Why are we called “Jews”? Because we are the remnants of the 12 tribes – residing in the section of Israel called Judea. And why Judea? After the fourth son of Jacob and Leah: Judah. Hence: “Jew.”
But of all the sons, why was peoplehood eventually named after Judah? Here lies not only a major biblical lesson, but one highly appropriate to current events.
This shabbat, we read the last parsha (section) of the bible’s Book of Genesis: Va’Yekhi. A good time for summarizing easily the most narratively interesting of the Torah’s “Five Books of Moses” – replete with fascinating characters. Several are our forefathers and foremothers; others, ancillary people with a huge influence on the stories’ development.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Hebrew Bible – clearly separating it from other religions’ founding characters – is the fact that every single last one of them was flawed in some way. Even the greatest of all, Moses, didn’t always act correctly (he forgot to circumcise his sons; he hit the rock instead of talking to it as God demanded). One needn’t expand on the others’ flaws: Abraham who lied to Pharaoh about Sarah being his “sister”; Sarah who showed no compunction about throwing Hagar and Ishmael out of her home, presumably to die in the wilderness; Jacob manipulating his father into giving him the birthright blessing; the list goes on and on…
However, with all these character flaws and examples of bad behavior, one would expect that at least some would eventually show remorse and take responsibility for what they did (or should have done). Yet, in the entire Five Books of Moses there is only person who actually and actively took responsibility for what he did: Judah! And not once but twice!!
First, when he came forward to save Tamar’s life despite her alleged “quasi-adultery” (not waiting “forever” for her intended husband, Judah’s third son, to marry her, after her first two husbands – Judah’s first two children – died sinning). Judah admitted to his community that he was the one who impregnated Tamar (not knowing at the time that she was the prostitute he lay with). Judah could easily have let Tamar be executed, thus saving his reputation and getting rid of his remaining son’s future wife “problem.” But Judah did the morally right thing: he stood up and took full responsibility for the mess he caused.
The second time: when Joseph as Egyptian viceroy tricked the brothers into thinking that Benjamin stole from the viceroy and therefore Benjamin would have to be locked up in Egypt. At that point, Judah stepped forward: “We have nothing to justify this; God has uncovered our sin” (Genesis 44:16). By using the plural, Judah clearly was not referring to Benjamin’s theft here, but rather to the brothers’ much earlier collective sale of Joseph into slavery. And these were no mere empty words, for near the end of the story he pleaded with Joseph to lock up himself (Judah) instead of Benjamin (Genesis 44:33). And we should recall: Judah was not the firstborn, traditionally the one to lead the brothers, but “only” the fourth son.
Yet, it is Judah who became the de facto father of the Jewish People, precisely for this reason. Again, the Bible makes it clear that as human beings we are all flawed and will commit moral or legal transgressions. The question then becomes: are we willing to own up to that? If so (assuming the sin is not completely egregious like intentional murder), then not only can it be forgiven but the courage to do so indicates that the individual is deserving of leadership or other high status. Conversely, even a firstborn (not to mention anyone else down the line) who does not take any responsibility for their crime or offense are not worthy to lead a family, and certainly not a nation.
Which brings us to Israel’s “leadership” situation post-Oct. 7. Interestingly, the people who immediately took responsibility for not preparing the country against such a terrible attack – IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant – not only continue to have the support of Israelis to continue in their job (for now), but polls show them to be among the most popular leaders in Israel today! Who’s suffering catastrophically in the polls? Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, who has refused on several occasions (even when queried about that) to take any personal responsibility for the tragedy.
Israelis, and even Netanyahu, have expressed great thanks to U.S. President Joe Biden for his unstinting support: moral, political, and military. However, there’s another U.S. president that Bibi should be thinking about: Harry Truman, who famously opined about leadership – and his own responsibility for whatever happens in the country: “THE BUCK STOPS HERE.” Harry wasn’t Jewish – but he knew his bible. It’s time that Israel’s PM also publicly recognized in the public sphere what Jews, and their forebear Judah, have stood for.