Judah’s Rise to Excellence

A picture is worth a thousand words. Look at the cartoon by Charles Schultz, זכרונו לברכה, between Lucy and Charlie Brown.

How does one get an “upper up” to use Lucy’s words, in Judaism? Life is not only about ups: Chris Daughtry sings “Everyone knows life has its ups and downs.”[1] Getting an up requires being willing to embrace the downs, learn from them and try again. This is why we are called Jews, descendants of Judah. When Jacob blesses Judah, he calls himגור אריה, a lion’s cub, continues מטרף בני עלית, you have ascended from amidst the prey,[2] and concludes לא יסור שבט מיהודה, the scepter shall not depart from Judah.[3]  The French biblical commentor par excellence, Rashi, states that this means that the line of Jewish leaders will never depart from the tribe of Judah. Wherever Jews live, the leader, and eventually the Messiah, will descend from Judah.[4]

          Why did Judah merit this ascent? Let’s review the cliff notes version of the story of Judah. Picture the scene with Joseph in the pit, his brothers’ desiring to kill him. Then off in a distance, there is a caravan of traders. Judah craftily says, “What benefit is there if we kill our brother and hide his blood?[5] Let’s go instead and sell him to the Ishmaelites for he is our brother, our flesh.”[6]       What cruel words disguised within compassion: we won’t receive any money from killing Joseph, so let’s sell him and let him rot away in Egypt.[7]

          Let’s descend even further into Judah’s story, where he separates from his brothers and takes a Canaanite wife.[8] He also had intimate relations with his daughter-in-law (albeit unknowingly) and when he found out she is with child he proclaimed הוציאוה ותשרף, “take her out and burn her!”[9] He’s quickly ready to dispatch a relative again. When he realizes that Tamar is pregnant with his child, he says צדקה ממני, she is more righteous than me.[10] This is the defining moment of our story: Judah begins to ascend through doing תשובה, repentance, recognizing that past actions were wrong and it’s time to change course.

          Fast forward to Joseph accusing the brothers of being spies. Judah tells Father Jacob “I will function as Benjamin’s guarantor when he goes into Egypt.”[11] When Joseph accuses Benjamin of thievery, Judah finds himself at a crossroads: let another brother go into slavery or speak up and save him. This time he chooses the latter, begging Joseph to spare his brother. He proclaims, “let your servant remain as a slave instead of the boy.”[12] Judah has gone from devaluation and degradation of human life, treating a brother as an object off which to profit or a daughter-in-law as one to be burnt, to pledging his life on behalf of a younger, innocent brother. He took a roundabout, circuitous way to get there, but the fact that he changed and evolved is why he is the ones we need to emulate. G-d looked at Judah’s תשובה and said, ‘I want that to be what leads the Jewish people forward.’

We might think the most righteous are those who have yichus, pedigree, or are “Frum from birth.” That’s not true in our tradition. The Talmud teaches that in the place of a baal teshuva (one who has undergone repentance) a tsadik cannot stand.[13] There is also the story of a Jew asking his rabbi about who is more holy, who is higher on the ladder in God’s judgment: A person beginning to observe the commandments or a person who had been observant who is now moving away from observance? The rabbi replied that God’s judgment is not based on how high they are on the ladder of observance, but on whether one is ascending or descending the ladder. Let’s return to the Peanuts comic. What Lucy failed to recognize is the embodiment of what it means to be a Jew, a descendant of Judah. To be Jewish means to take on the ebb and flow of the roller-coaster we call life, to find the willpower to move forward even when one feels discouraged or in despair over where his/her life is at currently. In addition, being Jewish means to be able to admit when one made a mistake, as Judah did to Tamar, and more importantly, to take a different path in those moments where one is on the verge of making the same mistake again. It requires the one who sold a brother into slavery to, at a latter point in his life, say ‘No-take me instead.’ What makes Judah great is he learns from his past, changes course and, in one of the downward moments of his family’s history, can atone for past behavior. This is a vital lesson for each of us as we conclude the Book of Genesis. My prayer on this Shabbat is to take this to heart-to look at our lives and see the opportunities for personal growth and the lessons to learn at this moment in time. If we are at a “down” period, one of “descent” may we recognize that it might be for the sake of a great “ascent” in days to come. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our will to do so as descendants of Judah.

[1] Daughtry, “The Start of Something Good”

[2] Genesis 49:9

[3] Genesis 49:10

[4] Rashi on Genesis 49:10 ד”ה לא-יסור שבט מיהודה

[5] Genesis 37:26

[6] Genesis 37:27

[7] See Rashi on Genesis 37:26 ד”ה מה בצע, ד”ה וכסינו

[8] Genesis 38:1-2

[9] Genesis 38:24

[10] Genesis 38:26

[11] Genesis 43:9

[12] Genesis 44:32, 33

[13] Talmud Berachot 38b

What Is Your Spiritual Legacy?

