Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Yehuda: A model of Teshuva

We left Yehuda last week in Parashat Miketz swearing to his father that he would return with Binyamin in tow. He swears to Yaakov that if he does not return with Binyamin, that he would “bear the blame forever” (43:8).

Taking a step back, it is quite remarkable to see the arc of Yehuda’s journey from the beginning of our “Joseph narrative” in Parashat Vayeshev, beginning in Chapter 37. There, we see a character who influences his brothers to sell Joseph for the highest price possible. “Why kill him, when we can benefit,” he questions openly and coercively. He is not the oldest in the family, but his brothers respect him — and he knows it. So he is going to use that power to get what he wants.

Then in Chapter 38, his daughter-in-law tricks him, ensuring that her dead husband’s progeny will come from his lineage, an ultimate act of thinking outside of herself, for the sake of God (see my d’var Torah from Vayeshev for more details on this). When Yehuda learns that the child Tamar is bearing is his, he can only proclaim, “Tzadka mimeni She is more righteous than I!” Yehuda’s outpouring of emotion steadily moves from pure self-righteous ego-centrism, to a more holistic view of his family and the world at large.

It is here that we encounter Yehuda in this week’s parasha. The introductory words of the parasha describe in both words and deeds the noted change of demeanor in the heir to the Messiah. “Vayigash elav Yehuda Then Yehuda approached him.”

Yehuda approaches Yosef with an impassioned plea to release Binyamin. But look closely at his arguments:

1.     Do you have a father or a brother?
2.     The child cannot leave is father, for if he does, his father will surely die
3.     We told our father your request and told him that if we do not come with the youngest child, we will not be able to see you again
4.     My father said that one of my sons born to my beloved is surely torn in pieces, and if you take my other son of this wife, I will surely die
5.     I (Yehuda) have sworn to my father that I will return with him, saying that I shall bear the blame forever if I don’t hold my word
6.     I pray to you, take me instead of the youngest, for how can I look my father in the face and tell him that his youngest son is not here

None of this is rational. No case studies on where Binyamin was in reference to when the goblet was stolen. No use of witnesses.

Yehuda seeks to evoke empathy from the man in front of him, the second most powerful person in the world. Moreover, he is arguing for the life of a known criminal. Yehuda has no doubt that Binyamin took the goblet — he was caught red-handed. All the evidence in the world was couched against him.

But despite this, Yehuda pleas on behalf of his brother.

The Biblical scholar Yochanan Muffs describes this mode of standing up for those that are guilty in his influential essay “Who will stand in the breach” (1992, found in Love and Joy). It features a model of the prophet whose key role is not a scolder or occasional comforter, but rather is the defender of the people. As Professor Ed Greenstein notes, the prophet is often “His majesty’s loyal opposition.” In essence, he states, “You’ll have to take me down, too!”

Such is certainly the case of Moshe’s defense of the people after the golden calf episode, when Moses pleads with God against destroying the people that he just redeemed from Egypt. There is no doubt that the people are guilty there. They just built a giant false-God out of gold.

So too is it with Binyamin in our narrative. Yehuda doesn’t try to appease the man in front of him. That won’t work. His brother, as far as everyone in the narrative knows, is guilty.

Rather he employs pathos, the energy and feeling of the prophet to sway the most powerful man he has ever encountered.

And after all of this energy, Yosef breaks down: V’lo yachol Yosef l’hitapek Joseph could not bear it any longer (45:1). He sends out everyone from the room and lets out tears.

Yehuda has the chance to put his word to his father to the ultimate test. “Take me and not my brother,” he insists. And because he puts himself on the line, imploring the man who will reveal himself later as his brother, ultimately Yosef reveals his true self to his brothers. Yehuda’s bearing of himself, in turn, provides a model for how Yosef can do so.

Over the course of the “Joseph narrative,” Yehuda goes from the manipulator to the manipulated. He goes from the person who thought entirely about his own material interests, of how he could use his power to bring goods to him, to an act of ultimate sacrifice, giving himself up for a brother that he knows is guilty of a crime.

