Yonatan Cohen

There’s no shortcut to redemption

The trials of the Jewish nation are not fair: Some get more than their fair share, and some must fight for a crumb, but that is how we build
Family and friends attend the funeral of Rose Elisheva Lubin at the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem on November 9, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Family and friends attend the funeral of Rose Elisheva Lubin at the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem on November 9, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Two paradigmatic figures loom over the closing chapters of the book of Genesis: Judah and Joseph. Each one assumes leadership within their respective family branches. Despite being the fourth-born, Judah eventually becomes the head of Leah’s descendants. As for Joseph, Rachel’s eldest son, he assumes the leadership of her lineage.

Judah and Joseph are also the founding fathers of two intertwined redemptive streams: Mashiach ben Yosef, a messianic movement tracing its origins to Joseph, and Mashiach ben David, a messianic movement flowing from the house of Judah.

The contrast between these two redemptive approaches is already hinted in the explanation given in the Torah for each founding father’s name.

The Torah describes how Leah bore a child for the fourth time: “And she conceived again and bore a son, and she said, ‘This time, I will thank the Lord!’ Therefore, she named him Judah, and [then] she stopped bearing” (Genesis 29:35).

Based on Midrash Rabbah, Rashi seeks to elucidate why, in contrast to her previous childbirth experiences, Leah is now prepared to convey her gratitude to God by using the phrase “this time.” Rashi writes: “Since I have taken more than my share. Consequently, I must offer up thanks” (Rashi on Genesis 29:35).

Here’s some useful context for this midrash. Leah, possessing prophetic insight, foresaw that Jacob was fated to have 12 sons, each born to one of four distinct mothers. In a world bound by divine rules of equity, Leah should have had no more than three sons, constituting a quarter of the total. Consequently, with the arrival of Judah, Leah received more than her fair share—a fourth child instead of three in total.

It is critical to note that even with the birth of this fourth son, Leah likely remained feeling like an unloved wife. Judah’s birth does not seem to signal any shift in the way in which Jacob relates to her, as the woman he did not choose to marry. Her status in the family dynamic remains unchanged.

And yet, Judah’s birth allows Leah to shift perspective and express gratitude for what is and to let go of what should have been. With this son’s birth, Leah chooses gratitude over despair.

Joseph’s naming represents a movement in the opposite direction.

After years of infertility, filled with pain and grief, Rachel finally gives birth to a son: “And she conceived and bore a son, and she said, ‘God has taken away my reproach’” (Genesis 30:23). Some might have expected Rachel to express utmost gratitude for this miraculous birth, and yet, in naming her son Joseph, Rachel sets her eyes on having an additional child: “So she named him Joseph, saying, ‘May the Lord grant me yet another son!’” (Genesis 30:24). “Yosef” as in “le’hosif” – to have more, to ask for more.

Sure, Rachel is loved by her husband Jacob. And now, she also has a child born of that love.  And yet, after years of struggle, that were also filled with great love, Rachel is not yet ready for gratitude. Rachel is not prepared to settle. One child is but a conciliation prize to her. Rachel wants more.

I think of these two households and the redemptive promises they hold. Leah proclaims: Redemption begins with an utmost attitude of gratitude. And Rachel responds firmly: Redemption begins with uncompromising stance of ambition and determination.  Leah stands for appreciation while Rachel is unrelenting in her aspirations.

Early last week, David Dishon, one of the founding scholars of the Hartman Institute and the Hartman High School for boys in Jerusalem, lost his grandson, Staff Sg. Eytan Dishon, in Gaza, at the age of 21.

David made aliyah 50 years ago, during the Yom Kippur War. At his grandson’s funeral, David spoke of his gratitude for Israel even as he eulogized his beloved grandson, Eytan: “I don’t regret it [my aliyah 50 years ago]. I don’t regret it for a single minute. And I still don’t regret it. I know there is a heavy price to pay to be a free people in our land. Until now, I have enjoyed the freedom and the depth of a meaningful life, a Jewish life, in the land of Israel, and others have paid the price. Now it is our turn. I don’t feel angry. I don’t feel disappointed. I just feel deep pride in Eytan and his family. […] Is it worth all the pain?  Different people will give different answers. My answer, at this moment, is absolutely. It is absolutely worth it.”

In David Dishon’s eulogy for his grandson I hear surprising echoes of Leah. In the midst of grief and an ongoing war, David is choosing gratitude. After 50 years of living as a free Jew in the land of Israel, David recognizes that he had benefitted with more than his fair share.

It is a message that not all of us could accept, as David himself concedes when he says, “Different people will give different answers.” I’m not sure my own parents, who lost their beloved firstborn grandson, Yoav Malayev, a 19-year-old officer, in the opening hours of this war, would accept this message themselves. And still, I do know, that during these past seven weeks, we, and other grieving families, have had moments of profound gratitude as well. In our case, gratitude that we had Yoav’s body. Gratitude that we know the story of his heroic fall in battle. Gratitude that we were able to bury him two days after the start of the war.

Despite the apparent difficulty of David’s message, I recognize from my own experience, that it contains within it seeds of redemption and a firm rejection of despair.

Over the past few days, we have witnessed the release of some hostages from Hamas’ cruel captivity. There were voices in Israel’s government that opposed the deal, seeing it as an unholy compromise. I personally disagree with those voices, even as I recognize that previous agreements with Hamas for the release of hostages have not fared well in the annals of history. In the world of realpolitik, and given my own moral and religious commitments, I stand in opposition to those voices.

And yet, even in those voices, I could hear the unrelenting stance of Rachel, our mother, for whom one child wasn’t enough. After all, it is Rachel who is described in the Haftorah read over Rosh Hashanah as the matriarch who will refuse any consolation for all time until all of Israel’s children return home.

Sadly, we can all hear Rachel crying now. On numerous occasions over the past seven weeks, we have all heard the indignant voice of Rachel, the rage of a mother who will ask for more and more, and rightfully so, in the voice of Rachel Goldberg, demanding for her son, Hersh, and for every hostage, to return home.

In a world desperate for salvation, the temptations for half-baked redemptions abound.  Rachel’s refusal to be consoled or feel satisfied sends a strong message as well.  Uncompromised aspirations are also the seeds of redemption.

Late last week, ahead of the release of hostages, R. Eliezer Melamed was asked whether a blessing should be recited in celebration of the freeing of 13 Israelis. R. Melamed replied as follows: “Evidently, there is room not to say anything, because everything is complex and nothing is really clear. And yet, there is also room to recite ‘hatov vehametiv’ (the blessing for good news) upon the release of the Israeli hostages, and at the same time, to also recite ‘baruch dayan haemet’ (the blessing for bad tidings) upon the release of terrorists from Israeli prisons.”

More than seven weeks into this war, everything is complex and nothing is really clear.  Time and time again, we are held in tension between Rachel and Leah, between the God who does good – hatov vehametiv – and the God who judges sternly – dayan haemet. Our experiences oscillate between moments of profound appreciation and instances of unwavering, desperate aspirations. There are no shortcuts or quick fixes. Our path to redemption must go through these two households: Mashiach ben Yosef and Mashiach ben David.  As we make our way, I pray that a true sense of appreciation and a clear understanding of our aspirations will help us lay firmer foundations for our ultimate redemption.

About the Author
Yonatan Cohen serves as the rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel, a thriving Orthodox community in Berkeley, CA. He is a senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and North America as well as a lecturer for the Wexner Foundation.
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