Why Are We Called Jews? | Parashat Vayigash

We were once called Hebrews during the time of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca. After Jacob got his name changed to Israel and moved to Egypt, the people were called Israelites. This continued for the entire biblical period until Rome ruled over an area it called Judea when we were called Judeans. There were a few instances of the word Yehudim–Jews used in the Book of Esther but not enough to make it a historical reality.

There is a link with Judah, the man, and then the tribe, which became the small biblical country of David and finally the area the Romans called Judea. Today, we assume that the Judeans became what we know as the Jews, but the fact is that the word Jew does not appear in English until 1275. There are centuries when Latin, Old French, Old English are developing in various spellings and pronunciations what will finally become the word Jew.

This week’s Torah portion, Va Yigash defines the importance of Judah as the source of our name—Jew. Judah and his brothers have returned to Egypt because the famine in Canaan was dangerously severe. During their first trip for supplies Simeon was kept as a hostage by Joseph who remains unknown to his brothers. This time, The Pharaoh’s grand Vizier provided additional food but also trapped the men into returning by hiding a royal cup in Benjamin’s saddle bag. The previous week’s portion ends with Judah explaining that all of the brothers not merely Benjamin should be responsible, to which the still unrecognized Joseph responds, only the one who stole the cup will be held, all the rest are free to leave.

The first verse, Genesis 44:18 begins by describing Judah’s act, the verb ‘Nagash” means to both come close and/or conflict. The portion’s first word is ambiguous, we don’t immediately know what Judah is doing! “The ambiguity of the verb demands Midrashic interpretation; it is as if, in the idiom of classic midrashim, the text says to the reader, Darsheni, ‘You must interpret me!’ (Norman J Cohen, “Surviving the Narrow Places,” in Midrash and Medicine: Healing Body and Soul in the Jewish Interpretive Tradition) [I am grateful for Norman Cohen’s powerful essay about how the core narrative of the Joseph tale races the moral development of Judah]

Judah steps forward never looking back to see if he is alone. He approaches the Pharaoh’s representative and talks about the pledge he had made to his elderly father. Judah does not call a meeting, take a poll, ask for opinions, but ‘Va Yigash’, he gets closer to the authority who now claims Benjamin cannot leave. The Judah in Genesis 44:18 is not the same person who in Genesis 37 attempted to save Joseph’s life by suggesting that the brothers sell him into slavery. Nor is he the widower who buried two sons but refused his daughter-in-law the right to her identity. Judah did not step forward to apologize, he engaged to protect Benjamin. Judah is our namesake because he understood that he could not repeat the indifference that had defined him.

The Judah of Genesis 44 has integrated the experiences of his life into a perspective of sensitive wisdom.  Now Judah puts himself before everyone else, I will stay but the boy must return to his father! After one of the most dramatic scenes in biblical narrative, Joseph cries that he is their brother and asks after their elderly father! Judah accepted the unexpected necessity to engage without knowing that his offer to protect Benjamin would be the final balm of truth that healed the still hidden Joseph.

We are named Jews not merely because a tribe became a province and then the collective term for the people from that place. We are called Jews because Judah and his descendants are characterized by the selfless behavior of this one person. Nachson ben Aminadav was the tribal leader of Judah who according to the rabbis dove into the Yam Suf-the Sea of Reeds and it split! Later of course, the youngest of the seven sons of Jesse from Judah, an undersized shepherd, David stepped forward with a stone to kill Goliath. Judah establishes a pattern of engagement always with a complete awareness of the immediate circumstances.

We are named Jews because we understand the sense of urgency that Judah must have felt, there was a terrible disaster that had brought him to Egypt. The disasters of famine, poverty, disease and natural destruction continue to call Jews to step forward and lead. We who live in 2018 can only interpret this biblical text by intentionally assimilating our understanding of the text with the world and lives in which we are interpreting. Like Judah, Progressive Jews weave the values of Tikkun Olam into daily lives, we approach when there is a need in the community.

We are named Jews because after we have responded or explained or complained or instructed—after we have exhausted our minds—we do not back up, rather we get closer to the problem, to the conflict, or to the pain. Like our ancestor Judah, we have learned to take our collective past and use it to reflect on more than our own victimhood. We are named Jews because again and again we challenge ourselves that our past is a resource for healing and growth but never revenge and self-pity. We are Progressive Jews because we want to grow beyond the turmoil of the past and embrace a healthy and safe community where no one is held hostage.

We can all find ourselves in this Torah portion, when one person, was willing to say, I will make the difference, I am a Jew, a descendent of Judah who instinctively understand when it is time to cross the line!


About the Author: 

Rabbi Joseph A. Edelheit, is Emeritus Professor of Religious and Jewish Studies, St. Cloud State University and retired as Senior Rabbi of Temple Israel, Mpls in 2001. He volunteers for the WUPJ in Brasilian communities without a rabbi. His new book, ‘What Am I Missing?” will be published by Fortress Press.