We, the Jewish people, live the life of Judah every time we recognize ourselves as a people, as Yehudim. As Yehudim, we internalize the lessons of Yehuda over the course of this narrative, a character who stands in the breach for the other, who upholds family kinship as the essential value in his life.

Yehuda represents the model of teshuva — returning to a primordial self. He finds himself in the same situation a second time, and acts a completely different way. Now, in Parashat Vayigash, he thinks of how he can affect change for others.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

S'rugim comes to Reno

Judah's Narrative Journey throughout the Joseph Story

For the next four weeks we will read about Joseph. His ego, his clothes, his dreams, his family relationships, his engagement with power. In many ways, the Torah gives us a fuller description of the full character of Joseph than any other figure in the Torah, with the exception of Moses.

But we also see a narrative arc for the character Judah, too. In this week’s parasha, Vayeshev, Judah leaps onto the scene while Joseph remains in the depths of a pit. He tells his brothers “What profit is it to us if we kill our brother, covering his blood. Come let us sell him to the band of Ishmaelites. Then our bloodguilt will not be upon him, for he is our brother.” The verse ends “And his brothers listened” (Genesis 37:26).

Those final words are telling. Judah is not the oldest. That title belongs to Reuven. And a few verses earlier, Reuven had pleaded with the group not to kill Joseph, but rather to throw him in the pit, with the idea that Reuven would go save him later (verse 21). But while not the oldest in years, the brothers listen to Judah, they respect him.

Make no mistake, Judah most certainly was not acting altruistically in selling Joseph to the Ishmaelites. It was not to save Joseph’s life. If anything, it seems that Judah could have changed the tide of the brothers thinking in almost any case, and that he was directing it. The Torah Temimah (Rabbi Baruch Epstein, 19th century Lithuania) states the following about this leader of the brothers:

This verse about a compromiser was stated only in reference to Judah, as it is stated, "Judah said to his brothers, 'What gain will there be if we kill our brother?'" And anyone who praises Judah for this is considered a blasphemer. And concerning such a person, it is stated: "One who praises a compromiser [Judah] has blasphemed Hashem."

We hear about Judah again in chapter 38, the infamous meeting between Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar. We rarely talk about this chapter. It represents a law of times gone by, that of the levirate marriage, of values that don’t resonate with almost all of our post-modern sensibilities. And perhaps it’s a bit icky, as well.

Stemming explicitly from Deuteronomy 25:5-6, should a man die without having a descendent, his wife will marry his brother, in order to continue the lineage. Such was the case of Tamar’s husband, Er, who died. His brother Onan, in turn refused this process of levirate marriage, choosing to spill his seed on the ground instead of conceive a child with Tamar.

Fast-forwarding in the narrative, upon confronting Tamar on the road, Judah thought that he was approaching a harlot, for she hid her face. But Tamar knew exactly who Judah was. She took his cord and his staff as a sign (the modern day driver’s license or passport) so that he would return with payment for the sexual services. She encountered Judah and fooled him to sleep with her, moreover, because she was obeying this law of levirate marriage, ensuring that her husband’s progeny continue on to the next generation — Judah had not told his other son Shelah to consummate the levirate obligations, and thus Tamar took it upon herself to continue the line, in accord with God’s law.

Judah was incensed when he heard that Tamar was pregnant, that she had sold herself to harlotry. Of course, he didn’t realize during this episode that the children were his. But Tamar came forth with Judah’s identifying markers, proof that the children were indeed his.

This twist in narrative in the course of two chapters, of Judah manipulating his brothers to sell Joseph for profit, and then being the manipulated by his daughter-in-law, is certainly striking. As is Judah’s response to Tamar when he discovers the reality of the situation. He exclaims, seemingly in an outburst:  “She is more righteous than I! For I did not give her to son Shelah!” Judah realizes his misjudgment, and begins the process of teshuva that will continue on into future parshiot.

The twins she bore might have familiar names: Peretz and Zevach. Each week during L’cha dodi  of Kabbalat Shabbat we read: Al yad ish, ben parzi Next to a man, the son of the Peretz-ite. The line of the medieval poem refers to the Messiah, a descendent of Peretz. Judah is the ancestor of David. The line of the Messiah ultimately goes back to this tumultuous scene in Chapter 38 of Genesis.

