Ani Yehudi!

Rabbi Zvi Teichman

Whether it be Jew, Jude, Zhid, Juif, Yahud or Yid, all these terms of ‘endearment’ stem and evolved from that proud appellation, Yehudi.

The blessing of Yaakov to Yehuda begins, יהודה אתה — Yehuda – you, יודוך אחיך  — your brothers shall acknowledge, ידך —  your hand will be at your enemies’ nape; your father’s sons will prostrate themselves to you. (בראשית מט ח) 

The Targum Yerushalmi reveals that the recognition and admiration for Yehuda would be displayed by Jews forever being identified with Yehuda’s name, thus being known for all of eternity as, יהודים, Yehudim, i.e. Jews. 

The Targum Yehonoson Ben Uziel ascribes this tribute to Yehuda in merit of his having unhesitatingly confessed to his dubious role in the episode of Tamar, where she disguised herself as a harlot hoping to entice Yehuda into a union with her, after the deaths of her first two husbands, the sons of Yehuda. At first, before realizing he was the actual father, upon discovering his daughter-in-law was pregnant Yehuda called for her death. After she silently displayed the articles he himself had given her as collateral for his promised payment for her services, he realizes it was he that actually impregnated her. Yehuda publicly admits his role ignoring the consequential disgrace he would certainly suffer after revealing his folly.

So is that it? We are forever called Yehudim to commemorate this character trait of unabashed honesty and taking responsibility for our actions even in the face of dire consequences? Certainly this is an extraordinary and admirable attribute, but is that the sum total of what it means to be a Jew? 

Chanaya, Mishoel and Azarya, those courageous young men who willingly submitted to be thrown into a fiery furnace rather than bow down to the statue Nevuchadnezzar erected, are referred to as יהודאין, Yehudim. The Talmud asserts that anyone who is כופר בעבודה זרה, repudiates idolatry, is called a Yehudi. Mordechai who refused to bow to Haman, who carried an idolatrous image upon him, is lovingly known as Mordechai HaYehudi. Similarly, Bisya the daughter of Pharaoh, who went down to bathe in the Nile, to effect a conversion to Judaism and a rejection of her father’s  pagan ways, is also called היהודיה, the Yehudiyah.(מגילה יג.)  

It would then seem that we have an additional connotation to the title ‘Jew’ that relates to the denial of idolatry. In what way though does it connect to Yehuda? Nowhere is there any record in the verse of his negation of idol worship. 

Truth be told, the Midrash reports that Yehuda burned the wagons Pharaoh had dispatched to fetch his father’s family because they had idolatrous images engraved on them. (ב”ר צד ג)

The question still begs: is that our claim to fame, that we disbelieve in idolatry? A gentile can also disavow the worship of idols. Not only can he but he must, as it is one of the seven Noachide precepts. Does that then qualify him as a Jew?

Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said in the name of Chilfa ben Agra who said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri: He who rends his garments in his anger, he who breaks his vessels in his anger, and he who scatters his money in his anger – regard him as an idolater, because such are the guile of the evil inclination: Today he says to him, ‘Do this’; tomorrow he tells him, ‘Do that,’ until he bids him, ‘Go and serve idols,’ and he goes and serves them. Rabbi Avin said: What verse intimates this? “There shall be no, אל זרstrange god in you, nor shall you worship any foreign deity” (תהלים פא י), who is the ‘strange god’ that resides in man himself? Say, that is the evil inclination. (שבת קה:) 

The renowned Baal Mussar, Rav Shlomo Wolbe, presents an eye-opening and profound understanding of this passage.  

What the Talmud is teaching us, he suggests, is that the service of strange gods in actual practice starts with the service of the strange god within the person himself. He who is controlled by his evil inclination is estranged from himself, and eventually loses control over his life and self-identity.

There is alienation in every flawed trait. Someone who is jealous of others sees good only in others, but the good within him he denies or belittles it, and he becomes so estranged from himself that his spirit wanes. The lust for money, pleasure and honor remove a person from the world; from one’s true inner world. Estrangement is especially evident when experiencing anger. After a person’s anger subsides, he often describes how during his time of anger “he was simply not himself”, while he was angry, he turned into someone else.

