If you were to ask most characters in the Torah that we think of as Jews whether they were Jews, they would have no idea what you were talking about. They may have thought of themselves as Hebrews or Israelites, but certainly not Jews. That word does not appear until toward the end of the Hebrew Bible when Mordechai is called a Jew. That story occurs at least a fifteen hundred years after Abraham.
Why, then, are we are called Jews? The simple answer is that at the end of our last period of independence before the rise of the modern State of Israel, the part of the promised land we lived in was called Judea, which was named after Judah, one of Jacob’s children. For the rest of our history we have retained the name Jew, a descendant of Judah.
The biblical Judah, though familiar, is not very well known among Jews. He is not as famous as Moses or David. He is not even the most famous Judah. That would be Judah Maccabbee.
Why aren’t we the Mosesites or Davidites?
Judah does something very powerful and courageous. His father had sent him and his brothers to get food, because there was a famine in Canaan. Pharoah wants something in return. He wants Judah’s youngest brother as a hostage.
Judah begs the vice-chancellor of Egypt, the second to Pharaoh, for the life Benjamin. He does so not just to spare Benjamin, but his father Jacob, too. Under normal circumstances this would be admirable, but expected. These were not normal circumstances.
Judah probably has no great love for Benjamin. Benjamin is the new favorite of Jacob once Joseph disappeared. Judah also knows his father does not love him, or at least care much about him. Every family has its issues, but this family in particular had problems that would never resolve.
There is no advantage to Judah in pleading for his brother’s life. In fact there was a disadvantage. He was putting his own life on the line, even though he knew his father would not appreciate it. Judah could have saved himself and begun a new life in Egypt. Nonetheless he spoke up.
We know this story has a happy ending and that Joseph reveals as the person Judah was talking to. Judah had no reason to think that would happen.
Judah does the right thing simply because it was the right thing, even though he had nothing to gain and much to lose, even though he did these things on behalf of those he did not love and who did not love him.
He put aside his anger and frustrations and fears. This is genuine compassion. It is the absolute core of what it means to be Jewish.
I was thinking about this in regard to the morning blessings that we say every single day. They describe God’s attributes, such as freeing the bound, giving sight to the blind, returning dignity to those bowed over, guiding our steps, etc. These are all things we are supposed to emulate.
I finally noticed what isn’t there. Seeking vengeance against our enemies. Nurturing a grudge, no matter how righteous we are. Rebuking people we think have faults.
The list of kindnesses we are supposed to do each day are for both those we like and those we don’t.
Obviously we should defend ourselves if we are in danger, and showing kindness does not mean that we condone every behavior or put up with it when it is directed to us.
Judaism understands that hatred and jealousy only create more hatred and jealousy, and that anger, no matter how righteous, only creates more anger.
Judah said that when we make our decisions based on compassion and not ego, we can accomplish wonderful things that ultimately make our lives better.
Judah understood that Benjamin was not going to thank him for saving him. He knew his father would not give him any credit, but would just return to complaining about everything in the rest of his life that did not go well. He even knew that Joseph would never admit to being a brat who kind of deserved to get tossed in a pit.
Judah’s willingness to do the right things for others despite the difficulties it created for himself had a positive impact on his children. They become the tribe that survives. Their strength came from their compassion.
We are their descendants. We are still here as a people not just because of our allegiance to ritual, but because the core of our philosophy, our deepest understanding of what God wants, is the courage to do what is right for the whole world, not just ourselves. This is a critical idea that will help carry us into the future.
Calling ourselves Jews does not just mean that we belong to an ethnic or religious group, but that it is a mission statement for bringing sanity and calm into a world that really needs it.