I read that there is a spiritual connection between the name of the loved one and her soul. One of my granddaughters carries the name Yehudit. She is named for a dear friend of her father; a woman of beauty, laughter, inner strength, bravery and love, who died too young and without children. But she continues to live through my granddaughter.
We place great importance in Judaism on continuity; the past brought into the present as a gift to the future. That is the power of names. The name with which we bless a child speaks to our expectations, our hopes and aspirations; that the attributes of those for whom they are named will continue to shine and carry forward our obligations to repair the world.
My granddaughter is doubly blessed for she is also named for my father, her great grandfather Avraham.
As Chanukah fast approaches and we prepare for the festivities, it is a good time to remember the story of Yehudit/Judith, a young widow blessed with extraordinary charm, grace and beauty. The story of Judith, like the story of David, has affected the lives of countless others from different faiths throughout time. They are the archetypal symbols of Jewish faith and courage overcoming might; moral courage subduing evil.
There are different versions of the story of Yehudit. In the most well-known she is associated with the story of Chanukah and the Maccabees’ revolt against Syrian oppression. The Deutero-canonical Book of Judith promised that her praise would “never depart from the heart of those who remember the power of God,” and that her actions would “go down through all generations of our descendants.”
Yehudit was the daughter of Yochanan, the high priest, father of the Hasmonean family. His people were under siege by Holofernes, a mighty Syrian-Greek general.
The people were bereft. There was talk of surrender of Judea. But Yehudit, “the Jewess” spoke, invoking the name of another heroine.
It has happened before that God sent His salvation through a woman. Yael, the wife of Heber, was her name, as you well know. It was into her hands that God delivered the cruel Sisera.
Yehudit, like Yael before her was a saviour of our people: not with the power of soldiers and great might, but with a beguiling tongue, great beauty, wisdom and great faith in God to whom they prayed not for a miracle, but strength to act morally and ethically to protect the weak from evil.
Simply told, Yehudit tricked the cruel and merciless Holofernes into drunkenness and as he lay on his bed, grasped the hair of his head and with his own sword decapitated him. She handed the head of Holofernes to her faithful maid, who put it into her food pouch. They carried the bloodstained head back to Bethulia where it was hanged on the battlements for all to see. That sight spread fear amongst the Greeks who fled. Her great act of courage shattered the enemies who had risen against Judea and changed the course of history.
The story of Yehudit is so powerful it transcends the history of the Jewish people. Her story has brought comfort to those facing oppression and imminent destruction from a more powerful force.
In the 15th century when the Florentines were under attack, two great artists retold the story of Yehudit “so lovely of face and so wise of speech” through paint and sculpture. For the Florentines, Yehudit represented moral courage over evil intent. She embodies the power of the people to defeat the enemy.
In 1460 Renaissance Italian sculptor Donatello created “Judith Beheading Holofernes” in bronze. The statue was commissioned by Cosimo de Medici and stood in his palace together with Donatello’s David, not to be confused with the David by Michelangelo. For the Florentines, Judith stood for the rule of the Medici’s who saw themselves as defenders of the liberty of Florence. In the sculpture, Judith stands tall, sword held high in one hand, Holofernes held by his hair in the other. The statue was originally gilded, reflecting light in the sun.
A light unto the nations?
Renowned Italian artist, Caravaggio, painted “Judith Beheading Holofernes” in 1598-99. Known for his extraordinary use of light and dark, the technique called chiaroscuro-the strong contrast between light and dark- he used this technique well in his painting.
Light and dark: good and evil.
Caravaggio captures Judith’s strength and power by portraying the moment she is grasping Holofernes by his hair, the sword poised for the downward coup de grace. Calm yet intense. Determined and repulsed.
“Approaching to his bed, she took hold of the hair of his head, and said, “Strengthen me, O Lord God of Israel, this day! And she smote twice upon his neck with all her might, and she took away his head from him.” (Judith, 13:7-8).
Yehudit/Judith, a woman of valour, has been immortalized in time by some of the greatest artists because of her physical and moral courage. She remains today a light unto all the nations, one of the many lights we must remember on Chanukah –the miracle of light.
It is my hope that all of our children will have within them a spark of the heroine of our people ready to ignite in the face of evil.
May the lights of the menorah diffuse the darkness of this time and keep the miracle of Eretz Yisrael eternal.