Have you been the recipient of a spiritual legacy? Perhaps it is making haroset with a parent or grandparent before Passover. Maybe it is lighting Hanukkah candles as a family. For me one of the core parts of my spiritual legacy was having a family Passover Seder where everyone at the table got the opportunity to have a role. Picture me reclining on my Green Bay Packers pillow while drinking sparkling grape juice (Bartenura wine when I was of age), following the Afghani custom of lightly hitting my brother with scallions as we sang Dayenu. One year I wore a Where’s Waldo mask and went outside just before it was time to open the door for Elijah. You can imagine my family’s surprise as I entered the room.

          It is December and many of us are thinking about our financial legacy: which charities are deserving of our end of year financial contributions. That is holy work: it demonstrates what we value and care most deeply about. It is equally holy to look at this week’s Torah portion, where Jacob bequeathed on his grandchildren Ephraim and Manasseh a spiritual legacy. He says, “The Angel who has redeemed me from all harm bless these kids and call them by my name.”[1] Jacob’s blessing presupposes that there is a guardian angel sent to us when we are in trouble.[2] God’s actions are performed by intermediaries-it might feel like a chance encounter or feel like a coincidence, but each of us has guardian angels or messengers (מלאכים).[3]

          Jacob here is imparting on his grandchildren his spiritual legacy-that they will truly be בני ישראל, guided by the example that he, Israel, has set. As the secular year nears its end, in addition to thinking about our financial legacies my hope is that we take the time to think about our spiritual legacies: how we will encourage our children and grandchildren to follow in our footsteps, valuing Judaism in all its beauty. At Generations Day at Bet Shira Congregation, I worked with grandparents of preschool students on writing their spiritual legacies, both in the forms of a spiritual autobiography and an ethical will. To those of us who do not have children, there is still the opportunity for us to create a spiritual legacy-how do we want our fellow congregants at Mosaic Law Congregation to remember us and what do we want our students or those we work with to understand in terms of our core beliefs. That is holy work for us to engage in both this Shabbat and beyond.

[1] Genesis 48:16

[2] Rashi on Genesis 48:16 ד”ה המלאך הגואל אותי מכל רע

[3] Radak on Genesis 49:16 ד”ה ויקרא בהם שמי

Divine Providence

         How often in life have we questioned where we are at only later to realize “I’m exactly where I need to be at this given moment?” Hindsight is always 20/20 and while some are critical of the Monday Morning Quarterback, it is human nature to look back at what was and try to connect the dots-whether one can do so or not.

         In this week’s Torah portion, Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers. Afterwards he says ועתה אל-תעצבנו ואל-יחר בעיניכם כי-מכרתם אותי הנה כי למחיה שלחני אלהים לפניהם. “Do not distress and do not be angry with yourselves, that you sold me here. For God sent me before you to preserve life.”[1] Rashbam, an 11th century French commentator, says “The Holy One arranged this for your own good.”[2] How could this be 3030for their own good? After all, the brothers went down to Egypt famished, they were accused of being spies, brother Shimon was taken into slavery and brother Benjamin was accused of thievery.

In Hasidic writings, there is a concept of Yeridah L’Tzorech Aliyah, descent for the sake of ascent. Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, in his book Meor Eynaim, writes, “Why does a person have to fall? The meaning of this contains secrets of Torah. One of these is the possibility of attaining a yet higher rung than one had previously reached. Every act of being is preceded by an absence of being. When you want to proceed to a higher rung, you need to lack for something first. Therefore, you have to fall from your prior rung.”[3] We cannot stay constantly in one place. The prophet Ezekiel teaches us “the life-force ebbs and flows.”[4]  We are either in a state of rising (Aliyah) or falling (Yeridah). If the latter, it is up to us to reflect on what we can do to rise again. The life force does not go in a straight line but takes a zigzag or circuitous route. Yet somehow, as Joseph intuits, we end up where we need to be in that given moment.            It is our challenge and our opportunity, when things aren’t going the way, we would like or had originally planned, to find the Holy One in those moments. In those states of descent, when we feel frustrated or depressed, may we find a way to learn from our situation and chart a course of ascent. This is not to ignore tragedies that happen, situations for which there is no rationalization or explanation. It entails, in the ebb and flow of the roller-coaster we call life, finding ways to connect to God during difficulty and challenges. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may each of us have the willpower to engage in this holy work

[1] Genesis 45:5

[2] Rashbam on Genesis 45:5 ד”ה כי למחיה שלחני

[3] Meor Eynaim Yitro

[4] Ezekiel 1:14