I’ll again pick up with this narrative of Judah in two weeks with Parashat Vayigash. For now, read this narrative over, embracing the complexity of the character, of the narrative of arc of manipulation.

And perhaps most importantly, in two chapters where God does not communicate with any of the characters, there is a figure behind the screen seemingly pulling the strings of puppets along the way.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Jewish Geography 2.0

I recently attempted to publish my greatest contribution to society on Wikipedia. They didn't find my post worthy, though.

They told me if I wanted to play around, I should "go play in a sandbox."

Rough, guys.

Because Wikipedia is really the pinnacle of academic integrity.

But even if it were... Jewish Geography has ventured across Shabbat tables around the United States, with many claiming that they themselves invented the phenomenon.

Which is quite a compliment, really. It's traveled far.

But let's be serious. We know where the game originated and has spread forth, in turn.

So here's the ice breaker of the decade, published here on a measly blog instead of Wikipedia. Enjoy it as we have.

Jewish Geography 2.0

It’s a common principle that when you assemble several Jews in the same location, they will have many acquaintances in common. “Oh, you know Rachel Schwartz? We went to camp together!” Particularly with first encounters, two people try and find the commonalities between them – who do we know in common? Around the Jewish world, that’s commonly known as “Jewish Geography.

During the fall of 2007, two friends staffed a Shabbaton for the Solomon Schechter High School in Westchester, New York. While there, they created an Ice Breaker which brought the joys of “Jewish Geography” to the form of a game that helps facilitate interactions. Since then, the game has traveled throughout the American Jewish world, often without a name attached to it, particularly around Shabbat tables.

The Game

Played with two people, or groups of pairs, each individual assigns him/herself either to say a common Jewish first name or a common last name.

For example, Zach is assigned to take the first name and Sarit assigned to take the last name. On the count of three, which is counted out loud with three hand claps, each person says the name in his/her head.

Thus, Zach might say Rachel and Sarit might say Shtern.

They then look around the room and say “Rachel Shtern, anyone know a Rachel Shtern?”

If you are playing with a large group, then the pair can subsequently move on to a different partner and continue the game.


1.     To make people loose around each other through laughter

2.     Find commonalities among a group

3.     Serve as a way to open up a program or discussion

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Author of Redwall Series Dies

My favorite author growing up was unquestionably Brian Jacques, author of the Redwall series. The fantasy books pitted mice against stoats, badgers against weasels, shrews against foxes, traditional tales of good versus evil, all through the lens of fantasy animals.

See here for the NYT obituary.

I have followed along with most of the books that Jacques has put out over the past ten years -- they still have a touch of the same magic that I encountered as a kid. I look forward to reading them to my own children.


Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Hearing Israeli Music in the Indian Restaurant

After reading Rabbi Ethan Linden’s relatively-new blog on a daily basis, I have said several times that I should restart Magash Hakesef. If you aren’t checking in on the Chief Conservative Rabbi of Louisiana’s blog, then you should be. Add that one to your GoogleReader.

Tonight I went with my father and his friend and colleague Henry to Madras Mahal in the infamous “Curry Hill.” Southern Indian food – my favorite.

At a certain point I recognized the music playing in the restaurant. Because my Hindi is a bit rusty, I asked the waiter the name of the song. It turns out it’s a “nasha song,” a love song.

You might find it familiar:

Or maybe you don’t. But now listen to this one:

As far as I'm concerned, they are the exact same music. Do you agree?

Two love songs, same music and one or two Israelis make it over to India...

I plan to look into this parallel a bit more, but can only assume that the Indian song came first.

This same phenomenon happened to me several years ago, when I heard what I thought was a Yiddish folk song at a Japanese baseball game. It turns that the Japanese audio director for the Osaka Giants liked the title track for Dschingis Khan’s album and was not up on Mordechai Ben David’s “Yidden.” 

Or maybe he knew both. Who am I to judge?

And we’re back in business. More commentary to come on a more continuous basis.