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Parshas Vayeitzei (5778)

"Hey, Jew!"

Growing up in New "Yawk" City for the first twenty-five years of my life, I became quite accustomed to hearing people call me a Jew …. "Hey, Jew got de time?" ….. "Wah Jew tawkin' about?". But, I must say, I wore that label with pride. Funny thing is, though, that all those years it never occurred to me to ask anyone why we are called "Jews". Wouldn't it have made much more sense to call us "European-Americans" or something like that? And where does the title "Jew" come from anyway?

Well, after doing some research, I found that the name "Jew" comes from Judah, who was one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. But why was his name singled out from all the other tribes, to be chosen as the title by which the Jewish people are called? Why not call us "Benjis" after Benjamin, the youngest son of Jacob, or maybe "Zebulons" after another one of the tribes? [In Biblical times, the Jewish people were called Ivrim, “Hebrews”, or Bnei Yisrael, the “Children of Israel”, and only began to be called Yehudim, or “Jews” in the Book of Esther.]

There could be a practical reason for this. You see, when Joshua ben Nun brought the Jews into the Land of Israel, each of the twelve tribes received a portion of the land, and everyone lived together in relative harmony. Yet, unfortunately, that unity didn’t last.

After the death of David's son, King Solomon, a dispute split the twelve tribes of Israel into two kingdoms: The Kingdom of Judah in the south, which included the tribes of Judah and Benjamin (and some Levites and Kohanim, who descended from the tribe of Levi) and was centered around the capital Jerusalem and the Holy Temple; and the northern Kingdom of Israel, which included the other ten tribes.

In the 5th century BCE, the Kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrian King Sancheirev, and the ten tribes were exiled and lost (see Kings II 17:24). The only remaining Jews were the residents of the Kingdom of Judah (and the majority of those Jews descended from the Tribe of Judah, which was way larger than the Tribe of Benjamin.) Thus the Israelites came to be called “Jews”.

Truth be told, the name “Jew” goes much deeper than that.

The Talmud in Megillah 12b states that Mordechai [of the Purim story] is referred to as Ish Yehudi, a “man from Judah” (see Esther 2:5), even though he actually descended from the Tribe of Benjamin, because he repudiated idolatry [when he refused to bow down to Haman who considered himself a god]. And whoever stands up for G-d and renounces idolatry is called Yehudi, a “Jew”. [This is because the name Yehudah shares the same four letters yud, hei, vuv, and hei, as the Tetragrammaton, G-d’s Ineffable Name.]

Hence, we are all called “Jews” today not just as an indicator from which tribe we descend, but more importantly because just like Mordechai in the Purim story, we too have it within us to take a stand against all the idolatry and falsehood in the world, submitting to G-d alone as the One True G-d.

Yet another reason why we are called “Jews” can be found in this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Vayeitzei, where the Torah tells us how Judah got his name. His mother, our matriarch Leah, had already given birth to three sons, and, upon the birth of her fourth son, declared, “Ha’paam odeh es Hashem …. This time let me gratefully thank G-d”, so she called him Yehudah, or Judah, which means thanks (See Genesis 29:35).

Rashi explains that the Matriarchs were prophetesses and knew that Jacob was to beget twelve tribes by four wives. Thus, Leah was especially grateful to G-d after the birth of her fourth son, because, as the mother of one-third of Jacob’s twelve sons, she had been granted more than her rightful share.

The Chiddushei HaRim suggests that Jews have come to be called Yehudim (Jews) after Judah, because it is a Jewish characteristic always to be grateful to G-d, with the attitude that He has given us more than our rightful share. And when a Jew rises in the morning and gets to experience the gift of yet another beautiful day here on G-d’s earth, with his mind and body in working order – something which many unfortunate sick people don’t experience, yet which most of us take for granted – he says “Modeh ani l’fanecha …. Thank you, G-d, for giving me all that I have. It’s all a gift that I don’t necessarily deserve, so I am deeply grateful for all of it!”

So the next time someone walks up to you in the street and says, “Hey, Jew!”, just think about where the name Jew comes from and what it represents, and tell him, “Gee, thanks … I really appreciate that!”

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