Parshat Vayigash

Torah Reading for Week of December 29, 2019 – January 4, 2020
“What’s in a Name?
By Rabbi Cheryl Weiner, PhD, BCC, ’07
The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.
As we enter into the secular new year, we often engage in writing new year resolutions. We reflect upon our past year and vow to do better in the coming year related to many things: losing weight, being with our family more, consuming less or giving more. We review our accomplishments and set new goals for ourselves. And like Joseph and his brothers, we may need to reconcile our relationships with each other. We may need to engage in Teshuvah.

In our¬†parsha¬†this week,¬†Vayigash, we continue to encounter the longest narrative in the Bible, the story of Joseph and his brothers. Once again, we meet up with Judah, the brother who masterminded sending Joseph into slavery twenty-two years previously. Once again, Judah is faced with his responsibility as a brother. Joseph has set up a situation in which Benjamin is falsely accused of being a thief and wants to imprison him. Judah steps up and begs for Benjamin’s life, offering his own as a replacement. At this moment, Joseph realizes that Judah has changed from the brutal brother he knew to an advocate for his younger sibling in the name of compassion for his father’s feelings. Years before, when Judah sold Joseph, he asked what good would it do the brothers to kill him, not considering the impact on his father; here he begs for mercy in the name of his father.

What has intervened in the years that have passed? Two weeks ago, the Torah considered how Judah realized that his daughter in law Tamar was more just than he, when she confronted his preventing her from marrying his youngest son according to tribal law, and then had impregnated her without knowing it through a chance encounter when she concealed herself. He was about to kill her thinking she had sinned outside the tribe, when she revealed her hidden identity to him. Perhaps, this was a turning point in his psycho-social reality. As Judah pleads for his brother’s life, Joseph realizes that Judah has changed. At that moment, Joseph releases his brothers from fear and reveals himself as their brother and now their protector. Both Joseph and Judah have engaged in¬†teshuvah, a return to their core beings, acting out of integrity, exercising compassion and engaging in reconciliation.

In our tradition, we have been called by three names:¬†Evrim, Israelites, and Jews.¬†Evrimcomes from the time of Abraham. It means “crossing over”, implying the crossing over the Euphrates River or perhaps the Jordan River into the land that God showed us. It is also taken from an ancient Near Eastern language, meaning “the wandering ones”, which is in part what the Abrahamic family did. Our second name comes from when Jacob was confronted by an angel and received the name¬†Yisrael, God Wrestler. The name, children of Israel, became our name as we journeyed into Egypt at Joseph’s behest and continued with this name as “the Israelites” throughout the Biblical exodus and beyond. Then, the name Jew came to us after we conquered Canaan, in the aftermath of the division of the land of Israel into two sections, north and south. When the Assyrians conquered the north, only the land of Judah remained and our name derives from that remnant of the original children of Israel. We became Jews after Judea, named after the tribe of Judah.

According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of Great Britain, we now understand the significance of the name of Judah. The verb¬†lehodot¬†means two things. It means “to thank,” which is what Leah has in mind when she gives Judah, her fourth son, his name: “This time I will thank the Lord.” However, it also means, “to admit or acknowledge.” The Biblical term¬†vidui, “confession,” comes from the same root, and according to Maimonides, it represents the most important part of the process of¬†teshuvah.

In our tradition, teshuvah leads to moments of greatest spiritual growth. Teshuvah is one of our primary obligations, not just once a year, but every month. The meaning of the word, however, is not just repentance, as it is usually translated, but returning, a return to our core self, to our sense of integrity. We admit to what we have done in the past year and acknowledge where we need to go in the coming year. As we entered into Rosh Chodesh Tevet at the end of last Shabbat, we may have engaged in this teshuvah.

As we move forward into this coming year, let us remember the themes in the story of Joseph and his brothers. In the past weeks, we witnessed Joseph’s transformation from a spoiled person filled with arrogance to a prime minister of Egypt. This Shabbat, we witness Joseph’s shift from taunting his brothers and threatening to imprison Benjamin, to reconciling with them and bringing his family to Egypt to save them from famine. We have witnessed the transformation of Judah from seeking to harm a brother, to seeking to save a brother. In bearing witness to our Biblical narrative, let us acknowledge for ourselves, how each of us is capable of change. Let us continue to reflect on our integrity, how we may have moved away from it and how we can bring ourselves back into alignment with our core self as we enter into¬†Tevet¬†and the secular new year. Shabbat shalom!