It was a normal day in Oxford. A retired professor, partially inebriated, sat on the sidewalk outside a store. On seeing my kippa, he exclaimed loudly in excellent Latin, “Ave Judea”, Hail to the Jew.
Why are we called Jews? We all know that the name Judea, Jew, Yehudi in Hebrew, derives from Yehudah, the fourth son of Yaakov. King David was from the tribe of Yehudah. When the kingdom split, David’s descendants continued to rule in Jerusalem. Their kingdom was called Yehudah. The rebel kingdom was called Israel. Later the Assyrians invaded and exiled the “ten tribes” of Israel. A few rejoined the Jews of Yehudah, many were killed and some may be the lost tribes that have been located around the world (Dan in Ethiopia, Menashe in India). The faithful remnant that remained was the kingdomof Yehudah, Judea. Jew means a citizen of Yehudah. Hence, Mordechai, from the tribe of Binyamin, was called Yehudi since he came not from the tribe of Yehudah but from the country of that name.
“These are the chronicles of Yaakov: Yosef was seventeen years old…” (Genesis 37:2)
The story of Yaakov’s sons skips over his ten oldest sons to Yosef, Rachel’s firstborn. Yosef, his conflict with his brothers, his slavery in Egypt, his rise to power in Egyptand his incredible achievements dominate the narrative. If we were to be named for one of Yaakov’s sons, we would expect to be not Jews but Josephs. What advantage does Yehudah have over Yosef? Why were the tribes of Yosef, Ephraim and Menashe, exiled while Yehudah remained?
At first glance, the quest appears hopeless. Yehudah convinces the brothers to sell rather than kill Yosef. He should have saved him instead. Yehudah ends up fathering his widowed daughter-in-law’s children by mistake. Even if we follow the Ritva that this was Levirate marriage (yibum) and not a sin, Yehudah does not come out smelling of roses.
In contrast, Yosef takes his bad fortune with dignity, never loses his faith and is a blessing to his masters and eventually the entire Middle East. Far from his family, with no hope of freedom, he prefers prison to the advances of his master Potiphar’s wife. He escapes her attempts at seduction only through the exercise of great will power, for which he gains the title “HaTzadik”, the righteous one, in Jewish lore. Yosef is clearly far more righteous than his brother Yehudah.
However, Yehudah has an incredible quality that Yosef never shows. Yehudah did not do enough to save his father’s favourite son Yosef from slavery. But when Yosef, viceroy of Egypt, hiding his true identity, puts his brothers to the test, Yehudah repents in the fullest manner possible. He offers himself as a slave in order to save his father’s current favourite son, Binyamin, from slavery. Yehudah did not treat his widowed daughter-in-law Tamar properly. But when Tamar privately confronts him with the evidence, Yehudah repents in the fullest possible way. He reveals his guilt in public and endures the embarrassment, even though it would have been extremely easy to conceal it.
In all the tests that we have endured as a people, it has not been enough to be perfectly righteous, to be Josephs. We all make mistakes. It is Yehudah’s power of complete repentance that allows us to correct our mistakes, to return to our tradition after assimilating, to return to our land after exile. The secret of our survival is in our name: Ave Judea!