Certain prayers and readings stick with you. I remember being a kid in services, happy to share with anyone who would listen about how bored […]
Certain prayers and readings stick with you. I remember being a kid in services, happy to share with anyone who would listen about how bored I was, hearing a particular reading that stuck in my heart, sometimes you experience meaning when you least expect it. The reading was called I Am A Jew, by Edmund Fleg. It was written over 90 years ago, yet rings very true today. Here are a few of the lines that struck me:
I am a Jew because my faith demands of me no abdication of the mind.
I am a Jew because my faith requires of me all the devotion of my heart.
I am a Jew because in every place where suffering weeps, I weep.
I am a Jew because at every time when despair cries out, I hope.
I am a Jew because the word of the people Israel is the most ancient and the most modern.
I am a Jew because the promise of Israel is the universal promise.
I am a Jew because, for Israel, the world is not completed; we must complete it.
The force of these lines comes from the repetition of “I am a Jew” and the compelling nature of each clause. The piece asks us to explore, and recommit to, what it means to be a Jew, and to reflect on what clause we would add to the phrase. In that exploration, we re-encounter the personality of Judah/Yehuda, from whom the word Jew originates. Judah/Yehuda, is where the appellation Yehudim/Jews derives. We are Judah’s descendants, and as we explore the character whose name came to represent us, we find more lines to add to Edmund Fleg’s exquisite I am a Jew. It is those pieces of Jewish identity that have helped us get through 2020 – such a difficult year – and anticipate 2021.
What is it about Judah that defines our essence? How does it help orient us to this moment?
First, the word means gratitude. When Leah gives birth to her fourth son, she names him Yehuda/Gratitude. She no longer names the child as a means to gain her husband Jacob’s love. She simply thanks God, appreciating the blessing of this baby. It is a remarkable name, especially given her hard life. This year has been so challenging and difficult yet, amidst all of the pain, many of us have discovered that it is gratitude that has sustained us. The essence of being a Jew, a Yehudi, is in cultivating this gratitude.
Let’s apply this using Fleg’s refrain: I am a Jew – because Judaism instills gratitude for the blessings which are present every day– especially during difficult times. Hold on to the gratitude, that sits together with the pain of 2020, for scientists and medical professionals, teachers, postal workers, delivery people, grocery and store clerks, and people picking up groceries and other supplies for friends, family and neighbors. We have been there for each other saying, “Hineni – Here I am.” As we close out 2020, take a few minutes to give thanks. What were you grateful for?
Nature in all its glory,
Gratitude creates perspective and is part of being a descendant of Yehuda.
Every value ripples. As we deepen personal gratitude, our hearts turn towards others who lack the blessings that grace our lives. As we think about 2021, let it be a year where our gratitude continues to translate into awareness, caring and kindness.
There are other aspects of Yehudah that remind us of who we are and who we can become. Judah, more than most biblical characters, changes. At the beginning of the story, his anger at Joseph and the collective fury of his brothers results in the unthinkable, throwing Joseph into a pit, contemplating murder and, when an opportunity arose to profit, selling him into slavery. All of this leads to a terrible lie to their father Jacob, claiming Joseph was devoured by a wild animal. Jacob grieves and grieves. Judah caused his father unfathomable pain.
Yet this deeply flawed, cruel man changes. In this week’s portion, we see he has become a person who cares and will offer up his own life to protect his younger brother. In the words of Rabbi Sacks: “It is a precise reversal of character. Callousness has been replaced with concern. Indifference to his brother’s fate has been transformed into courage on his behalf. He is willing to suffer what he once inflicted on Joseph so that the same fate should not befall Benjamin.” Judah’s words and acts crack open Joseph’s heart.
To be a descendant of Yehuda is to know that each of us has the capacity to change. I am a Jew because Judaism teaches that I have the capacity to grow, forgive and be forgiven and, in the process, bring healing and connection. There is so much healing necessary in the wake of 2020. It won’t happen quickly or easily, but we can never lose faith in the potential for change and healing. We can enter 2021 with hearts of Judah knowing we, and our country, can change and heal.
The corollary to our ability to change is that we need not be defined by our worst moments. We are the descendants of a flawed man who made terrible mistakes, but he made amends, took steps to right his wrongs and changed. I am a Jew because my mistakes do not define me so long as I take full responsibility, seek to change, and grow. In fact, it is those mistakes and our response to them that unlocks the character inside of us. I am a Jew because our faith teaches us to face our pain and failures and, through that vulnerability, gain new insights, awareness and the ability to bring healing.
Judah teaches us to draw close to suffering and address it. The portion begins with the word Vayigash Yehudah/Judah approached. At its most basic level, this is a story of action. Judah is our namesake because he understood that distance is corrosive and indifference is intolerable. He needed to come close in order to effect change. Throughout his speech, he reflects on the pain that losing Benjamin would cause his father Jacob. Looking into the face of suffering, he finds the courage to step forward and act. I am a Jew because Judaism demands that I act in the face of injustice. 2020 has been a year when we have confronted injustice. We have drawn close in ways that for many has been revelatory. And we approach 2021 with new eyes and hearts, which deepen our determination to address inequality and suffering, and create justice where it has been absent. I am a Jew because wherever people suffer, from sickness, poverty, disease, we draw close.
The commentator Sfat Emet understands that profound things happen when we come close. Commenting on the opening line of the parsha he writes:
“And Judah came near unto him.” Va’yigash elav Yehudah
Sfat Emet notes that the word elav/to him is ambiguous and asks who Judah came near. He gives several answers:
“Unto him” means to Joseph. This seems to reflect the context.
But it could also mean that he approached his own essence, that is to say [he came close to] himself. Commenting on the Sfat Emet, our Etz Chayim Torah commentary says: “Judah discovered who he really was, not the compromiser who had said ‘Let us sell him,’ causing his father boundless grief, but the advocate for compassion and family harmony.”
“Unto him” could also mean to God. As he acts with godliness (compassion and courage), he approaches God and finds the ability to be in relationship.
In looking at the scene, Sfat Emet reflects that Judah’s action moves Joseph, not necessarily from anything Judah says in particular, but in Judah’s willingness to approach. This approach by Judah, to Joseph, to his own humanity and to God, impacts Joseph, allowing Joseph to embrace Judah and proclaim “I am Joseph.”
Let us walk into 2021 with proud awareness that we are descendants of Judah: embracing gratitude, our ability to change, the capacity to heal, the imperative to act and the potential to impact others, allowing us to embrace our true essence. May we add our own voices to the unfinished story of our people and this world, so that 2021 is a year of blessing, love and hope.