While in the Torah we are referred to as B’nei Yisrael, the children of Israel, for thousands of years we have been known as Yehudim, or Jews, based on the hero of this week’s story in Vayigash, Yehudah, one of Yisrael’s twelve sons. Judah displays certain characteristics that propel him to be not just the determiner of the name of our people, but also the ancestor of King David and the messianic line. Judah’s opening speech in this week’s parasha exemplifies those two major virtues: his ability to make teshuvah, repentance, and his commitment to shalom, peace.
Judah is not a perfect character by any stretch of the imagination. Judah is the one who had suggested that his brothers sell Joseph into slavery, attempting to achieve family harmony but causing his father endless grief. Judah is the one who has not followed through his familial obligation to give his youngest son in marriage to his daughter in law, Tamar (see Genesis chapter 38). Just as in the situation with Tamar, where Judah recognizes his wrong and confesses, “She is more in the right than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah (Gen. 38:26), so too does Judah make amends with his brother Joseph in this week’s parasha.
In one of the most moving speeches and greatest scenes in literature, Judah says to Joseph, “Therefore, please let your servant (i.e., Judah) remain as a slave to my lord (i.e., Joseph) and let the boy (Benjamin) go back with his brothers. Judah, in these two incidents vis a vis Tamar and Benjamin, displays the greatness of his character. He may not be right all the time, but when he transgresses, no matter how greatly, he acknowledges his wrongdoing and puts his reputation and life on the line in order to make amends. Moreover, he learns from each of his errors and continually grows in stature. Thus he becomes the ancestor of the messiah and the one by whom we, the Jews, are known.
Like his father Israel (a.k.a. Jacob), we will struggle with God and others. Like Judah, we too will stumble and occasionally fall. We live up to the best of our namesake when we live life to the highest principles of teshuvah, not waiting for an annual visit to synagogue on Yom Kippur to recognize our errors and make amends. When we daily work for inner peace and strive for harmony in relationship, we as Yehudim, perpetuate the values of our ancestor, Yehudah. Further, we should remember that a core meaning of Judah’s name is gratitude, something we in our place and time here should have each and every day for the privilege to live our lives as we do, and contribute back to society as our ancestral message suggests we do.
An Historical Postscript: Thousands of years ago, our people were united in a kingdom known as the Kingdom of Israel and Judah, which divided after the death of Solomon, King David’s son. The Northern Kingdom of Israel was conquered by Assyria in 721 BCE, its “ten tribes” disappearing into history. The Southern Kingdom of Judah was destroyed by Babylon in 576 BCE, but rebuilt with the support of the Persian Empire 100 years later. The Kingdom of Judah lasted until the year 70 CE, when the Second Temple was destroyed and our ancestors sent into exile by the Roman Empire. As part of their attempt to decimate our people, the Romans renamed Jerusalem “Aolia Capitolina” (which did not stick) and Judah “Palestine” (which did become the new name of the land.) We as a people continued to be known as Yehudim, the people from Judah, and as we know, have established sovereignty for the third time in the land where our ancestors have lived all these years. We discuss the implications of this sovereignty and connection in our Sunday morning class “Sacred Community: Personal tales of the Sacred”, which resumes January 10.