'daber, mah nitztadak..." (44:16) -- there is nothing that can be said, no justification, no excuses -- "hi'nenu avadim l'adoni", we will become slaves. Yet, the very next parsha begins "VaYigash eilav Yehudah", Yehudah came to Yosef and pleaded his case to allow for the brothers release! What changed?
The Sefas Emes quotes a teaching of the AR"I that sheds light on Yehudah's change of heart. Yehudah begins his soliloquay, "Bi adoni..." The word adoni is the same spelling as G-d's name. The ARI taught that Yehudah remembered that "bi", within himself and within each Jew, is the spark of Hashem (see below).
In other words, Yehudah at the end of P' MiKeitz was speaking on the level of din and acknowledging guilt. However, looking at the "omek ha'emes", looking at the world through the perspective of "bi Adoni", the truth of the ratzon Hashem could not allow the seperation of Ya'akov from the brothers and their enslavement.
The Ishbitza on our parsha writes that Ya'akov criticized each of the first three sons he addressed, but when he got to Yehudah he was guided by Hashem to show mercy. Yehudah's name itself is the same as the letters of the Yud-Key-Vav-Key with the addition of the letter daled. Yehudah's was an instrument of Hashem's plan expressing itself in this world while he personally was not even a metziyus -- he was a daled, a dal, a poor nothing, subsumed in the larger picture of ratzon Hashem. In other words, Yehudah only deserves to be criticized if we look externally at "his" choices and actions. But if we look at the "omek ha'emes", if we midah k'neged midah follow the trait which Yehudah himself embodied, "his" choices are really nothing other than a means of Hashem carrying out his plan in this world and Yehudah deserves the hoda'ah which his name also expresses.
There is no real contradiction between Midrashim. If we judge Yehudah based on the actions which we might perceive as onlookers, Yehudah is wanting. But justice and truth are not synonomous. The "omek ha'emes" is that Yehudah deserves the praise of his brothers.