The instincts and reactions that operate within a person are not his true self. His ‘inner’ and ‘true’ world reveals itself through self-awareness, transparency, balance and contemplative choice. The patterns of behavior that are formed by evil inclinations and forceful impulses constitute activity that is estranged from the person’s self.

When a person is estranged from himself, his interpersonal relationships are also estranged and alienated, and he cannot form an honest and healthy connection with another person. 

Rav Wolbe however reveals the ultimate fatal consequence of this unhealthy emotional state: it affects our personal relationship with G-d. A person finally becomes estranged from G-d as well, and goes off to ‘serve foreign gods.’ 

When a person finally ‘finds’ himself, Rav Wolbe assures us, he will discover a magnificent world of ‘friendship’. We are after all one large family with ‘One Father to all of us’. The world was created to express and sense the warmth of that Unity that brings it all together. The moment we discover our true selves is the moment alienation is replaced with closeness and love towards one another and an exquisite awareness of the inviolable bond that exist between us and the Creator. 

The greatness of Yehuda wasn’t necessarily his willingness to risk his skin and reputation by confessing. Rather it was the moment when it became clear to him he had previously miscalculated in handling his responsibility to Tamar, he reacts immediately, not out of obligation, not from sensitivity to her plight, but simply because it was the right thing to do. One who lives totally in touch with himself and his connection to G-d and His Torah reacts instinctively to do what is objectively right.

The great commentators, Rav Yaakov Zvi Mecklenberg and Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, both explain that the word הודאה, that we translate as thanks, praise or admission, is more closely related to the root ידה, to extend oneself  outwardly, similar to a יד, the hand, the instrument of used in literally giving of oneself totally in greeting another. הודאה, is the humble submerging of ulterior motives and instincts, and radiating in outward devotion to the task and mission at hand.

The Malbim teaches that the word הוד, literally splendor, refers to an inner invisible radiance that projects outwardly enveloping all those in its influence.

Yaakov asserts: יהודה אתה, Yehuda -you, perhaps to emphasize his appreciation of that sterling quality of his being in tune with his true self. He then continues: יודוך אחיך, your brothers shall acknowledge you, accenting the theme of Yehuda’s capacity to shine his inner radiance in creating that bond that is natural to people who are not alienated from themselves. Finally:  ידך— your hand will be at your enemies’ nape, doesn’t refer to his physical prowess in overpowering his enemies, but rather his ‘יד’, his powerfully magnetic and inspiring personality can capture the hearts of his enemies, who are compelled to retreat from their evil intentions.

(מלבים דברים לג יג, תהלים קד א)

Yehuda is indeed the first to be כופר בעבודה ‘זרה’, to abnegate the worship of ‘alienation’, that found its ultimate expression in his illustrious spiritual descendants who mastered the ability to respond with that same level of ‘inner radiant devotion’ to the will of G-d, that won them the coveted title, יהודי, Yehudi!

These seeds of greatness were actually planted much earlier.

Leah after mothering the fourth of the tribes, Yehuda, expresses הפעם אודה את ד’ (שם כט לה), “This time let me gratefully praise G-d”. 

The structure of the phrase seems odd. Don’t we offer praise לד’, unto G-d, not simply את ד’, praise G-d?

The Midrash wonders why she first waited to praise G-d until now and explains that she realized she now received more than her fair share, since if the twelve tribes would be distributed evenly among the four wives of Yaakov she would only merit three accordingly.  

Perhaps what Leah discovered was her true self. Until now she struggled with the challenging emotions that erupted from the tensions between her and Yaakov. Often these emotions would stir her to self-doubt and began to plant seeds of alienation. When she realized that each individual is unique in their relationship with G-d, each with varied missions and tests, and there isn’t an equal distribution of responsibility to be measured and weighed one against another, she had a epiphany. She came to the realization if one is happy and secure with oneself, without any need for adulation from others, merely living with the excitement of one’s role in manifesting G-d’s unity in the world, one will live in divine peace and comfort.

Leah wasn’t merely ‘praising’ or ‘thanking’ G-d, she was being אודה את ד’, radiating that exquisite self-confidence that comes from the awareness of the special role we play and the inspired connection to G-d we each have, that literally gave off a הוד, a joyous radiance of godliness, that bore Yehuda who would convey this special quality that is indeed what makes us into true Yehudim.

May we each merit rediscovering our true identity and exulting in a life that expresses in every moment, Ani Yehudi!

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